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Pieces of Always

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September 2014

The waiting room is serene.

It's all soft pastel colors, with a rather ridiculously-sized fishtank in one corner and a play area in another. The air is suffused with a feeling of calm, of peace and cheer, celebrating life and…

"I have to pee."

Oliver honestly tries not to smile, but he can't contain his grin. He's flying high today, absolutely on cloud nine in spite of how the rest of the week has gone, and he's easily amused at the moment. Even the solid thwack to his arm by his girlfriend as she bounces anxiously in front of him does nothing to dampen his mood. His grin quickly turns into a laugh, which might not be the best choice considering the way the love of his life has been bemoaning her situation and dancing about for the last ten minutes, but it's instinctive and he can't cage it in.

Really, most of the time she wouldn't want him to. But today…

"Oliver!" she protests, looking at him with scandalized offense. "Thirty-two. That's how many ounces of water I had to chug and now we're just sitting here? They could at least run on schedule. Do you think we could pay them to just go now? Everybody has their price, right?"

He shakes his head at her, which is an equally terrible idea, something that's only reinforced when her look morphs into a glare. But this is the same woman who balked at the idea of him buying their new home on his own just last week, in spite of the fact that he easily has more than enough money to do so.

He raises an amused eyebrow. "You want me to bribe the ultrasound technician?"

Even as she wriggles uncomfortably, she can recognize the irony. Her annoyance evaporates with a sheepish eyeroll. That is until she stops bouncing, which seems to somehow put more pressure on her bladder. She groans.

"If I've proven nothing else these past two years," Felicity points out, closing her eyes, "I think I've proven myself morally flexible. Sometimes extreme measures are called for."

"And this would be one of those times?" he prods.

"Hey, you drink a gallon of water and hold it for an hour while an alien invader uses your bladder as its own personal punching bag," she replies crisply. "Then you can talk to me about whether or not extreme measures are needed."

She keeps moving, but it does nothing to help. Misery works its way across her features as she whimpers. He's not without sympathy, not at all, but he's just so excited to see the baby that it's been overwhelming everything else.

Oliver reaches for her with a murmured, "Come here." He tugs her forward by her hips until she's standing right in front of where he's seated on the uncomfortable waiting room chair. "I'm sorry. I'll bribe them if you want me to."

She's considering it. He can see it written all over her face. Oliver has to bite his tongue to keep from grinning again.

"No," she replies mournfully after a moment. "I'm sure everyone else here drank a swimming pool worth of water, too. That wouldn't be fair to them." He declines to point out that her estimation of how much water she drank has steadily increased. "But, I reserve the right to stop caring about them if this goes even a second past ten minutes."

"Fair enough," he agrees, keeping his hands on her hips. He leans forward, pressing a soft kiss to her rapidly growing baby bump.

It's incredible how excited he is, how ready he feels. The contrast to the last time he'd been in a position like this is night and day. But he'd been such a mess back then, when Samantha had told him she was pregnant. He'd been so young. It's not like everything is exactly ideal now either, but he's in a better place. Hell, on paper, their situation might actually be worse, considering the mess on the Arrow's doorstep. But he aches with how much he wants this, how much he can't wait to hold his baby in his arms and soothe her cries, rock her to sleep. And, yes… yes, he'll be juggling that with being the Arrow and rebuilding QC and a relatively new and somewhat uneasy relationship with his son's mother, but none of that matters because he knows this is perfect.

He feels it with every fiber of his being.

"Maybe try thinking about something else," Oliver suggests, as if that's something Felicity hasn't been trying to do for the last hour. He knows she has even before she raises her eyebrows at him. He rubs her hips. "Hey," he says, his voice quiet with wonder. "We get to see her soon."

Felicity's face softens at that. She bites her lip, looking down at her growing stomach. She smooths her hands over it to cup her belly.

"We get to know for sure it's a her soon," she points out. "I know we've said it's a girl from the beginning, mostly because… because Ellie was so certain." Felicity swallows hard when she says her name. It doesn't come easily to her and he hasn't pushed. Yet. He wants to talk about Ellie more; he thinks they need to. Though right now is definitely not the time to start. "But it's not like she could have actually known, Oliver."

"It's a girl," Oliver says with certainty, looking at her stomach where its eye-level with him. "It's our little girl in there and she's going to be as perfect as her little sister will be."

A noise catches in Felicity's throat at that, but Oliver doesn't look up at her. He knows it's mostly for her sake.

The subject of Ellie is still something she tries to carry privately. Sharing her pain about their daughter is not something that comes with ease. She's doing better - they both are - but the struggle is there.

So, instead of looking up at her, Oliver focuses on the evidence of his baby that's right in front of him. He kisses Felicity's belly again, smiling against the taut fabric stretched across her stomach. She's not a fan of the loose and flowy look and he's damned happy for that because her figure absolutely takes his breath away.

"Hey, baby girl," he murmurs against the tight jersey material that's really not meant to be a maternity dress. "Save the tap dancing on mommy's bladder for later, would you?"

Felicity huffs out a laugh, pushing her hands through his hair. She scrapes her nails over his scalp, just the way he likes it. With a sigh, he rests his forehead against her stomach. It's funny how much these quiet moments of mild affection mean to him, how much something as simple as her hands in his hair makes him absolutely melt. He can deal with anything life throws at him as long as he gets to keep coming home to this, to her, every day.

"Smoak?"

They turn in tandem to see a woman with a clipboard nearby, looking at them expectantly.

Felicity breathes a quiet, "Oh, thank god," grabbing his hand and tugging him up out of the chair before walking toward the nurse. The young woman has a bright smile and her clothes have little dancing duckies all over them. He vaguely hears Felicity talking to her - something about being excited, something about how she's been feeling - because the word 'Smoak' rings through his head.

He's gonna have to fix that. He wants to fix that, with a sudden yearning that takes him by surprise. It's not like he hasn't wanted it before, he has, but right now, in this moment, the want is stronger than ever before. And the sooner the better in his mind, but he's fairly certain Felicity's not quite there yet. There's been so much going on, and they really could use time to just be them before jumping into yet another new situation.

But he wants her to be a Queen.

He wants it badly.

"Hey."

He blinks. The doctor's office comes back into focus, and he finds both Felicity and the nurse staring at him.

Felicity tugs on his hand. "Where'd you go?"

"Nowhere," he says, a small smile inching across his face. It crinkles the edges of his eyes as he hones in on her. On his future wife. "I'm right here with you. There's nowhere else I'd rather be."

He pulls her hand up to kiss her fingers before following along as they head into a room for her appointment.

Oliver pays little attention to the routine parts that follow: checking her weight - she swears at least two pounds are due to the water - and measuring her blood pressure. No, his eyes find something else. There's a chart on the wall comparing fetus sizes by week to various fruits and vegetables.

A banana.

His baby's the size of a banana right now.

Oliver's not sure exactly why that's endearing, but it is. And amazing.

He's fully distracted by the chart right up until Felicity uses his shoulder for support as she takes off her shoes.

"You know," she says, prompting him to look at her. She's already taken off her dress and donned a dressing gown. The nurse is nowhere to be seen. Felicity taps his chest."This is the first time you haven't even looked my direction while I undressed. If I were a little bit more insecure, I might be worried it's because I look like a beached whale."

"You're gorgeous and you know it," he instantly replies, with a wink that makes her smile as she scrunches her nose at him. His eyes skim down her body. The drape-like blue gown is anything other than attractive, but it's her wearing it, and that's all he needs. He steps closer, tugging on the sleeve of the gown as he hones in on her. "I think maybe I need to remind you of that when we get out of here."

A little shiver hits her. Felicity bites her lip. It's intensely evident that she's not wearing a thing under that flimsy fabric, because her nipples peak immediately in a way that has his mouth watering in anticipation. He loves all of her - always - but pregnancy has done absolutely amazing things to her breasts. He's more than a little entranced with how sensitive she's gotten, how responsive she is to even the lightest whisper of a touch…

His thumbs itch to do just that.

"I think maybe you should," she whispers, looking up at him from underneath her eyelashes.

It's enough to suck all the air out of the room, leaving his lungs tight and his eyes blown wide. The whole world is reduced down to the two of them and the moment stretches out, feeling tangible and infinite all at once.

At least it does until a sharp knock on the door makes them both jump. Okay, so her OBGYN's office is probably one of the worst places to imagine all the things he's going to do her beautiful breasts, but oh well.

"Hi there!" A woman pokes her head in the room. Her disposition is so cheery it might be grating if Oliver weren't in such a good mood to start with. "I'm Connie, your technician today. You about ready to sneak a peek at your little one?"

"When can I pee?" Felicity asks in place of a response.

The technician laughs and wrinkles her nose, but Felicity is most definitely not amused.

"It's a lot, I know," Connie agrees. "Just try to hang in there and we'll get you to a bathroom as soon as we can, okay?"

Felicity sighs, but she doesn't argue. When he glances at her, there's a new nervous energy surrounding her, and Oliver knows her easy acquiescence is mostly due to her wanting to see their daughter every bit as much as he does.

He captures her hand in his, squeezing it gently.

"Why don't you hop up on the table," the tech says, patting said table as she sets a clipboard down. "And I'll try to warm up this goo so it isn't so brrr chilly on your belly!" Connie gives them an overly enthusiastic fake shudder. Oliver's pretty sure he's looking at her like she's crazy - and he kind of thinks she might be - but she doesn't seem to care. She hums to herself, using her hands to warm up a tube of something that's an unnatural shade of blue.

But she doesn't hold his attention long.

"Need a hand?" he asks, moving to help Felicity before she can answer.

"I'm good," she counters, waving him off as she hops up onto the table. "I'm a total pro at sitting. Been doing it most of my life."

"That's sass," he says, raising his eyebrows. "You're sassing me right now."

Felicity's way too smug as she gives him a little grin and half-shrug before laying back against the paper-covered plastic bed. He just shakes his head, standing at her side. The paper crinkles loudly under her as she situates herself, but her sudden sigh of relief drowns out the noise quickly.

"Oh thank god, she moved," Felicity breathes, closing her eyes and touching her stomach. "Thank you, baby. Thank you so much. If you could just stay right there, I will totally promise you cookies or a pony or a trip to Disney or whatever you want. Deal?"

"Awww… bribes aren't the answer, Momma!" the tech says, perma-grin in place as she adjusts a monitor and flanks Felicity's other side.

"That depends entirely on what the question is," Felicity replies blank-faced.

Oliver bites his lip to keep in a snicker. This really isn't the time.

"So," Connie says, completely bypassing Felicity's retort. "Sounds like you two think it's a little princess you've got there, huh?"

It's not the first time they've heard that, not by a longshot.

The media's been speculating since well before the baby bump had even been visible, and it's only grown in fervor as her pregnancy and their presence in the public eyes has become more pronounced. Interest in the Queen family seems like it's at an all time high these days. Between trying to rebuild the company - literally - and his mother's role as mayor as well as his sister's sharp decline in public appearances, speculation has run wild. It seems like the whole city is waiting for confirmation on whether it's expecting a new princess or princeling to call its own quasi-royal heir.

It's been exhausting.

But they both ignore that and get right to the point.

"Yes," Felicity replies as Oliver intones a firm, "Absolutely."

The tech's waves some kind of wand-like piece of equipment about. "Wanna see if we can't find out for sure?"

"Let's do this," Felicity agrees, taking a deep breath.

Connie drapes a thin white sheet over Felicity's legs before helping her ruck up her gown to expose her belly.

A nervous excitement creeps along Oliver's skin, making it feel too tight and too static all at once. His heart's got to be going a million beats a minute and he grips Felicity's hand as much to support her as he does to settle himself. She calms him some. She always does.

But she clenches his hand with a sudden squeeze and lets out a yelp when the technician squirts some of that gel on her stomach.

"That's warmer?" she asks, blinking at the tech.

"Believe it or not!" Connie replies. "Trust me, you aren't gonna be real concerned with that in a minute."

She's absolutely right.

The instant she stops talking, she puts the wand against Felicity's skin and the room is suddenly filled with an almost machine-like whir of noise. It's fast and repetitive and it takes a moment for anything to register in Oliver's head, much less picking up on exactly what that is.

When it hits him a split second later, he stops breathing.

"Well, you're sure easy to find aren't you, little one?" Connie chuckles, pressing the wand at a slightly different angle.

"Is that…" Felicity starts, looking between Oliver and the technician. He can't reply, though. He's at a total loss for words because he knows exactly what he's hearing and he's suddenly so overwhelmed he's not sure he could get a word out without crying. He's vaguely aware that Felicity's still staring at him. "That's the…"

"That'd be your baby's heartbeat," the chipper technician confirms. Her cheeriness is significantly less annoying all of a sudden.

"Oh my god."

It takes Oliver a minute to realize he's the one who spoke.

His eyes fly from Felicity's belly to her face and what he finds there matches what he's feeling exactly. Wetness clings to the edges of her eyelids, but the tears don't spill. This is overwhelming in the best possible way. Love and happiness fill his chest, making his heart feel like it might just burst. From morning sickness to the rounding of Felicity's waistline, their child has made her presence known for months.

But this is different.

This is more.

"Sounds good, you two," Connie informs them. "Right about 150 beats per minute, which is well within the normal range. Now, let's see if we can't get a good picture, shall we?"

Oliver doesn't trust his voice, so he just nods vehemently as he pulls Felicity's hand to his lips and kisses the inside of her wrist over and over. She uncurls her fingers to touch the side of his face as he breathes her in at her pulse point, savoring that wonderful mix of scents that are uniquely hers.

Before he's entirely ready, the technician flips a switch and brings the monitor to life.

He's not sure what he'd expected. He'd missed all of this with William - it all would have been vastly different then anyhow, on many levels - but he's a little surprised when the screen is grainy and black and white. Of course it is. It's an ultrasound, not a video camera. But still, it takes a few moments for his eyes to adjust and figure out what he's seeing.

The technician presses the wand in a few different angles, trying to get a clearer view. It's like the image on the screen is pushing through waves of dark water as she moves it, bits of white dissolving into the black surrounding it.

She suddenly stops. It takes a few seconds before the picture slowly starts to solidify…

And then his daughter is right there in front of him.

"Felicity…" he chokes out. Oliver turns his face into her hand for half a second before realizing he's missing a precious view of his baby and he turns back toward the screen. It's somehow more amazing and beautiful. "Oh my god, do you see that?"

Felicity's free hand is over her mouth and she's completely at a loss for words - for once - letting the gravity of the moment run through her instead. She doesn't even bother to try to keep the tears in. She's unbelievably beautiful in this moment, seeing their daughter for the first time, and Oliver just has to kiss her temple. But then he's looking back at the screen, his forehead still touching hers.

"That's an arm there and those are the legs," Connie tells them, pointing at the screen with a pencil. "Baby's awake right now and kicking. Do you feel it?"

Felicity manages a noise that sounds like some kind of denial in spite of the fact that's it's basically unintelligible.

"Not yet," Oliver manages.

"Any day now, then," the tech says, shifting the wand slightly. "There's a good view of your little one's face."

It is. It really is. Maybe it's just a grainy profile ultrasound view, but Oliver can see his daughter's cute little upturned nose and the soft curve of her chin. Her little lips part as she brings a fist to her mouth.

She's gorgeous.

Perfect.

Oliver's heart is absolutely stolen by his daughter right on the spot.

He'll never get it back and he's more than okay with that.

"Looks like you've got a thumb sucker there," Connie tells them. "That's pretty common."

Oliver barely hears her. He's too taken with the sight on the monitor to split his attention like that. The urge to touch Felicity's belly, to have some sort of physical connection to his child, is so very strong that it's almost a compulsion, a need. He doesn't give a damn that she's covered in that blue goo or that he can't feel his little girl kick yet.

He doesn't realize he's moving until his fingers brush through some of the gel. That snaps him back and he pulls his hand back, gripping Felicity's arm instead.

Really, the only thing stopping him is the realization that if he does touch it, he might disrupt the picture in front of him.

And that's just unacceptable.

"She's beautiful, Oliver," Felicity whispers against her own palm. Maybe it's a bit silly because it's not like they can really see her, not like she's in their arms. All they've got is a grainy silhouette. But he has to agree, because it's one of the most beautiful things he's ever seen in his life.

"You two are pretty dead set on this little one being a girl, huh?" Connie asks them with an amused grin. "Scale of one-to-ten, how positive are you? Because this baby's in a pretty good position for me to get you some evidence one way or another."

"Twelve," Oliver answers immediately. "That's my daughter."

He knows it with every fiber of his being.

"That's a whole lot of certainty there, Dad," the tech tells him, looking somewhat impressed. "Mom? Scale of one-to-ten?"

Felicity hesitates a moment and drops the hand from her mouth, her eyes darting to him then back to the screen. "Eight," she finally says. Her eyes slip back to Oliver before they go back to the screen, and in that split second, her confidence grows. "It's a girl. I'm almost certain."

"You wanna know?" Connie asks, looking at each of them in turn.

"Yes," Felicity says instantly, just as Oliver says, "Go ahead and tell her it's a girl."

"Good instincts there, Dad." The tech grins as euphoria erupts in his chest. "You've got a baby girl. Congratulations!"

There hadn't been a single doubt in his mind. But there obviously had been in Felicity's - her relief is tangible as she asks, "Really? Like really, really? You're absolutely sure? You're not gonna be like, 'Oops! Looks like your boy was shy!' in a few minutes or… God, in a few months?"

Connie laughs and shakes her head. "I've been doing this a very long time, Miss Smoak. You're good to go buy a bunch of pink frilly dresses."

Oliver's ready for the speech about the ridiculousness of gender-based baby colors, but it never comes. Emotion overcomes his girlfriend at the confirmation that their baby is a girl. Her face crumples as she leans back fully on the bed, covering her face with her arm. She gulps back a sob… but she's smiling. It's a huge grin that's so full of joy that it instantly quadruples Oliver's.

The technician has more than enough experience to know she ought to give them a moment and go about her business as unobtrusively as possible.

It's not easy to pull his eyes away from the monitor - his little girl is utterly captivating - but the urge to turn to Felicity is undeniable. She needs him, and that comes first. Even now.

Oliver nudges her arm out of the way and he puts his forehead to hers. Felicity wraps a hand around the back of his neck with a ragged sob. It's a mixture of relief, joy and hormones flooding her, but there's a tinge of sorrow, too.

A hint of that will probably always be there.

Ellie would have been overjoyed to see her sister on the screen, too.

"She was right," Oliver points out in an insistent whisper. "She was so sure and she was right."

Felicity gives the smallest nod imaginable, her face barely moving against his.

"Time wants to happen," she adds, putting her free hand on the side of his face and pulling him the scant bit closer he needs to be so she can kiss him. It's as chaste as any kiss they've shared - the technician is right there and her belly's still covered in goo, after all - but it's just as meaningful as any of the others. There's unity in the way she kisses him, a sense of strength and partnership. When he pulls back after a moment, her hand lingers on his face, tears shining in her eyes, but she's grinning.

They both are.

"I'll get out of your hair," Connie says, slightly more muted. It's a happy muted, though, an obvious deference to their joy. She wipes the majority of the gel off Felicity's stomach before grabbing her clipboard. "I've got to enter in these measurements and I'll print you off a few photos, okay?" She pats Felicity's arm. "You can get dressed again whenever you're ready."

"Oh, but-" Felicity starts, sitting up and whipping her head around to look back at the screen. She breathes out a visible sigh of relief when she sees the baby is still on the monitor. It's a freeze frame, a slice of time caught on camera that Oliver already knows he'll carry around in his wallet for years just as soon as the technician gives him a print out. Still, there's more than a hint of disappointment on Felicity's face when she realizes the sonogram itself is over. "I just thought…"

"You're always gonna want more," Connie says with a knowing smile. "You'll have that baby girl in your arms soon enough. Until then, let me get you your pictures. And good news, you can use the restroom whenever you'd like now."

With that, she walks out, leaving Oliver and Felicity alone with the picture of their daughter on the screen.

The gown settles over the remaining goo on her belly. It sticks strangely to her skin, leaving a blue stain on the cheap fabric. Felicity doesn't seem to notice. Or, at least, she doesn't seem to care. That might be more accurate.

She's entranced.

Oliver sits down behind her and wraps both arms around her. He rests his chin on her shoulder, watching the screen with her. Even as he urges her body to lean back against him physically, he says nothing, giving her the space he knows she needs to process everything that's just happened.

After a moment of silence, she starts, "Do you think…" but her voice breaks away before she finishes.

"Do I think what?" he asks. He presses his lips against the skin of her shoulder just inside the loosely tied hospital gown.

Felicity licks her lips before turning to look back at him. She shows him vulnerability so much easier now than she used to, but it's still not something that comes naturally to her. Part of him wonders if it ever will be.

"Does it look like her?" she asks, searching his eyes. "I keep… I keep looking at her nose, her lips, the slope of her forehead and the shape of her chin and… I guess I just keep looking for pieces of her."

"They're sisters, honey," he replies softly. "I'm sure there will be plenty of things they have in common. Bits of you and me that we pass on to both of them."

"Yeah…"

Felicity looks back at the screen with a furrowed brow.

"I'd say there's pretty solid odds all our kids wind up with blue eyes," Oliver adds. "I'm less sure about the blond hair, though."

He can't resist tugging lightly at her ponytail as he says it. Having to forego hair dye for the duration of her pregnancy had been nearly as hard on Felicity as giving up caffeine. He's found himself oddly enthralled by the emergence of her natural roots. They're a lot darker than he'd expected.

She looks back at him with a long-suffering smile and an amused roll of her eyes. There's no doubt she thinks he's being ridiculous. And he is, but it's with purpose. And that purpose is to cut through whatever it is that has her in a bit of a funk and bring her back to this amazing moment they're sharing together.

"No dying her hair before 12," Felicity says with surprising finality. "House rule."

Oliver rests his chin on her shoulder again. "That's a good rule for the brownstone."

Felicity sighs. "Oliver."

It's still a point of contention between them, still very much an ongoing debate. But he's pretty sold on the absurdly expensive four story brick home in the heart of downtown and he's pretty sure he's finally starting to wear her down.

"It is," he protests. "First rule of the Smoak-Queen home."

That makes her pause. "The Smoak-Queen home?"

"Yeah, that's…" He suddenly feels a little lost and nervous all at once. "Yes."

"Oliver…" Felicity turns to look at him, her brow knitting together as her body tenses up. "Are you planning on hyphenating her last name?"

His heart sinks because that sounds like a definite no. They haven't really talked about this. There's been so much going on. But he'd always just assumed that she'd want their daughter to have his last name, too. And the idea that she might not hits him with an unexpected blow.

"I, uh…" He can't keep her gaze, his eyes settling on the speckled linoleum tiles instead. "I just thought…"

"Hey." Felicity touches his chin gently, guiding his gaze back up to her. "I think we got some wires crossed in there somewhere."

He lets out a beleaguered sigh. "I guess so."

"Oliver, I want all our kids to have the same last name," she tells him firmly, searching his eyes. As he puts together exactly what she's saying, she smiles. "This baby is a Queen. All our kids will be. I don't need Smoak in there."

That has a weight he hadn't even realized he'd been carrying slipping right off his shoulders. "Are you sure?" he asks.

"Yeah," she says quietly, slipping her thumb across the line of his jaw. "I'm sure. I thought we might give her my middle name, so she has something from my side other than, you know, half her genes." She taps his jaw with a scrunch of her nose. "Meghan seems like a fair trade."

The grin that breaks out across his face stretches from ear to ear and he kisses her hard. It takes her by surprise, if the little squeak she lets out is any indication. It's all gratitude and it's the only way he can think of in this moment to express it fully, so he doesn't wait for her to meet him halfway, not this time. It's a different sort of kiss than their usual kind - this isn't about passion. It's not even about love, not the sort they generally share anyhow. It's about expressing how intensely thankful he is the only way he knows how, in a desperate kiss that's almost raw in its innocence.

"Thank you," he tells her. As if he hadn't just said exactly that.

"Mmm." Felicity hums happily, stroking the side of his face. "So we have a middle name and a last name. Just the first to go, I guess."

He doesn't think he pauses, doesn't think he gives anything away, but Felicity reads him absurdly well these days. She always has, but it's a new level now - it's quickly obvious that she knows he's holding something back.

She narrows her eyes at him. "You totally have a name for her, don't you?"

Oliver swallows hard, pressing his lips together as he looks around the room a moment because… Yes. Yes, he does. He'd spent hours scouring the internet on his phone making lists and narrowing them down right up until the perfect name had crossed his path. He'd stopped looking after that. He's had a name picked out for her for the past three weeks, but he hasn't shared it with Felicity.

It somehow almost felt too private to share at first. Some slightly irrational part of him had been afraid she wouldn't like it and would reject it out of hand. There isn't a special meaning behind it, or a person they'd be naming their daughter after. But, all the same, he loves the idea of it, the way it rolls off his tongue. And it has rolled off his tongue plenty of times. He's taken to talking to their daughter as Felicity sleeps, telling stories to her belly.

But he hasn't told Felicity. He wasn't ready. He's not sure he is now, either.

"It's just an idea for one," he says, and God, is he blushing? He's pretty sure he is, which makes him feel like a total ass. This means a whole lot more to him than he can readily admit, though, and part of his reaction is because he's not even entirely sure why.

There's no doubt that Felicity's picking up on that.

"So…" Felicity leans back against him. "Do I get to hear it?"

His hesitance only serves to show precisely how meaningful this is to him.

"Julianna." He takes the time to savor each syllable as it trips off his tongue. "Julianna Meghan Queen."

He has no idea what she thinks, and it's because he's too nervous to keep her gaze. His eyes dart to the monitor where her little face still is. Julianna.

Felicity slips her hand up his arm where his arm is wrapped around her, her fingers tracing a line up to his bicep.

"Julianna?"

It sounds almost like she's testing the name out.

"Yeah." Oliver licks his lips. "I thought… Maybe we could call her Jules, or maybe Julie… Julie-bug. I just liked it."

For a long moment, all Oliver can hear is his own heartbeat. When he looks up, his eyes catch on the screen again, on that perfect little screencap of his baby girl… his Julie-bug… The baby he's been quietly whispering declarations of love to by name for almost a month.

When he dares look back toward Felicity's face, it's full of blinding levels of soft affection as she stares at her stomach.

His heart goes a bit faster at the sight.

"I like it, too," she tells him, a smile slowly covering her face. Oliver lets out a breath he hadn't realized he was holding. "I really like it."

"Really?" he asks. Even his voice sounds painfully hopeful.

"Yeah, really," she agrees. She nudges his arm. "Oliver, how long have you had that name picked out?"

"Uh… a while," he admits. "A month, maybe."

Felicity lets out a surprised laugh. "A month?"

Oliver's shrug is sheepish. "I was trying to come up with a way to suggest it so that you'd like it, too."

"Well, you did," she tells him, settling more fully against his chest. "And I think it's perfect."

That has relief and happiness filling him. Oliver shuts his eyes and leans his head against her temple. He smooths his hands down the curve of her belly with gentle reverence, relishing even the feel of the gel leaking through the gown.

His hands have seen so much brutality in life, wrought so much damage and death; but, they've done this, too. They've loved this woman, and their children, with a gentleness that he wouldn't have thought himself capable of just a few years ago. It's mended something inside him that he'd thought was permanently broken.

As Felicity sighs contentedly against him, he whispers, "Looks like we've got you a name, Julie-bug."

"Julie-bug," Felicity echoes, her hands covering his. "Julie-bug who likes to live on mommy's bladder."

Oliver laughs.

A sudden rap on the door pulls them back to the reality of where exactly they are. Connie peeks her head back in, her chipper smile firmly in place.

"It's pretty distracting, isn't it?" she asks. "These little ones have us wrapped around their fingers way earlier than they've got any clue. Still… you might want to change out of that gown. It gets surprisingly drafty in here!"

"Right," Felicity says with a little nod.

Oliver kisses Felicity's temple, lingering just a little longer. His thumbs stroke over her stomach once more before he helps her sit up. He eases off the bed and grabs her a clean towel to wipe off the worst of the goo with.

"Oh, there she is," Felicity announces. The concrete knowledge that the baby is a she rings in her voice and it's the most beautiful thing he's ever heard. "She moved again." Felicity shifts with a wince and a hard nod as she slips off the table, holding the back of her gown shut. "Bathrooms are…?"

"Two doors down the hall to the left," the technician tells her.

Connie holds the door open as Felicity waddles hurriedly toward the door. Oliver quickly slips off his jacket and hangs it over her shoulders as she passes because 'drafty' is a bit of an understatement and hospital gowns are the absolute worst.

"I'll be back as soon as she's no longer tap dancing on my bladder," Felicity says over her shoulder as she leaves the room. He doesn't miss her turning to her belly, chastising their daughter for her inconsiderate kicking as she shakes a finger at her stomach in reprimand.

Oliver can only grin.

"You two are adorable," Connie says. "And you're gonna have an absolutely beautiful little girl. I can tell."

"Thank you," Oliver says genuinely. He's still staring down the hall in the direction Felicity had disappeared.

"And these are for you." Connie steps into the room, holding out a couple of black and white pictures that look like they've been printed on paper that's only marginally better than what he uses for the office. "Here you go, Dad."

They're some of the most precious things he's ever held in his hands and he immediately treats them that way, careful to hold the edges and not to crinkle the fragile paper.

They need to last forever, after all.

"Thank you," he says again, grinning wider as he takes in the writing at the top of the page. 'Baby Smoak-Queen' it says. He shakes his head. "I appreciate this more than I can say," he adds, "but you got her name wrong."

"No hyphen?" Connie guesses correctly.

"Just Queen," he confirms, staring down at his daughter's profile, committing it to memory. "Julianna Meghan Queen… My little Jules. She's got a remarkable life ahead of her."

He has no idea how right he is.

Chapter Text

May 2033

 

"Oh my god, Sara," Ellie says, pulling back with a huff. "If you don't sit still, you're gonna end up with eyeliner in your eye and it won't be my fault!"

Sara groans, the older girl opening her eyes to take in Ellie's knowing stare.

They've been close since they were born, since before they were born even, and despite the fact that Ellie's older sister is far closer in age to Sara, it's the two of them who have bonded in a way that means they can communicate based on looks alone.

When they want to, that is.

"I should just do it," Sara declares, moving to grab the stick, but Ellie holds it out of reach. "Ellie."

Sara holds out her hand for the makeup, raising her eyebrows expectantly. She might believe she really can put it on herself, but the rapid tapping of Sara's foot against the soft carpet of Ellie's bedroom floor tells another story. Her knee bounces absently to a nervous rhythm all its own, one that translates through her entire body.

"Yeah." Ellie laughs, putting a hand on Sara's leg to force it to stop. "You're totally calm. Your hands are gonna be super steady."

"Oh shut up," Sara retorts, cheeks turning pink. "It's just… It's prom, Ellie. You'll get it in a few years. It's not like a normal date."

Per usual, Ellie schools her features to hold in the way her heart drops at Sara's words. Despite her best efforts - and they really are her best efforts - the words sting, because she does get it, but not for the reasons Sara does.

Her best friend has been looking forward to prom for months now, filling a Pinterest board with hairstyles and dresses and jewelry the way some women might when planning a wedding. Her excitement would normally be contagious - if just to see more of the way Sara's face positively lights up when she's passionate about something - save for the tiny fact that Ellie now cringes whenever she hears the word 'prom' anymore.

There's nothing in the world that Ellie wants less than to clue her - or anyone, really - into how much all of this hurts. And now that the day is finally here, Ellie feels like part of her is silently dying on the inside.

"Close your eyes," Ellie orders. "Unless you want one eye with eyeliner, but I think that's a bit too funky for you. Maybe Jules could pull it off."

Sara snorts but does as Ellie instructs. She shuts her eyes, forcing her features to slacken as she angles her head upward for Ellie to finish her work. And she really needs to. Ellie doesn't need to look at a clock to know there isn't a whole lot of time left before Sara's date gets here and they still have to finish her makeup and hair. She knows that… but Ellie still takes a selfish moment to herself anyhow.

Because she can't help it.

Because sometimes Sara's so beautiful it takes her breath away.

Ellie doesn't know when it started. It seems like part of her has always loved Sara. Though, the meaning of that has evolved over time, obviously. She's fifteen now and being in love with Sara is very different than it was a few years ago. It's less naive, less innocent… and so much more consuming. The growing pull she feels toward her best friend has slowly morphed into a secret, one she hides close to her heart, because everything about Sara draws Ellie in.

She's a moth to a flame, and she's completely helpless against it.

Ellie hates it, because it hurts. It hurts every single day, but it hurts so much more when she has to put on a fake smile and send the best friend she secretly loves off to prom with a boy who doesn't deserve her.

And yet, despite feeling like her heart lives in a grinder, she's not sure she'd trade it for anything. Because Sara's incredible. She's funny and gorgeous and smart and Ellie doesn't think a world exists where she knows Sara and doesn't love her.

It may royally suck, but the way she feels about Sara translates to every universe, no matter how many there are.

She's certain of it.

"What's up?" Sara asks, peeking one eye open.

"Nothing," Ellie says quickly, cursing herself for her momentary lapse in keeping her guard up. Sara's too smart for something like that, but thankfully this situation has somehow proven to be exceptional. She waves at Sara. "Close your eyes."

When Sara does, Ellie leans in with the brush to carefully paint a perfect matching line along the edge of the other girl's eyelid.

If she takes her time, her fingers lingering against the line of Sara's cheekbone for longer than strictly necessary… well, no one will know but her, right?

After a second, Ellie announces, "There," before stepping back to survey her work.

"Let me see!" Sara insists. She grabs a hand mirror, inspecting her makeup. She closes one eye at a time before staring at them. Ellie watches her, smiling slightly when Sara bites her lip before remembering her makeup and dragging a finger along her lower lip in an effort to clean up any smeared lipstick. She looks at Ellie. "Do I look okay? What do you think?"

"I think…" Ellie stares at her. "I think you're beautiful," she says, meaning it with every fiber of her being, realizing that Sara might never quite understand how much she believes that. "I think Mike's a lucky guy."

Sara laughs incredulously at that, her smile broad and disbelieving. Ellie follows her every movement, unable to tear her eyes away from the other girl's richly painted lips as her breath catches in her throat at the sight of Sara's amusement… and the hint of pleasure underneath it.

Honestly, Ellie's not sure how she's going to make it through the rest of this day. She's not even sure how she's made it this far.

"Right," Sara says, rolling her eyes. "Captain of the water polo team and actual model, and he's the lucky one."

"First off, he was in an ad for Big Belly Burger," Ellie points out. "And it was with, like, four other kids at school. It's not like he's doing runways in New York. Secondly, you're the captain of the volleyball team and you won state."

"We won state," Sara corrects. "And you were the only freshman to even make the team."

"Not the point," Ellie tells her, unable to hide her delight. "This isn't about me being awesome. It's about you being awesome."

"I know… I know," Sara agrees. "And you're right. It's just…" A wistful look skates over her features, the complete opposite of the one she'd had when she'd been talking about Ellie. The sudden change is a swift kick to the gut as Sara shakes her head - in wonder. "He's Mike, you know? He's just so…"

Her voice trails off with a little sigh.

Ellie had been fine, she really had been. Sara's crush on Mike has been an honest source of torture for the last six months, but she'd done okay, because none of those days had been the day of the prom.

Not like today. Not when she's helping Sara get dressed up for someone else. And it's even worse because she knows Sara really, really likes Mike, and the last thing she wants to do is sabotage anything.

That doesn't make it hurt any less.

Ellie bites her lip until it stings as she looks down at her toes. She won't cry. She won't.

"Well…" Ellie clears her throat, looking back at Sara with a painted-on smile. "Maybe you're both lucky then," she says, reaching up to twine one of Sara's tightly spiraled curls around her finger.

Sara's eyes are bright with happiness. "Maybe."

"Come on," Ellie says with forced cheer, because the look of joy on Sara's face over the idea of Mike-the-almost-model is enough to make her a little nauseous, "let's finish your hair."

Sara shifts in the chair, giving a little hop as she rotates to allow Ellie access to the back of her head. Ellie pushes her hands into the mass of curls gently. Her fingers skate over Sara's scalp and when they drift against the back of her neck, it makes Sara giggle, which in turn makes Ellie smile. They've already moisturized it and applied product to keep the tight spirals from getting too frizzy as the night goes on. It's beautiful as it is and Ellie knows that Sara's been tempted to just leave it down, but she's talked the older girl into letting her put it up. It's entire selfish - she really, really wants a reason to run her fingers through Sara's hair, to be that close to her and be able to touch her.

If Mike gets to dance with her all night and maybe even kiss her later - or, god forbid, more - then Ellie feels like this one little thing isn't asking too much.

"Are you sure I shouldn't just leave it down?" Sara asks, meeting Ellie's eyes in the dresser mirror. "Or maybe pin up one side?"

"No," Ellie insists, delicately running her fingers through sections of Sara's hair, like she's a hairdresser trying to figure out where to start. "You've got a million and two pictures of hairstyles, Sara. You're not leaving it down."

Sara doesn't look convinced as she reaches up, fluffing the ends. "But-"

"Mike likes it up," Ellie blurts out.

She's not sure who is more surprised at the words - her or Sara.

"R-really?" Sara asks. "He… he likes that? Did he say something to you? Did you hear something?"

Yeah, she did, actually. She heard he likes long hair down because boys coming out of the locker room are exactly as noisy and crude as she suspects they are inside the locker room. But Ellie is selfish enough to use her best friend position to her own advantage here. Sara may like him, but Mike really doesn't deserve her. Not at all. And if this is the only way that Ellie can exert any influence over the situation… well, so be it.

"Just talk." Ellie shrugs. "Now let me work."

Sara purses her lips in contemplation, but she does stop protesting.

Ellie focus on the task at hand.

She takes her time, treasuring the quiet moment of closeness with her best friend. She pins her curls atop her head with little rhinestone flowers that make Sara look like one of the imaginary fairies that'd lived in their treehouse back when they were little girls.

If she takes too long or her fingers linger on Sara's neck when they don't really need to, the older girl doesn't seem to notice.

Ellie's almost mournful when she realizes she has the last clip in her hand. It's just as well, though, because Sara's stupid date is due any minute and somewhere along the way this turned into an exercise in self-torture. Ellie's self aware enough to know she really doesn't need it.

Just as she's about to step back and survey her work, the doorbell rings. Sara's entire demeanor changes as the tinkling bells echo through the house. She's so happy and it only serves to make her all the more beautiful.

"Oh my god," Sara says, standing and running her hands down the smooth satiny orange fabric of her dress. Ellie's eyes start to follow her friend's hands, but before they get too far, she quickly averts them, staring at her toes again and flushing awkwardly. She might love Sara, she might even be able to accept that, but she's also fifteen and her understanding of what she feels when she takes note of Sara's fast-developing curves is both theoretical and kind of embarrassing. "Ellie… Elle, hey. Am I okay? Am I forgetting anything?"

Ellie looks up with a painfully forced smile. "No," she replies. "You're perfect."

Nothing can keep the longing out of her voice. Her self-control is good, but it's not that good.

Thankfully, Sara reads it as the simplest explanation, and the most innocuous one. She glances back in the mirror, nodding at her reflection with such a hopeful air that it only makes Ellie feel worse. It's the kind of worse that makes her feel like all the air is being sucked out of her body.

"I wish you could go, too," Sara says, turning back to her. She takes Ellie's hands, squeezing her fingers tightly. "It won't be the same without you there."

Ellie can only nod hard in response, not trusting her voice. Suddenly there's a hundred and one other things they could be doing, and if she speaks, she might beg Sara to stay. She might suggest they curl up on the sofa together and watch some stupid old romantic comedy or steal some ice cream and hang out at the park on the swings or spar down in the basement. And she can't do that. Because Sara might say yes. Because she's exactly a good enough friend to know that if Ellie asked now, there'd be a good reason. But she's been so excited about prom for so long…

And when it comes down to it, Ellie wants Sara to be happy even more than she wants that joy for herself.

"Hey."

Ellie snatches her hands away, like she's been caught doing something she shouldn't. It earns her a confused glance from Sara, but she ignores it, spinning to face the door.

Jules stands at the threshold to the room, one hand hanging onto the top of the doorframe. It's by far the most dressed up Ellie has ever seen her sister. Gone are her usual skinny jeans and torn off t-shirts, and in their place is a shiny black sheath dress that doesn't quite hit her mid-thigh. Smoky makeup and the highest heels Ellie's ever seen - and considering Grandma Donna, that's saying a lot - top it off.

"The guys are here," Jules informs them, tilting her head toward the stairs as two of her friends file in behind her. "You ready?"

"Yeah," Sara answers. She straightens the asymmetrical hemline of her dress one more time. "Yeah, I think I'm good."

"Hold down the fort for us while we're gone, Ellie," Jules says before spinning away. It's not really meant to be cruel, but it sort of is anyhow, which is pretty much business as usual when it comes to her relationship with Jules. It still has Ellie's heart dropping in response to her sister's words.

She's kept going by virtue of being able to see Sara's happiness, but that's going to walk out the door with her in just a moment and Ellie doesn't know how in the world she's going to hold it together then.

"Girls." Her dad's voice filters from downstairs. "Your dates are here. Unless you've decided you'd rather stay home and do each other's hair and play hide and seek and eat all of the popcorn in the house. I'll kick them out if you want. You can have a sleepover and build a pillow fort instead."

Her father can be so embarrassing.

Jules clearly agrees because she rolls her eyes and snaps out a, "God, we're coming, Dad!" just as her father lets out a little yelp that Ellie's pretty sure means her mother's smacked him in the arm.

This is it.

Ellie smiles, moving to wave at Sara - because there's no way she'll be able to actually watch her leave with him - but then Sara grabs Ellie's hand.

"Come on," Sara says. "I want a picture with my stylist before I leave."

And just like that, Ellie winds up heading downstairs with the other girls, a camera in one hand and Sara's palm pressed to her other.

She doesn't want to let go.

"Oh, Jules," their mother says, looking dewy-eyed as she covers her mouth. "Baby, you look so grown up!"

Ellie's pretty sure the only reason her mom hasn't rushed to throw her arms around Jules is that her father has a steadying hand on her back, equal parts supporting her and reminding her to let Jules have this moment.

Jules rolls her eyes, replying in a disaffected air, "Thanks, Mom."

"Thanks for letting us get ready here, Senator Queen," one of Jules' friends pipes up, Katie.

And yeah, this particular friend of Jules' always gives Ellie the creeps because she's pretty sure Katie's attempting to hit on her dad. Which sorta makes Ellie want to puke a bit. Given the look on her dad's face, she's fully convinced he's right there with her. Her father gives her a polite smile, not-so-subtly shifting closer to her mother, who looks completely unaffected.

"Hi, Mike," Sara says, letting go of Ellie's hand. Ellie wonders if Sara notices the way her fingers follow hers as she walks across the room to where her date stands waiting in a tux.

"Hey," he replies, eyeing her up and down in a way that surely proves he's either forgotten or hasn't realized that her parents are in the room as well.

Jules is right behind her, but her eyes are glued on the guy next to him.

"Josh," she greets just before grabbing her boyfriend-of-the-week's suspenders to plant a solid kiss on his lips. Ellie's eyes bulge slightly, especially when she hears the smacking of their lips before Jules pulls back. She snaps Josh's suspenders against his chest with a satisfied smirk. That the poor guy doesn't come away with deep red lipstick all over his mouth is sort of shocking. Ellie makes a mental note to ask her sister what brand she's using because that's some serious staying power.

Looking to her dad, Ellie can see him wearing down his teeth as he grinds them together, but he says nothing. She's pretty sure nobody misses the way his fingers rub together, like he's aching to grab his bow and put two arrows in this kid's eye sockets.

To Josh's credit, though, he looks toward his date's father like he's expecting to be flayed alive the moment she backs off… Not that she goes far. Jules isn't one to give a damn about appropriateness or boundaries. Josh proves he's far smarter than Mike when he warily tries to keep his distance, very aware of her father's not-so-light glare.

As her sister drapes her arm around her date, their mom admonishes, "Jules…"

Ellie's the only one who notices her mother leaning into her father's side, her own way of calming him.

"Are we snapping pics or what?" Jules asks, completely unaffected.

"Oh." Right, that's her cue. "Yeah." Ellie nods at them, holding the camera up. It's an archaic thing, something that only works by the saving grace of her mother's inability to let it die.

Everyone pairs off for a few quick shots.

If her camera centers on Sara for most of the shots… well, she's not sorry.

After a few minutes of that, Sara waves her off and makes a grab for the camera before tossing it across the room. "Come on," she says, wrapping her arm around Ellie, "let your dad take a few shots of us, too, my magical, beautiful stylist. You make me feel like a million bucks, Ellie."

The picture that comes from that moment will be one she keeps for the rest of her life - Sara's grinning at her as Ellie looks back with happiness and blatant affection. Even when times get tough, even when she questions absolutely everything about her relationship with Sara in the coming years, that shot will always give her a glimpse of what lies right beneath the surface. It's raw and it's honest and in spite of the fact that she's so, so young, when she looks at it in the right light, it seems like maybe it hints at the sort of life she'd really like to lie ahead of her.

Uncle Digg suddenly claps his hands together, drawing everyone's attention. "Okay then," he says, stepping forward, past Jules' friends and their dates until he's two feet away from Mike. Sara's sigh is all exasperation. "So here's the thing. Senator Queen isn't going to threaten any of you boys. He respects these girls enough to make their own choices and to call us if there's something they can't handle on their own. I've been informed I'm not to do any threatening either."

"Johnny…" Sara's mom says slowly from across the room, which he blatantly ignores.

"And I'm not going to," he concludes, sounding so conciliatory that Ellie almost belives him. Almost. Until he looks at all of them before zeroing in on Mike again. "But I will remind you all I did three tours overseas in wartime and I'm well aware of how to dispose of a body."

"John!" Aunt Lyla snaps as Mike gulps heavily, and Ellie's dad chokes on a laugh that earns him an elbow from her mother.

"You got me, son?" Diggle asks with a glib smile, clapping the boy on the shoulder.

The poor kid can only nod.

Sara groans and shoves her father's hand away with a beleaguered, "Dad."

Uncle Digg isn't swayed. He's staring at Mike, waiting for a verbal answer.

"Y-yes, sir," the boy finally mutters.

"Then we've got ourselves an understanding." Uncle Digg smiles broadly. "Glad to hear it."

"And on that patriarchal note," Jules says dryly. "Let's get the hell out of here."

Ellie can't ignore the stab of trepidation as she watches the older kids leave to a chorus of goodbyes and reminders of curfews. All too soon, though, the door shuts behind Sara, but not before she blows a kiss over her shoulder in Ellie's direction.

It makes her heart lurch in a combination of euphoria and despair. It's so much. It's too much and Ellie can't help it when her hands start to shake and her eyes start to water. She bites her tongue, fighting to keep them at bay as she turns her head, but it does nothing.

She can't fall apart here, not now. Not with her parents and Sara's parents all right there to see it all.

"I'm, uh…" Ellie turns. "I'm gonna go down to the gym," she manages. She doesn't look at anyone as she turns and hurries away toward the basement stairs, using her hair to hide her face as she goes.

She dimly hears someone call her name followed by her mother's soft, "Oliver…" as she goes, but she doesn't pay attention to any of it. She's not asking much. She helped Sara, held it together all day - all year, really - and now all she wants is to not have a horrible breakdown in front of her parents and her best friend's parents because the girl she's in love with is at prom with someone else.

It's really not that much to ask, is it?

Ellie makes it to the bottom of the stairs, but not as far as the training mats before the sob in her throat cuts loose. It's the gateway to more, a harbinger of things to come. Her heart feels like it's just been shattered into a million pieces, all of them crashing to the floor and crunched under the feet of her best friend in the world. And the other girl hadn't even done it knowingly, would never do it knowingly.

And yet…

Her knees buckle and her strength fades, draining her muscles to the point of exhaustion. She sinks down to the hard cement floor, not caring that it will be cold and uncomfortable…

Warm, familiar arms catch her before she reaches it.

Ellie jumps at the contact, a gasp getting caught in her throat. She hadn't heard anyone following her down. She hadn't cared. It's not like her. Not at all. She's been trained better than that, by the very man holding her upright. God, she hates feeling this way, she hates it.

"I've got you, Ellie-bug."

His voice is soft and warm, full of more understanding than she'd been prepared for. It speaks to her, opening up the well of emotion she'd worked so hard to keep sealed up tight. Something about the sound of his voice combined with the warm safety of his arms gives Ellie full permission to fall apart.

With a choked cry, she turns into him, gripping his shirt, clinging to him like he's the only thing keeping her standing. Because he is right now. He is.

"Daddy…"

It comes out as a half formed sob into his chest.

He just makes a hushing noise, pressing a soft kiss to the top of her head. The feel of his stubble pressing against her scalp is achingly familiar, reminding her of dozens of nights of sitting on his lap while he watched movie after movie with her when she was little. He rubs his hand against her back, like he used to do when she'd eaten too much ice cream, giving herself a stomachache.

"You don't have to say anything, sweetheart," he says.

Maybe it's the relief of his words, the blanket acceptance in them, but sobs wrack her body harder. Ellie presses her face further into his chest, breathing in the comforting smell of her father, and it only makes her cry harder. She soaks his shirt with her tears, letting him be her pillar of strength.

Because he is; he's her constant, through everything.

