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Rake the Ashes

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Oliver sighs as he paces in front of the sliding glass doors, waiting for some sign of movement. Even with Diggle down below, he can’t stand still. The enemy is out there and they will come, but he doesn’t know from where or when. This is the kind of calm that makes his hair stand on end: the anticipation of the next threat. Even the sound of Felicity’s phone going off over the comm made him jump the last two times, before she finally put it on silent.

The last time he faced down this kind of quiet, it wasn’t really quiet at all. When Oliver was waiting for the Royal Flush Gang to strike, he had someone to keep his mind off the impending fight. With that thought in mind, he whispers into the comm, “Felicity?”

It takes her a moment to reply, but he can hear the familiar slam of a metal door in the foundry. “Yes, Oliver?” she asks with an easy familiarity. “Sorry for using your name,” she adds after a beat. “It’s just that Deathstroke is out now, so I figured it would be okay if we just used our identities. It’s kind of weird to use your codename when I’m just Felicity.”

“It’s fine,” Oliver assures her.

“Are you okay?” she continues. “Is John okay? John, you’re okay, aren’t you?”

“Everything is fine, Felicity,” Diggle assures her, faint traces of amusement leaking into his voice. Though he keeps his emotions close to the vest, Oliver knows Digg and Felicity have bonded some since she removed that bomb collar around his neck. It’s part of the reason she doesn’t want to tell him she’s Deathstroke: it would destroy their ability to work together.

“Oh,” she replies, voice breathy. “I mean, good. But usually you boys only call me when you need help. What do you need, Oliver?”

“I’m hypervigilant right now,” he admits to her in a small voice. “Could you just… talk to me?” It comes out vulnerable and quiet, but at least Felicity won’t take that as weakness. “Please.”

“Of course,” she replies without missing a beat. “Let’s see…” There’s a short pause, but when she speaks again, her voice is clearer, as if she’s taken off her mask. “My mom has been calling for the last three days—persistently, I might add.” She blows out a breath. “I want to know what she wants but at the same time…” Words fail her for a moment. “Well, there’s a reason she and I don’t talk anymore.”

Instead of waiting for him to speak, Felicity rushes on with the conversation. It’s part of the reason why he asked her to fill the silence in the first place: she understands what he needs without asking. He’s never met anyone that could do that before.

“I know what you’re thinking,” she assures him. She attempts a poor imitation of his voice. “’Felicity, why don’t you just talk to her?’ Well, Oliver, I’m so glad you asked.” He releases a chuckle, the tension loosening in his shoulders. “With my mother, it isn’t that simple. When we talk, we always end up arguing. There’s always something.” She sighs. “Usually it’s my job. If it isn’t my job, it’s my tattoos. If—”

“You have tattoos?” Digg asks.

“Two,” Felicity replies quickly, before continuing. “If it isn’t my tattoos, it’s how I should try to cover my scars. If it isn’t that, it’s when I’m going to find someone to make me happy.” Her voice turns high-pitched and fluttery as she mocks her mother. “Because, ’Honey, you were so happy before! Maybe you should just talk to your ex. He was a nice man and he still loves you. Maybe you two can try again.”

When she sighs this time, her tone deflates. “She’s still waiting for the old me to come back. I don’t have the heart to tell her that Felicity Kuttler died in a shipping container in Osaka, Japan. All that’s left is…” Her voice turns small and vulnerable in a way that she rarely lets anyone hear. “Felicity Smoak.”

“I happen to like her,” Oliver cuts in. “Very much.” Maybe even more than he should.

It does the trick; her voice is brighter as she responds, “That’s sweet, but you didn’t know me before Japan. If you did, you’d understand why she’s waiting. I’m just not… me. Parts of me broke in those seven months that can never be repaired.” Oliver nods. He knows the feeling well. “I’m missing too many pieces to put myself back together the same way I was before. You know what that feels like—everyone expecting you to be someone you aren’t anymore.”

“And even if you could be,” Oliver finishes for her, “you’re not sure you want to be anymore.”

“Exactly,” Felicity agrees. “Felicity Kuttler was happier, but she was afraid. All the time. She was afraid of committing to her boyfriend, afraid of being arrested for her… less-than-legal activities. She was weak and naïve and weighed down with expectations she never wanted.” Her tone firm, she admits, “And I’m glad I’m not her anymore.”

There’s a long pause before Digg finally interjects, “You know you’re starting to refer to yourself in the third person like Oliver, right?”

Oliver smiles as Felicity chuckles, glad that Diggle could interject some levity into the conversation. Their conversations have a tendency to overwhelm the both of them. When he goes to a dark place, Felicity can usually lighten him with some humor. Oliver isn’t quite in a place where he can do that for her.

“Actually,” Felicity disagrees, “I think he started doing it because of me.” Her voice is gentle as she explains, “You don’t understand, John, and I hope you never do. The only way to understand is to go through a crucible like this. Something that unexpected and brutal splits you into two different people: before and after. The person I was before is so different from who I am now that it only seems fair to consider them two separate people.”

She clears her throat. “I mean, look at Oliver, for example.” He winces; he’s hardly a good example of anything. “He might be all green and heroic now, but five years ago, he was racking up misdemeanors and peeing on cops.”

“Wait,” Diggle cuts in. “You peed on a cop?”

Turning his attention to his shoes, Oliver starts pacing again. That wasn’t one of his finer moments.

Felicity comes to his defense, just like she always does. “Yes, but that’s not the man he is now,” she insists. “In his case, it was definitely a change for the better. Oliver is one of the finest people I’ve ever met.” The praise startles him into a smile; Felicity doesn’t supply compliments very readily.

“Mine wasn’t,” she continues, her voice smaller this time. “I had black hair and an obsession with dark makeup. Made some questionable fashion choices. I was my dad’s lapdog at Kord Industries, content with an obscene salary and a fiancé I never wanted to marry.”

Oliver stops mid-step at her words, nearly falling over. Before he can ask, she continues as though it’s old news. “I have more freedom to be myself now, but I didn’t really understand how trapped I was until then.” Her voice twists into something bitter, a side of her he’s never experienced before. “When you’ve spent all your life in a gilded cage, you don’t think of it as a cage. It’s just a home. Despite everything, I was happy then.”

The moment she stops talking, Oliver asks, “You were engaged?”

She snorts. “Of all the things I just said, that’s your takeaway?” she asks. Her tone turns sarcastic. “Yes, Oliver, despite common belief, I do have a love life. It’s a little barren right now, but my life hasn’t always been computers and takeout.”

Before he can assure her he didn’t mean anything by it, she continues, “Yes, I was engaged. It was complicated and messy and I don’t like to talk about it. This was just another thing in my life that Japan destroyed—but I’m grateful for this one. We didn’t work after everything that happened, and he wouldn’t understand what I do now.”

She sighs. “But it… didn’t end well. My mother took his side, and I had to change my phone number because he kept calling.” There’s a sound of something slamming against the table in the background—probably Felicity’s phone. “My only regret right now is that I gave my mom the new number.”

Oliver’s lips press together. As he paces, he watches Laurel enter the room, leaning against the counter on the other side of the kitchen. Though he knows what Felicity’s answer will be, he can’t help offering, “If you have a name and an address for me, I would be glad to teach him what the word ’no’ means.”

