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Our Love is a Symphony

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Our Love is a Symphony (I'll Play All My Life)


 

Felicity's version of Für Elise


 

Oliver has a healthy appreciation for music. He also has eclectic taste, and he attributes that to his mother’s insistence on family outings to concert halls and operas. The Queen family had once been regulars in Starling City’s most prominent auditoriums. Oliver doesn’t remember when that changed.

 

Five years on an island and the constant struggle to live had nearly erased the awareness of music from his being. He doesn’t enjoy it the way he used to: he is too accustomed to silence now, too aware of sound to lose himself in music like he once did. Now, his ears strain to distinguish footsteps instead of chord changes. He is always on alert now, and music makes it too hard to focus.

 

Thea had begged him, though. His sister had seen a flyer for a symphony at the Starling Grand Concert Hall and turned those big doe eyes on him immediately. Please, she’d begged, and Oliver’s tongue had betrayed him with a yes when they’d both been expecting a no. She asks him for so little these days, and expects even less – he can’t bear to think that he’s always letting her down. Thea had believed him dead for five years, and he’d returned a stranger to his family. It’s been a year since his return and sometimes he still feels so separate from the people around him that he may as well be back on the island.

 

So, Thea had begged, and he’d said yes. Now they stand in the entrance to the Grand dressed to the nines and Thea is so excited that Oliver releases the tension that running the gauntlet of press outside had stirred up in him. His sister looks around the building as if seeing it for the first time and relearning a favorite sight simultaneously. She’s a woman now, but her face has lit up like it did when she was five and staring at a Christmas tree. For that reason alone, Oliver is glad they came.

 

Then, “Ollie?”

 

He wants to cringe; he wants to take Thea inside and find their seats and stay far away from … everything. Instead, he keeps his face calmly neutral and turns with his sister to see Laurel and Tommy standing a few feet away. They each have an arm slung around the other’s waist, and Oliver is reminded once again that this is the new normal. They are all the same people, yet unfathomably different.

 

“Laurel,” Oliver greets with a small smile. “Tommy.”

 

His once best friend smiles uncertainly and dips his head in greeting. “Hey.”

 

“Laurel,” Thea greets brightly, and surges forward to hug the other woman. Then, with more hesitance, “Hey, Tommy.”

 

This hurts. Oliver reaches for his sister at the same time the five-minute warning is announced. Oliver has never been so grateful to be saved by the bell.

 

“Enjoy your evening,” he says to his friends-turned-acquaintances. “C’mon, Speedy.”

 

When Oliver and Thea were kids, the Queen family had a private balcony reserved for them year-round. Tonight, the Queen siblings will be enjoying the symphony from the fifth row. Oliver would have preferred the openness and privacy a balcony, maybe, but he had made sure to reserve the aisle seat for himself in compromise. He’s been home a year, but he knows that he’s not adjusted enough to be comfortable in the middle of a row full of people with no clear exit. He might never be adjusted enough for that.

 

He and Thea take their seats. His sister begins to peruse the program, and Oliver cases the interior of the hall to identify all possible exits.

 

Then the lights are dimming and the heavy velvet curtain is sliding away, and a hush falls over the crowd. Oliver had loved these expectant silences in his youth, but now he has to pointedly remind himself that this silence is not a precursor to some kind of danger.

 

Oliver casts his gaze over the musicians. Men and women of varying ages and dressed smartly in black and white sit or stand calmly and prepare their instruments. The stage is a blazing spot of sunlight in the now darkened hall, but none of the musicians are perturbed. They’re used to it, of course, but a part of Oliver – the part that had learned to move without a sound, and to use the shadows to his advantage – quails at the thought of being so on display.

 

The maestro has begun his introductions. Oliver has missed most of it, but he tunes in just in time to catch the end.

 

“… So, please join me in welcoming our wonderfully talented pianist, Felicity Smoak!”

 

Oliver is caught off guard by the sudden thunderous applause that sweeps through the hall. He is more surprised when a petite woman in a bright purple dress crosses the stage to take the maestro’s waiting hand. She’s young and sweet looking with her smooth blonde ponytail and brightly painted lips, and she bends slightly at the waist in a small bow and grins at the crowd.

 

Oliver blinks. “Isn’t she young to be a concert pianist?” he asks of no one in particular.

 

“She’s not much younger than you,” Thea answers.

 

Oliver directs a raised eyebrow at her. “How can you know that?”

 

Thea brandishes her program at him. “It says so in her bio.”

 

Thea grins at him as he takes the program and opens it to scan for the bio. There are a few of them on the inside of the back cover: one for the maestro and two others. Felicity’s is the last one. It’s a short paragraph that really only tells him the basics: Felicity Smoak, 26, resident of Starling City and the youngest pianist to ever grace the Starling Grand Concert Hall.

 

She’s also probably the brightest: the vibrant purple of her dress sets her apart from her fellow musicians (and probably half of the crowd). The bright stage light catches in her dress as she moves to the piano.

 

The maestro doesn’t hold a baton, but he raises his hands in preparation. As one, the body of musicians responds: there is a collective breath inhaled, the maestro drops his hands, and the string section fills the hall with perfect harmony.

 

Oliver doesn’t bother reading the program. He’s long past the point in his life where he could identify Mozart, or Haydn, or anyone else – and he doesn’t care. He’s here for Thea, and maybe to learn whether or not the part of him that enjoys music still exists.

 

His eyes snap to the woman on the bench at the first stroke of a piano key. Her hands are too small and Oliver is too far away to see them clearly, but he can sense the generally quick and sure passage of her hands over the keys. Oliver appreciates her focus: Felicity doesn’t take her attention from the piano once even to look at the maestro. Despite that, whether by some natural sense or unseen cue, she never falters.

 

When they reach the intermission, Oliver is surprised to discover that he has relaxed. He’s no longer sitting tense and upright in his seat, and that feels like some kind of victory.

 

Oliver stands and offers his hand to Thea to help her out of her seat.

 

“Bathroom break?” he asks with a smile.

 

Thea grins and loops her arm through his lazily. “Please. Thank you for this, Ollie.”

 

“Any time, Speedy,” and he means it.

 

“Ollie?” Thea queries as they make their way up the aisle.

 

“Hmm?”

 

Her voice is quiet when she responds. “I’m sorry about earlier. I didn’t know Tommy and Laurel would be here,” she explains in light of his confusion. “Is it still hard to see them together?”

 

Oliver squeezes her hand. “Not in the way you think.”

 

He’d made his peace with Tommy and Laurel’s relationship months ago. The revelation had hit him hard at first – he had spent his time on the island determined to get back to his first love, after all – and then, sometime later, he’d realized that Tommy and Laurel made sense. They fit together easily, and better than he and Laurel ever had.

 

“What about you?” Oliver asks gently. “Have you talked to Tommy lately?”

 

Thea looks both sheepish and frustrated. “No. I don’t know what to say to him. ‘Hey, just found out my mom cheated with your dad. Ta-da! Guess we’re related’ just doesn’t flow well off the tongue.”

 

Oliver chuckles and squeezes her hand reassuringly. Yeah, that had been quite a bomb Moira dropped on them all. Oliver still struggles with that particular truth, so he understands if Thea hasn’t figured out how to handle it yet.

 

They part ways outside the bathrooms. Oliver is faster and finishes first, of course, so he stuffs his hands in his pockets and waits quietly in the hall. There are people milling about in the foyer. Clusters of them dot the room and he can hear the low mumble of their conversations, as well as the occasional burst of feminine laughter. He finds it strange to remember the times his family had been one of those clusters, Oliver and Thea impatient as their socialite parents mingled with Starling City’s fellow one percenters.

 

Nothing in his life these days is the way he’d imagined it would be all those years ago.

 

A door opens behind Oliver. He turns to greet his sister, hands still in his pockets, and is rewarded with the oomph of someone running smack into him.

 

Oliver’s hands fly out of his pockets and latch onto the arms of whoever is in front of him as that person – woman – teeters unsteadily backward.

 

“I am so sorry,” she says emphatically, and Oliver realizes he’s collided with the pianist. “I was in a rush – I mean, I still am in a rush to get back, because no way could they have put a woman’s bathroom any closer to the stage – and I was too busy looking at my phone to watch you. See you! I was too busy looking at my phone to watch where I was going, so I didn’t see you. I’m so sorry. Have I said that yet? Because I am.”

 

Oliver just stares at her. Belatedly he releases his hold on her arms, because she’s no longer in danger of toppling over. The movement also gives him time to process. Her ramble had been … surprising, and quick. And … kind of endearing.

 

“Felicity, right?”

 

“Uh, yeah.” She’s uncertain – shy?

