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Ultimately, it’s fear that drives him forward.

He knows what he must do as the vigilante is easily forfeit to who he could lose. For all his bravado, he isn’t taking a heroic stand out of a need for justice anymore. The deaths he trails behind him are reminder enough of what little he has left—grief and guilt from familiar faces nearly paralyzing him when the line between waking and sleeping is obscured in the dark. But it’s the living that haunt the path before him—so alive and full of promise, they join him at his side despite his warnings, oblivious of the danger he represents and the anchor of death he drags.

The devil is in the details, in worrying too much about one and not all, so he commits his focus to The Bigger Picture and tries not to think in names. Even though his list is much shorter now with so many dead behind him, he doesn't want the reminder—there is too much shame in being so aware of just how many suffering people in Starling he would willingly ignore for the few he would die to save. It's a terrible flaw for the city’s hero to have.

Although it’s the people in the city that need him, it’s the last of his remaining friends that believe in him, and that support scares him most of all. He puts them at risk, but he also knows very well what happens if he stops fighting. Even if he leaves the city—if he walks away from the promise he made to his father when he finally faced reality—his own life is all that he's assured, and it's what he cares about the least.

He knows only forging ahead and finally winning the endless war can stop the threats he fears most. But wars aren’t won without casualties, and he has a poor record of protecting those he loves.

==

i. Laurel

"Sara's keeping an eye on her," Felicity reassures him as he watches the Verdant feed she's pulled up on the monitor. He glances at her in surprise, unaware he's shared his thoughts so easily.

"Your jaw does that thing a lot," she explains as she waves her stylus in the direction of his face. "It gets all stony and clenched up when you think something's your fault."

He blinks. "Stony?"

"Like granite," she clarifies, and then gives him a closer look. "The really expensive kind."

He files that away for reference, not that it matters; he's quickly learning Felicity is scarily observant.

"Laurel is going to be okay, Oliver," she says as she continues to guess at his earlier thoughts, states it in a way that comes across as both stern and supportive somehow. "She's getting help."

He manages a non-committal nod because he's not sure he can trust his own beliefs in the matter; he's known Laurel too long to be objective. On screen, Laurel stands at the bar in conversation with Sara, a bottle of water in hand. She looks relaxed, calm, much better than she did when he returned from the dead to shake up her world again.

"And, right, I know she's in a bar right now," Felicity adds with a wince as she looks back at the video feed, "so that looks really bad. It's probably some sort of, like, AA red flag warning normally and she’s breaking rule number one in their twelve-step program of don'ts. Not that that’s a thing. I don’t think.”

Her tangent isn't helping. "Felicity."

"Sorry.” She gives him a quick apologetic glance. “But, my point was Laurel's not at any bar; she's at Verdant. And that means Sara is looking after her, and Thea's also up there for her to talk to. After the year Laurel’s had, maybe right now she just needs some—“

“—normalcy," Oliver supplies.

“—support," Felicity finishes a beat later. She tilts her head at him curiously. "But your reason sounds much more insightful."

His interruption is unintentional, his thoughts somewhere between the past and present. He'd loved Laurel once—back when a life of commitment and domestic simplicity had held the appeal of a good idea not yet fully realized—but the promise had been more tantalizing than the reality. He'd lived with complicated family dynamics for too long by then, only knew that waste and frivolity and disappointment were a necessary part of what he understood passed for love.

Even now he likes to believe that he loved Laurel beyond the convenience of shared history, that they'd tried to build a relationship on more than comfort. But he knows it's easy to fall in love with what's comfortable; it's also never enough.

"I spent a long time wanting to apologize to her," he admits, thinks about all those years away and repenting for his sins. "It wasn't until I was back that I realized you can still hurt someone multiple times trying to fix things."

"Laurel also made choices of her own," Felicity points out, turning toward him so it reinforces her statement. "And they weren't always good ones."

Laurel's life was forever changed because of his influence, and even if the choices she made were her own, the situations that called for them were his doing. "She deserved more from me."

“You’re human, Oliver.” Felicity's expression is gentle where he expects to see the reproach he feels he deserves. "And I know you don't believe it because you run from absolution like it’s your Achilles’ heel, but you're also a better man than most."

He doesn't know how to answer that—her remarks not freeing him of guilt, but still giving him a small measure of comfort. There are these truths Felicity sees in him that he's always surprised she finds.

"Plus," she adds lightly as a keystroke closes the video feed, "don't you think you've already spent enough time on regret?"

==

ii. Sara

He knows Sara has been training Felicity on the side, scrums of agility and flexibility that are a necessary part of any self-defense skill set. Just stepping foot into the foundry he can already tell it's a spar in progress rather than a teaching lesson. There's a distinct rhythm to their movements, a familiar cadence to the sound of a fight. He observes from a distance unnoticed, not wanting to intrude on their practice session.

"Respond with intent," Sara urges as she forces Felicity into a retreat. Sara isn't going easy, her strikes unforgiving, and he's pleased to see Felicity manages to keep on her feet during the advance and finally puts enough space between them to reset for the counterattack.

"Right," Felicity agrees trying for resolute even with sweat glistening on her skin and her breathing heavy. "You're all that stands between me and food."

"I can keep this up all day," Sara says teasingly.

"You really don't know how badly I want a burger."