“Oliver Queen, you are not using my ex-fiancé for target practice,” she declares, voice dipping into tones he’s only ever equated with Deathstroke. “It wasn’t the creepy, no-means-no kind of persistence. He thought everything was normal after Japan.”

Scoffing, she clarifies, “Obviously it wasn’t and he was an idiot for thinking it would be. His limited powers of observation aside, he thought everything was perfectly okay. Suddenly I shove the ring into his hands, tell him that I can’t do this anymore, and walk out. He was just looking for answers that I couldn’t give him.”

Glancing to Laurel, Oliver nods once. “You can’t explain this to someone you’ve cared about,” he finishes for her. “You can’t make them understand that the person you were died, and all that’s left is a stranger wearing a familiar face.” He swallows hard. “To conquer those demons, you had to become worse than them.”

“‘He who fights with monsters might take care, lest he thereby become a monster,’” Felicity quotes. Oliver instantly recognizes it as the inscription on her right-hand blade. “We become our experiences. Sometimes that isn’t a good thing.”

For some reason he doesn’t understand, Diggle chuckles. “When I met you two, I couldn’t understand how you could be friends,” he notes aloud. “I think I’m starting to understand.”

Crossing his arms, Oliver only says, “We’re both trapped in the same struggle.” He would give everything he had to save Felicity from hers.

With a smile in her voice, she replies, “There are worse people to be stuck with.”

Before he can do anything more than smile, Laurel asks in a quiet, hesitant voice, “Who are you talking to?” She waves a hand before crossing them again. “I know I should be hiding, but I couldn’t wait any longer.” Same, predictable Laurel. “I thought I might be able to talk to you.”

“Tell her you’re talking to the voices in your head,” Felicity suggests. Diggle breathes a quiet laugh. “Too many questions about you might reveal your identity.”

Oliver ignores them. “I’m speaking to my team.”

Felicity scoffs as he smiles, already prepared for the argument that will follow. “I am not your team, Oliver,” she retorts hotly. “We’ve discussed this a thousand times. I freelance with you when I choose, but I am not part of your damn team.”

“You have a team?” Laurel asks, oblivious to the tongue-lashing he’s receiving on the other end of the comm.

Biting back a smile, he replies, “Apparently not. One of the people I work with just informed me they only freelance on my missions.”

He’s willing to concede this argument to Felicity; whether she wants to admit it or not, they’ve become partners in this. Ever since they took on the Royal Flush Gang together, they’ve been working more missions together than separate. She can call them whatever she likes, but they’re still partners in all but name.

Swallowing hard, Laurel says, “If you don’t mind me asking… how do you find people to help you?”

“Ad in the paper,” Felicity suggests this time.

Fighting the amusement, Oliver places his hand to his ear. “I don’t believe Miss Lance asked you,” he says to her. To Laurel, he explains, “My freelance ally is being difficult.”

“You love it,” Felicity accuses.

Unable to deny her claim, he ignores her instead, turning his attention back to Laurel. “There’s more than one way to find an ally,” he answers. “Sometimes I stumble across someone who accepts what I’m doing and wants to help.”

She makes a face at that answer. “Everything I’ve ever been taught says that what you’re doing is wrong,” Laurel admits slowly. “My father has a favorite saying: ‘You don’t have to go outside the law to find justice.’”

“That’s because Lance is a stick in the mud,” Felicity mutters to herself.

Oliver shakes his head with a smile. “If the world was fair, he would be right,” he agrees slowly. Laurel’s brow furrows. “But the world isn’t fair, Miss Lance. Men like Martin Somers own this city and prevent justice from being done.” He crosses his arms. “When that happens, sometimes the law isn’t enough.”

Felicity makes another comment in his ear, and this time he repeats it for Laurel: “The world doesn’t always need heroes. Sometimes what it needs is another monster.”

After studying him for a long moment, Laurel admits, “You don’t look like a monster.”

“What does a monster look like?” he replies. The question leaves her silent. “You don’t know me, Miss Lance.” Memories flash through his head, pieces of events he’s lived through in the past five years—things he’ll have to learn to live with. “You have no idea the things I’ve done.” He meets her eyes. “I’d do each and every one of them again to save the people of this city.”

She shivers under her gaze, and even though it hurts him, Oliver finds a grim satisfaction in it. She should be afraid. She should fear him and stay away from him. His line of work only attracts trouble, and from now on, he’s only going to allow people in his life who can handle it.

“Speaking of saving people,” Felicity says abruptly, “I have six possible hostiles on the traffic cams.” He stands alert immediately. “One of them has stunning white hair, if that helps.” Her voice lightens as she muses, “I wonder who does her color. Maybe you should ask—I need to dye mine.”

All of the nervous energy that has been bouncing inside Oliver seems to take form. “Go back to your bedroom and lock the door,” he barks to Laurel. “If anyone tires to break in, shoot them. Though her eyes widen, she follows his instructions, pulling the gun out of her hoodie and unlatching the safety.”Spartan, I need you to make your way to the front door. We’ll be able to surround them."

“Roger that,” he replies.

“It is ‘roger,’” Felicity mutters to herself.

It seems like hours before he hears the first movements on the stairs. The floorboards creak, and the light under the door flickers in places. Oliver nocks his bow and draws it, standing just behind the entrance to Laurel’s kitchen. If they have guns, at least he has cover.

In this line of work, having the element of surprise is a rare gift. Most of the time, he’s hunting criminals on their territory, giving them the home court advantage. Tonight, the advantage is his: he knows Laurel’s apartment better than anyone suspects. He knows where she keeps her second handgun and where her supply of cooking knives is.

Most importantly, the Triad doesn’t know to expect resistance.

“They’re almost inside, Spartan,” Oliver breathes in a whisper as the lock twists, clicking. “Are you in position?”

Before Digg can answer, the sliding glass window explodes. Oliver eases around the corner, just in time to watch three Triad enforcers enter. At the same time, a woman with white hair leads two thugs of her own. She’d normally be his first target, but she’s the one with information that could bring down Somers and have critical information on the Triad operation in Starling City.

Felicity might appreciate that, especially after all she’s been through tonight for him.

Instead of taking the shot at her, he whirls, sending it through one of the men climbing through the glass window. The shot strikes home before the other men can even draw their weapons. The two men next to him start screaming in Mandarin about the attack.

Using the mass confusion as an opportunity, Oliver takes a shot at the white-haired woman. It catches in her arm, causing her to swear before snapping the fletching off against the wall. “The archer is here,” she declares in Mandarin as she slides the arrow out of her arm. “Find him and kill him.”

She reaches for a knife at her waist, closing in toward Laurel’s hiding place. The second arrow goes in her calf. Turning, she throws a knife in a fluid motion. It scrapes the edge of his hood as it narrowly misses his throat. He retaliates with an arrow that she dodges easily.

“You are becoming more trouble than you’re worth,” she notes in Mandarin.

Oliver’s reply is in the same language: “As are you.”

Lunging at him with another knife, Oliver just barely manages to dodge. It slices through his jacket, somehow missing the skin. Another man joins the fray, catching Oliver in the jaw. He stumbles backward as a gunshot rings out.

