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Hazy Shade of Winter

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Hazy Shade of Winter

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

Other than when he was enlisted, he spent every winter of his life in Starling City. There, in the winter, the air was… heavy, dense. It… weighed on you, pushed you down. Thick with constant moisture - the rain sometimes a solid sheet and other times random drops but always constant, it could feel like you were walking through sludge. The pollution - of light, of sound, of greed - didn’t help matters either. Sometimes, the air was so oppressive that it was a struggle to breathe.

As for the desert…. That was a whole different kind of oppression. The reprieve from Starling’s humidity should have been a relief, but the heat, and the vastness, and the absolute contrast from what he was used to possessed its own kind of suffocating weight. Or maybe that had just been the fear.

But this?

Here?

Wasn’t the air in colder climates supposed to be light? Didn’t they say that mountain air was thin? It had to do with elevation, and remoteness, and… and….

Things were starting to become fuzzy. There was a weight on his chest. It… burned to breathe; it burned not to breathe. Every inhalation was a process. He had to think about how to do it. And exhaling? It was like he was blowing into a solid wall and not a mountain forest in early winter.

If he could just stand up - hell, sit up! If he could just… hold onto a thought, or figure out where he was, or remember why he was there, what he was doing, or… who he was, then the vice that was his ribs around his lungs could maybe stop seizing so painfully. The only thing he did recognize, the only thing he did know, was that he was having a panic attack. The absolute silence of his surroundings made his ears ring, and the cold he felt had little to do with the snowy ground on which he laid and everything to do with shock, with pain, with fear, with… acceptance of what was happening.

He was going to die. Maybe not right away, and perhaps he’d even be able to put up a half decent fight in an attempt to save his own life, but the end result would still be the same.

And the worst part - worse than even the acceptance of his own mortality - was dying without seeing.

Everything was a blinding, monochromatic, bleak… haze. The air, the sky, the ground, the horizon, the clouds, the land, his entire world had become various shades of brown, and white, and gray. That’s it. It was a kaleidoscope of nothingness, of washed out monotony. And he just… laid there, his entire existence whittled down to simply trying to remember how to live.

No, not live.

Survive.

Just… survive.

And then there was red.

In its vitality, he winced. Arms too heavy to lift and cover his eyes, to shield his face, he just shuttered his gaze. But only for a second. Because shutting out such evidence of life ran counterintuitive to his need to fight. So, he lifted his lids again… only to be confronted by brown once more. It eclipsed everything else his eyes could see, but it wasn’t the trunk of a tree, or dead leaves desperately grasping at otherwise bare branches seemingly mocking his struggle to hang on to his own life as well, or even the churned up mud of the ground on which he had been laying for a stretch of time too long to begin the count but too short to have beaten him. No, this brown was the brown of an ax handle. It lifted so slowly… like the heavier than it had any right to be air was actually a solid, and the ax wielder was straining to pick it up, but then gravity took over, and it fell.

Fast.

Faster.

Too Fast.

Not fast enou….

 

Look around
Leaves are brown
And the sky is a hazy shade of winter

 

She was so sure, so confident, of her own safety that she didn’t even realize that he was there, didn’t recognize the danger she was in. And because he had believed his family that safe as well until she shattered all his fantasies of well-being, something that once would have filled him with contentment now enraged him.

Stepping out of the shadows, he did nothing to announce his presence nor warn his unsuspecting audience. He wanted to scare her. He wanted to make her aware that any security she once had was just an expensive illusion. With a dismissive toss, he threw proof of what he was about to say unto the coffee table now separating them while, at the same time, declaring evenly, uncaringly, “John Diggle is dead.”

The gasp he received in response had nothing to do with the loss of a man’s life. “Oliver!”

“Let this,” and he nodded towards the slightly charred dog tags, “be a warning to you.”

“I… I don’t understand,” his mother fumbled to dismiss, fumbled to gather herself. “What are you doing here? Not that you’re not always welcome, of course, but….” She tried to take a step towards him, held out a thin, graceful arm in twisted warmth and empty welcome, but he stepped further away from her, and she stopped her advance, frozen in place. “And my… grandchild? Are they here with you, too?”

