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Rake the Ashes

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After shoveling in a bite of his moo goo gai pan, Quentin Lance spreads his case files over the table in the back, sinking further into the booth. Every time he enters the Jade Dragon, he‘s reminded how rare it is. Good restaurants are few and far between in the Glades, but here, the food is always great and it’s always quiet. They know his order by heart, they‘re open twenty-four hours a day, and they don’t mind if he spends all night staring at gruesome case files. It‘s a shame it’s a front for the Triad; that might be the only thing that may force it to close. Not that Organized Crime has had any luck with that: they’ve tried more than once.

Until they succeed, the Jade Dragon has the best dumplings in the city.

Other than a few dubious exchanges of packages and money made in Chinese and a few customers, the Jade Dragon is just as peaceful as usual. After shoving a forkful of food into his mouth, Lance spreads out the case file again, covering the table with forensics reports, crime scene photos, and witness interviews. There’s more than a few food stains and coffee mug rings on it, remnants from past meals he’s spent pouring over the file.

Tonight, he pulls it open and flips open a notebook. With all the chaos this week, he hasn’t been able to record his impressions of his encounter with Deathstroke and the Arrow when they dropped a known criminal the police station two nights ago. With top brass’ decision to bring in a profiler on the case, he needs to have his thoughts together. And the fact that the last video evidence of Deathstroke was mysteriously erased, Lance has a sneaking suspicion that low-tech is the way to go.

Though his hand is cramping after two minutes and his handwriting is barely legible, he scrawls down the events of the encounter to the best of his memory, along with his observations. Deathstroke was a tiny thing by all standards—five-seven if Lance was being generous, weighing a buck twenty if he was exaggerating a little. His sense of humor was his most defining trait: dark and morbid, with a pleasant personality that brought his sanity into question. He was far too casual with the Arrow, and there was no mistaking that he was flirting with the emerald archer.

There was the Arrow himself, too: tall and towering over his partner with a glare that could cut through rock. Always stoic and serious in their last encounters, the Arrow had shown signs of his true personality with Deathstroke there, his voice lighter. He even broke into a smile a couple of times, teasing Deathstroke and indulging his banter.

Dropping the pen and flexing his throbbing hand, Lance reaches some clarity. Either Deathstroke and the Arrow are friends, or maybe they’re partners in more than just murder and vigilantism.

As much as the idea makes sense, Lance shakes his head at himself. It would be easier to believe they were partners if they had started around the same time. Deathstroke has been active for the last three years, whereas the Arrow has just shown up in the last six months. The Arrow can’t be Deathstroke’s protégé. Their fighting styles couldn’t be more different from what Lance remembers of the video evidence of them: the Arrow is efficient and controlled, but Deathstroke is a bloody whirlwind of chaos and dismemberment. Deathstroke is a lone wolf, but suddenly he’s allied himself with the man in the hood.

Not always allied. Lance frowns down at his notes. The two of them have their own, individual goals: the Arrow likes targeting the corrupt, while Deathstroke prefers to slay cartel members. Just when Lance thinks they‘re done working together, arrows are found in mob enforcers, or a corrupt businessman’s bodyguards are found in pieces.

It was just last week that Deathstroke was stringing drug dealers up by their ankles at the docks, leaving their decapitated bodies on display for the SCPD to clean up. Drug dealers are criminals that neither of them seem concerned about, but suddenly, every other crime scene is a dead drug dealer hanging from a crane.

Street crime is more the Arrow‘s forte; Deathstroke only deviates from organized crime to go after assassins and the occasional rapist. This was the Arrow’s kind of mission, but the emerald archer was nowhere in sight. Deathstroke could be escalating or decided to indulge his creative side, but Lance doesn’t think so.

It leaves him with an important question: Where was the Arrow?

A wild tangent goes through Lance‘s head, the encounter from two nights ago still replaying in his thoughts. He chuckles to himself, shaking his head at the sheer ludicrousness of it. It might be a demented idea, but he can’t dismiss it yet. There’s too much evidence and logic to it.

Deathstroke made it clear two nights ago that his reason for doing this was Thea Queen. The rest of the story was likely bullshit, but that part was the truth. If Deathstroke did this for her, why would he give a damn about a spoiled, rich teenager?

He wouldn‘t. Deathstroke’s cases are impersonal.

Beneath the cheerful, homicidal exterior, Deathstroke has to be the most calculated criminal Lance has ever encountered. Everything the man does is intentional. He doesn‘t get sloppy, doesn’t make mistakes. He covers every inch of skin on his body so they can‘t learn anything about him. Blood evidence simply doesn’t exist. He avoids weapons that have to be registered, like guns. He’s methodical, playing a game of chess with the police.

The same can’t be said for the Arrow.

Though he tries to hide it behind a collected exterior, the Arrow runs hot. Lance saw that two nights ago. He‘s emotional, loyal, and protective of the people he cares about. Both times Lance baited him, the Arrow rushed to Deathstroke’s defense as though prepared to charge into battle. He’s been known to deviate wildly from his standard target type, for reasons other than Deathstroke.

With that in mind, Lance remembers that the Arrow has already saved one Queen: when the Queen kid and his sidekick were kidnapped, they were saved by the man in the green hood. Despite hunting other one-percenters in the city, the Arrow has never made a move on the Queens—or the Merlyns, who are also filthy rich and entitled. They represent the wealth in the city, the kind of target that should be Public Enemy Number One to the Arrow. Yet he concerns himself with drug dealers and Thea Queen’s upcoming trial.

The Arrow may not be as controlled as Deathstroke, but the man is far from unpredictable. He does everything for a reason. If Lance is right and the Arrow did have a reason, only one theory makes any logical sense.

No one would believe it. Hell, it’s Lance’s theory and he‘s having a hard time buying it. On the surface, it’s impossible, but there are too many small coincidences to ignore it.

The Arrow emerged right after Queen came back from that island, just to show up and save Oliver from kidnappers. Merlyn said he didn‘t see the guy. With just Queen’s word, that means he could have dispatched those men while Merlyn was unconscious. Maybe Merlyn was covering for his friend. Either way, Queen’s explanation is flimsy at best.