 

“Hi. I’m Oliver Queen.” He offers her his hand.

 

She shakes his hand. “Of course you are.” Oliver arches an eyebrow and she leaps forward, “I mean, of course, I know who you are. Who doesn’t? You’re basically Starling City’s own knock off Lazarus. Not that I’m implying that you’re cheap, obviously, because look at you – No! That’s not … you know what, I’m done.”

 

Oliver laughs. He can’t help it: Felicity Smoak, petite purple piano player that she is (and Thea would be so proud of him for how ridiculous that sentence is) has just inadvertently called him something that sounds like a cheap prostitute. The whole thing is so ridiculous and Felicity looks so mortified that Oliver just laughs.

 

“I’m so sorry,” Felicity stage whispers, “again. I think I have some kind of verbal vomit disease.”

 

“Ollie?” Thea says from behind Felicity.

 

Oliver is still grinning when his sister steps around the other woman and comes to stand at her brother’s side. Thea’s face splits into a grin.

 

“Oh my god, you’re Felicity Smoak!”

 

“Hi,” Felicity answers. She sounds sheepish still, and Oliver just keeps grinning.

 

“I’m Thea, Ollie’s sister.”

 

Oliver can see the “I know” forming on her lips when she scrunches her nose up, catching herself, and says instead, “Nice to meet you, Thea.”

 

The announcement for patrons to please return to their seats comes over the loudspeakers. Felicity jerks, startled.

 

“Oh my god, I’m gonna be late!” She looks mortified. “I’m sorry to be abrupt, but I have to run.” Felicity glances up at Oliver. “I’m sorry for …,” and she waves a hand vaguely through the air, “everything. Pleasure to meet you both, please enjoy the music!”

 

Then she’s running – actually running in her tall stilettos and her hands full of her dress – down the plush, carpeted hall.

 

Oliver still has a lopsided grin on his face as he and Thea turn to head back to their seats. “That was the strangest introduction I think I’ve ever had. What happened, Ollie, how did you run into her?”

 

“She ran into me, actually.”

 

“Wait, as in ran into you? Literally?”

 

“Literally,” Oliver agrees.

 

He explains the story to Thea on the walk back to their seats. The lights dim as they drop into their chairs, and Oliver fixes his attention on the empty piano bench. Only there are two pianos now, and he’s certain there was only before. The second, new piano is set very close to the other one, and instead of being oriented the same way it mirrors the other one. The keys of each piano face the other, and the lone piano bench stretches out in the space between them.

 

Felicity appears and even from this distance Oliver thinks he can see a high color in her cheeks as she crosses the stage. Curiously, Felicity seats herself in the middle of the bench facing the crowd and then – of all things – kicks off her stilettos, arranges her dress carefully, and pulls her legs up onto the bench to cross in front of her. Oliver knows that he’s not the only one confused and watching with oddly bated breath. This is unusual.

 

Then Felicity puts her left hand on one piano, her right hand on the opposite piano, and glances at the maestro. He nods at her once. Oliver takes a breath; on stage, Felicity closes her eyes and begins to play the most beautiful variation of Für Elise that he’s ever heard.

 

The audience is captivated. For some three minutes, no one seems to breathe as they watch this brilliant young woman play one song on two different pianos with her eyes closed.

 

Oliver stares at Felicity. Her expression is serene, and she looks for all the world as though she’s playing by herself instead of in an opulent concert hall full of people.

 

When the last note fades away there is a heartbeat of suspended silence. Then, Felicity opens her eyes and smiles – a pleased but shy sort of smile – and the crowd erupts into applause. She’s clearly taken aback by the force of their approval because she just sits there staring until the maestro approaches and helps her to her feet. Felicity bows, grins, and then bows again at the maestro’s invitation.

 

When the applause has died down, Felicity slips her heels back on and then turns to face the original piano.

 

The orchestra performs beautifully. When the symphony ends nearly forty-five minutes later and the array of musicians stands to take a bow, the audience sweeps to their feet with applause. Oliver and Thea glance at each other as they clap. Thea’s smile is huge and delighted, and though Oliver’s is more subdued it’s just as genuine. The last two hours of his life have been full of beautiful music and ease. His almost pathological need to be on alert was quieted tonight, and he is glad to be reminded that some parts of who he was before the island have remained.  

 

Leaving takes much longer than arriving had. The aisles are crammed with people trying to make their way to the exit, and they shuffle slowly forward. Oliver and Thea opt to remain in their seats until the traffic dies down.

 

Oliver checks his phone. His bodyguard and friend, John Diggle, has texted him to ask about bringing around the car. Oliver responds with a picture of the waiting people and a quick it’ll be a minute.

 

Fifteen minutes later, the hall and aisles have emptied of enough people that Oliver stands and motions for his sister to do the same.

 

“We should start doing this again. Do you think mom would come with us?”

 

Oliver swallows his initial reaction and response. His relationship with Moira is strained at best, but that is between them. Thea doesn’t need to be reminded of the fissures that divide their family.

 

“Won’t know until you ask,” he says instead.

 

Oliver shoots Digg a text to let him know that they should be outside in five minutes. He and Thea clear the main hall as their group of people spills into the foyer, but instead of dispersing the people in front of them compresses themselves into a single file line.

 

“What the hell?” Thea mutters in confusion.

 

Oliver steps aside enough to see clearly ahead of them and then steps back to Thea. He doesn’t realize that one corner of his mouth has pulled up into a smile until Thea calls him out.

 

“Are you smiling? What are you smiling about?”

 

“You’ll see.”

 

Thea does a double take at the soft teasing. Her brother rarely teases her anymore: he’s too serious, too withdrawn and contemplative to tease her the way he used to before they lost him. That response, though … it warms and injures her in equal measure, because she misses Ollie. Thea yearns to see the parts of him that he claims to have lost, and sometimes finds in fleeting moments like this.

 

There’s chatter in front of them, and the line moves steadily, and Thea cranes her head but can’t see what’s happening. Oliver stops her when she tries to mimic his movements and step out of line.

 

“Just wait,” he tells her.

 

When the people in front of them finally move away, Thea and Oliver find themselves once again facing Felicity Smoak. Her face is flushed and she looks tired, but she smiles brightly when she realizes they’re in front of her.

 

“Hello again,” Felicity says warmly.

 

“Felicity!” Thea exclaims delightedly. “How long have you been standing there?”

 

The woman grimaces in a funny but heartfelt way and shifts her feet. “Long enough,” she says. “Curtis insisted that people appreciate a meet and greet, which seems ridiculous because we probably should have done that before the concert and I tried to tell him that it was late and people just wanted to go home, but he …” She trails off suddenly, aware that she’s rambling again. “And now you get to listen to me babble, which will end in three, two, one.”

 

Oliver smiles as Felicity presses her painted lips into a tight line. Her shoulders rise and fall with a deep breath as she resets herself.

 

“You play beautifully,” Thea says. She hasn’t stopped smiling since she realized Felicity was in front of them.

 

“Thank you,” Felicity says graciously. “I hope you enjoyed the concert.”

 

“We loved it,” Thea assures her. “Even Ollie, who I had to bribe to bring me.”

 

Felicity’s focus shifts to Oliver. Her eyes are a pretty blue behind her dark framed glasses, and she smiles disarmingly at him. Oliver realizes – again, because he’d noted it during their first introduction – that she’s beautiful.

 

“Not a fan of the symphony, Oliver?”

 

“Not a fan of crowds,” he corrects.

 

Unexpectedly, her expression softens. Oliver knows what pity looks like, but that particular sentiment never makes an appearance. Instead, she looks at him like she sees him, like his answer makes complete sense and she understands. Her face doesn’t fall the way Thea’s does when he says anything that might reference his time away. Oliver is used to the looks he gets from those who knew him before the island; Felicity’s is nothing like that.

 

She glances around them suspiciously and then leans closer and whispers loudly, “Curtis bribed me, too.”

 

“What?” Thea deadpans.

 

Felicity nods and grins sardonically. Then, her gaze locking with Oliver’s she says, “Can I trust you?”

 

Oliver’s brow creases in surprise. “You can trust me.” The reply falls from his lips without thought.

 

“And me,” Thea pipes up.

 

Felicity sighs. “I have stage fright.”

 

“Stage fright,” Thea repeats. “But … I never would have guessed, you looked so calm up there! And that whole dual piano thing was amazing!”

 

Oliver isn’t surprised. He thinks back to his observation that once she started playing she never looked to the maestro or took her attention off of what was directly in front of her. The one time she’d been facing the audience she’d closed her eyes.

 

“Thanks,” Felicity replies sincerely. “That was just something I started doing to practice and then Curtis said it’d be a great performance trick.”