At first he thinks it’s Digg, but the door slams open a moment later. He takes on another Triad thug, who kicks the gun from his hand. They fall to the floor, exchanging blows.

Though Oliver wants to help him, he has trouble enough of his own, blocking blows from the Triad enforcer and trying not to catch a knife from the woman. Using his bow to deflect her knife strikes and striking out with kicks at the other man, Oliver backs toward the block on Laurel’s counter, taking a sturdy boning knife from it.

He elects to go for the enforcer first; the woman is an expert with knives, and he isn’t as comfortable with a close-range knife fight. He catches the man in the chest with it. Before he can recover, Oliver uses it to slit the enforcer’s throat. He falls to the ground with a gurgling sound.

The woman uses his moment of distraction to her advantage, lashing out with her knife again. It’s too close to dodge, and pain explodes through his abdomen as she catches him with it.

Despite the pain, it gives Oliver an opportunity. He kicks her away, throwing the knife with his left hand. The action should leave him free to use the bow, but she kicks it from his hand, sending him backward. The blade still lands home in her side, but he can see two knives in her hands as she rises to her feet.

As she closes in on him, he reaches under the sink for the gun stored behind the cleaning solutions. Before the woman knows to expect it, Oliver has the safety off the Glock, firing three shots. Two just barely clip her, but the third lands home in her chest.

It’s enough to stop her this time. She collapses to the floor, breathing in harsh gasps that tell him he’s clipped a lung. He glances at her for a moment before deciding he’ll deal with her later.

Trading the gun for his bow, Oliver nocks an arrow, turning down the hall in the direction Digg must have gone. He takes a moment to study the scene; three hostiles down, with Diggle facing a fourth. That leaves him two short.

Oliver doesn’t like those numbers.

Stopping only to pick up Digg’s discarded gun, he stores it in the pocket of his jacket. He takes slow steps in the path of destroyed furniture, carefully taking aim. The sound of a struggle reaches his ears, and he closes in on the sound.

When he reaches the noise, it’s in the bathroom. Diggle smashes the enforcer’s face against the sink, making him collapse on the floor. With the exception of a busted lip, John looks unharmed but pissed. Oliver silently passes the gun to him, earning a nod in return.

Another gunshot rings out, and both men turn at the direction of the sound: bedroom. Oliver breaks into a run, a cold dread in the pit of his stomach. He isn’t sure Laurel could take a fatal shot—something that won’t be an asset for her tonight.

When he arrives at the door, it’s already been kicked in. There’s a body on the floor already, unmoving. There’s a gun next to the doorway, and the last enforcer is over Laurel with his hands around her throat. Oliver looses an arrow at him, catching him in the throat. He falls off Laurel with a sickly sound, and she scrambles away, now covered in blood.

After glancing over to Laurel to ensure she’s okay, he stands over the man. The enforcer attempts to beg, but the wound to his throat makes deciphering his words impossible. Despite that, Oliver knows what he wants: another arrow, to end his suffering.

Crouching over him on the balls of his heels, Oliver leans over the man. He grabs at Oliver’s arm, but he brushes him off. Instead of giving him mercy, the archer simply watches the fight drain out of the Triad enforcer. Eventually his breaths turn pained and agonal. They stop shortly after that, and he feels no remorse about letting him suffer.

Mercy is reserved for people who don’t come after his friends.

A beat later, a voice says in his ear, “Oliver?” Felicity’s voice is calm enough, but he knows her well enough to catch that edge of panic concealed underneath it. “I heard gunshots on your end.” There’s a sound of something crashing in the background, followed by swords being sheathed. “I need a sit rep.”

“I’m fine,” he assures her in a gentle voice. He examines the wound in his side. “Nothing a few stitches can’t fix.” There’s a muffled clatter that he recognizes too well: the sound of her swords on the gurney. Oliver can’t stop the smile that comes to his lips. “Were you about to come rescue me?”

“Of course,” she replies, as though it’s a perfectly sensible conclusion. He shakes his head; they both know she has a set of broken ribs, a dislocated shoulder, and a gunshot wound. Yet she’s willing to come in, swords swinging, to save him. “I’ve already told you: I’d go to war to save you. That was a promise.” Her tone turns hard. “I always keep my promises, Oliver.”

Before he can say anything more, she asks, “John, are you okay?”

“I have a busted lip and a few bruises, but I’ll live,” he assures her. “How are the ladies?”

Oliver turns to where Laurel sits against the wall. Her hands shake, and he approaches her slowly, sinking down into a crouch. “How badly are you injured?” he asks her in a gentle tone.

“I-I don’t think so,” she replies after a moment. “I just…” Her hand goes to her throat. “He was trying to strangle me.” She looks at him. “He would have killed me.”

Talking about that now may do more harm than good. Instead, Oliver asks her, “Do you have any trouble swallowing?” She swallows before shaking her head. “Good. I think you’re going to be okay,” he assures her quietly. “You need to call the police.”

She nods once as he rises to his feet. After knocking on the closet door three times, he calls, “Miss Nocenti, it’s clear.”

Opening the door slowly, she asks, “Is everyone okay?”

Glancing around the room, Oliver admits, “The Triad lost a few members tonight, but Miss Lance and my associate are relatively unharmed.” He glances back at Laurel. “It might be best if you contacted Detective Lance, instead of the police line. He’s one of the few we can trust.”

Into his comm, he adds, “Spartan, I tried to leave the female hostile alive. If she still is, take her with you. She’ll have information about Triad operations, and Deathstroke might find that useful.”

“Too late,” Diggle replies. “She just bolted out the window.”

“I can’t find her on the traffic cams,” Felicity adds. “She must have gone down an alley.” In Russian, she continues to him, “And that’s nice of you, but I don’t really do torture. I stab and I threaten and I kill. She wouldn’t have been useful to me, anyway.” In English, she continues, “I can’t do anything else tonight, Oliver. Come home and I’ll patch you up.”

The fact that she called his base home is not lost on Oliver. “Spartan, I’ll meet you at the base,” he decides. He hesitates, needing Felicity but unsure what to call her in front of the two women. “Overwatch, have you heard anything about… our friend?”

It’s silent for a long moment. “Do you mean me?” Felicity finally asks. “Because… Overwatch? Seriously? This is why I pick the codenames on this team.”

“Says the woman who named me ‘Spartan,’” Diggle cuts in.

“John, whose side are you on?” she retorts. With a sigh, she turns her focus on Oliver. “If you’re talking about Tommy, he texted while you were getting your ass handed to you by a white-haired ninja.” He snorts at that description. “They’re at Starling General. I’ll meet you there.” To Oliver, she adds in Russian, “I’ll have to change out of my gear. It’s going to take me a while with my injuries.”

“I’ll go with you,” Diggle offers. “It would probably look suspicious if you showed up without your bodyguard.” Felicity laughs, still finding amusement in the fact that Oliver has a protection detail. “Or maybe ’driver’ is more appropriate.” His voice carries some humor, too. “I’ll meet you at the car, man.”

Oliver nods to himself once. His next words stick in his throat, but he finally manages to force them out: “And Overwatch? Thank you. We make a good team.”

With a tone that almost certainly accompanies an eye roll, she answers, “I’m not your team, Oliver.”