When Lance was called in after Deathstroke and the Arrow took down that sniper, he saw how Queen acted. Everyone else was shaken and panicking, but Queen was oddly calm as he tried to soothe his sister and tie off her wound. Lance remembers the kid‘s eyes flicking up to the rooftops, trying to find the trajectory of the bullet. That isn’t civilian behavior; that’s the action of someone who has seen enough violence to feel comfortable in it.

They have no clue what happened to the kid on that island. It was five years, and he‘d bet that, judging by the wounds barely concealed by Queen’s collar and long sleeves, the kid wasn’t alone for five years. He had to survive somehow, had to get food for himself. Maybe he ran into someone who wanted to save him. Maybe they taught him how to hunt.

Maybe they showed him how to use a bow.

Though Lance would love for Queen to be the Arrow, he can‘t present a theory like this. Without any evidence, he’d just sound like a cop with a vendetta, using his badge to get revenge on the man responsible for his daughter‘s death. If he could find a suggestion for Deathstroke’s identity, he could start gathering evidence and information, maybe even establish the link between them. That would give him all the resources he’d need to take the bastards down.

The fact that Oliver Queen might be under the mask just makes it that much sweeter.

Everything Lance has seen of Deathstroke and the Arrow‘s interactions tell him that the two are close in a way that transcends a mutually beneficial partnership. Lance and his partner Hilton have had a mutually beneficial partnership for the last decade, but they don’t get along half as well as the two vigilantes. People who know each other like that—who trust each other like that—would know each other‘s names. They’d be in contact with one another. Hell, they might even be friends.

Working with that idea, Deathstroke would have to be someone in Queen’s inner circle. Someone he sees regularly. A secret identity like that could put him in jail for the rest of his life, and Deathstroke is already looking at the needle. In the event of a betrayal, a secret like that could damn them.

Because he knows Queen‘s associates, Lance knows they haven’t changed much since five years ago. The only new face is Queen‘s bodyguard, who could easily make three of Deathstroke. Quentin can’t remember any man who would match Deathstroke’s description.

The bells on the door jingle, making him jump. He glances upward to see who it is, only to find himself lock in on the newest customer. She’s a familiar face, a regular patron whose presence always draws his attention.

She’s around the same age that Sara would be. The first time he saw her here, he was trying to sober up before his next shift, and when she walked in with that long blonde hair around her shoulders, he thought she was Sara for a moment. That had been right after Dinah had her declared dead and walked out three years ago, back when he still thought she’d come back home like nothing had ever happened.

But the moment she turned, he realized it wasn’t the case, not with those dark-framed glasses and that too-bright lipstick. Ever since, some paternal instinct keeps him watching out for her. Most of the time she walks to the Jade Dragon, alone at night in the Glades. If she was his daughter, he’d warn her about safety, but no harm ever seems to befall her. At least this time it’s earlier; the sun is just beginning to set.

Most of the time she’s in a t-shirt and jeans when she comes in, but tonight she’s in a pair of black spandex pants, a pair of tennis shoes, and a black tank top. It has a picture of a cartoon ice cream cone lifting weights, the words around it reading, I do it for the ice cream. A duffle bag is thrown over her shoulder and her usual glasses are missing.

As she walks into the restaurant, her phone goes off. Her ringtone is a song, something about feeling pressure and being better off without someone. Making a face, she fishes it out of her bag, only to push a button to silence it. She shakes her head, rolling her eyes as she adjusts her bag over her shoulder.

Running a hand through sweat-slicked hair, she perches on a bar stool and waits for a server. Though her arms are bare, she doesn’t seem cold in this weather. A collection of scars litter her arms, and he can’t decipher the image of a black tattoo across her shoulder blades. He can’t help but think it’s a little late in the evening to be doing yoga, but then he notices her too-red knuckles as she drums her fingers across the bar. She’s been throwing punches tonight—and Lance is willing to bet it’s been at a person instead of a punching bag.

With her penchant for walking everywhere and her lack of jacket in the cold, Lance racks his brain for a gym nearby. The only one that comes to mind is a seedy, crumbling building one block south, run by another has-been boxer. Interesting place for a pretty blonde to take self-defense classes.

As if sensing his gaze, she turns to glance at him. When their eyes lock, Lance is overwhelmed with a strong sense of déjà vu. He knows that look, those piercing eyes, from somewhere else that he can’t place. It lasts a minute before she reaches into her bag for a zipup hoodie, shrugging it on as her eyes flick around the room like some of his ex-military colleagues.

Well, that would explain the scars.

They both jump when the swinging door creaks on the server’s way out. The blonde recovers quickly, smiling as she starts up a conversation with her in what sounds like fluent Chinese. She’s almost finished when her phone starts blaring a ringtone that sounds more like the upbeat pop songs Laurel uses. Hers sounds happy enough, too, until Lance catches up with the lyrics: the singer asking why they should bother getting close to someone since they’re only going to get hurt.

She excuses herself from the server with a brief statement in Chinese, already smiling as she picks up the phone. “You’re done early,” she declares with no greeting. “Is your mom’s private party thing over already?”

There’s a short pause before she replies, “That’s a shame. I was looking forward to seeing you in a tux again.” The grin turns into a smirk. “That’s just the kind of thing I need to brighten my day a little.” She sighs dramatically. “I guess it wasn’t meant to be.”

When she speaks again, it’s with a roll of her eyes. “Well, you could drive down to the gym,” she responds, “but I won‘t be there. I’m at the Jade Dragon, which is a block over.” There’s a pause before she explains while shaking her head, “I walked here. You know my car only works when it wants to. Roy has it back in the shop again.”

Her lips press together at his next words, and she draws her eyes upward in a dramatic eye roll. “The Glades isn‘t as scary as you’d think,” she says in a soothing tone, as if trying to placate him. Lance doesn‘t necessarily agree with that statement. “I can walk a block by myself, even here.” Lance nods once to himself; at least the person she’s talking to is giving her an earful about the dangers of this part of the city. Well, any part of the city, if he’s being honest.