"I hate being left behind," she cries, her fingers curling into his collar. "I don't wanna feel this way. I want it to stop."

"Oh, Ellie-bug…" he breathes against her hair. He presses his lips to the crown of her head again. "That's not how love works, baby."

Ellie freezes… and not a split second later, a thread of gut-wrenching terror shoots down her spine. Because, as much as she's more likely to tell her dad something than anyone else in the world, as close as they are and as much as she adores him, this isn't something she's told him.

It's not something she's told anyone.

Of all the people in her life, she knows her dad is the most likely to be supportive. She knows that. But knowing it is one thing; facing his reaction to this is another thing entirely. Because this… this is big. She's not sure she's ever been so scared in her entire life, and that's coming from a girl who's family is firmly entrenched in the vigilante business.

She's shaking. Her whole body vibrates with apprehension and absolute fear. She absently thinks she should look up at him, acknowledge him, but god, she can't even do that. No, she wants to time travel instead. Where's Uncle Barry when she needs him? Can't he take her back? Change all of this? Just a little bit. She doesn't need much time.

She's not ready for any of this.

Her breathing is too fast, too shallow, but she can't slow it down. Is she really digging her nails into him like that? Ellie tries to let go, but she can't.

She can't do anything.

Not until her father's gentle, calloused finger under her chin urges her to tilt her head up. He's a blurry mess from her tears, and as much as she is kind of okay with that, she still blinks rapidly so she can see him. The look he gives her as he takes in the terror undoubtedly etched into her every feature, has her face crumpling to keep another sob down.

"Oh, Ellie," he whispers, his voice sad.

"How'd you know?" she manages, swallowing on the last word because if she doesn't she really might be sick.

"You've been in love with Sara since before you knew what the word meant," he tells her. He smoothes her hair back, tucking a piece behind her ear. It's comforting. "It's not something I noticed out of the blue one day. It's just you. And I know you, Ellie. I know you better than I know anybody."

"And you're not…" The words falter, drying up inside her as the reality of what she's about to ask him hits her. Oh god. Her lips quiver and the tears filling her eyes are so much heavier than when this had just been about Sara. As much as she loves Sara Diggle, she's fifteen and her father is the single most important person in her life. This is so much bigger than some stupid date. "You're not… mad or disappointed or-"

"Hey, no," he counters immediately, cradling her face and brushing his thumbs across her dampened cheeks. "No. I love you, Ellie. This is a part of who you are and I love that person so, so very much. So I love this about you, too, because it's you. There is nothing you could ever do to disappoint me and there's absolutely nothing I would change about you, Ellie. Not ever. You are my daughter and I am so proud of you."

The words are something she didn't realize she needed to hear from him until they're out. Ellie's next sob is one of relief as she throws her arms around her father's neck, holding onto him as tightly as she can. She curls into him, babbling something, though she's not even sure what. It's a torrent of words long locked away in her mind, finally given the freedom to voice themselves.

"You can't lose me, Ellie," he promises, his voice fierce and a little shaken. It makes her wonder what she's saying as he tightens his arms around her. "Not ever. Not for anything. You understand?"

She's nodding, she realizes absently. It's almost compulsive, a silent but vehement agreement to his assertion, as she crushes herself against his chest. Ellie has known how she's felt for so long, longer than she can remember if she's being honest with herself, but she's never talked about it with anyone. She'd needed this. She hadn't even known how much, but it feels like a weight's evaporated off her shoulders, one she hadn't recognized was there. She's so relieved she feels like she might be sick.

But her father's love and acceptance isn't the only thing that matters.

"Does Mom know?" she mutters into her dad's shirt, clinging to him like the lifeline that he is.

"Yeah," he confirms softly as she gulps down a little sob.

"And does she…" Ellie can't even finish the thought, but it stays on repeat in her head. "Does she…"

"Your mom loves you so much, Ellie," he says, making her sag in relief against him. "She worries about you - about this, actually - because Sara's nineteen, sweetheart, and you're fifteen. That's a huge difference when you're so young and your mom doesn't want you to get your heart broken."

Ellie almost mutters, 'Too late,' before reeling it back in. Because her mother has a point, the same point that Ellie's been telling herself over and over. Four years is a long, long time.

"But that you love Sara?" her dad continues. He chuckles, shaking his head. "I think she's just glad you have better taste in who to have a crush on than either she or I did at your age."

Ellie pinches her eyes shut, but even that can't keep the tears in. There's entirely too much emotion swirling through her and it's overwhelming. But it's not bad. It feels like growing pains, like she's being stretched and remolded into who she's supposed to become.

"Did you think we'd be upset?" her dad asks, with no small trace of concern in his voice.

"I didn't know what to think," Ellie admits. "I wasn't gonna say anything. Not yet."

"I'm sorry for forcing the conversation when you weren't ready, kiddo," he tells her, kissing the top of her head for what feels like the millionth time, but it buoys her the way it always does. "I wouldn't have if I hadn't thought you needed someone to talk to."

"Yeah," Ellie agrees, looking up at him and not even trying to hide her tear-stained face and red-rimmed eyes. This is her dad, the most important person in her entire life, and for the first time in forever, she feels like there's nothing she has to hide from him. "I did."

"You should talk to your mom later," he tells her. "Or just hug her and tell her you love her. You don't have to say anything, but I think you both need to know you're on the same page."

"Okay." Ellie nods before another thought occurs to her and the blood drains from her face a bit. "Uncle Digg and Aunt Lyla don't know, do they?" An even worse thought suddenly hits her, one that has her stomach pitching so hard and fast she really might just throw up. "Oh god, Sara doesn't know, right? I don't know if I could-"

"Hey, slow down," Oliver counsels, cupping her face again and stroking her cheeks soothingly. "If they know, they haven't said anything and your mom and I definitely aren't going to. It's not our place." Warmth fills Ellie's chest at that, and she gives him a shaky, but grateful smile. They aren't perfect, by any means, but she did get really lucky with her parents. Like really, really lucky. "For what it's worth, though, I know Digg and Lyla pretty damn well, and I can't see either one of them being upset about any of this." His lips quirk. "Although your Uncle Digg might remind you he did a few tours of duty."

Ellie laughs. The sound is almost foreign to her ears and it takes her by surprise, but maybe it shouldn't. Her dad's always found a way to bring joy out in her. It makes him grin, because he's a cheesy dork and he loves bad jokes that he thinks are hilarious.

He's so self-satisfied at the way he's shifted this conversation and the pride on his face is so ridiculous that it makes her laugh even harder until she's cut off by her own hiccup.

This man standing before her is the fearsome Arrow, a Bratva captain and the scourge of the Triad. He's state senator and champion of Starling City in more ways than one. But more than that, he's her father, and this is him at his most honest. This is who he is. The rest of it, Ellie knows, those are the masks.

"You're the best dad in the whole world," Ellie says.

Her words hit him hard. Both of them are keenly aware that this conversation could have gone very differently. It has gone very differently for plenty of kids.

They're the lucky ones.

He nods, kissing her forehead. When he pulls back his eyes are red-rimmed and watery, but she can feel the love radiating from them. "Only because you made me one, Ellie-bug," he replies, his voice gritty and affected.

She just smiles back at him.

There's no need for more words. They've already said all the important ones.

After a moment, Ellie lets go of him. She steps back, taking a cleansing breath as she wipes at her eyes.

"You okay?" he asks her.

"Yeah," she says, and it feels more true now than it has in ages. "Yeah, I'm great, Daddy."

His soft smile deepens, the fine lines around his eyes crinkling as he watches her. She doesn't call him that much anymore. She's outgrown it, but right now she feels very much like her father's little girl and it just fits.

"I do wish I could have gone to the dance, too, though," she admits. "Even if it was just to hang out at the punch bowl and dance with a group of friends. It would have been nice."

"Well… Maybe we can fix that."

She raises an eyebrow. "How?"

He extends his hand to her. "I don't have a punch bowl, but can I have this dance?"

Ellie scoffs, staring at him like she's waiting for him to take it back. Because this is ridiculous… but it's also just so him. He waits patiently, his hand stretched out towards her, letting her take stock of the situation.

After a second, she tentatively puts her hand in his. "But you hate dancing."

"At big staged events, I absolutely do," he agrees before pulling her closer, putting his hand on her waist. "But with my daughter in the gym? That's another story."

"There's not any music," Ellie protests.

"We could make our own," he says before putting up a finger. "But I draw the line at singing." Ellie giggles, knowing he's talking about their last family Christmas party when Roy had somehow talked him into getting up and doing just that. He smiles. "You could hum, if you want?"

"Nah." Ellie loops her arms around his neck. "I think this is pretty perfect just the way it is."

His smile grows. "Me, too," he agrees.

Neither of them notice when her mom quietly makes her way down the stairs, but the picture she snaps of them dancing in the poorly-lit gym with drained, tear-stained faces and a background filled with exercise equipment forever remains Ellie's favorite. It will sit side-by-side with the other photo from tonight, the one of her with Sara smiling upstairs. Because, imperfect as it is, it perfectly captures the moment and it perfectly captures her relationship with her father.

When everything else gets messy, when it feels like the world is falling apart around her and her heart is crushed, he'll be there to help pick up the pieces and mend them back together.

Always.

Chapter Text

September 2035

 

Nate's always been a good kid.

He's sweet, helpful, maybe a little bit needy… alright, definitely needy, but it's easy to look past that when he gives her that little smile of his. He held her hand at the bus stop well after all his friends decided they were too old for that kind of thing. He's happy to tell his mother all about his day. And he's there when she needs an extra hand, as well as when she doesn't, although she doesn't say no to the extra help.

All-in-all, Felicity counts herself incredibly lucky when it comes to her youngest. She loves all of her children, but if she and Oliver had gotten another Jules, she has no idea how she would have coped.

Despite that, his considerate nature seems so amplified in the last few days that it's borderline absurd.

Maybe it's Jules moving out - and moving in with her boyfriend, something surely designed to turn the rest of her father's hair gray - or maybe it's the painful truth that Ellie's only a year away from college. Felicity's not sure, but whatever it is has Nate positively doting on her lately.

To say it's throwing her for a loop is an understatement.

"Hey, Mom, I've got that," Nate says as he rounds the corner.

Felicity looks up from where she's doing the dishes in time to see him tripping over his oversized feet as he barrels into the kitchen. He's all limbs these days, her boy. Growth spurts have been near constant this last year and while his frame keeps lengthening and he outgrows clothes in the blink of an eye, he hasn't filled out to match his height at all, leaving him endearingly gangly and awkward.

She sighs as he reaches her side, taking the plate from her hand. He keeps his eyes on his task, missing Felicity arching an eyebrow at him as he starts scrubbing. She is thrilled to have help cleaning up, especially since her wrist is in a brace after getting knocked around a bit on a mission gone slightly wrong earlier this week. But, these past few days it's becoming less like he's trying to help and more like he's trying to take over.

He's treating her with kid gloves and she doesn't know why.

"Thank you, Nate, but don't you have homework to do?" she asks with a pointed look.

"I have it scheduled," he assures her with a nod, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose with his free hand, giving her an enthusiastic grin full of shiny metal. The braces come off next month. "I have time to help you out, too."

The ridiculous thing is he probably has an alarm set for when to do his homework. Her little boy - god, he's almost fourteen; he's not such a little boy anymore - he's the sort of person who works things out with charts and graphs, makes to-do lists and actually follows them all the way to the end. Everything needs a plan with Nate. It always has. He's meticulously organized and completely goal-oriented, sometimes to the point where he loses sight of everything else going on around him.

It's confused his father from day one and it still does today. After all, the only lists Oliver ever followed involved crossing people off of them.

"You helped me cook, honey," Felicity reminds him as he rinses the plate off. She moves to take it from him but he waves her off, drying it himself. She barely keeps herself from rolling her eyes. "And I appreciate that - I'm pretty sure the whole family appreciates that, actually, and possibly your local fire department - but aren't there other things you'd rather do than help your mom with dishes?"

"No, I'm good," Nate says, shaking his head as he reaches up to put the plate away at the top of the cabinet. "I like spending time with you, Mom. Besides," he adds with a shrug, "I'm taller than you now. It's easier for me to reach the top shelf."

Felicity huffs, hitting him with a dish towel, making Nate laugh as he wards off the towel with his free hand.

It's true, much to the aching of her heart; her baby is taller than her. Barely. But when he laughs he still sounds like her little boy, like the child who'd curled up on her lap giggling as she tickled him. She's grateful she gets to hold onto that in some fashion for at least a little bit longer. It seems more and more like he's turning into a young man right before her eyes, and a big part of her wants to grab hold of the child who always wanted one more story, one more cuddle, and never let go. It's unusual for a teenage boy to be so close to his mother, she thinks, but she and Nate have always had a special bond.

She wishes he had anywhere near the same kind of connection to Oliver, but it's always been a struggle with them. Despite efforts on both their parts, they've never quite understood each other.

Before he can dry off the next one, Felicity says, "How about I dry? And then you can use your newfound height to put them away. Okay?" She can actually see the reluctance on his face, but he doesn't argue, conceding with a small nod. After a moment of working together - gingerly, because her wrist isn't entirely up to par - Felicity asks, "How are classes going?"

Nate's eyes light up in excitement and a full grin tugs at his lips. "Good," he replies. "Miss Jackson said we can do 'Take Your Child To Work' day next month. So, I get to go with you to the office! I thought I might make an organizational chart, you know? Mark off everyone I talk to and write up what they tell me about what they do."

That kind of plan will get him an 'A' for sure, but that's not Nate's concern. Not this time anyhow. Any less than a perfect grade has led to Nate holing himself up in his room with his notes and his imperfect work, all his focus zeroing in on what he did wrong until he has it sorted out. Sometimes he's forgotten everything else in the process, up to and including food.

There are times he's very much his mother's son.

She can't even count the number of times Oliver's said to her in a worried, quiet voice that Nate isn't meant to hear - "I don't understand. What's wrong with a 'B?' Does he think we need him to be perfect?" Oliver doesn't get it, but she does. After decades of focusing on creating flawless code, she definitely gets it. Nate's dedication to perfection just shows itself in different ways than hers does.

But this time isn't about the grade, not even a little.

Nate's been enamored with the idea of working at Queen Incorporated since he could say the words. Back when he'd still been in the company daycare, all his classmates had wanted to play house - he'd wanted to play office. It had been cute, at the time. Mommy's little Junior CEO, the teachers had called him. But that's not a thing that's ever faded for Nate and the chance to spend a school day in the office means he probably already has a suit picked out and ready to go, even a month in advance.

It's just one more way that Nate and Oliver don't quite connect.

Nate absolutely cannot wait to spend his days trapped in a cubicle going over reports day in and day out. Oliver could not have avoided that life more ardently had he tried. Quietly, Felicity really doesn't think Moira's helping things on that front, either. The way she dotes on Nate, how she talks about the way he's fulfilling all the hopes she'd once had for his father, it's only furthered the wedge between them.

They get along fine most of the time, Nate and Oliver. They're amiable and she knows they love each other, but they have so very little in common, and Felicity wishes with all her heart that the two most important men in her life could just find some common ground - something, anything - to bond over. She'd always assumed that would happen some day, as Nate got older and developed new interests or looked to his father for guidance more, but it hasn't yet. She's secretly afraid it never will.

Most days, it seems like the only thing the two men have in common is her.

"You know…" Felicity ventures, very aware that she's meddling and that he won't like this idea in the least. It's worth a try, though. "You go to QI all the time. It might be more interesting to go with your dad to his office. His actual office, I mean, not his Arrow Cave office… obviously. No writing papers about that! I'm not sure I could manage a Team Arrow organizational chart, anyhow."

She expects to get a good natured laugh at the absurd notion of his writing a paper about his father being the Arrow, quickly followed by a list of reasons QI is a better idea, but that's not what she gets. At all.

Nate's entire frame stiffens, his muscles bunching up in tension as he stands taller, his lips pursing in displeasure. "No," he says, shaking his head. His voice is uncharacteristically sharp and tinged with something dark she really does not like. "I'm not going to his office. To either of them. I want to stay with you."

Felicity blinks in astonishment. It's not the words that throw her so much as the tone. Nate is soft-spoken, good-natured and affectionate. He's definitely not moody or closed off or angry - Jules has more than cornered the market on those qualities.

That he's taking a few pages out of his sister's book is throwing Felicity for more than a loop.

She pauses, setting down the dish towel. She ignores his outstretched hand waiting for another plate. He doesn't look at her, his eyes fixed on the cabinet shelf in front of him while his jaw twitches. He's never had to hide anything from her before - he's never had any reason to - and he's failing horribly at it. Even in profile she can see his whole face tighten as he avoids her gaze and his lips purse ever tighter, like he's trying to keep his words in with physical force alone.

A long moment of heavy silence passes. It's clear he wants her to drop it, to hand him a plate and for them to continue as they were, but this is not something she's about to let slide without explanation.

When he still doesn't elaborate, Felicity asks, "What's going on, Nate?"

"Nothing," he says abruptly. He reaches past her to grab the last plate. He starts scrubbing it with a gusto that's almost alarming. He still doesn't look at her though as he rinses the plate off and dries it himself, putting it away as he says, "I just think QI is a better fit for me, you know? Government's never been my thing."

He still won't look at her, not until she rests a hand on his shoulder. He's still tense and when he finally does meet her gaze, there's a mixture of anger and guilt that confuse the hell out of her.

"Hey, talk to me," Felicity says. "What's this about?"

A vast array of emotions war with each other on his face, every battle played out across his features for her to see. When he licks his lips and rubs his thumb against his forefinger, she knows he's reached some sort of conclusion, in spite of the fact he's itching for a different solution. For all that they don't share any interests, Oliver and Nate do share all the same mannerisms.

There are times her son looks so very much like his father that it's striking.

Like right now, when he's clearly anxious about whatever he's going to say. And he is going to answer her. She knows this, because she knows her son, but just as Nate opens his mouth to speak, the man in question appears in the doorway.

"Hey," Oliver says, his voice quiet as he makes his way over to them. His eyes are warm with affection as they meet hers before casting a glance to the sink. "I thought I told you I'd do that." Ever after decades together, his tone still makes her all gooey inside. She used to wonder if that would ever go away, but she's oh so pleased it hasn't. He smiles at her - his Felicity smile - as he sidles up next to her, his hand landing on her lower back, his fingers dancing over the gentle slope of her backside as he rubs small circles there. "You shouldn't be using your wrist so much."

She snorts under her breath - she'd really like to show him just how functional her wrist actually is at the moment - but Nate's voice kills that notion on the spot.

"I took care of it," the teenager bites out, all the bitterness from earlier rearing its head again, coming back with a vengeance.

All the warmth on Oliver's face instantly melts away as he looks at his son… his very angry son. Confusion hardens the lines on Oliver's brow and around his eyes as he raises an eyebrow at him.

"Excuse me?" Oliver asks, with a very different edge to his voice.

Nate moves to take a step closer to his father. It's a challenge, and for a split second, that leaves Felicity reeling because this does not happen between them. She tightens her hand on Nate's shoulder, starting, "Nate, what…?" but the look on his face steals the rest of her words. There's so much frustrated pain painted across his features that it socks Felicity in the gut, leaving her breathless. He's always looked like a scrawnier, nerdier version of his father, but that has never been as obvious as right now.

She knows that expression.

She hasn't seen that level of self-blame on her husband's face in decades, but it's burned into her memory so fiercely that it's scarred across her mind's eye.

"Nate…" she starts again, though she really has no idea what she's going to say. What she could say. He's too young to be looking at anyone like that.

But Nate looks away, back toward his father, and he angles himself between his parents, forcing Oliver to drop his hand and step back.

Protectively, she'll realize later. He's standing in front of her protectively.

Between her and Oliver.

"What…?" she manages, glancing at Oliver. His eyes are narrowed at Nate, more in concern and confusion more than anything, but there's an underlying irritation that she's never seen directed at their son before. Something is clearly happening and she doesn't like it one bit. Felicity moves to step around the teen, to put herself between them as she says, "Nate-"

He cuts her off before she can finish, though.

"It's bad enough she got hurt because of you," Nate declares, his voice resolute but shaking. "I wasn't going to let her make it worse doing dishes."

Oh. My. God.

For a very, very long moment, there is no sound in the kitchen. It all catches up to her in a rush as recognition of exactly what his son is saying settles across her husband's face. His features darken, his brow furrowing, and the only thing Felicity hears is the violent pounding of her heartbeat in her throat. The protracted silence between them suddenly feels like it weighs a thousand pounds as son and father face off.

"Nate," Felicity cautions, pulling on his sleeve. "Honey, you aren't-"

"You wouldn't be getting hurt if he didn't insist on jumping off of rooftops every night!" Nate interrupts, his voice cracking as it rises in his anger. He turns a hard glare at his father. "You're old, Dad! And you're being selfish! And you're gonna get Mom killed one day because you can't stop playing superhero!"

"Selfish?" Oliver repeats darkly.

"Yes," Nate snaps, doubling down.

"I'm selfish."

"Yes."

"You know why I do this, Nathaniel," Oliver replies. The patience he's showing with their youngest is at the very edge of its limits and Felicity knows it. She can see it in the way his jaw clenches and his fingernails bite into his palms, but Nate either doesn't know or doesn't care.

"Yeah," Nate huffs dismissively, rolling his eyes. Felicity finds herself gripping his sleeve tighter as Oliver clenches his teeth at the blatant disrespect. "Because grandpa told you to right his wrongs and somehow you took that to mean you needed to be a vigilante and spend your whole life illegally fighting crime. Forget saving the city. What about saving your family? Who cares if you save the damned city when you can't even save my mom?"

"I have saved your mom," Oliver grits out. "Dozens of times. Hundreds of times. I will always save your mother."

"Yeah, well, she wouldn't need saving in the first place if it wasn't for you."

It's the closest thing to a verbal slap in the face that Felicity can even think of. She can't quite cage in the horrible mournful noise that wells up in the back of her throat at her son's harsh words. God, he couldn't be more wrong.

The look on Oliver's face is downright dangerous as he takes a step toward his son.

An uneasy chill falls down Felicity's spine.

He has never once raised a hand to any of their kids and he never will, even if Nate is absolutely testing that resolve right now. But her son, her sweet non-confrontational little boy, lifts his chin in a clear challenge and an obvious statement that he's not backing down.

Neither, history tells her, will Oliver.

The air in the kitchen crackles with animosity and when she sees Nate's hands curling into tight fists - Oliver doesn't miss it either, judging by the way his shoulders suddenly tighten - Felicity finally snaps.

"Alright, that's enough," she announces, finding her voice. She tugs Nate back as she steps between the two men. "I said that's enough."

The room is stifling and she doesn't even know how they got here. How the hell did she wind up seriously wondering if her thirteen year old son was going to throw a punch at his vigilante father? Because she is, right now. She's actually worried about that. And while Oliver would never hit him back, he'd have the boy flat on his back inside of a second, provided the teen didn't take himself down by either missing entirely or breaking his hand.

"You two need to cool down," she snaps, eyes darting from one man to the other as she whips her head back and forth. "Now." Her tone has Nate immediately backing down, but Oliver… Hurt, anger and confusion skate over his face, but it wasn't him who was going to escalate things. It was their son. She turns back to Nate. "I get that your heart's in the right place, Nate, that you want to protect me. But, kiddo, you're not. Go upstairs and calm down. I'm going to talk to your father and then I'll be up in a minute."

"But, Mom-"

Felicity cuts him off with a sharp shake of her head. "Now, Nate."

"But…"

His tone is all childlike again, like the Nate she knows, the one she's used to. She'd forgotten, somehow, that this is what it's like with teenagers, in spite of the fact that she has another one still under her roof. She just hadn't expected this from Nate - the push and pull between childhood and adulthood, the way it manifests in both words and actions that are too bold and too brash with far too little understanding behind them. Jules more than prepared them for what having a wayward teenager was like, and Ellie has just always been so easy, if a little too desperate to grow up as fast as possible.

She guesses she'd just assumed he'd be as easy to navigate as her.

Oops.

Her voice softens as she says, "Go on," with a nod towards the stairs.

It takes a few seconds, but he finally does. But not before casting an unforgiving look at his father and not without stomping his way up the stairs with those too-big shoes of his.

Felicity sighs the second he's out of sight. Her head falls back as the tightness in her shoulders melts away. She moves to rub the bridge of her nose only to realize she's using the hand with the wrist brace. Twisting her hand in this thing to navigate around her glasses is near impossible.

A pained noise from Oliver's direction and it hits her that any move emphasizing the damn brace is not a great idea at the moment. She looks at him in time to catch a crestfallen look before he scrubs his face with both hands as he falls back a few steps, taking a deep breath. He takes things to heart, he always has, but it's especially prevalent when it comes to his family.

"He's wrong, Oliver," Felicity says, closing the distance between them. She places her hands on his chest, looking up at him. "You know that, right?"

"Yeah," he says, gently taking both her hands in his. He runs his thumbs over the backs of her hands lightly. One of them catches on the brace. She sees the shift almost instantly as he says, "Mostly."

"No," Felicity says, her voice hard with resolve, because she will not let that stand. "There's no mostly about it." She squeezes his fingers tightly until he looks her in the eye. "You are by far the least selfish person I have ever met. He doesn't get it, Oliver. He doesn't know what this city was like before, and I am so grateful for that. It's because of everything you've done for this city that he doesn't know. Talk about a catch-22. And he also doesn't seem to understand that you aren't the one putting me in danger - I am. Now," she says, shaking his hands slightly, "I understand why he might not be clear on that, but don't you dare forget it."

He huffs out a barely audible chuckle. "I know," he says with a nod. He ducks his head to kiss her knuckles. "I know that. I do. I just hate that you still get hurt because of… of what we do. I can't blame him for wanting you safe." He stares into her eyes, conveying just how much Nate's words hurt and just how little they see how very similar they really are. "I do, too."

"Well, that's one thing you two can agree on." Felicity lets out a frustrated sigh. "Oliver… I know you love our son and he loves you, too. But it kills me that you two can't find something - anything - to bond over. Sports. Music. The weather. Whatever. Just… He's growing up so fast - too fast - and whether he knows it or not, he's going to need his dad, sooner or later. I know that he will always be able to come to you, but… I need him to know it, too."

"Sometimes it feels like we aren't even speaking the same language," Oliver admits, and the uncertainty he feels when it comes to his son resonates in his voice. It's obvious how much it weighs on him. It's a different kind of strain that works its way through his muscles, an old one that's frequent enough that he must think it normal at this point.

"Then you both need to become bilingual," Felicity says firmly.

She can see he wants to point out that he already speaks quite a few languages already, but he bites it back, which shows exactly how serious he's taking what just happened. He does try, he really does. But Nate is so smart and focused. He already has his future mapped out in a spreadsheet - literally, probably - and that only lends itself more towards Oliver feeling like his son doesn't really need him. But there are other ways… he just has to find them.

"I'll work on it," Oliver promises, though she can see that he has not clue how to do that. But he means it, which has warmth filling her chest.

Felicity smiles. "Good," she says, pulling his hands to her lips. She kisses his knuckles before giving him a wider grin. "You can bring him with you to 'Take Your Child To Work Day' next month."

Oliver grimaces. "He's going to hate that, honey. He'd much rather go with you and you know it."

"You leave that to me," she replies. She cups his face, pulling him down closer to her so she can kiss him. She runs her hand up and over his brow, trying to erase the lines still furrowed there. The tension softens at her touch, but only slightly.

This evening has left its mark.

She wishes it hadn't. Oliver already has too many scars as it is.

But with her help, these will heal, too, just like his other wounds throughout the years. Right now, though, she has a sullen teenage son to deal with.

Felicity steps back and soaks in her husband's appearance. It's been a very long time since she's seen this level of self-blame on his face and it guts her to think he's been hurt so badly.

She wonders if Nate even knows how much power he has over his father.

She doubts it.

"I love you," Felicity says. Her voice is soft but filled with such a fierce vehemence that it has Oliver's eyes snapping back to hers. She cups his cheeks, staring into his eyes. "And I'm proud of you and the work we do," she finishes, like her words alone can fortify him. And maybe they can, because he smiles a little as he shakes his head, which is more than she'd expected.

"I love you, too," he replies. "And I'm proud of us, too. I just wish our son was."

She does, too.

"I'll be back down in a bit," she tells him. "Why don't you give Digg a call and let him know we won't be there tonight, unless there's an emergency?"

"Yeah," he agrees.

She moves to step back but he snatches her back before she can get very far, pulling her into a tight hug. He winds his arms around her waist, pressing his face into the space between her neck and shoulder, a spot that seems specifically designed for him. She holds him back just as hard, knowing he needs this, gladly helping him shoulder the weight of tonight, of his relationship - or lack thereof - with his son, of everything. Felicity kisses the side of his neck, grateful that he lets her in so readily, and even more determined to find a way to bridge the gap between the two most important men in her life.

When she finally moves to the stairs again, he follows a few steps behind with a soft, "Felicity?"

She stops on the bottom step and looks back at him.

He hesitates, looking like he's trying to figure out how to phrase what he wants to say. He shuffles in one spot, pushing his hands into his pockets. God, he looks so much like Nate did, lost and unsure. Unlike with her son, though, she just stands nearby and waits for him to speak.

"You'll tell me, right?" he asks finally. Felicity furrows her brow, not sure what he's asking. He licks his lips, vulnerability lining his features. "You'll tell me when I'm too old for this. When we're too old for this."

Felicity blinks. This is the first time he's said anything like that, and she's not sure what to do with it. "Uh…"

"I'm 50," he points out before she can respond. "I don't know that I'll ever be ready to give it up, but… at some point… I'm going to have to."

She'd be lying if she didn't wonder about it herself sometimes. He's been injured more times than she'd like to remember, and it hasn't escaped her attention that he's taking longer and longer to recover each time. And that's just new injuries. His knee has had problems ever since she's known him and while they've managed to stay ahead of it as much as they can, it's not something that's ever going to get better.

Oliver may be in incredibly good shape, but he's only human, and he is as bound by those limitations as much as any of them.

"Yeah," she agrees after a beat. "You are." His face falls slightly, like he was expecting her to call him crazy for even thinking it, but she's not going to lie to him. Especially because he already knows it's true. He didn't need Nate pointing it out to him, just like he doesn't need her lying to him about it. Felicity smiles. "But not yet."

At those three words, a weight slides off his shoulders. He gives her a smile, a truly beautiful smile that lights up his face, and it's like he takes the first full breath since he walked into the kitchen. Being the Arrow is a tremendous part of his identity and while one day, he will have to give it up, it's not right now. And the idea that his son thinks he needs to stop… it'd hit him on a level the boy surely could not have expected.

But what does Nate know? He's thirteen. He hasn't had to deal with the realities of middle age.

"Yeah." Oliver nods, blinking hard as he breathes out again through thinned lips. "Okay."

"You good?" Felicity asks, watching him for a reaction rather than listening for a response because she knows her husband well.

"Yeah," he says, and his body language agrees. "I'm fine. Go talk to Nate, and let me know when you're done. I'd like to have a chat with him, too."

'Like to' is probably too strong a phrase, but Felicity isn't about to argue semantics.

Instead, she nods with a whispered, "Okay," and hurries up the stairs to her son's room on the third floor.

Unlike his sisters, Nate's room is generally spotless. Ellie's always been prone to leave her things all over the place, sports equipment and books and photographs. Before moving out, Jules' room had always been equal parts wet paint, dance gear and piles of records. Actual records. She likes to be 'retro' which Felicity decided years ago is code for 'make her technology-guru mother's eye twitch.' But not Nate. No, her little boy is fastidious; everything has to be in its place. Unless, of course, he's focused on a problem.

Like today.

So, yeah, after she knocks on his door and he invites her in, she's not at all surprised to find his room a bit of a disaster. By Nate's standards, anyhow.

And he's not faring much better.

He's sitting on the end of his bed, one foot perched on the other knee. His shoe is off and he's rubbing his toes with a wince. His shirt's rumpled, hair messy, and his shoulders are slumped. In this instant, she can't decide who she feels worst for - Nate or Oliver. They're both hurting and she wants to take it all away.

Nate stares at his foot, not looking at her. Felicity sits down next to him, leaning against him a little. The bed dips and creaks under their combined weight. It wasn't that long ago it didn't do that. He's grown so much lately…

"You okay?" she asks.

"Yeah…" He nods before sheepishly admitting, "I kicked the bed."

Ah, the missing shoe suddenly makes a whole lot more sense.

"And it kicked back?" Felicity asks dryly. It earns her a laugh and a little smile, so she can't care in the least that she's being cheesy as hell.

"It's hard!" he protests, waving at the frame. "That's solid wood!"

His head's a heck of a lot harder today, but she's not going to bring that up.

"Well," Felicity says, patting his leg. "I'm glad you're sticking to inanimate objects, anyhow. You didn't break anything, did you?"

"No." He makes a face, his cheek flushing. "But I think I broke the shoe. It caught on the edge and something tore."

She holds back a sigh at that. Of course he did. He probably needed new ones anyhow. He's going through shoes and jeans as fast as he's going through gallons of milk these days. At this rate, he's going to be taller than his father by the end of high school and won't that go over well with Oliver.

"It's just a shoe," she says, sliding her arm around her son and resting her head on his shoulder. He relaxes, melting into her, and it only reinforces how much he's still a little boy. Even if he's suddenly thinking himself a man. "Your dad loves you, Nate."

"I know," he mumbles, speaking more to his broken shoe on the floor than to her.

"He loves me, too," she points out.

"Yeah," Nate agrees. "I just… I don't like you getting hurt, Mom. I worry about you."

As sweet as that is, it's also the core of the problem, and while she'd very much like to let it go, she can't. Felicity kisses his cheek before sitting up taller, forcing him to do the same. "I promise you he feels the same way, sweetheart."

"Then why doesn't he give it up?" Nate demands, his voice rising again, but not in anger this time. No, it's all frustration that burns in his throat and wells up in his eyes. He just doesn't understand. Not at all. He scowls at the floor, dropping his foot with a heavy thud as he looks at her with his bewildered and confused blue eyes. "Why doesn't he just quit so you don't have to go out there and risk yourself to keep him safe?"

"Oh, Nate." Felicity sighs, resting her chin on his bony shoulder, meeting his eyes. "Honey, I'm not you."

It only confuses him further. He doesn't like when things don't make sense to him and his brows pull together as he tries to suss out her meaning.

"I don't do this for your father," she clarifies, rubbing a hand up Nate's back like she used to when he was just a baby.

"What do you mean?" he asks. "Of course you do."

"No, Nate," she shakes her head. "I don't. I do this for me. I have never wanted to be tucked away in an office while the world passes by outside. At least, I haven't wanted to do only that. It's not who I am. That kind of life isn't enough for me."

She knows the minute she says it that he misunderstands her further. Alarm taints his eyes as he stares at her, his mind jumping to conclusions that are so outlandish she almost laughs. Thank goodness she can read him as well as she can - he and Oliver sharing so many mannerisms does come in handy sometimes.

"That's not what I meant," she says, smoothing a piece of hair off his forehead. "Being a mom to you and your sisters, being your dad's wife, those are the most important roles I'll ever have." It settles his worried look instantly, his shoulders relaxing. "I wouldn't trade those things for anything. But my life can't just be that. I'm a part of Team Arrow because it helps me do good. It gives me purpose, something greater than myself. It's a different kind of legacy than the one we've built with our family. Do you understand?"

Nate's quiet as he turns to stare at his hands, but she can see his brilliant mind working.

"No," he says finally, the admission clearly costing him something to voice. "I don't."

Felicity smiles, pressing her mouth into his shoulder so her amusement isn't quite as obvious. But this is so very Nate and she's so grateful that he's at least being honest with her.

"That's okay," she tells him. "You might never really understand. You aren't built like me, honey. Or like your father or Ellie or even Jules. And you don't have to be. You're you. The things that drive you are different. And I love that about you, Nater-Tater-Bug."

He laughs at the old nickname, casting her a glance as his cheeks flush in embarrassment. Felicity grins, not bothering to hide it from him this time.

"You're never going to be a vigilante, baby," she continues. "I know that. And so does your father. It's not part of who you are and we don't expect that to change. But we do expect you to respect that it is part of who we are."

"And Ellie," he adds.

That sends a twist to her gut that terrifies her, so much that it stalls her response.

He's right, though. He's absolutely right. Ellie's been begging to be on the team for years now. They've put her off so far - seventeen is too damn young, and that's something Team Arrow all agrees on - but Felicity has an ever-present mix of both pride and terror living in her veins as she thinks about what that inevitable first night watching over her daughter from the comms will be like.

But that's a problem for another night.

"And Ellie," she says, her voice a little thicker. She huffs out a tiny laugh, nudging him. "But, I'm pretty sure you're the only one who's going to step up on the legitimate side of the family business."

"Well… someone in this family has to be respectable," he replies. Felicity lets out a short, "Ha!" as he says, "And it's pretty clear it's gonna have to be me."

She laughs, shoving her shoulder into him so that they bump together. He wraps an arm around her and holds her close. It's a stark contrast to even a month ago. He's getting so big, and it makes her even more grateful for her sweet boy, and how easily they can talk to each other.

"So," Felicity says, looking at him as she swats his knee. "You're not going to school tomorrow."

Nate's eyebrows fly up in surprise. And maybe even a hint of disappointment. "I'm not?"

"Nope," she tells him. "You're going to be sick. So sick that I have to take you with me to work so you can draw an organizational chart. Doctor's orders."

"I like this doctor," he declares with a grin.

"I figured you would," Felicity says, before adding, "Doctor's orders aren't done though. Because then you're going to the Arrow Cave with us."

"Mom."

"Just to watch," she amends, stroking his hair back from his brow. "It's unreasonable to expect you to appreciate what we do if you don't know what we do. It's different firsthand than it is talking about it around the dinner table."

"Fine," he relents, because - bless him - Nate has always been willing to see reason, and she does have a solid point.

"Good," she says, before pushing her luck. "And for 'Take Your Child To Work Day' you're going with your father."

"Aw, Mom, come on," he whines. He sounds five years old and while that should be annoying considering his age, it just makes her grin. "Do I have to?"

"Yes." She nods, his question reminding her of what had just transpired downstairs. Felicity sighs. "You hurt your dad tonight, Nate." His face falls and he looks down, his neck coloring with shame. He knows he did, and he doesn't like it. Which is good. Felicity continues, "I know you didn't mean to and I know your heart's in the right place, but you did. And just telling him you're sorry isn't enough. You need to try to find some kind of common ground with him. For me. And, really, for yourselves. Because you're both amazing men and you should have a bigger part in each other's lives. If you had any idea…"

She cuts herself off, shaking her head.

Telling him how excited Oliver had been when she'd gotten pregnant with him, how he'd lit up with utter joy even though they were already so incredibly taxed by everything else in their lives… that isn't going to make an impact now. They need to form some kind of relationship on their own. And she's done all she can to put them on that path.

The rest is up to them.

"Okay," Nate agrees. From the way he's looking at her, she wonders how long she's been staring off into space, reliving that early morning in her mind. It's Nate's turn to nudge her. "I'll go with him."

Felicity smiles. "Thank you," she says, kissing him on the forehead before standing. "And you know, I bet the state government has an organizational chart, too. If you ask your dad very nicely, he might even give you a copy. Or a civics book. One of the two."

"Ha, ha," Nate tells her, rolling his eyes. "You're hilarious, mom."

"Thank you for recognizing that," she replies, heading towards his door. She stops before leaving, glancing back at him. "And Nate?"

"Yeah?"

"Thanks for trying to stick up for me," she says. "Even if I didn't need it."

"I'll always stick up for you. You're my mom," he replies, like it's exactly that simple.

And she's lucky - she's so lucky - because, to him, it is.

 

Chapter Text

March 2022

Ellie buzzes with so much excitement that Felicity can barely get her coat buttoned.

The toddler jumps up and down as Oliver pulls the girls' wagon out of their SUV, a soft smile on his face as Felicity nods along, responding to Ellie's nonstop chatter in-between buttoning her up.

Jules is quiet at her father's side, focused on fastening her own coat and tugging the collar snug around her neck.

It's been a chilly March this year, colder than usual. Just when he'd thought it was starting to let it up, an ice storm rolled through town last week, leaving the air biting enough to turn noses and ears red. Felicity hasn't minded. In fact, she's been incredibly vocal about how grateful she is for the weather. Heavily pregnant with their son - who is still two and a half months away from being born - heat more than bothers her. Oliver's lost count of how many times he's found her standing in front of their open freezer, savoring the brisk air. Just last night he'd had to maneuver around her for the chicken he wanted to cook up this weekend.

But that's for her. She might only be wearing a light sweater today, but she's a firm 'yes, always, absolutely' when it comes to coats for the girls.

It's a mom thing, she says. He doesn't question it.

"An' they got monkeys and giraffes and hippopopamatuses!" Ellie cries with delight, bouncing on her toes in absolutely delight. "And elephants!"

Jules face is impassive as she dryly asks, "Hippopotami?"

"Them, too!" Ellie declares, her face utterly alive with joy.

Despite herself, her little sister's response gets to her, and his generally reserved, sarcastic girl loses a fight with a smile. Oliver can't help the chuckle that rises up in his own chest as he tugs his older daughter to his side in a one-armed hug. She allows it, but just for a minute before slipping away, and not without a slight eyeroll.

It does nothing to deter Oliver's smile as he locks up the car, more than used to it.

Affection has never come easily to their seven-year-old, and as much as he would love to scoop her up into his arms and cuddle his little girl, he knows full well that it would make her tense and uneasy, completely contradicting the point.

She's incredible, his little Julie-bug, whip-smart and intensely creative, but half the time he wonders what's going on in her head. She so rarely offers anything up to him, and he knows the chances of her doing that more - especially as she gets older - are highly unlikely. Most of her thoughts are kept to herself, whatever they might be, and the only time she really expresses them is when it bothers her too much to keep it all caged in. Then it all boils over in a tempest of rage, a furious storm that damages everything in its wake.

The terrible twos had been hard with Jules, but they'd fast discovered that while her restraint might have grown as she'd left toddlerhood, her frustration and temper had not abated. Jules is hard. He and Felicity both love her more than life itself, would do anything at all for her, but the scant month of parenting experience they'd had with the first Ellie had in no way prepared them for their oldest.

If anything, it'd given them the opposite impression.

Felicity interrupts his thoughts with a, "And you can see them," to Ellie where she's squatted in front of the little girl. "But you have to hold still and let me finish buttoning your coat, you silly girl."

The promise of imminently seeing the animals has Ellie letting out a squeak. She covers her mouth with her hands, fighting to stand still. She's a ball of expressive joy, his three-year-old. As they close in on the age the other Ellie had been when she was sent back in time to them, he finds himself equal parts terrified that his daughter will also somehow be ripped away from them and absolutely astounded at how similar the two versions of his Ellie really are.

They are both worlds apart from Jules, though. Sisters or not, Oliver would be hard pressed to come up with two people who are more different from each other. That thought's confirmed when he glances at his eldest and finds her waiting patiently, lips pressed together in a thin line as she stares at the entrance to the zoo.

"There!" Felicity announces with triumph, finishing the last of the black buttons on Ellie's gray coat. Ellie dances over to Jules in her excitement, who merely gives her sister a glib smile, before coming right back to her mother as Felicity leans back on her heels. She takes a deep breath, placing a hand on the ground… but that's as far as she gets. "Now, if only I could stand up…"

Oliver chuckles, shaking his head affectionately as he walks over and offers her a hand. She scrunches her nose at him, but she grips his forearm tightly and allows him to pull her up. It takes a bit of effort, more because she's off-kilter than because she's heavy, but that's true, too.

Unlike Jules, who she'd remained fairly small with, and Ellie, who she'd carried low, their son is front and center, making his presence known. He's definitely taking up more than his fair share of space, something Felicity informs both him and his father of every day. Her balance has been a mess since early in her second trimester and her back is perpetually stiff and sore, which is emphasized now as she puts her hands on the small of her back and stretches with a moan.

The move makes her stomach jut out even more, and Oliver can't resist laying a hand on her belly to greet his son with an affectionate brush of his thumb, pressing a kiss to her temple. She hums her appreciation, leaning into his lips. When he pulls back, she winks at him.

"Thank you," she says with a little sigh, reaching down for Ellie's hand.

"Of course," he replies. "You good?"

"I'm good." She nods, more for his benefit than anything, because she still has one hand plastered to her lower back. Felicity looks at Ellie before smiling at Jules, declaring, "Let's do this!"

"Yay!" Ellie shouts.

"Are you really sure you're up to it?" Oliver asks. He'd offered before and he'd received much the same glare he's getting now. He's not the least bit deterred, though, because he knows how swollen her ankles get, and he can't help wanting to spare her that. "I can take the girls and just meet you in the coffee shop after, if you want."

"I can walk around the zoo with our daughters, Oliver," she counters.

"I'm not saying you can't," he replies immediately. "I'm just saying you don't have to."

"You can sit in the wagon if it's too much walking, Momma," Ellie offers.

The mental image of his very pregnant wife trying to fit in Ellie and Jules' little red wagon - of the two girls trying to pull it with her in it - flashes through Oliver's mind and he laughs out loud. It's ridiculous, and it'd be worth the pictures he would absolutely take.

"Thank you, Ellie-bug," Felicity says, "but I think I might break it if I tried that. It's a kid wagon, not a grown-up one."

"We should get a grown-up one, then!" Ellie declares. "They're fun!" She lets go of her mother's hand and scrambles over to the wagon, climbing in. "Come on, Jules!"

The hesitation that crawls across Jules' face as she eyes the wagon isn't surprising, but the fact that she makes no move to climb into it with her sister is. She's always liked riding in the wagon.

"I'm too big for it," Jules announces after a moment. But her eyes linger, like she's giving it up but doesn't really want to.

"Nuh uh. You'll fit!" Ellie promises, scooting back into one corner. "See? There's loads of room."

Jules stares at the empty spot across from her sister, making no move to join her. Ellie's little face twists in confusion, but in spite of the clear longing on the older girl's face, she doesn't budge. She finally looks away, shrugging one shoulder as she slips her hands into the pockets of her long, stark white winter coat.

"I'll walk," she says.

Next to him, Felicity lets out a pained sigh, gripping his elbow. It's a little thing - a silly thing, even - and it has no significance. Or it wouldn't on its own. But this is Jules, and she's an expert in self-sabotage and caged feelings, despite their best efforts to get her to open up.

It bothers Felicity. It bothers him, too.

"You sure?" Oliver asks, even though he already knows the answer. "I might ride in it if I could. The zoo's big."

Jules rolls her eyes. "Sure, Dad."

Dad.

Not 'Daddy.'

Dad.

She's been doing that more and more lately, and it has a knot of sorrow sitting heavily in his chest.

Every day it feels like she's pulling away from him even further and all he wants to do is hold on, keep her close, tell her for the millionth time that he loves her. He wants to know that this time - this time - she believes him. Because he's honestly not sure that she does. It absolutely guts him because he'd do anything at all for this little girl, and she doesn't seem to have a clue.

"You can pull me, then!" Ellie exclaims, scrambling across the wagon and rising up on her knees so she's almost eye-level with Jules. "You wanna? You've got strong muscles. I bet you could do it."

Jules hesitates, but Oliver can see she wants to say yes. He fights the urge to encourage her, keeping his face neutral when she glances at him and Felicity before she looks at Ellie.

"Sure," Jules replies. It's as nonchalant as she can make it, but she stands straighter, pulling her shoulders back, her chin held high. Like she's trying to be older. Like she's trying to distance herself from the childhood she's barely just begun. But when she grabs the handle to the wagon, eliciting a squeal of delight from Ellie, a smile lights her face that shows just how young she still is.

"We ready?" Felicity asks the girls.

They both nod, Ellie with far more exuberance than even seems possible.

"Go fast, Jules!" Ellie instructs, holding onto the sides of the wagon with white-knuckled little fingers. "Go like The Flash!"

Jules bolts as fast as she can with the wagon in tow, Ellie shrieking as they sprint down the sidewalk, wind ruffling her hair. They don't get far ahead - neither Oliver or Felicity would let them - but there's enough distance that Felicity feels comfortable sagging against him with a heavy sigh.

"I know," Oliver says, wrapping an arm around her and kissing the top of her head.

"I just…" Felicity sighs again before swallowing hard and he knows she's fighting back tears. It's not the first time she's cried over their daughter - rather, her frustrating inability to really get through to Jules - but pregnancy has her emotions amplified times a thousand. "I feel like nothing I do is right with her, sometimes."

"I know," he agrees, stroking her waist with his thumb. "But she's smiling now, isn't she?"

She is. It's thin, but it's a smile, even if it's a little haughty as she pauses in front of the member entrance to the zoo at the end of the sidewalk to talk down to her little sister. They aren't close enough to hear the words, but Oliver suspects Jules is telling Ellie what to do. The little girl does what she says, without question, thoroughly unbothered. Ellie's only three and Jules must seem so big to her; she accepts her older sister's authority without question.

For now.

Oliver can't imagine that will last a whole lot longer.

"I just want her to be happy," Felicity replies in a near whisper. "I want them both to be happy."

"Me, too," Oliver says. "But all we can do is listen to them. Tell them we love them. Encourage them. We have a lot on our plates, but they know they come first."

"Yeah," Felicity echoes, but uncertainty trails after the word. She rests one hand on her belly, staring at her daughters with a longing that time can't touch. He wishes he could take that worry away, but he can't do that any more than he can make Julianna be more open and interactive with them.