“No, you’re my partner,” he disagrees. She stays suspiciously silent.

He turns toward the two women again. Laurel has her cell phone out, dialing her father. “You should tell them I broke in and dispatched them while you hid,” he suggests. “That will keep you from being implicated.”

Emily swallows hard before meeting Oliver’s eyes for the first time. “I’m grateful for what you did for us tonight,” she starts slowly. “It hardly seems like enough, but thank you.”

Rising to her feet, Laurel says, “You told me tonight that sometimes we need monsters.” She crosses her arms. “I still don’t know if I would call you one, but if you are, you’re exactly the kind of monster this city needs.” She extends a hand. “Thank you.”

Wary, Oliver slowly slips his gloved hand into Laurel’s, shaking it once. “Stay safe, Miss Lance, Miss Nocenti,” is his reply, turning for the broken window in the living room.

With a leap and a grappling arrow, he swings off her balcony and into the night.

 


 

Wincing against the pain, Felicity decides she hates her ribs. Generally she likes being able to feel them, but tonight it just sucks. They ache with every breath, sending pain spiking down her side. Some asshole didn’t hold the elevator for her, so two flights of stairs later, she’s lost the ability to take deep breath. At least she’s on the right floor now, looking for a private waiting room in the wing appropriately named for the Merlyns.

Sometimes it still surprises her just how filthy rich her friends are.

Resisting the urge to wince against her wounds, she walks to the door, unsurprised to find John standing outside the doorway. “Good evening, John,” she calls, motioning to the door. “Have you heard how Mr. Merlyn is doing?”

“They think he’s gonna pull through,” John replies, though his eyes narrow as he looks at her. Frowning, he stares at her in a way that makes her uncomfortable. “You have a massive bruise on your jaw,” he says flatly. “What the hell happened?”

Felicity presses her fingers to the edge of her jaw, surprised when it hurts. It takes her a minute to remember the sniper punching her there with all the night’s events. Shit. She should have looked in a mirror before leaving the foundry.

With a surprise that isn’t quite feigned, she touches it again, wincing. “Wow, I must have hit my head against the desk harder than I thought.” Waving a hand, she explains, “I dropped my pen under the desk and smacked into it.”

She places her hand on the door to make a quick exit, but John just calls, “Felicity.”

When she glances over at him, she already feels the guilt of lying to him. John is a good friend who doesn’t deserve this deception. At the same time, she can’t bring herself to tell him that she’s the vigilante he hates so much. She may not know him well, but she knows that moral, honest men like John Diggle are exceedingly rare.

“Are you sure?” he asks her carefully, quietly. “Because that looks like a bruise from an uppercut.” Sometimes his observation skills are more of a curse than a blessing. His eyebrows knit together. “If someone hit you,” he concludes slowly, “you can tell me about it, Felicity. I promise I won’t do anything rash.” He glances toward the door. “Which is more than I can say for our boy in there.”

John isn’t going to let this go. Knowing that, Felicity racks her brain for a way to sell this. One comes to her, and she makes her false confession with a sigh. “I take self-defense classes.” His eyes go wide, but he says nothing. “I was working with my sparring partner before Oliver called me in.” The beauty of it is that it isn’t really a lie. “He caught me off-guard and landed a good punch.” She pats his arm. “Don’t worry about me, John. I’ve seen enough of violent men to stay away from them.”

That is the real lie. She can’t stay away from violent men, but now she’s the one haunting their nightmares. At least there’s a truth in there somewhere: Felicity is done being the victim in yet another senseless act. This time, she’s the predator.

“Just making sure,” John replies in an even tone. He offers her a smile. “We take care of our own on this team.”

Considering she disarmed a bomb around his neck and she’s always saving Oliver’s ass, Felicity is inclined to agree. “Thank you, John,” she tells him honestly, “but you don’t need to worry about me. I’m stronger than I look.”

He snorts. “You’re stronger than Oliver and I put together,” he states with sincerity. “Doesn’t mean you don’t need help sometimes. If you need me, I’m here.”

She pats his shoulder. “Thank you, John.”

With that, she ducks into the waiting room. It’s small and smells like cleaning products, but it holds a few of her favorite people on the planet. Oliver paces in the back, while Tommy sits in one of the vinyl chairs, knee bouncing. Laurel’s hand is Tommy’s as she sits in the chair beside him. Despite the bruises starting to form around her throat, she’s still poised and graceful under pressure.

They all turn to Felicity as the door closes behind her. She barely has time to blink before Oliver is in front of her, frowning at the bruise on the left side of her jaw. His touch is a strange combination of gentle and rough, feather-light touches made with callused fingers.

There’s something off about him. Maybe it’s the harsh, fluorescent lighting, but he looks pale. His eyelids droop with fatigue and his movements are a little too slow. Felicity feels her stomach drop; something is wrong with him.

His expression slowly morphs into something she only ever sees under a green mask. She told him earlier tonight she’d go to war for him, and now he looks ready to start a crusade for her. “Are you all right?” he asks. Judging by the way his eyes flick to the side she’s favoring, Oliver isn’t talking about the bruise on her face.

She hesitates over the story, but she’s already committed and she might as well see it through. “Remember how I told you my sparring partner caught me in the face tonight?” She makes a fist, touching it to the left side of her jaw. “He must have hit me harder than we thought. At least his self-defense classes are realistic.”

Lips pressing together in a thin line, Oliver finally suggests, “You should probably put some ice on that when you get home.” She understands what he’s trying not to say right now because she’s holding the slough of words back, too. If they were in the foundry, she’d already be putting stitches in his wounds—probably while he was insisting she needed lidocaine in her ribs.

Unable to resist, she reaches up to smooth the furrow in his brow. “I’m sore but doing fine,” she reassures him in a whisper. “How are you holding up? Where are you hurt?”

Instead of answering, Oliver shifts his jacket slightly to reveal a too-large red stain on the side of his gray sweater. Felicity frowns; it’s one of her favorite shirts on him. Before she can do more than take in a breath, he whispers quietly, “It isn’t as bad as it looks.”

As he adjusts his jacket back in place, his eyes flick down her figure. No doubt he’s looking for her bullet wound, but she had the sense to slap a thick piece of gauze over it. Even if there’s any leakage, her black t-shirt will hide the evidence. Maybe she should give him lessons about hiding wounds.

He frowns as he meets her eyes, searching her expression. Felicity wonders if the same fatigue in her that she sees in him. With those too-serious eyes and the tone that makes her stomach flip, he finally adds, “I’m more concerned about you.”

Felicity isn’t one to back away from a little danger. She’s faced down Triad assassins, hitmen with sniper rifles, police officers of all shapes and sizes—and that was just tonight. Oliver’s tone and closeness should just present a challenge, but instead it sends her brushing past him in a tactical retreat.

Give her a pissed-off sniper any day. Felicity wouldn’t even flinch. But a suddenly emoting, gently intense Oliver with eyes only for her? That will send her running in the opposite direction with one simple, declarative sentence.

Instead, she turns her focus to Tommy. “Hey, Merlyn,” she greets with a cheer neither of them feels. “How’s your dad?”