The blonde huffs at concern, even as Lance thinks it’s probably valid. “I’m not arguing with you—you’re too stubborn to realize when you’ve lost. Do you want me to order something for you?” Mischief twists her lips into a smirk. “Or did you fill up on hors d’oeuvres at your fancy little party?”

Whatever the man on the other end says causes her eyebrows to knit togeether. “That‘s an interesting thing for you to know, Oliver.” Lance flinches at the mention of the name. What are the odds that a blonde girl his daughter’s age is tangled up with some guy named Oliver? An affluent Oliver, if the mention of the formal event is anthing to go by.

“Yes, of course I know this place is a front for the Triad,” she continues, causing Lance to blink twice. “Half of Organized Crime is on the take—they pretend to try and bust this place every few years to keep up appearances.” Lance sits a little straighter; if there are corrupt officers in the city, that‘s a problem he can do something about. Maybe he’ll have to start an investigation of his own.

“I bet they do it for free dumplings,” she muses. “I know I would. This is one of the best places in the city. Do you want anything or not?” She nods before turning, rattling off the rest of the order to the waitress in Chinese. “Text me when you get here and I‘ll meet you outside.” Her eyes flick to Lance. “I’ll see you in ten.”

After hanging up, she slides into the booth in front of Lance, her back to him. She retrieves a sleek laptop from her duffle, unlocking it with a few quick taps on the keyboard. What she’s able to do with it reminds him a lot of what Kelton in Computer Forensics does: white text scrawls across a black screen, a series of gobbledygook appearing that both her and the computer understand.

With a sigh, Lance focuses again on the descriptions, hoping to find something that pins Deathstroke or the Arrow to his theory. The Arrow is described as caucasian and male, with a short, dark beard. While it fits Oliver Queen, it also describes half the men in the city. Deathstroke is even less definitive—witness reports say he covers every inch of skin, and no one has ever been close enough to determine even his eye color. Not and lived to tell the tale, anyway. Their descriptions aren’t going to be giving away any secrets tonight.

Shaking his head, Quentin turns back to his previous notes. Frowning, he reads them again. Queen‘s associates haven’t changed over the past five years, new faces don’t match Deathstroke, nor does any man—

He stops short as he stares at it. Nor does any man match Deathstroke. There‘s a possibility he’s thought about from time to time that everyone seems to dismiss, but always manages to come back to him. This time, he doesn’t dismiss it.

Deathstroke could be a woman.

It would explain a lot about the evidence they‘ve found. Deathstroke’s bootprints are of a men‘s size seven—small, though not impossibly so—but that would be a women’s nine. That‘s more in the realm of possibility. In height and build, Deathstroke would be a small man, but an average woman. It would explain the Arrow’s chivalrous gesture as they entered the abandoned factory on camera.

The whole thing even gives credence to his theory about Queen. Oliver Queen has always been drawn by the allure of an intelligent woman. He was captivated by Laurel’s brilliance and focus, to the point of self-destruction at times. Quentin remembers telling her that she would only be disappointed, that Queen was only interested in the danger and mystery of a driven woman.

A female Deathstroke would be everything he couldn’t resist.

The more Lance thinks about it, the more right it feels. Deathstroke has delighted in baffling the police at every turn. Blood evidence is accidentally ordered to be destroyed. Video footage conveniently goes missing. Deathstroke dares to taunt them, showing up behind police headquarters and dropping off a criminal with a bow stuck to his head.

Behind the chaos, there‘s a calculating criminal mind that, under different circumstances, Lance might actually respect. She’d know the old misogynists on the force would never consider a woman. She’d also delight in watching them chase a red herring, just for the entertainment of watching them scurry.

With new focus, Lance sorts through the reports on Deathstroke and her vicims. They‘re as he expects: an obscene number of victims, all dead by sword slashes. Maybe she thinks she’s some sort of samurai, or the swords could carry special meaning.

In the early days, before the case belonged to Lance, they sent the case off to an expert in blade forensics. The specialist confirmed that Deathstroke‘s swords aren’t just cheap, run-of-the-mill blades. They‘re a rare set of high-quality steel. The first detectives hadn’t discovered any noteworthy sales in the last ten years, and all of the sword sharpeners in town know to call the police if anything questionable comes in. They haven‘t had a call to date, which makes Lance assume Deathstroke takes care of his own swords. Maybe he thinks he’s some sort of samurai.

Lance scans the paperwork on sword sales attached to the file, looking for any name that might stand out. Pulling off the cap off a highlighter with his teeth, he marks all the female names in yellow. None of them stand out, but it might be time for another look at Queen’s known associates.

Before he can dwell any more on that thought, the bell on the door jingles again. By the time Lance lifts his head up, the blonde is already focused on the sound. While she waves at the new customer, his mouth falls open, unable to believe his own eyes. Speak of the devil.

Oliver Queen offers a smile to the blonde. While the ones he throws around like his trust fund seem insincere these days, this one is warm, reminiscent of the carefree boy he was five years ago. He doesn’t look like he’s just been to a formal event, already in jeans, a plaid shirt, and a tan leather jacket.

Though he opens his mouth to speak, the blonde cuts him off, shoving her laptop into her bag again. “I told you there was no need for you to come in,” she insists, rising to her feet. Nudging his shoulder, she adds, “I promise I would have been safe for another two minutes.”

The smile falls off Queen‘s face, his expression turning stony in an instant. “You took a dangerous chance, Felicity,” he warns her in a low voice. Felicity. Lance thinks the name suits her: bright and happy like she is. “I know you can take care of yourself,” Queen allows, “but this was a risk you didn’t have to take. You could have waited for me.”

“The Jade Dragon called to me,” is her reply, “and I was helpless to resist.” She waves her hand around. “Also, you do realize that you are talking to me about taking risks, right?” Lance bites back a grin; it‘s always nice to see someone who doesn’t mind calling Queen‘s bullshit. If he doesn’t end up destroying her life, maybe she’ll be good for him.