He watches the muscles ripple across Felicity's core as she engages. The physical effect from the months of practice she's put in is noticeable—her body is tight, form sleek and responsive. He's reassured to see she's turning into a solid fighter with a precise attack style, and swift, uncomplicated defensive blocks that benefit her size. She has a lower right-side weakness and there's a reliance on repetition that Sara nearly exploits, but Felicity's speed is impressive—it gives her just enough of an edge to keep on the offensive again when Sara shifts her weight backward to set up her next move. Oliver is still registering the opening, but Felicity is already in the unprotected space delivering a lethal palm strike in front of Sara's face to signal the end of the fight.

He smiles at Sara's immediate whoop of joy. Felicity looks more dazed than happy, her chest heaving as she struggles to catch her breath.

"And you said a match would be fun?" she exclaims and walks in a small circle on shaky legs. "Why is this ever a good idea? Oh my god, exercise with you needs to come with a big, fat warning."

Sara is still beaming with pride as she hands Felicity a bottle of water. "You did great."

"Pretty sure my lungs are collapsing. Also, my heart’s exploding." Felicity sits down heavily on the mat, puts her head between her knees. "Leave me here; go save the world."

"So, Ollie, what do you think?" Sara calls out.

He knows he is rather good at moving about unseen, so he steps from the shadows feeling a little perturbed that he'd been noticed. Sara waves, the corner of her mouth curled upward into a small, knowing smile that has always worked on him.

"Time to put those skills up against Digg," he suggests.

From where Felicity has sprawled out on the mat, she groans. "This is a 'good ideas only' zone forever, please."

Sara just laughs. "She'll be fine once she eats."

He joins them on ground level as Sara does a rep on the salmon ladder. She's stronger physically and mentally than she was when they were first together—solid muscle and strength of will where before there was softness and doubt. Of course, they'd both been young and capricious then, sneaking around and lost in the thrill, consequence only a morality tale.

"Your turn," she says when she jumps down, and sometimes there's the slightest inflection in her voice, or the way she'll look up at him from under her lashes, and he's suddenly back in time at the party where Sara is smiling at him suggestively, pulling him by the hand into the hall. He'd always been good at mistakes, at wanting things he shouldn’t have and getting them anyway.

From Sara’s playful tone, Oliver knows her suggestion is hardly serious, and he opts to put off his morning workout until he can avoid the distraction she presents. He goes to the mat to give Felicity a hand up. Her legs are still a little unsteady from the match, muscle fatigue evident, but her grip in his is strong and sure.

"So maybe that wasn't half bad," she remarks thoughtfully having had time enough to process her accomplishment. "And if the criminals can take turns coming at me one at a time, and set down their weapons first, that’d be great.”

Behind them, he hears Sara snort with amusement.

“It’s only been a few months,” he reminds her as she attempts to stretch and then grimaces. “You did ask to learn.”

“I think you and I have different interpretations of how that conversation went down,” Felicity counters, eyeing him pointedly.

Standing this close to her, he can see where beads of sweat followed lines of muscle to curve down her body. He intends to warn her about her tendency to favor her left, but when he reaches out to touch her torso, warm damp skin flutters beneath his fingers in response. He loses his train of thought.

Time extends endlessly, an electric current charging through the contact until her eyes flick questioningly up to meet his. It’s enough to jolt activity back into his brain and he quickly fumbles his way back to the point he’d wanted to make.

“Remember to guard your right,” he tells her, and taps his hand against her side for emphasis. “You leave it open when you press for an advantage.”

“Yeaaah.” She turns to the other side so he can see a bruise that’s a fading yellow-blue mark over her left kidney. “One guess what side I forgot to watch last time.”

Despite wanting to do everything in his power to protect her from harm, he can't promise that to anyone. It’s a constant source of anxiety, and he’s thankful he can count on Sara’s instruction to be thorough because Felicity’s life could very well depend on it.

“It takes a lot of practice and a lot of time,” he says in understanding, then removes his hand from her side before he lets himself wonder if he has an ulterior motive.

She clears her throat. “And you were on the island for five years?”

He can’t tell if she’s asking for herself, daunted by all the training she still has in her future, or if she’s asking it for him, sympathetic to the plight she imagines he faced there. She’s gotten better at masking her expressions, and he thinks he might have taught her that.

“Who’s hungry?” Sara asks giving him a reprieve, and there’s no mistaking the way Felicity positively lights up at the question.

“Protein calls," Felicity sighs happily. She moves gingerly for the stairs, protesting muscles in her legs and back clearly giving her trouble, but she’s locked on to the mission for food. “I’m getting a double—and fries—and there will be no judgment.”

“Digg’s meeting us there,” Sara informs her. “He can carry you back.”

“Ha ha.”

Sara leaves him with a wink, Felicity with an enigmatic smile, and it takes a few minutes to get comfortable in the silence that's left when the door closes behind them.

==

iii. Shado

He fails the dead in his dreams, and that comes as no surprise since he failed them in life as well. Shado's death is as terrible as his father's, but always twice as long. With one he receives dire warnings in riddles he doesn't understand; in the other, illogical tests with ticking clocks that never run out.

“I can’t,” he says when he’s exhausted from trying, only a thousand broken promises in two simple words left to give to her.

“I know,” Shado answers softly, and she dies with a smile.

