Felicity's heart was crashing into her ribcage so hard it hurt. As quietly as she could, the blonde ducked into an alleyway and sought out the darkest corner. She pushed herself into the brick wall there and sucked in a huge breath, and then held it. She willed the blood to stop pounding in her ears long enough for her to listen for footsteps.
There were none.
No one had followed her. When her lungs were threatening to combust she exhaled slowly and closed her eyes for the longest second that she dared. Her hand clenched painfully around the USB drive she held.
Felicity drew comfort from the inanimate object. She had a plan, and her plan was going to work.
She refused to entertain the idea of what would happen if it didn't.
On impulse, Felicity pulled the collar of her blouse away from her neck and shoved the USB into the space between her breasts. She readjusted her bra to make sure that it wouldn't fall out, and then she peeked around the corner of the alley and out into the street.
No one was out at nearly two in the morning.
Panting more from adrenaline and fear than exertion, Felicity half-jogged the next two blocks and then swung wildly into a parking garage. She tucked herself against one of the wide support columns and held her breath again.
Still no footsteps; she slipped farther into the parking garage.
Her heart was lodged firmly in her throat by the time Felicity got to her car.
"Mom?" she whispered.
Donna Smoak popped up from the shadows that hung in the space between the wall and her daughter's Mini Cooper.
"Are you okay?" Donna asked immediately. She stepped around the car to pull her daughter into a tight hug. "Were you followed?"
Felicity shook her head quickly. Now that she was face to face with her mother, her throat felt closed off. Her breath was coming in ragged gasps. There was more than adrenaline running through her now; there was a real and present fear. What they were doing – what she was about to do – was crazy. Crazy, and desperate, and the Smoak women didn't have another choice. Felicity had to do this and it had to work, but now, standing with her mother, she realized how impossible it all was. She felt like she was breaking down.
Donna hugged her daughter as tightly as she could manage. She ran a hand up and down Felicity's back and tried to blink away the tears in her eyes. As a little girl, Donna could tell when her daughter was going to sob – not cry, but really, truly sob with abandon – by the way she started to pant and choke on air.
Just like she was doing now.
"You can do this, baby," Donna said as evenly as she could manage. "You're brilliant, and this plan is going to work."
"But what if it doesn't, mom? I can't just leave you here and -."
"Listen to me, Felicity Meghan Smoak." Donna pulled back and put both of her hands on her daughter's cheeks. "You are going get in this car and leave this city, forever. Promise me that you won't come back, baby. No matter what you hear, no matter what happens, you can't come back."
"Promise me, Felicity."
Her daughter was crying now, and her tears brought out the ones that Donna had fought so hard to hide.
"I promise, mom. And I promise that I'll get you out of here, just as soon as I can."
"I know you will, baby. Now, your suitcases are in the trunk and I've switched the plates, just like you told me to. All of your gadgets are under the passenger seat."
"Thank you," Felicity whispered.
"Don't ever forget that I love you, Felicity. You're my favorite thing in the world, baby girl. My very favorite thing."
Felicity allowed herself a handful of moments to sob into her mother's shoulder. She couldn't count how many times she'd done the same thing over the years, or how many times Donna had played with the ends of her hair until she calmed down; there was every possibility that this was the last time either of those things would happen.
"I love you, mom."
"I love you, too. Now get in that car."
Afterward, Felicity didn't remember the pinpoints of multi-colored lights that flickered in her rear view mirror as she fled Las Vegas; all she remembered was thinking that the air had turned to ash in her lungs, and that her heart was breaking.
"I will not be responsible for whatever revenge your sister exacts on you if you cancel dinner with her again."
Oliver tore tired eyes away from the financial report in his hand. He blinked and squinted until his vision was focused again.
John Diggle was standing just inside the glass door of his office, hands clasped in front of him. He didn't look impressed.
"Dinner?" Oliver repeated. He glanced at his watch. "No. It can't be six already. When did that happen?"
"The same time it happens every night, Oliver," Diggle answered dryly.
Oliver glared at his friend and bodyguard. "I said seven, right? I know I told Raisa seven tonight."
"You did, which is why I'm here an hour early to remind you."
"Oh, of course," Oliver deadpanned. "That's why. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the fact that Raisa promised to make her best filet mignon for dinner."
Diggle's mouth pulled back into a smirk. "Did she? What a coincidence."