 

“Who’s Curtis?” Thea asks.

 

“Oh, the maestro. He’s a good friend of mine.”

 

Oliver hasn’t said much, but he’s content with holding his tongue and watching his sister and Felicity interact. Thea is animated and happy, and that means the world to Oliver. Felicity is equally captivating, however, with her easy smiles and genuine warmth for two people she hardly knows.

 

Oliver’s phone starts to ring just as an unfamiliar man approaches behind Felicity. Oliver glances at the screen and sees Digg’s contact picture. He declines the call even though he knows that’ll drive Digg to come in looking for them and looks back to Felicity.

 

“Hey,” the stranger greets.

 

“Curtis, we were just talking about you! This is Thea Queen and her brother, Oliver.”

 

“Whoa,” Curtis breathes as he stares openly at Oliver. “You are …”

 

Felicity grabs Curtis’s arm somewhat forcefully, and it’s Thea who breaks out with a laugh. “He gets that a lot.”

 

Curtis visibly shakes himself, schools his face, and offers his hand. “Right. Sorry. Curtis Holt, conductor.”

 

Oliver shakes his hand and can’t suppress a little smile. He meets Felicity’s eye as Curtis shakes Thea’s hand and, on impulse, winks at the pianist. Felicity practically beams at him with shared humor.

 

From the doorway, John Diggle calls out, “Oliver?”

 

Felicity claps her hands together. “Well, it was great to meet you both when I’m not running into or away from you. Not that I was running away, before, since I was actually technically late, but-.”

 

“Felicity,” Oliver interrupts warmly. She snaps her mouth shut and stares up at him with bright eyes. “The pleasure was ours. Enjoy the rest of your evening.”

 

He slings an arm around Thea’s shoulders, nods a farewell at Curtis, and then turns them toward Diggle. Oliver doesn’t turn around to steal a last glance until they’ve met Digg at the doorway; he lets go of Thea and ushers her through the doorway, and then angles his head over his shoulder.

 

Felicity has a steadying hand on Curtis’s arm as she slips off her remaining stiletto. She’s easily three inches shorter.

 

“These aren’t shoes, they’re torture devices,” he hears Curtis say as he retrieves the heels and hands them to his friend.

 

“Yeah, but they’re cute,” Felicity answers.

 

She glances up suddenly and their eyes meet across the foyer. Even without the stage lights she’s a vivid spot of color against the pale walls and elegant columns of the concert hall. Felicity blinks, as if surprised to find him looking at her; Oliver disappears out the door.

 

He listens quietly to Thea regale Digg with details from the concert and answers every time she says, “right, Ollie?” but his mind isn’t on the conversation. His thoughts are back at the concert hall.

 

“We should go again,” Thea says. “Only next time you’re coming too, Digg.”

 

“I don’t know,” Digg says noncommittally. “I’m not sure I like symphonies.”

 

Oliver surprises them all by saying, “You’ll like this one.”

 

Thea grins at him knowingly.

 

Chapter Text

Moonlight Sonata, 3rd Movement


 

The Starling City Orchestra performs two more concerts of that particular symphony, and Oliver doesn’t make it to either of them. He has every intention of catching the last one and he makes it as far as getting dressed in his room when the press gets a hold of the story of Moira and Malcolm’s one-time affair. The paparazzi are whipped into a frenzy. They paint Moira in a harsh light, reducing her to the two-timing socialite wife with biting headlines in the magazines, and then they try to connect Oliver’s pre-island behavior to hers. Of course, Oliver Queen was a whoring playboy, look at the example his mother set for him, strangers say. The whore part is implied, but Oliver knows what they mean.

 

There’s a virtual ocean between Oliver and his mother, but the media’s abuse of her enrages him. His instinct to protect kicks into overdrive and though he’s careful to keep his cool around the press, his answers any time they catch him are scathing and derisive.

 

The night of the last symphony, a paparazzo stalks Thea outside her night club and follows her to her car. He scares the shit out of her and she calls Oliver in tears.

 

Moira posts his two hundred-thousand-dollar bail, and Oliver’s mugshot runs in the magazines right next to the “reported stories” of Moira Queen’s sordid affair. They hire a bodyguard for Thea; Jean Lohring, the family attorney, gets the assault charges against Oliver dropped in exchange for a paltry twenty-thousand-dollar lump sum.

 

Tommy Merlyn calls, because no matter what twisted sort of web connects them now he’s always loved Thea like a sister (even before anyone knew that she actually was). Thea agrees to talk to him, but their conversation is short and stilted. Oliver fills the family theater in the mansion with bean bags, pillows, and blankets, and they make blanket forts like they’re kids again and eat pizza and ice cream until two in the morning. There’s several beers involved as well, and Oliver spends the next day alternately teasing and treating his hung-over sister.

 

Life is decidedly less eventful for Felicity. The orchestra has several months of downtime before their next concert, and though she practices for several hours every day there’s a leisure to it that will fade as the next performance gets closer. Until then, though, Felicity spends a lot of time at the old music hall that is the Starling City Orchestra’s practice hall.

 

It’s Iris, her roommate and best friend, that alerts her to the media buzz surrounding the Queen family.

 

“Didn’t Curtis say you guys met them?” Iris asks one night.

 

Iris is watching TMZ and Felicity is in the kitchen making a Monte Cristo that’s probably going to clog her arteries. She has zero idea who or what Iris is talking about.

 

“Met who?” she calls back.

 

“The Queen siblings,” Iris answers.

 

Caitlin, Felicity’s other roommate and best friend, sweeps into the kitchen and peers at the perfected Monte Cristo that Felicity has just slapped onto a plate.

 

“She’s watching TMZ,” Caitlin explains.

 

Iris is a reporter at the Starling Times that Felicity had met some years ago by chance; Caitlin had played the cello in the orchestra with Felicity until last year, when she’d exchanged her instrument for a full-time job doing what she loved: working in a lab. Sometimes, Caitlin will pull out her cello and the two of them play impromptu concerts in their apartment for Iris (or, more often, just for the hell of it).

 

Felicity and Caitlin join Iris on the couch. It’s a decent sized piece of furniture, but the three of them cram themselves into the exact middle of the couch and then arrange limbs (and a plate, in Felicity’s case) and pillows until they are a comfortable but ridiculous looking dog pile.

 

“We did meet them,” Felicity affirms. Iris turns up the volume and the three women sit quietly and listen to the media coverage of the Queen family for some minutes.

 

Iris scoffs when they start talking about Oliver’s “assault” of the reporter. “Of course, he decked him, the guy was being a total creep and stalking his sister.”

 

“Why is the focus on Oliver when it should be on the reporter?” Caitlin agrees. “Why is it more acceptable to terrify young women than to protect them?”

 

Felicity doesn’t say anything. She’s too busy studying the pictures that the media is artlessly sharing of the incident: it’s dark so she can’t see much except Thea’s outline, hunched in on herself near a parked car, and what must be Oliver. He has the reporter by the lapels – or maybe the throat, she can’t tell – and has him pressed against the wall of the nearest building. The reporter’s feet are well off the ground.

 

Felicity’s heart goes out to Thea. The young woman she’d met that night at the concert had been enthusiastic and warm, and it saddens Felicity to think about how frightened she must have been in those pictures.

 

Felicity is something of a prodigy in the musical world. To that end, she’s done a few interviews here and there, and been the subject of maybe two or three run-ins with the paparazzi, but she’s still a relative nobody. There aren’t a lot of groupies or media outlets hounding the world of classical music. She has no idea what it must be like for Oliver and Thea, who have been chased by the press probably all of their lives. Even before the whole tragedy that had claimed business mogul Robert Queen and his playboy son the media had been obsessed with the Queen family.

 

“I hope she’s okay,” Felicity says finally. “Thea was really sweet when I met her.”

 

“That’s still crazy, by the way,” Iris says as Felicity digs into her late-night snack.

 

“What?” the blonde asks around a mouthful.

 

Caitlin laughs at her. “Gross.”

 

“You know I’ve had a crush on Oliver Queen for years,” Iris reminds them, but Felicity chooses that moment to stick her tongue out at Caitlin – complete with half-chewed food – and Caitlin squeals and tries to wiggle away from her, and the Queens are forgotten.

 

A handful of months pass as usual. Felicity’s days are full of piano practice and her job in the IT department of Palmer Tech. The summer has given way to fall and the weather has cooled off considerably; more importantly, the orchestra is gearing up for the gauntlet of holiday performances that they’ve booked. This time of year is always busy for them: the Starling City Orchestra is a hot commodity for year-end galas and fundraisers for some of the city’s most prominent. The mayor books them every year for a public performance the week before Christmas, and they always put on a Thanksgiving benefit concert where all proceeds are donated to the local children’s hospitals. Felicity likes that concert the best, because the orchestra performs in the hospitals for the children and the musicians all wear big red noses and whatever other Christmas decorations they choose. Felicity goes all out for that one.