Reaching over to pat his hand, Felicity assures Queen in a softer tone, “I appreciate your concern, but you don‘t have to fret about me, Oliver. I’m meaner than I look.” Judging by the redness on her knuckles, Lance is inclined to agree with that.

When Queen opens his mouth to speak, she steamrolls over the top of him to ask, “Do you want to take the food back to your place or mine?” There‘s a brief pause between them, which ends with Felicity’s hands waving away the statement. “Why does everything out of my mouth have to sound like an innuendo?” she groans. “For the record, I am not asking you to have sex with me.”

He grins as he replies in an even tone, “I think we’ve already established that, Felicity.”

“Well, just to re-clarify because I accidentally hit on you. Again.” Her head tilts to the side. “Not that there are times I intentionally hit on you.” She shakes her head. “I need a speed bump between my brain and my mouth.” Queen grins at her like she’s the most adorable thing in the world. Lance frowns; he knows where that look leads. “What I meant to ask,” she says more firmly, “is if you had anything to do at Verdant.”

Queen frowns, running a hand through his hair. “I should probably go over last month‘s figures to see how we’re doing,” he replies, his tone reluctant. He studies the table for a moment before glancing up at Felicity. “Do you happen to know a math genius who could help me?” He laughs at himself. “I made a D in tenth-grade algebra.”

Felicity dismisses that with a scoff. “If you had cared about school, you would have been good at it,” she assures him. “You‘re smarter than you’re willing to admit—smarter than most people are willing to give you credit for.” She doesn‘t seem to be humoring him, and Lance files that away for later. “I suppose I might be able to clear my schedule, if you’d like some help.”

Before either of them can say more, the waitress comes out of the back with their food order. She smiles at Felicity, calling out to her in Chinese. Before Felicity can gather her things and slide out of the booth, Queen is already on his feet. He crosses to the cash register at the bar, speaking quietly to the waitress as he pulls out his wallet. He speaks to her so quietly that it takes Lance several seconds to realize he’s speaking Chinese, too—just as well as either of the two women.

Lance‘s eyes narrow. He knows the kid can’t speak any foreign languages—Queen sat across from Laurel at their kitchen table five years ago and said as much. Since Lance doubts he had access to Rosetta Stone in the five years he was away, that means he had to encounter someone who spoke Chinese on that island.

They might have even known how to use a bow.

Felicity huffs as she throws her bag over her shoulder. “As much as I appreciate all the chivalry,” she starts in a tone that indicates otherwise, “you don‘t have to pay for food every time, Oliver. I may not have the Queen family trust fund, but I’m not so poor I can’t afford takeout.” She waves a hand between them. “We could at least go dutch or take turns paying.”

“I want to do this,” Oliver insists. Felicity only crosses her arms, and the two lock eyes for a long, silent moment. Finally, he releases a weary sigh, shaking his head. “Fine. Consider this payment for giving up your evening to help me.”

She snorts. “A rose by any other name is still bullshit, Oliver,” she retorts with a shake of her head and a roll of her eyes. “You can say it‘s repayment for me helping you, but really it’s just an excuse. This way, you can regularly buy food in a way that gives me no grounds to argue with you.” Felicity smirks. “You underestimate my ability to argue.”

With a small, sincere smile, Oliver walks back to her. “Felicity,” he says softly, wrapping her name in a caress this time. To Lance, it almost sounds like a prayer. “I have more money than I’ll ever be able to spend,” he admits to her. “I might as well spend it on someone I care about.”

For a moment, all she does is gape at him, eyes wide. Lance refrains from rolling his eyes; she doesn‘t seem to realize that the kid is half in love with her already. As a dusting of pink crosses her cheekbones, she turns away, focusing on her bag. “Oliver Queen,” she declares without looking at him, “you are the most ridiculous, impossible person I have ever met.” She throws the bag over her shoulder but it knocks into Lance’s table, sending some of his papers flying across the floor.

She whirls immediately. “I’m so sorry!” she calls to Lance, dropping her bag on the floor as she scrambles for her papers. Rolling her eyes at herself, she declares, “I can be such a klutz sometimes.”

Lance doesn‘t buy that she’s clumsy, but he does believe she was distracted by other things. Like Queen‘s gentle-yet-intense advances. Leaning over to pick up loose papers, he assures her easily, “It’s okay, kiddo. It wasn’t that well-organized in the first place.”

As they finish gathering the papers, she rises to her feet, placing the pages on his table again. She barely makes a swift glance at them before a frown crosses her features. “This looks like my desk when I was working on the thesis for my Master‘s,” she declares, which swiftly changes into a shudder. It brings a grin to Lance’s face. “Those weren’t good days.” Felicity makes a disjointed, awkward hand gesture. “Sorry again for knocking over your papers. Have a good evening.”

Gathering her bag, she starts to walk away, but stops short as she realizes Queen doesn‘t move. He’s rooted to the spot, looking at Lance as if unsure whether he should speak or not. Just when Quentin hopes the kid has enough sense to walk away, Queen greets in a stiff tone, “Detective Lance.”

The detective shakes his head, though mostly at himself; up unto this point, he’d actually given the kid a pass. Maybe even warmed up to him a little. Then this little shit has the nerve to speak to him, after destroying his entire family. “Are you here for the dumplings, Queen?” Lance lashes out, baiting him. “Or do you just want to see how the other half lives?”

Though he expects him to react, the opposition doesn’t come from Queen. In an instant, the small blonde is between two of them, crossing her arms as her eyes narrow. That same glare she focused on Queen a minute ago is now on Lance. “Is that official police business, Detective?” she counters, voice low and dangerous.

Something about the way she presents herself is familiar. Lance has never seen her like this before, but her stance strikes a chord at the back of his mind. Felicity stands as though she‘s ready to start a fight, a dark, familiar glint in her eyes. She might look like a pissed-off kitten, but something about the thundercloud in her expression is a little too dark, a little too much of a warning. This isn’t a woman ready to take on the world—she’s ready to take on the world and win.

All for someone as worthless as Oliver Queen.