Oliver shook his head good-naturedly and stood. He dropped the financial report onto the top of his desk with a loud thwack, relieved to be done with it for the night, and tugged his suit jacket off the back of his chair. Dinner and a movie with Thea sounded like the perfect reprieve from a day of office drudgery.
The hurried staccato of heels on marble drew him up short. Oliver glanced to the door of his glass office just in time to see it swing open. The blonde woman who accompanied the clicking heels practically barreled into the middle of the room, straight passed a surprised Diggle.
Diggle recovered quickly, "Stop," he commanded.
The woman stopped mid-stride. She glanced at Digg over her shoulder and then turned wide, almost wild eyes on Oliver.
"Are you all right?" Oliver ventured carefully.
He took stock of her appearance. She was dressed casually, but her clothes were nice. Despite the noise that they had created on her arrival, her shoes were flat. Her eyes were blue behind her glasses, and clearly said that she'd spent no small amount of time crying.
The tiny woman – because she was tiny – sucked in a huge breath and then squared her shoulders. Oliver had seen his sister do the same thing when she was preparing for a fight, and he tensed automatically.
"My name is Felicity Smoak," she started. Her voice was quiet, but firm. Resolute. "And I'm here to make a deal."
No one spoke.
Then, perhaps stupidly, Oliver said, "What?"
Felicity Smoak ignored him in favor of glancing back at Diggle. "Don't shoot me," she told him. "I'm going to pull a file out of my purse."
"Shoot you?" Diggle repeated. His eyes narrowed.
"You were about to reach for the gun in your waist band, weren't you?" The way she said it made it clear she wasn't really asking a question. "Just don't shoot me. I promise I'm not armed."
Oliver let go of the collar of his coat and stepped slowly around the desk. Felicity turned so that she could keep both him and Diggle in her line of sight and watched both of them warily.
What the hell? Oliver thought.
"He won't hurt you, Felicity." Oliver kept his tone neutral. Her name felt strange on his tongue.
Oliver's disbelief must have shown on his face, because all of the air and the fight seemed to leak out of her then. Felicity's shoulders sagged heavily and she blew out a gust of air.
"It's just, I've had a pretty terrible seventy two hours and I really don't want to end it with a bullet in my chest. Or brain. Or anywhere, really, but I'm sure you understood what I meant the first time around. The point is, this week has been filled with a whole lot of suck for me, okay?"
Oliver stared at her, stunned. He had half a mind to pinch himself, because this whole situation was too bizarre to be real. He must have fallen asleep at his desk with that damned financial report in his hand.
"I'm not going to shoot you," Digg said finally. Oliver glanced away from the woman long enough to see that his friend was smiling.
"Thanks for that. Anyway, moving on."
Felicity pulled a manila folder out of the purse slung over her shoulder. She held it tightly in both hands and then held it a few inches away from her chest. Oliver recognized that she wasn't offering it to him; she was more using at as a shield, an ineffectual barrier between them.
"I'm here to make a deal," Felicity started again. "With Oliver Queen."
"And what is it you want, Felicity?" Oliver queried. "Money? Fame?"
She tipped her head to the side and fixed him with a scowl. The expression was so incongruous, so out of place in the situation that Oliver nearly smiled.
Who the hell was this woman?
"Protection," Felicity stated. "For myself, and my mother. Donna."
Against all rationale and good sense, Oliver felt himself being drawn in. He stuffed his hands in his pockets and schooled his expression into the one that Thea had labeled "bland businessman". He had no idea what to expect from this situation, but he knew that he didn't want to give away the fact that she had piqued his interest.
"Protection from whom?"
"Someone who wouldn't hesitate to put me six feet in the ground."
Oliver's eyebrows hiked into his hairline. "And you think that the CEO of Queen Consolidated can you protect you from this person?"
"No." Felicity inhaled, and then offered him the manila folder. "But I know that a Captain of the Russian mafia can."
Shocked, Oliver reached for the folder on autopilot. There was no way that she could have just said what he thought she'd said. Except that when he looked at Digg, all of the amusement in his bodyguard's face had been replaced by suspicion.
This was definitely real; there was no way he'd have a dream this preposterous.
When Oliver took hold of the folder, the tremors that radiated down the object made him realize that Felicity was trembling.