Oliver jolts awake and sits upright on the cot, his heart racing with futility and fear like this nightmare hasn't recurred a hundred times over before. He tries to remember the specifics, what sort of trials and tribulations sent his pulse rocketing this time, but the dream quickly disintegrates, the island backdrop fading to nothing as Shado’s memory follows it. The sounds from the foundry filter through to his consciousness then, and he turns his head to see Felicity typing away at the keyboard in front of her. It’s too deliberate, the clacking of the keys unabated like she’s trying very hard to make it look like she’s been too occupied to notice he's awake.

He works out the residual morning stiffness in his muscles as he makes his way over to her. Whatever she’s typing, it's an advantage Felicity has over him that he can never tell if the screen in front of her is filled with coding or gibberish.

“Bad dreams?” she asks. He settles for a few sips of her coffee, still too groggy to make his own, but smart enough not to ask Felicity to do it.

“You were yelling,” she admits when he doesn’t respond, and she glances back at the cot as she finally gives the typing a rest. “Nothing intelligible really, just… sounds.”

Her forehead is knitted in concern, her eyes wide as she likely recalls the moment before he woke. He knows very well the anguished sounds a man can produce, and is grateful his did not manifest into words.

“The island?” she asks perceptively in his continued silence.

He finally acknowledges that with a nod. He wants to remember as little of the past as possible, but it is what invariably binds him to the present and what they continue to fight against. Felicity waits patiently for more, and whether it's because he's tired from the restless sleep, or because he feels safe giving his secrets to her, he finds the words.

“I didn’t make a choice,” he explains slowly, “and it was the wrong one. Indecision also comes with a cost."

"Shado," she guesses.

"What's the value of one life over another?" he asks rhetorically. There are some memories that he can believe will find a way to stay with him even beyond death.

She knows enough of his past on the island to understand his meaning, and she looks up at him sympathetically. "Was there a right choice to make?"

He rubs a hand over his face, bothered by how much of his life since then is perpetually living in the grey. "I don't know. I've asked myself that question every day since she died."

"Maybe there isn't an answer," she suggests, and he knows she's treading the subject lightly for him.

"Even if there isn't, I owe it to her." The good memories he holds of Shado remind him of that much; she'd given him a reason to survive. "Without her… I lost myself over there, Felicity. Who I became, what I was willing to do—you start to lose your humanity when you forget you have a choice."

She's quiet for a moment reflecting on that. “And now?”

He shrugs. “I guess I’m still trying to find it.”

Felicity gives him a look like she’s not buying his admission. Then she crosses her arms over her chest and leans back in her chair so he knows she’s about to lay into him with some truth.

"Well, this whole operation is here because you care about the people in this city,” she says firmly and indicates the foundry set up with a tilt of her chin. “And I'm here—we’re all here—because we believe in you. Whatever humanity meant to you before—and oh, um, you probably shouldn't Google pictures of yourself from, like, your college years or after that or anything… ever, by the way—I think most people would argue the humanity you brought back with you is better.”

"That's not quite what I meant," he says, but he's touched by her sentiment.

"There are times when you need perspective," she argues as she takes her coffee cup away from him and frowns when she realizes he finished it, "and that's why you have me. You know, this coffee was full before you drank it all. If you really want things to work on, I could put together a list. Felicity's Coffee Is Sacrosanct is an important one. Also, Felicity Knows When You Try To Access Computer Programs She Said Not To Touch. Maybe you should write these down."

He smiles. It's Felicity that always keeps him grounded when he needs it most. He realizes he's never thanked her for that directly, for continuously trusting there’s a part of him that still matters.

He hasn’t found a way to fit all of that meaning into a phrase.

==

iv. Helena

It’s as he’s donning his Arrow outfit in the car ride between the delegation meeting and the nuclear plant that he realizes the strangeness of his life is one he shares now. Digg is up front simultaneously navigating through the downtown evening traffic while checking his gun and putting in the earpiece Felicity passes to him, while Felicity is impressively still managing her dual roles—on the phone representing Queen Consolidated, and pulling up whatever information she can find on the nuclear plant incident—as she multi-multi-tasks beside him without breaking into a sweat.

The team, he thinks proudly, and it’s a powerful feeling. It wasn’t long ago that he’d felt isolated in his actions, the weight of a double life and keeping up pretenses of the Oliver he used to be an experience no one could understand.

He watches as Felicity hacks the CCTV network at the plant on her tablet with a Trojan program of her own devising while her fingers fly across an interface pop up that looks like a control tower’s worst nightmare. He can only assume the entry points she needs to take over the entire system are hidden somewhere in the lines of streaming text that he can’t decipher, and it’s only when she hands him his mask that he notices she’s finally finished up the phone conversation she’d separately been holding with Kasib in Finance.

“You had one job, Oliver,” she comments wryly as she gives him a significant once over.

He glances down, his outfit transition from Oliver to the vigilante in a half state of completion, and he’s glad Felicity is still making an attempt at humor given the worry he sees in her eyes. No crisis he takes on is ever without threat of severe injury or death, although there’s something about an attempted takeover of a nuclear power plant that has them all a little more on edge.

He wants to say something to reassure her, but he isn’t confident he could get her to accept the lie. Instead, he quickly finishes changing into his disguise, tests the voice transmitter and adds the accessories he needs from the case Felicity hands him as she gives him the situation report.