As Lance sputters through a few syllables in his surprise, it‘s none other than Queen who saves him. He places a hand on her shoulder and says only one word: “Felicity.” Before he said it as a prayer, but this time his tone is hard and sharp. This is a warning. Lance just isn’t sure if it’s for her sake or his own.

Raring for a fight, Felicity is all too eager to turn that same expression on Queen with equal intensity. Lance would have flinched, but Queen doesn’t back down. The two of them exchange a silent conversation with their eyes, a battle of wills that neither of them wants to lose.

Eventually, Queen decides on a more direct approach: he places a hand at the small of her back, urging her forward. “We’re leaving anyway,” he finally says to her. When she stops to argue, he throws her another look and his hand circles her arm. “Now,” he insists, eyes flicking to Lance.

Something about the kid‘s expression suggests it isn’t her safety he‘s worried about this time. For a moment, Lance can’t help but wonder. This woman is a new factor in Queen‘s life. It’s obvious they care for one another, but there‘s something else there. There’s a trust there, built on something he can’t begin to understand. Felicity is willing to start a fight to protect him, and Queen is ready to protect her from herself.

As they walk out the door, Lance wonders if he hasn’t just survived a second encounter with Deathstroke.

 


 

Oliver doesn‘t take his eyes off Felicity until she has her seat belt on, unsure if she won’t go back in after Detective Lance. Even as she folds her hands on her lap, she glares into the restaurant. “That was reckless,” Oliver tells her flatly as he starts the car. If he hadn‘t stopped her, she would probably still be bashing Lance’s head against the table.

Felicity turns to him with wide, innocent eyes, bottom lip turned out in a pout. “Me?” she asks. Oliver has too look away before he does something they both regret, but it brings a smile to his lips anyway. Right now, it’s easy to forget he watched her decapitate a man with a single flick of her sword a few days ago.

He doesn‘t bother to answer the question, only throwing her a look. She rolls her eyes while making a face. He grins; that’s the Felicity he‘s more familiar with. “Oh come on, Oliver,” she groans. “I couldn’t just stand there and talk to you like that.”

“I deserved it and more,” he points out.

“I don‘t care,” Felicity states flatly. “Since when has the world ever been about what we deserve?” She waves a hand. “I didn’t deserve to be held a prisoner for seven months. The people who held me hostage deserved prison and so much more.” She shrugs. “I deserve to die for all the lives I‘ve taken.” Her tone is just as calm as if she was discussing the weather. “But I’m still here. I‘m going to keep killing the bastards who cross me. And I don’t intend to spend one minute worrying about what I deserve.

“But none of that matters,” she insists. “This wasn’t about you or even Lance—this was about me.” Her expression hardens into something Oliver only associates with Deathstroke. “And I will not be the kind of person who stands idle when someone insults the people I care about.” She smirks as she allows, “Or even you.”

A surprised laugh escapes him. All the words he wants to say don’t seem to be enough, so he settles on a sincere, “Thank you.”

She cups his face, her thumb brushing across his cheekbone. Oliver‘s eyes flutter closed for a brief moment, before he smiles down at her. Since the island, he feels lost most of the time, but there’s something in her touch that makes him feel like he’s home.

With the sweetest smile he‘s ever seen, Felicity declares, “I’d go to war to save you, Oliver Queen.” Nothing in her expression makes him doubt that; that smile was made for battle. There’s an intensity in her eyes that laces a promise through her words.

The too-serious display of emotion sends her scurrying soon enough, as it always does. Funny how she‘d go into a fight armed only with swords, but simple, declarative sentences send her running. “It’s a weird feeling and I don’t like it,” Felicity allows as her hand slips away from his face, “but I have this moral obligation to save your ass whenever it needs saving.”

“I think I‘m perfectly capable of saving myself,” Oliver can’t help but point out.

She nods. “Of course you are,” she agrees without hesitation, “but it isn‘t going to stop me from trying to protect you. That’s what friends do for one another, Oliver.” Her head tilts to the side as he pulls out of their parking space and into the street. “Or, at least, I assume that‘s what they do. I haven’t really had friends before.”

Gentler this time, Oliver tries again, “I appreciate that, but Lance was taunting us. Reacting to him like that will just make him suspicious of you.” He glances over at her. “Lance doesn’t do anything without a reason.”

No one does anything without a reason,” Felicity counters, her tone dry. “It‘s all about what the reason is.” She nudges her bag with her shoe. “Lance’s reason is that he‘s had to live through the death of someone he’s cared about. The person he blames for that is walking around, happy and untouched. It makes him angry, and because he has no control over that anger, he lashes out. It has to be your fault, Oliver, because otherwise it’s his, and that makes things worse.”

When Oliver turns to her for a brief moment, she shrugs. “Look, I‘m not the guy’s number one fan,” she admits, “but I can‘t say I don’t identify with him. Be thankful he‘s the kind to snarl at you.” Felicity points to herself before starting to take off her jacket. “If* I *hated you that much, I’d smile to your face while I imagined putting a sword through your back.”

A thought that Oliver had eariler comes back to him suddenly: “Speaking of doing everything for a reason… you aren’t clumsy.”

“No, I‘m not,” Felicity agrees with a smirk. She reaches down for the bag between her knees, pulling out a pair of jeans. “If I was clumsy, I’d be dead by now.” She turns a dark smile on Oliver when he glances over at her again. “In my defense, you did want to know where Lance was on our case, and they took everything offline so I couldn‘t hack it anymore.” She points an index finger at him. “Lance may be a pain in the ass, but I have to give him credit: he’s pretty smart.”

“But you‘re smarter,” Oliver can’t help but point out. She lifts a shoulder in answer as he shakes his head. While turning their case into a paper file would be a roadblock to him, Felicity just finds a creative way to work around it. The thought puts another in his head: “Did you even know he’d be in the Jade Dragon?”

Before she can answer, her phone rings with a tone he‘s never heard before. It astounds him that she has a ringtone for all the people in her life—and he’s always been curious about his own—but this one isn‘t the familiar sound of Roy’s. Instead, it’s about feeling pressure and being better off without someone. Felicity jabs a button to end the call. “No means no,” she declares to her phone.