He didn't have to open the folder – he already had a good idea of what was inside – but he did so anyway. Sure enough, it was full of documents that linked him irrevocably to the Russian mafia.
"Oliver Queen," Felicity recited, as though she knew the information by heart. "Captain of the Bratva, and the only American to earn such a high rank in the last fifty years or more, depending on where you get your information. There's no evidence that you had dealings with the Brotherhood until two years ago, when you came back from the dead. Obviously you weren't lost at sea for the entirety of those five years."
Oliver clenched his jaw and fixed hard eyes on the woman who still stood in the middle of his office. The sun was setting outside his windows, heralding the end of the day; and what an end it was.
He was being blackmailed. Unbelievable.
"And what deal is it you expect me to make, Felicity? Your silence, in exchange for what?"
Without the folder to hold on to, Felicity began to fidget. She tugged at the fingers of one hand with the other and shifted her weight onto one foot.
"Protection," she breathed, as terrified again as she had been on that mad dash to her car. "Through marriage."
The bark of laughter that emanated from Diggle's throat was loud, and harsh in the silence that had accompanied her words. The sound made Felicity jump. She focused on her shoes – her favorite pair of panda flats – and tried to drum up the last dregs of her courage.
This plan was crazy. She knew that it was crazy, but it had to work, because her life depended on it. Her mother's life depended on it.
"Marriage," Oliver repeated.
Oliver had spent years honing his body into a weapon. He had learned how to use his bulk and naturally somber expression to his advantage, and used that knowledge when it was necessary - like now. He crossed the distance that separated him from Felicity Smoak and stepped so far into her personal space that she had to crane her head back to look at him.
She didn't move. She fixed him with the fiercest glare she could muster and squared her shoulders. Felicity would not let this man intimidate her; she would not forfeit her life, and the life of her mother, because she didn't have the backbone to hold her ground.
"You think you can just stroll into my office and blackmail me, Felicity?" Oliver's voice was a growl.
"No, but I hope I can."
"And what makes you brave enough to try? Why are you here?"
"Because I want to save my mother's life."
There were tears in her eyes. The translucent sheen of them brought Oliver back to the reality of the situation: this woman was obviously terrified, and desperate. The way she was looking at him now was familiar, because he had seen that same expression in the eyes of wild animals that had been backed into a corner.
Felicity Smoak was clearly on her last leg, and Oliver had a sinking suspicion that if he turned her down now – if this insane plan of hers didn't work – she'd give up.
"I know that we don't know each other, but believe me when I say that I don't want to die. I don't want my mother to die. And I am out of options. Please, Mr. Queen."
"Mr. Queen was my father."
"Right, but he died. I mean, he drowned. But you didn't. And I'm just going to stop talking now."
Just like that, Oliver's tried and true intimidation method fell flat. He let go of his glare and stepped away, tossing the folder of evidence down on the couch near him.
"Alright, Felicity. Say I agreed to this … ridiculous idea of yours. What would the terms be?"
"In exchange for your protection of myself and my mother, I'll destroy all of that," Felicity said, pointing at the discarded folder, "And any other evidence of your entanglement with the Bratva, for as long as the marriage stands."
"And how do you plan to do that?" Diggle interjected. He did not look happy about the conversation.
"Well, I'm a genius." There was no boasting in her tone. "And I could hack any system in this city from my tablet, in my sleep."
Diggle crossed his arms over his chest but said nothing.
"And the marriage?" Oliver prodded.
"Fake, of course. I'll forge the marriage certificate and any other necessary documents. You can draw up whatever pre-nup you want and I'll sign it, no questions asked. You can lock me away in a tower, for all I care, as long as I stay in the city."
Oliver said it just to see what kind of reaction he could get, and he wasn't disappointed. She didn't blush, but she did fidget and shift her weight uncertainly from one foot to the other again. If he didn't know better, Oliver would think she was glaring at him again.
"Uh, between us? Yeah, that won't be happening. Ever."
"But you can have sex with whoever you want," Felicity rushed to add. "I won't be going to the press screaming about infidelity, if that's what you're wondering. I don't care what you do, or who you do it with, as long as my mother is safe."
"And what is it you'll be doing, exactly?"
Felicity shot a wary glance at Digg before reaching into her purse and producing another manila folder, and a red USB drive.
"Compiling evidence against this man, and feeding it anonymously to the cops."