“Back up is on its way, but they’re almost twenty minutes out, so no surprise, it’s just you and Digg. I’ve counted 17 men in there, all heavily armed,” she says as she briefly meets his eyes, and he sees the fear she is trying not to betray in her voice. “They had some trouble after I shut them out of the access feeds to the electronic security and lock bypass systems, so they’re still a few doors outside the reactor. They’re very very angry about that though, and those doors aren’t going to stop them for much longer.”

“But you slowed them down,” he stresses, grateful for her ingenuity and talent. “Keep doing what you can.”

“I wish their guns ran off computers,” she mutters and frowns at her tablet. He sees her stress in the fine lines at her eyes, her knuckles white from gripping the tablet too tightly, and he reaches out for her hand.

“Hey, Felicity, we’re going to stop them.” He can’t promise it, but he believes it.

She keeps her attention on the story unfolding in code sequences on her tablet, but she nods brusquely. Beneath his hand, he can feel the way her fingers unfurl slightly, tension slowly releasing as he strokes his thumb along hers in comfort.

“You’ll have the element of surprise in the beginning,” Felicity says as a couple of taps bring up the ground floor schematics, “but I can program a fake reactor leak that will set off alarms across every system board in the plant. It won’t trigger secondary protocols though, so it’ll only buy you a couple of minutes.”

He marvels at the way she is compartmentalizing—her focus still laser sharp even though he knows how scared she is for all of them. And he thinks about how wrong he’d been believing Helena was the only one who could ever understand the burden of warring emotions and wearing masks.

“Those couple of minutes might just make the difference,” he says sincerely, and wishes Felicity would look at him. There are truths he can read in her expressions, too.

She gives a partial shrug as though unsatisfied she can’t do more. “I’ll be listening, so just tell me when.”

They’re seconds out from the plant, fingers loosely entwined from where her hand rests in his when she finally meets his gaze. He can clearly read in her eyes what she won’t say aloud, and knows she waited until the last possible moment to let him see it.

How she feels isn’t a secret although it sits between them unsaid. There are so few people he truly cares about, and he’s still finding reasons that make Felicity matter more despite the distractions and safeguards he puts up. But he fights his feelings—knows he needs anger not fear when confronting what’s waiting for him in the plant.

As though she can hear his thoughts, her hand gives his a brief tight squeeze before she pulls it away. “Be careful, Oliver.”

The lack of physical contact doesn’t free him from the swirl of emotions, but it helps.

“Oh, and try to make this quick,” she adds with a touch of dry humor, and he can see her mentally switching gears into Queen Consolidated mode for the little bit of levity that affords them. “Mr. Queen is expected at dinner with the European commissioner tonight.”

“The life of a hero,” Digg says good-humoredly as he stops the car alongside the cover of the outer east entrance.

“The lives of heroes,” Oliver corrects with a smile, and the change in the conversation does as intended to sufficiently get his attention back on the task at hand. The Bigger Picture, he reminds himself as he runs from the car—doesn’t look back at Felicity because he needs to put aside the personal if he means to stop this attack and live to come out the other side of it.

But he knows he’s not alone in all this anymore, and wonders how long he can convince himself there’s still a reason for the distance he keeps from her.

==

v. Isabel

It’s already a mistake before he opens the hotel door and exposes his actions to Felicity, and it’s already a regret before he tries to explain it to her later. He has a long past built on one-night stands, and it proves to be a pattern too easily remembered when wearing that particular Oliver Queen façade. Years before, a meaningless night held even less value in the morning. But now, an inconsequential night with Isabel actually means something because there are consequences—even if it takes Felicity to point them out.

The office lights flicker just before the emergency sirens start, and that’s all the warning he gets before the electricity cuts out completely. The floor is suddenly pitch black, the blaring from the sirens even more deafening in the dark as his adrenaline spikes. Given the late hour, he knows immediately what the alarm means, and his first panicked thought is of getting to Felicity where she’d been working on the other end of the floor.

As the generators kick in and emergency halogen lights bring a hazy glow to the office, he heads quickly toward the maintenance bay to use it to cut across the building and save precious seconds. There might be a small amount of loyalty to him lingering among the guards still left with the company, but he learned the hard way that Isabel isn’t one to take chances. If the fully-equipped security force they skirted to gain entry to Queen Consolidated is any indication, neither he nor Felicity will face a court of law to answer for trespassing in a building he no longer owns.

Oliver only makes it as far as the elevator bank before colliding with Felicity as she comes at him full tilt from around the corner. Physics naturally favors him in the exchange, but Felicity looks like she’d rather fall over than drop any one of the devices she’s carrying, so he reaches out to steady her. Sharp relief courses through him now that she’s here and he can see she’s unharmed, and it takes a moment before he’s ready to let go of her.

“Intrusion alert,” she exclaims sounding winded, and he realizes she must have run the length of the floor in the dark to come find him.

“I know,” he agrees, and forces himself to relinquish contact with her. “What about the camera feeds?”

“We’re still okay." She automatically glances up at the camera embedded in the ceiling above them. "For now. But they’re already running diagnostics on the surveillance system.”

He tries to think through options. “Could you do something about the noise?”

She types into her phone and mercifully the sound dims a second later. He can still hear the emergency siren from where it issues the urgent evacuation alarm on the floors below him, but the leftover ringing in his ears is manageable.