Turning back to Oliver as though nothing happened, she replies, “Lance is a regular at the Jade Dragon.” She reaches into her bag for a t-shirt, and Oliver averts his eyes as she pulls off her tank top. “He goes there whenever he has a difficult case—I think he likes the quiet.” At his silence, she explains, After he took the Deathstroke case three years ago, I started studying him the same way he did me.“ As she shoves her tank top into her bag, she waves her free hand, wearing a dark t-shirt instead. ”Know thy enemy, Oliver."

They lapse into silence for a moment before Felicity states in a thoughtful tone, “I think they‘re going to bring in a profiler.” As he stops at a red light, Oliver turns to her, and she meets his eyes. “Lance was writing notes on his encounter with us a few nights ago, but they weren’t like his usual case notes. Those are always objective, but these were subjective—thoughts and feelings and opinions.” She frowns. “Lance and Hilton are fact guys, so if he’s changing his method, that means someone else. This someone else has to be focused on the subjective. Hence, profiler.”

Oliver frowns. As usual, Felicity is ten steps ahead; meanwhile, he’s still trying to figure out why a profiler would be useful. “Is that something we need to worry about?” he asks, brow furrowing.

Felicity snorts. “I tend not to worry about anything that isn‘t trying to kill me.” They share a grin before she pats his arm. “You should try that—people who worry less tend to live longer.” Her head tilts to the side. “Of course, we’d probably live longer if we didn‘t take on armed criminals with antiquated weapons every night, but where’s the fun in that?” They both chuckle as he takes a right turn.

His hand drops to the shift knob, and Felicity‘s falls on top of it. For reasons Oliver hasn’t worked up the courage to ask about, she‘s been more tactile with him. It started that night she met him at the hospital after his sister wrecked her car. Ever since, Felicity can barely talk to him without her hand in his. As much as he wants to ask, he can’t.

If he makes her self-conscious about it, she might stop.

He turns his hand up to twist his fingers through hers. Felicity complies without a second thought. “I‘m not concerned yet, Oliver,” she answers more directly. “This just signals a change in our relationship with the police. It might mean new suspects and new rules.” The corner of her mouth lifts. “We both know they’re not going to catch up to us. We‘re too careful to leave any real evidence, and they don’t have any solid suspects.”

“Lance isn‘t stupid,” Oliver points out. “Eventually he’s going to realize that the Arrow showed up about the same time I came back to Starling City.” He glances over at her. “He‘s going to come after me hard if he thinks there’s even a chance I could be the Arrow.” He squeezes her hand. “That could lead him to you if he pushes hard enough.” With a sinking feeling in his gut, he offers, “If you wanted to create some distance between us, I would understand.”

“Absolutely not,” Felicity hisses, tightening her grip on his hand. “It‘ll look suspicious if we suddenly stop communicating with one another—like we have something to hide.” She slips her hand from his before resting it on his shoulder. “If that time comes, we’ll outsmart him.” She winks. “With my brain and your ability plan like a chess grandmaster, they don’t stand a chance.”

“Thank you,” he answers, turning into Verdant‘s parking lot. She only looks at him with her head tilted to the side. The reply to her silent inquiry doesn’t come; there isn‘t a way to shape his feelings into words—not without scaring her away. Despite everything, she isn’t going to abandon him when he needs her. They‘re in this together. Even if she won’t always work with him, Felicity has his back when it counts.

Finally he settles on an explanation of, “For being my friend.”

Rolling her eyes as he pulls into the parking space next to Tommy‘s convertible, Felicity replies, “I don’t exactly have a surplus of friends myself, Oliver, and you‘re the best one I have.” She cups the back of his head, her hand trailing down his neck before settling on his shoulder. He shifts the car into park as she promises, “When you need me to save your ass, I’ll be there.”

A smile pulls at the corners of Oliver‘s mouth. It will never cease to amaze him how Felicity can barely manage to call them friends, but she’s willing to align herself with him through any future battles. It says more than words ever could. Unsure of a way to express that, he pulls her hand from his shoulder and places his lips to it.

She squeezes his hand once before pulling away, turning so that she faces the open door. Oliver exits the car and grabs the bag of food, circling to the passenger side to wait for her. By the time he reaches her, Felicity has slid her spandex leggings, adjusting her shirt. It has a picture of a man in furs holding a sword, the emblem of a crow behind him. The words underneath makes Oliver smile: I am a sword in the darkness.

Felicity has always managed just the right amount of subtlety.

After she throws her bag over her shoulder, they start toward the building, so close that her hand brushes against his. Oliver catches it and threads his fingers through hers, squeezing her hand once. They share a smile before she pulls her hand from his under the pretense of adjusting the strap on her bag. It’s a poor attempt to hide a discomfort that the blush on her cheeks clearly tells.

Oliver fights the urge to groan; he knew better than that. She‘ll gladly hold his hand all night, but she has to be the one to initiate contact. If his touch lingers too long, if he studies her for a moment longer than necessary, she runs. The last time, it was a week before she’d offer him a casual touch again.

Abruptly, she asks him, “What are your overhead costs for the club?”

Blinking several times, Oliver tries his best to make sense of her words, but he can‘t think of any response that wouldn’t automatically tell her he was bluffing. “I have no idea,” he admits finally.

There’s no judgment when she nods once to herself. “How much are you making in admission and wine sales?” she asks this time. When he makes a face, she waves a hand. “Give me a rough estimate.”

“Tommy takes care of that,” Oliver answers automatically.

Felicity makes a sound of frustration in her throat. “How much do you pay your employees?” she tries this time.

When he turns to meet her eyes, her expression dims when she realizes what the answer will be. It suddenly occurs to him how pitiful he is as a business owner, using the club as little more than a cover for his nightly activities. Offering her a sheepish smile, he asks, “I‘m failing this, aren’t I?”

“Yes, but you‘re cute and you’re new to the whole business thing, so it‘s okay,” Felicity assures him. “The great thing about business math is that it’s all usually straightforward—no letters and mostly just addition and subtraction.” She winks. “I promise to involve as little algebra as possible.”