Moira Queen did not know that she had a grandson. She did not know his name; she did not know that, much to his mother’s dismay and discomfort, his first tooth came in at three months; and she did not know he had his mother’s toes but his father’s lightness of foot. Oliver had tried one last time to include his mother in his life - it was right after Roy came to live with them, in fact, but, after she attempted to convince him to wait until the baby was born and then take him or her from Felicity and come home to Starling so to raise the child like a proper Queen, he had cut all ties with the woman who had given him life.

Until now.

“You will not know my children. You will never meet them.” No, Oliver had not brought his son with him. He was safe at home with his mother… or, at least, as safe as Moira’s recent actions proved his family could possibly be.

“Children?” Disdain entered his mother’s voice. She frowned. “ That woman is pregnant again? Really, Oliver? Will you ever learn?”

That woman has a name. That woman is my wife , the mother of my children. ” Felicity wasn’t pregnant again. Although they had agreed that they wanted a large family together, they also wanted to enjoy their time with their son. Their little family was precious, and Oren became his own little person more and more each day. Oliver and Felicity wanted to get to know who he was before they brought another child into the world. But, again, his mother didn’t need - no, she didn’t deserve - to know any of this. “And you sent someone after her!”

“Oliver, honestly!” His mother’s feigned dismay, her put-upon disappointment had Oliver clenching his fists at his side. “Your behavior right now is appalling. The fact that you think that this is an appropriate way to speak to me, the woman who….”

“John Diggle,” he bellowed, interrupting her. Frankly, Oliver could not listen to his mother sing her own maternal praises. It… along with the cloying, rich, once familiar but now so foreign smells of the place he had grown up in… were enough to make him nauseous. “John! Thomas! Diggle!”

“It does not matter how many times you yell that name at me, Oliver Jonas Queen, it still will not mean anything.”

If she thought he was yelling before…. “He worked for you!”

His mother calmly folded her hands in front of her, and she spoke in a placating tone… like he was a wayward child. “Neither do I personally nor does Queen Consolidated employ anybody by the name of John Diggle.”

“But Tempest did.”

With those three words, his mother’s composure shattered. Oh, sure, she did her best to quickly cover her surprise and fear, but Oliver saw that perfect and polished veneer crack, and, just like a broken bone, no matter how well a person recovered after their trauma, if you knew where to look, how to look - and he did, proof of the past, of long healed pain, always remained. Hands that were once serene were now tense and gripped too tightly together. Her breathing was elevated, her heartbeat loud enough for Oliver to hear across the room. While his mother’s face didn’t move, her lack of facial reaction was a tell onto itself. “Tempest,” she attempted to deflect. She deceived, using a confused and impatient tone. “Why, I have never heard of….”

“Shut up! Just… shut up!” As he advanced towards her, screaming, his mother flinched, rocked back on her conservative heels. “I’m not here for your rationalizations, or your justifications, or your lies!”

Moira Queen gathered herself enough to snipe, “well, I see your low rent wife has had an impact on you. It won’t be easy, finding my son underneath all this... filth... she has brought into your life, but, lucky for you, I am up to the challenge.”

He ignored her - not because he didn’t want to defend Felicity but because it wouldn’t matter what he said. His mother had long since made up her mind about the woman Oliver loved more than anything else in the world, and, despite what Moira Queen said, it actually had little to do with Felicity’s background and upbringing. Rather, it was about her own insecurities regarding her first marriage and his father’s many infidelities with women Moira Queen had been raised to believe were beneath her. Plus, in the grand scheme of why Oliver was in Starling City again for the first time in years, correcting his mother wasn’t that important.

What was important was warning her away from him and his.

“Trust me when I say that you really do not want to see me again.” His sudden drop in volume, his whispered threat, finally seemed to drive home just how serious Oliver was, for his mother just… stood there. Eyes wide, mouth shut, she let him talk. And, oh!, did Oliver have some things to say to her! “If I ever come back here again, it will be to eliminate each and every last threat to my family. This is your one and only warning. This time, only the man - the ex-special forces trained soldier - that you sent to investigate my best friend, my wife, the mother of my children, and the woman I love died; next time, I won’t stop there.”