“Isabel cleaned the entire network after she forced us out,” Felicity notes with annoyance, her brow furrowed. “The detection system is a mess and it’s built off of last year’s software so no one will be winning any awards from me for that set up, but the prevention system is really good. It caught a deviation I didn’t even know I could trigger and put the entire building in lockdown.”

She looks simultaneously irritated and dismayed at that, but continues to tap at her phone as he leads her to the outer hall and toward the side wall against the emergency elevator shaft. With their presence known and security measures in action, he doesn't want to waste any further time getting Felicity to the Plan B exit point.

“At least they were as surprised by the lockdown protocol as I was, but none of the proxy programs are running yet because now a subroutine is compromised,” she adds in frustration and switches to her tablet. He only partially comprehends Felicity’s technical spiel, but he trusts her assessment and doesn’t interfere, focusing instead on finding the access panel so he can slide open the hatch and secure the pulley line.

“Five minutes,” Felicity decides with a determined nod. “If you can give me five minutes, I can patch together a workaround and get control, but I need to be at that hardline to the dummy server we set up.”

“We’re not going to have that kind of time,” he says, the blinking dots on Felicity’s tablet much too close for comfort.

“Okay, four minutes. Final offer.” She finally notices the hatch open in the wall and looks up at him sharply. “Wait. What exactly is happening right now?”

“Plan B. You know the way out.”

She stares at him, the tablet forgotten. “You’re not serious.”

“Felicity, please,” he entreats, needing her to acquiesce just once without argument.

"And what are you going to do?"

There's a half-baked idea growing that is almost entirely built on luring the guards away from Felicity—give them a target running in the opposite direction, maybe he’ll even have time to get off some arrows—but it's essentially a very incomplete plan and he chooses to ignore her question because he knows she won't approve. He hands her the pulley line. “Follow the tunnel and go to the foundry. You can talk me through the program initialization on the way.”

“That’s a horrible plan, Oliver.” She looks offended that he’s even suggested she retreat, and resolutely shakes her head. “No, I’m staying. This is more than just a ‘press enter’ command program, you know, which is kinda why I’m here with you in the first place.”

“Felicity.” He grinds his teeth at her stubborn refusal to leave.

"And saying my name like that isn't going to work either," she adds pointedly.

He doesn’t get any more time to debate the issue. "We need to move," he orders, and her tablet provides them with verification of that fact—the lights representing the guards fast approaching their location.

She takes the line but still hesitates a split-second longer.

“I'll follow you," he promises. With guards crawling all over the building and about to burst on to their floor, he's out of available choices and can finally acknowledge that the mission is a bust.

Reassured by his answer, Felicity tucks the tablet away into a jacket pocket before climbing into the elevator shaft with no further complaints. She slides into the alcove built alongside it and Oliver quickly follows, balancing along the inner ledge as he seals the entrance behind them. It’s a tight squeeze—the small passageway running parallel along the emergency elevator path—but it’s a recent building addition, and more importantly, one that’s hidden from surveillance.

There isn’t an easy way to lower them individually—a problem he’d intended to fix, but Isabel’s big traitorous reveal had changed those plans—so he has no choice but to take them both down on the pulley together. He knows Felicity is only familiar with the exit strategy they’d devised in theory rather than practice, but she intuitively understands the situation and wraps her arms around his neck as he pulls her closer.

He drops them four floors without incident until a small hiss from Felicity brings them to a halt. He can see the glow from her phone in his peripheral vision and then hears the muffled voices through the wall beside him. The emergency alarm still ringing on a few floors makes it impossible to understand the conversation in detail, but he immediately catches the sound of Isabel’s voice. Felicity stiffens imperceptibly when she recognizes it as well, and he can feel her turn to look at him. He makes the mistake of automatically attempting to return her gaze and nearly ends up kissing her when he forgets just how close their heads are to one another.

"Isabel," she mouths, her expression tense. He can only give a small nod in acknowledgment, wondering just what Isabel is still doing at the office so late at night. She couldn't have known they were coming, but she might have guessed they would. It escalates his concern and he unintentionally tightens his grip around Felicity's waist.

It feels like minutes before Isabel moves on and Felicity finally sounds the all-clear. The need to get Felicity out of harm’s way is a pressing priority, and he's on hyper alert with danger so close. The next time she starts to issue a warning, he’s already stopping the pulley line just from the slight change of her breath on his neck.

“They finished sweeping this floor,” she whispers, and she’s suddenly wriggling in his grasp and feeling along the wall for the release panel. “I can use the hardline to the server in the bay.”

“What?” He pulls her back and turns them so he can block her way out. “Felicity, that isn’t going to happen.”

“You said we only had one chance to set this up,” she reminds him impatiently.

“And that’s over.”

It’s too narrow of a passageway to allow for much space between them, and he can feel her frustration building in the lines her body makes against his. And she’s frowning an inch away from his nose, so that’s hard to miss.

“Oliver, we need access to the system,” she insists. “We’re already here. We have to try.”

“It’s not worth the risk anymore. There is no Plan C to get us out of here.”

“We can get to the bay around the camera surveillance that’s in the hall and be back before they decide to recheck this floor,” she explains. “See, still Plan B.”

“No. This isn’t just something that puts us in jail, Felicity.” Only her hand tight over his on the line he holds keeps him from ending the argument and dropping them all the way to the tunnel. “If they catch you, they’ll kill you.”