"Momma!" Ellie calls loudly as they close in on the girls. "I gotta get Nater-Tater-Bug a present while we're at the zoo. He needs more stuffed animals."

Oliver's heart clenches at those words and Felicity might well have tripped if not for his hand steadying her waist. The sudden reminder of the first Ellie hits Felicity hard, just like it always does whenever the little moments come up. It happened so long ago - years ago - but sometimes, it's like that month happened just yesterday.

"What?" Felicity asks breathlessly.

"A present," Ellie repeats. "At the gift shop." She frowns in confusion. "Did I say something wrong, Momma?"

"No," Oliver says her quickly, shaking his head as he pulls Felicity closer. He smiles at her. "That's a sweet idea, Ellie-bug."

Ellie relaxes, but her eyes stay on Felicity, who leans into him, taking a moment to pull herself together. The similarities between the Ellies are somehow both heartening and heartbreaking.

"You reminded momma of the first Ellie," Jules explains to her sister. "Because she got me my elephant as a present before I was born."

"Oh," Ellie says slowly, her face falling. "I'm sorry, Momma. I didn't mean to make you sad."

"No, it's okay, baby," Felicity replies, her voice thick. She clears her throat, moving to support her own weight. Oliver keeps his arm around her regardless. "You just surprised me, that's all. You were almost the same age when…" She stops herself, pressing her lips together hard before taking a deep breath. "It's okay. I think that's a really good idea, when we're done looking at the animals."

Ellie studies her mother, finally nodding with a furrowed little brow. "It won't be an elephant, Momma. I promise. Not even if that's the best thing there."

"It can be an elephant," Felicity tells her, sounding more even-keeled by the moment.

"Really?" Ellie asks. "It can?"

"Ellie, you love elephants," Felicity tells her. "Of course it can."

"Oh good." Ellie sighs like that's a tremendous relief. "Nater-Tater-Bug will love it, Momma! It's gonna be the best present there. I just know it. You can't beat a stuffed elephant, Momma. It's the best."

"You're a sweet girl, Ellie-bug," Felicity tells her, walking over and bending down to kiss her on the forehead. Ellie preens under the attention, smiling proudly up at her mother. She's so very expressive, so full of joy and lightness that it's easy to be drawn in by her.

Oliver watches his older daughter instead.

Jules looks uneasy at the moment unfolding in front of her. Whether that's a quiet jealousy or discomfort at the kind of open display of affection she would never engage in, Oliver's not sure, but either way it leaves him itching to reach out to her.

"Can we see the elephants first, Momma?" Ellie asks in a fit of excitement. "They've got a baby one. I heard at preschool. Only he's as big as a house!"

Felicity laughs, stroking the blonde curls from Ellie's brow, soaking in the absolute giddiness that rolls off of Ellie in waves. It's a quiet moment comprised of just the two of them and Oliver knows his wife misses it when Jules turns to stare at her toes, misses her shoulders drooping, as she says, "Sure, Ellie-bug. That seems as good a spot to start as any. I kinda wanted to start there, too."

What she really wants is an elephant ear from the food cart nearby and Oliver knows it. But it also means going the exact opposite direction from the marine life, and one look at Jules' closed off face tells him that she'd had her heart set there.

He knows his little girl, even if she does her best to hide herself from everyone.

"Why don't you two go ahead," he says, drawing a confused look from his wife. "I want to see the sea lions first."

Jules' gaze shoots up to him, eyes wide with surprise that softens into something hopeful as he smiles at her.

"Oh." Felicity looks between them, connecting the dots, and he can see the second she starts blaming herself. They had to start somewhere and Ellie had asked so it felt natural to agree. It's not like Jules had spoken up. But Jules is so very good at pretending not to care about things, and sometimes it's easy to miss. But when she does care, though, she cares deeply, and the more she cares, the more she keeps it to herself. "I think that's a great idea. Meet up at the petting zoo in half an hour?"

"Sure," Oliver agrees, but he barely spares his wife a glance as he hones his attention in on his older daughter. "What do you say, kiddo? Mind hanging out with me for a bit?"

Jules chews her lower lip warily, but her eyes brim with tentative hope, a flush spreading across her cheeks. It's partly from the cold, he knows; Jules has such fair skin. But it's also happiness she can't quite contain. Maybe even a hint of it is some she's letting out all on her own.

"Okay," she agrees shyly.

Oliver lets out a breath he hadn't realized he was holding and smiles broadly at her.

"But you'll miss the elephants!" Ellie protests.

In the space of a second, Jules wilts before bracing herself, looking like she's ready to be overruled, but Felicity doesn't let it happen.

"That's okay, Ellie," Felicity tells her. "You and I will take pictures for them, okay?" As Ellie deflates slightly, clearly unable to comprehend how anyone would willingly choose to skip the elephants, Felicity leans over and kisses Oliver softly. Her hand lingers against his cheek as she backs up, mouthing, 'Thank you' to him. She turns toward Jules next, running her fingers gently through the girl's straight, dark hair and smiling down at her. "Have fun with your dad, okay, baby? I love you."

"Yeah," Jules agrees, shifting uneasily and glancing up at her mom with those ice blue eyes of hers before mumbling, "I will."

She doesn't say, "I love you, too" - she doesn't directly address her feelings at all, really - and Oliver knows that the absence of that hurts his wife so much. But it doesn't come easily to Jules. It's something he can relate to. The circumstances are vastly different, but Oliver knows the vulnerability that comes with opening yourself up, knows how much easier it is to be insulated with his feelings. It's one of the few things he wished he didn't share with his daughter, but at the same time, he's glad, because it's something he can at least try to navigate.

Felicity cups the little girl's ruddy cheek for a moment, before backing away with a nod and turning to Ellie.

"Elephants?" she asks.

"Yes!" Ellie declares with glee, flopping back against the bottom of the wagon so that she's looking skyward.

"See you in a bit," Felicity tells him.

Oliver smiles at her and gets one in return before she swipes their family membership card. She walks through the turnstile into the zoo with a nod at the nearby attendant, pulling Ellie behind her. It's easier said than done, making it through that entryway, considering the wagon and Felicity's expanded waistline, but they manage.

They head off toward the African animals section on their own.

It's hard to tear his eyes from his pregnant wife and little girl, but giving all his attention where it needs to be is easy as breathing.

"You know what I just realized?" Oliver asks.

Jules' face immediately falls and it dawns on him with a pang that she thinks he's about to change his mind. He can see her putting herself back into her little self-created box labeled 'Secondary' or 'Unimportant' yet again.

"We need hot cocoa," he says, answering himself.

Jules pauses, staring at him. Her tone is guarded as she asks, "Hot cocoa?"

"With whipped cream," he confirms. "Lots of it. And sprinkles."

"Sprinkles?" she asks with a scoff. It's almost a laugh, and that would have been enough, but then she gives him a small upturn of her lips.

Oliver nods, not giving into the urge to smile just because she is of her own volition. "The best hot cocoa has sprinkles," he deadpans. "It's a well-guarded secret."

"Is that one of your deep life lessons?" she asks. "Did you learn that from Tatsu or Anatoly?"

She's so very glib about it and he knows exactly what she's trying to do. She opened up a tiny little crack in her facade, just enough for him to peer through and now she's trying to force a bit of distance back between them by making him close off. But he's not the man he was before she was born and he's not about to allow that to happen now.

"Far more imposing figures than either one of them," he tells her, putting his hand on her back. He guides them toward a nearby food cart. "It was Raisa. But don't tell your grandmother."

"Please," Jules huffs. "Grandma Moira would probably top it off with chocolate sauce. And a cherry, too." She pauses as they get in line before acknowledging, "Unless we're staying the night. She only does that when you're coming to pick us up."

Of course she does.

"I'll have to remember to thank her for that," Oliver replies dryly. "But she most definitely did not do that when your Aunt Thea and I were kids."

"Well yeah," Jules says with a shrug. "Because then she had to deal with you all sugared up."

Oliver chuckles as they get to the front of the line. "True."

He doesn't miss the way she flushes with pleasure at that, and he doesn't push it when she ducks her head to hide it from him.

Oliver orders them two hot cocoas. They do not, as it turns out, have sprinkles, but they do have chocolate sauce, something Jules seems relatively pleased with as an alternative. And by 'relatively' he means 'extremely' because when he pretends to look away, the vendor winks before dousing hers in it.

"Although," Oliver says as he hands the cashier far too much money in exchange for the cocoas. He hands the one brimming with chocolate to her. "She also had Raisa for that."

Jules' brow furrows as she takes a sip of her sugar-laden drink. There's a thin layer of whipped cream on her lip. She licks it away the best she can as she asks, "What do you mean?"

"It's…" He sighs, his free hand returning to his daughter's back, resting between her shoulder blades as they turn toward the marine life exhibit. "My family growing up wasn't like our family," he explains. "It was more… rigid."

"Rigid?" she repeats. She's curious, more than he's seen her in a long time, and he can't really blame her. He hasn't talked much with her about his own childhood. "What does that mean?"

"There was a certain way things had to be done," Oliver clarifies, taking a sip of his oversweeteened drink. He grimaces - it's way too much for his tastebuds - and Jules catches it. She snickers as he winces at the flavor, prompting him to take another sip, just because he likes the sound of it. And maybe because he likes seeing that look on her face, even if it's at his expense. "My parents always loved me in their own way, but they also weren't very present in my life."

Her curiosity increases tenfold at that, to the point where she just holds her cocoa instead of drinking it.

"My dad was a busy guy," Oliver says. It's strange, talking about this with her. It'd taken him a long damn time to even talk to Felicity about any of this, and even though it's been years, he still feels the tug of vulnerability making him want to change subjects. But it's not as insistent with Jules. It's something they can share. It won't be enough to bring down all the walls she keeps up, but if he's lucky it might chip away at them a bit. "The company was always his top priority, above me and Aunt Thea, and even your grandma. And he made a lot of bad choices that complicated things more." That might be the biggest understatement ever. "It didn't leave a lot of time for me unless I was in trouble or representing the family with him at some kind of event."

"Did you get in trouble a lot?" she asks.

That's a question. She'll find out far more than he wants her to eventually, he has no doubt about that. His foibles are painfully well-documented across the internet, in various formats and medias. It's something his campaign manager has bemoaned every time they've met. But for now, she's seven and while he won't lie to her, he's not going to go into details either.

"More than my fair share," Oliver admits.

"And Grandma Moira?" she prods, looking up at him with those big blue eyes that can make him do just about anything. As much as he wants her to know how very much he loves her, it's probably a good thing she doesn't realize how wrapped around her finger he is.

"She's my mom," he answers simply. "But our relationship is better now than it was when I was growing up. She spent a lot of time cleaning up my dad's messes." They've slowed down a bit - Jules has, that is - and he's more than content to match his pace to hers if it means more talking. "Looking back, I think she was sad."

"Why?" Jules digs.

He's not about to tell his seven year old that her grandfather had been an unfaithful man who'd failed far more than just his family, so instead he says, "I think my dad was too busy for her, too, sometimes."

Jules hums at that, mulling it over in her head as she looks down at the cocoa in her hands and licks a bit of whipped cream off the top.

After a moment, she says, "Grown-ups are busy a lot."

Her melancholy tone hits him hard.

"We are," Oliver agrees, grabbing her elbow gently and forcing her to stop with him, meeting his eyes. "But I learned from my dad's mistakes in a lot of ways, Julie-bug. My family will always come first, do you understand? You, your mom, your sister, your brothers. You're the most important part of my life. That's why we're here."

Jules blinks in bewilderment. "At the zoo?"

The response is so perfectly guileless, and it makes his chest expand with love for her.

"At the marine exhibit, honey," he corrects her.

"Oh."

"Life isn't just the big moments, Jules," he says, brushing hair away from her cheek. She watches him, her eyes never leaving his as he speaks. "It's not all graduations and birthdays. It's taking my big girl to go see her favorite animal because I know she wants to, even if she didn't ask." It's the closest he's come to calling her out on being evasive with her feelings in a long while and she suddenly looks skittish and uneasy at the near-confrontation. But they've got a good exchange going and Oliver refuses to let it go. "You could have, you know."

She's quiet, for a long moment. The look of quiet fear in her eyes socks him right in the gut, but he doesn't let the topic drop. Not yet. He doesn't push her either, not as long as she doesn't shut him out.

She doesn't.

"What if…" Jules starts. She cuts herself off, pressing her lips together tightly. Her fingers shake against her cup of cocoa, the only sign of the vulnerability that's slicing through her. She stares down at the remaining whipped cream. "Ellie wanted to see the elephants. What if that was more important?"

What if she is more important.

That's what she's saying - what if they value Ellie more than her.

That the thought has ever crossed her mind makes Oliver want to cry. He wants to interrupt her, to swear it isn't true - that it could never be true - but she's not done yet, and she barrels forward in a sudden tumult of words long unspoken.

"And once there's Nate…" Jules looks up at him. "I mean, he'll want to go see something else, too, right? What if he wants to see the snakes and Ellie wants to see the elephants and I'm just…"

She cuts herself off again, but this time she doesn't continue. Her eyes well up with tears, but he barely sees them because she looks down again. She's in full protective mode, shoulders hunched defensively, body tensed as she stares at the ground.

"Just what, baby?" Oliver asks, tucking her long dark hair behind her ears, letting his thumbs rest against the bottom edge of her jaw. He won't force her to look up, though. This is already so far outside her comfort zone, he can't press for more.

"What if I'm left behind?"

It's barely a whisper and as much as it kills him that she thinks that, he's so very glad that she actually said it.

"Oh, sweetheart," he breathes. He takes her cup and sets both of the cocoas on a nearby ledge before pulling her into his arms. "Never. Never, ever, ever."

Jules isn't Ellie, though, and she doesn't melt into his embrace. It's not her way and he's never quite figured out how to get through to her. But he is damned well going to try everything he can think of right now, because this is one thought he can't possibly let fester in her head.

She shakes a little, her whole body impossibly tense in his arms. She doesn't pull away, though, and he chooses to take that as a good sign. But she also doesn't break, doesn't cry, doesn't have a tumble of words that spill out voicing all her worries.

Still, this is about as open as he can remember her being.

"You're so incredibly important to this family, Jules," he promises. "To me." One of his hands cups the back of her head, holding her against his chest. He feels the quick inhale of air as she sniffles, trying to hold everything in. "I love you, kiddo. Your brother isn't going to change that, and neither does your sister."

"But…" she starts, cutting herself off immediately and shaking her head a little. The hug isn't enough. Oliver backs up slightly, taking her with him, sitting on the same ledge he'd put the cocoas on. It puts him about eye-level with her, but she won't keep his gaze.

He keeps trying, though. He'll always keep trying.

"Talk to me, Julie-bug," he says.

It feels like begging.

Something in his tone must get through to her, though, because she does look at him. She's so guarded, so cautious. Her eyes are red-rimmed, but her cheeks are dry as she wraps her arms around her middle. It's protective, meant to distance herself from him, from the reality of everything she's feeling. He keeps his hands on her elbows, holds on tight to any physical connection between them, even as she insists on severing the emotional one.

"But… you wanted them," she mutters after a moment.

It's barely a whisper, but he hears it as loud as a scream. It rings in his ears and he wishes it were possible to physically fight words. That would be easier. If he could put a whole quiver full of arrows into that notion and kill it, he would. Immediately.

But this is so much more complicated than that.

"I wanted you, too," he tells her. "Jules-"

"It's different," she says abruptly, cutting him off.

"That doesn't make it less, though," he replies. That gains her full attention. Her pale blue eyes search his, like she's looking for the truth behind his words. "Knowing your sister before she was even born meant we knew what we were looking forward to with her. With you, it was all the excitement of the unknown. But, honey, I swear to you that we wanted you every bit as much as we wanted your sister or brother. And I am so grateful every single day for you.

"The other Ellie, the one from before?" he adds. "You know she didn't have an older sister, but what you don't know is that I feel sorry for that Oliver. Because he missed out on an amazing little girl as his daughter. He missed out on you."

She hears him, but she's still all wariness. Jules watches him, her arms not loosening in the least where they're wrapped tight around herself.

More than anything else in the world in this instant - more than anything - he wants to make her believe him.

"When I found out your mom was pregnant with you," he says softly, "I cried." She shifts uneasily in front of him. Other people's emotions aren't any easier for her to deal with than her own. "I was grateful and excited and terrified. Your mom, she was… she was unconscious. She was hurt so badly, and we didn't know if either of you would be okay. But, Jules, from the instant I knew you existed, I wanted you in my life so much. So much that it surprised me. You being my little girl has gotten me through some of the most difficult moments of my life since the island."

"Because the other Ellie left," Jules deduces. She's right, of course, at least in part, but she's taking it the wrong way and he can see that in an instant.

"Because you gave me hope," he corrects her. "Because you gave a kickstart to the family I wanted with your mom. I loved that Ellie, too. And, yes, I missed her a lot and it was hard to move past losing her. But none of that means I ever wanted you any less."

He's not getting through to her. Nothing's softened in her face, there's no understanding in her eyes. So, he tries another route.

"What about William?" Oliver asks.

"What about him?"

"Do you think I love him any less because I didn't know about him ahead of time?" Oliver tilts his head in question. "I didn't even know he existed until he was almost your age. Do you think I want him any less because of that?"

Jules shrugs one shoulder in reply, looking at the ground.

His heart shatters at the sight, because she does, he realizes. She does think that. God, how does he even start to fix this?

"I don't, Jules," he tells her forcefully. "This family would be incomplete without either of you and no one gets left behind."

She just looks at him, weighing his words, but she doesn't react.

"Tell me you hear me, Julie-bug?" he begs.

"I hear you," she says after a minute.

Whether she believes him or not is another matter entirely, but he's pretty sure that she knows he believes what he's saying and it's a step in the right direction. He can't fix this all at once. It's too deeply ingrained in his little girl and he sees that now. But at least she'd voiced her worry, at least she'd said something. It gives them a starting point. And that's what this is - the first step in a long road.

"Okay," he finally says. He sighs, letting her go with a nod. "Okay."

He's not sure what else to say.

This is the most emotionally exhausting day he's had in a long, long time.

"Can I have my cocoa back now?" Jules asks.

"Sure," he agrees, handing it to her. "It might be cold, though."

She shrugs. "I like plain old chocolate milk, too." She takes as sip. "Do you still want to see the sea lions?"

Absolutely.

That feels more vital now than ever. Words are good, but they aren't enough, especially not with Jules. She needs moments like this, time spent one-on-one where she's the focus.

"Let's do it," he says, standing back up.

Her lips quirk in a smile, but that's as far as it gets as they start walking back to the exhibit.

After a moment, she slips her hand into his.

Oliver looks down at her little fingers in wonder. She holds on tightly, like she doesn't want to let go, like she's afraid he might. But he wouldn't. Not for anything. He strokes the back of her knuckles softly, keeping his grip steady but loose, and slowly the tension in her hand starts to melt away. When he looks at her, she has her head tilted away. She might be reaching out, on this rare occasion, but even this little gesture is a lot for her and she can't physically face it.

That's okay. They have time.

The zoo isn't busy, likely because of the chilly weather, and when they get there, the marine life exhibit is nearly empty. Jules doesn't care an ounce. She barely pays any attention to the few kids running in a noisy circle nearby or the chattering adults off to the side. She only has eyes for the underwater world before her. She lets go of his hand and walks straight up to the glass wall that gives a sneak peek into the lives of the zoo's sea lions.

Oliver's right behind her, his eyes on her with just as much wonder. She leans down long enough to set her cocoa down before she's standing up again, breathing out an astonished, "Oh," as one of the giant, graceful beasts swims by. She presses both hands flat against the glass, utterly taken by them, watching as two others case each other around a large rock.

The beautiful look of amazement on her face is everything. She's strikingly pretty - some of the kids in her class had taken to calling her Snow White, much to her annoyance - but it's so often masked by her sullen, distant attitude. Not today, though. Not right now. Right now, she's about the most breathtaking thing he's ever seen.

"Do you see?" she asks, looking up at him with unmitigated excitement. "It's like they're dancing, Daddy."

Oliver bites his tongue to keep his emotions at bay when he hears 'Daddy.'

"They are," he agrees as she looks back at the water, nearly pressing her nose against the glass.

"When they're on land, they don't do a whole lot," she tells him. "They don't seem like much up there. But underneath, in the water… It's like they come alive."

"They're pretty incredible," Oliver says, soaking in her amazement for a moment more before finally looking toward the glass barrier. "There are two more up near the top. One of them looks like it might be a baby. Can you see them from down there?"

Her eyes dart around the enclosure and she gets up on her tiptoes, but she can't spy the animals he's talking about. She's not tall enough.

"Come here," he suggests, holding out his arms.

She barely even hesitates before walking over to him and allowing him to pick her up. Oliver settles her on his hip and points toward two sea lions near the surface off to the side.

"Oh!" she cries out in delight, following his line of sight. "Look how little it is, Daddy!"

Jules smiles broadly, pressing the fingertips of one hand against the glass again, like she's trying to pass right through and join them. But her other arm stays wrapped securely around her father. Her hold against his shoulder is solid.

"It is," Oliver whispers, taking in the scarce sight of joy on his daughter's fast-sharpening features. She's all but lost her baby fat at this point and it's so easy to see hints of the woman she's growing into far too quickly.

"It's little," he says, "but it's getting bigger every day."

Chapter Text

Oliver hisses through his teeth as he pulls the Henley over his head, the stretch testing the quality of Lyla's stitches from last night. Still, even though they definitely sting enough to make him not want to move at all, he tries to contain it, to dial it back. But it's too late. She heard it, and even if she hadn't, Jules' dog sitting in the doorway letting out a whimper of protest would have alerted her.

"Maybe you should stay home."

"No," he counters with a shake of his head and a slightly forced smile. "I'm fine." He hopes he's not as pale as he feels, but judging by the blood rushing from his face and the swell of nausea rising up, he's pretty sure that's a futile dream. One look at Felicity as he tugs the shirt down confirms it. "I swear. I've had worse."

"Oh, I know that," she replies. "But that doesn't mean you should push yourself. You did get stabbed yesterday, you know."

"Yeah," he says with a grimace. "I was there, remember?"

The words are sharper than he means them to be - obviously he'd been there; it was his gut that'd gotten embedded with three inches of steel - but she had been, too, over the comms. He knows how helpless it feels to listen to something you have no control over, to wait and hope that the worst possible thing that can happen is in fact not happening. There have been a few nights with too many close calls, and that's when the strong façade Felicity maintains as Overwatch cracks slightly.

Last night was one of those nights.

Oliver sighs. Pain makes him irritable as hell, but that's no reason to take it out on his wife.

Before she can get a word in, he says, "I'm sorry. I'll take it easy. I promise. And if it gets worse I'll just come back home, okay?" He tugs the Henley into place with a wince. "But this is important. I want to be there."

Felicity sighs, clearly not thrilled, but she does relent. "Okay," she says, giving him a smile. It reaches her eyes - she's not mad - but it does nothing to alleviate the concerned lines etched across her face.

"Felicity." Oliver takes a few steps to plant himself directly in front of her. He smooths his hands down her arms. "I promise you that I will take care of myself, okay? Try not to worry so much."

She snorts. "Ha, like that's ever gonna happen. I'm know I don't have to remind you that this is-"

Oliver cuts her off with a kiss.

It's soft and gentle, and some of the tension in her muscles melts away. She leans in, kissing him back with a content sigh, her hands resting gently against his chest. It's tender… and a little too soft for his liking. He knows it's all residual fear from the night before, and he knows she was about to remind him that he'd gotten stabbed in the shoulder a few months ago, too. It takes days for her to relax with him going out, just like it does every other time they've had a terrifying near-miss.

They've been lucky over the years. So lucky. But it hasn't been without moments of sheer terror along the way. There's no avoiding that, though. Not in their line of work.

So while there are moments where the fear takes over everything, there's also...

This.

Oliver grips her waist, sliding his hands down to her hips. Felicity smiles, humming against his lips as she shakes her head at him, which in turn makes him smile before kissing her again.

"See?" he whispers, kissing her. "I'm…" Kiss. "Just." Kiss. "Fine." She snorts louder this time, and he chuckles, angling his head to drag his lips down her jawline. He kisses his way down her throat, delighting in her whimpers. Oliver tugs her more firmly against him as he presses his hips against her, moving his mouth to hover over her ear. "And I have every intention of proving to you just how fine I really am later."

Felicity doesn't miss a beat. "You are out of your mind if you think that's a possibility after last night," she replies.

Oliver frowns. No, really, it's more of a pout. They've been together for just over a decade and he can count on one hand how many times he hasn't been able to distract her with the idea of sex when he puts his mind to it.

Although, a stabbing could be an exception.

Or not.

He kisses the shell of her ear, pulling her earlobe between his lips. Her breath hitches, but she doesn't give in. Disappointment runs rampant, but if there's one thing he knows he is, it's determined.

"Maybe…" Oliver starts, pressing his hips into hers again, "if I get creative about it."

She doesn't answer right away, and when she squirms a little, he grins. Something coils deep in his gut at her ever-present need for him; it matches his, it always has. God, he loves this woman.

Oliver presses his face into the crook between her neck and shoulder, dropping kisses there. "I can be very, very inventive, you know…" His hands slip around her, down over her backside. He squeezes, just enough to nearly lift her off her feet, relishing her sharp intake of breath. He doesn't lift her - because of the gaping wound in his side - but it is funny that he suddenly doesn't feel the stitches right now. His smile grows as she grips the collar of his shirt, giving him a shudder.

"Oliver," she says, his name coming out in a breathy whine. "This is not the time for this on so many levels."

She's very right about that, but her body is saying something else entirely. And fuck everything, so is his, something they both feel growing between them.

He cares about the other things, he does. But then there's his wife in his arms.

Felicity rocks into him, pressing her hips against his with a new intent that makes him hiss. She slides her hands up his neck, her fingers trailing across his skin, leaving goosebumps in their wake as she urges him to stand back, to give her room now.

"We have things to do," she continues.

Her lips ghost over his jawline, making his eyes flutter shut. He cranes his head back, giving her more room to explore, which she does. Her lips are so soft as she kisses him, her tongue darting out to taste his skin. She leaves wet spots as she works her way down, all the way to the edge of his collarbone where it peeks out from his shirt. Her teeth scrape against his skin, and it's his turn to shudder. Oliver groans as pleasure swamps him, his hands gripping her tighter, kneading her ass, making her gasp. He dips his head down, wincing but not enough to stop. He seeks her lips, needing to taste her as he pulls her closer, ready to lift her up off her feet.

Their lips find each other again. This kiss is far more passionate, more searing. It amplifies the need to grind against her, to seek that delicious friction…

Oliver completely forgets about his barely-healing wound right up until his abdominal muscles clench as he tries to lift her closer.

Pain rockets through him, overwhelming everything else.

There's no mistaking his cry of pain for one of passion.

Felicity jerks away, her brow twisting in concern, not that he registers it. He's blinded by the agonizing sensation that leaves him feeling like he's being rent in two. She doesn't let him go and later he'll realize it's because he practically falls right over.

"I'm fine," Oliver chokes out, just for her. It's bullshit and they both know it. Again, it's only later he'll remember he was holding onto her shoulder with a death grip, the only way to stop from keeling over. "I'm…" The pain lingers in an alarming way, cutting him off. Oliver groans again; he can't catch his damn breath.

"Sit down," Felicity orders, gesturing toward the bed.

When he does, it jolts him more, and another sharp cry sneaks past his lips against his will.

"I swear to god, Oliver, if you're fatally injured by making out with me I'm absolutely making sure the press knows it," Felicity vows, kneeling down in front of him. She pulls the edge of his shirt up as she continues talking. "Do you really want that to be your legacy? Representative Queen killed in freak sex accident? Because, let me tell you, buster, that's how it's gonna go if you keel over on me right now."

From the open doorway, the dog whines and cocks its head.

"Not you, Buster." Felicity sighs, barely sparing the mutt a look before tilting her head back toward Oliver. "This buster. That dog has a very unfortunate name."

"You named him," Oliver reminds her. The words come out without the room dissolving into a blurry mess, so that's good. And he doesn't feel like throwing up either. Progress.

"Not intentionally," she argues as she inspects his stitches. Her fingers are gentle, but he still has to grit his teeth to keep from crying out. Gut wounds are amongst the worse ones anyone could get, and this one had been bad. Terrifyingly bad. He's grateful that Lyla had been at his side with her wealth of field medicine experience on that mission, because he's honestly not sure how he'd have gotten back to the lair without her.

He's not sure if he'd have gotten back to the lair without her.

And that might explain a bit more why he'd been so insistent a moment ago. How many missions have ended with the question of 'what if' hanging over their heads? A lot, and they always led to a night with both of them needing to remind themselves of how lucky they are to be alive.

He could have waited a little bit longer this time, he supposes.

"It's not bleeding and none of the stitches popped out," Felicity says, looking back up at him as she lets his shirt drop down. "I think you just tensed up too much when you shouldn't have."

"I… might have gotten a bit overzealous," he admits begrudgingly. "It's fine. I'm fine now."

Fine by his standards anyhow, and bad luck for him, Felicity knows exactly how low those standards are.

"You should stay here," Felicity tells him. "Sit this one out."

He shakes his head sharply. "No."

"Oliver-"

"No," he says more firmly. "I'm not letting you guys go without me." She sighs, tilting her head back to roll her eyes at the ceiling. "They're so excited, Felicity," Oliver points out. "Even Jules. I'm not gonna miss out on that just because some thug with a knife got in a good shot."

It could have been a helluva lot more that he was missing out on because of that thug, and they both know it. But that's too big and too terrifying to think about - to even contemplate - so they both let it go, because it isn't reality. It didn't happen.

This is big enough to deal with right now. They don't need more.

"It's just trick-or-treating," Felicity tries again, but she doesn't believe that any more than he does.

"It's my kids' childhoods," Oliver replies. She shakes her head, but she can't hide the way her face softens. "I'm not missing their happy little faces for anything in the world, Felicity. Not tonight. Not ever."

She opens her mouth to argue, but she stops herself, pursing her lips. She'd love to argue his point and he knows it, but she's also very aware of just how stubborn he can be when it matters. And this matters. He missed so much with William. He's not about to make the same mistake with his girls and Nate.

Felicity makes a little noise. "God, you are so frustrating sometimes."

He barely stops himself from smiling - it's mostly because he's won her over, but also because yeah, he can be. Just like her. He wisely keeps that to himself.

"Fine," she concedes, but not before pointing her finger at him. "But the second you feel worse or too worn down, you're coming back here with Lyla while Digg and I finish up with the kids. Deal?"

Oliver grins. "Deal."

A tiny jingling is heard right before the dog barks. Buster spins, bolting down the stairs, his tail wagging a mile a minute as he disappears from sight. A moment later, a little voice drifts up from downstairs.

"Mom! Doorbell!"

"Is it your aunt and uncle?" Felicity shouts back.

The brownstone had been a brilliant idea when they bought it. It still is, really - it's perfect for their needs and it easily accommodates their entire family. But both he and Felicity had failed to realize precisely how much shouting kids do instead of actually walking up and down the stairs.

"Yeah!" the voice calls back.

Felicity shakes her head. "Then how about you let them in, Jules!"

Oliver brushes his hand over her shoulder. "Why don't you go greet them, honey," he says. "I'll be right down."

Her eyes dart to the stairwell where noise drifts up from several floors below and then back to Oliver. "Slowly," she says with raised eyebrows. "You'll be down slowly. And carefully. That's a lot of stairs."

It is a lot of stairs, more than he has any business taking on right now. She's taking his injury seriously, because it is, more than he'd openly admit right at this second. The amount of blood he'd left on the dirty warehouse floor had been alarming. He and Lyla had been soaked in it by the time they got back to the bunker, which hadn't been the ending he'd wanted Felicity to see after listening to Digg stave off two assailants while Lyla fought to keep him from losing consciousness. It had been close. It had been too close.

"You've got it," he promises. And he means it.

Felicity smiles her gratitude, her shoulders falling with relief. She nods, pausing long enough to give him a soft kiss before she turns and hurries down the stairs, leaving just him and the unnecessary hole in his body.

Oliver presses his hand over the spot, groaning. And then he tries to stand. It goes the exact opposite of well. It's not difficult to do much of anything when he's standing, but straining his core muscles to get there? Not an option.

He curses under his breath. Felicity's absolutely right - he should not be doing anything other than lying in bed tonight. But his baby boy's two - it's the first Halloween that means anything to him - and Ellie's been chattering about her costume for weeks. Even Jules has been looking forward to it, getting all the right pieces for her costume. She'd even mapped out the most optimal route for maximum candy score. And she'd actually let him help. He grins, remembering how they'd sat down with a map, planning it out like an Arrow mission. It's one of his favorite recent memories with his older daughter and he'll forever cherish the mental image of her chewing on a red pen as she mulls over whether hitting up the Johnson's house for full sized Airheads beats out the Delgado's seemingly never-ending supply of Reese's Pieces.

Sometimes she's so much like her mother that it sends a sudden, powerful surge of love straight through him.

They don't see it - he knows that - but he does. He sees it every day in little things and big ones. In their shared fierceness and independence, in their stubbornness and their intelligence. It's put his wife and daughter at odds more than once, something he can see getting a whole lot worse before it gets better. Jules is only a few years away from being a teenager - god, when had that happened? - and he knows she'll butt heads with both him and Felicity even more regularly as they get through those years.

But for now… for now he gets moments where he plans out the most effective route for maximum quality candy haul on Halloween with his daughter. For now, it's hard-won and perfect. And it's all the more reason why he's absolutely, one hundred percent not missing tonight.

Except he's still not sure he can get up on his own.

Oliver looks around their room, searching for anything solid in arm's reach. There's nothing. Why didn't they have a four-poster bed? It'd be so handy right now. And not just for that, but for other things. The pleasant imagery filling his head dissipates when the reality of the fact that he's still sitting hits him. There's nothing within reach he can use. Oliver huffs in frustration. Felicity will absolutely use this as an excuse for him to stay home tonight. He curses again.

"Well, you've looked better."

His head whips toward the door to find his sister standing in the threshold, relief that someone is here and that that someone isn't Felicity crashing through him.

"I've been better," Oliver admits. "Mind giving me a hand before my wife insists I stay here?"

Thea raises an eyebrow, not moving for a second. She doesn't think it's the best idea - it's written all over her face - but she also knows her brother. Rather, she probably reads his desperation pretty well, because he's staring at her with what he imagines are pretty helpless eyes. With a sighed, "Alright," she does as he requests, heading over and offering him her shoulder for support as he stands up.

Oliver instantly feels better the moment he's upright. He takes a slow, cleansing breath.

"Thank you," he says, squeezing her shoulder.

"You're welcome, but I'm keeping my eye on you," she tells him. It sounds like a warning because it is. "First sign that you should've stayed there and I'm ratting you out."

"Traitor," he retorts, but the affectionate smile on his lips takes away any of the sting. She gives him a wry smile, and then they're quiet. It's the same every time they see each other - neither of them ever really want to broach the heavy subject that always lingers in the air. He's the first to break this time. "How've you been, Thea?"

"Just peachy," she replies. It's all deflection, but he doesn't take the bait, keeping his eyes fixed on her patiently. After a moment, she sighs. It's a bone-deep weary noise that he's far too used to from her these days. "We're not exactly back at square one," she admits. "But it feels that way."

"I'm sorry," he tells her. "I know you'd hoped it would be a long term fix."

"Don't make it just about me, Ollie," she counters. "I know you had your hopes up, too."

Oliver tries to smile, but this one doesn't really form. Instead, he pulls her close, wrapping his arm around her shoulders. He kisses the crown of his sister's head, sighing into her hair. "We all did," he murmurs against her. "But it's okay. You're okay."

"I'm… managing," Thea says, backing up a step.

She's been increasingly realistic these last few years, his little sister. The carefree, rebellious girl she'd once been has given way to an even-keeled pragmatic woman. Part of Oliver wonders what she would have been like if not for Isabel, what she'd been like in that other universe. Not that it matters, though, because this is the Thea here and now.

"You're more than managing, Thea," he replies. His voice carries all the gravity he feels, because she is doing more than managing. She's doing so much better than she had that first year. She's out and about, interactive with the world in a way she couldn't have been back then.

The smile she gives him is clearly for his benefit. She doesn't feel it a bit.

"Roy helps," she says instead of agreeing or disagreeing. "And it's not like Caitlin or Cisco are giving up. But, for now I'm back on the old drug cocktail." She raises her fist up like she's waving a pom-pom. "Yay."

"The first cocktail?" Oliver asks. His mind whips back to those days, to when they'd had to learn the hard way just what that entailed. "Thea, we both know that long term-"

"It's not long term, Ollie," she interrupts. "They need new baseline readings to go off of." Thea rubs at her eye, sighing again. It's even more exhausted than the last one. "And I know, okay? I know better than anyone. It's bad for my liver and it thins out my blood and it absolutely kills my appetite and leaves me exhausted, but…"

She cuts herself off as he whispers, "Thea," with a shake of his head. He really doesn't need a recap of why all of this is necessary.

"But we know I'm not gonna go off the rails and randomly start stabbing people with superhuman strength," she concludes, finishing in spite of his interruption. "I can see you and Felicity and the kids. I can spend time with my husband without being absolutely terrified that I'm going to snap and wake up with his blood all over my hands. I get what these drugs do to me, Ollie. And I am more than happy to try new treatments when they find something promising. But for now this is what's best for me, even if 'best' isn't as good as we'd like."

There's a fist clenched around his heart, crushing it with a force that leaves him breathless. He never wanted this for his sister and just like always, hearing the reality of it so starkly, having it laid out in front of him what she goes through every day, what her life is like… It's overwhelming. And that's just to him. He can't imagine what it's like actually living like that.

"I'm so sorry, Thea," Oliver says, resting his hand on her shoulder. "If there's anything else we can do-"

"There's not," she says. "You know there's not. It's not about money or effort or skill. The technology just isn't there yet. But they're working on it. They'll get there." She stares up at him, and for a split second he sees the very real fear she lives with every single day. God, if he could take away even an ounce of it, he would. Thea covers his hand where it still rests on her shoulder, squeezing his fingers. "I have to believe that, Ollie."

"Okay," he agrees, his voice uneven. "Okay, but if that changes, or if there's anything…"

"You'll be the first to know," she assures him. But then she tenses. Thea bites her lip together, looking vividly like she doesn't want to talk about this anymore, but she has to. There's more she wants to say, so he waits. And, after a moment, she looks up at him uneasily and asks, "Do me a favor and don't bring up the treatment to Roy, okay?"

Oliver's brow furrows, seeing how vital this is to her. "Okay."

"It's just…" She shakes her head. "He really got his hopes up, you know?"

"I think we all did," Oliver replies softly.

Thea's smile is small and sad. "He was talking kids, Ollie," she confides in a quiet voice, blinking back tears. "He thought maybe if this really worked... "

Oliver's heart sinks as he watches the pain of hopes unfulfilled play across his little sister's face. It hits him even harder because he and Felicity had talked about it, for them. His own sadness and regret about Thea's future, their own hopes and wishes that they'd get to experience having a family.

He doesn't have any words. He's pretty sure there aren't any that would help anyhow.

"It doesn't matter anyhow," Thea says, shaking her head a little and blowing a steadying breath through her lips. "Not meant to be, I guess. It's okay."

It's not, but he doesn't need to tell her that. So instead he pulls her into a hug. It's tighter than it should be and he instantly feels it in his injured side, but he doesn't stop because she is so, so much more important than a stab wound.

"Thanks, Ollie." Thea wipes at her nose with the back of her hand as she pulls away. She smiles at him. "Now… I need to go play the part of the world's best aunt because I brought sparkly face powder that a certain five-and-a-half year old simply has to have to complete her butterfly costume."

The change in topic is forced, but there's nothing he can say to help and it's clear she wants to move on. So they do.

"Butterflies sparkle?" Oliver asks, raising an eyebrow at her.

"They do when they're a Queen, oh brother of mine," she tells him loftily.

For an instant, she looks like the girl he remembers before all of this started, like the teenager whose greatest concern had been which designer to wear to a party. She's a long ways from that these days, but he knows his kids bring out that side of her. Especially Ellie.

As if on cue, the thunder of tiny footsteps resound up the stairs with an accompanying, "Auntie Thea!" and then Ellie barrels into the room, straight into her aunt's legs with tremendous glee. The transformation is instantaneous as his daughter's happiness spreads to his sister.

"Just look at my Ellie-bug!" Thea says, leaning down and hoisting the girl up into her arms.

"I'm not a bug," Ellie protests, "I'm a butterfly!" She stretches out her wing-clad arms. "See?"

"Butterflies are bugs, Ellie," Oliver reminds her.

Her little nose scrunches up at that. She knows better, but she can be so stubborn sometimes, so sure of herself. "They're only halfway bugs," she argues. "Only 'til they cocoon and then they wake up all beautiful. Just like I do when I'm in a cocoon!"

Between Ellie and Nate - who clings to his mother so much that they'd never needed to worry about babyproofing the lair because he never willingly leaves her side - it feels like he and Felicity haven't had their bed to themselves in years. But he also remembers very clearly what it'd been like after the first Ellie left, in those first few cold days alone, and he can't bring himself to object. Sooner or later it will be just him and Felicity again, and he'll welcome that, too. But, for now, he's more than happy to fall asleep with two of his kids wrapped up between himself and his wife.

"Well, let's get to work making you the most beautiful halfway bug there ever was, shall we?" Thea proposes, bopping Ellie on the nose, much to the little girl's delight.

Ellie giggles, proudly declaring, "Uncle Roy said I already was."

"Where is your uncle?" Oliver asks.

"He's making Jules grosser," Ellie informs him. "They're in the kitchen. He needed ham."

"Ham?" Oliver repeats, wondering exactly what his brother-in-law is doing to his daughter's costume.

"Uh huh," Ellie confirms. "He said he needed to make it look like some of her face was falling off. She wasn't gross enough."

"Fantastic," Oliver deadpans.

He hadn't been thrilled about his not-quite-ten-year-old going trick-or-treating as a zombie in the first place - her newfound love of zombies bothers him immensely - but she'd found William's Walking Dead comics in his room and had been utterly fascinated on sight. There'd been no fighting it, then. Oliver had had a talk with his oldest child about where he leaves his comics lying around because Jules finding them was bad enough. They don't need Nate finding them and spiraling into nightmares. Mostly that's because he wants to protect his two-year-old son, but it's a little self-serving, too. His son is a kicker. Oliver doesn't savor the idea of waking to Nate's foot connecting with places he'd really rather not get kicked as the toddler he runs away from imaginary zombies.

"Why don't you go check on the mortician's work while I pretty up this little bug," Thea suggests, tickling Ellie's side, eliciting a wild bunch of squeals.

Oliver just shakes his head at the two of them, smile firmly fixed in place as he soaks in the moment. Thea might not be cured, might not be as much improved as they would all like, but she can still have moments like this, and he's so grateful for that. He's grateful he gets to witness it.

"Thanks, Thea," he tells her.

"Of course," she replies without even looking his direction. She's too fixated on Ellie.

He leaves the room without further acknowledgment from either of them.

True to his word to his wife, Oliver takes the stairs gingerly. Making his way from the fourth story to the first takes a lot longer than usual, but his midsection doesn't ache from overexertion when he hits the bottom landing so overall, it had been a good idea.

"Like this?"

Roy.

Oliver peeks through the archway to the kitchen to find one of the weirdest sights he's seen in years.

"No, it needs more blood," his eldest daughter replies. Her dog sits at her feet, desperately hopeful for a stray slice of ham to fall. Or, maybe he just wants Jules' attention. It's hard to tell with him sometimes. "Like lots more. I got attacked by a horde, right? We aren't talking just one lone little walker. A zombie horde, Uncle Roy."

"Should I be worried?" Roy asks, his voice dry, but there's way more amusement there than he's letting on.

"Probably," Jules advises him with a lofty sigh. "I mean, you can fight and all, but we're talking a horde, Uncle Roy. You escape or you die. You can't beat them. It doesn't work that way. You could probably beat one walker, but not a horde."

"Glad to hear you have some faith in me, anyhow," he replies as he smears something disgusting across the nine-year-old's face.

"I have loads of faith," Jules says, tilting her head upward and trying not to move her jaw as she talks. He's painting some kind of a gash across her cheek. Bits of ham dangle from the side of her face, coated in fake blood. "After all, you're not a zombie, so you definitely did a better job defending yourself than I did, right?"

Roy sits back, inspecting his work as he asks, "And you're not gonna bite me?"

She shrugs. "I'm not hungry."

He picks up a cloth, wiping his fingers, indicating he's done as he says, "I don't think that's how it works with zombies, Jules."

"Well it does for me," she replies before looking past him. "Hey, Dad. How do I look?"

"Disgusting," Oliver informs her.

"Awesome!" she proclaims with pure delight. "Thanks, Uncle Roy!"

She quickly kisses him on the cheek, leaving a bloody smear in her wake before she hops off the kitchen barstool and bolts off to the front hall mirror to look over the finished product. Buster's hot on her heels, his tail wagging happily the whole way.

"You've got, uh…" Oliver tells Roy, rubbing at his own cheek. Roy picks up a nearby napkin, quickly wiping away the worst of the fake blood.

"Better?" Roy asks.

"You're good," Oliver assures him, sinking his hands into his pockets. "Thanks for doing that for her."

"No problem." Roy shrugs. "She's a good kid."

That's mostly true, but it's also that she and Roy just click. It's a lot like her and William, really.

Oliver wishes his oldest was here for Halloween, but William's at his mom's this weekend and no amount of bartering with Samantha had gotten him a holiday with all of his kids. He's disappointed, but he's sure Jules is even more so, even if she doesn't say it. Despite the age difference between them, they're thick as thieves, not that their ages have ever seemed to matter much to them. William relishes the role of older brother. And with Jules, her loyalty is hard won, but once it's earned, it's in place forever.

"You're good with her," Oliver says.

Roy simply shrugs. Jules would have given Oliver the same response, he's sure.

A squeal rings through the house, telling Oliver his son is up from his nap, followed by several thumps and a solid shout from Felicity's office. If that hadn't earned Oliver's attention enough, his wife's voice a second later absolutely would have.

"Nathaniel! You get your little butt back here, mister!"

Elated laughter and the patter of bare feet across the wood floor follow and then a very naked two-year-old barrels into the kitchen. He scrambles to a halt right in the middle of the kitchen.

"Shirt and shoes required, little dude," Roy tells him. "Pants, too, I'm guessing."

Felicity practically falls over her feet running into the room after her toddler. Nate's playing with her, utterly delighting in being chased by his mother and completely uncaring that he's stark ass nude in the middle of the kitchen.

"Hi!" Nate greets Roy with a blinding grin.

Oliver instinctively moves to swoop him up, but the second he leans over even a fraction, his wound makes itself known. He hisses through clenched teeth, which has Felicity turning to him with a sharp, "No moving," before she dodges after Nate again. The toddler evades her.

"Hey," Roy says as Oliver puts his head in his hands and pinches the space between his eyes. "You run so fast you ran out of your pants? It's like you're The Flash or something."

"No, silly!" Nate replies with a laugh, dodging his mother's grip like the wily little boy he is. "I Nate!"

Felicity narrows her eyes at her son. "You're gonna be a different kind of Nate here in a second if you don't-"

She doesn't get the chance to finish her threat as she stubs her toe on the kitchen island. Oliver winces for her before wincing for a very different reason. The entire scene shifts as she lets out a yelp of pain, hopping on one foot, her eyes watering. Oliver closes his eyes in dread, already knowing exactly how this is going to go.

He's not wrong.

"Momma?" The second he realizes what's happened, Nate's at her side in a second. "I sorry!" he implores, reaching up to her. When she doesn't immediately reciprocate, he bursts into a fit of barely intelligible sobs. "I so sorry, Momma! I sorry!"

This is, of course, when Jules walks back into the room, along with Digg, Lyla, Sara and baby Connor hot on her heels.

All of them stop just inside the doorway.

"Oh, this is just great," Oliver says.

"Why's he naked?" Sara asks, sounding utterly scandalized.

"Because he's Nate," Roy informs her.

"Buddy, come here," Oliver tries, gesturing for the distraught toddler.

But Nate only has eyes for his mother, who has managed to hop a few feet away from him. He waddles his little naked butt over to her and clings to her pant leg.

"I sorry, Momma, I sorry. No more owies," he begs. "I don't run. I so, so sorry."

Felicity nods hard, biting her lip to keep in any noises of discomfort as she reaches down and picks him up. He immediately curls into her, playing with her hair and sniffling into her shirt. He won't let her go for hours. Oliver already knows that, because he knows his little boy. Nate takes being a 'momma's boy' to an entirely new level. The idea that he'd inadvertently done something that led to his mother being hurt… Well, he's gonna be clingy the rest of the night.

That's just Nate.

Oliver sighs, and it matches the heavy breath Felicity lets out as their eyes meet across the kitchen. 'You okay?' he mouths to her, and she nods. He sighs again before shaking his head at his son. He can't keep a smile off his lips, despite that fact that at this rate all they'll have energy for when they get home is walking up the stairs to their bedroom.

"I'd forgotten how great that stage is," Lyla says, shifting a nine-month-old Connor on her hip.

"Right around the corner," Diggle points out.