He’s on his feet in an instant, stretching. “Still a son of a bitch,” Tommy says flatly, “but they tell me he’s going to live. Thanks for coming.” He takes a step toward her with a hand outstretched, but takes it back as his sense of self-preservation comes back to him.

Felicity holds her hands out awkwardly, making the move he didn’t. It’s better for her to initiate it, anyway—generally when people put their hands on her, they end up with a sword in the throat. “Is this the part where we hug it out?” she asks him in a flippant tone. “I’m not really the huggy type, but it sounds like you’ve been through a lot tonight.”

His arms are around her in an instant, and she forces herself to relax into the hug, patting his back several times. He leans over her shoulder to whisper to her, “I know you were helping Ollie and Deathstroke behind the scenes. Thank you for everything, Smoak.”

When he pulls away, Felicity only winks at him. This must be why Oliver likes playing the hero: doing the right thing leaves a fuzzy feeling in her chest. It could become addictive if she let it. The smile slips off her face as she realizes she can’t. Her job is hunting monsters. Playing the hero is Oliver’s shtick, not hers.

But maybe, every once in a while, she could help him out with it.

She turns her attention back to Laurel, who is watching with a critical eye. Felicity opens her mouth to speak, but Tommy takes up the introduction before she can. “This is Smoak, from Monday nights at the club,” he introduces. “You two kind of met briefly.”

Extending her hand, Felicity declares, “Nice to see you again, Laurel.” She shakes it with a polished smile. “I wish it was with less…” Felicity makes a motion to her own throat. “Ow.

“Tommy wasn’t the only one with an exciting night,” she explains. “The Triad came after me because of a client I’m representing.” She motions to the bruises on her neck. “One of them tried to strangle me. I was lucky the Arrow showed up to help.”

Felicity cuts her eyes over at Oliver. His expression is neutral, but she knows he’s kicking himself over Laurel’s injury. She’ll have to remind him later that Laurel is alive because of him. A few bruises don’t negate what he did.

Nudging Tommy, Felicity teases, “Well, I have to say, I’m a little disappointed, Merlyn.” She motions to Laurel. “No halo, no glowing aura, no choir of angels in the background when I talk to her.” With a grin, she explains to Laurel, “Your boyfriend has made me believe you’ve deigned fit to grace us mere mortals with your presence.”

Tommy’s face flushes pink as Laurel laughs. “I try to keep that a secret,” she teases back, glancing at her boyfriend with an adoring smile. “Should have known he can’t keep his mouth shut.”

Staring at his shoes, Tommy insists, “I do not talk about Laurel like that.”

It’s Oliver who snorts, sitting down on the vinyl couch across from Tommy and Laurel. “Yes, you do,” he insists without missing a beat. “’Hey, Ollie,’” he mocks, “’did you see Laurel on national TV last night? She has a big case she’s working on.’”

Laurel cracks a smile, even though her eyes are glaring daggers at Oliver. Felicity supposes they still aren’t on speaking terms.

Dropping onto the opposite arm of Oliver’s sofa, Felicity attempts to break the ice with, “’Hey, Smoak, did you see my girlfriend’s press statement on TV last night?’” Her impression of Tommy is horrible, but somehow it makes it so much better. “‘She just won a major settlement for her client.’”

Breaking into a beautiful smile, Oliver continues, “That’s because Laurel is the best lawyer that ever lived.”

Laughing, Felicity flops over the side of the couch. She lands on her back, legs kicked over the end of the short sofa. Oliver inches over just enough for Felicity to rest her head on his thigh, resting his arm over the back of the couch. “But how did she manage to study law and cure cancer?” she asks, grinning up at her partner in crime.

“I don’t know,” Oliver replies with false awe.

“Okay, you two assholes,” Tommy snaps, his face flushing crimson. Laurel stares at him with an affectionate smile, though, so Felicity considers it a win. Pointing a finger at Oliver, Merlyn continues in a stern tone, “If you don’t stop this, Ollie, I’m gonna kick your ass.” His grin lessens the severity of his voice.

Raising her hand, Felicity declares, “Ooh, I’m putting my money on Oliver!” The two of them share a loaded grin before she points at Laurel. “Laurel, do you want in on this? Five bucks says Oliver wins in the first two minutes, against the spread.”

As his hand drops on her arm, Oliver comments with a smile, “You’re starting to sound like a gambler, Felicity.”

She arches an eyebrow at him. “How do you think I paid for MIT?” she counters. “My scholarship was only for tuition, so I worked for a bookie and made odds during my freshman year.” When his eyebrows shoot up, she shrugs. “Hey, I was fifteen—who else was gonna hire me?”

“Well, aren’t you an enigma wrapped in a little blonde riddle,” Tommy declares. His expression changes as he points at her. “But I expect better from you, Smoak. You’d pick Ollie over me in a fight?” Felicity just stares pointedly at him, and he sighs. “What happened to the code, traitor?” He motions between them. “You know, bros before…” He trails off, turning to Laurel. “…intelligent, strong women? Sisters before misters? Do you remember any of that?”

“Do you remember that Oliver and I aren’t a thing?” Felicity counters. “Because of that, I am equally able to pick you or him without violating the code.” She waves a hand. “If it was about who could chug a beer in five seconds, you’d always be my pick. But in a fight…” She reaches up to squeeze Oliver’s bicep in a shameless excuse to cop a feel. Oliver doesn’t seem to mind. “Have you seen these muscles, Merlyn? I’m gonna have to go with Oliver.”

Laurel motions between Felicity and Oliver, brows knitting together. “Oh, you two aren’t…?” She trails off, unsure how to phrase it. She has the decency to look uncomfortable as she continues, “I just assumed you two were together because…”

When Laurel motions between them, Felicity understands: she and Oliver don’t really have any boundaries. Hell, she has to admit to herself that they look more like the couple in the room than Tommy and Laurel. Felicity just supposes that’s the kind of thing that happens after sharing a bed for a few months—especially when Oliver has a tendency to cuddle.

“This is a result of falling asleep on a couch together too many times during movie marathons,” Felicity explains with a shrug. She grins up at Oliver. “Sorry, but I don’t screw guys with trust funds.”

Oliver meets her challenge with a smile. “I don’t date blondes.”

Laughing, Felicity replies, “I’m actually a brunette. I dye it.” His eyebrows knit together as he brushes a lock of hair out of her face, and he stops to examine it more closely. She winks. “You’ll have to find another excuse.”

“I don’t date Mensa members,” he replies, all too eager to play along.

Her smile twists into a smirk. “Scared of an intelligent woman, Queen?”

“Terrified,” he corrects, leaning over her. “Especially of you.”

“Good,” Felicity says, rising up on her elbow to pat his cheek. His arm drops over her shoulder. “You should be. If I wanted to, I would absolutely devour you.” She waves a hand in the air. “As it turns out, I’m a nice person.”

The two of them lock eyes, and it’s only then that Felicity realizes how close they are. She can feel the tickle of his breath against her skin. It’s a brief second later when she can see the same realization dawn on Oliver. He leans down ever so slightly.

Before she can panic, their moment is interrupted when the door opens. Oliver turns to it first, expression souring instantly. Felicity turns toward it to follow his gaze, and the smile slips off her face. Both of them are a little too bloody and bruised to have a conversation with Detective Lance at the moment.