She manages to look defiant although he knows she’s scared. “What else is new?”

“Slade’s men are out there right now. Isabel is out there,” he adds in a heated whisper. “She knows we're here, and if she finds us, I don’t know if I can keep you safe.”

“Well, you can’t protect me from everything,” she says bluntly, and then looks mildly surprised and uncomfortable with her declaration.

He tries not to show how much the comment bothers him. "I know."

"I didn't mean..." She trails off and falls silent momentarily. There's awkwardness in the pause, and he gets the sense she'd been referring to more than just her safety. “Look,” she continues before he can be fully diverted, “if we leave now, we don’t have another shot at this, right? We’re not going to be tracking anything happening here.”

“I know what it means, Felicity," he says, aware of the significance and committed to the outcome.

“Then whatever Isabel does with Queen Consolidated, I won’t know about it, and I can’t stop it.”

Her loyalty to the company, to him, nearly shines in the confined space, and for a brief moment he’s swept along in her bravery. He feels the stubborn set of her shoulders and sees the way her eyes flash in challenge because she wants this win for them both no matter the cost.

It’s that last thought that sobers him and he forces his mind back toward their exit plan.

“You’re worth more to me than the company,” he shares quietly, and releases his grip on the pulley line to send them the rest of the way down.

He can’t see her expression, but she offers no further argument, and they reach the tunnel offshoot in under a minute. It’s a level below the foundation supports and one above the sewer, a cutout nestled among the pipes and bundles of wires feeding into the building.

He lets Felicity lead the way guided by the light on her phone—stash glowsticks, another to do item disrupted by Isabel—as they follow the tunnel to where it will eventually take them to safety two and a half blocks north of Queen Consolidated. It's a straight shot, but they move cautiously in the low light.

He watches periodically as Felicity checks her phone and her tablet, but she continues to shake her head worriedly each time. "No signal. The lockdown shut off the circuit we put down here."

There is only one direction to run and nowhere to hide, but he pulls her to a stop so he can listen for any sounds of pursuit. Seconds tick by slowly, the thrum of her pulse rapidly beating against his fingers where they press at her wrist, but he doesn't hear anything out of the ordinary to raise alarm.

"We're about half way there," he tells her as he motions for her to continue down the tunnel.

She nods, still scared but tough as nails, and this time he walks beside her. His heightened levels of alarm fade the further they get from the building, but he maintains a quiet vigilance. Isabel’s presence was an unwelcome surprise, and he knows she is relentless.

“Why was Isabel here this late?” Felicity asks quietly.

He’s not surprised to find Felicity thinking along similar lines. “She must have known we would eventually try to tie into the system.”

“That explains the army of amped-up muscle soldiers on watch, but why was she here?”

“It was personal,” he guesses. The relationship complexity he’d walked into with Isabel, and the tethers that connected her back to Slade and his father—it was all something he hadn’t seen coming. Felicity doesn’t further the conversation, but she doesn’t have to say anything to remind him that even spending one night with Isabel had been an obvious mistake.

In the silence as they walk, he can't help but think back to Felicity’s earlier comment. Something about it nags at him.

Protecting Felicity is half the reason he continues to accept the responsibilities of the Arrow, even if the personal line he’s set between them for her safety is tenuous at best. He knows getting close to her puts her life at greater risk—history and nightmares fuel that fear frequently enough. Yet he's not ignorant of the fact that while he's kept her at a distance, she’s still become someone he cares about.

Then he suddenly remembers their previous conversation about Isabel, about not being with someone he could care about, and understanding finally hits him then. He slept with Isabel because it was about as meaningless a night as he could get, far from causing any ripples that could reach the people whose lives he was protecting. At least, that had been the idea. But Felicity could still be hurt emotionally even if she never declared her feelings for him or he ever acknowledged his for her. And worse, he could be the one to hurt her like that. It's a distressing realization that despite all of his best laid plans, that’s exactly what he achieved after Isabel.

Because wanting Felicity to be happy is just as important to him as keeping her alive, and it never occurred to him it was within his power to control both.

==

vi. Felicity

It takes a while to figure out. He’s very good at doing normal things very badly, and it’s difficult for him to separate the Felicity Feelings that are an extension of high-risk adrenaline and endorphins from the ones that matter long after the crime fighting has stopped.

There’s an overdue break in the storm after Slade, a calm that settles like a lazy summer over Starling and fills Oliver with a false sense of security, of manageable problems and predictable schedules. He’s still busier than he expects—it’s a full-time job not having a job, or a proper foundry, or money, and only Isabel’s death actually helps in the litigation proceedings to attempt to reclaim some control of Queen Consolidated—but everything is easier and lighter. He has time to dwell on thoughts, and there is suddenly extra space within every hour now for want to occupy.

“Something’s up with you,” Felicity says suspiciously once he’s folded himself into the passenger seat of her car and handed her a coffee and that muffin crumble pastry thing he knows she likes. “And remember, I know your fake innocent look.”

He scalds his tongue on his coffee when he tries to stall for time, coughs. “What?”

“I’m waiting for the favor I’m probably not going to like that you’re going to cash in for this breakfast,” she answers, and gives him a side-eye glance that he knows she would not like him finding rather cute. “And using coffee as leverage, Oliver? That’s cold.”