 

Their first concert is just before Halloween. Curtis encourages them to wear colors appropriate for the holiday, and Felicity – who is a big fan of bright colors – buys a floor length orange gown that leaves one of her shoulders bare, sweeps her hair up into a sophisticated chignon, and wears a pair of black spider earrings.

 

Iris does a community highlight piece on Curtis, one time Olympic decathlete and brilliant young conductor, so Felicity gets payback by suggesting that he do a meet and greet before the concert.

 

“Now,” she says gleefully as she positions him, “just stand there and smile and shake hands with your adoring fans.”

 

“Felicity,” he starts.

 

“Oh, no,” Felicity cuts him off. “You made me do this at the end of the night, Curtis. At least I’m being nice and making you do it before.”

 

Felicity has made him stand in front of the section of wall that separates the doors that open to the two center aisles of the auditorium. He’s noticeable, but he’s not in danger of being overrun.

 

“Perfect,” Felicity crows with a clap of her hands. “I’ll go make sure everyone is warming up.”

 

Curtis’s face does something strange, and then someone speaks behind her.

 

“Hello again.”

 

Felicity spins, and yeah, maybe her mouth falls open a little because Oliver freaking Queen is standing there in a three-piece suit looking for all the world like he’s just stepped off the cover of a magazine. The first and only time she’s met him before this she remembers thinking he was attractive, but maybe she’d been too rushed to notice that “attractive” is a paltry word for what he is – Apollo turned flesh, maybe, or a romance novel hero stepped off the page, or …

 

“Hi,” Felicity says dumbly. “You look good. I mean, it’s good to see you again! You do look good, of course, I’m sure you always look good – I wasn’t trying to hit on you or anything. Not that I wouldn’t! Wait … what I mean is …”

 

Felicity is devolving into a babbling mess again. She presses her lips together until they feel bloodless and closes her eyes to count. When she reaches three she opens her eyes again. Oliver is smiling at her.

 

“Hi,” Felicity starts again with an answering smile. “It’s good to see you again, Oliver.” She holds out a hand for him to shake.

 

Oliver takes her hand – and her breath when he turns it over and raises it to press a kiss against the back. “Pleasure’s mine.”

 

Felicity thinks she’s blushing. Oliver holds her gaze for a long second and then releases her hand, and it’s like some kind of signal because Thea appears at his elbow at the same instant. A woman that Felicity vaguely recognizes as Moira Queen and a giant of a man that Felicity has never seen join them.

 

“Felicity!” Thea greets. “I can’t believe we found you again!”

 

Then, to Felicity’s surprise, the other woman steps forward and hugs her. Felicity hugs her back and then beams at her when she lets go.

 

“I’m glad you did!”

 

“You look great,” Thea tells her. “Nice touch with the earrings. I’d like you to meet my mom. Mom, this is Felicity Smoak, the pianist I was telling you about. Felicity, this is my mom, Moira.”

 

Felicity shakes the hand the Queen matriarch offers. She’s not severe looking, but there’s a hard aloofness about her that makes Felicity slightly uncomfortable. This is a woman accustomed to power and prestige.

 

“Nice to meet you, Mrs. Queen.”

 

“You as well, Ms. Smoak. My daughter tells me to expect great things of your performance tonight.”

 

“Oh,” Felicity stumbles, a panicky thing starting to beat in her breast. “That’s very kind, but -.”

 

“Hello,” Curtis says as he steps forward to save her. “Curtis Holt, conductor of the Starling City Orchestra.”

 

Felicity shoots him a grateful look as he engages Moira Queen. She’s surprised to find Oliver studying her when she looks up.

 

He leans toward her, not quite crowding but definitely crossing into her personal space. “Nervous?” he inquires quietly.

 

Felicity blows out a breath. “It’s ridiculous, right?” she whispers. “I’ve done this dozens of times, what’s there to be nervous about?”

 

Oliver cants his head to the side. “It’s not ridiculous. Being in the spotlight is nerve wracking.”

 

“Oliver,” Moira calls. “We should really be seating ourselves. I’m sure there are others who would like a moment with Ms. Smoak.”

 

Felicity blushes, but Oliver just assures his mother that he’s coming and tucks his hands in his pockets. “You’ll be great.” Then, looking at Curtis, “Nice to see you again, Curtis. Good luck.”

 

“Hope to see you again after!” Thea says.

 

The Queen family moves away with the big man that no one introduced. Thea walks between her mother and brother and takes up the arm of each; Felicity wonders if she’s imagining the coolness between mother and son.

 

“Someone has a fan,” Curtis sing-songs behind her.

 

Felicity doesn’t get to ask him what or who he means, because another group of people steps up to introduce themselves.

 

Curtis and Felicity greet people for another twenty minutes before excusing themselves to disappear backstage. Iris and Caitlin are waiting for her at the base of the stage stairs. They both hug her warmly.

 

“You’re gonna do awesome,” Caitlin tells her. “You’re always awesome.”

 

“You look beautiful,” Iris adds. She grins widely. “Slay, Smoak.”

 

Felicity laughs and hugs them again. Iris and Caitlin have blanket passes for backstage access at every concert that Felicity plays, and even ones she doesn’t. They are well known to the other members of the orchestra – Caitlin has played with nearly all of them in the last few years – and they’re just as close to Curtis as Felicity. Well, maybe not quite.

 

“Thanks, guys.”

 

“Oh! I brought you something,” Iris says suddenly. She reaches into her purse and pulls out a long velvet box. She holds it out and opens it to reveal a string of black pearls. “They were my mom’s. I want you to wear them, for luck.”

 

“Iris.” Felicity is too flabbergasted to say much more.

 

Iris takes the strand of pearls in hand and tucks the box back into her purse. She motions for Felicity to turn around, which she does, and then lays them against her throat and clasps them.

 

“Also, they’re perfect for your dress,” Iris points out.

 

Felicity touches the pearls carefully and turns back to face her friend. “Are you sure?”

 

Iris grins. “Of course, I’m sure. They always bring me luck, and I know how nervous you get out there, so I thought they might help.”

 

“Thank you.”

 

In the auditorium, a sudden hush falls and the stage lights get brighter. Felicity knows that means the other lights have been dimmed, and that introductions are about to start.

 

“That’s your cue,” Caitlin says as Curtis starts talking into the microphone. “Better get up there.”

 

Felicity squeezes both of their hands, thankful for the support, and then ascends the steps to wait nervously in the wings. She hates the introductions. Curtis introduces the lead of the woodwind section, the lead of the string section, the harp player, and then Felicity knows that it’s her turn.

 

“And last but certainly not least,” Curtis announces, “our very talented pianist, Felicity Smoak!”

 

The lights are blinding as she emerges from stage left and her heart is thunderous in her ears, but she can just hear the drum of applause. She focuses on Curtis and keeping her breathing study. Her thoughts are a mantra of don’t trip.

 

She slides her hand into Curtis’s waiting one, smiles widely at the audience – or in their general direction, anyway, since the stage lights are so bright that she can’t actually see anything – and bows.

 

When she’s crossed to the piano and settled on the bench, Felicity takes a deep breath. Her fingers drift up to press the borrowed pearls lightly against her skin in fortification. She checks her sheet music, which she has memorized, and focuses on Curtis.

 

Her friend and maestro looks to the lead of each section and waits for their nod. Felicity smiles when he looks her way.

 

“Let’s make some music, people.” It’s his customary line.

 

Then, Curtis raises both hands, pauses, and then launches them into song. The piano doesn’t come in until the third measure. Felicity closes her eyes and waits.

 

The keys are cool and smooth beneath her fingers when she starts to play. Her mind empties of everything but the next note, the next stroke, and a calmness settles over her as her hands fly across the keys. Music makes sense to her the way computers makes sense to her: she can look at the notes and know exactly what they are and where they go, just like she can with lines of code.

 

Only once or twice does she need to open her eyes to check the sheet music in front of her. Crescendo, decrescendo, allegro; her mind whispers the words, and her hands comply. For forty-five minutes Felicity forgets about everything except the music. Her anxiety is lulled to sleep, stage fright hidden beneath the joy she feels at being able to create something so beautiful.

 

She only opens her eyes when the echo of the last chord fades. A heartbeat later the roar of applause catches her by surprise – she doesn’t think she’ll ever get used to it – and the lights come on as Curtis announces intermission.

 

Caitlin is the only one waiting for Felicity off stage. “Iris had to go,” she explains. “Barry called. She said to tell you that you’re blowing them away as usual, and that she’ll see us at home.”