Sitting up, Felicity slides her back against Oliver’s side to cover the bloody wound in his side. His arm falls over her side, reaching to squeeze her hand as he tucks her injured side against him. It’s a quiet promise: You have my back, but I have yours, too.

Lance barely spares the two of them a glance before turning to his daughter. “You okay, kiddo?” he asks her, wincing when he sees the bruising around her neck. “The officers on scene told me about what happened.” His head tilts to the side. “The Triad showed up?”

She nods once, her hand going to her throat. “I think Martin Somers has ties to the Triad,” she explains carefully. Lance blanches. “They came after Emily first. I barely moved her into my place before they came for the two of us.” Looking away, she twists a lock of her hair. “The Arrow broke in while we were trying to hide.” She touches her neck again. “I shot one of them in self-defense. Another tried to strangle me. He would have succeeded if the Arrow hadn’t killed him.”

Lance studies his daughter with the too-observant eyes that Felicity can’t help but admire in him. If she’s going to have a police officer on her case, it might as well be a smart one; that gives her a better challenge. “If I go through your cell phone records,” he asks slowly, “am I gonna find a call to the number in the programmed cell phone he sent me?”

A deep sigh leaves her. “Dad—”

He runs a hand over his face, looking more haggard than before. “Jesus Laurel!” he declares, shaking his head. “Do you not remember me saying that guy is dangerous? There are five bodies in your apartment right now.” Felicity bites back a scoff; she dropped two tonight, and she wasn’t even trying. Five is a slow night for either of them. “You could have been one of them.”

“I couldn’t trust anyone else,” Laurel retorts, crossing her arms as she straightens in her chair. Though she doesn’t know Laurel that well, Felicity knows that look: it’s the one her targets give her when they decide to put up a fight. “The police department is compromised—you know Somers has bought off part of the force. The Triad owns half of Organized Crime. I needed someone who couldn’t be bought.”

“He’s a killer, Laurel,” Lance insists. Tommy rankles next to her, but fortunately, he doesn’t notice.

“Maybe he is,” Laurel allows, “but he’s the reason I’m alive tonight.” She shakes her head. “You can say what you want about his methods, but I can’t argue with his results.” A flicker of intuition crosses her face. “He’s not the kind of man you think he is.”

“He’s a psychopath,” Lance insists. Felicity bites down on her tongue in order to stop herself from speaking. Setting the record straight would only incriminate her, and she’s spent three years trying not to do that. “He’s a killer running around this city with a hero complex and a bow.”

She shakes her head. “That’s where you’re wrong,” Laurel disagrees. “He called himself a monster for what he did.” Her lips press together as she shakes her head. “I don’t think so, but I do understand what he meant. We don’t always need heroes, Dad. Sometimes we need people who will cross the lines.”

He makes a face in response, giving her a look Felicity thought he only reserved for criminals. “If anyone discovers that you called the Arrow,” Lance growls, “I won’t be able to save you, Laurel.” He pinches the bridge of his nose. “Do you understand what I’m saying?”

“The way I see it,” Merlyn offers slowly, “the only people in this room that know are in this room.” He waves a hand. “And the Arrow, but it’s not like he’s gonna tell the police.” He motions to himself, Lance, and Laurel. “We’re obviously not gonna say anything.”

Laurel and her father turn their attention immediately to the two on the sofa. Though she supposes it’s mostly aimed at Oliver, Felicity is first to speak. “Your life, your choice, Laurel,” she replies with a wave of her hand. “You did what you had to do to protect yourself.” God knows Felicity can’t fault anyone for that. “I can respect that decision.” She cuts her eyes at Oliver. “Can’t you?”

“Absolutely,” he replies without missing a beat. Felicity nods once, satisfied.

After giving the two of them a look that she can’t decipher, Lance turns his attention back to Merlyn with a slight grimace. “One of my officers took your statement at the scene,” he starts, pulling a notepad out of his pocket, “but she told me you saw Deathstroke in the flesh?” He drops into a seat next to Tommy. “Can you give me a description?”

“Absolutely,” Merlyn offers with enthusiasm. Felicity just hopes he isn’t too enthusiastic. “He was about five-seven, five-eight.” He motions with his hands. “A little guy. Thin as a rail.” A strange look crosses his features. “I was so startled I said that to him. He told me good things come in small packages.”

Oliver throws Felicity a questioning glance that still manages to be amused. She just shrugs.

Lance stops writing in his notepad to look at Merlyn. “You spoke to him?” he asks, eyes widening. “People don’t usually get to see Deathstroke and tell about it. You’re saying he knew he left a witness?”

Bobbing his head, Tommy swallows. “Yeah, no way could we have missed each other,” he admits. “The crazy son of a bitch fell out of the air, barely caught the balcony railing, and pulled himself over. I heard the noise and thought it might have been someone else who got shot.” Tommy makes a face. “He was in really bad shape. His arm was at a funny angle, and he used the railing to wrench it back in place.”

Even Lance winces at that. “Sounds like he put a dislocated shoulder back in place.” He shakes his head. “He’s a tough bastard; I’ll give him that.” Felicity bites down on a smile. “What else happened?”

“He, uh, he set up a blood transfusion between my dad and I,” Merlyn answers, amazement coloring his tone. “I didn’t want to do it, but he told me if I wanted to keep my dad alive, I’d listen. I thought it might be some sort of trick to kill us, but…” He swallows hard. “He said if he wanted us dead, he’d just kill us.

“When he finished,” Tommy continues, “Deathstroke told me not to mention what he did for Dad.” He snorts. “He insisted that it might damage his reputation if anyone knew he was playing hero. Said that was the Arrow’s thing.”

Lance nods to himself. “That’s about right for Deathstroke. He always sounds like he’s a few tacos short of a fiesta platter.” Oliver barely covers a laugh with a cough. It’s only because of his injuries that Felicity doesn’t slam her elbow into his side. “Did you see or hear anything else that might help?” Lance presses, leaning forward. “Anything at all?”

Shaking his head, Tommy insists, “Nothing much. He was covered from head to toe in black, even the areas where the mask was open for his eyes. He was wearing some sort of black paint around them.” He crosses his arms. “The guy could be in this room right now and I’d never know it.” Felicity turns to exchange a look with Oliver.

She straightens immediately as Lance turns his attention to her and Oliver again. “Twice in a few hours, Queen,” he notes with a snarl. A sarcastic, bitter grin crosses his features. “Must be my lucky day.”

Oliver’s smile drips with insincerity as he replies, “Imagine how thrilled* I *am, Detective.”

All good humor, however false, falls off Lance’s face. Still, Felicity pats Oliver’s leg in support. If she was the kind to keep score, Oliver would definitely be holding his own.

“Where were you tonight, Queen?” Lance demands without warning.

Felicity hears the question out of her mouth before she makes the decision to say it: “Are you seriously suggesting Oliver had something to do with this?”

The detective throws her a look, as if assessing her for the first time. Felicity doesn’t like it. “I’m asking a simple question,” Lance replies simply, calmly, “that does not involve you.” He flashes her a smirk. “And this time, it is official police business.”