Oliver took the second folder. When he opened it, his mouth nearly fell open in surprise.
"Meet Angelo De Luca," Felicity started.
"De facto leader of the Italian mafia presence in America," Oliver finished. He found himself suddenly reevaluating the woman in front of him. "This is the man you're afraid of, the one you want me to protect you from?"
"You do realize that you could be selling yourself into the modern equivalent of slavery, right? You have no idea what kind of person I am, Felicity. How do you know that I'm not just as bad as this man?"
"I don't," she admitted. "Call it a leap of faith, if you want. The point is that I'm willing to do whatever it takes to get my mother away from him, and see him imprisoned for the rest of his life. But in order to do that, I need help – your help. I need your protection."
"For how long?"
"Five years, or until De Luca is behind bars. Whichever comes first. At which point, I will destroy those fake marriage documents and walk out of your life forever."
"Why does it have to be marriage?" Diggle asked. He had moved away from the door and now came to stand near them. "Can't Oliver provide protection some other way?"
"No, it has to be marriage," Felicity answered firmly. "I don't know how the Bratva works, but the Italian mafia only respects laws of property. And as a woman without a rank, I'm property. Mr. Que … Oliver may not be Italian, but he is a powerful leader in the Bratva, and they'll respect that. Or they'll be too afraid to challenge him, at any rate. Either way, marrying him will make me virtually untouchable."
"You've certainly given this a lot of thought," Diggle remarked. "And you seem to have more than a passing knowledge of the mafia, Italian or otherwise. Who is this man to you?"
Felicity huffed in displeasure.
Her eyes were burning and she was exhausted. Despite having driven almost non-stop, she hadn't been able to sleep more than three or four hours at a time since her panicked flight from Las Vegas.
All she really wanted was to be done, and to be free. She wanted to know what it was to live without fear again; above all, she wanted her mother, safe and close enough to drive her crazy.
"He's my father," Felicity eventually answered. She waved the memory stick she held through the air. "And this USB is full of information that I stole off of his computer before my mom helped me escape Las Vegas."
Oliver wondered if he was going crazy, because at that moment he felt driven to comfort the woman who had just (successfully) blackmailed him.
"I left my mom in Vegas with my psycho father, who knows that I'm gone by now, and I'm afraid that he's already killed my mom in retaliation." Felicity felt as though she was a doll, stuffed and stitched by hand, and now the seams were pulling apart.
She hadn't realized that she was afraid for her mother's life – any more so than had become usual – until she said the words aloud. The exhaustion and the fear were finally catching up with her, and a fresh wave of tears had started a silent exodus down her cheeks.
How much could she be expected to bear, she wondered?
Oliver felt a real surge of compassion and concern flood him as Felicity started to tremble in earnest.
"Please, Oliver," she begged. "I know that it's crazy and it doesn't make sense, but I need your help. I just want to save my mother. Isn't there anyone in your life you'd do anything for?"
Oliver opened his mouth to make a reply when Digg interrupted.
"Can I talk to you for a moment?"
Digg didn't wait for an answer. He turned on his heel and stalked to the far end of the office.
"You can't seriously be considering this," he hissed when Oliver was in front of him.
"This woman could be anyone, Oliver. You heard her claim to be a genius computer hacker – she could have forged any of those documents."
"Maybe, but I don't think she did," Oliver replied. "Look at her, Diggle. She's exhausted and obviously terrified. As crazy as this might seem to us, she's smart, and she's done her homework. Not to mention she claims to have a skillset that we are sorely in need of."
Digg's expression didn't lighten. "If you do this, Oliver, you're asking this girl to get into some pretty dangerous stuff."
"I'd say she's already into some dangerous stuff. And we can protect her."
Oliver didn't answer. His eyes traveled to the middle of his office, where Felicity was tracking the cityscape outside the window with her eyes. Diggle was right, and this was crazy.
He was crazy, because he was going to help this woman.
Oliver was not a spiritual man, but what else could he call what they were about to do, except a leap of faith?
Diggle grunted and shook his head. "You just got blackmailed into a fake marriage by a blonde with panda bears on her shoes, didn't you?"
Oliver glanced down at the shoes in question. They did indeed have panda bears on them.
Apparently, reality wasn't just stranger than fiction - it was in another dimension.
"Looks like it."