 

Caitlin hands her a bottle of water and Felicity downs half of it. “C’mon,” she says and leads Caitlin to the door that exits into the hallway. “I have to use the bathroom and it’s like, ten miles away.”

 

There’s a line for the women’s bathroom, but when they realize that Felicity is behind them the line of women parts and several wave her through.

 

“Go ahead,” a beautiful woman with chestnut curls offers. “Concert can’t go on without you.”

 

Felicity thanks them all profusely. She’s in and out quickly, adept at navigating long dresses in the bathroom thanks to her years of experience. She washes her hands, double checks her makeup and general appearance in the mirror, and then rejoins Caitlin where she waits in the hall.

 

Felicity would be lying to herself if she didn’t admit that she’s keeping an eye out for Oliver and Thea on her trek back to the stage. They’re nowhere to be seen, however, and she refocuses on the concert.

 

Once they’re backstage again Felicity finishes her bottle of water and tosses it in the nearest trash. “Almost done.”

 

“We still on for dinner after? Curtis wants to try some new Thai restaurant.”

 

“Thai? In this dress? I’ll ruin it.”

 

Caitlin laughs. “I brought you a change of clothes.”

 

“Ugh, you’re a lifesaver. Thai food it is.”

 

She returns to the stage with enough time to detour past Curtis. “Dinner is a go,” she tells him.

 

“In that dress?” Curtis retorts, and it makes Felicity laugh. She pats his arm reassuringly.

 

“Caitlin brought different clothes. Iris went somewhere with Barry, but I’m sure Caitlin will text her. Is Paul coming?”

 

“He has to work late.”

 

Felicity nods in acknowledgement and then returns to her piano. She exchanges her sheet music and spreads it out. A shadow falls over her and she glances up to see Keldon Haines, a double bass player that she’s spoken to on occasion, standing at the edge of the piano.

 

“Hey,” she says, confused.

 

“Hey,” Keldon replies. “I know it’s a weird time to ask, but I was wondering if you’d like to go on a date with me.”

 

Felicity can’t help the frown that emerges. She’s said hardly anything to Keldon that isn’t a pleasantry or directly related to music, and she’s never had the impression that he was interested in her. His invitation is completely unexpected. And, she discovers after brief moments of introspection, unwanted.

 

“I’m flattered, but no thank you.”

 

Keldon’s face falls. “Oh. Okay, yeah. Sorry to disturb you.”

 

He disappears. Flummoxed, Felicity catches Curtis’s eye. He’s clearly dying to know what just happened, but the lights are dimming once again and intermission is clearly over. Later, Felicity mouths, and Curtis nods.

 

Later, she tells herself again, because her mind wants to get stuck on trying to figure out when Keldon might have let on that he was interested. Music now, everything else later. Unthinkingly she glances out over the crowd and realizes anew how big the auditorium is, and how many people are out there watching her. Well, maybe not just her, but she’s part of the orchestra that they paid money to see and just like that her stage fright is back.

 

Felicity immediately turns back to her piano and closes her eyes. She counts to five and opens them again, finding Curtis immediately.

 

The moment the music starts up again, Felicity closes her eyes and concentrates. The piano keys are reassuring beneath her fingers. She knows this; she can do this.

 

That attitude carries her almost all the way to the end. She’s relaxed until the last few notes of In the Hall of the Mountain King fade away and then remembers quite suddenly that their finale for the evening is her. Their last piece for tonight is a piano solo: Felicity is playing the third movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, and she’s forgotten that she will be the center of attention for nearly eight minutes until that moment.

 

Curtis congratulates the orchestra on a job well done and then turns to face Felicity. He winks at her in silent support; Felicity blows out a panicked breath and busies herself by gathering up her sheet music and putting it away. She doesn’t replace it, because she doesn’t need it.

 

“You can do this,” she whispers. She reaches up to press Iris’s pearls against her skin again.

 

The auditorium is silent as Felicity places her hands on the keys, and then the music in her head pours out of her fingers and over the piano keys. She keeps her eyes closed as her heart swells to keep time with her fingers. A curled strand of hair slips loose from her chignon and comes to rest against her cheek; she feels it there and ignores it.

 

Felicity has practiced this exact movement for hours – for years. She has played it until her hands cramped so painfully that Caitlin had to massage them back to looseness for her; she has played it through tears of frustration and exultation, all to prepare for a moment like this.

 

She plays it with every ounce of passion she has, until her hands ache and the last key is struck.

 

Felicity opens her eyes, and nothing happens. Everything is quiet and still around her. She turns her head to look out over the audience, wondering suddenly if something has happened – or maybe she’s dreaming? – and then visibly startles when more than four hundred people jump to their feet with raucous applause.

 

Felicity stands and bows automatically, stunned. She is stunned at their approval, yes, but she is mostly stunned with herself. She’s just played a very difficult, very well-loved piece of music composed by freaking Beethoven, and she did it without a single mistake.

 

A wildly triumphant grin splits her face. Then Curtis is there and sweeping her into a hug.

 

“Oh my god, Felicity,” he says in her ear, “that was the best piece of music you’ve ever played!”

 

Curtis lets her go and she bows once, then again with her fellow musicians, and exits the stage on cloud nine. Caitlin is waiting for her, of course, and she beams at Felicity and then flings her arms around her as soon as she can reach.

 

“That was incredible!”

 

“Oh my god,” Felicity breathes. “It was incredible! I don’t know what happened, Cait, I just closed my eyes and went for it. I wasn’t even thinking about all the places I usually trip up. I don’t think I was thinking at all!”

 

“So, you finally listened to me,” Caitlin teased. “It’s not enough to just play it …”

 

“You have to feel it,” Felicity choruses with her, grinning.

 

“This definitely calls for a celebration dinner!”

 

Before they can go anywhere though a stage hand approaches. “Ms. Smoak?”

 

“Yes?”

 

“There’s someone asking for you at the front of the stage. Would you like me to send them away?”

 

Felicity’s heart leaps in her chest. She can only think of two people that might want to talk to her, and her stomach gives an awkward flop in anticipation.

 

“No, I’d like to talk to them.”

 

“Please follow me.”

 

“You can come too,” Felicity says as she grabs Caitlin’s hand and drags her along.

 

Sure enough, Oliver and Thea are waiting in the empty area in front of the stage. Thea is the first to see her and practically squeals as she rushes over to give Felicity a hug. Apparently, they’re hugging friends now, and Felicity finds she doesn’t mind that.

 

“You’re a rock star!” Thea praises. “Or whatever the equivalent is for a piano player.”

 

Felicity laughs. “I’ll go with rock star.”

 

When Thea releases her Felicity looks immediately to Oliver. He smiles at her, and her heart swoops in answer. He is an unfairly attractive man with a startlingly direct gaze.

 

“Felicity, you’re remarkable.”

 

She tries not to blush. “Thank you for remarking on it.” She remembers Caitlin then, ashamed to have forgotten her, and turns to pull her forward. “Oliver, Thea, this is my best friend Caitlin. Caitlin, meet Oliver and Thea Queen.”

 

Everyone shakes hands. This should be strange, Felicity thinks, because she’s not exactly friends with Oliver or Thea. She’s technically only met them once before this, and they know almost nothing about each other. Still, she’d been delighted to see them again earlier, and she’s delighted to introduce them to Caitlin. She wishes Iris were here so she could introduce her as well.

 

“I’m glad we caught you,” Oliver says when the introductions are done. “I -.”

 

“We,” Thea corrects.

 

“We,” Oliver continues, “wanted to congratulate you. I’m sorry if we pulled you away from anything, we just didn’t want to miss you.”

 

“We were just backstage doing a victory dance,” Caitlin teases.

 

“I’d do one too if I could play like that,” Thea says.

 

“I’ve been trying to master that particular piece of music for years,” Felicity admits.

 

“And you certainly did tonight.” Caitlin smiles proudly at her and reaches over to squeeze her arm. “I’m so proud of you, Felicity.”

 

“Thank you.” She blushes under the praise, but yeah, she’s pretty proud of herself as well.

 

“I recorded it,” Thea announces.

 

“The concert?” Felicity asks in disbelief.

 

“The piano solo,” Oliver clarifies. “She had her phone out and ready as soon as she read you were gonna play a solo on the program.”

 

Felicity makes a face. “I am so glad I didn’t know that ahead of time.”

 

“What are you guys doing after this?” Thea asks. “Maybe we could hang out?”

 

Felicity hadn’t expected the offer, but she’s ridiculously glad to hear it – and sorry that she has to decline. Oliver must anticipate her response and attribute it to the wrong thing, because he cuts in before Felicity can say anything.