"I did not do that," Sara protests. The ten-year-old crosses her arms across the front of her Wonder Woman costume, her Lasso of Truth dangling from her side as she eyes Nate with a tremendously judgmental gaze.

Digg gives her a genial smile. "Wanna see pictures?"

"I have surveillance video somewhere," Felicity chimes in between hushing noises as she rocks Nate, soothing the little boy's tears. "Come on, buddy," she says in a low tone to him. "I'm okay. I promise. Let's go get you in your costume so we can go get some candy, okay?"

He perks up a little at that, looking up at her with those wide blue eyes of his that make his mother melt every single time. This time's no different. She smiles down at the little boy in her arms and Oliver's pretty sure they've both forgotten there's anyone else in the room. It may be incredibly exhausting, but Oliver's grateful they have this kind of bond. Jules has fought to be self-reliant since she entered the world while Ellie's clung to him from the start, but Nate… Nate needs his mother.

"Candy?" Nate asks, perking up substantially.

"Yeah," Jules interrupts. "Candy. So get your little butt back in a diaper and a costume so we can go!"

Her patience is low, to the point that Oliver almost tells her to cool it, but Nate doesn't seem to get that. Instead he looks back up at his mother with those same big eyes.

"Candy, Momma!"

Pure joy radiates off of the little boy as he bounces in his mother's arms, his little naked butt jiggling against her forearm. Oliver just sighs. At least it's clean, which is a win in his book.

"I have?" Nate asks her.

Felicity pretends to think it over, making a show of it. It earns an eye roll from Jules and another disgruntled look from Sara at the sight of the naked little boy being incredibly naked. Nate doesn't care though. He watches Felicity with tremendous focus, ready to hang on her every word.

"One condition," she finally says. He nods like he has any idea what 'condition' means. "You have to wear your costume, Nate. Nobody's giving candy to streakers."

To his credit, Nate tries to understand what she's saying, but his mother used words that are years ahead of him and he's a bit clueless. So he resorts back to, "I have candy? P'ease, Momma?"

"Yeah, Nater-Tater-Bug," she says with a sigh, smoothing her hand over his fine blonde hair. "Just as soon as you're in your costume because naked boys don't get treats."

Oliver can attest to the fact that that is absolutely not true, but he bites his tongue, keeping that thought to himself. This isn't the time for that, unfortunately, although he loses the battle with a grin when he sees Diggle's face.

Nate squeals with glee and dives for his mother's chest, hugging her tightly. She shakes her head affectionately, hugging him back. He sighs in contentment, burrowing even further into her arms. He's all trust and peace and joy. His adoration of his mother is absolute, but if you add the promise of candy to the mix… He's just positively euphoric then.

"Come on, baby boy," Felicity says, cradling him close. "Let's go get you ready."

"'Kay," he agrees, a perma-grin affixed to his face as he shuts his eyes and breathes in his mother's scent. She kisses the crown of his head, humming happily into his hair as the little boy starts sucking on his thumb, a habit he simply refuses to break. The contentment goes both ways, and it's a sight. Sometimes Oliver just likes to stand back and watch them. The bond between his wife and their youngest is a hell of a thing to soak in. It feels like a privilege just to see it.

She touches Oliver's shoulder as she walks past him toward her office. He captures her hand in his, fingers gently squeeze hers as they go, turning to watch them disappear down the hall.

"Where's Ellie?" Sara asks.

"Upstairs with Aunt Thea," Jules informs her, just as Ellie appears, almost as if she'd planned it that way.

The little girl jumps from three steps up off the stairwell, her wing-covered arms thrown wide as if she's trying to take flight. Felicity would undoubtedly chastise her for being unsafe on the stairs, to which Oliver usually adds under his breath, "She's fine." It's an argument he doesn't have a leg to stand on in Felicity's stead, though. They're both well aware of exactly where Ellie got her activity level from and it isn't her mother. Containing Ellie's boundless energy has become futile, like trying to trap wind in a jar. She's a torrent of motion that leaves even his head spinning.

"I am ready!" Ellie announces with tremendous drama.

"You look awesome!" Sara says, hurrying over to her. She takes special care to examine a line of fake gemstones decorating her forehead like a crown. Oliver doesn't know what kind of butterfly has glittery pink hair extensions, but that doesn't seem to matter to Ellie or Sara. And, judging by the incredibly pleased look on Thea's face from the stairwell, it's an inaccuracy that's well worth it.

"I'm not just a butterfly," Ellie tells Sara. "I'm a monarch butterfly, because I'm a Queen. So I had to have a crown and sparkles, because Queens like their sparkly things."

"They absolutely do," Thea chimes in with a sharp, approving nod and a glance to her husband.

Somewhere in the background Roy groans. Oliver's already mentally preparing for their annual trip to the jewelry stores, which his brother-in-law insists he needs to do with him. It's only so he can blame Oliver if Thea doesn't happen to like whatever Roy gets her, although that's never been the case. She's worn everything he's ever gotten her, even the things that Thea of ten years ago would have scoffed at.

"Well, I love it!" Sara proclaims, touching one of the rhinestones on Ellie's head as Ellie beams in delight. "It's super pretty."

"You look great, too," Ellie assures her, nodding toward the Wonder Woman costume. "And now we get to go lasso candy!"

The two girls bounce and squeal together while Jules stands in the background, trying not to look half as excited as Oliver knows she really is. It's something he still struggles with, the why of his oldest daughter feeling the need to always hide so much of what she feels, but he's learning to go with the flow. It's trial and error, but he's learning. The less emphasis he puts on her, the more she lets out, but when things get hard? When something comes up that pushes her even further into her cocoon? She's a lot like her mother, at least how she used to be. Finding that fine line between when to leave her alone and when to push her to talk is both the most exhausting thing he's ever done and the greatest, because when it works, he can feel the distance between them lessening.

Right now, for example, he knows better than to tell her to cheer up or perk up, because her excitement is evident, despite her efforts to mask her emotions.

It almost works, too, her attempts to mute her own anticipation, right up until her dog barks at her side. Buster licks her hand, the excitement of the room bleeding over into the mutt. Jules grins down at the dog, a full-blown beautiful grin, and Oliver can't help but be grateful to the pup. He brings out a lightness and openness in Jules that no one else can. Being able to see that side of his daughter is a damn gift, and one he won't give up for anything in the world.

Oliver loves that dog, even if it the only time Buster seems to care about him is when a treat is involved.

Felicity breezes back into the room with a, "We good to go?" and Nate still in her arms. Were it not for the elephant costume his son now wears, Oliver would have thought the little boy hadn't moved an inch. He's in exactly the same position as before. His wife grins at everyone, throwing her fist in the air. "We're only running ten minutes behind. Yay us!"

He chuckles, his love for her running even deeper as he revels in her enthusiasm. He glances at the clock, pleased to see she's exactly right. Between his penchant for being late and their having to wrangle three kids, it's a miracle when anything happens on time in their lives.

"Have fun," Thea says. She kisses Ellie on the cheek before moving to Nate, pressing her lips to the top of his head. Then it's on to Jules, whose hair she ruffles, intentionally making it messier. Another person who seems to see right through Jules is her aunt, although for radically different reasons than Roy or William. It's a kinship that is bred from very different circumstances, but a kinship nonetheless. She just instinctively knows what to do, like right now. The hair ruffle is affectionate without being showy and it helps with her bedraggled zombie look, leaving Jules looking pleased.

"You aren't going with?" Lyla asks, shifting little Connor from one shoulder to the other. The baby yawns widely, his sleepy eyes batting shut. One second he's awake and blinking at the room and the next, he's a passed out little boy in a teddy bear costume draped over his mother's shoulder. It's damned cute. Not enough to make Oliver want another kid - his always response when Digg ribs him about it is, "No. God, no," which in turn makes his best friend laugh because he doesn't believe him - or even want to babysit Connor, but he's cute all the same.

"Oh, heck no." Felicity snorts. "Someone's gotta stay and hand out candy."

"Why don't you just put out a bowl?" Lyla asks.

Oliver flushes, his mind jumping back to last year. It's an innocent enough question. Lyla had missed the festivities last year because she'd been laid up pregnant and miserable. She hadn't been around for the mess that'd followed when they'd tried that exact thing.

"Yeah," Felicity says, giving Oliver a meaningful, if slightly judgmental, look. He winces, averting his eyes. "That didn't work out so well last year."

"Why's that?" Lyla asks.

"Because big kids are meanies," Ellie announces firmly. "They forgot manners."

Oliver chuckles awkwardly, gripping the back of his neck as he announces, "It doesn't matter because it's not happening this year." He clears his throat, moving to herd the kids out. "Let's get going."

"But, what..." Lyla starts.

"A bunch of teenagers stole all the candy from the entire street and made the girls cry," Felicity tells her. "Like full-on bawling tears with snotty noses. And Nate didn't know what was going on. All he knew was that his sisters were crying, so he started crying, too. None of which solved the entire lack of candy issue. So, Oliver-"

"Took care of it," he finishes, cutting her off.

"So, Oliver," she continues, not the least bit dissuaded, her voice far more chipper than is warranted, "decided he needed to teach the little thieves a lesson."

"Oliver… you didn't," Lyla says, casting him a look all her own. "Tell me you didn't."

His entire lack of response is all the answer she needs, because oh, he had. Lyla's face melts into shock as Felicity keeps going.

"Yup!" his wife adds crisply. "The Arrow put the fear of god into a couple of super rude teenagers over a bag full of Snickers."

"It was more than a bag full," Oliver retorts, as if that's a valid defense. Which it is. Or it had been, at the time.

"It was Snickers," Jules adds, clearly on his side.

Oliver waves at his eldest daughter with an emphatic, "Thank you."

"So not the point!" Felicity tells them both, waving a hand wildly to emphasize said point. "You went all 'grr' on a few high schoolers over candy, Oliver. You took actual candy from babies."

Really, he hadn't needed to do much more than show up in his suit and use his voice modulator to put those kids in their place. He hadn't even brought his bow. But the point, quite frankly, had nothing at all to do with candy. No, it'd had everything to do with those obnoxious, bored teenagers making his kids cry. That was not a thing Oliver had ever been going to let slide.

"They took candy from babies," he defends. "And, it's a stepping stone crime." Felicity rolls her eyes. "You and I both know the number of cars vandalized in the neighborhood dropped very sharply after that, so I think it was a good idea on several fronts."

"I honestly can't even believe you're defending this still," his wife tells him, shaking her head. "They were kids, Oliver."

"No, they were teenagers who were stealing," Oliver replies. "And they took my kids' candy."

His argument falls as flat as it did last year.

Lyla's eyeing him with much the same look as Felicity, which is almost enough to make him stop. It gets scary with the two of them together, sometimes. When they're on the same page, it's usually best to just get out of their way, something Digg clearly agrees with as he's stepped backward to distance himself from it all.

John Diggle is a smart man.

"So," Thea interrupts with a little clap of her hands, "for the sake of the local tween population's sanity, Roy and I are sticking behind to police the candy distribution." She makes her way over to her husband's side, tucking herself under his arm.

"I am genuinely sorry that I asked," Lyla says.

"Get outta here," Roy tells them, following Thea's lead. "You're losing daylight and that little elephant isn't going to be trumpeting real soon."

He nods to Nate and Oliver looks to find he's absolutely right. Nap or no, Nate isn't going to be up very long. His eyes are already glassy and he's still sucking his thumb as he curls his other fist into his mother's shirt, clinging for all he's worth. The cozy elephant costume probably isn't helping.

"Finally," Jules says, hurrying to the front door. "We have a lot of ground to cover, people."

"Yes, ma'am," Diggle says, moving to follow after her but not before cupping the back of Connor's sleeping head and giving Lyla a kiss.

"Two per kid," Oliver tells Thea, pointing at the bowl of candy on the counter.

"Or what?" she asks. "You'll point an arrow at me?"

Her voice is dry as sandpaper and her eyes challenge him for an answer. In truth, he's just glad to see her attitude so very in character after everything she's been through lately. So, he grimaces at yet one more callback to last year - really, he'd thought they'd all put that behind them - and reaches for Ellie's hand instead.

The group heads to the front door, Felicity shouting, "Thank you! We won't be long!" over her shoulder as they go.

Ellie skips happily at his side as they head out, Sara ahead of them at Digg's side, concentrating on unhooking her lasso while still carrying her empty pillowcase. Jules is already outside, waiting for them. She lingers a few steps to the side of the group, trying to look as creepy and off-putting as she possibly can. It works, disturbingly well.

When they reach the sidewalk, Jules pulls out the map they'd drawn up. "Diaz house first," she announces, pointing at the paper. "They had homemade cookies last year and I have it on good authority that Mrs. Diaz made butterscotch chip ones this year. They're our top priority."

"You 'have it on good authority?'" Felicity repeats with tremendous amusement and no small trace of disbelief.

"Playground chatter," Jules tells her with a hard nod. "I have my ear to the ground. It's solid intel."

It's possible they've been using too much Team Arrow lingo around the kids, Oliver decides, but this isn't the moment to address any of that.

Ellie couldn't care less which house they hit first and Sara's too busy trying to actually use her lasso to weigh in, so blessedly there's no debate between the girls as they head three doors down and start the trick-or-treating process.

The girls band together, the monarch butterfly queen, her superhero warrior queen defender and the zombie chasing them both as they rush from house to house. Anticipation of a sugar high for kids is maybe as bad as the sugar high itself. When they crash for the night, the girls are going to crash hard.

Nate beats them to it.

The two-year-old makes it exactly three houses before he's asleep on his mother's shoulder, soft little huffs of air shifting his plush gray trunk with every breath.

"Want me to take him home?" Oliver asks his wife softly, soaking in the peaceful image of their little boy so very at ease as he slumbers in his mother's arms.

"No, we're good," Felicity replies with a little shake of her head. She rubs her hand in slow circles across the little boy's back. "This is kind of nice, actually." She smiles, rocking Nate slightly as she watches the girls rush up to the next house, Digg and Lyla at their sides.

Oliver knows exactly how she feels - gratitude and amazement, the realization that this is their family washing over her. And it's not just the girls and Nate. It's not even just each other. It's Digg and Lyla and Sara and Connor, too.

It's their own little Queen family and their self-made Arrow family.

For all the ups and downs, Oliver knows she wouldn't change a thing.

He knows it because neither would he.

"How're you feeling?" she asks him, turning back and glancing down at his midsection.

Reminders of his stab wound are unnecessary, because it's never far from his mind. All the standing and walking around he'd done in the house had seemed perfectly fine because it'd been minimal. Walking for several blocks with his family and stopping every once in a while to talk to some neighbors or friends is taking its toll. As is the fact that Ellie insists on showing them every bit of bounty she's collected so far - squatting down to her level had been a mistake he'd made only once.

"I'm fine," he replies. She doesn't buy it, raising an eyebrow at him in disbelief. "I am," he insists. He winks at her. "And I still intend to prove it to you later."

"Oliver," she says, shaking her head at him. She glances at the house they're currently waiting at, watching the girls as they wait for the door to be answered. "You really shouldn't."

"Yes, I really shouldn't," he emphasizes, wrapping his arm around her. He slides a hand down her arm before shifting it to her hip. He tightens his fingers against the curve of her slim-fitting jeans, leaning in to whisper into her ear. "Doesn't mean you can't."

"Oliver."

"What?" he asks innocently, pulling back to give her a guileless look. Even though the sun has started dipping below the horizon, there's still enough light to see her flushing. He grins. "It's Halloween." He leans in, kissing her ear, earning him a shiver. "I want a treat."

Felicity groans, leaning into him despite her obvious attempts not to. He nuzzles the side of her face, giving her a lingering kiss on her cheek that promises so much more, because he knows he's won this round. He can just imagine that blush of hers dipping down below her shirt, to every inch of her as she thinks about what he's suggesting. His fingers tingle with anticipation and he licks his lips because oh yes, he's definitely looking forward to the rest of the evening. As soon as they get home, as soon as they get Nate down, as soon as the girls have crashed from their sugar highs and are tucked nice and tightly in their own beds, sound asleep… their night begins.

"You are so much trouble, Oliver Queen."

Oliver chuckles, but before he can say anything, Felicity turns to him, giving him a kiss. There's a new promise behind it, one that makes his body tighten and sends the thought, 'How much longer?' to filter through his head.

"Daddy, Daddy!" Ellie says, rocketing her way down the sidewalk, interrupting the moment. Felicity smiles against his lips just before he pulls away to look at their daughter. But not before giving Felicity a wink, a very salacious wink that makes her huff and murmur something about 'insatiable' and 'death wish.' Oliver leans over as much as he can as Ellie holds up her bag for him to look into. "Ms. Sanders let me pick as much as I wanted!"

Oliver raises an eyebrow at that. "She did, huh?" He stands up in time to catch the lady in question before she shuts her door. He raises his hand and waves at her as he says, "That's nice of her." The light sarcasm in his voice is cut off as the movement pulls at his stitches. He barely stops himself from groaning out loud and he tries to cover it up by turning back to Ellie. "What'd you get then?"

"Oh yeah, you're really ready for some action," Felicity says.

He nudges her with his elbow - because yes, he is - but all his attention is on Ellie as the group migrates. She cuts herself off the second they reach the next house, quickly joining Sara and Jules again.

"I am," Oliver tells Felicity, to which she gives him a light, "Ha!"

They make their way through the neighborhood at a glacial pace.

Unfortunately for Oliver but very fortunately for the kids, the map that he'd painstakingly helped Jules draw up includes houses that are scattered all over the goddamn place. It'd been fun thinking about it before - the idea of giving his kids a memorable Halloween had taken over all common sense - but now he's feeling it. Really, he's feeling the fact that he lost so much blood and that there's still a sizable gash in his side because of it.

Felicity keeps herself from asking, which makes him love her all the more, but he can see the worry all over her face.

"I'm fine," he insists.

If anything, it's a reminder that he almost didn't get the chance to see this night. But if Digg and Lyla aren't saying anything, surely she's just worrying too much. In the end, though, it's not anyone in their group that notices anything strange.

"Whoa! Awesome! That looks like real blood!"

It's Trevor, a boy from Ellie's class who knows Oliver very well because of the last field trip he chaperoned. In all his Michelangelo glory and using his nunchucks to point at it so his dad can see, he points out that something isn't quite right.

"What's your costume, Mr. Queen?" Trevor asks, eyes wide with excitement as Oliver jerks, looking down to see his shirt is soaked through with blood.

"Oh…!" Felicity says, her eyes widening before remembering just where she is. The word morphs into a laugh as she turns abruptly to grin at Trevor's parents, Karen and Hal. "Uh…"

He has nothing to say, and he knows she isn't any better off. She'd always made a point to poke fun at him about his lying skills, but hers aren't much better. Literally anything would have sufficed, but the reality of him bleeding again renders them both speechless.

Thankfully, they're both saved from having to come up with anything because Jules appears out of nowhere, drawing Trevor's attention with an awed gasp and letting them off the hook.

"Our next stop is on Glenarm," their daughter reports, barely sparing Trevor a glance before she's gone again, running after Sara and Ellie. Ellie lets out a squeal when Jules appears, running along with Sara as they head towards the street in question.

"That's our cue," Felicity says, balancing Nate on one tired arm and grabbing Oliver's elbow with her other hand. "Happy Halloween!"

"I bet they're both zombies," they hear Trevor saying behind them as Felicity and Oliver hustle over to where Diggle and Lyla wait for them. "Did you see that, Dad, did you see…?"

"What's up?" Lyla asks, her eyes dancing over both of them. They widen when they see the growing spot of blood on his Henley. "Oh, that's not good."

"You popped your stitches," Felicity says, alarm coloring her voice as she stops abruptly to look. Oliver wraps his arm around her to stop her, not wanting to draw attention. "Oliver-"

"I'm okay," he promises, covering the wound. His shirt is wet and warm, which isn't a great thing to feel, especially after last night. His stomach rolls, the sensation bringing back the very real feeling of blood leaking through his fingers. He has to swallow a burst of nausea down.

"You're not fine," she argues. "And we're going home. Right now."

Oliver shakes his head, grabbing her before she can call the girls back. "No-"

"Yes," Felicity insists, lowering her voice so much that it's nearly a hiss. "I'm not going through last night again, Oliver, especially when our kids are out here, okay? We're going home. You said you'd go if something happened. Well, this is something happening, okay, this is-"

"Felicity," Oliver interrupts, stopping abruptly. "I'll go home. Okay?"

"We'll go home," she amends. "You're not going by yourself."

"No," Diggle interjects. "He's not."

Felicity's head whips around to look at him, and it's only then that Oliver realizes just how erratically she's breathing. He smooths his free hand up and down her back, stepping closer, wrapping his arm around her waist. She looks back at him and Oliver's heart takes a hit at the very real fear in her eyes. She's back to last night, back to when she'd had to listen to him over the comms, when he'd been out of her reach.

"Hey," he whispers, just for her ears, but Digg's already talking.

"I'll take him back," he says, reaching for Connor where he's still knocked out on Lyla's shoulder. The baby transfers easily, looking infinitely smaller against Diggle's large frame. He cradles the little boy against his chest, looking at Felicity and Oliver in turn. "How about all the guys head back and we let you ladies finish up out here?"

"Mom!" Jules shouts in the distance. The three girls have all stopped at the next corner, clearly waiting for their parents, knowing they can't go to the next street without them. "Come on!"

"Hang on, Jules!" Felicity shouts back, a little too sharply. She instantly regrets it, softening her voice as she adds, "Just give us a minute, okay?"

It's obvious she has every intention of not going to the next street with them.

"Felicity, go," Oliver says gently. "It's just a stitch or two. Finish up with the kids. There's only one block left on her map. I'll take Nate and head back with John, okay? He's perfectly capable of fixing me up."

She frowns, cradling Nate closer, shaking her head. "But…"

"He'll be fine, Felicity," Diggle says, sidling up next to them. One arm holds Connor while the other grasps Felicity's arm. "It looks worse than it is."

"You don't know that," Felicity argues. "He's bleeding, John."

"Felicity," Oliver starts, but Diggle beats him to the punch.

"Yes, he is," he says, speaking over him, not sugar-coating it. "And I'm going to stitch him back up and get his ass back in bed." Digg gives Oliver a pointed look. "Where he belongs."

Oliver presses his lips together in consternation, but he's right. Although he doesn't regret coming out here one bit. "Where I belong," he agrees. It's obviously for Felicity's benefit, which she knows. They all know it. But despite that, she takes a deep breath, staring at him with hard eyes.

"Fine," she says. "But if you're not in that bed when we get home, Oliver," she adds, pointing a finger at him, "I will do so much worse to you than what you have there. Do you hear me?"

He can't help it - he smiles. It only serves to upset her more, and she narrows her eyes, but before she can continue, he nods. "I hear you. I promise."

"Good," Felicity replies. Her voice cracks a little, but she pushes it back down. He wants nothing more than to wrap her up in his arms, right here and now, but he can't. If anything, they're in public, but mostly, they still have trick-or-treating children needing their attention now. "Okay. Then…" She moves to hand him Nate before hesitating. "Are you sure you can take him? I don't mind carrying him."

"I've got him, honey," Oliver says, opening his arms for her to place Nate in.

The toddler goes without argument, although he does blink his eyes open when he realizes he's no longer in his mother's embrace. He's too tired to fight it. Instead, as Oliver hikes him closer, letting him settle naturally against his chest, Nate falls back asleep, curling into the warmth and security of his father's arms. Oliver kisses his forehead before leaning in for a kiss from Felicity. She cups his face, kissing him with more force. He returns it, wholeheartedly, not caring that he's bleeding in the street. If this is what she needs, he'll give it to her. Especially because he needs it just as much.

"I love you," she says. "We'll be home really soon."

"No." Oliver shakes his head. "Take your time. Let them take their time. We'll be fine. I'll be fine. Okay?" She nods, not letting him go just yet. He kisses her again with a soft, "I love you," before stepping back. "Go. Your zombie's getting impatient."

"Ha," Felicity says, wiping her nose. She rubs Nate's back, pressing a kiss to his cheek before grabbing Oliver's hand. "She gets that from you, you know."

He snorts - she's not entirely wrong - and squeezes her fingers one last time before they part ways. Oliver watches Felicity and Lyla go to meet the girls, staying long enough to see Felicity head straight for Jules. Their eldest daughter gives her a cold shoulder, obviously miffed at being snapped at earlier. She moves to head to Glenarm Street without a word, but Felicity stops her and crouches down to her level. He can't hear what they're saying, but it's something that seems to work. At least enough for Jules to let Felicity fix some of the fake dead flesh hanging off of Jules' face. With a shrug and what might even be a smile, she gives her mother a nod.

And then they're off, but not without a wave from his daughters, and a lingering look from his wife.

Diggle waves for both of them before clapping Oliver's shoulder lightly. "Let's get you back, man."

"Yeah," Oliver says, holding Nate closer as Diggle cradles Connor. It amazes him that this is their life; it fits. They spent one night battling the darkness that still plagues Starling City, and the next taking their kids trick-or-treating. They turn back home. It's a straight-shot, cutting through the neighborhood, and it won't take nearly as long since they aren't zigzagging all over the place to follow the map. "Thanks for coming back with me."

"Figured I could at least stitch you back up before she rips you a new one," his friend jokes.

"Yeah," Oliver agrees, his voice turning glum. Despite the slightly woozy feeling still living in his stomach, he's very clearheaded. "No treat for me," he mumbles under his breath.

It doesn't take them long to reach the house. Maybe it's a testament to his willpower, but the second they cross the threshold, Oliver is suddenly much more aware of how much pain he's in and how much blood he's leaking all over the place. He gives Nate to Thea, who takes him upstairs to be put to bed, while Roy takes Connor, leaving Diggle to help his pathetic ass up the stairs.

There's a few more rings from the doorbell - he mostly hears Buster's vocal response to them than the actual bells - from trick-or-treaters, but for the most part the house is quiet.

Digg cleans up the blood and redoes the stitches, having inadvertently done more damage by pulling them. His friend sticks around long enough to grab the cane Oliver keeps just in case - a cane he's used far too many times after way too many injuries - before leaving him to change. Oliver manages to get his jeans and shirts off before tugging on a pair of sweats. He hobbles over to the bed, using the cane to sit down without too much strain. And then…

And then somehow he goes from closing his eyes 'for just a second' to falling asleep. It happens so fast that he doesn't get the chance to be frustrated with himself for missing the girls coming home, or missing the chance to talk to Felicity.

The soft brushing of a hand over his cheek rouses him some time later.

Oliver slowly blinks himself awake. It's not an over-awareness of the fact that he's got a serious wound and he shouldn't be jolting himself to alertness, but the simple fact that he's somewhere safe. He doesn't need to wake up with a start, not like he used to. Not when he's home, with his family, safe and sound. Some part of him just knows that the girls got home okay, like he'd been aware of his surroundings, despite being asleep. Of course he had been.

The room is darker than when he fell asleep, the only light coming from the closet and Felicity's smile. She hovers over him, her hair cascading over her shoulder, surrounding her like a halo.

Her nails drag down his cheek, scraping through his stubble.

"Hey," he whispers, waking up more. He slides his hand over her lap, gripping her bare thigh. "The girls get to bed okay?"

Felicity's grin widens. "Yeah. And they made out like bandits. They had to have eaten at least half of that candy because they were buzzing around like they were on a vertigo high before they all crashed downstairs. They made a pillow castle." Oliver grins at that. "Jules even helped. It's pretty impressive. And Sara stayed over." She chuckles. "Mostly because she fell asleep inside the castle with Ellie, and John didn't have the heart to move her."

Oliver hums in contentment, his eyes slipping shut again.

"How about you?" Felicity asks, her voice changing as she sits up. Her hand slips down his body to the gauze covering his wound. "You okay?"

"I am very okay," he replies. "I promise."

She's quiet for a moment, quiet enough to prompt him to open his eyes and look at her again. Felicity stares at the gauze, her fingers tracing the new tape secured to his skin.

"Hey," Oliver whispers, pulling on her thighs to get her attention. When Felicity meets his gaze, he gives her a small smile. "I'm okay."

"You scared me," she admits, her voice soft. She bites her lip, glancing back at the gauze. "I was just… I was right back there, to last night." Felicity screws her eyes shut tightly. "You were so pale when you came in, Oliver, I didn't realize how much…"

Her breath hitches as she cuts herself off.

"I'm sorry," Oliver says, rubbing his thumb over her thigh. He wants to sit up and pull her into his arms, but he knows that will require far more effort than he should give, if the stitches in his gut have anything to say about it. Instead he reaches for her, sliding his hand up her arm, urging her closer. "I hate that I put you through that. I hate that I always put you through that, Felicity. I'm sorry. And I shouldn't have pushed myself so hard tonight either."

"No." Felicity shakes her head, grabbing her hand in his. She laces their fingers together, bringing them to her lips for a kiss before leaning over him. She's extra careful to not jostle him as she stares into his eyes. "You should have. You really should have. You were right, earlier, about not missing tonight, Oliver. I'd rather have you there and be worried out of my mind - and angry that I have to be worried," she says with a little laugh, one that quickly fades as she adds, "than not have you there at all."

She's talking about tonight, about injuries and potentially missing big moments because he has to heal, but underneath it, there's more. So much more. And they both know it.

"Felicity," Oliver breathes, cupping her face. He tugs on her until she's hovering over him, until he can kiss her. It's so soft, so loving, so perfect, and it says everything that they can't - that they won't - put into words right now. He sighs her name once more, cradling her as much as he can.

She pulls away sooner than he will ever want, but she doesn't go far.

"You know," Felicity whispers, slipping her hand down his chest, past his wound… and to his sweats. Her fingers trace the band of his pants, his body tightening at the promise behind her words. "I remember someone saying they were going to prove just how okay they were."

The shift in focus is obvious, but oh so needed.

Oliver smiles, watching her with hooded eyes where she smiles down at him. "Mm," he says, slipping his hand back over her thighs. "I remember something about being very… creative."

He presses his fingers between her legs, and she spreads them without hesitation. For the first time, he notices she's changed into what she usually wears to bed - one of his t-shirts. And she's… Oliver inhales sharply and she smiles down at him. It quickly morphs into a pant as he presses his hand deeper between her thighs, his fingers slipping over her already damp folds. She spreads her legs further, giving him more access. He takes complete advantage of it, reveling in the way her head falls back when he touches her.

"It's still technically Halloween," she informs him, a little breathlessly. He nods, not really following where she's going with that… not until she slips her hand inside his sweats. Felicity wraps her hand around his growing hardness, making him gasp. The sensation of her fingers pulling at him sends a surge of desire through him as he starts to thicken under her ministrations. Oliver's eyes slip shut, all the power he has left inside him going towards not thrusting up into her hand. That requires a lot of core muscles and he so, so doesn't want this to stop. He grips her thigh tightly as she adds, "And I remember something about a treat."

All Oliver can manage is a strangled whimper.

With a soft grin, Felicity stands. The next noise Oliver makes is akin to a whimper, but of a very different nature as her hand leaves his sweats and her movements forces his to leave the warmth between her legs.

She stands, her eyes never leaving his, and strips out of his shirt. She's gloriously naked underneath, and she pauses long enough to let his eyes feast on her. She runs her hands down her sides, over her hips - they're wider, more full from carrying their children, and he loves it - and then back up.

"Felicity," he moans, reaching for her. He doesn't get far, letting out a pained noise when the move pulls at his stomach.

"Easy," she whispers, leaning over. She hooks her fingers in his pants, but she doesn't pull them down just yet. "If this is going to work, you need to lay completely still. Okay?"

He laughs, a full-bodied laugh because the odds of that happening are so very low, but even that makes him groan in pain.

"I'm serious, Oliver," Felicity says. She pulls her fingers out of his pants and suddenly Oliver finds himself nodding emphatically.

"No, wait, I'll do my best," he replies, meeting her gaze. She quirks an eyebrow at him. "You have absolutely no idea how hard I have to concentrate on not touching you sometimes, Felicity, so when I can…" He groans, and this time it's definitely not pain-related. "Especially when it's been too damn long."

Felicity licks her lips and it's nearly his undoing.

"Okay," she agrees before pulling his pants down.

His eager erection pops free and she doesn't waste a second, grasping him tightly. Oliver moans, his head falling back, his hands falling to the bed to grasp the sheet into tight fists as she starts stroking him. God, it feels good. So good. Fucking-fantastic-good. He wants more. He wants her hands on him just as much as he wants to feel her lips wrapped around him, but nothing comes close to the need burning through him to be buried deep inside her.

"Felicity," he rasps.

She's already climbing on the bed.

Felicity straddles him carefully, but it's clear she's just as needy as he is by the way she stares at him. Oliver nods, touching her thighs as much as he can without using his core. His fingers drift over her skin, sending goosebumps scattering across them. The muscles tremble slightly as she reaches between them. She positions him at her entrance and despite himself, his hips jerk up, seeking her heat. The movement makes him hiss. The vivid combination of pain and pleasure is enough to have his eyes rolling into the back of his head, even though Felicity instantly freezes, leaving his erection pressed to her wet heat… so close…

"I'm okay, I'm okay," he promises. He looks at her. "Please… please, don't stop."

"No moving," she whispers, and he nods. It quickly turns into a bodily shudder as she slowly thrusts down, taking him inside her. Her eyes never leave his, and the constant contact makes every single sensation more intense. Felicity gasps for air, her body shaking with the effort to not fall on him, and it takes everything in him to not move to meet her as she finally settles over him. She trembles as she gasps his name.

It's perfect.

Felicity starts moving, slow, gentle thrusts. Up and down, slowly, her hips rocking over him, barely enough to make the bed even jostle. They never look away from each other, sharing so much more than anything physical.

She grasps her own thighs, using them as leverage instead of him, like she usually does. He hates it. He wants her to fall on top of him, he wants to feel her nails digging into his muscles, he needs to feel the abandon that usually takes over them both when they come too close to the fire. He wants to touch her, he wants to pull her down against him and feel everything, but he can't.

Oliver reaches for her hands, lacing his fingers with hers, gripping her tightly as she makes love to him.

It doesn't take long. He's exhausted, both mentally and physically, and she's been through the wringer in her own way. The familiar burn starts to coil at the base of his spine, making his nerves feel like they're on fire as it grows too fast.

"Felicity…"

He moves their combined fingers between her legs, needing her to join him. The instant his fingers brush over her sensitive pearl, she cries out, so loudly she clamps her mouth shut. He doesn't want her to do that, he wants to hear her cry out for him, shout his name. Oliver does it again, pressing his thumb against her tender flesh. He rubs her, moving faster, delighting in her growing cries as she starts moving faster. He feels the tug of his stitches, telling him he's tensing up, but he can't help it… and he doesn't want to.

"Come for me," he whispers. Her face crumples, her nails digging into the back of his hands. He's close, so close, but he won't go over without her. He needs to feel her falling into oblivion right along with him, an affirmation he only wants to reach with her by his side. "Felicity… please…"

"Yes," she sighs, over and over, pleasure suffusing every inch of her body.

Without warning, she hits her peak, eliciting a sharp cry from deep in her chest that echoes through the room. Oliver rubs her harder, faster, knowing he's doing too much judging by the pain in his stomach, but he doesn't stop.

Felicity comes a second later, her back bowing, her head falling back. It doesn't take much for him to follow. One thrust and the feeling of her inner walls clamping down around him and he's joining her, emptying himself inside her as he jerks once before pain forces him to fall still. The added pain and the fact that he can't move amplifies the pleasure filling him, his cries joining hers.

When they finally come down, Felicity checks his wound. She doesn't bother getting off him yet, and he's still buried inside her as she makes sure he's okay. He smiles, barely able to keep his eyes open as he says, "I'm okay, I'm very, very… very okay."

She laughs and a second later, finally moves. She helps him pull his sweats back up before going through the room. She shuts the lights off and tugs the curtains closed before she climbs in next to him.

Oliver curls around her as much as he can. He's already taxed his body far more than any doctor would advise, but there's nothing on this earth that will keep him from pulling his wife into his arms. She sighs in contentment and gently wraps his arm around her. It's so rare that it's just the two of them in bed these days. Usually Ellie or Nate or both worm their way in between them. And that will probably happen later. Not with Ellie, not on a sugar crash with Sara sleeping over, but with Nate who'd tuckered out way too early to sleep the whole night. But for now… for now it's just them and he utterly revels in the feel of his wife's back pressed up against him, her hair tickling at his chest.

It's peaceful. She hums as she strokes the back of his hand and the scent of her shampoo floods his senses when he kisses the crown of her head. But it also makes him reflective, brings to mind how very close he'd come to losing this and everything else.

"I'm so sorry I scared you," he whispers into her hair. Her hand stops moving against his, but she doesn't let go. If anything, she tightens her hold on him.

She swallows loudly enough that he can hear it and she twists, looking back over her shoulder at him. The room is dark, but he can still make out her features, see the tentative lines of concern that etch her brow. "I love all of you, Oliver," she says after a beat. "That includes the risk taker, the hero, the warrior who goes out night after night putting the city first. There's always a bit of fear that comes with that, because I know what could happen. I've always known, since well before we were us. But close calls like last night and reminders like tonight… they make it more real."

"I know," he agrees, kissing her forehead and letting his lips linger against her skin. "I know they do. But I have every intention of growing old with you, Felicity Queen, and I will always do everything in my power to come home to you."

"Yeah," she says before biting her lower lip and running her fingers along the side of his face, cupping his jaw and stroking through the scruff with her thumb. "I know."

She does. He knows that. But she also knows that some day that might not be enough.

They both do.

But that only makes moments like tonight more important. Being there for his kids, making love to his wife, these things take on a whole new level of significance when he thinks about his own mortality. In truth, though, whether his life is over tomorrow or in sixty more years, these moments will always be the important ones and he will always be glad he took the time to savor his connections with his family.

Plus… there's no use lingering on 'what ifs' that might never come to pass. Worry is rational - it's human - and some of it is unavoidable. But letting it swamp them is pointless.

"Know what I learned tonight?" he asks. His tone shifts on the question, turns playful and light in a way that makes his wife crack a curious grin as she turns in his arms to face him fully.

"That Trevor thinks you're actually a zombie?" she ventures.

"No," he counters before pausing to think about it. "But now that you mention it, that might be useful. I'm not sure I liked the way he was looking at Jules."

His wife slaps his shoulder lightly at that. "He's six, Oliver."

"Just makes him easier to scare," Oliver counters. "Better to get at him early than when he's sixteen, don't you think?"

Felicity huffs and he's pretty sure she rolls her eyes, but it's so dark he can't actually tell for sure. "Ignoring the way that reeks of hijacking your daughter's agency for the moment, do you honestly think warning him off of her now is going to stick for the next decade or so?"

No. Of course he doesn't. He also would never do that in the first place. The very last thing he would ever do to Jules when she's old enough for boys is warn one off. Besides the fact that he wants her to make her own choices for herself - to grow into that confident, strong sense of independence she always projects - he's also absolutely certain that it would wholly backfire. And he can't imagine a faster way to destroy all of the trust he's worked so hard to build with her over these last few years.

But it does thoroughly shift the mood in the room, so he plays along for the moment. Needling his wife is entirely too much fun sometimes.

"Digg's got a shotgun and a shovel, right?" he muses. "He's helped me get rid of bodies before. If this kid doesn't remember at sixteen, I feel like we're fully capable of reminding him."

"Oliver!" Felicity protests, propping herself on her elbow to look down at him.

"What?" he protests with a half laugh. "I remember what I was like at sixteen. Teenage boys are a menace."

"Not all teenage boys are like you," she tells him. Wrongly, in his estimation, but that's sort of beside the point. "And our daughters will both be smart enough and secure enough to make better choices."

"So you're saying you expect them to be smarter than to pick someone like me?" he asks with amusement.

"Yes," she says definitively.

"Why?" he chuckles. "You weren't."

"Oliver Queen!" she protests. "I most certainly would not have so much as given you the time of day back when we were…" Her voice trails off as his chuckle turns into a full throated laugh that he barely keeps from escalating to the point where it strains his core muscles. "You're kidding. You're messing with me," she realizes. "This is you being funny. Or thinking you are anyhow."

"I'm hilarious," he argues, grinning widely up at her.

"So you weren't actually going to go give Trevor a hard time?" she ventures.

"No," he tells her. "Of course not. He's six and even when he's sixteen, Jules gets to make her own choices… well, except for the fact that she'll be nineteen and that's not entirely legal, but you get my point."

She does and some of the fight deflates out of her as she leans back down, her elbow resting against his pillow. "Then what was it you realized?"

If anything, the question only makes his grin grow wider and he cranes his neck up to kiss her with a hard press of his lips to hers before pulling back slightly. "That we, my love, need a four poster bed."

"...Do we?" she asks mischievously, leaning in and kissing him again. "Why's that?"

"All kinds of reasons," he replies, pausing to tangle his hand in her hair and rain kisses down along the column of her throat. "After we get one, I'll show you."

As it turns out, they're not even to Thanksgiving before he does.

Chapter Text

June 2024

 

William nods his head along to the music blaring through his one earbud, scanning the last panel on the page before turning it, lost in the beat of the music and the way it's accenting the story. He figures he's got the rest of this album before he needs to get to practice. His mom isn't there to remind him of the time every ten minutes.

It's not his customary every-other-weekend at his dad's house, but he's there anyhow because his mom had to go and get married, and she's now on her honeymoon with his new stepdad. He isn't thrilled about the change to his family. He's already got a dad, he doesn't need another one, and he sure as hell doesn't need a brat stepsister.

But, whatever. He's got two years until college and then he'll be out of there. And, until then, he's always got his room at his dad and Felicity's house to escape to whenever his mom and David get too mushy, or his new stepsister decides to be a royal pain in the ass. Which seems to be always, by his estimation. On both counts.

He likes it here, anyway, even if it's almost never quiet.

Like right now.

His bedroom door bursts open with a sudden jarring motion and no knock, which tells him immediately that it's not his dad or Felicity. They both have more respect for his privacy than that.

"If you love me, you'll hide me."

William looks up to find his nine-year-old sister shutting the door behind her and staring at him with pleading eyes. Of course it's Jules. Unlike his dad and stepmom, she's has never had a sense of boundaries when it comes to their relationship. Although, if he's being honest, most of the time he's kinda cool with that. He likes his sister, even if she is sort of a baby still. She's got spunk and she looks up to him.

There's something pretty great about that.

"Do we both need to hide?" William asks, sitting up on his bed with rapt attention as he pulls out his earbud and tosses his comic book to the side.

"That might be a really good idea," Jules tells him, her voice painfully solemn and lacking any trace of her usual snark. He raises his eyebrows. She's being completely serious.

He strains his ears, catching a hint of crying echoing from downstairs. Several voices crying, actually, childish wails that make it sound like the world is ending. Or maybe someone dropped their food. It could go either way.

"What happened?" he asks.

"Nate's teething and he bit Ellie," Jules informs him. "So, of course, she started crying, which means he started crying. And on top of that, Mom's watching Connor for Aunt Lyla and Uncle Digg today, so he started crying, too, because he's a baby and all they do is cry." Jules makes a face. "It's like a giant tear- and snot-fest down there and I want no part of it. Kids are gross and exhausting."

William snorts. "You're going into fourth grade," he points out, not bothering in the least to hide his amusement from his little sister.

"Yeah," Jules agrees, her voice heavy with the kind of sass he's long associated with her. "Which is almost middle school. And practically grown up."

He laughs. "Okay. If you say so."

"So are you gonna kick me out?" she demands, cutting to the chase with a hand on her hip and her head cocked to the side. "Or can I stay and hang out with you?"

She does this a lot, pretends like she's only asking to spend time with him because the alternative is worse, but William's not dumb. He knows this is just her way of asking if they can hang out without making it seem important to her. For a long while, it made him roll his eyes - why not just ask? But now he gets it, sort of. He catches himself doing the same thing with his mom since she started dating David.

Ugh. David. Stupid David.

Jules' eyebrows are practically living in her hair at this point, all expectation as she stares at him.

"Nah, you can stay," he tells her with a shrug that's equally as off-handed as her question had been. "I'm not gonna toss you back to the chorus of wailing babies. I'm not that mean."

Jules nods. "Cool."

She takes a few more steps into his space, looking around the room. He hasn't changed much lately. There's some new pictures he's tacked up on his mirror, mostly of his friends at school and his teammates, but also of his family. There are two recent ones of him with Jules and he knows the instant she spots them because she bites her thumbnail, almost covering up her smile as she stares at them.

"You coming to my game next week?" William asks, mostly just to give her something to talk about. He already knows the answer. Felicity told him this morning.

"Yeah, Aunt Thea and Uncle Roy said they'd take me," Jules tells him brightly. She looks so proud of herself. It's sort of adorable. "Dad's got some committee meeting and Mom has an interview with the business journal." He's well aware of this. His dad has been apologizing for weeks that he has to miss the game. It's bothering him a lot, but he absolutely cannot miss the meeting and it can't be rescheduled. William gets it, even if it does sort of suck, because baseball's always kinda been their thing. Still, it's nice to see that his dad is more upset about it than he is. "So," Jules continues, "I made my eyes all big and batted my lashes at Uncle Roy until he caved."

William chuckles, shaking his head because that sounds about right. It's kind of ridiculous how thoroughly Jules has Uncle Roy wrapped around her little finger, not that he'd ever admit it.

"You're starting, right?" she asks. She sounds almost as excited as he feels.

"Yeah," he replies with a proud smile. "They're puttin' me in to pitch right away."

"That's so cool." She walks over to take a seat at his side. "Are you nervous?"

William shrugs a little because yes. He's nervous as hell to be starting on the varsity team for the first time, but he's not going to admit that to his little sister. Despite that, she reads his non-answer perfectly, because dismissive gestures are her native language.

"You're gonna be great," she promises him. "Pinky swear. And if anyone even tries to heckle you, they're gonna have to answer to me."

She means it, and he knows it, which is slightly concerning. He'd really rather his not-quite-fourth-grade sister not get tossed out of his first home game of the year for throwing a punch. Because she would. Because she'd land it. Girl packs one hell of a hit. It's not all that surprising considering how committed she is to her dancing - she's athletic and flexible, with a whole lot of power behind it - and with how insistent both their dad and Felicity are about self-defense. But, she's also just nine, and he never expects her to land as solid a punch as she does when they're sparring. She's had him on his ass more than once. So yeah, he doesn't need her doing that.

"Let 'em jeer," William says with a shrug. "It'll just fuel me more."

Telling her not to start a fight would only ensure that she would. Explaining why it was a bad idea would only mean she stopped listening to him. He knows his sister well enough to know that. But dismissing it outright? Framing it as something that actually helps him? That's different.

She gives him an appraising nod, tilting her chin skyward, like she's offering up her respect. It's so cute coming from his little sister - who is barely 60 pounds soaking wet - that he can't help but ruffle her hair a bit. Jules yelps and tries to duck his hand, shoving at his chest until he falls over, but he just laughs. She thinks she's such hot stuff, that she's so grown up, and it's ridiculous. Because she's nine.

But it also kinda makes him love her more.

"Jerk," she declares affectionately, attempting to tickle him. She flat out fails. For someone as graceful and practiced in her motions as Jules is, she lacks the subtlety to tickle and winds up just jabbing him in the ribs instead with her freakishly bony little fingers.

"Get off me, brat," he says with a laugh, pushing her hands away. "You're a menace."

She's a little too self-satisfied with that pronouncement, but she does let up. She flops back on the bed next to him, landing right on his comic book. Jules might be tiny, but her head's definitely heavy enough to make the book crinkle.

"Hey, watch it," he says, tugging the new issue out from under her. "I haven't even finished that yet."

"Sorry," she says, rolling onto her side and propping herself up onto an elbow. "What is it?"

Looking back later, he'll realize that he probably shouldn't have answered her at all - at least in his stepmother's opinion - but she just looks so interested, and he just loves this series so much. He can't resist the urge to share, especially when she reads his excitement, sending her interest up by about a thousand notches.

"Walking Dead," he tells her. Jules sits up straighter at that, craning her long neck to look at the cover with wide, excited eyes. "It's about zombies. Or… it's about people who survive zombies, anyhow. Mostly. Some of them don't. It gets pretty gory."

"Cool!" she declares. She reaches for it, and he barely keeps it from her as she asks, "Can I see?"

"Uh…" William glances down at the cover in his hands. There's a kid with a half-rotted face clawing at a boarded up wall with a bleeding woman and her newborn on the other side. Not exactly kid-appropriate stuff. He swallows hard as he looks back at Jules' expectant face. "I'm not sure your mom would like that very much."

Her brow furrows and she looks at him like he's possibly crazy. "Why are we telling her?"

"Jules," he says. In his adult-tone. It would be more effective if his voice didn't squeak. "It's gross stuff. Scary stuff. It's gonna give you nightmares."

"Uh, my dad is The Arrow," she reminds him, giving him that sarcastic, know-it-all raised eyebrow that he knows very well. It's practically glued in that position whenever she feels challenged in the least. "I've seen way worse on the screens in the lair since I was old enough to walk, and that stuff's real."

"You're supposed to stay in the playroom," he reminds her.

"Yeah, except I'm not six anymore and that's boring," she counters with a little laugh, holding her hand out for the comic.

"Not six?" he asks, ignoring her outstretched fingers.

"Yeah," she replies, as though it's incredibly obvious what she means. And, really, it is.

"Not six like Ellie, you mean," he clarifies.