Oliver contemplated telling her everything he had learned when Felicity dug into John Diggle’s past, how, in finding out that he worked for an offshore LLC named Tempest, funded with money embezzled from Queen Consolidated, that they also discovered so many of his mother’s other secrets.

How the Queen’s Gambit had been bombed, the storm just a convenient cover.

How she had been complicit in Malcolm Merlyn destroying the Glades, killing thousands, his empire growing from the ash of the community and people he razed to the ground.

How she was still using embezzled funds through Tempest to do Malcolm Merlyn’s dirty work, paying off officials and corrupt businessmen to help her now third husband’s political star rise.

How Malcolm Merlyn wasn’t just a loving, generous stepfather to his deceased best friend’s daughter, naming her not only Queen Consolidated’s heir but also Merlyn Global’s, because one of the very first things his mother had done with her illegally gotten funds was pay off the doctor who had delivered Thea, Oliver’s half sister and Malcolm Merlyn, not Robert Queen’s, daughter.

But revealing this knowledge wouldn’t accomplish anything. It wouldn’t prevent his mother from sending yet another private investigator after Felicity, yet it would show her that she still had the power to hurt her son, that he wasn’t as cold, and calculating, and detached, and unfeeling towards his former life as he needed her to believe if his threats were to serve their purpose. And, perhaps most of all, voicing her secrets wouldn’t erase them. The woman he had once known as his mother was gone, consumed by the lies she told and the appearance they were used to project. As for his baby sister, while Oliver would never turn her away if Thea came to him, wanting help, needing the truth, ready to be in his life, the girl he had once known was now a woman swallowed by her parents’ machinations, a product of their creation in not just nature but also nurture… or perhaps a lack thereof. She was Moira’s shining image, and she was Malcolm’s golden child, and she was no one Oliver wanted around anybody he loved.

Approaching the coffee table once more, Oliver picked up the blackened and tarnished dog tags he had, moments ago, thrown down like the challenge they represented. “This is all that remains of John Diggle. If you have even a shred of decency left, you’ll give them to his family, let them know what happened to him.”

“And what exactly did happen to him, Oliver,” his mother asked, swallowing roughly. To hide the tremble in her voice, the way her throat shuttered under the effort it took to meet his gaze and say those words, she lifted a quivering hand to clutch at her pearls and shield her weakness. “You said he died, and you implied responsibility, but you never….

“I killed him,” Oliver clarified, interrupting her. “He didn’t see it coming, and it was relatively painless. After all, he didn’t deserve to die. He was just doing his job. But I couldn’t allow you to use him to hurt my family, and I needed to make it clear to you what would happen if you ever try something like this again.” He kept his tone cool, blase even, and, with every emotionless word he spoke, his mother shied that much further away from him. “The dog tags are proof of what I say, of what I did, but everything else… besides some evidence to point back to you should anyone ever come around asking questions... has been destroyed.” His mother’s gaze had skittered away from him while Oliver had been speaking, but he made her meet it once again as he leveled his final words, “you’ve been warned.”

Then, just as quietly and just as unnoticed as he had arrived, Oliver slipped away. The last thing he heard before leaving his childhood home for the final time was Moira Merlyn ’s stunned sob.

 

Look around
Leaves are brown
There’s a patch of snow on the ground

 

He built a barn.

Not alone.

He had help.

But, even looking at the intimidatingly large structure, he’s still in awe of what they accomplished.

There was something… extremely fulfilling about creating something tangible with one’s own hands. Whether that was building, or growing, or raising, or making, the physical proof of his hard work was satisfying. He’d always been a hard worker. Unlike some people born with silver spoons shoved up their asses, he came from nothing. When he had arrived at the tree farm, he’d possessed no real skills… at least, not those that made rather than took. But now…? After spending more than a year with Oliver, Felicity, and their young family, he truly felt a part of something, like he belonged.

Too bad he was leaving, though.

They didn’t want him to go. When they welcomed him into their home, their intentions had been for it to be permanent. After all, there was nothing waiting for him back from where he had come. They embraced him completely - fed him, clothed him, sheltered him, helped him heal emotionally. They trained him. At first, it had been about teaching him skills - hard work that he could do with his hands to earn his keep and place.