 

“I’m sure Felicity wants to go home and relax, Thea.”

 

“Oh, no!” Felicity exclaims. “I mean yes, of course, because I always want to go home and relax. I meant to say that I would love to hang out with you – both of you – but Caitlin and I are going to a celebration dinner with some friends. Unless you guys want to come with us? No one would mind.” She looks to Caitlin to back her up.

 

“We’d love for you guys to come,” Caitlin agrees. “The more the merrier.”

 

“Thank you for the invitation,” Oliver answers. “Maybe next time.”

 

“Hey,” Thea says brightly. “Why don’t you guys come to Verdant Friday night? I’ll reserve you a table, you can bring whoever you want. There’ll be free drinks.”

 

“Verdant?” Caitlin repeats.

 

“My nightclub. Well, technically it’s Ollie’s nightclub, but I manage it.”

 

“You’re a half owner,” Oliver reminds her.

 

Felicity wants badly to ask Oliver if he’ll be there, but that seems too forward and she doesn’t know how to get the words out. Plus, he’s like the hottest bachelor in Starling City – what interest would he have in a nerdy pianist? She’s practically the adult version of a band geek.

 

“Deal,” Felicity says before she can follow that train of thought any further.

 

“Awesome! Do you have your phone on you?”

 

Felicity looks to Caitlin, who digs the thing out of her purse and hands it to Felicity. She’s sure Caitlin has stashed her purse somewhere backstage with the backpack that hides her change of clothes. Felicity unlocks the phone and hands it to Thea, who punches in her name and number.

 

“Text me and we’ll work it out. Just tell me who you plan to bring and I’ll put your names on the list.”

 

Thea’s phone starts to ring. “That’s mom, probably calling to ask us where the hell we disappeared to.”

 

Everyone takes that as their cue to say their farewells. When it’s Felicity’s turn to say goodbye to Oliver he repeats his move from earlier and kisses the back of her hand.

 

“Enjoy your celebration, Felicity. You’ve earned it.”

 

She has no idea why – she’s just met Oliver and he can have no real understanding of what kind of time and effort went into her performance tonight, or what it means to her – but the way he looks at her makes her feel like maybe he appreciates her effort all the same.

 

“Will you be there?” Felicity blurts, suddenly unwilling to say goodbye without knowing if she’ll see him again. “On Friday,” she clarifies.

 

Oliver looks uncomfortable and she thinks she’s just made some kind of blunder, but then he answers, “I tend to stay away from the club scene these days.”

 

“Right,” she says quickly. She knew that. Oliver Queen: playboy is not who came back from the dead. “Forget I asked. Have a good night, Oliver.”

 

She returns to Caitlin, says another goodbye to Thea, and makes a hasty exit. She’s embarrassed that she asked, and irritated with herself for bringing up a subject that makes him uncomfortable, if his reaction was anything to go by.

 

“Way to go, Smoak,” she chides herself. “Real smooth.”

 

“What?” Caitlin asks.

 

“Nothing, just talking to myself. Where’d you hide that change of clothes? I can’t wait to change, and I’m starving.”

 

She does her best not to think of Oliver Queen for the rest of the evening, but only succeeds in pushing him out of her mind when they get to the restaurant and find Curtis, Barry, Iris, and their other friend Cisco waiting for them.

 

Little does she know that halfway across the city, Oliver is watching the video Thea made of Felicity’s performance and posted on Instagram and thinking that maybe he’ll be at Verdant after all.

Chapter Text

Oliver knows that he’s intelligent, despite his spotty record with the public education system. He is good at many things. He lacks the business acumen that his father possessed, however, and that his mother still possesses. His mother is technically still CEO of Queen Consolidated, but he’s being prepped to take over. The board of trustees has lost faith in Moira since it came to light that she made some … questionable business decisions in the wake of the loss of half of her family.

 

She’s still a shrewd business woman, and that tragedy still invokes sympathy in the hearts of most, so they won’t ask her outright to step down. Moira knows that it’s time to step down, though, and Oliver knows that she hates it, and all of it just adds another layer of complexity to their relationship.

 

Oliver had learned some nasty truths about his parents before watching his father shoot himself. Coming to terms with what he knows about his father – his repeated infidelities and willing association with corrupt, terrible men to say the least – had been easier than it’s proving to be with his mother. Part of that is likely due to the fact that Robert Queen is dead, and it’s much more challenging to reconcile the mother he’s known his whole life with the one that has been revealed while she’s still alive.

 

It’s easier to be mad at someone when they’re still around.

 

Moira knows only bits of pieces of what Oliver went through. Oliver knows that she’s beyond glad to have him back, and he knows that sometimes she can’t mask the sorrow in her eyes when she looks at him and realizes anew that the son who returned is, in many ways, not the son who left.

 

There’s also a part of him that can’t forgive his mother for Thea’s drug problem. They’ve fixed that now, but it had been a painful shock to come home and see what the loss of him and his father had done to his sister – and his mother. The gap between the two of them had been so wide that Oliver had initially feared there was no way to close it.

 

Thea and Moira’s relationship is on the mend, though. They make progress every day. It’s only Oliver who can’t seem to bridge the gap to his mother. He won’t admit it to anyone else, but it hurts him to be so distrustful of her. He wants to go back to the days of believing in her goodness.

 

Sometimes, he wants to go back to the days before he set sail on the Queen’s Gambit, when the world was brighter and made sense.

 

“Hello, mother,” Oliver greets.

 

It’s six a.m. Friday morning and his mother is reading an actual newspaper at the table over a cup of coffee.

 

“Morning, dear.”

 

“I didn’t know those still existed.”

 

“What?”

 

“Newspapers.” He offers her a small smile.

 

Moira smiles in response. It’s the first moment of levity they’ve shared in Oliver can’t remember how long. It feels odd to be joking with her, but he hasn’t seen her smile in so long that whatever awkwardness he feels is ignored.

 

“What time is the board meeting?” Moira asks as Oliver prepares himself a cup of coffee and some toast.

 

“Nine a.m. We’re going over the quarterly finance reports and meeting with some product developers.”

 

“Don’t let Ryland get off track, you know how he likes to talk. You’ll be there all day.”

 

“I know,” Oliver says kindly. He knows that it’s hard for his mother to be sidelined for this, and that she has decades of knowledge to share.

 

“Of course, you do.” Moira smiles proudly at him.

 

Oliver is nervous about the board meeting, but his mother doesn’t need to know that. His doubts about his ability to run the family company don’t need to be shared. If his mother knew she’d be driven to try to help him, and Oliver can’t explain why but he knows this is something he has to learn to do on his own.

 

Oliver finishes his toast and tops off his coffee. He can’t afford to be late today, so he makes the trek back to his room to get ready.

 

He always dresses smartly – a remnant of his privileged upbringing – but today he takes extra care. He’ll be the youngest person of considerable power in that room. Everyone will be ready to underestimate him, predisposed to compare him to both of his parents (and probably everybody else), and the first line of defense he has against their judgement is his appearance.

 

Never mind that Oliver honestly doesn’t care about his appearance. He’s aware that he’s good looking, and he’s used that to his advantage more than once, but it’s not a point of pride. His body is a tool, a weapon, and it’s marked and scarred accordingly.

 

Digg is waiting for him in the foyer when Oliver goes downstairs again. “Ready when you are.”

 

“Car’s running out front,” Digg answers.

 

Oliver claps the other man on the shoulder in appreciation. John Diggle is a good man, and Oliver isn’t big on needing others but he’s willing to admit that he’d be lost without Digg.

 

Moira and Thea are nowhere to be seen, so Oliver leaves without saying goodbye. He steps to the car with Digg and beats Digg to the door – they don’t stand on ceremony when the press isn’t around – and slides into the back of the limo. Digg has left a manila folder on the seat for him. Oliver opens it to find a cheat sheet for the meeting: the name of each person that will be there, what they do, and a few helpful pieces of information. Oliver huffs out an approximation of a chuckle when he sees the name Daniel Ryland with a note “talker; keep him focused”.

 

“Kerri thought you might find that useful,” Digg explains from the front seat.

 

“Remind me to thank her.”

 

Kerri Klaus has been his mother’s secretary for as long as Oliver can remember, and he supposes that means she’s his secretary now. He doesn’t mind: Kerri is a trusted and useful resource he can lean on, as she’s just proven by proxy.

 

The meeting itself is frustrating. Oliver hates business politics and all of the constant posturing, but he can’t let on that he does. He’s frustrated ten minutes in because six out of the seven people in the room want to test him. They’re trying to gauge how much he knows about the business, and whether or not he’s a fool that’ll be easily manipulated. Dealing with their machinations is exhausting.