"Well…" Her hand drops as she sits back, looking a touch uncomfortable, like she hadn't quite realized the extent of what she meant. And maybe she hadn't. She's only nine, after all. "There's nothing wrong with being six. I'm just not, anymore. And I don't wanna play fairies or build a pillow castle. I'm too big for kid stuff."

Skipping the ridiculousness of that final statement, William tosses the comic book to his other side and turns fully to face his little sister, tucking one leg under himself. "She looks up to you. You know that, right, Jules?"

"Okay," she scoffs, rolling her eyes. It's so incredibly dismissive that he knows he's struck a chord with her.

"I'm serious."

"You're crazy," she replies, folding her arms.

"Jules… you're her big sister," William says slowly. "If you don't think she follows you around and tries to play make-believe with you because she looks up to you, you're the one who's crazy."

"She just likes being the center of attention," Jules counters.

"Yeah, the center of your attention." William laughs. "Kid, if you can't see that…"

"Whatever." Discomfort rolls off of her so thickly that it makes the air grow heavy, and William can't do much more than shake his head. He loves the hell out of his little sister, but she can be so blind to the affection everyone has for her. She struggles to even see it, much less accept it. Except from him. For some reason he doesn't get, she believes it when it's from him, has always believed it from him. She huffs. "Can I see the comic book or not?"

"Fine," he decides, grabbing it and tossing it to her. "But if your mom finds out, I'm telling her you wrestled it from me."

"Fair enough," she agrees, grabbing the comic with interest and flipping it open with a look of entranced awe. "This is super gross. It's awesome!"

Bad idea or not, it's kinda cool sharing this with her, getting to introduce her to his favorite things. William grins, looking at it over her shoulder. "It is, right?" he asks.

"Totally," she insists, flipping the page to an even more gruesome one where a zombie horde chases three survivors of the apocalypse. One of them trips on a branch. He hasn't gotten past that part yet, but he's pretty sure that dude's a goner. "If we got attacked by zombies, would you save me?"

"Would you need to be saved?" he asks, shoving at her shoulder. "You'd probably kick zombie ass and then come save my butt."

"Yeah," she agrees, nodding firmly, "I would."

Jules pauses, the comic book forgotten as her gaze shifts to a blank spot on the wall, losing herself in the thought. It's all playing out in her mind and as he watches her he knows she's envisioning herself the hero of her own story, slaying the dead and coming to the rescue. That might be her life one day, he thinks. Not the slaying the dead part, of course, but he can see her following in their father's footsteps, if she ever manages to truly get past this animosity that lives inside her. She can do anything, his little sister, anything she puts her mind to, provided she believes in herself enough. He believes that with every ounce of his being.

"I'd save Nate and Ellie first, though," she adds absently.

That surprises him and it must show because she turns pink-cheeked like the admission wasn't intentional, like that's not something she meant to say. Jules ducks her head back into the comic book.

"Well… I can probably hold off a zombie or two for a bit on my own," he allows, giving her an out.

She sighs in relief at his words, giving him a nod. "Yeah, that's what I meant. They're just babies. I know Ellie's gonna be all superhero fighter girl one day, but right now she's just barely out of kindergarten. If there were zombies now, she might need me."

He pauses at that, soaking the words in. "Jules, she already needs you," he tells her. "The same way you need me."

That has her eyes flying back to his. It actually gives her pause, even - somewhat miraculously - making her think. He can see it, the way she rolls that thought around her mind. She wants to believe him, but she's so protective of herself. She's scared to trust that what she wants is real. It's another thing he hadn't really gotten all that well before, but now? Now that David's in his mom's life? He does get it - he gets her - a little bit more.

"You do, right?" he prods, shoving his elbow into her bony ribs. "You need me. What the hell would you do without me?"

"Well, I'd be out a hiding place from the crying, for sure," she acknowledges. "And I definitely wouldn't have someone to borrow comic books from."

"Did I say you could borrow them?" he asks her, raising an eyebrow. "I don't seem to remember saying that."

Jules hugs the comic book to her chest. "It was implied."

Of course it was.

"Well, don't start with that one," he tells her, opening a drawer in his nightstand and pulling out an older stack. The way her eyes go wide with absolute delight is equal parts hilarious and really stinking cute. She drops the lone comic in her hands and reaches excitedly for the pile he's got. He pulls them away before she can take them though. "Two promises before I give you these," he insists.

Wariness etches itself across her features in an instant. "Go on…" she allows.

"One, you swiped these from my room," he tells her. "I, in no way, shape or form, gave you these or condone the corruption of your little, innocent mind."

"I have no idea what 'condone' means," she tells him with a slightly sardonic air, "but I'll agree to the rest. What's the other condition?"

"You don't go all 'comic canon' crazy on me," he says very seriously. "The TV show was badass, too - even if it is ancient now - and it's not the same, but it doesn't have to be."

She completely misses the point of what he's saying when she blurts, "Can we watch the show, too?!" So, bringing that up was a truly terrible idea.

"Uh, maybe after you finish all the comics," he says. That'll take at least a few years, right? "For now, just start with these, okay?"

"Yes!" she declares happily, drawing out the word as she takes the pile from his hands with grabby fingers and stares at them like a hard-won prize.

"How about you go stash those in your room before your mom finds them," he advises. She's already on her feet and heading to the door, cradling them like they're made of gold. To her, they probably are. He stands up, shutting his bedside drawer before grabbing his abandoned headphones. "I'm gonna go get a snack, now that the crying has died down, and see if Ellie wants to play fairies."

The way Jules' face recoils at that idea is picture-perfect and William wishes he had a camera on him to capture the moment.

"I'm pretty sure I just heard you wrong," Jules says, sounding a little disgusted.

"Nope," he counters, shoving his hands in his pockets. "If gaining a new stepdad and really, truly obnoxious stepsister has taught me anything, it's that I need to appreciate you and Ellie and Nate more. I don't get a lot of time with you guys."

Jules chews on her lip as she thinks that over. She's all reluctance as she asks, "So you're gonna play fairies with Ellie?"

"I thought I'd let her be fairy president up in the treehouse," he replies, "and attack her kingdom with the hose." He's only got like an hour before practice anyhow and he feels like he's barely even seen Ellie since he got here.

She's intrigued, and she clearly doesn't know what to do about that. And he's well aware she won't outright admit that it sounds like fun.

After a moment, she says, "Maybe I could join. I could be a zombie fairy and attack the treehouse, too."

William grins. "Sure," he says, slinging an arm around her shoulder. "As long as you don't tell your sister what zombies are, I think that's a really good idea."

Chapter Text

October 2014

 

"Where are we putting this?"

Felicity's voice precedes her, echoing from the stairs just before she appears in the arch-shaped entryway to the kitchen. She goes for gentle nonchalance, but the thing she's holding doesn't let her. It's by far the ugliest vase he's ever seen in his life, all gold flakes and tiny ornaments and what looks like a marble base, and judging by her face, she agrees. He knows it's not as light as appears just by how she's holding it, the muscles in her arms straining.

Oliver sets down the box of pots and pans he's holding on the kitchen counter as he says, "Uh, how about…" but that's all he's got. Because he wants to say nowhere. Because it's hideous.

It's one of the dozens of housewarming gifts they've been receiving since they officially signed off on the their new home. It'd meant about six weeks of deliveries to the manor, much to his mother's chagrin. Oliver had tried going down the route of, 'Well, if you hadn't announced it to everyone you know…' but she'd shot him a withering look that'd shut him right up.

Most of the gifts weren't that bad - a few he even liked - but this one…

Well, it was special, because it was the first one delivered directly to them, to their new place that was all their own, to the very place that had sparked a series of arguments that had lasted weeks.

It would be a lie to say that picking their home as a couple was their first argument, but it'd certainly been the longest - so far. When they'd first started discussing moving in with each other - in quiet early morning murmurs wrapped up in Felicity's quilt and over hurried lunches at his mother's new office and post-Arrow duty back in the lair after a nightly patrol of the city - they hadn't been able to agree on even the most fundamental things. Oliver had secretly wondered if it was a sign of how ready they both were to venture into the next phase of their lives. He could not be happier about their fast-growing family, but it is fast. They haven't had the time to build their dreams together before watching it all materialize in front of them. And, sometimes he finds they have different pictures in their heads for what their future looks like.

It hadn't helped that they had vastly different ideas of what kind of house they should settle in. For Oliver's part, he'd envisioned a home like the ARGUS safe house in Ivy Town, something bright and airy with a big backyard for the kids to run around in. The kind of place with neighborhood barbeques and Fourth of July celebrations that everyone pitched in for.

Felicity had wanted a loft, somewhere close to their night and day jobs that allowed an easy commute and boasted lots of security.

"Six-bedroom lofts aren't exactly easy to find, Felicity."

Her jaw had dropped, eyes widening. "Six?"

That had opened a whole other door that he quickly learned she hadn't been all that prepared for. Being pregnant with their first child and knowing about his six-year-old son has been more than enough to handle. His pointing out the grand total of four kids in their future had been a bit much for her to process, even if one of them was going to be Ellie.

Ellie.

It occurs to Oliver that they haven't talked about her in… He furrows his brow. He can't remember the last time they talked about her. For the first few weeks after she'd left, they hadn't spoken of her much. She was never far from their thoughts, but it'd been too much to bring her up. But when Oliver had woken up one night to his girlfriend crying on the floor at the foot of the bed, holding the elephant Ellie had picked out for the baby, he'd made a point of bringing up their absent daughter. It became a habit for a while, each of them talking about something that they both remembered. At first, it'd only been tears - the hole she left aches - but it had eventually given way to laughter and smiles, to fondness through a haze of pain.

In the rush and excitement of the move, of organizing everything, of buying new furniture and working around both their nighttime activities and day jobs - which included the slow rebuild of QC, which they were toying with restructuring under a new name - that habit had gotten lost.

Guilt cuts through his gut, just as quickly as regret does. They'll get to see Ellie again in a few years, but it's so important that they keep some part of her alive until then. A few years is a long time, and letting some of those precious moments go of that perfect little four-year-old?

The thought is unbearable.

He hadn't realized how much he'd come to depend on those conversations himself. It hadn't just been for Felicity.

But it's understandable. One of the things they always harped on was that they needed to stay in the now, not let the past or the future take over.

And the now had definitely been taking precedence.

Their home.

When Oliver had found this place, he'd known immediately it was the one, the perfect home for them. He hadn't blinked an eye at the sixteen million dollar price tag - it is deadset in the middle of downtown Starling City, and it had been fully renovated and updated, and it had six bedrooms - but Felicity had, to the point where she she'd been about to put her foot down and say, 'No.'

The turning point had been seeing Jules for the first time at that initial ultrasound. Like somehow she'd become more real when they finally saw her on that little screen. It had nothing on when Oliver had first felt her move, when he'd felt that gentle press against his palm, but that day in the doctor's had sealed their future at their new home.

They bought it the next day. When their realtor had left them alone in the backyard to go call and start the paperwork, he'd wrapped his arms around Felicity's expanding belly and described to her the new fairy castle he was going to build in the large oak tree growing in the corner of the small space. It'd earned him more than a few happy tears as he talked about it being exactly like the one at the manor, with minor changes to accommodate the fairies better. Since Tommy could only be there to help in spirit this time, he'd already talked to Digg about giving him a hand with the construction. After all, both their girls will probably use it together.

And eventually so will Ellie.

The thought makes him smile. He can still hear her voice if he concentrates hard enough.

"I'm not a princess. I'm president. That's way more important than a princess."

"I mean," Felicity continues, pulling Oliver from his thoughts. His eyes refocus on her as she holds the vase out, eyeballing it. "I know where I want to put it, but Walter sent it for us and I feel like the dumpster isn't an option."

With a sigh, she turns and sets it down, giving him a full view of her ass.

God, she's gorgeous. He doesn't even want to answer her as she stands back up, wiping her hands. He just wants to stare. At five months pregnant, her baby bump is easily visible, leaving her body rich with new curves that take his breath away. He loves it. There's something about the visual evidence of his child growing inside of her that amplifies everything.

It makes him want to send everyone else home immediately, even if they are helping them move in.

Felicity looks back to him for his thoughts and the second she sees his face, she shakes her head with a drawn out. "Oh, no." She crosses her arms, which only serves to highlight precisely how much her breasts have swelled thanks to her pregnancy, as well as emphasizing just how low her top is cut. It does absolutely nothing to tamp down his attentions. "I know that look, mister. There's time for that later. Right now, I need to know where to put the world's ugliest vase from arguably the nicest relative we have."

Oliver chuckles, closing the distance between. "Your mom is pretty nice," he counters, raising an eyebrow at her in challenge. When he reaches her, he skims his hands down her sides.

She wrinkles her nose in reply even as her arms loosen their hold on herself. He wraps his hands around her ribs - she loves his hands, something she made very clear the night before. The move makes her shiver, goosebumps erupting across her skin at his touch.

"Sure," Felicity breathes, "if you don't mind all your friends asking if she's seeing anyone and her being flattered by it."

"Okay," he agrees, sliding his hands to her hips. He grips them and tugs her forward until her pelvis is pressed as firmly against his as they can manage with her growing midsection. "So, maybe 'nice' isn't quite the right word."

She snorts. "You think?" Her voice might be sharp, but her body isn't. She's all soft curves that welcome his touch and lean into him. It never ceases to amaze him that he gets to have this, that he gets to keep this. He hopes it always does. He drops a soft kiss on her shoulder, slowly making his way up to her neck. "Oliver…"

It's barely half a protest and one he doesn't pay any mind to.

"Yes?" Oliver asks, following her throat up to her jaw, all the way up her mouth. He hovers just a few inches from her lips as his hands slide down to cup her ass.

"Oh my god, you're incorrigible," she laughs, placing her free hand on his chest. She pushes very, very lightly. So lightly that it might actually be just her copping a feel. She likes to do that, he's discovered, touch him like she's not doing it just because she wants to touch him. Just because she can.

"Well," he starts, his hands massaging her backside thoroughly. It makes her sigh, her eyes fluttering at the delicious sensation. "We do have a lot of rooms to christen." Oliver gives her a grin, one he knows will make her melt. "Maybe I'm just being proactive."

"I like that you're being proactive," Felicity replies, licking her lips. That was a wrong move, because now he doesn't care if someone else is in the house or not. "But later."

Oliver frowns, his grimace damn near petulant as he whispers, "Felicity…"

"Digg and Lyla - who is possibly ready to give birth in our new living room, by the way - they're both here," she reminds him. "And they're unpacking our stuff for us. So is Roy. And our mothers are coming over - together - in like an hour."

Alright, so that last point actually dissuades him some. She must see it because she laughs and shakes her head before inching away. She stretches, the move triggering a yawn as she tries to provide a bit of relief to her stiff back.

He reaches for her again - it's with concern this time, he swears it. "How are you feeling?"

Felicity isn't buying it though. She gives him a sharp look and keeps a little distance between them anyhow. History tells him it's probably more to dissuade herself than him. When it comes to keeping their hands to themselves, willpower isn't exactly a strong suit for them. And, much to his delight and her chagrin, the hormones flooding her body have made that about a hundred times worse on her end.

"I'll be fine," she replies. "Just a bit achy. You keep those hands to yourself." He gives her an exaggerated pout that makes her smile - it never fails to take his breath away. "For now," she adds. "Definitely just for now. Later I would very much like those hands on me. On my back, I mean. Or, well… other places might be good, too…"

He honestly can't resist. Oliver licks his lips as he looks her up and down, savoring the way she physically shivers under his gaze, before he winks at her. It's playing dirty and he knows it, but he's not the least bit sorry. Resolve is apparently the word of the day for Felicity, though, because she doesn't cave at all, taking another step backwards. She picks up the ugly vase again, brandishing it like it's some kind of a weapon.

"The vase," she says again, glancing down at the thing. Now that he's closer, he sees it's gilded with actual little gold cherubs all over it. God, Oliver thought Walter had better taste than this thing. He's sure Felicity is thinking the same exact thing. "What do we do with it?" she asks.

Oliver shrugs. "I don't know… Give it to charity?"

"Charity?" Felicity furrows her brow in wariness as she thinks that over. "How much is this monstrosity worth exactly?"

He glances at it. Ugly as it is, he knows Walter wouldn't send a cheap gift and Oliver's paid enough attention at charity auctions over the years to have a relatively solid ballpark figure in mind.

With a distasteful grimace - he's seen worse go for much higher than the number in his head - he tells her, "I'm pretty sure you don't want to know."

She looks down at it with a wrinkled nose, like she's trying to figure out what in the world makes this ornate piece of ceramic crap worthy anything at all. He agrees, and not just because it's not to either of their tastes. Still, he's pretty damn sure he knows what that ugly vase might fetch at auction.

"So, probably not Goodwill, then?" Felicity ventures. She makes a face at him. "Are you sure? Like really, really sure? 'Cause this thing seems kitschy. Maybe he likes us less than we thought."

"Knowing Walter?" Oliver stares at the vase."I'm guessing that's worth about ten thousand or so."

"Dollars?" The blood drains from her face and her eyes bug out at him. When she looks at the vase again, it's with an entirely different appreciation… or more like it's about to bite her. Or fearful that she might drop the ugly thing. Felicity holds it further away from her body, as if that will help her keep it safe. "You're telling me that Walter gave a ten thousand dollar vase to a couple expecting a baby?" she asks, her voice rising with incredulity. "Is that some kind of sick joke? Who does that?"

"Probably someone with a lot of money who's never had a baby in the house," Oliver replies. She makes a small squeaky sound and Oliver steps forward, taking the vase gently from her clenched hands and setting it in the corner of the kitchen counter. "How about I just put this… somewhere safe."

"How about in a safe," she says, wiping her hands on her thighs, giving the vase an unreadable look. "How can anyone think that's a good idea? Not only does it make my eyes scream, it's just… Can you imagine if it breaks? Oh my god, should we get it insured?"

Oliver has to bite his tongue to keep from chuckling at that as he rests his hands on her hips again. "No," he replies, "we don't need to get it insured. Trust me. You don't want to know what some of the stuff at my mom's costs."

Felicity shuts her eyes with a horrified shudder, probably because she'd spent so much time there recently. "No, I really do not." The thought does nothing to appease her regarding this particular thing, though. If anything, it only encourages her. "But if we don't-"

"Why don't I talk to Walter?" he interrupts. "Let him know that we're worried about how that vase would fare with the baby around and ask him if he's okay with us maybe donating it to the Glades Children's Foundation. For their auction next month?"

The tension melts right out of her shoulders at that, and she nods. It's downright silly how much this was suddenly worrying her, considering they could more than afford to replace it if anything did happen to it. But he knows what she's saying and why.

Still.

"Stop stressing, honey," Oliver says softly. "We've got enough other things going on right now. You don't need to worry about a vase."

"But it's from Walter," Felicity counters. "And I really, really like Walter. And that thing is worth more than my car."

Oliver chuckles, pulling her closer. The mention of her car reminds him that they really do need to replace that thing before the baby comes, but that's a conversation for another time.

"Did you find them?"

It's Lyla's voice coming from the doorway.

She's huge, past her due date by a week now. Oliver feels more than a little guilty for allowing her to help them settle in, but when he'd started to suggest she sit this one out, Diggle had shaken his head furiously and cut him off. Lyla's apparently nesting, and John can't possibly stand her reorganizing their closets again. Plus, Lyla's not the sort to sit anything out. Ever.

"Not yet," Felicity replies. "I got distracted by the world's ugliest ceramic being worth as much as my child's first semester of college."

"Right," Lyla says blankly, her eyes drifting down to where Oliver's hands grip Felicity's hips. "That's what you got distracted by."

Felicity follows her gaze and it takes her a second to realize she's gravitated back to Oliver's hands again.

This is sort of a problem with them, it turns out. A really, really great problem, one he hopes always plagues them. But she's so damn determined today. Felicity removes one of his hands and turns, holding it away from her body. It's actually pretty fine because it lets him sidle up next to her and rest his other hand on her stomach. Their daughter is kicking, again. It seems like she's always kicking, something he positively loves. Since she started a couple of weeks ago, she hasn't stopped. Felicity fully blames him for their little girl's activity level. She's probably not wrong.

"I will be less distracted," Felicity vows. "By anything." She gives him a pointed look. "Because I'm on a mission. Or at least I was before the whole vase thing and then the you thing." Felicity waves her hand at him. "But no more. We're on a mission."

"For what?" Oliver asks.

"Pretzels," Lyla tells him and when he gives her a confused look, she returns it with a 'you're missing the obvious, let me show you how' look.

She's not too far off base considering both pregnant women have been all about pretzels for months now. Lyla's taken to dipping hers in ketchup with horseradish sauce while Felicity uses the stalest pretzels she can find as a spoon for strawberry ice cream. Oliver's hard pressed to decide which option is stranger - and just downright disgusting - but he and Digg have a pact not to mention that to either of the women. Because they both know better.

He did not, however, know enough to save either of them a bag of pretzels and right now that seems like it's likely to be the bigger issue.

"Uh… we're out," he tells them.

The look they both shoot him is borderline violent, so much so that it actually gives him pause. He's faced down the most dangerous criminals Starling City has to offer, but a pregnant Felicity and Lyla being denied pretzels is, well… terrifying.

"Say that again?" Felicity says. Her voice is quiet, but the steel hidden in the words is not.

"Well," he starts. "Roy was hungry and…"

"And you gave him my pretzels?" Felicity asks incredulously.

Oliver takes an instinctive step away from her. "He might have some left?"

"What?" Diggle's voice echoes from somewhere upstairs. One second he's not there and then the next he is, thundering down the steps only to emerge behind Lyla with disbelieving eyes aimed right at Oliver. "Did you lose your damned fool mind? You gave away their pretzels? What's wrong with you?"

All Oliver can manage is opening his mouth, but nothing comes out. He has no defense against furious, hungry, pregnant women and a husband who damn well knows better than him.

"I'll…" Oliver stands up straight. "It's not a problem. I'll text your mom and ask her to grab some on her way over."

"Wait," Felicity interjects, eyebrows shooting up. "You'll text my mom?" Okay, so she didn't know about that and maybe he should have brought it up. This is not the time for him to be pointing out that it's not something worth freaking out about - they're practically family now, after all - so all he can manage is to gulp at her bewildered look. "You text my mom?"

"Well… yeah," he replies. "She sends those cute little faces." Oliver looks to Digg. He's less than no help, putting his hands up and stepping back as he shakes his head in clear disappointment. "What? It would be rude not to respond."

Felicity balks. "Emojis?"

"There's, like, smiley faces and baby bottles and hearts… Do you think there's one of a pretzel?"

"Oh my god," Digg breathes out, pressing his fingertips to his forehead. "This just keeps getting worse."

"Do I… No," Felicity tells him in utter disbelief. "No, I do not think there's an emoji of a pretzel, Oliver. And why are you texting my mother instead of your own?"

"Can you see my mom using emojis?" he asks. It's a valid point. His mother's texts are more like business memos than anything else. She'd use bullet points if she could. And that is, once again, not helping. The term 'hulking out' is pretty applicable to his girlfriend right now. There's a visible hormonal rage simmering just beneath the surface of her pretzelless pregnant facade. Oliver puts his hands up, quickly adding, "Okay, okay. How about I run up to the store on the corner and buy more pretzels. Alright?"

Felicity watches him - cautiously, almost like she's weighing if that's good enough. She doesn't back up as he steps forward, though, which is good, and she doesn't sharpen her glare as he smooths his hands down her shoulders. He'll take it. Pregnancy does strange things to her moods and he really did mess up with the pretzels, so he's sort of grateful that she's not crying uncontrollably at the moment.

"And ice cream?" she ventures.

"I didn't give that away," he replies, a little too smartly. When her eyes narrow at him, he's quick to finish, "But I'll grab more. Lots of it," he promises. "Strawberry. Entirely for you."

Lyla clears her throat from a few feet away.

"And Lyla, too, if you choose to share it," Oliver amends, tilting his head in the other woman's direction, who seems placated by the gesture.

That's the final piece that he needed. Felicity sighs, her face settling into a soft smile as she hums appreciatively under her breath. "Okay," she says, cupping his cheek, letting her fingers drag through the scruff. He leans into her touch, still watching her a little cautiously. "You're forgiven. But I want those little pretzels with the cheese in the middle."

He tries not to pull a face at that - those are so horribly bad for every living thing on the planet. He clearly does a pretty good job of it, because she doesn't react. Instead, Oliver nods with a pinched smile. "Done."

Felicity grins, scrunching her nose at him in happy approval before stepping back to Lyla's side. "We'll go work on some more boxes until you get back."

"Okay," he replies, shaking his head a little at how much she has him tied around her finger. He'd go the ends of the earth for her, to save her life or to get her those nasty cheese pretzel things. Either one. "I'll be back in ten minutes. Where will you guys be?"

"El-" She cuts herself off, the smile instantly dropping from her face just as Oliver's heart slams into the floor. For a second, she looks lost as she turns away from him. "I mean the guest room. We'll be in the guest room."

She can't say their daughter's name.

Oliver has to bite his tongue from cursing out loud as the mood in the room shifts. It's no secret to anyone that he's fared a bit better than her, and the fact that they've stopped their nightly conversations - for weeks now - makes him want to throw something. They're busy, yes, but he should have made the time.

"Felicity," he says, taking a step towards her.

She purses her lips, shaking her head, warding him off. He stops, because that's what she's asking him to do, but he doesn't back off. She hides her pain so damned well, even from him, but there are moments where it's close enough to the surface that he can see the cracks in her facade as they splinter and threaten to break apart entirely.

She still buys two of things, sometimes. She thinks he doesn't know, but he does. Two baby blankets, two of those sets of wall decals she'd liked, two extra fluffy identical stuffed animals. She'd bought a beautiful lamp that looks like a fairy kingdom, but she hadn't put it in the nursery. No… it's in the closet of the 'guest room.'

"It's a spare," she'd said quietly before hurrying away.

It's Ellie's. He knows that. He has known it, from the moment he'd seen it, but they don't talk about it. And it's not because of Felicity's hesitance, or for her sake. It's because he likes that she does that. It's stupid and goddamn irrational, but the idea of her planning for Ellie warms a spot in his chest that had carved itself out for Ellie already. He can't let her go anymore than Felicity can, and seeing his girlfriend doing that, knowing she's planning for her - for their second daughter - it makes it more real.

He'd needed those nightly conversations just as badly as she had, albeit for different reasons. But they'd been dropping the ball, and now…

Oliver can't escape the feeling that their lives are missing a vital piece, and that gaping hole won't be filled until Ellie comes back… and that's okay. Because Ellie is missing, but they have to take solace in the knowledge that they'll get her back. And it doesn't mean they can't find happiness in the moments in-between. It doesn't mean that it all needs to be sorrow and loss.

And it isn't.

Moving in together - into this gorgeous home where they'll raise their family together - it makes him happy. Coming home to her, with her, every day is positively joyful. And the new baby? Oh, he could not be more excited about their daughter if he tried, their little Julianna. Their Julie-bug.

He doesn't feel guilty about that, about wanting this little girl so much… but he's pretty sure Felicity does.

"Can you guys give us a minute?" he asks, glancing toward Digg.

The other man gives him a quick nod before grabbing his girlfriend's hand as they leave the room.

Oliver's already heading for Felicity, who gives him a wary look. She shakes her head, saying his name slowly, trying to ward off the conversation they both know will follow before moving to leave, but he stops her.

"Hang on a sec," Oliver says, taking her hands in his. He rubs his thumbs across the delicate skin of her knuckles. He's not sure whose benefit that's for, but it brings them together, makes them feel joined and present, grounded in the now. They both clearly need that.

"Work on Ellie's room," he says, filling in the blanks for her… and saying the name aloud for the first time in weeks.

Felicity makes a mournful noise, biting her lips together between her teeth as her fingers tighten against his. She stares at their hands, and the way she shakes her head - the blatant denial of the entire conversation - cuts him to the bone.

"You can call it that," he whispers, smoothing his thumbs across the backs of her hands. "That's what it is. That's why we bought this house. For all our kids. It's Ellie's room. So put up the wall decals you bought. Buy another crib and rocking chair. Make it hers."

Felicity doesn't respond, and it's almost like she can't. God, it's worse than he'd thought. How naive of him to assume that just because they'd had the conversations at one point, that they'd stick, that they'd be enough. Guilt and sorrow plunge his chest into ice as he tugs on her hands.

"Hey," he says, trying to get her attention. His voice is uneven with tears he didn't even realize were filling his eyes. He blinks them away when she won't look at him. "Hey, I thought we agreed that she didn't want you to have Sad Eyes because she's not here."

That makes her physically cringe, her face crumpling in pain. She takes a ragged breath, one he's pretty sure is meant to be fortifying, but it backfires, turning into a sob.

"Oh, Felicity," Oliver breathes, pulling her close. He wraps her up, as tight as he dares, holding her close, one hand cupping the back of her head as he presses a kiss to her temple.

She keeps hiding this from him, over and over - from him, from everyone. It's only been a few months since Ellie left them, but it might as well have been years for the emotional turmoil it put them through. Especially her. She bears this in silence, suffering the loss of their child in secret because she can't - or won't - share it.

Not even with him.

Oliver closes his eyes. That has to be their number one priority, if they're going to get through this - they can't do this alone, none of it. Which means they need to talk, every night - or at the very least every other night. Both to keep her memory alive, but also to keep the memories from eating away at their insides like acid.

"I miss her," Felicity confesses.

Each word has such weight to it, so much emphasis that they feel like body blows. When she looks up, there are tears dripping from her eyes over her cheeks, a quiet bone-deep sorrow lining her face.

He nods back at her solemnly, certain he's mirroring the same feelings right back at her.

"Me, too," he replies, his voice thin with his own grief.

"But you…" She swallows hard, and he gives her a moment to gather her thoughts. "You're handling it so much better than I am."

"I am not," he counters with a wry laugh that sounds every bit as painful as it is. "I'm trying, Felicity. Just because we haven't been talking about it - about her - like we used to, doesn't mean she hasn't still been there. God, she's always there. I still wake up looking for her pillow castle, and make too many waffles, or I go to tell her something, forgetting she's not here. I miss her, too. So… so very much. But… I don't think pretending she was never here is the way we move forward."

Felicity stares back at him, her lips trembling with the emotion shining in her eyes.

They've come so far together, as individuals, as a couple, but he's met his future self and he knows full well that they aren't the parents Ellie grows up with. Not yet. But they're getting there.

"I think we need to start talking about her again," he tells her. The idea pains her and he pushes even harder. "I think we need to, Felicity. I think… I think that's how we heal and how we become the kind of parents she deserves. And the kind of parents Julianna deserves."

"I don't know how to do this," she admits in a quiet voice. "It's like a part of me is missing and people don't even understand-"

"I do," he interrupts. "I understand."

"You do," she agrees. "I know you do. But to the outside world..."

"Forget them," he advises. "You don't owe the rest of the world a damn thing. How you feel about Ellie - how we feel about Ellie - that's as private as it gets. So if you need to fake a smile and pretend everything is fine when you're at my mom's office or a fundraiser or whatever, that's fine. But not here. Not with me. And definitely not when you're alone. You're allowed to miss her, honey… But if you bottle that up, it's going to tear you apart."

Felicity nods, her hands loosening their grip on his hands. She slides them up his forearms. It's a move of both support and reliance, and he's so grateful that she's making the intentional choice to lean on him, to allow them to lean on each other. They have been to hell and back in so many ways, but in the grand scheme, they've only been at this for a handful of months. The years of damage and trauma in both their lives haven't dissipated in the least, so the fact that she's doing that is huge.

Oliver reciprocates, cupping her elbows.

"I don't know how to do that, though," she whispers, looking up at him like he has more answers than he does. "How do I… stop bottling it up?"

"Maybe… maybe instead of talking about her at night like we used to, you just tell me when you miss her," he replies. "Whenever it comes up. If you remember something funny she did, or if I do, or we think of something sad or… whatever. We just tell each other. And maybe sometimes we just cry together and hold on to each other. And we set up her room," he adds definitively. "Because we both need the reminder that she's coming back to us, even if it's going to take a few years for her to get here."

"What if…" she starts before cutting herself off with a shake of her head and agreeing, "Okay."

Her fingers shake against his arms and he rests his hands on her hips, giving her as much stability as he can right now. And if he's leaning on her a little bit, too, that's okay.

"Oliver?" Felicity's hazel eyes flood with tears as she looks up at him and it breaks his heart. "I really, really miss her," she confesses, her voice raw and her face pleading, begging him to help. "I miss her."

"Me too," Oliver replies, wrapping his arms around her again. "Me too." He presses his lips to her temple for a long moment before resting his forehead against hers. It's the only kind of help he can offer, the reassurance that she's not alone in this, that he's right there with her and that he understands. "I miss her, too, Felicity."

The permission to feel all over again hits her hard, and it's like the floodgates open.

Felicity curls against him, seeking the security and warmth he has to offer her. The overactive little girl taking up residence in her womb right now makes things slightly awkward, but they manage. A very big part of him is grateful to feel this child kick against him. She is not Ellie, but he has no doubt they will love her every bit as much and he's so eager to build their family together that he can scarcely wait for their little girl's arrival.

It takes several minutes, but Felicity's sobs eventually slow.

He's dimly aware that his shirt is soaked. He should probably put on a new one before running up to get her pretzels, which means finding a new one, and the chances of that are slim. Their room hasn't exactly been a top priority. William's coming for a visit next weekend - his first to Starling City - and Oliver's been completely focused on the common areas of their home as his son's eventual bedroom. For if and when Samantha ever lets him stay the night.

Oliver rubs his hand up and down Felicity's back, his fingers tracing her spine.

"You know what I think Ellie's doing right now?" he asks. She freezes against him but doesn't look up, her body tense with anticipation. "Nate's got to be about four months old her time, right? You're probably mushing up carrots for him and she's warning him how awful they are."

Despite herself, Felicity laughs at that. "I have never met anyone who hates carrots as much as Ellie."

He hums in agreement and she pulls back, giving him a small, but grateful smile, knowing what he's doing. Oliver brushes her hair back from her face. "She'll be a great sister," he says. "She'll warn Nate and then he'll probably just throw it all over you and Ellie will apologize because she'll be sure it was her fault."

Felicity's eyes are watery, but she grins at that and he immediately knows this is a new thing they will do. They'll theorize what Ellie's doing in her own time, make up stories about her life, and comfort themselves with the knowledge that she's home, she's safe and she has an amazing future ahead of her.

They've already seen the proof of it, after all.

"I can't wait," she replies.

"It'll be here sooner than you think," he promises. "But for now… pretzels."

"Pretzels," she agrees, stepping back. She wipes at her cheeks, but mostly because they're wet. She doesn't try to hide the evidence of her tears, which feels like progress. "We'll be working on Ellie's room when you get back."

"Good," Oliver says before kissing her softly.

It's foundational, fortifying, a kiss of reassurance and strength that they only find when they're together. They are so lucky to have each other in this. He can't even imagine going through it with anyone else.

"I love you," she says when they part, sliding her hands down either side of his neck. He knows it by now. They say it frequently, but it still does something to him when he hears those words from her lips. And he knows the same is true for her.

"I love you, too," he replies. "And I love Ellie. And…" He squats down to belly level and kisses the swell of her stomach. "I love our little Julie-bug."

Felicity smiles down at him, sifting her fingers through his hair. "I'm still a little partial to Jules-bug."

"Sounds like a car," Oliver says, the same argument he's been using since she brought up the sudden preference. He looks back at her stomach. "Doesn't it, Julie-bug?"

The baby thumps in response, right where his left hand rests bracketing Felicity's stomach. It makes Oliver grin up at his girlfriend, because Jules clearly agrees.

Felicity rolls her eyes "Maybe she's trying to hit you for calling her Julie-bug. That might not be a happy kick, mister. You never know."

Oliver grins, kissing her stomach right where the little bump had come from before standing up. "At this point I think they're all just 'It's confined in here and I want more room to move' kicks."

"She thinks there's no room?" Felicity scoffs. "She should try being my bladder sometime. Talk about confined."

He chuckles and kisses her again, just as softly as before but he doesn't let himself linger. Not this time.

"Cheese filled pretzels and strawberry ice cream?" he asks again. It's a testament to how routine this has gotten that he doesn't pull a face at the combination anymore.

"And ketchup and horseradish sauce," Felicity agrees. "For Lyla, not me. That's just gross."

He's definitely letting that one slide right by. Not taking that bait.

"Okay," Oliver agrees, grabbing his keys off the counter where they sit next to the world's ugliest vase. "I'll be back in ten minutes."

"Oliver?" she asks as he turns to go. He pauses and looks back. "Thank you."

Her voice is heavier with meaning than could possibly apply to a midday run for pretzels.

"You never have to thank me, Felicity," he tells her. "Not for any of this."

"I know," she agrees, a small smile spreading out across her lips again. "That's why I want to."

He doesn't answer in words, allowing his eyes to do that for him.

She's always read him clearly and he knows she sees his appreciation. He watches her a long beat before turning and leaving. He passes Diggle and Lyla in the living room with a nod as he heads out the front door in search of the sustenance Felicity needs as they put the basics of their new home together in place.

Chapter Text

January 2023

 

When the words start to blur together, Felicity's shoulders fall with a groan. She leans back, making her old leather chair creak as she shoves her fingers under her glasses to rub her eyes until she sees stars.

She's tired. Like the-batteries-cannot-be-recharged kind of tired. Like coffee-cannot-save-you kind of tired.

Exhaustion is nothing new to her.

It's practically been a bosom buddy her entire life, whether it was when it was more self-inflicted in school, or when she started working with Oliver all those years ago and learned what it was like to have two full-time jobs, or when Jules was born and she discovered what it was like to have a newborn and a vigilante and postpartum depression in the house with her. That had been a learning curve. Add another lively little girl into the mix, that'd been another learning curve. And then add into all of that running a Fortune 500 company and still helping guide her husband through the city streets?

She knows exhaustion. Scratch that - she thought she knew exhaustion.

Nate's changed things.

Infants are a handful, but it's not just that. It's Nate himself. Her little boy clings to her in a way that she had not anticipated at all. He cries when she puts him down, sobs when she leaves the room, wails when he wakes up alone. She'd chalked it up to some infancy quirk, comforting herself by insisting it was a short term phase, except summer gave way to fall, and now winter has arrived and he's only become more desperate for her attention.

Oliver says it's sweet. He has a million and one photos of her passed out in a rocking chair with Nate happily curled up against her shoulder as he sucks his thumb. Most of the time she agrees, and maybe if it was just him, she'd wholeheartedly agree. But they also have their two growing daughters in the mix. Jules still needs help with her homework, whether she likes to admit to it or not, and Ellie still wants to help read her own bedtime stories. On top of that, there's still their nighttime activities. The not fun kind.

If she had to choose a word, overwhelming would be it. Most days it's fine, but some days… some days it's not.

Like today.

Moira and Walter reconnected, which was both really, really unexpected and wonderful. But it also meant that Moira wasn't as readily available to help with the workload at QI or be the part-time babysitter Felicity and Oliver had come to desperately rely on. That would have been fine, except the state legislature had been called into session, which meant Oliver - a freshman representative with very little clout thus far - wasn't around as much either. Now, with Nate on the verge of crawling, Ellie uncharacteristically crabby because her dad is gone more than usual and Jules testing her limits at every opportunity, Felicity has suddenly been thrust back into the corporate world full-time while juggling all three kids on her own for the bulk of the day.

Thank god Queen Incorporated has an onsite daycare. It's the only thing keeping her sanity in check because at least the kids are here, at work, safe and sound where she can get stuff done.

Felicity glances at the time and winces. She really wants to finish this report, but it's getting late, too late to get much more done today. Jules should be making her way over from her dance class, which means Felicity will be getting a call any minute now. The daycare is open late at QI, but Felicity gave herself a hard boundary that when Jules got done with her day, so was Felicity.

It has to be that way. Jules needs that and so does she. After work and dance classes and daycare is the only time she really gets to spend time with the kids most days, even if it's spent rushing home, thanking Raisa a million times over for cooking them dinner before she helps Felicity to herd the kids all into baths and off to bed. Usually Oliver's there to help, but these days he's getting home later and later, right around the time he suits up and hits the streets. She barely has time for a nap between the kids going to sleep and Oliver needing her on the comms, much less more work.

No call yet, though, which means she can at least get through the next section. Felicity sighs before taking a gulp of her now-cold coffee - it's fortifying, even if the acrid taste makes her cringe - and gets back to work.

When her phone finally rings, she's finished both the section she wanted to and even more on top of that.

"Yes," Felicity breathes, doing a half-hearted fist pump into the air before picking up her phone. "Hello?"

"Mrs. Queen?" the voice greets. As if it would be anyone else answering the private line.

"Hi, Miss Susan," Felicity greets with a sigh. She winces at that. This woman is her employee, but Jules and Ellie have both called her 'Miss Susan' virtually their whole lives and as juvenile as it makes Felicity feel, it's not a habit she can break. "I'll be right down."

"Mrs. Queen…" Susan starts.

Felicity sits up, something in the woman's tone setting off every maternal sense of worry she has. The hairs on the back of her neck stand up as a wash of cold fear slithers down her spine. "What's wrong?" she asks, the words coming out in sharp bursts.

"Ma'am, is Julianna with you?"

Everything inside her freezes with an abject terror that makes her bones feel like they're made of ice. And just as quickly, the reality of what Susan is saying hits her. Felicity stands up so fast she knocks her old creaky chair over. "Are you telling me she's not there?" she asks, her mind already racing ahead of her, already thinking about everything that could mean.

Oh god.

"We expected her after dance class as usual, but she didn't show up," Susan replies. "I called her studio already and they said she left on time. Her teacher watched her cross the street. I was hoping she'd just gone up to your office."

The only thing that comes close to the sense of primal fear and panic that swamps Felicity is all the danger they'd faced all those years ago with the first Ellie. But that was different. Because at least then she knew the danger. This is worse, because uncertainty - thousands of unknown elements - all send her imagination into a horrible tailspin.

Jules' class is so close, but the dangers between here and there suddenly seem infinite.

"Lock down the building," Felicity orders. "I want security searching for her now. I'll be on my cell."

She hangs up without waiting for a response and barely takes the time to grab her cellphone before she's sprinting from the room.

As she bursts into the outer rooms, her assistant looks up with a startled gasp, but Felicity breezes right past her with a sharp, "Don't leave your desk." She heads to the elevator with single-minded purpose. "And call me immediately if my daughter shows up."

The owlish woman nods, unaccustomed to this tone from her boss - at least outside the boardroom - but she also knows enough not to ask questions. Felicity wouldn't have stopped if she had.

Mercifully, the elevator is already on her floor and it's empty. Felicity hits the button for the ground floor and punches the 'close door' button with more vigor than is necessary. Not that she cares. It makes her feel better when the doors finally do close and the cab descends.

A million scenarios run through her mind.

Jules had left dance class fifteen minutes ago now, assuming she'd left on time, and it's all of a two minute walk at most. Her studio is literally across the street. Hell, Felicity can see it from her office. Jules is two weeks away from her eighth birthday and it's just crossing the street. Her dance teacher even supervises her until she's safely to the other sidewalk, just a building away from QI. But now Felicity has every horrible thing she's ever seen on the news, every miserable crime they've seen in their night jobs, racing through her head like a merry-go-round running at a breakneck pace.

What if something happened? What if someone took her, or someone hurt her, or…

Oh, god, she can't breathe.

Felicity's throat suddenly feels like it's lined with wet cement and she can actually hear the rush of blood in her veins as it pounds in her ears.

This is her daughter, her baby, and all Felicity can think is that no one has seen her in fifteen minutes and their family has no shortage of enemies.

She needs Oliver. Why the hell do they have to be in session right now? Why isn't the stupid capital actually Starling City? He's more than an hour away and the longer she thinks about that fact, the more the weight of the world presses down on her. She needs her husband because their daughter is missing and he's not here, either.

"Damn it," Felicity whispers, her voice cracking. She wipes her face and then brushes shaking hands down her front.

Maybe Jules is downstairs, or maybe she's just walking in, or…

The elevator stops way too soon, and Felicity glances up to find it's only on the ninth floor. When the doors slide open and three people from accounting try to join her, Felicity gives them a look that freezes them in their tracks.

"Sorry. Emergency," she tells them, hitting the close door button again. "You'll have to take the next one."

As if on cue, she hears the building-wide P.A. system in the background advising everyone to be on the lookout for a not-quite-eight-year-old with dark hair.

How is this happening? This is Queen Incorporated. This is her building. It's safe, it has been for nearly a decade. It's practically a second home.

She can't even remember what Jules wore today. Was it the blue and green striped leotard? No, that was Tuesday. Was it the sparkly purple one with the gray sweatpants? She'd have her coat, too, that gray one with the trim that Thea had sent from Paris. It's cold outside, she'd be wearing her coat.

Her head seems to be sacrificing brain power in favor of heightening her senses. She feels every damned vibration of the elevator. She hears the machinery whir as it continues downward. The enclosed space is too bright and too hot. It's stifling, the air stale and insufficient.

She can't breathe.

Why isn't she calling Oliver?

Cell reception is horrible in the elevators, always has been, and she curses lowly when she dials Oliver's number only to find his phone is off. She disconnects and punches in the number for his office, grateful the instant the call connects, even if it's choppy and filled with static.

"-titive Qu… ffice. How can… lp you?"

"Jack? Jack, is he in?" she snaps, the questions coming out in quick succession.

"Mrs. Queen?" the man asks, the signal improving.

"Yes. My husband. Is he in?" she asks again.

"No, ma'am, I'm sorry," Jack replies. "He had a meeting with the head of the education committee this evening. He should be back in-"

"I need him now," Felicity cuts the assistant off. "It's an emergency, Jack. Not like a giant fake earthquake emergency, but it's definitely on that level. I need you to get him, have him call me right away. Got it, Jack? Quick as a flash. Quick as the Flash. Maybe I should call him, too… Anyhow. I'm hanging up. Go. Get my husband. Got it?"

Jack barely gets a chance to agree before she disconnects the call. Frustration burns inside her and she rubs at her eyes as a balloon fills her chest to the point of bursting. She wants to scream and kick and cry and throw something, but she can't. Because she's in an elevator and because she's almost to the bottom.

Jules.

Her baby is missing, and she can't…

Felicity allows herself the smallest moment of overwhelming panic - tears burn her eyes, a soft broken sigh of her daughter's name slipping past her lips - before pulling it together and forcing a steadying breath.

Not now, she can't lose it now. Julianna needs her. She can fall apart later if she needs to. Right now, her baby needs her.

The elevator dings when it reaches the ground floor and Felicity doesn't wait for the doors to fully open before she's darting out of them. She swiftly makes her way to the security desk. She's a woman on a mission, an imposing figure by virtue of sheer force of will and her status as CEO and a Queen, if not by stature. Looking back later, she'll feel slightly bad for the kid working security. He hadn't borne the blame for any of this, but she'd nearly bitten his head off anyhow.

"Have you seen her?" Felicity asks, voice every bit as sharp as the clack of her heels against the marble floor.

She's met with a deer-in-the-headlights look from a barely-post-adolescent guard in an ill-fitting security uniform, who looks around like he's searching for whoever she's talking to. God, how young is QI hiring these days?

"Yes, you," she clarifies, waving her hand toward him and dipping her head slightly to read his nametag. "Jimmy."

"Mrs. Queen!" he stutters out, but she's already talking over him.

"My daughter. She's almost eight years old, long dark hair, enough dry sarcasm in her little body to give the Sahara a run for its money, probably rolling her eyes and wearing a sparkly purple leotard with ridiculously expensive, gray designer coat. Have you seen her?"

"No… No, ma'am, Mrs. Queen, ma'am," Jimmy replies. "My supervisor, ma'am, he's directing the others. I just have desk duty… I could call him if you want?"

The last thing she needs to be doing is pulling the security team away from actually looking for her daughter so that she can ask them why they haven't found her yet. She has enough presence of mind to know that. Still, she can't help but question what they're doing, how they're searching for her, what avenues they've gone down… in the approximately three minutes since she had them notified there was a problem. Alright, so it hasn't actually been that long, but a decade plus of experience tells her precisely how quickly these situations can go downhill and this is her daughter, so she's not exactly rational.

"That is the furthest thing from what I want right now, Jimmy. I need details. From you," she tells him. The muscles of his throat visibly tighten as the man-child gulps heavily. "What is their plan? Where have they looked? Have they even run facial recog…"

Her voice trails off as a light dawns in her head. God, of course.

"Ma'am, I just-"

"Hold that thought, Jimmy," Felicity says, stepping away and pulling out her cell phone again, punching yet another familiar number and holding her breath as she waits for it to connect.

"Hi, Felicity," the voice on the other end of the line greets.

"Lyla? Oh thank goodness," Felicity breathes out, tension bleeding out of her on the exhale. "Where are you right now? Are you at… you know, the place?"

"We're at the lair, yeah," Lyla confirms. "Johnny wanted to go over some self defense moves with Sara. And, I had that Triad money trail to follow. We needed the lair's network security. What's going on?"

"Julianna's missing," Felicity says without preamble.

"What?" Lyla asks. Felicity can hear the chair she's in push back, squeaking against the metal floor as the other woman stands. "How long? Where?"

"She left dance class twenty minutes ago and she never showed up at QI. I need you to-"

"Already on it. Give me just a moment," Lyla tells her, the telltale sound of computer keys being punched serving as a reassuring background noise. The sound is muffled all of a sudden, like Lyla's covering the mouthpiece of her phone with her hand, but even with that Felicity can hear the indistinct voices of the Diggles in the background before everything clears up and Lyla's voice rings out clearly again. "I've got a hit."