Oliver’s hand tightens on top of hers, as if to restrain her. There’s no point in it. The exchange should make Felicity mad, but instead she finds herself smirking at his reply, which makes Oliver pull her tighter into his side. He doesn’t need to worry; she’s not about to do anything rash. Lance is becoming a worthy adversary.

“You were present for part of tonight,” Oliver reminds him without missing a beat. “I picked up Felicity at the Jade Dragon. We waited for our food. Then we went back to Verdant to work on last month’s figures. We passed Tommy on his way out to the awards banquet.” Tommy nods his assurance of that. “Felicity and I proceeded to look over numbers Tommy called me about Mr. Merlyn’s condition.”

Turning his attention back to Felicity, Lance finally says, “You’re his alibi, then?”

“That sounds serious for a simple question,” she counters, crossing her arms. Oliver adjusts his hold on her in a warning. Lance reveals nothing, only waiting for her answer. “Yes, I’ve been with Oliver all night.”

She smiles. “If you’d like to check for yourself, the takeout boxes are still scattered across his desk.” She made sure to do that before she left—it’s the lack of attention to little details that always get people into trouble. “I ate most of mine, but Oliver’s food is practically untouched. He doesn’t eat much these days.” It’s true, and it covers the fact that he wasn’t there to eat it.

“And your name is?” Lance asks.

“Felicity Smoak.” He scribbles it down, which sends a prickly feeling down her spine. She’s spent three years keeping her name away from authorities. Now she isn’t sure if it’s terrifying or exciting.

This time when Lance looks at her, he studies her. His eyes narrow. “I have a few questions to ask you in private,” he suggests, motioning to the door. His eyes flick to Oliver. “Can we step outside?”

No way in hell is Felicity going to allow herself to be cornered by Lance. “You can ask me anything you want right here,” she assures him. “I’ll end up talking to Oliver about it at some point. This just saves us some trouble.”

Though he frowns, Lance asks, “How did you get that bruise on your face, Miss Smoak?” he asks her in a quiet tone. He levels a glare at Oliver, and it’s then that she understands: Lance was trying to protect her. He may have the wrong idea, but she can’t fault him for that. It still makes her want to yell at him, though.

“I take self-defense classes at Wildcat Gym, on Eighth,” Felicity replies, trying to keep her tone even. “My instructor gets a little enthusiastic sometimes. He apologized profusely and asked me if I needed medical attention.” She offers him a smile. “I live in the Glades and my car doesn’t always work. I wanted to make sure I could defend myself if anything happened.”

Lance’s attention goes to her knuckles. Felicity follows his gaze, surprised to find that her hands are starting to bruise. “It looks like you’re well on your way,” he notes in a strange tone. “How long have you been taking classes there?”

The smile falls off her face as she thinks about the first time she stumbled into the gym. It hasn’t been a happy few years, but things were far worse then. “Close to three years,” she admits finally.

He nods once. “I made sure Laurel took self-defense classes when she was younger,” he tells her. “You can’t be too safe in Starling City. I had both my girls certify on the gun range, too.” His head tilts to the side. “You ever been instructed how to use a weapon?”

Suddenly it feels like less of a conversation and more of a casual interrogation. Felicity knows he doesn’t have any evidence or leads, but she can’t help but wonder just how good Lance is.

Shaking her head, Felicity replies, “I don’t like guns and I don’t want them in my home.” She presses her lips together, doing her best to look like she’s holding back emotion. “My father died from a gunshot wound. Every time I see a gun, I think about it. I’ve never been able to touch one.” Not without thinking about him bleeding out in her arms, anyway.

“What about a hunting knife?” he asks this time. “That’s a solid self-defense weapon.

“I barely even cook, Detective,” Felicity replies with a laugh. “I don’t know what to do with the knives in my kitchen, much less a hunting knife.” Balisongs and throwing knives, however, she’s quite comfortable with.

Shrugging, Lance plays it off casually, but Felicity doesn’t buy it for an instant. He’s a sneaky son of a bitch, but not sneaky enough. “Can’t be too careful,” he replies. “After all, there’s a sword-wielding maniac loose on the streets.”

“From everything I’ve read in the papers,” Felicity replies, “I’d be dead if Deathstroke decided to come after me. No amount of self-defense training would help that.” She makes an act of shuddering. “I hope you catch him soon, Detective Lance. I know we’d all sleep easier at night without that monster on the streets.”

Before he can do more than study her expression, a doctor comes in the door. “Mr. Merlyn, your father is awake,” he says. “If you’ll follow me, we can discuss his condition together.”

Rising to his feet, Lance puts his notebook away. “Thank you for answering questions,” he says to everyone. He turns toward Tommy. “Merlyn, if you remember anything, give me a call or stop by the station.” With that, he rises to his feet and walks out.

Tommy turns to Oliver as he and Laurel stand up. “You’re welcome to come,” he offers. “You, too, Smoak.”

“That sounds like a family thing, Merlyn,” Felicity disagrees, standing. She stretches, which turns into a wince as her side explodes in pain. “I think I’m going to get a hot shower and some sleep.” She pats his shoulder. “I’m glad your dad is doing better. See you Monday night.” To Laurel, she offers a wave. “Nice to see you again, Laurel.”

“I should probably take my leave, too,” Oliver says. “I left a mess of financial statements on my desk. I probably need to get those sorted out before tomorrow night.”

“What you need to do is get some sleep,” Felicity corrects. “I know you haven’t slept in three days.”You can crash on my couch tonight.“ He lifts an eyebrow because he’s never spent a night on her couch in his life, but that isn’t something they really talk about. ”We’ll swing by Verdant and finish up those financial statements first." She holds out her hand in an offer.

Oliver doesn’t hesitate to take it as he rises to his feet. He offers her a smile and touches her shoulder before turning to Tommy. “I hope your dad is doing well. If you need anything, let me know.” The two men hug, and Felicity smiles. She’s never had many friends, but those two, absurd boys are bright spots in her life.

“Wise choice, man,” Tommy agrees, nodding to Felicity. “God only knows what would happen if you didn’t listen to Smoak.” He grins. “I bet she’d empty your bank accounts.”

“Of course not!” Felicity replies, affronted. “I only do that to people I don’t like, Merlyn.” She waves a hand with a smirk. “I’d just replace your audio files with the sound of porcupine farts.”

It does the trick: Oliver laughs. “That is…” He shakes his head, turning to her with that beautiful grin. “…incredibly petty of you, Miss Smoak,” he finally decides.

She grins up at him, poking a finger in his chest as she declares, “You wouldn’t have me any other way, Mr. Queen.”

His smile softens, turning into something small and gentle. It’s a smile Felicity likes to think he reserves only for her. “No, I wouldn’t,” he agrees.

That familiar panic works its way up her spine again. Damn it, he needs to stop looking at her like that; it causes her brain to short-circuit. “Stop buttering me up, Queen,” she replies in a dry tone. “You still have to finish those financial statements. You can’t sweet-talk your way out of it.”

As they pass Tommy, he claps Oliver’s shoulder. “Take care of yourself, buddy.” He points to Felicity. “And because I know he won’t… Smoak, make sure you kick his ass until he does.”

“With pleasure,” she replies with a grin and a salute.

They all depart the waiting room with goodbyes and laughs, lighter than when they entered. As Oliver and Felicity turn toward the elevators, John falls into step with them. Though Oliver turns to her with a start of a question, it’s another voice that calls, “Felicity?”