 

After the meeting – which runs over by half an hour because Oliver is so busy trying to field concerns that he forgets to keep Ryland in check – the remainder of the morning is spent on teleconferences and signing the frightening mountain of paperwork that Kerri drops onto his desk.

 

“Lunch,” Oliver tells Digg tersely around one.

 

“Anywhere in particular?” Digg asks.

 

“Somewhere far from the business district.”

 

Oliver can’t stand the thought of running into someone from QC who might want to talk to him about business.

 

Digg obliges and takes him to the last place anyone would think to look for Oliver Queen: Big Belly Burger, thirteen miles from the Queen Consolidated skyscraper. This is one of the original restaurants, so there’s no drive through. Even better, as far as Oliver is concerned. Digg parks in the back and they gravitate to a booth in the back corner. Oliver sits with his back to the wall so that he can see the whole restaurant. It’s not packed but there are several people scattered around the tables; no one pays them any mind.

 

The waitress is reciting the daily specials when Oliver realizes that it’s Friday. His thoughts immediately jump to Felicity Smoak, and the last time he’d spoken with her. The idea of going to a club makes him uneasy, but he wants to see her again. Which is a huge indication that he shouldn’t go, because in his experience his interest only causes others pain. He’s a hard man to love – or even like, really – and he’d be doing her a favor by staying away. The last thing that poor woman needs is to get tangled up with him in any way.

 

"Oliver?" Digg says.

 

At the same time, the waitress says, “Sir?”

 

He orders something off the top of his head. The waitress disappears, but Digg is studying him intently from across the table.

 

“How’s Lyla?” Oliver doesn’t want him to ask what he was thinking about.

 

“She’s good.”

 

“Still choosing to put up with you?”

 

Digg grins. “She’s always been good for a challenge. What about you, man?”

 

Oliver furrows his brow. “What about me?”

 

Digg folds his hands together on the table top. “You can’t be alone forever, Oliver.”

 

He sighs. Did Digg somehow pick up on the train of Oliver’s thoughts, or is it just an uncanny coincidence that he’s bringing this up now? “I had no idea my love life was of interest to you, John.”

 

“How can it be, when it’s non-existent?”

 

And okay, that one was pretty good. Oliver chuckles. “I don’t have time for a relationship.”

 

The arrival of their waitress with their drinks forestalls whatever reply Digg might have made. Oliver doesn’t want to think about a relationship right now; he doesn’t want to think about the beautiful pianist that has unwittingly caught his attention. His life is a complicated mess.

 

Even if his life wasn’t a mess, he wouldn’t be in a relationship. Being with someone would require a level of openness that Oliver doesn’t know that he’ll ever be able to achieve again. There is so much darkness in him now. He can’t knowingly subject someone else to the that; he’s too guarded now, too accustomed to isolation.

 

He can’t be trusted with someone else’s heart, or they with what’s left of his, so relationships have been delegated to the no-fly zone.

 

Which is why he won’t be going to Verdant tonight.

 

Digg doesn’t resume their conversation, much to Oliver’s relief. The waitress drops off their food and they eat in companionable silence. This is one of the things he enjoys the most about John Diggle: the man is comfortable with silence. Even when they’d been inseparable Tommy had had a hard time just being. Then again, the Oliver of that time hadn’t concerned himself overmuch with silence.

 

Sometimes he feels like pre-island Oliver is a half-remembered dream. That person is so unlike the man he is now.

 

Digg drives him back to the office and the rest of Oliver’s day is spent on mind numbing tasks. There’s a lot of paperwork to be done, and emails to be answered, and he wonders if this is a lot of what Kerri does. How does she keep track of it all? Oliver always has the nagging sensation that he’s forgetting something.

 

Thea is waiting for him when he gets home. “Hey!”

 

“Hey, Speedy. How was your day?”

 

“Not as boring as yours, I’m sure. I don’t envy you sitting through all of those board meetings. How’d that go, anyway?”

 

“Irritatingly.”

 

“I bet. You know what you need?”

 

“Thea …” Oliver starts warningly.

 

“A night out,” she says like she hasn’t heard him. “Come to the club.”

 

Oliver narrows his eyes at his sister and steps past her to start up the stairs. He wants to get out of this suit and into something casual. He could use a good workout. He didn’t get one in this morning like he usually does, and he has a lot of excess energy that he needs to expend.

 

“C’mon, Ollie,” Thea whines. “It’s just one night. A few hours. It’ll be good, you’ll see.”

 

“Not happening, Speedy.”

 

“Felicity will be there!”

 

Oliver glares at his sister over his shoulder, but doesn’t stop climbing the stairs. Clearly his sister still knows him well enough to know when someone has caught his eye, and clearly, she isn’t above trying to set him up.

 

“You can’t do this, Ollie.” Her tone isn’t light and joking anymore, and that as much as her words stops him in his tracks. He turns, and she continues. “There’s a whole world out there, and a life of more than just the company and this mansion.”

 

Oliver sighs. “I know that, Thea.”

 

“So? Don’t you want more than this? Don’t you want everything you almost missed out on? You’re living, Ollie, but I don’t think you’re alive. It scares me.”

 

With the hand that Thea can’t see Oliver subconsciously starts to rub his thumb over the side of his pointer finger. Her words have cut him to the quick, and he can’t think of anything to say. He wants to reassure his sister but the fear that there might be more truth to her words than he wants to admit stays his tongue. Thea knows little about his life in the five years that he was declared dead, and he’s not willing to enlighten her. That also means he can’t explain himself or his choices to her. He can’t reassure her without giving something of himself away.

 

“I’m okay, Thea.”

 

“Maybe. But you have to let me in, Ollie – you have to let someone in.”

 

Oliver doesn't know how to respond. Thea’s passionate plea has caught him off guard with its fervor and understanding. His sister is more astute than he’s given her credit for, and that knowledge shames him just a bit. He hadn’t thought she’d notice his self-imposed isolation.

 

“Promise me you’ll think about it.”

 

“Thea …”

 

“Promise me.”

 

“Okay. I promise.”

 

Thea studies him from where she still stands in the foyer. Her expression is far from happy, but whatever she sees in his face drives her to nod once to herself and then disappear down the hall without another word.

 

Oliver resumes the trek to his room. He tells himself that Thea doesn’t understand why he’s better off alone, or what it would take for him to trust someone enough – to trust himself enough to be in a relationship.

 

He doesn’t stop telling himself that until he’s standing in front of the full-length mirror in his room and pulling on a nice button up. Even then he tries to fool himself: he’s just dressing nicely in case … well, in case something, and a blue checkered button up and a nice pair of jeans isn’t dressing up anyway.

 

Oliver is throwing a leg over his motorcycle when he gives up the game. He’s not comfortable in clubs, but thoughts of Felicity have been an undercurrent in his subconscious all day, and he can’t forget what Thea said. Besides, it's not like he's going to fall into bed with this Felicity Smoak. He'll go out for a few hours to appease his sister and her concern. He'll put on a mask – as he always does when he's in public – and be social for a while, and then he'll leave. No harm, no foul.

 

Verdant is already packed. It's ten on a Friday evening, which is early for the club scene, and there's already a line formed at the front door. Oliver drives the motorcycle to the back and parks. He slips his helmet off and tucks it under his arm as he ducks in one of the delivery entrances. It's probably too much to hope that the press doesn't learn of his presence in the building, but he'll do his best to delay that discovery. The last thing he wants is to wake up tomorrow to headlines about Oliver Queen returning to his partying ways. Especially in light of what his family has recently suffered at the hands of the media.

 

Not for the first time, Oliver thinks that coming was a bad idea.

 

He's already here, though. He stashes his helmet in Thea's office and shucks out of his leather jacket to hang it over the chair at the desk. With a heavy sigh, Oliver leaves the relative peace of the office to join the club goers.

 

Thea is easy to find. Oliver is good at picking her out of a crowd. He chalks that up to his long years of practice at looking after her. She's behind the bar, so he weaves his way over.

 

"You came!" She practically screams over the music.

 

Oliver smiles and drops a kiss into her hair. "I did." He glances down the bar and sees that there's only one other bartender besides Thea. "It's not just you two back here, is it?"

 

"It's not supposed to be, but Miles called out sick and the new guy doesn't start until Wednesday."

 

Oliver makes a face that Thea doesn't see and rolls up his sleeves. "You just wanted free labor," he teases, and then gets to work.

 

The bar is slammed, of course. The music is just south of deafening and Oliver has to lean over the counter to hear the drink orders that patrons holler at him. Mixing drinks isn't his occupation of choice, but the repetitiveness of it is soothing. He doesn't have time to get stuck in his head (and the music is too loud for him to hear his own thoughts, anyway).