Lyla doesn't sound panicked, which is a good sign, but then she isn't exactly prone to hysteria, even in moments where it would be fully understandable, so Felicity's not sure that tells her much.

"And?" she demands.

"I've got her on video leaving dance right on time," Lyla agrees. "And she crossed the street, but there's a blind spot on the cameras along the alley of the building next to QI. She disappeared in that pocket seventeen minutes ago."

Felicity's already pushing her way out the lobby doors and into the street as she snaps roughly, "Why the hell is there a goddamned blind spot?" Even though that's clearly a question for another time, it makes her feel better to focus her fear on something else as her voice echoes over the busy street.

"John is five minutes out," Lyla says, ignoring the question. "I think you should wait for him."

"What?" Felicity actually trips over her own feet as she grinds to a sudden halt, her body pitching forward before she manages to right herself and stop her momentum. The implications of Lyla's request are tremendous and it sends a surge of maternal terror through her that is both nauseating and blinding. "Are you… Do you think… Was there anyone else that disappeared in that blind spot, Lyla?" she demands. "Are you telling me that…"

"No," Lyla interrupts, which is good because Felicity can't finish a thought, much less a sentence. "No, but… Felicity… if this goes poorly I want Johnny there with you. Just in case."

Goes poorly...

Her knees buckle a bit, the weight of her worst fears spoken aloud pressing down on her like a physical force. The area around QI is a lot safer these days. They've made sure of it. But this is still Starling City and they are still rich, high-profile public figures… and Jules is still a seven year old girl. One with better self-defense training that most, but she's still a child and when Felicity thinks about all the dangers that lurk in the shadowy parts of this city, she wants to cocoon all three of her kids between herself and Oliver and never let them go.

She's already moving before she can tell her feet to, propelling herself toward the building next door. "Would you wait if it was Sara?" Felicity asks, breathless from exertion and terror.

"No," Lyla says with a sigh. "I wouldn't. Stay on the phone with me, okay? Don't hang up."

"Okay," Felicity agrees.

The line stays open, but there's no talking after that. The minute-long walk feels like it takes years and Felicity's annoyed at everything - the cars in the street, the passers-by she brushes past, all of it. They're intrusive and annoying and can't they see that her entire world is upside down right now? She earns a few odd looks, probably because she's manic with fear and it's also January and she completely forgot her coat upstairs. She doesn't even feel the cold. Her concerns are considerably more primal than that at the moment.

When she rounds the corner to the alley, phone clutched tightly in her white-knuckled grip, she holds her breath. In the moment it takes her eyes to adjust to the darkened passage, she's pretty sure her heart doesn't beat at all… until she finally registers what's in front of her, and then it goes triple time.

"Julianna Megan Queen!" Felicity snaps in her loudest, most authoritative voice.

Next to an overflowing dumpster, a little girl jumps to stand, whirling with wide eyes and a ramrod straight back. Felicity goes from blindingly terrified to utterly livid in a snap. She's fine. Julianna's fine. Or, she is for the moment. The seven year old might not think so after she's grounded for the next twenty years, give or take a decade.

"She's alright?" Lyla asks softly.

"Completely," Felicity agrees, her voice heated. "That is until I'm done with her, anyhow. Thank you, Lyla."

Lyla hums in agreement before the line disconnects, leaving Felicity's focus wholly on her completely busted second grader.

"What the hell are you doing?" she demands.

"Nothing," Jules replies, immediately defensive as she wraps her oversized coat around her little body. "I just stopped for a second. That's all."

Felicity is so very mad that she doesn't stop to wonder why her daughter stopped to hang out next to a stinky dumpster for twenty minutes. That's not even a question that crosses her mind because right now she has adrenaline flooding her veins and no outlet whatsoever.

"Do you have any idea how worried I was?" Felicity demands, her vision blurry and her hands shaking with terror that has yet to dissipate. "I thought something happened to you."

"God, Mom, way to overreact," Jules says, rolling her eyes.

"Over… overreact?" Felicity sputters.

"I'm fine," Jules interrupts, hugging her jacket around her even tighter. Despite her insistence, her discomfort is obvious, though, and even through the red coloring Felicity's gaze, she sees guilt playing across her daughter's face, even if she won't voice it. "Nothing happened."

"God, Julianna…" Felicity shakes her head in disbelief, her hands setting on her own hips as she gears up for a long talking to. "You do remember that both your father and I have been kidnapped before, right? You know what kind of lives we lead. You know how much danger there is in this city. You are way more educated about that than most kids because of what we do, and yet here you are, slinking around in an alley in the dark. You're a smart girl, Jules, act like it!"

"I wasn't breaking in somewhere to fight bad guys," Jules argues, her blue eyes blazing in defiance. "I was just walking across the street. I'm fine. It's not like it was dangerous. I just stopped for a minute."

Felicity can't believe her ears, but really she should because this is her daughter, her bullheaded, independent daughter who seems dead-set on putting her mother in a state of perpetual worry.

"Twenty minutes, Jules," Felicity tells her. "Twenty minutes you stopped for and what were you doing in a…"

A little yip cuts her off. It echoes off the dank brick walls of the buildings lining the alley and Jules instantly responds to it, clearing her throat as she shuffles awkwardly, adjusting her coat.

Felicity stares at her. "What was that?"

"Nothing," Jules tells her quickly. "It's nothing. Whatever. I'm sorry, okay? Let's just go."

"Julianna…" Felicity says, eyeing her daughter sharply.

"It's nothing," Jules reiterates stubbornly, jutting her chin out in defiance.

God, if she's this hardheaded and troublesome as an elementary schooler, Felicity can't even begin to imagine the challenge she'll be in high school. It's a daunting notion and one that's already on its way to giving her a frakking ulcer.

But all thoughts about her daughter's someday teenager-dom and the hell Felicity is about to bring down on her daughter now are put on hold when a tiny fuzzy head pops up from the collar of Jules' coat.

Felicity's jaw drops, her eyes widening as a tiny puppy licks the underside of her daughter's chin.

"Shoot," Jules grumbles, biting back a smile as she chews her lip and hushes the puppy, wrapping it deeper in her coat.

"A dog?" Felicity asks incredulously. "You stopped for a dog? I nearly had a heart attack over a dog?"

"He needed help!" Jules insists, wrapping both arms around the furry little thing. Its tail sticks out from between the buttons of her coat as it yips again, wagging a mile a minute as the puppy licks Jules' neck, making her giggle and shake her head at the mongrel.

Felicity can only watch in amazement as the dog tries to climb its way up Jules' leotard to lick her face, making her daughter laugh.

She laughs.

Jules laughs.

Her stubborn, sassy little girl who is more likely to argue the color of the sky with her than smile at her is laughing. It's a sound that's so rarely volunteered in the Queen house that she's honestly stunned right now. Jules laughs at things, but it's more of a dry chuckle, a grunt sometimes, a derisive snort. Never this. Never a full-bodied giggle that absolutely transforms her daughter right before her eyes.

It's so wonderful that Felicity wants to start laughing along with her.

She can't decide if she's grateful to this stupid dog or if she resents the hell out of it for so easily earning this reaction.

Probably both.

"His paw was stuck," Jules explains, scratching the puppy between its ears. "He's just a baby and he was hungry. He tried to get in the dumpster but his leg got wrapped up in a torn trash bag and he couldn't get free." She glances up at her mother. "He needed me. And that's what we do, right? We help people who need it."

And just like that, the frustration is mounting again. In part because she's right, but she's also wrong. It's so much easier when her points are fully indefensible. Felicity has to bite her tongue to keep from snapping at her again. That's not what she needs to hear.

"Twenty minutes, Jules," Felicity points out. She tries to keep her voice down, but her frustration is too close to the surface and Jules' face twists with consternation as Felicity continues. "Twenty minutes where I didn't know where you were. How long did it take to free his foot? You could have told QI security or the daycare or me. He's a dog, not a person, he could have waited a minute for help."

"Dogs are people, too!" Jules shouts back, red-faced and gearing up for a fight. "And he needed me. He needs me!"

It's pretty obvious where this is going and the last thing - the actual last thing - that Felicity needs right now is a puppy in her house. She has a seven month old and a rambunctious four year old and a not-quite-eight-but-emotionally-going-on-sixteen year old. Her husband is both a state representative and a vigilante. She's a CEO and a vital part of the family crime fighting team by night and she does not have any desire at all to housetrain a dog. At all.

"Jules," Felicity sighs heavily, giving the girl a warning look.

"He's mine," Jules announces, her face firm with so much resolve that Felicity curses her own genetics. The look reminds her of the time she'd sworn she was going to space camp if she had to hitchhike her way there, something that'd resulted in a long battle with her own mother. Why did Jules get all of her very worst traits? "He's mine and he needs me and I need to keep him."

"Julianna." Felicity shakes her head. "Honey, we can't-"

"He's the only thing I want for my birthday," Jules blurts out.

Felicity's heart falls, because her daughter hasn't asked for anything at all. She usually doesn't, something that keeps Felicity up at night. But now she is. The ball of fur in Jules' arms licks her nose affectionately and the girl smiles again, a quiet nervous smile that doesn't suit her at all. Jules is all bravado and brash declarations when she chooses to express things. It's so very rare to see her show an ounce of vulnerability - yet another terrific quality she's inherited from her mother - but she is now. With her. Felicity's heart falls even further thinking back to what Oliver had told her about their conversation at the zoo.

Tears well in the little girl's eyes and she blinks hard to keep them from falling, but Felicity sees it anyhow.

"He needs me, Mom," she says.

'I need him' is what she doesn't say, but Felicity hears it anyhow.

She hears it and she wonders if it isn't true.

Felicity loves all of her children. She has from the instant she knew any of them existed. But she's never had an easy relationship with her oldest. Some of that is her fault, she thinks, and it's a guilty weight she carries with her every day.

It'd been so hard to bond with her baby when she'd still been mourning the loss of Ellie, the first Ellie. It'd taken her a long time to admit even to herself, much less to Oliver, that some part of her had been convinced maybe the baby would be Ellie, born a bit earlier than the other timeline. Felicity loves Julianna so completely for who she is, frustrating though that may sometimes be, because in many ways she truly is her mother's daughter. But in those early days, there'd been a quiet part of her that had felt like it was Ellie who should have been in her arms instead, because that's who she'd secretly thought she'd been pregnant with all along. She hadn't wanted to think that way, but the thought had been there regardless, feeding the postpartum depression she'd suffered through immeasurably.

It's better now. She's better now, well past the postpartum depression, less focused on her own guilt and regrets and more focused on Jules. Still, Felicity knows it can't be easy being the older sister of a little girl your parents knew was one day going to be born and missed desperately. Jules had certainly implied as much to her father on a zoo trip last year. It's improved, Felicity thinks, since Jules opened up to him a bit. They've made a little progress anyhow. Both her and Oliver do everything they can think of to draw Jules out more, to help her feel valued, but Jules is the type to take slights to heart and bear them silently, because acknowledging them means admitting they affect her and that is not a thing she will do.

They may have made some progress but they have such a long way to go.

Still, it's been a struggle, her and Jules. It has for Oliver and their oldest, too, but not to the same extent. Maybe that's because Oliver had coped with the loss of their first Ellie better than she had or maybe it's because he relates less to Jules' more frustrating character traits than she does. She's not sure. But any way you look at it, creating a meaningful bond with their older daughter has been a constant struggle and she knows she bears a lot of the responsibility for that.

"Please?" Jules asks, an uncharacteristic display of anxious vulnerability coloring the word. The naked plea on her daughter's face tells her this is a rare moment where she seems her actual age instead of pushing herself to seem older. It's baldly honest and it cuts Felicity right open. "Please, Momma. I'll take care of him myself. And I'll change Nate's diapers for a week, even the horrible ones. And I swear I'll walk straight to QI after dance from now on. No stops at all. Not for anything. Please? He's a good dog, I swear. He won't be any trouble."

Felicity sighs, her heart dropping. There's no good way out of this. Her daughter absolutely does not deserve to be rewarded for being irresponsible and scaring the hell out of her. And yet… and yet this is Jules showing that she cares about something, about anything other than her older brother, painting and dance. She's letting herself be vulnerable and hopeful. And, damn it, it's a refreshing change of pace and something that gives her hope, too.

The dog, a thorough mutt with obvious German Shepard influences and paws that are way too big for its mangy little frame, stares up at Jules like she hung the moon and it strikes Felicity that maybe she really does need this. They're so very busy, her and Oliver, and while they will always, always make time for their kids, there are three of them. Nate needs a tremendous amount of attention and Ellie is like actual sunshine, effervescent and outgoing, drawing everyone in effortlessly. By necessity and human nature, Jules gets less attention than Felicity would like. She's private and prickly, more likely to lock herself away in her room than interact with them voluntarily.

She doesn't talk to them. Not about her problems or her day at school or how dance is going, though they try day after day in so many different ways to get her to share just a sliver of herself with them. It's better than it was a year ago, but they still rarely get more than a shrug and a 'fine' from her. Maybe she needs someone to talk to, someone to listen, and Felicity's suddenly absolutely certain that her daughter would easily open up to this dog, even if she won't talk to them.

It is, if nothing else, a step.

"I'll have to talk to your father," she decides aloud, hedging her answer. But Jules doesn't hear that. All she hears is that it's not a 'no' and that's more than enough to make the girl the most excited Felicity can ever remember seeing her.

"Really?" Jules asks, her eyes widening. Her whole body buzzes with enthusiasm. "Really, really?"

The dog picks up on her elation easily, soaking it up like a sponge, and it licks Jules on the face again to show it's right there with her. Felicity grimaces. The animal is obviously a stray and it was just eating garbage and now it's licking her daughter's face, but Jules just laughs and it brightens up her little features in a way that is so… new. And good.

Yeah, she decides right then and there that they're keeping this dog. Oliver will have to deal with it. She wants to see this kind of joy on her daughter's face again and she's not willing to rob herself or Jules of that opportunity because of the risk of a few fleas.

"Don't think we're done talking about this, though," Felicity says, waving at the alleyway. "You can't just disappear on me, Jules."

"I know," Jules replies with a nod, the words coming out so effortlessly as all her attention focuses on the dog. "I'm sorry, Mom."

She means it. She genuinely means it and it's all because this tiny little mutt isn't leaving Jules with the energy or desire to keep her walls up. Felicity almost says to hell with any punishment. Almost. Jules did just about give her a heart attack.

"Thank you," Felicity says quietly. Jules only has eyes for the dog, and her eyes are lit up with a delight she's never worn on her face before. Felicity steps closer, scratching the puppy behind the ears. "Well… we can't leave him here, can we? And he definitely needs to see a vet and get a good meal in him."

"Oh, he ate," Jules tells her, kissing the puppy on its forehead.

Felicity blinks at her. "Garbage?"

"No," Jules says, hugging the puppy tightly. "I had a tuna sandwich. We split it. Didn't we, boy?"

No wonder the puppy adores her.

"He is kinda cute," Felicity acknowledges. It earns a huge smile from Jules. A smile at her. Felicity thinks she might cry from how beautiful it is. She hadn't realized quite how much she needed to see that.

"Right?" Jules asks her. "And he's super good. Like, really, really good. You should have seen how gentle he was taking the sandwich from me. He'll be great with Ellie and Nate, even if he is my dog. He'll be sweet to them, too. You'll see."

"Good," Felicity nods before looking at the dog again. It cocks its head to one side and half raises one ear like it's listening to her and damn it, but this thing really is ridiculously cute. "But no digging in the trash at home, buster, you got me?"

"Buster!" Jules says delightedly. "He won't. You're a good boy, aren't you, Buster?"

And just like that Felicity knows not only do they have a new puppy, but she inadvertently named it, too. It's almost ridiculous how much this means to her, that this little puppy has opened a door between her and her daughter, one that might never have been there without it.

"Can I have a hug, Julie?" Felicity ventures. It kills her a little when the little girl hesitates slightly. "I get why you stopped, even though you really shouldn't have and absolutely will not again, but I was really, really scared. I love you so very much and I had all these thoughts… I just could really use a hug."

It takes her a second, but the girl finally shrugs one shoulder and closes the distance between them, letting her mother's arms wrap around her and the puppy both. There's a tension that hangs on to Jules' frame, like she's afraid to want this, to accept it, but it melts away a little after a moment and Felicity could sob for how the girl burrows against her more affectionately.

The puppy - Buster - yips between them, its tail thumping against Felicity's ribs and its tongue licking at her arm.

It's definitely cute. But it's got nothing on Jules.

"Thanks, Mom," she mutters into her mother's shirt. "Love you."

Felicity shuts her eyes to trap in a swell of emotion that has tears welling up. This is not a cure-all. It is not a quick fix to their perpetually strained relationship. But it is a start, a bigger step than they've managed to take in nearly a year, and that's more than Felicity could have hoped for.

"I love you, too, Jules," she replies, kissing the top of her daughter's head. "More than you know."

Jules pulls back at that with a roll of her eyes. But she's still smiling and that's a huge win in Felicity's book.

"Let's go get your sister and brother and head home," Felicity suggests.

"Hear that, Buster? We're going home. To your home," Jules tells the puppy, pressing her forehead to the dog's. It licks her face excitedly, long wet tongue lapping at her pink cheeks.

Jules actually giggles with happiness.

It's breathtaking and Felicity can't wait for Oliver to see it.

She wraps her arm around her daughter. Jules doesn't shrug it off for once or step away and Felicity holds her a little closer, as much as she dares.

The two of them start the short walk back toward QI when her phone rings.

Felicity pulls it from her pocket and glances at the display. A picture of Oliver and all three kids from when Nate had been born greets her. Felicity bites her lip before answering. While Oliver might be fully accepting of this dog once he sees how much Jules loves it, she's sure his initial reaction will probably be a lot like hers had been.

"What's wrong?" he asks in place of a greeting.

"It's okay now," Felicity replies, remembering just how frantic she must have seemed to Jack when she'd called his office before. "Jules didn't show up at the daycare and we had a bit of a panicky situation for a while, but I found her and she's fine."

The extremely long sigh he lets out is both relief and frustration rolled into one. "Damn it, Jules."

Felicity gets it. She won't tell him this, but his hair is substantially more salt and pepper than the other timeline's version of him had been at this age. She's absolutely certain that's entirely thanks to Julianna.

"She's fine," Felicity points out again. "And she won't do it again. We had a talk. We're good."

"You talked or there was yelling and she stomped off in a huff?" Oliver asks knowingly.

"Talked," Felicity clarifies, casting a glance at her daughter as the girl chuckles gleefully again, the puppy trying to lick her lips. The dog is tenacious and when Jules angles her head away, the puppy follows, making her laugh even louder.

"Is that…" Oliver pauses, going damn near silent to hear more of the sound. "Is that Jules laughing?"

"Yeah," Felicity agrees, grinning hugely. She stares at their daughter. "You should see it. It's beautiful."

He pauses, like he's not sure what to do with this idea, and she can't blame him because she isn't sure she could have envisioned this kind of joy on her daughter's face this morning either.

"I already left my meeting early," he tells her. "I'm headed home. I'll be there in about an hour."

"Good," Felicity replies. "We'll wait for you to have dinner, then. But, uh… Oliver…"

"Yeah?" he asks.

"I should inform you before you get home that we have a new member of the family," she says. When the other end goes absolutely silent again, she finishes in a rush, "But the good news is I'm not pregnant."

Oliver makes a choking noise and she cannot blame him in the least because wow that is not a thing they could handle right now. At all. Or probably ever again.

"If your goal is to scare the hell out of me today, honey, you're doing a damned good job of it."

"It's not, but if you could swing by the store and pick up some puppy food on the way home…"

"A puppy?" he asks, sounding exactly as thrilled as she'd known he would be. "Felicity…"

As if on cue, Jules laughs again, loud and happy and completely focused on the little dog staring up at her adoringly.

"Yeah, Oliver," Felicity tells him, watching her little girl. "A puppy. Trust me, it's worth it."

And it is. Looking at her daughter, she knows that with absolute certainty.

Chapter Text

November 2031

 

"Get up, get up, get up, you lazy butt!"

Ellie groans, but her own voice singing only gets louder and louder. She shoves her head under her pillow, her hand reaching for her evil phone, moaning, "No, no, no," as she slaps blindly at her nightstand. The best thing about the holidays isn't that she doesn't have to go to school. No, it's that she gets to sleep in, rather than haul butt to make sure she gets to homeroom on time. Well, she would get to if she hadn't forgotten to turn her alarm off, anyhow.

"Get up, get up, get up, you lazy butt!"

Her fingers graze the phone, but she doesn't turn it off. No, she does something much more satisfying. She picks it up and chucks it across the room. As if that ever helps anything. Her recorded singing doesn't abate in the least as it lands in her laundry basket, just like it does every morning. Ellie growls, "Dummy," into her mattress. You'd think she'd learn, but she can't get past her gut reaction to just throw the stupid thing instead of turning it off like a normal person. It just feels so good to hurl the phone across the room.

"Get up, get up, get up, you lazy butt!"

With a final groan, Ellie wraps herself up in her comforter and rolls off the bed. She shuffles blindly to her laundry basket like a giant fluffy burrito, tossing clothes out until she finds her phone. When she does, she turns it off, drops it back into her laundry and collapses onto her blissfully warm bed. It welcomes her home with open arms and when she's settled again, she lets out a deeply content sigh. She's not moving, not for anything. Okay, that's not entirely true. She's definitely going to get up for Thanksgiving dinner, but until then she's staying right here. She's going to nap and maybe read a book and check her social media… A picture is needed, she decides, a picture of her as a giant fluffy Thanksgiving burrito. She snorts to herself, imagining going through the hashtags for something like that.

But that's it.

She's. Not. Moving.

Ellie snuggles deeper into her comforter cocoon, sighing again, smiling to herself in pure bliss. Oh yeah, this is the stuff right here. It takes a few minutes before the pull of sleep starts to tug her back under. She gives herself over to it completely, ready to nap until it's turkey time…

But life just isn't on her side today.

"Ellie!"

Nate's voice echoes from somewhere outside her closed door. It sounds like he's down the hall, maybe even downstairs. Basically he's somewhere really far away, which might require her to get up and move and how about no.

"Ellie!"

"No," she groans, burying her head further in her covers. She loves her little brother, she really does, but she'd so much rather he be anywhere else other than trying to invade her precious holiday sanctuary. "Go away," she mumbles. He can't hear her, but she doesn't care. It feels good to say. "Far, far, far away."

"Jules!" Nate shouts, his voice closer and way louder. Like he's coming toward their rooms. As that realization processes in Ellie's sleep-addled brain, she catches the sound of his feet thumping up the stairs.

"Crap," Ellie whispers.

She's got maybe a minute before he's at her door, knocking and calling her name over and over until she opens up. Well, that isn't happening, she decides. Not today. This morning is for rest because holiday and her little brother isn't about to take that from her. Nope, not gonna happen. Keeping her blanket wrapped tight around her, Ellie rolls out of bed again and ambles blearily toward her bedroom door. If he thinks he's going to tear her from her wonderfully comfortable morning, he's got another thing coming. And if he thinks she's leaving her warm room and her even warmer burrito blanket? Ha! He's gonna have to pry the comforter from her cold, dead hands.

Nate barely gets half a knock out on her door when she yanks it open, and in the place of a greeting, she glowers at him. A good morning hasn't been earned and it's so not time for a cheerful 'Happy Thanksgiving.'

He misses it, though, only having eyes for her hair, as a look of comical surprise that might have been cute any other day colors his face.

"You're…" He points up. "What happened to your hair?"

Ellie wants to say, "You did," but she bites it back. She doesn't need to look in a mirror. She knows exactly what her bedhead looks like - thank you very much - and she really doesn't care that her curls are matted to the side of her face because it's Thanksgiving and she has nowhere she needs to be.

"It's a holiday, Nate," she reminds him, her voice a groggy mess. See? She needs to go back to bed. "You know those things without alarms or school or obligations."

"Not so much," he replies.

Ellie's glare narrows at that, and she must look scary because Nate's eyes widen as he takes a huge step back. He shuffles awkwardly, and while that usually makes her want to ruffle his neatly cut hair, today it just irks her. Because he can't be talking about alarms or schools.

He's talking about obligations.

"Why?" she demands.

"Mom called," he says. That wakes her more than anything else could because why isn't Mom here? It's Thanksgiving, she and Dad should be in the kitchen like they are every year at the crack of dawn, her mother half-asleep and buried in a coffee cup while her wide-awake father dives into serious Food Preparation Mode, 'kiss the cook' apron and all. Nate continues on before she can ask, already explaining. "She and Dad are working this morning. Someone's trying to bomb the Starling Thanksgiving Day parade and the team's got to stop it. She didn't want to wake us when they left."

So, just another day in the Queen household then.

"Okay…" Ellie ventures. That is mildly interesting, obviously - someone bombing something like the Thanksgiving Parade is worthy of attention - but it still doesn't quite explain why she has to be awake and standing and interacting with people right now.

"Will and his roommates are going to be here at two for dinner," Nate reminds her. When she just stares at him, not following, he adds, "We're gonna have to cook it."

He says it like it's the most obvious thing in the world.

They're gonna have to cook it.

Ellie can only stare at him. The words don't compute. At all. Because Thanksgiving dinner and cooking aren't usually in the same sentence when it comes to anything she does. Ever. Her jaw slackens some as the meaning of what he's saying starts to form, but her sister's voice suddenly chiming in from the bathroom down the hall interrupts the process.

"Say that again?" Jules demands just before she appears in the bathroom doorway. She stares at Nate with her eyebrows raised expectantly, the ultimate image of grunge in the old clothes she uses for painting. The sixteen-year-old looks like she's in exactly as much disbelief as Ellie's in, but hers is lined with a heavy air of 'oh hell no' that Ellie hasn't quite reached yet.

No worries, though, she's getting there.

As if he can feel her discord, Jules' dog Buster comes bouncing out of her room, his ears perked, his tail wagging as his eyes switch between all three of them.

"We don't have a choice," Nate appeals to both of his sisters, looking back and forth between them. "We have seventeen people who will be here for dinner in a few hours and we sort of need to have food!"

Ellie goes to reply, opens her mouth to say something - anything, because surely there's a way around this - but her brain quickly shorts out and she can't think of any way to bypass a frenzied morning of cooking for virtually everyone they know. It's what their family does, every year. Thanksgiving dinner is always at their house, and everyone always comes over. It's a huge thing. It's a Thing. They can't not do it. Right? She pauses, because while it's a Thing, she still has no idea how to respond. Ellie looks at Jules, like maybe her older sister will have thought this through a few steps past her, but Jules has the same sinking look on her face that Ellie's sure she's wearing, too.

"We can't cancel," Nate continues. "And we can't explain it. Not to William's roommates. They can't know about Team Arrow. Mom and Dad are counting on us, guys. We've gotta cook Thanksgiving dinner."

"Did they…" Jules starts, but the words fade as she just stares at Nate. She's trying to think of a way around this, Ellie can see the wheels turning in her head, but based on the way her mouth hangs open and no sound comes out, she's got nothing.

And neither does Ellie.

Their parents do so much, so much more than anyone outside of their family can really know. And Ellie's pretty sure there's plenty of stuff they do that even she and her siblings don't know. And now, on a holiday of all days, they're out there again, saving the Thanksgiving parade from some crazy person with a bomb instead of cooking dinner for their extended family. What are they going to do? Cook when they get home? All bloody and bruised and tired?

That's not fair.

With a sigh, Ellie lets her comforter go as her shoulders fall. This really doesn't fit in with her morning plans of self-indulgent laziness, but… it's the right thing to do. Also, she's pretty sure most pizza places are closed today.

Jules lets out a frustrated groan, and Ellie's pretty sure this has screwed with whatever her sister had planned for the day, too. She looks at the ceiling like it might have some kind of way out or possibly she's blaming it for their current predicament. But the ceiling doesn't have answers anymore than Ellie or Nate do.

"Fine," Jules resigns. "Fine. So we… cook a holiday dinner for everyone we know. That's… gonna be great."

Her tone is the exact opposite of her words, but it does nothing to diminish the relief on Nate's face. It's sort of ridiculous actually. Did he really think they'd leave him to do everything? Because her nine-year-old brother would absolutely try to prepare an entire dinner for seventeen people on his own if he had to, and both she and Jules know it.

They aren't that mean.

Ellie sighs, looking down longingly at her pyjamas. "Just let me find actual clothes."

"And maybe pull your hair back, too?" Nate offers with gentle hesitance. Ellie can't blame him. She probably looked like she was ready to take his head off a minute ago. And, he does have a point. Her hair gets everywhere.

"Yeah, that's definitely not good seasoning for the sweet potatoes," Jules adds, staring at Ellie's head with what some might call a stink-eye. Ellie sticks her tongue out at her, prompting Jules to roll her eyes. She means for her reaction to be to be all exasperation, but Ellie catches a hint of a smile before she nods to Nate and then her. "Meet downstairs in ten?"

"Yeah, okay," Ellie grumbles before venturing back into her room.

With a whispered, "Yeah!" Nate hurries back downstairs - the freaky little kid is probably on his way to organize all the food they'll need in alphabetical order or something - while Jules disappears back in her room. Ellie can hear her shuffling around, things that sound like jars and brushes clacking together; she's probably cleaning up her painting supplies.

For her part, Ellie needs clothes. She pulls on jeans and an oversized sweatshirt because her day of relaxation may be gone, but she's darn well not going to sacrifice comfort. She winds her hair up in a very messy and barely restrained bun before hurrying to brush her teeth and scrub her face.

With one minute to spare, she jogs downstairs and into the kitchen.

The second she crosses the threshold, she pauses. She's not wrong about Nate. He's organized a truly frightening number of ingredients and measuring cups and bowls across the entire kitchen counter. And that's not even taking into account the huge unwrapped turkey and veritable wall of vegetables by the stove. Just the sight of that many things needing her attention makes Ellie want to run back upstairs and burrow into her blanket again.

But she can't do that to her brother. Especially since he's standing in the center of the kitchen with utter hope on his face, like they're actually going to pull this off.

Oh yeah, her day of relaxation is totally gone.

"I called WIlliam and asked him to stall," Jules announces, stepping up behind her, Buster on her heels. She pauses, though, when she sees everything, her eyes widening. As she surveys it all, she asks, "Could we get away with just ordering pizza?"

Nate blanches at that as Ellie almost starts to nod. Someone has to be open today, right? For the right price, anyhow. And yet, even as her brain goes down that path, she realizes she doesn't really want that. While, yeah, she doesn't want to actually cook, ordering pizza just feels wrong. And the look of pure horror on her brother's face confirms it.

But still.

Cooking.

"You can't have pizza on Thanksgiving!" Nate says, thoroughly scandalized. "It's Thanksgiving."

"We could... get it with ham on it?" Ellie suggests. For all of four or five seconds, it feels like an actual solution and relief is quick to follow until she realizes there's more meaning to Thanksgiving than just ham or turkey. More than food, really. Still. Cooking. "I mean, that's almost like Thanksgiving, right?" she follows up weakly.

She can see Nate's eye twitching from across the room.

"Okay, okay," Jules agrees, grabbing Ellie by the arm and dragging her forward until they're at their brother's side. "How about you tell us the menu then and we'll figure out what to do from there."

Now that she's closer, Ellie sees that the sea of ingredients and measuring cups and mixing bowls and small kitchen appliances dominate the countertop so much that she can scarcely see the granite beneath it.

To say it's daunting would be an understatement. And for as much as she loves hanging out with her dad while he cooks, it's not like she's ever been much of an active participant. Her contribution is usually limited to taste-testing. Besides, this isn't just dinner… it's Thanksgiving dinner. It's the Olympics of dinners. Prepared for basically their entire extended family and then some.

So yeah. Daunting.

"Well… the most important thing is the turkey," Nate says, because prioritizing is his thing. "So we should start there. I turned on the oven."

Jules nods. "Good." She and Ellie both turn to look at the enormous bird sitting on the counter. Jules nods again. "That's a good first step."

An extremely long moment of silence follows. None of them move, all of them staring at the turkey as if it might tell them what to do next, like a solution will magically present itself. Or, better, like maybe their dad will appear in all his culinary glory to save the day. That's his specialty after all, right? Saving things?

But nothing happens. The turkey just sits there and their dad is nowhere in sight.

"What's the next step?" Ellie asks finally, looking to her siblings.

Jules works her jaw as she sighs.

Nate just gulps heavily and looks at the turkey. "I think…" He cringes. "I think we need to clean it or something."

Ellie eyes the bird. "Is it even thawed?"

"Yes," Nate answers with a definitive nod. He's all confidence, nodding again, pleased that he knows at least one thing today.

"Well," Jules says, reaching a hand out to poke the bird, "that's something anyhow."

Nate grabs her wrist before she can get close, though, his alarmed, "Wash your hands!" echoing through the kitchen.

He's right, of course, but the level of concern in his voice is ridiculous. Ellie shakes her head at her little brother. She's pretty sure he was born to take things too seriously.

Jules rolls her eyes before going to the sink. Ellie follows suit. As far as steps in preparing Thanksgiving dinner go, this is one she's got down pat.

"Nate," her sister says as she washes her hands, "why don't you Google this so we aren't totally lost."

"Right," he breathes out. He scrambles to pull a tablet from the junk drawer. "Yes. Good plan."

Jules dries her hands as she turns toward their little brother. For the first time in a long time, Ellie does exactly what Jules does, following her actions to perfection. Her sister's entire demeanor says she's taking charge, which is not at all surprising. Jules can be bossy as hell, especially from Ellie's point of view, but for once Ellie is super happy that her big sister is in control. She so does not want to be responsible for this dinner.

"What's first?" Jules asks.

"It says we rinse it first," Nate informs her. He looks from the bird to the sink. "I don't think it's gonna fit under the faucet, though."

He's not wrong.

Ellie tilts her head, trying to imagine the behemoth angled just right so it will fit, but it's just too big. "We could just… pour water over it, maybe?"

Jules shrugs. "Or… use the hose."

"You want to hose down the turkey in the backyard?" Nate questions.

"Well, it's that or the shower," Jules replies dryly. "And I'm kinda grossed out by the idea of prepping Thanksgiving dinner in the bathroom."

Ellie makes a face at even the thought, before remembering with a shudder walking into her parents' bathroom yesterday and finding them both in the tub. Thank God for bubbles, but still… Scarred. For. Life. "Uh, yeah, no," Ellie agrees, shaking her head. "Definitely not the shower. No. Hose it is."

"We're going to get drenched!" Nate protests. He waves at the kitchen window. "It's cold out. And raining."

"Do you have a better solution?" Jules challenges. That makes him pause, because no, he clearly doesn't. None of them do. "Go get your raincoat then," she tells him.

He looks back out the window, looking like he wants to argue. But they don't have any other ideas and so, with a perturbed sigh, he sets the tablet down runs to grab his rain slicker.

"How would dad have done this?" Ellie asks, grabbing her hoodie off the back of a kitchen barstool where she'd left it last night. "Because I don't see him hosing off the turkey out back."

"Can't exactly ask him right now, can we?" Jules says, staring at the turkey. She shrugs. "He's probably hopping from float to float in the parade looking for bombs right now. There's no way he'd be very receptive to questions about how to rinse giant turkeys right now."

Well, there's a mental image, and a harsh reminder of what her parents are currently doing.

"Should we have the news on?" Ellie asks, looking back at the abandoned tablet. It's still on and she can see a perfectly cooked turkey with the long list of instructions that Nate had pulled up. "See if they're okay?"

Jules pauses. She glances at the tablet before giving a little shrug, like she doesn't care. It's a sure sign she does care, even if she won't say the words. Ellie huffs in exasperation at her sister, who says, "I'm sure they're fine, Elle. And it might distract Nate." She looks at Ellie. "We're probably better with it off."

Right. It's just Nate that might be distracted. Sure. Regardless, the news stays off and they don't bring it up when their younger brother comes back. While it might not only be Nate who would be worried, he definitely would be as well. Especially if their mother is at the actual parade with their dad.

"Okay," Jules says. "Grab the bird."

Nate pales. "Do we have gloves or something?"

"You can't possibly be that squeamish," Jules tells him, putting her hands on her hips and levelling her brother with a look. "It's the outside of a dead bird, Nate. It's not like you're digging out its innards."

"Yet," Ellie adds under her breath. She knows enough that they need to clean the thing out, just like she knows that task will fall to her or Jules because there's absolutely no way Nate's going to be cleaning out the inside of a turkey. He'd probably sooner settle for the pizza option than stick his hand inside a dead bird.

She can perfectly imagine the face he'd make if he was forced to get his arms elbow-deep into the business end of a raw turkey, and Ellie has to bow her head to hide her snicker.

"Why aren't we just having ham?" Nate grumbles, grabbing the turkey.

It's much heavier than it looks, apparently, considering the way he instantly starts to keel over.

Before he can drop it, Ellie rushes to support the other end of the bird.

"Holy crap," Ellie says when she lifts it up.

It's heavy. The thing is way huge, like way-too-big huge. It's probably nearly thirty pounds, which is silly considering they're having all of seventeen people over for dinner. Then again, three of those people are William and his roommates and they can probably put away three servings each, so maybe it's more appropriate than it seems at first blush.

The turkey's skin is wet and clammy and when Ellie turns to head outside, it tilts towards Nate, dribbling some kind of thready juice down his coat. The poor kid lets out a low, "Ugh," as he grimaces. He looks like he might puke, but thankfully he manages rein it in.

"You okay?" Ellie asks him as they head out the backdoor, turkey in hand. It's clearly been raining all morning because the ground is soaked, but the only thing coming down from the sky anymore is a light misty rain.

Nate gives her a hard nod instead of answering verbally, his skin tinged a weird green color. Given the way his paled lips pinch together, Ellie thinks the non-answer is probably a really wise choice.

Unlike her siblings, Jules doesn't bother with any kind of a jacket. She doesn't seem to give a damn about the light rain coming down as she heads over to the hose and turns it on. Buster bounds through the moisture with glee, running around the yard to check all his favored spots, while Jules picks up the hose and turns back to them.

The smile on her face is the last thing Ellie expects just then, which is just stupid, really. She knows her sister better than that.

Ellie stares at the older girl. "I know it's probably really tempting to soak us, but please try not to," she says. Jules lifts her eyebrows, all innocence, but it's obvious she's fighting a grin. Ellie sighs loudly before wiggling her half of the turkey. "We have a lot more to do than rinse this stupid turkey."

"I know that," Jules replies. Her eyes are still frighteningly alight with mischief as she wiggles the hose. "I'm not actually crazy enough to force myself to cook an entire Thanksgiving dinner for everyone all on my own."

The reassurance is nice to hear. Jules has a penchant for trouble when she's in the right mood, and while that can be fun - especially lately, Jules just got her driver's license earlier this year - sometimes it's not. Like right now. But the water she runs over the bird is ultimately not the water fight Ellie had feared and she comes out of the turkey shower none the worse for wear. Nate, for his part, looks like he regrets ever touching the bird, especially when they rotate the turkey and something falls right out of it, landing on his shoes.

"Ugh, gross!" he says, trying to dodge it but failing epically. Nate gags and shuts his eyes. He misses Buster coming up with a happy grin to lick away the remnants of what looks like turkey guts before Jules shoos him away, which is probably a good thing. The poor kid's is going to be scarred by this entire experience anyway at the rate they're going. The way he's gripping the turkey like a lifeline only confirms it.

Ellie has to bite her tongue to keep from laughing, because it's so obvious he's really grossed out. Jules shakes her head at him before nudging his shoulder.

"You're okay," Jules tells him. "Why don't you go inside and clean up a bit. Start scrubbing the potatoes or cubing them? Ellie and I will get the turkey."

She doesn't have to suggest it twice. Nate more-or-less shoves the bird in her direction, not waiting to see if she has a grip on it before he runs off.

Which turns out to be a really bad thing, because wet turkey is slippery.

Between the slickness of the bird and the sudden shift in weight, Ellie loses her grip and before Jules can help her, the damned thing tumbles downward. They both shout - Jules a curse word that would make their Grandma Moira gasp and Ellie a squeal - and they both try to catch the carcass, but it's no use.

The turkey falls to the ground with a wet splat where it lands in a muddy puddle in the grass.

For a split second, they both freeze, just staring at it. It's pathetic, really. Shameful, even. They're The Arrow's kids, for God's sake. They should be able to catch a thirty pound dead bird.

"Uh…" Jules stares at the carcass at their feet. The puddle of mud it sits in only seems to grow. "So, maybe we don't tell anyone about this?"

Ellie snorts, and a laugh is quick to follow. She covers her mouth, her shoulders moving in silent laughter as she manages to reply with a, "Definitely not."

Jules huffs out an amused chuckle before shaking her head and shoving the hose at Ellie. "Here, you rinse and I'll take the damned bird." She squats down and hefts up the turkey. She turns the open end to Ellie. "Make sure you rinse out the insides, too. Nobody needs mulch in their dinner."

"But it would give it such a lovely woodsy, smoked flavor," Ellie says before getting to work.

Jules just snorts in reply.

They get the turkey rinsed off, with no lingering evidence of mud or anything else untoward, but Jules is completely drenched by the time they're done. She's completely nonchalant about it, though. It's the kind of thing the older girl takes in stride, but even still, the fact that she doesn't seem to even be shivering is kind of amazing. The rain mixed in with the cold water from the hose and the cold turkey is making for a freezing morning in Ellie's book.

"Alright," Jules finally says, looking the bird over and deeming it acceptable. "Let's get this thing inside and figure out how we cook it."

"You might want to change, too," Ellie suggests as she throws the hose back into its place. She wrinkles her nose as she looks her sister over. The turkey might be mud-free, but Jules isn't. Buster isn't much better. "And take a shower."

"I'll swap shirts, but there's no time for a shower yet," Jules tells her as they head inside. She shrugs. "It's not like this is the messiest we're gonna get today."

That's probably horrifyingly true.

Nate's at the far end of the kitchen, scrubbing the hell out of a pile of potatoes with so much vigor he might as well be rubbing the skin off entirely. He looks their way and shudders a little when he sees the turkey in Jules' hands. Both his shoes are discarded near the door to the yard and his raincoat is nowhere to be seen, his hands freshly scrubbed to the point where they're reddened. Their brother is nothing if not fastidious.

Which is why they don't mention the whole turkey-falling-in-the-mud thing. Considering it's already oozed weird juices and guts all over him anyway, Ellie's questioning whether he'll eat it all at this point.

Ellie loses her shoes and hoodie as Jules puts the bird back on the counter. "What was next?" her sister asks as she drifts into the laundry room. Ellie hears the rustle of fabric and the dryer door closing just before she comes out a second later in a fresh shirt. Well, fresh by Jules' standards. It's old and faded, a Sex Pistols shirt that's seen far better days. Jules looks at Nate. "With the turkey, I mean."

"The insides," Nate tells her. That pale green hue won't be going away anytime soon, Ellie decides. As if he memorized the instructions already - he probably did - he lists the next step almost methodically. "You need to release the legs and pull out the giblet."

Jules pauses. "What the fuck's a giblet?"

"I'm pretty sure we don't want to know," Ellie replies, tugging at the bird's legs before inspecting them to see what exactly is keeping them in place. She frowns. "Why is there metal holding the legs down? That's so random."

Nate shrugs. "How should I know?"

"You're like the Google-guru today," Ellie points out.

"I was looking at the how's of cooking a turkey," Nate replies loftily, grabbing another potato. "Not the why's."

Ellie takes a second to stare at his potato pile. At the rate he's going it's going to take all day just for him to scrub the things.

"Who cares," Jules agrees, sidling up next to Ellie. She messes with the metal bits until the bird's legs are free. She is, at times, the polar opposite of Nate. This is one of those moments as she doesn't hesitate in the least before sticking her hand into the turkey and rooting around for whatever the hell a giblet is. She comes back empty-handed, though. Jules furrows her brow as she rotates the bird to peer inside. "We have a flashlight?" she asks.

"For looking into the turkey?" Ellie asks with a hint of incredulousness in her voice.

"Yeah," Jules replies, a hard, defensive tone shading her words. "It's dark in there."

Nate pulls a flashlight from the junk drawer and hands it to his sister, careful not to touch her hands. He doesn't wait to watch as Jules goes back to inspecting the bird, heading right back to his potatoes. He's so easily grossed out. Ellie makes a mental note to come up with a way to prank him soon. Maybe Jules will help. She's strongly considering shredding some cheese and melting it beneath his blanket with the help of a hair dryer when Jules pipes up again.

"Yeah, I don't see anything," she announces, flicking the flashlight off and pulling away from the bird's body cavity. "Maybe that's what fell out onto Nate's feet?"

"Maybe?" Ellie agrees with a shrug. "What's the worst thing that could happen if we cook it and we're just missing these giblet things?"

"I have no idea," Jules replies. "But if it's not there, we can't find it. And if we don't get this thing in the oven soon it's never going to be done on time and we'll have seventeen starving people with only a pile of very clean potatoes to feed them."

"Better than feeding them dirty potatoes," Nate counters.

A wave of deja vu hits Ellie at the sight of him standing over the sink, dutifully cleaning each potato and carefully placing them into neat piles. The instant the lightbulb goes off, she makes a 'duh' face.

"Guys, why aren't we calling Raisa?" Ellie asks, looking around for a similar 'aha!' moment from her siblings, but she gets nothing. Jules is manipulating the bird's wings somehow while Nate grabs another potato. Ellie throws her hands up expectantly. "Hello?"

"She's in Russia," Jules says before hoisting the turkey into a roasting pan. It barely fits, and that's being generous. She stuffs some of the overflowing parts into the pan. "Grandma and Dad both gave her two months off and sent her to go visit her niece's family."

"Oh," Ellie answers. She hadn't even noticed that Raisa had been absent.

"She left two days ago," Jules adds, stepping back and crossing her arms as she eyes the turkey. She glances at Ellie. "It was a surprise for her and you had volleyball practice. I'm not surprised you didn't know. The better question," she segues, "is why aren't we calling Grandma?"

The way Jules shoots from one topic to another is no accident. Her older sister is deft at navigating conversational potholes and if Ellie's face is as crestfallen as she feels, because she missed out on Raisa leaving the country for two whole months, Jules undoubtedly sees it's most bothering her. Her older sister avoids discomfort like a ninja, both her own and other people's. Veering the conversation to their grandmother is very, very intentional and while neither of them will acknowledge it out loud, Ellie's grateful.

Besides, she's pretty sure they all already knows the answer.

"She's the mayor," Nate points out, oblivious to all of the subtleties going on. "She's at the parade."

"Well, we need some help. It's already been an hour and we've barely done anything. How does Dad do all of this?" Ellie surveys the countertop. "What about… uh…" She considers how bad the situation really looks before sighing and finishing her suggestion. "What about Grandma Donna?"

"Are you nuts?" Jules asks, staring at her blankly. "Like, have you lost your actual mind?"

It's a fair question. They all remember very clearly the food poisoning incident of 2028 and none of them have any desire to repeat that gut-wrenching experience.

"Okay, what about William?" Ellie suggests.

Nate shrugs. "Maybe if we're making mac and cheese…"

Ellie huffs, blowing a stray blonde curl away from her face. "Well, there's gotta be someone who can help. What about Samantha?"

Both Jules and Nate stop what they're doing to look at her with raised eyebrows.

They've never looked more related than they do in this moment.

"You want to call Samantha?" Jules asks, like she's positive she heard Ellie wrong, like it's an even worse suggestion than Grandma Donna. And again, she has a point. Despite the fact that William's a huge part of their lives, they've never been particularly close with Samantha. And that's exponentially more true these days, given the strain between William and his mom. She is not happy about his career of choice and she's even less happy with his father for encouraging it. Jules stares at her. "Really?"

"We can't adult!" Ellie says in her defense. She waves at the food all around them. "This is ridiculous. What about Iris or Caitlin or Cisco?"

She knows better than to suggest Barry.

"No," Jules counters. She picks up the roasting pan with a grunt and ambles over to the oven. It's more like a waddle with the thirty pound bulk of turkey she's carrying. She opens the oven door with her foot and slides the bird in before slamming the door shut with a solid bang. "We're doing this thing. If Mom and Dad can save the city, we can save Thanksgiving. We're Queens. This is what we do."

It's said with the kind of force and emphasis that is incredibly reminiscent of their father, but unlike with him, Ellie can sense the uneasiness beneath her sister's voice. Nate doesn't, though. He nods along like her word is golden and Ellie isn't about to rob him of that certainty.

"Okay," Ellie agrees, steeling herself for the rest of the day ahead. She rolls up her sleeves, about to grab some cleaner because the counter is covered in grossness before something occurs to her. She points at the oven. "Weren't we supposed to stuff it first?"

"Like I know?" Jules asks. "One thing at a time. Turkeys take forever to cook. We can worry about stuffing later. How many people really like it anyhow?"

Ellie and Nate both raise their hands.

"Everyone other than you, Jules," Nate informs her, making Ellie snicker where she's grabbing some Lysol and a sponge.

"Then you can make it," Jules counters with a one-shouldered shrug. "Ellie, what are you doing?"

"Disinfecting the counter," Ellie replies. "There's raw turkey juice everywhere and I don't want to die of salmonella."