She turns at the sound, brow furrowing when she sees Laurel. The lawyer takes a few steps forward, running the fingers on her right hand across her thumb. “Could I… Could I talk to you for a moment?” She glances at Digg over Felicity’s shoulder, but eventually her gaze settles on Oliver. “Alone, please? It will only take a second.”

“Sure,” Felicity answers immediately. She turns back to John and Oliver. “Can you two give us a couple of minutes?”

“We’ll wait for you by the elevators,” John offers, turning in that direction.

Oliver places a hand on Felicity’s shoulder, squeezing once before turning away. He hesitates, turning back to Laurel. “I’m glad you’re all right after what happened,” he tells her. “Have a good evening.”

As the two men walk away, Laurel shakes her head with a bitter smile. “That man,” is all she says.

Biting down on the inside of her cheek, Felicity somehow prevents herself from saying that man saved Laurel’s life tonight. Taking a deep breath, she reminds herself that Laurel doesn’t know any of that. She doesn’t know about the island, or the kind of man Oliver became because of those struggles. To Laurel, he’s just the asshole who cheated on her with her sister.

If he had done that to Felicity, she absolutely would have gone after him with her swords.

“I know he was a colossal dick to your family,” she replies, jerking a thumb over her shoulder. Laurel blinks twice at the statement before opening her mouth to speak. Felicity holds her hands up. “I’m not here to be Oliver’s advocate—you don’t have to like him. I know Tommy has told you he’s changed, but that doesn’t matter. What he did isn’t the kind of thing you forgive overnight.”

Motioning between them, Felicity continues, “Between us? Being angry and bitter about it doesn’t hurt Oliver—it hurts you. Take it from someone who knows.” Sure, she might carry her anger and thirst for revenge like lead weights on her shoulders, but that doesn’t mean she wants to see Laurel spiral down the same path. Being the personification of vengeance is a lonely road Felicity wouldn’t wish on anyone. “You deserve better than to let one dumbass man’s decisions define you.”

Nothing comes out of Laurel’s mouth for a long time. Felicity waves a hand before assuring her, “You don’t have to say or do anything right now—just think about it.” She crosses her arms. “What did you want to talk to me about?”

Laurel blinks several times, shaking her head. “Oh… yes.” She bites on her lip for a second. “I was wondering if you had a card or a number for the gym where you take self-defense classes.” Felicity makes a face, and Laurel rushes to add, “Tonight was… terrifying. If the Arrow hadn’t been there, I wouldn’t have…” She doesn’t finish the sentence.

Fortunately, she doesn’t have to. Felicity had to go through a similar realization herself: there isn’t always going to be a hero present to save the day. “You don’t have to explain, Laurel,” Felicity assures her. “A woman shouldn’t have to depend on a man for her safety.” She winks. “Even if that man is the Arrow and saving people is in his job description.” The two of them share a smile. “I don’t have the number in my phone, but I know I have a business card on my fridge. If you want to trade phone numbers, I can text you a picture when I get home.”

“That sounds great,” Laurel agrees, pulling out her phone. They exchange cell phones, typing their numbers into each other’s contact lists. “I know Tommy is your friend, but…” She trails off as she takes her phone back. “Could you keep this between us and not tell him? I think I need to ease him into this.”

“I know how to keep a secret,” Felicity promises with a smile. “My lips are sealed.”

With a wave, she turns away from Laurel, walking back to Oliver and Digg. “What was that about?” John asks.

“Women’s business,” Felicity replies with a wink and a smile. John just shakes his head, returning her grin.

To Oliver’s credit, he doesn’t press her as the elevator doors open, waiting quietly as the crowd filters out. He waves for her and John to enter first, and Digg presses the B1 button on the panel before moving to stand in the corner. Oliver slides in next to Felicity as the door starts to close, offering her a soft smile. His arm drapes across the rail behind her, the sleeve of his jacket brushing against her back.

The problem is that Oliver is too close, but at the same time, too far away. He’s always hovering close to her, but after what they’ve been through, it’s hard to let him stay that far away. Ever since she hid in that office tonight, bleeding and exhausted and sure she was going to die, there’s something she’s wanted to do. Right now, she can’t resist.

Careful to avoid his bleeding wound, Felicity wraps her arms around Oliver’s middle, resting her head against his chest. He first tenses in surprise, but slowly two strong arms wrap around her. He sighs as he rests his chin on top of her head.

Felicity closes her eyes, surprised at how right being in Oliver’s hug feels. It isn’t something they’ve done very often, but usually his touch is more careful and reserved. Maybe they should do this more often; Oliver’s hugs are the stuff of legend.

“So, how was your night?” she asks, the words muffled against his shirt.

She can hear the rumble of his laugh in his chest before the sound escapes his lips. “Better now,” is his soft reply. That’s a statement Felicity can’t argue with, but she can’t bring herself to admit it aloud. She may have accepted the way Oliver makes her vulnerable, but she doesn’t have to like it—and she certainly doesn’t have to admit it to him.

Reluctantly, she pulls away, but she doesn’t go too far. She leans against the rail as Oliver’s arm falls on top of it again. A second later, she can feel his palm resting just below her shoulder blades. Felicity throws him a smile, and he returns it. Everything they need to say to one another passes in one glance: It was a tough night, but we made it out alive. Together.

“You look tired, Felicity,” John observes. She turns her head to look at him, thinking about the wreck she must present. She knows she’s pale from the blood loss, and the exhaustion that’s starting to set it probably comes with dark circles around her eyes. Tired is the nicest way he could have said it.

“I don’t sleep well,” Felicity admits to him, stifling a yawn. “Haven’t since Japan.” What she wouldn’t give for a sleep medication.

Unfortunately, she’d have to see a psychiatrist for the good drugs, and that isn’t going to happen. Her mother disillusioned her to the medical community three years ago when she tried to have Felicity committed. Of course, if she told the truth to a psychiatrist, they would most certainly lock her up.

Felicity has been locked in a box before. She isn’t going to let it happen again.

When the doors of the elevator open, the three of them step out and into the empty parking garage. They stop as Oliver turns to Digg. “You’ve done enough for me tonight,” he insists. “You should go home. Felicity and I can take care of the rest.”

“Are you sure?” John replies. He glances at Felicity, who stifles another yawn. Oliver doesn’t seem much better, his eyes drooping.

Felicity throws him a smile. “I might be tired, but I still won’t be able to sleep,” she assures him. “Let the two insomniacs finish up, John.” She motions to Oliver. “He can ride back to Verdant with me, and I can stitch him up. The rest can wait for another day.”

After a moment, John nods once with a knowing look that Felicity doesn’t like. Judging by the lack of smile on his face, he doesn’t lie it, either. “Have a good evening,” is all he finally says.

When he’s out of earshot, Oliver immediately asks Felicity, “How are you feeling?”

“Like I need a hot shower and a glass of wine,” is her immediate reply. She waves a hand. “I guess I could skip the glass of wine, but I can’t compromise on the hot shower.” She motions to her jaw before rolling her shoulder. “I probably need some ice for my jaw and my shoulder.”

All he says is, “Let’s go home, then.”