He shifts uncomfortably at that, the morning already taking an unexpected turn. He’s now quite sure it had not been a clever idea to ask for sacrosanct to be written on the side of her coffee cup—especially after it’d come back as sack saint.

“No favors,” he promises. “The coffee is just a gesture of… partnership. You are out of a job because of me.”

“Only the one I put up on LinkedIn," she says with an indifferent shrug as she pulls the car back into traffic. "And I never thought I had a career in executive assisting anyway.”

“I didn’t have any complaints,” he says truthfully.

“You were a little distracted saving the city," she justifies. They’re interrupted when Felicity’s phone chirps an alert and she quickly scrolls through the update. "It's Roy," she shares with a meaningful look. "He has a lead on a store fronting for the weapons ring, but we don't have much time. The police are already en route to raid it.”

Felicity knows this is a lead they need, and Oliver can feel the car accelerating before he even has to say anything. The advanced weaponry leaving the city is only one part of a disturbing distribution network they discovered after discretely gaining access to a few Queen Consolidated R&D projects initiated under Isabel's regime.

"Where?" he asks, and puts a steadying hand over Felicity's coffee cup as the car swings around a corner.

"A tea shop on Central. It would be close if this wasn’t rush hour." She taps her fingers on the wheel impatiently as she quickly catches up to the traffic in front of them. "Um, you should probably hold on to something," she warns suddenly and then pulls a dangerous maneuver to narrowly slide between a few braking cars and through the intersection light just as it turns red.

He finds his breath and looks at her in surprise.

"I've been watching Digg," she admits, and readjusts her glasses with a hand that’s remarkable steady. "I never tried that move before though, so this could have ended very differently."

His immediate instinct is to caution her against putting herself in jeopardy like that, but anything he can say would be hypocritical—and he knows she will call him out on it if he tries—so he silently embraces the admiration he feels instead.

"Okay, now I know something's up," she says, sparing a quick glance his way. "I saw a smile."

He almost smirks in response. "Watch the road."

"I'm on to you, Oliver Queen."

Her teasing tone and the easy smile she wears tells him how much she's enjoying this. It's not often she can exercise the skills she's honing for future Team Arrow deployment, or use her ability to discomfort him by picking up on signals he doesn't even know he's leaving. There's already an 'I love you' between them—a necessity tied in a confession—but it's hardly been something he's forgotten. He spends his days with her and his nights thinking about her, and he's finally realizing he was in love with her long before he admitted to it.

They don't get much time in the tea shop with the police gearing up for the raid, but there are few clues to find amidst the jars of dragonwell and ginseng teas anyway—the store just one of many temporary holdings along the contraband travel route. The entire network of activity is frustratingly well-orchestrated with numerous shell corporations and international holding companies making the path difficult to track.

There's no sense in lingering at the shop and risk getting seen by anyone, so they make a quick exit. Roy elects to stay nearby and learn what he can from the raid while Oliver returns with Felicity to the foundry to see what the new information they gathered might dig up. She beelines for the computer as soon as they arrive, and he watches her as typed commands leave her fingers swiftly to become programs that execute her plans. Her work ethic is efficient and dedicated—it’s Felicity in her element in a way he didn't often get time to appreciate before.

"The shop is owned by Far East Industrial Group," Felicity shares, and looks over her shoulder at him. "It's a dummy corporation in operation since the Undertaking."

Oliver manages not to grimace at the mention. "Any connections to something that will help?"

"Just the usual dead ends so far, but I have a trace program running through the financials."

Felicity continues typing as he joins her at the table and sinks into the available chair beside her. Aside from a few systems Lyla “requisitioned” from A.R.G.U.S. with some data string pulling help from Felicity, their new base of operations is only running on basics. But he's getting used to the daily routine and enjoying the continued close proximity to Felicity. They’re still two-thirds of the team committed to helping the city and watching one another’s backs, but he knows he needs her, much more than she needs him, and he’s restrained by the knowledge she deserves a better deal.

"It could be awhile before we get a hit," she cautions, sitting back and flexing her arms.

He nods in understanding—his life is, more often than not, just a series of reactions. He's also aware that Felicity's technical expertise is invaluable and likely the key to breaking this case open. The entire search is already like finding a needle in a haystack and he wouldn't even know where to begin without her. But the more time he has to appreciate her myriad talents, the harder it is to ignore the feelings for her that sit warmly in his chest during the calm and crackle to life at her touch.

Felicity gives him a studying look. "Are you about to tell me you love me again?"

His heart thumps in his chest as he tries to cover his surprise at her remark.

"Not that I’m propositioning," she adds quickly when she sees his reaction. "Because that would be weird, or implying… something. I’m just trying to—you know, be prepared. Game face on and stuff."

“Last time there were cameras,” he reminds her, unable to help himself because the 'I love you' topic is on the table and within reach.

“Right,” she says, and immediately dismisses the notion with a shake of her head. But then she hesitates at his meaning.

"They're kind of unnecessary now,” he adds.

"Right," she repeats slowly, still processing. "Hidden cameras. That's so last time."

"I can do better."

"Well, you're going to have to give me a few weeks if you've decided to move on to using nanobots or something," she advises, and gives him a bemused head tilt that’s devastatingly attractive. He swallows hard. Then she leans in conspiratorially like she’s figured out that this conversation isn't really about the cameras. "I thought you set the bar pretty high otherwise."