Groaning as he holds the door open for her, Oliver can‘t help but whine a little. “This is going to feel like high school all over again, isn’t it?”

“Of course not,” she assures him as she enters Verdant ahead of him. She smirks over her shoulder at him. “I expect you to pay attention, and no amount of money is going to make me give you an A.” After letting him catch up to her, Felicity slips her arm through his. Maybe he didn‘t scare her away after all. “We’ll have you crunching numbers in no time.”

“I think you underestimate how poorly I understand math,” is all Oliver says.

Felicity counters with a quirked eyebrow, “I think you underestimate how well I teach math.”

Knowing a challenge when he hears it, he turns away, toward the familiar figure at the bar. “I thought you said you were going to that gala with your dad tonight?” Oliver calls to his best friend in greeting. “You should be leaving.”

Dropping her bag on the floor, Felicity slides onto a barstool. Oliver places the sack of takeout on the bar, moving to stand between her and the nearest stool. She reaches over for one of the takeout boxes, placing her hand on his side to steady herself.

With a smile, he slaps her hand away from the bag, which makes her stick her tongue out at him. “Patience is a virtue,” Oliver teases.

“So are kindness and humility,” Felicity retorts with a grin. “Two more qualities that are rarely associated with me.” The smile disappears as she adds seriously, “And there is no patience when it comes to food.” She holds her palm out. “If you don’t hand over my boxes, I might be forced to take extreme measures.” They lock eyes in a challenge. After a moment, Oliver offers Felicity a tentative smile, but she remains expressionless.

That’s really all the incentive he needs to start pulling takeout boxes from the bag.

A chuckle from the bar pulls Oliver‘s attention away. “I’d feed the woman,” Tommy suggests with a grin. “You might have the weapons and the kung fu moves, Ollie, but…” He glances over at Felicity. “I always get this feeling that Smoak has a freezer in her basement filled with bodies of people who have pissed her off.” He turns to her. “Does that offend you?”

“A little,” Felicity admits, opening one of the boxes. She frowns, pushing it back toward Oliver before reaching for the next. “Bodies in a basement freezer? Really?” After examining the contents of the takeout box, she slides it toward herself. “There‘s this thing called evidence, Merlyn. I’d bury them where they wouldn’t be found.” She tilts her head to the side. “Or use a furnace.”

Tommy chuckles nervously. “The part that scares me, Smoak, is that I can‘t tell if you’re joking.”

She turns to him with a dark grin, but it quickly fades as she glances away from her food for the first time. Felicity offers a whistle as she takes in Tommy‘s appearance, dressed in a fitted tuxedo with a black bowtie. “Looking good, Merlyn,” she says with a grin, motioning to his attire. “You clean up nice.” Tommy’s ears turn the slightest hint of pink at the unexpected compliment.

Turning to Oliver, Felicity adds, “And I thought I wouldn‘t get to see a billionaire in a tux tonight.” She throws a hand around with an unimpressed shrug. “I mean, it’s only Merlyn, but…” She winks at Oliver. “Any tuxedoed billionaire port in a storm.” A heartbeat later, she winces. “Sorry for the boat reference.”

Her observations of Tommy leaves a strange taste in Oliver‘s mouth. It’s followed by an unpleasant feeling in his gut—one that he‘s never felt before and hopes never to feel again. He doesn’t examine it too closely, afraid that it might reveal more than he wants to admit to even himself at this point. Though his fist clenches by his side, Oliver manages to keep his expression neutral.

Fortunately, Tommy speaks so Oliver doesn‘t have to. “Careful, Smoak,” he jokingly warns with that wide grin. “I’m a kept man these days.”

Felicity rolls her eyes as she reaches in the bag for a plastic fork. “It‘s called window shopping, Merlyn,” she replies in a dry tone. “Just because it looks good on display doesn’t mean I want to take it home with me.” A devilish grin comes to her face. “Every time I see you, I hear my mother‘s voice saying, ’Don‘t touch that, Felicity. You don’t know where it‘s been.’”

Tommy cries out in protest before motioning to her and Oliver. “Yet you hang around with this guy,” he points out. “As best friend and wingman, I assure you he‘s worse than I ever was.” Oliver can’t help but nod his agreement; Tommy at least focused on one woman at a time. Oliver never had that kind of discretion—not that he’s proud of that fact now.

“Maybe,” Felicity agrees, turning to Oliver with the smile she seems to reserve only for him, “but he‘s nice to look at and I like the way his mind works.” She lfits a shoulder in a haphazard shrug. “I don’t know why, but you’ve grown on me.” Wiggling her fingers, she clarifies, “Like a fungus.”

He laughs, which makes her hand move to his face. His eyes fall closed of their own accord as he savors her touch. Maybe one day he‘ll figure out how the same hands that wield swords with an iron grip can be so gentle against his skin. In a tone he can’t decipher, she muses quietly, “Maybe it’s because of that smile.”

“More window shopping, Smoak?” Tommy teases.

“Oh, no,” Felicity replies, sounding affronted. “I have every intention of taking this one home.” Her words make Oliver’s eyes fly open in surprise, and she quickly adds as color floods her face, “To watch movies and eat ice cream with.” She pulls her hand from his face, waving it wildly. “Not in the way people usually mean it when they take someone home.” She groans. “Why do I always end up propositioning you?”

“Sounds like a Freudian slip to me,” Tommy goads them with a wink. Both Oliver and Felicity turns to stare at him at once, and he shrugs self-consciously. “What? I made a B in psychology.” He turns to Felicity. “I have hidden depths you have yet to explore, Smoak.”

“I’ll set aside thirty minutes for that expedition,” she deadpans.

Before they can quibble any further, Oliver‘s phone starts ringing—except his phone stays on vibrate. He reaches into his left pocket, pulling out a phone he hasn’t used in months. His brows knit together. “That has to be Lance,” he says to his friends. There‘s no point in checking the display; only two people have the number, and Felicity is sitting right beside him. “He’s calling for the Arrow.”