"Which is why we didn't call Grandma Donna," Nate notes under his breath, cleaning yet another potato. He's not even to the dicing stage of working on them and Ellie thinks it's possible they're going to have the cleanest mashed potatoes ever.

"Alright, what's next?" Jules asks.

"Don't we need a thermometer in the turkey?" Ellie asks. "Should we set a timer or something?"

"For half the day?" Jules makes a face. "We can just check it later. You want to do the green beans or the cranberries?"

"Cranberries," Ellie replies without even thinking. She's seen her dad prepare this part of the meal a solid dozen times before, and it's one of her favorites because it smells sweeter than the green beans. For as long as she can remember, she's spent every Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter sitting on the counter next to him, chattering away and stealing bites as he works. She's pretty sure she knows how it goes. She at least knows there's juice of some kind and a lot of chopping and stirring.

"Have at it," Jules tells her, handing her a bag of fresh cranberries.

What follows is several hours that become a comedy of errors.

Ellie burns the cranberries because she forgets to add shallots in early enough and ends up cooking them too long with too little stirring.

Jules figures that milk - skim milk - will surely work just as well as heavy cream in making the green bean casserole. Spoiler alert: it doesn't.

Nate's hesitance with the electric hand mixer on the potatoes means he sends bits of fluffy potatoey goodness flying everywhere, including Jules' hair, which is a thing Ellie laughs about right up until her sister throws a glob of it at her.

The pies, at least, are fine, but that's because their dad had baked them throughout the week. The croissants are good old fashioned Pillsbury, as their mom had picked them up, so those turn out thoroughly edible, if a bit crunchy on the edges.

All of that is recoverable, if a bit on the messy side.

It's the turkey that's the problem.

Will finally calls and says he and his roommates are on their way over, prompting the younger kids to take the bird out of the oven. It looks okay, and at the sight of the seemingly-nicely-cooked turkey, Ellie and Nate high-five while Jules just smiles at it.

Ellie had given into temptation and checked the news twenty minutes prior, finding the parade ending and very much unexploded. Her mom had called just moments later, checking in on them with typical mom-levels of worry and reassurance. After swearing to her they were alright, she told Ellie that everyone on the team was fine, the bombs were defused and the would-be-parade-bombers in custody.

All in all, it's a solid win.

Except, perhaps, for dinner.

The cranberries are salvageable and if they drain the green beans they might still be okay. A little soggy, but still completely edible. There's less in the way of potatoes than they'd like, but Will and his friends will just have to have one serving each. They'll survive. And besides, Will can whip up some mac and cheese when he gets here if they need more food.

Everything's fine… up until they try to carve the turkey.

It's fully cooked - so says the thermometer anyhow - and it smells pretty good, considering. It looks like any other turkey. Maybe not as good as their dad's, but still perfectly turkey-like.

When Jules goes to cut it, though, it practically flakes apart.

"What the fuck?" Jules asks. She scowls, grabbing a small bit of meat and popping it in her mouth. It doesn't even take her a second before she's pulling a face. "Why is it this dry? This is dumb! We did everything right!"

"Um…" Nate pauses nervously a few steps away where he's wiping mashed potatoes off of the upper kitchen cabinets. His eyes switch between Ellie and Jules for a moment. "We might have forgotten to put tin foil over it."

"What?" Jules asks, a dangerous edge to her voice. "What tin foil?"

"There's a lot going on, okay?" Nate retorts, his voice rising. "I'm sorry. I think I forgot to say anything."

"Nate…" Ellie sighs, rubbing her hand over her brow. Based on Jules' visceral reaction, she's not really all that sure she even wants to try the turkey at this point. But her frustration paired with Jules' obvious annoyance has to be daunting to Nate - who looks like he's ready to wilt after the very long day they've all had - so Ellie hefts a big sigh and puts a hand on her big sister's shoulder. "It's okay. It's done. We can still fix this."

"How?" Jules asks. "Try it, Ellie. Tell me if you want to eat that."

Ellie eyes the turkey like a nemesis worthy of an arrow to the gut. If only this were as easy a problem to slay. "Gravy," she announces, sounding slightly maniacal as she looks at her siblings. "Gravy will save us. We still have, like, twenty minutes. We just need a boatload of gravy… Literally. But we can do this. No, we will do this. I will not be defeated by Thanksgiving dinner!"

"Elle…" Jules says with hesitance, giving the bird a skeptical look. "I'm pretty sure we've failed this turkey."

"No!" Ellie protests, rounding on her sister and shaking a finger at her in defiance. "No. I refuse to believe that. We're salvaging this Thanksgiving dinner. If anyone deserves a nice, happy family dinner, it's our parents. With everything they do? All they give up? They deserve this, and I'm not quitting on them now."

Jules wants to argue it, but she hesitates, because Ellie is right and she knows it. Nate, too, freezes, his brow furrowing as he eyes the mess they've made, both in the meals they've created and the wreck they left in their wake.

Ellie pushes her point.

"This might not be our tastiest Thanksgiving dinner ever, but it's one we made, one we prepared for them, all three of us," she says, waving at her siblings. "Not because we had to, but because they deserve it. We deserve it. We're giving this our best effort. And it's not because we're chefs in the making. It's because we're thankful, for our family, for everything our parents do to keep us and our city safe. Okay?" Ellie doesn't wait for a response as she stomps her foot and adds, "So, God help me, you are both going to help me make a boatload of gravy to drown this stupid turkey in."

All in all, Ellie thinks she pulls off a rousing speech a whole lot better than her sister. It's almost ridiculous how important this suddenly seems, but it does and she's going to save this dinner no matter what it takes. She must have inherited some of her father's inspirational abilities, she thinks, because she finds both Jules nodding back at her and Nate following suit, watching Jules and taking her lead.

"Good," Ellie says. "Then let's do this."

Making the gravy, she finds out, is intensely painstaking.

All three of them crowd around the burner, watching the brown liquid thicken and bubble slightly in front of them.

They will not mess this up. They won't.

None of them talk, and they don't even notice when the front door opens until William strides into the kitchen with his roommates. They don't see Will's jaw dropping as he takes in the utter mess they've made. Ellie isn't thinking about cleaning yet, but Nate's cursory wipe-down of the cabinets had made a very small dent in the disaster.

"Hey," Will greets, dropping a small cooler on the kitchen counter. Mac and cheese, no doubt. It really is the only thing Will can cook, but it's delicious and Ellie is ridiculously grateful for his limited culinary abilities. "Happy Thanksgiving. Where are-"

"Shhhh," Jules hushes, waving a hand his direction without looking toward him. Ellie spares him a glance to find her older brother thoroughly amused by the sight of the three of them lined up in front of the stove. "Just give us a minute. This is almost done."

"Did you need help?" Will steps around a pile of… something on the floor.

"Can you uncook a turkey?" Ellie asks him, her voice steeped in sarcasm.

Will laughs shortly. "There's no way Dad overcooked the turkey." He looks around the room again, the realization dawning. "In fact, there's no way Dad made this much of a mess…"

"He got called in for… work," Ellie says vaguely as she spies Will's roommates and coworkers, Javi and Elliot, lingering in the doorway. She smiles. "So we cooked."

Will's eyebrows shoot right up to his hairline. "You cooked?" he asks, standing a little straighter. He looks around again. "Why didn't you guys call me?"

"Can you cook?" Nate asks, looking over at him.

"I wouldn't call it a strength, but I'm not totally clueless," Will replies. "You should've called. I'm here for you guys, you know that."

If she were doing something more than half-listening, Ellie might feel a little guilty about not calling her older brother to come help, but she barely registers his voice because the gravy looks like gravy and that kinda takes precedent at the moment.

"We need to try this," Ellie declares. "I think it's done. Does it look done?"

"Looks like gravy to me," Jules agrees, grabbing a spoon. "You want to do the honors or shall I?"

"Let Ellie," Nate interjects. "She's the one who thought we could save this. It only seems fair."

It seems like Jules agrees because she dips the spoon into the gravy and holds it out for Ellie to taste. Ellie blows on it for a moment first, and then, with great hesitance, she slurps a bit off the end of the spoon.

Jules and Nate both look like they're holding their breaths as they await her verdict. Ellie can't help the grin that spreads across her face because, thank God, it tastes exactly like gravy. Blessed, wonderful, moist gravy.

"Yeah?" Jules asks with a laugh.

"Yeah," Ellie confirms with a blinding smile. "It's perfect."

Nate gives a little triumphant fist-pump that's way more restrained than their mother would have done, but still echoes strongly of her. "We saved Thanksgiving!" he declares proudly.

"Good job," Will tells them with an amused smile, pulling Nate in for a hug. He ruffles Ellie's hair and instantly regrets it when his hand lands in dried mashed potatoes. Or it might cranberries from when Ellie had rubbed her arm over her head. It's really a toss-up, which should be horrifying but Ellie can't bring herself to care right now. William wipes his hand on her shoulder, making Ellie laugh as she elbows him. "How about you guys let us carve this bird and clean up a bit. You three should probably go… find clothes that aren't covered in food."

Jules pulls her shirt out to look down and inspect it. "I probably smell like turkey guts."

"It's definitely not your best perfume," Will tells her.

"Har har," Jules replies, but the smile she gives him is very real, and it's the perfect ending to a day that really didn't start out all the perfect. "I'm sure there's some turkey giblet somewhere just for you."

Will doesn't get the chance to respond because this time they all definitely hear the front door opening, followed by the low murmurs of their parents. Jules has enough time to stiffen, but Nate barely gets the chance for his eyes go wide in alarm - he's very aware of the mess they've left behind - and Ellie turns just in time to see their mom hurrying into the kitchen.

"Oh…" she says, coming to a dead stop, her eyes taking it all in. And it's a lot. She slowly covers her mouth as she finishes with, "My god."

Their dad is right behind her and his jaw positively drops.

Ellie's pretty sure the original plan had been for them to get the food all made and set out, prepared and presentable for dinner, while leaving themselves enough time to clean up the mess they'd made. They might not have talked about this specifically, but she's sure they all thought it wasn't going to take this much time.

There's dishes of prepared food littered here and there, along with… everything else. It looks like a tornado swept through, leaving white and red and green smears everywhere, all topped off with a really dry turkey that isn't soaking in gravy yet.

"Surprise," Ellie says weakly.

Before anyone can respond, the front door opens and Ellie doesn't have to be in the foyer to know it's the Diggles. Despite the very real mess she's currently standing in, she still feels a little thrill of anticipation at the thought of seeing Sara. But that feeling is quickly overshadowed when her dad steps more fully into the kitchen, wide eyes taking all of it in.

"Wow," is all he can say.

He's got a small cut on his cheek that's new, but past that, he looks fine. Tired, but fine. And… surprised. Ellie's never had a problem reading her dad before, but right now she can't see anything past the look of bewildered amazement on his face, and she's not sure if it's the good or bad kind of amazement. He just got done stopping a madman from trying to bomb the Thanksgiving parade, and now he's stepped into another literal disaster. Now that they're actually faced with their parents, the whole 'rah rah' rousing speech she'd just given has lost some of its potency.

It's still there, though, and Ellie grabs hold of it.

"We wanted to make you guys dinner," she says. "It didn't seem fair for you guys to work so hard and save Thanksgiving, too. So we handled the Thanksgiving part. It was Nate's idea, but all of this… a collective effort."

"I wanted to order pizza," Jules says.

"Will brought mac and cheese," Nate adds, like that will somehow make their lackluster attempt all better.

There's a commotion in the entryway just before a herd of footsteps make their way to the kitchen and then it's Uncle Digg's voice saying, "Holy crap." Ellie can't help herself - she glances between her father and mother, spying her uncle. She catches a glimpse of Sara's legs, but she can't see her face behind her father's broad back.

Nobody gets the chance to add to Diggle's response, though, because one second there's silence, and the next her mother bursts out laughing.

It's a full-bodied laugh, one Ellie hasn't heard coming from her in a long time. The sound is muffled behind her hand but then it becomes too much to contain and she covers her heart instead, shaking her head. And, like it's the permission he needed, her father is quick to follow. His shoulders shake in silence and then he's laughing, too.

"You guys are amazing," their mother says, stepping further into the kitchen. Jules lets out a tiny exhale, and Ellie wonders if she realizes she'd been holding her breath while Nate practically collapses into Will's side. Her mother smiles at Will's roommates in greeting before she comes over to her messy children. She's shaking her head still - in amazement - as she grins at Jules, plucking something orange out of her hair. Jules blushes despite herself, ducking her head. The grin transfers to Nate and then to Ellie, who can't help but return it just as fully. "Thank you for this," her mom says. "This is the perfect Thanksgiving."

And with that, she gathers all three of them into a hug, smiling at Will over Ellie's shoulder. Ellie and Nate hug her back just as tightly, and even though Jules huffs in exasperation, saying, "Mom, come on," she lets herself get sucked into it as well. Ellie's not sure, but she wonders if something happened at the parade today. They stopped the bomber, but that doesn't mean a hundred other things couldn't have gone wrong, too. Her parents just sound so grateful.

Their dad is right behind her and he reaches over his wife, ruffling Ellie's hair just like William had. When he comes back with something on his hands he wasn't expecting, both she and Will laugh. He pulls Ellie into his side and tugs on Jules' hair, grinning at Nate where he's tucked back up against Will with his mom's hand on his shoulder.

"You guys did great," he says. "It smells fantastic."

Jules snorts. "Right."

"I'm serious," he says. "It does."

"Yeah, well, wait 'til you try the turkey."

"I bet I'll love it," he replies, leaning over to kiss the side of Jules' head before doing the same to Ellie.

"I made the mashed potatoes," Nate says.

Their mother grins as Oliver reaches around William to ruffle his hair this time. "And I can't wait to try them."

"They're very clean," Ellie adds, something that makes both her parents dissolve into laughter again, probably because her statement is the antithesis to the mess in the kitchen.

Ultimately, the turkey isn't that great, even with the gravy, but no one seems to care much.

Their dining room table overflows with family and friends and a huge variety of food made with inconsistent quality. Grandma Moira and Grandpa Walter had ordered a ham - something that would have been nice to know a few hours ago - and Aunt Thea and Uncle Roy bring cinnamon apples. Grandma Donna pitches in with a spinach salad, something even she can't mess up, and Lyla had brought with her the best sweet potatoes Ellie's ever tasted.

It's not the food that matters, though. Not in the least. It's the company, the effort, the laughter that surrounds their dinner table, the way Jules grins as she sneaks Buster bits of overcooked turkey under the table and how Grandma Moira chides Nate for taking so many croissants and how her mom leans in close to her dad for the entire dinner, both of them sneaking affectionate looks at each other.

So, even though Will gets a piece of ashy mulch with his turkey and Aunt Thea winds up picking blackened bits of sugar out of her cranberries, Ellie decides that in spite of the food not being all that great, it's still the best Thanksgiving dinner she could have asked for.

Chapter Text

August 2014

 

"Is this too much? Should I lose the jacket?"

He's jittery. Anxious nerves dance over the surface of his skin as he fidgets with the buttons of his suit. Oliver smoothes his hands over them, erasing any wrinkles in his material… and then he undoes the buttons for the third time.

Felicity doesn't stop him; she hasn't stopped him. She just straightens his lapels and looks at him with amused sympathy, her fingers curling around the edge of his collar.

"He's six," Oliver emphasizes, like this is explanation enough. And it is. In his head anyhow. He shakes his jacket out, ignoring how his hands shake. "He's about to start first grade. What if he thinks the jacket's ridiculous? Or worse, what if it intimidates him? I don't want to scare him. He's my son."

What if he doesn't like me?

Felicity hears the unspoken words and she steps closer, flattening her hands against his chest as she smiles up at him. It's so easy, so confident and genuine, that it clears his head for a second, calming him down, bringing his heart back down to somewhere near a normal rate.

His eyes never leave hers as he takes a deep breath.

"Exactly," she tells him, tapping her fingers against his shirt. "He's your son. This is as big a moment for him as it is for you."

The words send a spike of anxiety the size of a skyscraper right through his chest, doing nothing to dull his concerns. They actually make it worse. He's so desperate to make a good impression. He needs to make a good impression, it's an actual driving need that's eating him up from the inside out. So much has changed in his life, an entire lifetime's worth, and he needs that to keep going. For the first time in a long time, he finally feels he's in control of his own happiness. He chose Felicity, their baby and Ellie, and he's choosing to meet his son, to hopefully become part of his life.

If William will have him.

Oliver's chest tightens to the point of pain.

They'd had Ellie for such a short time, but it was more than enough to show him how badly he wants to be a dad. Not that that's what today is about, not at all. He misses his Ellie-bug so badly that sometimes it hurts to do anything - much less breathe, speak and move - but this isn't about her. It's only been a few months since they lost her and while yes, he misses her with a fierceness that's absolutely gutting at times, he's not looking to replace her. He couldn't even if he tried and he knows that. He wouldn't want to. Ellie is too precious, too special. Even the idea of supplanting her makes him sick. But this isn't that. This is meeting his son, his little boy. It's completely separate from Ellie.

He and Felicity had gotten to the park early because Oliver had been an uncoordinated mess ever since Samantha had agreed to the meeting yesterday. It'd gotten worse when they'd woken up - he kept knocking things over in the apartment like he couldn't control his hands, like he didn't know what to do with himself, like he hadn't spent the last several years carefully honing his body for survival.

It's amazing that all it takes to throw him off his game is the prospect of meeting an elementary schooler. If only ARGUS had known that a few years ago. The thought has him letting out a soft huff before ice trickles down his spine at the notion of Waller knowing about William before he had.

"Oliver," Felicity says, tugging on the collar of his dress shirt, pulling him out of his thoughts. He blinks at her, and just like before, the small smile on her face soothes him. "He's going to love you," she continues. "Believe me, as a girl who grew up hoping her dad would pop out of the woodwork at every turn. Just being here - being you and wanting to be a part of his life - that's going to be more than enough for him. You're already fulfilling his dreams just by showing up."

The urge to say, "I'd have always wanted to be a part of his life" wells up inside him, as it has every single time she points that out to him, but he bites it back, just like always. That may be true now, but he's not sure how William could have fit into his life five years ago. Even two years ago. Hell, six months ago.

It's always been the truth, when he's said he'd gone to hell and back during those five years he was away. But the places he's been, the things he's done, the trials he's undergone… it's all part of him now, it's all become integral to who he's become. He had to go through all of that to become the man he is today. The person he was before couldn't possibly have appreciated the magnitude of what it means to have his son in his life, not like he can now. He couldn't have known how important it is, how meaningful, without seeing the darkest parts of humanity to give him something to weigh it against. So while he's still upset - and angry - that he hadn't known about William, a small, secret part of him is glad. Because this is his life now, and he has Felicity and he's getting the chance to meet his son.

He wouldn't change that for the world.

Back when Samantha had first told him she was pregnant, he hadn't been ready. He'd known that then and he knows it now. But he would have tried. Looking back on it, he can't help but wonder how very different things would have gone if his mother hadn't interfered. He never would have gotten on The Gambit, that's for sure. He'd have never become The Arrow, never set out to save the city. The Glades would have fallen, so much more spectacularly than it really had.

He never would have met Felicity.

No.

The word echoes in his head with a finality that resonates in his chest.

No, he would have met her.

She'd have still worked at QC and he probably would have wound up with a job in middle management there, spending nine-to-five in a ten-by-ten office with a brass-plated nameplate on his desk. He'd have hated that life. He probably would have felt as unfulfilled as he had all those years ago when he had gotten on the Gambit. But he'd have done it for his son. And somehow… somehow he'd have met Felicity. Somehow, she'd have still brought her particular brand of joy to his life. He has to believe that.

How things might have unfolded between them is another question entirely, but she would be in his life. Even if he'd tried to make things work with Samantha, or if he'd stuck with Laurel, or if he'd run to Sara… he has to believe that somehow - some way - he would have met Felicity.

It's all a moot point anyhow. Because he has Felicity now and she's by his side, has been from day one, and she will be for the rest of his life.

As if to cement the thoughts flying through his head, Oliver grabs her hips, pulling her closer, needing to feel her. He sighs, dipping his forehead so it nearly touches hers.

"I just…" He wants a thousand things and he doesn't know how to put them into words. Felicity waits, sliding her hands up to the sides of his neck. Her touch is comforting and with another sigh, he just speaks his mind. "I want to be everything he deserves, I guess."

Felicity grins, a smile stretching damned near ear to ear. She presses her forehead to his and shakes her head. "That's just one of the things that makes you a fantastic father, Oliver. And you always will be. To all your children."

"All our children," he says automatically, because any of his children are hers too. He hadn't been lying when he told Samantha they were a package deal, and his mind isn't changing about that. He'd been unwavering on that point even when Felicity had gawked after he'd relayed that part of the conversation to her. It might have been a different discussion had their lives and their relationship unfolded differently, but after everything they've been through over the last several months, it's no longer even a question. What's his is hers.

Especially with their first little one on the way.

Oliver slides his thumbs over the curves of her hips. Her stomach is still nearly flat. She's just past her first trimester and there's only the scarcest hint of a bump, but he swears it's just a bit larger every day. She does, too, but with an entirely different tone, one that makes him smile even as she grouses at her reflection. He can't wait to see their child grow, watch as the evidence of their little girl's existence makes itself evident in the changes to Felicity's body.

"How about we leave the semantics for another day," Felicity says, her voice soft but tight. She doesn't like the idea of imposing herself in a place where she doesn't think she belongs. But she does belong there, even if she thinks she doesn't.

It's already becoming a drawn out battle between them. She's not his wife - yet - and she's not William's mother or stepmother. He's pretty sure even if they were married already, they'd be having the exact same conversation. Oliver knows she will always welcome his son into their home, into their family, but she's incredibly reluctant to allow herself any kind of a role when it comes to his life. A cool aunt, maybe, but that's the nearest designation to family she'll agree to.

And the only person more uneasy about Felicity's place in William's life than Felicity is Samantha.

The meetings over coffee they'd had with her over the past few months had been, in one word, exhausting. Nerve-wracking, yes, and extremely uncomfortable the first few times? Definitely. But exhausting fit across the board. And most of it was spent watching the two of them navigate each other.

And they way they each look at him? That's a study in extremes all on its own.

To Samantha, he's Ollie. He's stuck in time as that careless playboy who'd been nothing more than a few good lines designed to get her into bed - or the back seat of his car, as the case had been. To Felicity… well, he's someone else entirely. She never knew 'Ollie' from before and he's so grateful for that sometimes - mostly around Samantha these last few months - that he doesn't even have the words to express it. Felicity's faith in him alone is worlds away from the doubt that colors Samantha's face, as is her trust and belief that he'll do and be the best that he can be.

To be honest, he's pretty sure that faith was the only thing that got him through that first meeting with Samantha. It's certainly the only thing getting him through this god-awful wait to meet his son now.

As if he needs the reminder. A herd of butterflies attack his stomach all over again and he closes his eyes, gnawing on the tip of his tongue, his mind racing.

"What if…"

"What if what?" Felicity prods. She slides her hand down his arm, watching the progression of her hand. Even through the dress shirt and loose jacket, her touch brings him a sense of home he knows he could never find without her.

"What if he doesn't like the present I got him?" Oliver asks. He feels foolish as hell even thinking the words, but they come tumbling out now that the gate's open. "Or… what if he's mad at me? Or says he doesn't need a dad? God, what if he hates me because I left his mom?"

The question betrays the very real fact that he sort of hates himself for leaving Samantha alone and pregnant with his child. Logically he knows it's irrational, but he feels it, just as if he really had left Samantha. What if William feels that way? What if all he sees when he looks at Oliver is the man who abandoned them? Samantha said she told him he'd died, which wasn't exactly a lie, but even that could open the door for, 'Why didn't you come back to us?'

He's going to be sick.

"He might be angry," Felicity acknowledges. Oliver recoils, his head snapping up to meet her gaze. He thinks that's the last thing he wants to hear… but then the words sink in and it actually makes him feel better. Hearing it makes him feel better, knowing that his fears are entirely misplaced, that he's not losing his mind, that this won't be as easy or as hard as he's been building it up since he first found out about him. "But, Oliver, I have a question for you."

"What?"

"How are you going to feel the first time he gets detention?" she asks. "Or gets pulled over for speeding? Or comes home high or curses me out and reminds me that I'm not his mom?"

"No," Oliver starts before the words sputter to a stop. "He's… he won't…"

"He will," Felicity interrupts, cupping his cheek. She lets her fingers linger and sift through his scruff. He closes his eyes, nuzzling her palm, seeking the strength that she embodies so naturally. He revels in it, in her, in them, the most solid thing he's ever known, and it makes her words easier to hear. "Maybe not those things exactly, but one day he'll disappoint you or anger you or frustrate you. He will. That's sort of what kids do."

"It doesn't matter," Oliver says, shaking his head. "He's my son. It doesn't matter. We'll work through whatever it is. I'll love him anyway."

"Exactly," Felicity says, her smile growing, pride and love and a little amusement shining back at him. "And he'll love you anyway. It won't be easy, any of it, and it might take a while, but he'll love you, Oliver. Because you're his father. And because you're a pretty loveable guy, if I do say so myself."

Oliver laughs at that, and it's far more cleansing than strained. It feels good, light… the way Felicity always makes him feel, even in the darkest of moments.

And this is far from that.

He suddenly sees her point with blinding clarity, and he nods, his forehead falling against hers again.

"So…" Felicity says, rocking forward onto the balls of her feet, her hands bracing on his shoulders like she's leaning on him for support, but he has the sudden sensation that it's more to keep him grounded. "Are you done with your mini-freakout then?"

Oliver huffs out another soft laugh. "Yeah," he says. "I'm good."

For now, at least.

"Great," she says, nodding just past him, "because they're here."

"What?" he blurts, his head jerking to the side so quickly he's sure he's going to strain his neck. But he doesn't feel it. No, what he feels is his breath catching in his throat and Felicity stepping back. But not too far, probably because his hand suddenly grabs her hip in a deathgrip.

Because not ten feet away is his little boy, the son he's never met.

He's beautiful.

It all feels like it must be a mirage. He's seen pictures - Samantha had showed him some on her phone the first time they'd met for coffee - but that's not a substitute for actually seeing him in person.

William's taller than he'd thought he'd be. But, maybe he'd been thinking in terms of Ellie. Maybe he just hadn't realized quite how much growing kids do between four and six. It's been a long time since Thea was that small and he hasn't exactly had many kids in his life to compare to since then.

His son. That's his son. Emotion chokes him.

The boy looks up at his mother, his hand firmly in hers, and he looks every bit as apprehensive as Oliver feels. Samantha's nerves are on full display, too. She keeps using her free hand to brush imaginary lint off William's shoulder or stroke his unruly hair away from his brow.

It strikes Oliver all over again and in a much bigger wave how complicated this all is. And it's going to stay complicated. They'll find their new normal, him and Felicity and Samantha and William, but everything has very suddenly changed for all of them and that's so blindingly clear at the moment.

"That's him?"

William might be tall, but his voice is so young. It washes over Oliver like a ripple of warm breeze. The sound of it rings in his ears as his mind tries to memorize it, the soft cadence of his boy's voice. He doesn't realize he's holding his own breath, trying to avoid the sound of his exhale from interrupting his son's words, until his lungs start to burn and he takes an unevenly slow breath.

"Yes," Samantha says, eyes darting nervously toward him, then to Felicity and back again before fixing on William with a forced smile firmly in place. "William… This is your father. Oliver. Oliver, this is William."

"Hi," Oliver says immediately, taking a big step forward, nearly tripping over the gift bag at his feet.

It strikes him suddenly that William hasn't stepped forward and the very last thing Oliver wants to do is to encroach on the boy if he's not comfortable. He forces himself to stop, fixing his feet on the grass just six or seven feet away from his son. That does nothing to quell the sudden yearning he feels taking over. He wants to hug him, wants to hold him and run his hands over the little boy's face, memorizing the curve of his cheekbones, his jawline, looking for traces of himself, his mother, his father, Ellie, the many people on his family tree he's loved over the years. But he doesn't. He doesn't want to push him, so instead Oliver shoves his hands in his pockets… and then pulls them back out.

God, he can't even figure out what to do with his hands, much less with William himself.

"Hi," Oliver repeats, his voice so soft. He swallows, going for higher volume the third time. "Hi. William. It's… I'm really glad to meet you."

William doesn't respond right away, but not because he doesn't want to, Oliver's sure of that. He looks more like he's waiting for permission to speak, like he's got no idea how to navigate any of this.

Oliver can't blame him. He has no idea either.

In a move that has gratitude rushing through Oliver, Samantha lets go of William's hand and nudges his shoulder, encouraging him forward. He doesn't run excitedly for Oliver, but he doesn't scramble to grab his mother's hand back either, and that's the most Oliver could possibly have expected at this point.

It's more than he'd expected, if he's being brutally honest with himself.

Samantha nudges him again with a quiet, "Go on. I'm right here," and William takes a few tiny steps forward, lessening the gap between them but by no means closing it.

"Hi," the boy says. He's guarded, but curious, his eyes a dark blue. Now that he's closer, Oliver can see they are blue - unlike Samantha's, something that strangely enough makes his heart race - they skim him, taking in details as he tries to adjust.

That's it, though. He's silent other than an uneasy shuffle of his feet against the dewy grass.

Silence reigns.

Oliver glances at Samantha for a brief second before turning to glance at Felicity where she's retreated off to the side. His eyes find hers, looking for guidance, encouragement, something, and she just smiles thinly at him, nodding her head toward William.

This isn't the time to pay attention to me, she's saying. Talk to your son.

He doesn't know how to, though.

"Where've you been?"

Oliver's head snaps back to William, his stomach sinking. There's no malice behind the question, no accusation. But there is pain, an innocent kind of pain that hurts far more than Oliver could have ever predicted.

He hurt his son before even knowing he existed, and no matter what happened or what happens in the future, Oliver will never forgive himself for that.

But he is prepared. Sort of. He and Samantha had talked about this, one of many topics they'd covered as their coffees had gone cold. Felicity had sat at his side with a hand on his bouncing knee, trying to spread her own brand of calm through him over the halting words. It hadn't really worked, but he'd appreciated the effort.

"I was in a bad accident," Oliver says. "It was on a boat when your mom was pregnant with you. I spent a very long time on an island. Nobody knew I was alive, not even your mom. They couldn't find me and I didn't have a way to get home."

William mulls that over, his brow furrowing as he weighs the words. They fit with his mother's story and - conveniently - with the truth.

"Sort of like Neverland?" William asks after a minute, trying to categorize his father's experiences in terms he'll understand. "I mean, they didn't think the kids were dead, but they were sort of stuck there. Is it like that?"

Oliver can't help but smile at the simplistic breakdown. "Sort of," he agrees. "I spent a while not wanting to grow up, too. But I didn't have any pixie dust."

"Were there pirates?" William asks.

Yes.

"No," Oliver tells him.

"Captain Hook?"

Well, there'd been Slade…

"No," Oliver replies with a shake of his head. "No fairies either. Or crocodiles. But there was a shark…"

William's eyes go big at that. "Really?"

"Really," Oliver confirms.

William takes a step closer, and Oliver stops breathing for a second as William asks, "Did it bite you?"

"It, uh… it did," Oliver tells him.

Another step. "Did that hurt?"

Oh… yes. Yes, it had. Although compared to the rest of it, that pain had been miniscule. There'd been a whole lot of years with a whole lot of pain, things that will stay with him, one way or another, for the rest of his life.

But this will, too. His son closing the gap between them will, too. It feels like balance. It feels good.

"It did hurt." Oliver wanted to step even closer, but he doesn't, wanting to keep the choice in William's hands. "But," he said, his voice lowering to a confidential tone. "I think it hurt the shark more."

"Cool," William breathes out, clearly impressed.

It sends a little thrill through Oliver to see that, and he immediately wonders if Starling City has an aquarium, or if maybe Samantha would let him take William out to Coast City for a day. If his little boy likes sharks, he will find a place where they can go see sharks.

"So," William continues. "How'd you get off the island?"

"Luck," Oliver tells him. "There was a boat nearby, so I lit a fire. They saw the smoke and rescued me."

"That is lucky," William agrees with tremendous seriousness. "When did you get back?"

Oliver freezes, his stomach dropping again. He takes in a ragged breath before he answers. This is, by far, a worse question than the last and he feels considerably less prepared for it, despite all the rehearsed words in his head.

"Almost two years ago," he finally says. He refuses to lie to his son, about this, about anything, but he also knows the answer confuses and hurts him. Which sucks. William frowns, clearly aware of how long two years is and that his father had come back a while ago, so Oliver asks, "Know how I said your mom thought I was dead?"

William doesn't respond right away, and just when Oliver's about to look to Samantha for guidance, he nods, a slow, cautious nod that has a boulder settling in Oliver's chest. He knew this was coming, though. And he's not going to lie to him, no matter how much easier it'd be for Oliver.

"Well," Oliver says, "I thought you were dead, too."

Samantha shifts uneasily behind William, clasping her hands together. They'd agreed on how to approach this with him, but despite that, she still wrings her fingers tightly, looking very much like she'd prefer to take her son and leave, to avoid all of this.

"Why?" William asks.

"Before you were even born," Oliver explains. "Back when I got on the boat, there was a time we'd thought you died."

"That can happen?" William asks, glancing back at his mother for confirmation. She nods and he looks back to Oliver.

"Yeah," Oliver tells him. "So… I didn't even know there was a you to come find, buddy." He swallows, tears burning his eyes as he looks at his son. "I would have, William, if I'd known. I promise."

William's afraid to believe him. It's plain as day on his face. But he wants to. This is everything he'd hoped to hear, but never thought he would. He's little still, barely out of kindergarten, but he's aware enough to know that something's been missing, something important. He's undoubtedly seen other families, seen kids with both parents present, and had been keenly aware that all he had was one.

It simultaneously breaks Oliver and bolsters him to know that he caused this, but he can also fill the cracks he's left behind, mend the scars on his son's heart.

And he will.

He'll do anything for this little boy. Like with Ellie, like with the little girl Felicity's carrying now, his children have fast become his priority. Above himself, above the city, above his mission and his promise to his father.

This is a part of his mission, a part of that promise.

Doing right by his kids is righting his father's wrongs.

Oliver crouches down to William's level and holds out his hand.

He hears Felicity suck in a quick breath where she's standing behind him. She knows, better than anyone, what his son's rejection would do to him, how terribly that would impact him.

But it doesn't matter, because after a moment of staring his father's fingers, William takes a tentative step closer and reaches out. He rests his hand on Oliver's, his fingers so small and unsure, but it does nothing to take away from the rightness of this moment.

Oliver immediately clasps his other hand over the top of the boy's.

"I promise you, William. I swear. I'd have been here sooner if I'd known," Oliver vows, meeting the boy's eyes. Samantha shifts where she stands behind William again. It's taken months for her to agree to this meeting and he knows full well that she doesn't really trust him to stick around yet. But he will. He absolutely will. "I want to be a part of your life, William. I want to be your dad. I'm not going anywhere."

It's exactly the right thing to say, exactly what William needs to hear. He's so trusting and he's so willing to give Oliver that chance. That knowledge alone is enough for Oliver to vow to himself that he will always, always be there for his son, for all his children, no matter what. He knows what it's like to have a father who isn't really present, to have a mother who was there but kept other priorities. He's not going to be like that. Ever.

William's eyes well up and his shoulders shake as he nods, his lip quivering.

The sight has tears blurring Oliver's vision and he blinks to clear them, not wanting to miss a single thing.

"Could I…" Oliver starts, stopping to clear his throat. "Would you mind if I gave you a hug?"

William doesn't reply in words. No, he drops Oliver's hands and practically dives for his father's arms instead, a bundle of boy barreling right into him.

Oliver's knees threaten to give out underneath him as the weight of what's happening slams into him.

He's not sure which of them needed this more.

The little boy clings to him like he's never going to let go and Oliver's no better, hugging his son close, as close as he dares. It's not the same as with Ellie. It's special in an entirely different way. Not less or more, but different. It will be with the new baby, too. There's more than enough love in him to share between all of his kids. But it's because of Ellie, he realizes. He's holding his son in his arms, and he knows full well that he wouldn't have this right now if not for her. The ability to be a part of his son's life… that's something Ellie gave him, one last parting gift from the amazing little girl who gave him so, so much.

"I've got you, bud," Oliver murmurs to the little boy who's shaking with tears against his shoulder, fingers clenching at his shirt like he's afraid Oliver's a dream that's going to dissolve underneath his fingertips. "I'm here. I've got you."

Part of Oliver wonders if that isn't the other way around. William's affection, the warm press of this little boy - his little boy - holding on to him like a lifeline buoys him in ways he hadn't realized were possible. He's missed being a father tremendously since Ellie left them. But, then William's probably always missed having a father.

So maybe they've got each other.

Oliver's eyes slip shut as he savors the feel of his son curled up against him. He tries to cage in the tears that well up in his eyes, but one sneaks out, slipping down his cheek. William seems so much smaller now, with Oliver's arms wrapped around him. Tall or not, he's just six years old and he is dwarfed in his father's embrace. It makes Oliver feel… indescribable.

It makes him feel like a father. Like his child's hero. It's the best feeling in the world.

Cradling the back of the boy's head against his shoulder, Oliver spares a look up at Samantha. The strain on her face is evident, as are the tears she's fighting to keep back herself. She wants this for her son. She does. But she also doesn't trust it, doesn't trust him. Oliver can't blame her, but the way to work past that - the only way to work past it - is to prove to her over and over and over again that he's trustworthy. That he's here and he's staying. That he will never let their son down.

But that doesn't make it any easier on her now.

Her gaze is fixed on the back of her son's head for a long moment, a shaking hand pressed against her mouth, the other wrapped around her midsection. After a second, though, she glances at him. The vulnerability and absolute terror is clear as day. Because how will she fix this if he fails? How will she help her little boy put the pieces back together if his father reverts to form and disappears from their lives all of a sudden? She'll never have to find that out, but he knows those are the questions running through her mind. He can respect that and he can respect the risk she took in allowing them to meet.

'Thank you,' he mouths to her.

She nods back - hard, almost manic in her agreement - but it does nothing to make the fear in her eyes fade away.

Felicity, though… Somehow Felicity helps, the tiniest of bits.

He almost misses it because he's so focused on William, but Felicity makes her way over to Samantha. She's hesitant, which is absolutely appropriate because Samantha has not been her biggest fan. The idea of a second mother figure in her son's life, regardless of title, has not made her happy. It's understandable. He would have been tremendously displeased had he found another man had taken up the role of father to William in his absence. But it seems like maybe, at least in some small way, there's an inkling of unity between the two women.

Felicity puts her hand on Samantha's shoulder, a gentle motion of friendly comfort that doesn't do anything other than support her. To his surprise, Samantha unwraps her arm from around her midsection to clasp her fingers over Felicity's. They talk, in quiet tones, saying words he can't hear but wearing expressions that speak loudly.

They'll be fine. The four of them. The five of them, when you count Felicity's growing baby bump. They'll be fine. Somehow. They'll manage. Maybe they'll more than manage.

"Daddy?"

The single word cuts through him, a balm to his soul, reassurance to his embattled mind.

Oliver's eyes slip shut again as he fights to keep still, to keep from giving into the emotions bursting in his chest.

The power behind that single word is tremendous. Oliver's shoulders hunch as he curls around his son, dipping his head to breathe in his child's scent. He's all lemon and fresh cut grass and somewhere in Oliver's mind he registers that mix of smells as William, as his child, filing it away before pulling back slightly to look him in the eye.

"Yeah, buddy?" he asks, his voice uneven, but happy.

"Thank you for finding me," William tells him. "I'm really glad you came home."

"Me too," Oliver replies. His voice breaks and he smiles, though he can't trap the tears in anymore. It's too much. It's the exact opposite of what he'd feared and he can't honestly believe he's this lucky, but he's not about to take it for granted.

Somewhere in the background, Samantha's turned away from them. He can tell she's crying from the steady shake of her shoulders, but it's noiseless. Whether that's in deference to the moment between her son and his father or just the way she is, he can't say. But this is a life changing moment for all of them and he understands, at least theoretically, how monumental this must really be for her. She hasn't turned away from Felicity, he's glad to see. They aren't friends, not by a longshot, but their hands remain clasped over Samantha's shoulder and his son's mother keeps nodding as Felicity talks lowly to her. It helps, he thinks. At least he hopes it does.

Felicity's an unlikely bridge between them - him and his son's mother - but she's a vital one.

He wonders how he managed without her at all in the other timeline.

He finds he'd prefer not to think about it.

Oliver clears his throat, smiling at William. "I, uh… I brought you something."

The boy sniffles, dries his eyes on his sleeve and rubs at his nose. It's a redirect for sure, something for them to focus on beyond the overwhelming immediate emotions, but the way Samantha turns and looks at him tells him he definitely should have talked to her about it first.

"I told you I didn't want you buying him things," she says, as both her and Felicity's hands fall away from her shoulder.

Oliver wilts slightly, his face dropping, because she had, but he'd sort of assumed she meant big things. Like a puppy or one of those kid-sized cars. She didn't want him buying his son's love. And he gets that. He agrees with it, even. But that's not what this is.

"It's not…" Oliver shakes his head, struggling to find the right words. "Sam, I'm not…"

He can't find the words he wants to say, though, not in front of his son anyhow. 'I'm not trying to buy his love' is a terrible thing to say in front of a kid and the very last thing he wants to do is get in any kind of an argument with his son's mother in front of the little boy. After all, she's the only parent he's ever known.

But Felicity seems to have the words he lacks, because she leans toward Samantha and whispers something to her - what the present is, no doubt - and Samantha's shoulders sag as she gives Oliver a warning look.

"Oliver, if you don't…" Her voice trails off as she shakes her head, but Oliver hears the rest of it anyway: If you don't follow through with him… if you aren't there for him… if you break your promises to him, I will never forgive you. There are no second chances here.

Don't make him love you if you can't love him back.

"Just… give me a chance?" he asks, because it's the only thing he can do. "Please. I'm not… I swear to you - to both of you - I'm not going anywhere."

She doesn't want to trust him, and for a split second, Oliver wonders if he's about to lose all of it. If a stupid idea is going to be the thing that loses him everything he just got. He stares at Samantha, willing her to believe him. He feels Felicity's eyes on him, feels her support, and it grounds him, gives him the strength for his gaze to never stray from Samantha's.

After a long moment, she finally looks at William. One look at her son's hopeful face sways her and he spots the moment her resolve crumbles to a million pieces.

When she looks back at him, it's with the knowledge that he's got her son's whole heart in his hands and she's so very scared that he won't treat it gently.

But he will. He always will.

Samantha finally nods and he whispers, "Okay." He returns her nod, hoping she can see his gratitude, before he looks back at William. He takes hold of the opportunity his mother has given him to prove himself with both hands, the first of so many steps that will earn her trust. Letting go of William with one hand, he reaches behind himself for the gift bag he'd nearly tripped over before handing it to his son.

"It's… it's not a big thing," he says, wiping his sweaty palm against his pant leg. "And maybe you already have it, but I thought… Well… Just open it."

God, he's a ball of nerves right now.

William looks down at the bag for a moment before looking back up at him.

"You didn't need to get me a present," he says.

"I know," Oliver tells him. "I wanted to. It's just… you'll see. I hope you like it."

The tentative air around William suddenly disappears as he digs in. The tissue paper crinkles as he searches for what's inside it, and when he finds it, he pauses. William slowly pulls the gift out, dropping the bag to the ground.

He stares at the baseball and pair of mitts that sit in his hand - one so much larger than the other, completely engulfing the smaller of the two - with big, tear-filled eyes and a huge smile.

In that moment,Oliver knows he got it right.

"I thought," Oliver says, his voice rough. "I thought that maybe we could play catch together."

William nods, staring down at the mitts and ball for a moment before looking back up. "I'd really like that, Daddy," he replies.

It's the second time he's called him 'Daddy' and it hits Oliver just as hard as it did the first time. There's a hint of hesitance about it both times, like he's trying it out, testing if he's allowed to use that word. Oliver cups the boy's face, rubs his thumb over his soft little cheek - there's still some baby fat left in his features, but it's fading fast and Oliver can see hints of the adolescent he'll become peeking through. There is nothing in this moment that he wants more than for his son to call him 'Daddy.' Absolutely nothing.

"Me too, son," he replies, the word slipping out naturally.

William pulls the gloves apart, handing Oliver his before he slips his hand into the smaller glove. He flexes the stiff leather before offering a blinding smile that goes right to Oliver's heart.

"Did your daddy play catch with you?" he asks.

"No," Oliver tells him, thinking back to his own childhood and the very transient nature of his father's influence on his life. "No, he definitely didn't. He was a pretty busy guy. He didn't really have the time."

"But you do?" William asks, all excitement tinged with nerves. "You have time?"

"I'll always make time for you, William," he promises. "Always."

If he'd thought his earlier smiles had been blinding, he was wrong, because this one nearly knocks him right over. William crushes him in a hug that knocks the wind right out of him, pinning the larger mitt and ball between them. But there are no tears this time, just complete and total happiness.

Knowing he did that, he gave his son that joy, is the best feeling he's had in months.

"My dad loved me," Oliver adds, thinking back, "but he wasn't around a lot."

It's another way he'll make up for his father's mistakes - by refusing to repeat them. He vows right here and now that he'll always drop everything for his kids. Arrow business, business business, anything. Because they deserve the best of him and the security of knowing he will be there when they need him, no matter what.

"So how do'ya know how to be a daddy, then?" William asks, pulling back to look him in the eye.

He thinks of Ellie, of all he learned from her, but those aren't words for William. They may never be, but they surely aren't right now. This moment isn't about her. It's about him, about them, about this tender, budding relationship forming between them.

"I guess I'm still learning," Oliver tells him, plucking the baseball from his son's fingers and holding it up between them. "Think you might be able to help me with that?"

"Definitely."

Chapter Text

February 2023

 

"Your what?"

Roy's confusion when Oliver had explained why he needed him to babysit had been completely understandable. If their roles had been reversed, Oliver would've raised an eyebrow, too.

"You do know you got married in December, right?" his brother-in-law had asked, the words coming out slowly, as if he'd been willing the words to sink in. Oliver had just sighed, which had prompted Roy to continue with, "Been taking a few too many knocks to the head there, Arrow?"

Usually that would have earned him a set of narrowed eyes and a threatening, "Do you wanna know what a knocked head feels like?" But Oliver had been in too good of a mood to let the snarky comment get to him. He'd simply smiled - a secret one, one that was meant for only him and Felicity - before telling Roy, "It's not that kind of anniversary."

The instant the smile had lit up his face, it'd taken Roy all of three seconds to jump to his next conclusion. He'd grimaced, putting a hand up to ward Oliver off. "Nope, stop right there," he'd said, blinking rapidly like he was trying to erase an image from his head. "I don't wanna know."

Oliver had chuckled at that. "Not that kind of anniversary either, Roy."

"Whatever, I really don't wanna know," Roy had replied. "I'll do it. Just stop smiling like that. It's creepy."

It wasn't a small favor he'd asked for, and Oliver knew it. On top of two very active little girls, they're currently housetraining a puppy and their eight-month-old son still doesn't do well when separated from his mother for any length of time. It doesn't help that Oliver knows his wife will be checking in on Roy and the kids every five minutes - unless he can keep her distracted, which he has every intention of doing. All of this with Thea currently in Central City, going through a new round of experimental treatments and her asking Roy to stay behind this time because of the emotional toll it takes on both of them, it was a lot.

He's gonna owe his brother-in-law big time, but it's worth it.

This kind of occasion doesn't happen often, and Oliver wants to savor the anniversary of one of the most important days of his life.

He hasn't been able to take his eyes off his wife since she'd come down the stairs with their son cradled against her chest, hair up, light catching her dress.

She'd been all business as she'd handed Nate to Roy, along with a very detailed list of everything he could possibly need to know about any situation ever, which had earned her an eye roll. That had led to her poking Roy in the bicep with each punctuating word as she'd said, "You call me if anything happens." She'd been barefoot at the time, considerably shorter than the two men around her, but that hadn't mattered because in that moment she'd been a mountain compared to Roy, making her even more beautiful than she already was. Roy had wilted, sheepishly replying with a gentle, "I will. I promise. Now get the hell out of here so we can watch bad TV."

"Roy!"

"Kidding, I'm kidding. Go, we'll be fine."

Oliver's banking on them being just that: fine. He loves his kids more than life itself, they are at the very top of the list of things he's done right in his life, but so is his wife.

And today is important.

He hurries around to her side of the car, his eyes on her where she's chewing on her bottom lip, concentrating on fixing an errant hair in the rearview mirror. Her phone sitting in her lap lights her skin in a soft blue glow. Oliver waves the valet off before the young man can reach Felicity's door, doing it himself with a soft smile. He holds out his hand for her and Felicity's face splits into a delighted grin.

"I don't know what's gotten into you tonight," she says, her fingers settling against his. "But I like it."

Oliver's smile widens. "We clearly need to do this more often then," he replies, shooting her a wink as he helps her out of the car.

"You'll hear no arguments from me." The dress she's wearing rides up as she gets out, widening the slit to reveal most of her gorgeous leg through the opening of her coat. Oliver can't help the way his gaze lingers on exactly where that hem hits her legs. The way those creamy legs of hers are offset by the sparkle of that too-short skirt makes him want to drag her back in the car and push it up her thighs the rest of the way. Later. That's for later. The moment she's standing, Felicity sighs, tugging the edge of the gold-sequined dress that barely hits her mid-thigh back down. "Although why I let you talk me into wearing this dress is another story entirely. This thing has 'donate me' written all over it."