 

Oliver pointedly ignores the surprise he sees on many faces when they get to the bar and realize who's asking them for their drink orders.

 

He's just finished washing a small army's worth of glasses and is still drying one with the towel in his hands when he turns back to the bar to resume taking orders. He steps up to the counter; the group of guys in front of him moves away with their drinks and, just like that, he's staring at a familiar face.

 

"Oliver."

 

It's too loud to hear her, but he watches his name form on her bright lips. Her head tips to the side in … confusion? Disbelief? He's not sure.

 

"Hi," he says, and there's no reason to but he smiles at her. He puts the clean glass down and tosses the towel onto his shoulder.

 

Felicity steps up to the bar. Her hair has been left down and curled and her glasses are absent; her dress looks gold in the dim light of the club. She's a bombshell, no doubt about it, and then she purses her lips and her brows furrow and Oliver realizes that she's also adorable.

 

"I didn't expect to see you," she explains.

 

"I didn't expect to be here," he admits. "Thea can be very persuasive. What can I get you?"

 

Felicity's face does something unexpected at his insinuation that he's here for Thea. Oliver can't name it because it disappears quickly. Disappointment, he wonders. Displeasure? The openness that had been in her expression moments before has vanished, and the change is striking. There's no interest in her eyes now – just polite detachment.

 

Another woman pops into the space next to Felicity and grabs her arm excitedly. She turns to the bar, does a double take when she sees Oliver, and then smiles brightly.

 

"You're …"

 

"Waiting for our drink order," Felicity interrupts.

 

"Oh, we'll have three Cosmopolitans, please."

 

Another person steps into the space at Felicity's other side, and Oliver recognizes Caitlin. He nods to her and she smiles, but quickly turns to Felicity. He can't hear their conversation over the music, but Felicity smiles as the other two speak and seems to join in when expected. It doesn't escape Oliver's notice that she doesn't look at him once. 

 

That shouldn't bother him, and he shouldn't feel like he's messed up, but it does and he does.

Oliver sets three Cosmopolitan's on the counter just as Thea breezes over to the three women. She grins at Felicity and then hugs her. Oliver wishes he knew what they're saying. Felicity finally looks over and realizes their drinks are ready. She pulls her wallet out of her purse and Thea makes the universal hand motion for "put that away, you don't need it". They bicker about that – Oliver knows from the way Felicity and Thea are looking at each other – and then Felicity puts her wallet away.

Felicity, Caitlin, and their other friend all turn to the counter to retrieve their drinks.

"Thank you," Felicity yells over the music.

He opens his mouth to reply, but they disappear into the crowd like smoke. Thea steps around the corner and raises an eyebrow at him. She props a hip against the counter and crosses her arms.

"Did you even say anything to her?"

"Not really," he admits

Thea shakes her head. "Fine," and she throws up her hands, "your loss."

Thea's walking back to the other end of the bar and Oliver's still trying to figure just what the hell he did wrong.

Caitlin comes back to the bar some fifteen minutes later for another round of drinks. She smiles sweetly at him, and Oliver gets the impression that Felicity and her friends are all around just a kind, sweet group of people. It's almost hard to believe how sincere they all are.

"Can I get another round of Cosmos?" Caitlin yells as she puts three empty cocktail glasses on the counter.

Oliver pulls out three clean glasses and gets to work. "I haven't met your friend."

Caitlin is confused for a moment. "Oh, Iris? I'm sure she'll be around soon to introduce herself."

"How do you guys know each other?"

"We're roommates." The rest of what Caitlin is going to say gets interrupted when a bear of a man pushes his way to the bar and nearly knocks her off her feet.

Oliver motions for Caitlin to step around the bar and into the empty area near the opening to the back of the bar. Oliver signals to the bouncer standing in front of the emergency exit door next to the bar and indicates that he should pay a visit to the drunk man. Then, he hands a finished drink to Caitlin and continues working on the other two.

"You okay?"

"Fine," Caitlin says. "He just stepped on my toes. Anyway, we've all been friends for years. Felicity and I used to be in the orchestra together."

"Used to?"

"I gave it up to be a scientist."

Oliver passes another finished Cosmo down the bar. A shout that he barely hears over the music has him raising his head, and then Iris is standing next to Caitlin with a huge grin on her face. Caitlin hands her one of the Cosmos.

"Where's Felicity?"

"Fighting off admirers with a stick!" Iris hollers back. Caitlin's concern is written clearly on her face, so Iris gives in. "Relax, she's," Felicity appears then, "right here."

Oliver knows who the last Cosmo is for, so he turns and offers it to her. She looks at him briefly and smiles, and then turns back to her friends. Oliver actually grins at that. He's being dismissed! He's not sure why, but he hasn't been so blatantly disregarded in he can't remember how long. Every time they've spoken before this Felicity has been engaging and attentive, and now she wants nothing to do with him!

It's … refreshing, and even a little charming.

Verdant doesn't have a lot of tables, and their booths go quickly. Felicity and her friends don't have anywhere to sit or set their drinks or their stuff. All three women have purses slung over their shoulders. Oliver steps out from behind the bar and puts a polite hand on Felicity's shoulder. She genuinely seems surprised to look up and realize he's there.

Oliver leans into her personal space. "Why don't you put your purses behind the bar?"

Felicity is unsure. "There's nowhere to hide them."

Oliver shucks his head in a wordless gesture for her to follow him. He crosses the few short steps to the bar and then motions her behind the counter with him. There's a row of mini-fridges under the counter, and nearly a foot of space between their tops and the bottom of the counter. Oliver doesn't call attention to it by pointing, but he tips his head in the general direction. When he sees Felicity's attention follow the movement he explains.

"You can stash it with Thea's. No one's allowed behind the bar, so it'll be safe." Felicity looks unconvinced, so he holds up a hand. "Scouts honor."

She glares at him. "Were you even a boy scout?"

Oliver shrugs. "No."

For the first time since she's arrived, Felicity smiles at him. Really smiles, that luminescent expression that makes him want to smile, too.

"Okay," Felicity says. She hands him her purse and he stashes it in the empty space and pushes it as far back as it can safely go. Felicity goes back to her friends, retrieves their purses, and brings them back to where Oliver is still standing.

"I need to grab my wallet," she yells over the music.

Oliver shakes his head. "On the house."

Felicity has a look on her face like she's going to argue, but Iris pops her head over her shoulder and wiggles her empty glass.

"Finish it!" She tells Felicity with a motion at the cocktail she’s just been given.

So, Oliver makes them another round and then the girls disappear into the club again. Oliver goes back to the counter to help Thea, but he keeps an eye focused on the crowd. Felicity and her friends are not his responsibility, yet …

They come back in turns. Sometimes it's just one of them – Caitlin and Iris mostly – and sometimes it's all three of them. There's no real rhyme behind which one of them comes for the next round. At least, Oliver doesn't think there is until some hours later.

Verdant is closing its doors for the night, and Oliver has just ushered the last patrons out of the bar (with the help of the bouncer in one case). He turns to find Felicity, Caitlin, and Iris sharing a bench in one of the corners. Caitlin is passed out with her head on Iris's shoulder, and Iris is texting furiously. Oliver is about to question where Felicity is when he spots her by the bar. She's talking to Thea and they're both smiling. The sight makes Oliver happy. Thea doesn't have a lot of female friends, and it's only as he watches her with Felicity that he realizes what a deficit that must create in her life.

"Hey," Oliver greets as he approaches. After the last several hours of raucous music his voice sounds quiet and scratchy in his ears.

"Hey. I called us a cab, so I came to get our purses."

Oliver heads back behind the bar without checking to see if she's following. He retrieves all three purses from their hiding spot and hands them to their designated guardian. Surprisingly, Felicity is tipsy but not out-and-out drunk. He doesn't comment on it.

Felicity studies him for a second. Then, "She's single, just FYI."

Oliver blinks. "What?"

"Caitlin. From what I could tell you two hit it off tonight. So, just in case you were wondering, she's single."

Oliver is flabbergasted. Caitlin is beautiful, yes, and they had shared easy conversation throughout the evening, but hitting it off?

"Thanks for … well, everything. We had a lot of fun tonight."

"Felicity, the cab is here," Iris calls out.

Felicity reaches out on impulse and squeezes Oliver’s forearm. She smiles at him and slings all three purses over her shoulder. "Think about what I said. Caitlin's great."

She goes back to give Thea a parting hug and then returns to her friends. Iris has woken Caitlin and the three of them stumble somewhat drunkenly out the front door. All the while, Oliver is standing behind the bar with the disconcerting notion that he has somehow given Felicity – and possibly Caitlin and Iris as well – the wrong impression.