Felicity’s eyes are bright behind her glasses, her smile just verging on the knowing, and all the feelings for her that he's been grappling with come roaring to the surface. He tries to remember how to use his words, but his soundless effort only succeeds in drawing her gaze down to his mouth. That’s all it takes to get him thinking about her lips, about kissing her, and about the dozen other times they’ve been waiting just like this—nothing between them but a moment suspended in want and stopped by reason.

“Oliver,” she starts to say gently, “don’t overthink-,” and then he’s closing the last foot of distance between them to kiss her. He surprises himself with his own brazen move, his pulse a rushing buzz in his veins that beats in a heady cadence of half shock and half hope. But he feels the strong surge of desire that loosens in her when their lips meet, and the doubts he'd been harboring are swept away. Felicity’s mouth falls open to his as she makes the faintest sound, a small moan of need that shoots fire straight to his groin. His hand finds its way to her neck of its own accord, his fingers in the hair at the nape of her neck and his thumb curving under her jaw to lift her chin higher and bring her mouth closer. She kisses him deeply in response, and as her tongue finds his, he feels so blissfully mindless it’s like he’s intoxicated.

He eventually manages to pull her to him and resettles her in his lap so he's not kissing her awkwardly over the chair. She feels way too good straddling him, every curve of her body a suggestion he can vividly envision exploring with great enthusiasm as soon as he has her out of her clothes. And when she briefly pulls away from his mouth, pushes her hands down on his shoulders so she can shift her hips forward for a closer fit up against his, he groans and actually sees little dots of light in his peripheral vision.

He’s always known they make a good crime-fighting team, but there is something right about being with her like this on a deeper personal level that reduces all his fears about a relationship with her and makes him feel strong instead of vulnerable. He opens his eyes and Felicity is watching him, her smile soft and sexy.

"Bar raised," she admits as she finds her breath and he tucks an errant strand of hair back behind her ear. "This is totally better."

He decides to confess. “I thought about doing this last time.”

“You were going to kiss me? That night? I mean, before the kidnapping and the nearly dying parts of the evening obviously—since, you know, not quite as romantic," she clarifies.

“I wanted to,” he acknowledges, and it wasn't the first time he had entertained the thought either. But it's a struggle to move beyond this simple vocabulary setting and say more when he’s increasingly distracted by where his hands have ventured.

“Okay, thank god,” she says sounding decidedly relieved, “because I was really starting to think I had mastered a whole one-way relationship thing with you. Which is far less creepy than it sounds. And not as pathetic. Weren’t you kissing me?”

She is charming when she's flustered, her cheeks reddening, and he gives in to her plea, presses his mouth to hers because there’s nothing else he would rather be doing. Kissing her feels great; she's receptive, eager, and they have months of delay and pent-up emotion urging them forward. He leans into her, Felicity's fingers automatically clenching around his arms as she steadies herself against the movement, and he feels the way her mouth goes a little slack. She squeezes his biceps again—experimentally this time—and it's actually not easy to keep kissing her when he's trying to fight down a smile.

"These are—wow," Felicity breathes, her voice throaty with a combination of lust and awe as she trails wondering fingers over the muscles of his arms. "How do you even find shirts that fit?”

He chuckles and drops his lips to her shoulder, smells sweet honeysuckle when he kisses her skin. His hands are under her dress running up her thighs and he's been lying to himself that he hasn't wanted to do this since the first time he ever watched her walk away from him. It's only when Felicity has him out of his shirt, her own dress bunched around her waist, that he reluctantly drags his mouth from her neck. He’s nearing the limits of his control because the motion of her hips against his is driving him crazy, and they're going to end up fucking in a plastic chair unless he stops them.

“There are some things Digg shouldn’t have to see,” Oliver reasons aloud when Felicity shoots him a questioning look, and he glances over at the door meaningfully. With less to do while Queen Consolidated is tied up in court, they’re all spending more time in the foundry keeping watch over the city, and he knows to expect Digg to show up at any moment.

“Should I mention that it’s a digital lock and I can change the access code from here?” she offers, but it’s accompanied by a teasing smile as she climbs off his lap.

It doesn’t take her long to readjust her dress and smooth out her hair, but the evidence is everywhere else. Her lips are still red and swollen, her eyes dilated, and he feels the funny little hitch he gets in his chest when she looks at him.

“I’m free tonight,” Felicity throws out when he stands. “Unless there’s a sudden catastrophe—which I wouldn’t totally rule out given our history—I’m free, and my night is a marathon of The X-Files on Chiller, and finishing an entire bottle of wine because Sara’s not here to guilt me out of it with a morning workout.”

He finds his shirt under the table. “It sounds like a pretty good night already.”

“Oh, I know, they’re starting season three. This is a sacrifice,” she emphasizes as he pulls his shirt back on. “But I can be free tonight.”

And the look she gives him is why he’s sure so many guys fall in love with her. Felicity is suddenly more without the ancillary angst he usually assigns to that possibility, and the transition is smoother than he expects. She’s not just his partner or his friend, she’s part of The Bigger Picture, and it’s becoming the reason he needs to do the things he should.

He smiles. “Would you like to go to dinner with me?”

==

Hope, he realizes later, it’s always been the counterpart to fear.

 

-Fin