Surprising no one more than himself, he was good at the work. If his mother could see him - a farmer? Well, shock would be putting it mildly. But he wasn’t just good for all of the manual labor a tree… and now maple syrup, apple, and pumpkin… farm required. He could chop wood, and drive a tractor, and pick fruit as well as the next guy… and he had no doubt that there’d be a next guy. Oliver and Felicity, despite their proclamations for just wanting to be left alone, were too… kind and caring to not take in another stray in the future. And it had nothing to do with guilt from their pasts and everything to do with simply wanting to make the world a better place for their son, to give back even a fraction of the happiness that they had found with each other on their farm.

No, what he excelled at the most was taking care of the animals. If he had decided to stay, if it had been enough for him, then he might have gone to school for veterinary science like Felicity wanted and encouraged him to. But he wasn’t staying, and the farm wasn’t enough. Maybe… maybe if his past had been different, then so, too, could his future. But it wasn’t, and it didn’t change anything or help anyone to look back. Just as those people from his past were gone, a simple, uncomplicated life wasn’t an option for him either. So, that’s why, after quickly learning the ropes around Dearden’s, he’d asked Oliver to train him in something else, to train him to be someone else.

Never again would he look at a bowl of water the same way.

Hearing the sounds of laughter coming from nearby, he paused in his work to seek out the sounds of humor. Just as he would miss the peace and serenity that he had found working on and disappearing into the farm, he’d also miss the people who offered him those precious gifts. While he couldn’t hear what they were saying, he didn’t need words to understand the happiness he was witnessing before him. Oliver had a bundled up baby Oren strapped to his back, the toddler kicking his legs and waving his arms around as he giggled along with his equally bundled up mother.

The last trees had been sold, and the final holiday decorations snatched up, so the farm was closed to the public for the rest of the year. The little family of three… soon to be four, though Oliver and Felicity hadn’t said anything yet and weren’t aware of his knowledge of their holiday secret… were taking advantage of the quiet and privacy, no doubt spending the day together. That was a common occurrence, though usually they worked their land, their business together, but, today, they were simply enjoying each other's’ company. He could spot sleds and snowshoes, Valentina and thermoses that were no doubt filled with the very hot chocolate which had brought the couple together in the first place.

Felicity was talking animatedly, her mittened hands moving just as quickly as her son’s and proving whom he received that particular trait from, and Oliver hung on her every word, his ridiculous heart eyes on full display. At first, that contradiction had thrown him. With anyone else, Oliver was stoic and calculating, stiff and stern, and the skills he had learned while lost and presumed dead for five years were both awe-inspiring and unbelievably frightening at the same time, yet one tiny, equally complicated, brilliant blonde had the ability to strip all of that away and leave behind pure and utter happiness. He loved them both because of and despite their complexities, but, at the same time, their contentment was yet another reason why he had to go, why it was time for him to move on. It just… it hurt too much to see them so in love and so in tune with each other, knowing that he’d never have that. Maybe there’d been a shot for him once, but, just like with everything else from before, it was gone, too.

The laughter faded, and he returned to his task. Picking up his shovel once more, he found himself scowling down at his green hooded reflection in the small puddle next to where he stood. The salt he had tossed earlier had melted the snow enough for it to pool in the slight divot at the end of the path he was clearing. In the spring after the melt and the rains, that puddle would become a pothole. Felicity would be well into her pregnancy by then. Uneven roads weren’t pleasant even under the best of conditions, but five months pregnant? No. That wouldn’t do. He’d add it to his list of things to do before he left. Hell, it’d be good practice, crossing things out in his notebook after accomplishing his goals. After all, he wasn’t just leaving. He was also returning to where he’d come from… with a mission.

 

Look around
Leaves are brown
There’s a patch of snow on the ground

 

For the first time in more than a decade, it was snowing in Starling City.

Hell really had frozen over.

It was falling quickly, too. Dawn was about to break, and he found himself distantly curious if the local children would get to experience the wonders of a snow day. If he allowed himself to think about his own childhood, he could remember one or two of those himself. Because snow was so rare in Starling, the city didn’t purchase salt for the roads. He wasn’t even sure if Starling owned a plow truck. Either way, though, it wouldn’t actually impact him… unless bad roads led to bad tempers and an increase to the city’s already monstrously high crime rate.