The smile slips off Tommy’s face, but Felicity only leans in as Oliver answers, “Good evening, Detective.”

There’s a long pause, so long that he thinks his voice-altering software has failed. Finally the answer comes in the form of, “I need your help.” The voice is all wrong, soft and feminine and uncomfortably familiar to his ears. “I know my father—”

Oliver doesn‘t let her finish. “Your father and I have an agreement, but that doesn’t extend to you,” he retorts as bluntly as possible, eyes darting to Tommy. “I don‘t know you, Miss Lance. Have a nice night.” He presses the button to terminate the call, even as she’s protesting from the other end.

Placing the phone on the bar in front of him, Oliver swallows hard as he turns to his best friend. “We have about thirty seconds before she calls back,” he declares ina rush. If there‘s one thing he can depend upon, it’s Laurel‘s tenaciousness. “Laurel says she needs the Arrow’s help, Tommy.” He levels a look. “Do you want me to take the case or not?”

“I…” The word falls out of Tommy‘s mouth, but no more follow. After a few seconds of fumbling for the next words, he squares his shoulders. “If you’re asking me if I want Laurel involved with the Arrow,” Tommy starts slowly, “the answer is no. Absolutely not.” He runs a hand through his hair. “But Laurel doesn‘t trust vigilantes. If she’s calling, it‘s because she thinks there’s no one else she can go to.”

The phone starts ringing again and all three of them glance down to see Laurel’s number on the screen. Tommy sighs, shaking his head. After a moment, he finally admits, “I think I have to ask you to do this for me, Ollie.”

Nodding once, Oliver answers the call. This time, he places it on speaker; he promised himself he wouldn’t keep secrets from Tommy now that he knows the truth. “You have two minutes to explain to me why I should be talking to you right now, Miss Lance,” he greets without preamble.

“Surely you can’t expect me to—” she starts to protest.

“One minute, fifty-five seconds,” Oliver insists.

There‘s only a heartbeat of a pause before she takes in a breath. “I’m representing a client who is suing Martin Somers for the wrongful death of her father,” she explains in a clipped tone, her words choppy and terse. “The district attorney wouldn‘t take the case to court, so we’re trying it as a civil suit.” There’s a short pause. “Do you know who Somers is?”

“Martin Somers owns a shipping business out of the port,” Oliver replies evenly. Of course she‘s after him; he’s trouble and Laurel never could resist a challenge. “That’s his front. He smuggles cargo in and out of the country for various sources.”

Placing a hand on his shoulder, Felicity adds with a grimace, “His most recent venture has been smuggling drugs and weapons into the country for the Chinese Triad.” She reaches across Oliver to press the mute button. “I‘ve had my eye on him for months.” A flicker of darkness flashes through her eyes, one he isn’t used to seeing without the black-and-gold mask across her face. “I want this bastard, Oliver.”

Confusion flickers across Tommy’s face, but Felicity unmutes the phone before he can ask. “Victor Nocenti was going to turn him in for it,” Laurel is saying, “but Somers got to him first. His daughter Emily came to me for help. When she came home today, her apartment was ransacked. There was a knife in the wall with Chinese writing on it.”

Felicity‘s fist clenches, but Oliver places his hand over the top of hers. She thaws immediately, palm flattening against the table. “They’re trying to keep her quiet,” Laurel continues, “and I don‘t think they’re going to stop with a threat.”

“Where is Miss Nocenti right now?” Oliver asks.

“With me,” Laurel replies, predictably. If there‘s danger to be found, of course she’s in the middle of it. “She‘s staying at my apartment tonight. Normally I’d ask for police protection, but Somers has people in the DA‘s office and Customs. It only makes sense he’d pay off the police, too.” Silence lapses over the line before she admits in a small voice, “You’re the only one I can trust to help us.”

Pausing just long enough to make it seem like reluctance, Oliver slowly answers, “Text me your address. I‘ll be there as soon as I can. Until then, turn the lights off in your apartment and stay away from the windows. Glancing to Felicity, he adds,”Deathstroke will know who the Triad uses for this kind of work.“ Felicity glances down to her shoes before looking away in a subtle nod. ”If he’s free, he might be able to track them down before they make a move."

“I don‘t want that maniac involved in this,” Laurel protests. “I’ve seen what he does to people. If I wanted him, I would have found a way to reach him. I called you.”

Oliver is already shaking his head before she finishes. “You did call me, Miss Lance,” he agrees, “which means we do this my way. I can’t help you if I have one hand tied behind my back. If you want my assistance, this is my offer. If not, good luck with your case.”

There’s a rush of static over the line, and the sigh tells Oliver her answer before she can. “Fine,” Laurel agrees in a tired voice, “but you keep that… thing away from us. My client is already terrified enough without introducing her to a sociopath with swords.”

“We’ll be in touch, Miss Lance,” Oliver replies before hanging up."

Sighing, Felicity frowns down at her takeout box. “So much for dinner,” she declares, staring at her takeout longingly. Reaching into the bag, she pulls an egg roll from a different box. “At least I can have an egg roll before we go save the world again.”

Tommy rounds the counter as Felicity gathers up the food. “I need to get to Laurel’s—” he starts.

“No, you don‘t,” Felicity reminds him. “Secret identity, remember? If she hasn’t told you what‘s happening, how are you going to explain why you cancelled on a big, fancy event with your dad?” He stops in his tracks, and Felicity pats his shoulder. “I know you want to help your girlfriend, but we’re on this Tommy.” She winks. “Between my brains and Oliver‘s brawn, she’s going to be fine. I promise.”

“She’s right,” Oliver starts, shoving his hands into his pockets."

With a blissful sigh, Felicity comments, “Music to my ears.”

Somehow Oliver manages to bite back a smile; she isn‘t even in her gear yet, and already she’s riding the high of their next mission. It looks good on her. “The best thing you can do for Laurel right now is let us handle this,” Oliver continues, as if she hadn‘t spoken. “Go to the awards banquet with your father. I promise she’ll be safe when you two finish.”

“I owe you one, Ollie,” Tommy promises.

Oliver shakes his head. “Friends don’t keep score.”