“Who’s John Diggle,” a curious, friendly voice to his left asked. When he glanced over at her, she nodded towards the grave they were standing in front of.

“Just some dead guy,” he told her blankly and was pleased when she accepted his answer without further question. “Kojo Sledgehammer, I presume,” he greeted her then, wanting to make sure that she was who he was expecting, who he was meeting there in the graveyard that early morning, though he had little doubt. Felicity had described Alena down the smallest of details, even going so far as to provide him with a dossier on his new tech genius. When he had expressed his intentions to return to Starling and at least attempt to right some of the city’s wrongs, his friend and former host for more than a year insisted that he not undergo his mission alone. Hence, Alena… though the young hacktivist had no idea that her former idol had recommended her for the position or that he was aware of her real name. For the girl’s own protection, it was better that she not know who he was underneath his hood and mask, and he was going to allow her to think she was offering him the same immunity with her code name.

“In the flesh,” she cheerfully sang out, the hands in her pockets pushing taunt as she did a little dance, spinning around in a circle beside him. He wasn’t sure if she was trying to stay warm or simply that happy. The impractical way she was dressed and the smile on her face told him it was probably a combination of both. “So, what are we doing here?” Before he could answer, she continued talking excitedly, “ooh! Please tell me that there’s a secret entrance and passage to our lair from one of these old, crumbly crypts. That’d be very BTVS of us!”

“Sorry, Willow, ” a third voice entered the mix. It was also female, and it sounded amused. “But I’m afraid that any secret passages that might have existed once would have caved in during The Undertaking.”

“Right,” Kojo Sledgehammer agreed with a sigh. “And our Big Bad doesn’t have fangs but a fortune in a highrise fortress.”

No one felt the need to respond to the obvious information… if delivered somewhat unorthodoxly. Instead, the woman to his right addressed him formally, “Green Arrow.”

He returned the acknowledgement with a lift of his brows and his own, “Ta-er al-Sahfer.”

The assassin’s next words confirmed his suspicions that she’d been present in the cemetery for much longer than she’d allowed them to believe. “I agree with her question, though: what the hell are we doing here? It’s colder than a witch’s tit.”

That might have had something to do with the leather bustier… and not much else that she was wearing, but he refrained from saying as much. As the only guy in their group - and, again, what the hell was he thinking agreeing to working with two women… not to mention the fact that his law enforcement contact was also a woman and his ex-wife?!, he was not starting off their partnership with an unwanted observation on the former league member’s sense of vigilante fashion. Instead of saying any of that, he simply offered, “it felt like a fitting place to start.”

Quite frankly, he was surprised that anyone even bothered to put up a grave marker for him. After all, there was no body to bury, and, by the time Oliver had killed him, John’s family… or what was left of it… had long since left Starling City. His mother and brother were both dead, and his nephew didn’t even know who he was, his sister-in-law needing a clean break from the Diggle family. Not that Digg could blame her. They were a cursed lot. So, it must have been Moira who put up the compensatingly large headstone. When she had sent him out of state and up that mountain, never could he have foreseen this for his future. Yet, he liked it. It served as a good reminder as to why he was here and what he was fighting for.

“Come on,” John ‘Green Arrow’ Diggle said to the women standing there with him, knocking his head over his shoulder to where two motorcycles were parked in the lot behind them. Ta-er al-Sahfer would take one, and he would drive the other, Kojo Sledgehammer picking her poison as to who she would ride with. “I’ll show you where we’ll be working.”

As he walked into the hazy, gray sky of a snowy winter morning - the clouds overhead so heavy, so thick that it seemed like they were resting upon his shoulders, John didn’t have to look to see if the assassin and the hacker were following him, because, instead, he felt them at his sides as his equals. As his partners. As his team.

It wasn’t a traditional way to start a new year, and taking down the criminal elite of a city wasn’t a normal resolution, but it felt good. It felt right; he , for the first time since he compromised his morals and standards and agreed to work for Moira Queen Merlyn, felt right. In this life, in Starling City, a man couldn’t ask for much more than that. He just hoped that he did the man whose hood he wore proud.

 

Look around
Leaves are brown
And the sky is a hazy shade of winter