"Don't you dare," Oliver says, tugging her closer.

He catches movement from the corner of his eye, signalling the valet stepping back to his station, giving them space and time. Even when another car pulls up behind theirs, he doesn't rush them, moving to help the other couple as Oliver and Felicity talk. He's getting a big tip.

"You really don't think it's too much?" Felicity asks with a skeptical raise of her eyebrow. She slips her phone back into her purse - she's only texted Roy twice about the kids, which is a minor miracle. She glances down and he follows her gaze, slipping his hands over her waist. Oh yes, he loves this dress, especially on her. She makes a ticking noise in her throat before glancing back at him. She huffs out a small laugh. "Well, the look on your face says it's great," she concedes. "But I'm not exactly 24 anymore, Oliver. I've had three children and these hips tell no lies."

Oliver hums, letting his hands slip a little lower. His fingers brush over said hips as he says, "I agree," with a wicked little grin. Felicity slaps his chest lightly, hissing out his name, which only makes him chuckle. He's well aware that they're in public, but he's also well aware that she's wearing a coat and that nobody can see his hands. They might make assumptions but… As if to prove that point, Oliver steps close enough that he can slide his hands down her ample backside.

"Hey," Felicity says with a burst of laughter, a light flush rushing up her neck. She tries to look stern, but she's smiling and there's a new gleam in her eye. Oh god yes, they're doing this more often if he gets to see that carefree look more often. "Hands, Mr. Representative."

"Sorry," Oliver says, retreating just enough that his hands are on her hips again.

"But seriously," Felicity says, that smile dimming as she furrows her brow. "I don't look silly, do I?"

Oliver has to bite his tongue to keep from telling her his usual response, because she absolutely does not. While she believes him when he reiterates how much he adores the way her body shape has been shifting - and he does, he loves it - she doesn't. She's had a harder time after her third pregnancy losing the weight she gained. His wife has always taken pride in taking care of herself and looking good while doing it. She'd dropped the weight almost instantly with Jules, and while it'd taken a little extra effort after Ellie, it'd disappeared quickly. But her weight has started settling differently, much to her dismay.

A dismay that is clearly evident right now.

"You look anything but silly," Oliver tells her, smoothing his hands down her waist. The dress is a little shorter than it used to be, maybe, but past that? "If anything, you look even more incredible than the first time I saw you in it."

And it's true. She takes his breath away in this dress, she always has, right back to the first time he'd seen the hint of gold as the crowd had parted. All he'd been capable of at the time was staring as she'd rambled into a verbal blunder about his family jewels.

Had someone told him what his life would be like now, he'd never have believed them.

But then, that's sort of the point of tonight.

"Although," Oliver adds, tossing his keys to the valet before pulling her into his side. He leans down to speak directly into her ear. "That might just be because this time I know I get to peel it off of you later." Felicity shivers, her breath quickening and he grins, lowering his voice even more, just how she likes it. "In fact I have half a mind to skip dinner and just drag you to the hotel right now."

"Oliver," she breathes, his name coming out in a broken whisper. It's been too damn long since he's heard her say his name like that, just like it's been too long since he's been able to take his time with her. Whether it's falling asleep the instant their head hits the pillow or waking up with kids cuddled between them, they just haven't had the time.

That's going to change, damn it.

Someone from the restaurant holds the door open for them, and he gives them a small nod and a quiet, "Thank you." Felicity takes a deep breath next to him, giving them a barely-there nod. He fights the urge to smile, reveling in how she leans into him. He can't help himself - the second they cross the threshold, he leans over one more time and whispers, "Or maybe I'll just drag you back out to the car for a quick bite."

Felicity falters for a split second, turning to look up at him. Her eyes are dark as they dart to his lips before meeting his gaze again. Her pupils are blown wide, a soft blush coloring her cheeks. It should be hokey, because it is, but they both also know that 'bite' can mean so, so many things. They know that, just as much as they both know he's only half-joking. She lets out a barely-there whimper and licks her lips before tugging one between her teeth. The stark contrast of her teeth against the crimson of her lips is sex as hell.

Really, the only reason he doesn't take her right back out there is because the maître d' has already spotted them.

"Whatever's gotten into you," Felicity says, her voice low, just for him, "I like it. A lot."

He smiles at her reiteration, before winking. "Pretty sure I'll be the one getting into you later," he whispers.

Felicity snorts. "Oh my god, Oliver," she says, shaking her head with a disbelieving giggle that makes Oliver grin.

"Representative and Mrs. Queen," the maître d' says with a deferential nod when they reach the front. "We're honored to have you dining with us."

"Thank you," Oliver replies, removing Felicity's coat before doing the same with his. The doorman is right there to take them for him. Felicity glances down at her dress once more, missing the appreciative glance the doorman gives her. He's not wrong, because she's absolutely stunning, but Oliver's not very keen on it, something the man catches onto when he catches Oliver's narrowed eyes. He rushes off, leaving Oliver to sidle up next to Felicity, his hand landing on her lower back as he kisses her temple, whispering, "You're beautiful."

Felicity flushes with pleasure.

Oh yes, he's definitely going to prove that to her as much as he can tonight.

"Right this way, please," the maître d' says before heading into the restaurant.

It's a relatively new place, and ridiculously exclusive. The wait list is months long… well, it usually was. There tend to be a few shortcuts when you're the mayor's son, a State Representative and your wife runs a very successful Fortune 500 company.

People just don't tell the Queens 'no.'

Still, this is far from their usual fare. They usually end up at family-friendly chains where the kids can color on the menus rather than restaurants with actual linen tablecloths, but Oliver had felt like marking this 'anniversary' in a special way. Big Belly Burger doesn't always work, despite the history and meaning they have there.

They're led to a table toward the back, tucked away for privacy but not completely cut off, which is just perfect. It takes Oliver a second to realize - he wasn't lying about having a damn hard time keeping his eyes off his wife - that the entire floor is all glass, and that the restaurant is essentially sitting on an enormous koi pond. It feels like he's standing in a giant aquarium, which is a little jarring, but one look at Felicity's delighted smile and he's more than okay with it as well.

It's been a long while since they've been out like this. Even in the early days they'd had Jules. They've always made an effort to make time for them, but it hasn't been easy. Three kids, two very busy day jobs and the less-than-sanctioned night job they share, well… Nights like these aren't common.

He intends to make the most of it.

The maître d' pulls out a chair for her, earning him a soft, "Oh, thank you," from his wife. Oliver is there a second later, waving the maître d' off with a little wink. The man instantly bows off as Oliver pushes in her chair himself. He spares a moment to lean forward and kiss her bare shoulder as he does. Felicity shivers, her breath catching, and he thrills at the way little goosebumps rise up against his lips.

Nine years, that's how long they've been together, and they've been married for just over six of them. Oliver swears he loves her a little bit more every single day. It's different, of course, and it's gotten a little easier, smoother. It's the kind of love that will last a lifetime and beyond, because it's so much more than just the fireworks between them. But it's also kept that. He can still do things like brush his lips over her shoulder or give her a suggestive line, just like he can still feel the heat rise up in his center at the thought of her voice laced with desperation as she cries out his name. They are lucky. He's lucky. This isn't the kind of balance he'd ever imagined for himself and it never ceases to stun him when he pauses to take stock of his life.

Oliver brushes his fingers across the back of her neck, making her shiver again before he takes his seat across from her. As he takes her hands in his across the table, Felicity asks, "You do realize that Valentine's Day is tomorrow, right?"

"I know," he replies, smoothing his thumb across the back of her knuckles. His gaze hones in on her wedding ring, the diamond catching the soft candlelight around them. He'll never get tired of seeing it on her finger, not ever. He suspects her sentiments are the same about his when she tangles their fingers together, hers brushing over his ring. "That's not what we're celebrating."

Felicity tilts her head. "Then what…?"

"Us," Oliver interrupts, bringing her fingers up to his lips. He kisses them gently. "We're celebrating ten years of us."

Confusion has her crinkling her nose. "We got together in May. We got married in December. We first met in October… I'm not connecting the dots, honey."

Before Oliver can respond, the waiter appears, using a stealth level Oliver rarely sees outside those on his team or his oldest child when she's attempting to sneak cookies. He shows up out of the blue, wielding menus and a wine list.

Nothing has prices, which is good. While they may have an obscene amount of money, Felicity still hasn't gotten used to having large amounts spent on her.

Oliver only half pays attention to the man's greeting and introduction of the specials, and he doesn't even glance at the wine list before saying, "We'll have your best red, please."

Felicity's eyes wide - she knows what no prices mean - and she laughs. "Oliver!"

"And we'll need a moment for the rest of the order," Oliver continues as if she hadn't interrupted, sliding his hand back to hers. He slips his palm against hers, his fingertips teasing the inside of her wrist.

The waiter doesn't have to be told twice. As he hurries off, Felicity's smile deepens, reaching her eyes, highlighting the beautiful crinkles along the edges that have just started to line her face. "What in the world is going on with you tonight?" she asks.

"You," he tells her simply. "You're what's going on with me." She raises her eyebrows, obviously waiting for a clearer answer, and the expectant look on her face has a weird burst of nerves hitting his stomach. Which is amazing, because even after all these years, she still makes him feel that way. Oliver licks his lips. "Ten years ago today, you took a risk. On me. On us. Although neither of us really knew that at the time." He strokes her wrist softly as he talks. "Ten years ago today, you saved my life, in the first of so many ways. And you became my partner in the first of so many ways, too."

It takes a second before recognition dawns across her lovely face, and her breath catches. Her finger flex around his hand, like she's trying to hold onto him, to the memory, to that very instant that they'd become a them in any real sense of the word.

Plenty of moments in their lives are worth marking the anniversary of, but they've never celebrated this one before. They should have, Oliver thinks, because maybe it's the most important one of them all.

"Ten years," she echoes, eyes locked with his.

Oliver nods.

"Ten years," he repeats. "You know, you told me once that we're the kind of people who fight with every breath we have to make the world better. That it's not safe or easy, but that nothing worthwhile really is. Something in me must have known that about you, even back then, when all that was between us was an attraction that definitely was not one-sided. That, and a handful of really terrible lies." Felicity lets out a small laugh, and it's music to his ears. "But ten years ago today, I chose to trust you and you chose to believe me. I think that deserves celebrating. Don't you?"

"Yeah," Felicity whispers, her teeth digging into her lower lip as she smiles at him. It's so bright it's blinding, intoxicating, and it steals his breath away. "I do."

That there's a table between them suddenly feels wrong.

By the time the sommelier comes by with their wine and the waiter returns to take their order, Oliver's scooted his chair to his wife's side like they're at home with their two little girls across from them and Nate passed out in his playpen nearby.

It's almost routine the easy way they settle in next to each other. His hand drifts up and down her back, catching along the gold sequins before smoothing them out again. Her head leans against his shoulder in a silent show of affection as she sighs in contentment.

This is them.

Or, at least, it's part of them. Their evening is just beginning.

The wine is rich and well-aged, a full-palate experience with a great nose. Oliver enjoys it, but the only thing that makes it worth the undoubtedly absurd price is his wife's obvious delight. She hums as she sips at it, licking her lips before taking one more. Her lips are mesmerizing, but that in combination with the way her throat moves as she swallows has his mind jumping to places that are so not public-friendly.

His pants tighten as he leans closer to her. He slides his hand between her legs and up the inside of her thigh, pushing the fabric of her dress out of the way. He relishes the feel of her soft skin under his calloused fingertips. Her fingers tighten around her wineglass, her eyes flying to his.

"You don't suppose they'd give us these to-go, do you?" he asks

Felicity's wine-stained lips part in a soft pant, her eyelids growing heavy with a want he knows all too well. She leans back in her chair and spreads her legs for him, just enough to slip his hand up as high as he wants to go, causing her dress to ride up even more. Oliver inhales sharply when he feels the warmth waiting for him.

"We're already here," Felicity says, giving him a little smile. "And… if memory serves…" She toes her heels off under the table and wraps a leg around his calf. She leans in, her lips brushing over his stubbled cheek, causing him to grip her thigh tightly. "We're pretty good at making the most of a situation. Don't you think?"

"Felicity," he says, his voice low enough to rival his modulator. It has her thighs clenching around his hand, which makes him groan.

"Yes?" she asks breathily, pushing his sock down with her toes, dragging his pants up his leg a few inches. His mind blanks on him as those sky-blue toenails he'd watched paint her yesterday scrape against his calf. "Were you going to say something, Oliver?"

She's teasing him, so blatantly and with so much joy that it makes his every single nerve feel extra sensitive to her touch. He'd thought he'd had her earlier, but oh, he'd been wrong. She'd had him, just like always. It's just been so long since they'd been able to do this. Between Nate's birth and his campaign and subsequent election, they've been busy. Too busy, he realizes, because it's almost shocking how much he needs this, needs her.

A violent surge of want rockets through him, every bit of his concentration on her toes teasing his calf and the growing heat between her firm thighs. He's suddenly damn tempted to get her off right then and there with his fingers, but Felicity doesn't give him the chance.

She sets her wineglass down, freeing her hand to land on his thigh. She nuzzles the side of his face as she slides her hand up just enough for her fingers to graze the growing hardness in his pants.

"Fuck," Oliver mutters under his breath, making her grin.

"Not yet," she replies sweetly. "That's for later."

The hell it is.

Oliver pushes his hand further up her thigh, his fingers catching on the fabric of her panties - and goddamn it, they're lace. Felicity's breath catches, her legs opening up just enough for him to press the back of his fingers to the damp material. Her fingers twitch on his thigh as he grazes her heat, just enough for her pinky to drag right over his hardness.

The temptation to bribe everyone around him to clear the hell out so he could have his way with his wife roars to life inside him. Discretion is part of the selling point at a place like this, and as the world starts to fade in a hazy blur, he almost, almost gives in.

Until the waiter clears his throat slightly, the only indication that their food is about to arrive.

"Goddamn it," Oliver whispers at the interruption, the soft exclamation making Felicity giggle.

They pull away from each other, just enough to be decent - thank god for these tables and their linen cloths, hiding everything that they do.

Felicity looks just as affected as he feels, the flush in her cheeks making her glow as the server sets down their food with minimal fanfare. Just as quickly as they'd arrived, the waiter and server disappear, leaving the alone once more. The food looks delicious, but Oliver could really care less, because his hand is still between his wife's legs and her foot is still in his pants and all he really wants to do is make her squirm. Or at the very least just inhale the food, pay the check and get her back to the hotel he'd booked for the evening.

That's the plan, at least, until Felicity lets out a sharp little laugh that snaps him back to reality. As if that wasn't enough she withdraws her foot from his leg and tugs her skirt down, effectively pushing his hand away. He's more than a few steps behind her, his brain lingering on the fact that his wife is wearing lace underwear that he's going to pull off her body with his teeth.

"What?" Oliver asks.

"Very covertly, take a look at who's at the bar," she replies as she takes a forkful of caramelized scallops with some sort of fruity-smelling sauce atop it. He's about to do as she instructs, but then her lips wrap around the fork and it's distracting. "Oh wow, this is great. You should try a bite. After you look at the bar."

With a frown - because what the hell - he does, and when he sees what she's talking about, the lusty haze disappears in an an instant. It's quickly replaced with a buzzing sense of urgency, his thumb rubbing against his index finger, his body itching to get to his weapon as he sits up taller, inadvertently shielding Felicity.

"Is that…?"

"Callihan?" she fills in. "As in Pat Callihan? Leader of the Irish Mob Callihan, the one we've been trying to find for months? Yes, I do believe it is." She holds out a fork with a scallop on it. "You really do have to try this, it's fantastic."

Mindlessly, Oliver takes a bite off her fork. Strawberry flavor bursts across his tongue. The fruit topping is strawberry salsa and she's right, it's damn good. Ellie would love it, he randomly thinks, but the rest of his brain is occupied with the realization that the goddamn Irish Mob just interrupted his anniversary dinner.

"It's sorta great, isn't it?" Felicity asks.

"Delicious," Oliver agrees absently, turning to glance once more at the man sitting at the bar.

"No, not that," she says before waving her fork at the plate. "Although these are amazing. But I meant that," Felicity finishes, covertly tilting her head towards Callihan.

How in hell is the presence of the Irish Mob on their incredibly rare date night a positive thing? He gets why it's a good thing, in the grand scheme, but did it have to be tonight?

Felicity smiles at him, reading his incredulity accurately. She leans over, cupping his cheek. "We're celebrating ten years of being a badass crime-fighting team, Oliver," she says, dragging her nails through his beard, love shining from her eyes. "Bringing down the head of the Irish Mob seems like a helluva good way to celebrate to me."

Oliver can only stare at her, at the simple determination, the steadfast confidence, the certainty that that is indeed the best way to celebrate. Because it is. As much as they're the occasional dates and family dinners, they're this, too. And their partnership has always been about so much more than just them.

"You're remarkable," he says softly. She grins, looking pleased. Before he can think twice, Oliver cups her cheek and kisses her, a soft press of the lips that's more about recognition than anything. Felicity sighs, kissing him back. It's not nearly long enough, but they don't have the time. Pulling back, Oliver nods, his eyes darting back to Callihan. "Okay. So… we need a plan."

Felicity hums her agreement before dropping a kiss to his shoulder. It's honest, but it's also meant to steal her own surreptitious glance toward the bar again.

"I think," she says, taking another bite of her food, "we start off by eating. Your lobster risotto is getting cold and that poor waiter might have a heart attack if he lets down the big bad Representative Queen."

"Felicity, I'm serious."

"So am I," she replies. "I think all of the staff is on high alert." He huffs at that as she takes a sip of her wine. Even with the sudden change in their circumstances, she still takes a second to enjoy it. It makes him shake his head with wonder. "Plus, we haven't drawn Callihan's attention and I don't think we will if we, you know, act normal."

Oliver gives her a cheeky grin. "Is that your way of saying my hand between your legs is normal?"

"Yes," she replies without missing a beat. Despite the circumstances, the surety in her voice has the need from earlier stirring inside him again. He lifts a challenging eyebrow at her, but she glances at the bar again. "Besides, he just sat down. He doesn't even have his drink yet, and he's obviously waiting for someone." She pats his thigh. "We have time."

With a sigh, Oliver settles back in his chair. It takes him a second to realize his shoulders are tense and he forces himself to relax. He's not here as the Arrow, he's here as Oliver Queen, State Representative on a date with his beautiful wife. With that in mind, Oliver drapes his arm around Felicity's shoulders, his fingers drifting over her bare shoulder as he starts eating.

He keeps Callihan in his peripheral the entire time, though. He hears the logic behind Felicity's plan, but still, he prefers action over waiting. As aggravated as he is at the mobster's timing and as much as he wants to pretend it's still just them, he can't. It's not in his nature, because he can do something about it. And he will. He's not about to let Callihan walk, not if he can help it. Especially with his wife right there.

"You think he's waiting for Morrissey?" Oliver asks.

Felicity shrugs. "That'd be my guess. We'll have to wait and see, which means we get to eat our delicious food and drink this delicious wine and…"

Oliver can't quite help himself, adding to her list, "My fingers in those lace panties of yours."

Thankfully she's not drinking her wine because she inhales sharply at the connotation. He winks at her, making Felicity chuckle as she slips him a sly smile.

"And then you, my love," she continues, not commenting on his addition, "can go change into your other suit while I call Captain Lance. By the time the police get here, you'll have given them the old one-two punch," she says, using her fork as emphasis. "Or arrow, as the case would be, and then we can head on our merry way." Felicity's face lights up with a bright smile. "Look at that, it's our anniversary and we're the ones gift-wrapping two presents for the SCPD. We're so thoughtful."

Oliver grins, and when the urge to lean over and kiss her takes over, he gives in completely. Mostly because he wants to and because he loves her, but also because it lets him get closer to her, his arm sliding further around her shoulders. For all intents and purposes, they're a couple simply enjoying each other's company… as well as his trying to physically prove to himself that she's safe in his arms. He approximates normal, average, although in truth he and Felicity are anything but that. They're a team, ten years in the making.

"Morrissey's here," Felicity tells him as she takes a sip of wine. The second Oliver sees the same thing, he waves the waiter to their table. The young man is already prepared with the check. Oliver barely glances over it before handing him his credit card. When he's out of earshot, Felicity asks, "Do you think we should call John?"

"No," Oliver replies, shaking his head as he takes in their surroundings. This is a low-level meeting; there's next to none of Callihan's usual backup. He slips his hand in hers, the light catching on her wedding right. "We've got this, partner."

Felicity laughs under her breath, rolling her eyes playfully. She scans the bar. "He's got two men with him," she notes. "It looks like Morrissey only has one."

"Sloppy," Oliver notes.

"Maybe he couldn't pay the tab here for more goons," she says. "He's usually a ghost. A very well-protected ghost, but still a ghost. You really didn't know he'd be here?"

"No," Oliver replies, scanning the restaurant. "The only thing I'd planned on doing tonight was wooing my wife and then taking her to a hotel room to have my way with her."

"I sure hope that's still part of the plan."

"Oh, it definitely is," Oliver says, slipping his hand over her lap. He squeezes her thigh before getting back to the task at hand. They've done this a thousand times, it seems. "You have a spare bug in your purse?"

"Well, now that's a ridiculous question," Felicity replies, and yeah, it sort of is. His wife always has a wealth of tech with her, but since she's been using her diaper bag more often than not lately, he hadn't known what she'd transferred to her purse. "'Do I have a bug?'' she repeats, digging into her purse. "Have we even met?"

"Once or twice," Oliver replies dryly. "Your memory seems a little foggy. I think we might have to get reacquainted later." He glances at her, his eyes taking all of her in. "You know. For a reboot."

Her eyes flash with a mixture of amusement and something far better: need. Her reaction is quick and visceral, a sure sign that they don't do this often enough. The sight of it has his own rising again. Their eyes stay locked on each other, the recognition of the desire that lives between them tangible. He swears it's just as intense as their first few months together, their first few years. It's never faded. Not for the first time, Oliver wishes that Callihan was literally anywhere else but on the opposite side of the room, demanding their attention. It's a huge break for them, and he knows it, but it's still their date night.

"I'm not sure my husband would like that very much," Felicity says, leaning into him. She slips her hand along the lapel of his suit jacket before pressing her fingers inside. He feels her warm hand through his shirt as she presses her palm to his chest.

"Oh trust me," he whispers. "Your husband would like that very, very much." He grips her thigh tighter where it's still wrapped around her legs, keeping his voice low. "So much so that I'm suddenly having a hard time understanding why I'm not just getting you off right now."

He understands it, actually, more than he wants to, but the way her breath hitches and her mouth falls open is so, so worth it.

"Well then," Felicity says, slipping her hand further down his chest. Her eyes dart down to the front of his pants where his arousal is obvious. "We better get moving." She leans in closer, kissing the shell of his ear light enough to make him shiver before finishing with, "I do so love to please my husband."

"Damn it," Oliver groans as his body instantly reacts. At this rate he's never going to get his Arrow suit on. His slacks are too tight, he can't imagine those damn leather pants. With a ragged exhale, he sits up, pulling her hand away. "At this rate, we're never going to get out of here."

Felicity looks contrite, but she can't quite erase her smirk. She takes just as much pride in her ability to get a reaction out of him as he does her. And Oliver is well-aware that he is just as complicit in this; he needs to keep his hands to himself.

"Callihan first," she says with a definitive nod.

"Callihan first." Oliver readjusts in his chair - damn it, this might be a problem. "Callihan," he repeats.

"Yes," Felicity says. "Callihan. The Irish Mob boss who's moving in on our neighborhood with drugs and guns - our actual neighborhood. Where we live with our kids."

Right.

Well, that's an effective temporary damper.

"Let's do this," Oliver says. He leans over for a quick kiss before getting up, helping her with hers. "Are you thinking the table, or…?" he asks, referring to the bug.

Felicity shakes her head. "No, the tablecloths are in the way. I think I'll head to the restroom." She smiles. "Powder my nose."

Before he can argue - and really, his only argument is that she's going to walk right by them - she's off. Oliver moves to go after her before stopping himself. She's recognizable, absolutely, but not nearly as much as he is. He presses his lips together, keeping his eye on her as she moves. Just as the waiter brings back the check and his card, Felicity stumbles, right into a post ten feet away from Callihan and Morrissey. Oliver knows she's placed the bug by the way her hand moves, but the people around her don't, the ones who rush to aid her, including those scumbags' bodyguards. Thankfully his wife is already up and waving people off, thanking them, offering explanations for her gaffe before she disappears into the bathroom.

"Can you bring our jackets, please?" Oliver asks the waiter.

"Of course, sir."

Felicity's barely in there for a minute before she's on her way out, heading straight for him where he stands ready with their coats.

"Got it?" Oliver asks when she reaches him. He holds her jacket out and she turns, shrugging into it with his aid.

"Yep," she says, wiggling her phone at him with a smile. It's not the app for the feed, though, just like her smile isn't about the bug, either. Her phone screen is on her messages, and there's one new one. He stills her hand long enough to see it's a text from Roy asking what they fed Nate because he's pretty sure it's not possible for a human to need that many diaper changes in two hours, but everything else seems fine.

It's a relief to both of them, but most definitely to his wife. This is the first time she's really been further away from Nate than the few floors between QI and its in-house daycare. He - along with Callihan showing up - had been doing a pretty good job of distracting her. But now, judging by the way she bites her lip and moves to answer the text right there, she's antsy again, eager to get more information.

"The kids are fine," Oliver says, pulling her hair out from underneath her jacket collar for her. When Felicity turns to look up at him, he leans in for a quick peck. "Let's go do what we do best."

"Okay," she replies, a little reluctantly. "But first we need to take care of Callihan."

Oliver chuckles, wrapping his arm around her waist as he turns to leave. "Cute."

"Yes," she confirms, leaning into him. "I am."

When Felicity pushes her arm underneath his jacket, wrapping it around his waist, he decides very quickly that he's glad she's wearing her coat. He can feel her generous curves through the material and considering how very close to the edge he's been for the most of the night, it's best that there's a barrier between them. Glancing down at her, his eyes dance down her front and oh hell, he suddenly has a new appreciation for this dress fits her. She's only just recently given up breastfeeding, which means she's still… ample.

Focus.

And he does. But his hands have a life all their own. He lets his fingers drift from her waist down to the curve of her hip. He fans them out across the ridge of her hipbone. It's not indecent placement, really, but the way he tightens his fingers against her body and how he nuzzles his face against the side of her head, his lips lingering against her temple, is not entirely appropriate.

"Oliver," she chastises, although it comes out less like beratement and more like encouragement. He grins, leaning down further to kiss her cheek, moving down to her jaw and her neck. Felicity bites her tongue to keep in a chuckle, but it doesn't work all that well. She pushes on his face - barely - as she says, "Oliver, focus."

"Oh, I'm very focused," he replies, which only makes her laugh more, which is fine, really. To anyone looking on, they probably look like a happy couple who are in love. And they are.

But they aren't just that, not that anyone needs to know that much.

The minute they're out of the restaurant, they're all business. As the valet brings their car around, Felicity pulls up the feed on her phone to keep an eye on Callihan. When their car appears, Oliver is right there, tipping the man - handsomely, as he'd promised - before opening the door for her and running to his side.

"Where we at?" Oliver asks as he gets behind the wheel.

"No change," Felicity advises.

Oliver pulls out of the parking lot and immediately turns onto a side street nearby, one he knows leads to an alleyway. "Traffic cams?" he asks as he carefully makes his way to a more secluded area.

"Already on it," she replies, her eyes never leaving the screen. "Did that in the bathroom." Oliver pulls the SUV behind a dumpster and shifts into park as Felicity shakes her head. "Why can't these guys look at my bug while they talk? I'm getting every tenth word here. So far all I know is that Callihan hates sushi. Or possibly he hates people who like sushi. Could be either. Could be both."

Oliver climbs into the back of the car. Even as spry as he is, it's not an easy task, and the SUV rocks with his efforts. This was definitely not the kind of rocking he'd had in mind tonight. The kids' car seats are bulky and cumbersome, but he eventually makes it past them and into the back. He yanks up the false floor to expose where the spare tire is usually kept, but instead it's his duffle bag with his spare Arrow suit, bow and quiver of arrows.

You can't ever be too prepared - for anything, he realizes as he pushes Felicity's backup diaper bag out of the way before he starts shedding his clothes. Unless they have a flat tire, but that's a problem for another day.

"All three bodyguards are armed," his wife reports from the front as he trades his suit pants for his leather ones. "Not that that's a surprise. You got a plan to keep this from being a bloodbath with the restaurant staff? These guys look hostage-prone."

Oliver winces. She's right. The best way would be to get him out of the restaurant, out in the open somewhere away from potential victims caught in the crossfire.

"How many people are in there?" he asks, shrugging on his jacket before moving to tie up his boots.

"Too many," Felicity says. "Tables might be sparse to give the illusion of not being busy, but they're all full. Even ours is already getting seated. This place is booked out for months." She nods. "But wow, is that well-earned because those scallops were just-"

"I'll take you back," Oliver promises, cutting her off as he tosses his bow and quiver towards the front before climbing back into the front seat. His hood is down, mask in hand, and his knee nearly lands in a half-empty discarded cup of juice. God, kids are such a mess. Wouldn't that be a dead giveaway, the Arrow showing up with spit-up on his shoulder and smelling of apple juice.

News at eleven.

"We really need to clean the car out," Oliver says as he settles back in the driver seat.

"I did earlier," Felicity replies. Oliver shoots her an incredulous look, but she's already saying, "I know, but you should have seen it this morning. Fries and Jules' crayons all over the floor.. I'm pretty sure it's Ellie getting sticker happy on the backseat, too." Despite the sad thing being that he knows she's probably right - one kid is a mess, but add two more and it's mayhem - it still warms his heart. It will never cease to amaze him that this is life. "Here," Felicity says, trading him her phone for his mask. She pulls it over his head, adjusting it until it's perfect. She cups his face, gazing at him with a soft glow of love before leaning forward to press a lingering kiss to his lips. "Still look like my hero."

A flush of pleasure and happy bashfulness skates across his skin. She hadn't looked at him like that ten years ago, not yet anyway. In hindsight, he can see the foundation for it building, though. Even at his darkest she saw the very best of him, helped him grow to be the very best version of himself.

Oliver doesn't just love her. He loves who he is when he's with her, because of her, because of them.

That's incredible on an entirely different level.

He leans forward, kissing her again, reverently, willing her to feel his love and gratitude for her.

It's supposed to be a quick peck, a gentle kiss to show her how he feels, but the heat from earlier is still very present and one second it's easy and the next it's escalating. Felicity sighs, one hand sliding to the back of his neck as she opens her lips just as Oliver slides his tongue along her bottom one. With a groan, Oliver angles his head and deepens the kiss, swallowing her little gasps as he practically ravages her. She kisses him back with just as much ardor, her gasps turning into moans that fill the car. The kiss takes over, fogging his mind, eliminating everything but her and this moment.

There's something singularly poetic about kissing her in his Arrow suit in the remnants of their messy, perfect lives.

Oliver only pulls back when the burn for oxygen is too much.

"Mm," Felicity breathes, licking her lips, chasing the taste of him. He can't stifle his groan at the sight of her tongue peeking out, nor can he stop himself from pulling her back for one more kiss. This one is quicker, but just as passionate, and goddamn his Arrow pants because they're getting more uncomfortable with each passing second. Felicity pulls back, humming, shaking her head. "Okay, we need to take these guys down fast. Like now, right now." She kisses him again, and again, her words punctuating each one as she says, "As much as I love how appropriate this is, I need you, Arrow. Now."

That is both the very right and the very wrong thing to say.

"Fuck, Felicity," Oliver whispers, his voice a gravelly mess. It makes her shiver and he kisses her hard before pulling back. "Right. Let's get this done." He reaches for the door handle without a second thought, not until Felicity grabs his arm, making him look back at her. "What?"

"Do you have a plan?" she asks. "For all the people in there?"

Oliver blinks, because no, he didn't have a plan. His brain was still on her lips, not on saving people, and that's just not gonna cut it. And going in half-cocked - ha, his wife would laugh at that one - could very well lead to something going very wrong. He shakes his head, trying to think of something that would both work and be done fast as hell…

"What about like at the school last October?"

Felicity furrows her brow, not following… and then she suddenly does. Her eyes widen. "Are you seriously comparing taking down an Irish mobster to you cornering our oldest daughter about pushing kids on the playground?"

"Well, when you put it that way," he says with a grimace. "But yeah. Only with arrows instead of an ice cream truck."

"I can't decide which idea is more disturbing," his wife says as she shakes her head. "Using your parenting techniques in your vigilantism or vigilantism techniques in your parenting." She blinks. "Actually, what might be most disturbing is that I totally know what you're talking about and I agree with you. I guess it's unorthodox parenting for the win. Yay."

"That works," Oliver says with a chuckle, giving her another quick kiss before handing her phone back. He grabs two comm units from the center console and hands one to her, slipping the other in his ear. "I'll be back in a bit."

"You better be," Felicity replies. "I might be tempted to start without you."

"Don't you dare," Oliver says with so much seriousness that it's ridiculous. It makes his wife laugh as she looks back at her screen.

He slips out of the car. The alleyway is deserted, but he scales the side of the brick-faced building anyway just to be safe. He's sprinted across these rooftops for more than a decade now, and his feet know exactly where to go. In moments, he's perched atop the high-priced clothing store his mother likes that sits right next to the restaurant, lying in wait.

"Ice cream truck might work here, actually," Felicity says over the comm. The mental image of drawing off errant employees and staunch henchmen with Klondike bars has Oliver laughing under his breath. "I mean, who doesn't like ice cream, right?"

"You never know," he replies. "One of them might be lactose intolerant and kill the whole plan."

"Damn," she says with a long-suffering sigh. "Way to foil the plan. I guess we'll just have to…" She cuts herself off abruptly and Oliver instantly tenses. "You're up, Arrow. And we lucked out, Morrissey stayed behind with his burly fella, so it's just Callihan and his goons heading out. It looks like they're going out the front."

"Good," Oliver says, already moving. "We need Morrissey on the streets." And they do. He's small fish, more willing to make contacts that save his ass than out of loyalty to any one person. And he's far easier to track than the Irish Mob boss. "How long?"

"Thirty seconds."

When the doors open, Oliver's ready.

Callihan is all bravado as he steps outside, pulling a case of cigarettes out of his pocket. One of his men has the valet running off for their car just as the doorman closes the door behind them. The second the area is clear of civilians, Oliver lets loose a pair of arrows. They find their targets easily, dropping each bodyguard to the ground. One's head lands on the sidewalk with a solid thunk, knocking him out as the other screams in pain, his now-useless arm hanging limply at his side, the arrow having severed a nerve.

Oliver's already shooting another arrow as Callihan whips his head around, taking in the carnage. The zipline arrow lands in the brick of the building and Oliver slides down it with one hand, landing in front of the mobster within seconds. The large Irish man stumbles back as Oliver advances on him, pulling an arrow that he aims right at the man's head.

"Patrick Callihan," Oliver growls. "You have failed this city."

"That never gets old," Felicity whispers in his ear. "Still gives me chills."

But Oliver doesn't get the chance to be distracted by his wife because Callihan's face twists with rage and then he's pulling out a pistol from his pocket. Instinct more than anything has Oliver slipping out a small arrow from the holster on his arm and throwing it right at him. In a tremendous display of accuracy, the thin projectile finds its home in the barrel of the gun.

Callihan tosses the useless weapon away and turns to run back into the restaurant. Oliver's faster though. One arrow aimed at the door has a cord wrapping around the handle, effectively sealing it off from the mobster, and another aims right for Callihan's knee. His bloodcurdling scream echoes through the streets as he stumbles, but with a, "No, you'll have to kill me first," the man shows a surprising amount of agility and spins away before Oliver can reach him, darting down the sidewalk.

"That can be arranged," Oliver snaps, going after him.

Pat Callihan should be glad it's 2023 and not 2012, because Oliver would have surely put him in the ground without a second thought. The mobster has been moving in on his neighborhood, endangering the people who he represents as well as his own wife and kids. He would deserve it, but it'd be too easy. Instead, Oliver catches up to him and, after a short-lived fight that Callihan is sorely ill-prepared for, Oliver yanks the arrow out of his leg, earning him another scream, before ramming it through Callihan's hand, spearing the man to a tree.

"SCPD is four minutes out," Felicity reports. "And since I don't actually have eyes on you, I'm judging from the very loud yelling going on in the background that you've got Callihan pinned down?"

"Literally," Oliver replies just as the echo of sirens become more distinct. He takes a second to punch the sputtering mobster hard enough that it knocks him out, leaving him hanging limply from his hand before Oliver shoots another zipline at the closest building. As he flies up into the air, he tells his wife, "Callihan's secured."

"Great! Are you headed back then?"

"No," Oliver says, landing with a soft thud on the roof.

Felicity's disappointment is palpable. "What, why?"

"Because Morrissey could have easily called for backup," Oliver replies. He looks back just in time to see SCPD squad cars filling the street. The conscious bodyguard gets up and tries to get away, but three cops are on him, guns pulled, shouts filling the air. He scans the area. "He had to have heard the screams. I'm not risking leading anyone back to you."

He can hear her smile in her voice as she says, "Okay, Arrow." She's clearly placating him, although his reasons are damn valid. He hears rustling over the line as she slides into the driver seat. "Meet you at the hotel, then?"

"Yeah," he replies, making sure one last time that the SCPD have all three men before he ziplines to the next building over. "Bring the bag."

"Yes, dear."

"And," Oliver adds as he steadily makes his way to the hotel, "You'll have to tell me which direction the balcony's facing."

There's more rustling and the sound of the car door slamming shut - she's clearly already there - before she pauses, knowing where he's going with that inquiry.

"You better not be thinking about scaling a twenty-story building, mister," she says under her breath, her words punctuated by her heels as she heads inside. "I can just drop the bag or leave it somewhere."

"It's fine," he replies, much to her exasperation if her scoff is anything to go by. But she's already inside, so she can't berate him anymore just yet. He hears her loud and clear as she talks to a clerk in the lobby.

"Reservation for Queen… The honeymoon suite? Oh, for… And which floor is that on?" He smiles, already knowing the answer and what her response will be. "The top floor? Right. Of course it is. He doesn't do anything easy, does he?" The caustic remark is all for him and he chuckles loud enough for her to hear. "No, no," she continues, talking to the clerk. "That's fine, it's perfect. Thank you."

"Three minutes away," he tells her, her heels on the marble floor the only indication that she's moving.

"You do not need to climb this building," Felicity says quietly. A ding in the background signals the elevator. "If you fall, I'm going to be pissed, Oliver."

"I won't fall," he replies, his lips twitching into a smile as the hotel comes into view. Had he known what the night held for them, he'd have picked an older building with a fire escape. Still, it's doable, despite the fact that only the top floor suites have balconies, which means he's going to have to bounce between a few of them to reach the top. Well, nobody can say he hasn't ever enjoyed a challenge. "Thanks for the vote of confidence, honey."

"Oh shush," she retorts. "This is dumb. I can drop the bag. It's not like I'm trying to hit a bullseye."

"There are streets on all four sides of hotel," Oliver says. "How about we play to our strengths?"

"Our 'strengths'," she repeats. A soft beep tells him she's reached their suite. "I can't believe you right now."

"You wanna kill the street lights and cameras on our side of the building?" he asks. He's about five stories up on the current building he's standing on, it's not terrible. It's manageable, although he better do it right because falling would not be good. Not that he's going to tell her that. "I'll find my way up. Which way is our balcony facing?"

Felicity sighs, and he knows she's rolling her eyes as she makes her way through the suite. He catches sight of some lights turning on just as she says, "We're facing the river."

"Perfect," Oliver says. She's right in front of him, then, which is also the perfect side to climb because there's a high rise right across Bayfront Drive, facing their side of the hotel that he can bounce off of and swing onto their balcony from.

He's already shooting an arrow up as she turns on more lights.

"This place is ridiculous," Felicity says. "You should see this hot tub."

"I plan on it," he replies as he flies up into the air. He lands on a ledge about halfway on the high rise, his eyes on their room. "That was part of the plan, you know."

Despite her aggravation with him and his choice of entrance, he catches her light pant and he swears he hears her licking her lips. "Oh?"

"Mmhmm," Oliver continues as he plans his next move. "I was going to peel that beautiful dress off with my teeth and kiss every inch of you." She's completely silent on the other end of the phone. "I wanted to feel you coming around my fingers first before I got you into that tub… Did you notice it has jets? Remember Bali?"

She lets out a soft whine. He knows she remembers Bali. The hot tub in their hotel room there hadn't been nearly as big as the one waiting for him upstair, but it'd been powerful. He'd positioned them perfectly so the jet was aimed right between her legs as he'd entered her from behind and he hadn't stopped until she was completely spent.

Oh yes, they are using the hell out of that hot tub.

"Get the hell up here, Oliver," she says, her voice low.

He's already on his way.

There's an overhang on the highrise, just high enough that he's barely a few floors above the hotel, giving him the perfect view into their room. The room is huge, as is the balcony, almost a second living space with its sitting areas and firepit. Parts of it are enclosed, offering privacy, and a second later, Felicity appears from behind one of the partitions. Her tablet is in hand, her jacket open so he can see the hint of gold sequins and the delicious curve of her legs and breasts. His pants have been tight all night, but seeing her there, knowing the softness and warmth waiting for him, it has him hardening all over again. God, he wants her, right now. He wants to feel her fall apart underneath, feel her quaking around him, hear her gasps and cries.

A gentle breeze pushes her hair off her face as she looks up at him, like she knows exactly where he is.

Felicity waves at him. "The view's great from here."

"Not so bad over here, either," he replies.

She laughs, shaking her head before looking down at her tablet. A second later, the lights on their side of the building go off, and then a second later, so do the streetlights.

Oliver doesn't waste a second. The instant the world goes dim, he lets loose an arrow. It lands with a solid thunk, the grappling hooks connecting solidly evident over the line. It elicits a surprised, "Oh," from Felicity just as he jumps off the side of the overhang.

A few seconds later, he's on their balcony.

He lands with a barely-audible thud, a shadow in the dark. Years of practice has honed his vision at night, letting him acclimate a lot quicker than she can. She didn't see him coming in, not yet, and she's still scanning the building, like she's waiting. The lights are still off, leaving her silhouetted against the dim lights coming up from passing cars down on the street.

Oliver whips his quiver off and crouches down enough to set it and his bow down on a table.

The creak of his leather gives him away.

Felicity's head whips towards him with startled, "Oliver?" but he's already there, wrapping his arms around her from behind. She gasps as he presses her closer to the balcony railing, plastering the front of his body to the back of hers. He winds his arms around her, burying his face into the crook of her neck, pushing his hips against her plump ass. She lets out a little laugh, shaking her head as she whispers, "You're really good at that."

"Which part?" he asks, nuzzling his face into her neck. His stubble scrapes over the sensitive skin there and she shivers with another gasp, her head falling back, giving him more access. And he takes it, he takes all of it, hugging her close as he can get her. His leather and her jacket are in the way, and it's a damn nuisance, but it's okay, because he licks and nips a steady line up the length of her throat. When he reaches her ear, he repeats, "Which part?"

"What?" she asks, her voice hoarse.

He wants to hear more.

"Which part am I good at?" he asks.

"All of it," she answers mindlessly, her hand coming up to the back of his head.

Oliver's lips quirk up in a pleased smile. He tugs his gloves off, needing to feel her under his hands as he presses himself closer. He keeps her back flush against his chest, angling her away from the high balcony, knowing she doesn't want to look down. He winds his arms around her waist, cradling her close as he sucks on her earlobe.

His name comes off her lips in a rasp as he runs his hand over her curves, the sequins getting caught on his callouses, but not enough for him to stop. He slips them up her rounded abdomen to her breasts. Felicity moans when he cups them, the sound taking on a sharp tenor when he thrusts his hips against her, letting her feel how much he needs her.

There's a bite of chill to the air around them, making her warmth all the more welcoming.

Felicity turns her head to his, angling her head to capture his lips. The instant they meet he groans, opening for her and she takes everything he gives her. She kisses him with an intensity that he feels all the way down to his toes, that chases off any chill that might have been left in the air around them. No, there's only heat now, warmth and love and security and them.

Oliver wraps his arms around her, hugging her closer, returning her kiss until oxygen becomes an issue again. He curses his body's need for it, because it means letting her lips go, which is just not a goddamn option right now. They pull back, both of them panting, but it's too far and one deep breath is all he needs before his lips slant over hers again. He needs to keep kissing her, to feel more of her. He's suddenly starved for her in a way he hasn't been in such a long time. They don't get chances like this anymore, they don't get these moments to let go, to give in, to stoke the fire until they're both about to be burned alive. Oliver savors the solid press of her backside exactly where he needs it, one hand slipping down low on her stomach to pull her back even closer. She moans, the sound reverberating against his lips.

"God, Felicity," he gasps, the steady want for his wife that's been simmering all night rocketing to a boiling point.

She moans in response, arching her back before she suddenly turns. Their lips break away for barely a second, but it's a second too much and the instant she's facing him, he grabs her close, kissing her again. He can't get enough and he doesn't want to get enough. He's insatiable, just as much as she is as she slips her hands inside his hood to cup his face.

The realization that he's still in his Arrow suit, that he still has his hood up and his mask on, hits him, but then Felicity tugs his bottom lip between her teeth, sucking on it. Sparks burst across his nerves, his mind going blank at the sensation before she's kissing him again.

Oliver groans, his hands spanning the length of her back before dropping down to her ass. Her damn jacket is in the way, though. He forgets all about whatever the hell he's wearing and focuses on her, on the various barriers between her naked flesh and his hands.

In one smooth move, he slips his hands under the collar of her coat and pushes it off her shoulders. She whines at having to stop touching him even for second - god, he knows that feeling - but she lets go long enough for it to land in an ungraceful heap at their feet.

The lights are still out, their rendezvous still in the dark, and the only reason he's even remotely aware of that is because it's dark one second and the next all the lights are coming back on. They flicker to life, filling the shadowed space, chasing away the shadows that'd been keeping any prying eyes from seeing the Arrow ravaging Felicity Queen. That thought alone should have made him stop, made him realize where they were and what he was wearing, but he's too far gone to care.

As Felicity pulls back just enough to look around in surprise, to blink at the sudden onslaught of light, all Oliver can do is lean down and grip her ass, picking her up in one smooth movement.

"Oliver!" his wife gasps with a delighted laugh, her hands flying to his shoulders for balance, her dress hiking up around her hips as she wraps her legs around his waist.

He spins them away from the open part of the balcony and towards the area where enclosures can hide them from any wandering eyes. He may be getting on in years, but working out every day for more than a decade leaves him barely feeling her weight as he heads straight for the first chaise he can find. He tries to keep an eye on where he's going as he presses his face against her sequin-clad chest, relishing the broken way she whimpers when his lips find a hard nipple through the material.

Part of him wants to slow down, to take his time, but the rest of him only feels the fervor of her hands slipping under his hood, her nails scraping against his throat, only hears her needy pants as he tightens his fingers on her ass… No, that's not true. He does want to take his time, with her. As much as he wants to lay her down and bury himself deep inside her, he wants to stretch this out as long as possible.

His knee hits the chaise before he can slow down, running into with so much force it skids away from them. He growls a curse under his breath, pulling back to see where the hell it is as Felicity giggles. The sound is so carefree and happy and it burns through him, making him grin as he unceremoniously leans over, one hand finding the chaise for balance, the other keeping his wife securely fastened to him.

Oliver sets her down and instantly blankets her body with his, his lips finding hers again. He groans when he tastes her, feeling like a damn addict, so desperate for her he burns.

Felicity moans, arching her back, pressing her breasts against his chest, seeking friction. She kicks her heels off, one landing next to them on the floor, the other flying somewhere else. Not that he cares, because she plants her feet against the chaise to leverage her hips again his, making him hiss.

The slow thrust he allows himself is a stark contrast to the desperate way he drinks at her lips. Felicity whines, needing more, her hips jerking up against his firmly. Oliver gasps, the heat between her thighs searing through him, his already hard cock swelling even more. His leather pants are like a vice grip, pulled taut, but they do nothing to diminish the sensation.

Oliver moans, his hips thrusting harder against her.

Not yet, he thinks, if he gives in now it will be over much too fast and he wants to savor this, to make it last… but if she keeps moving like that, he's not going to last. He thinks about pulling back, about taking his time, about peeling this dress off of her. No. Oh god, no. If he sees her fully naked and writhing underneath him… He's got willpower, but he's only human, and a man desperately in love with the woman whimpering beneath him as she undulates her hips into him.

He's got limits.

And he's about to reach them.

With a ragged whine, Oliver breaks away from her lips and slides down her body.

"Oliver," she murmurs, opening her eyes to follow him. Her hands reach for him as if to pull him back up, but he shakes his head, capturing one of them to kiss her palm softly. "But…"

"Not yet," he interrupts, kissing her palm again before dropping a kiss on her still-clothed breast and then making his way down. Her breath hitches, her ribs barely expanding with her short, shallow pants as he works his way down her body. He glances up at her to find her teeth digging into her bottom lip, her eyes intent on him. She's stunning, so much so it takes his breath away and Oliver can't help but surge back up to kiss her once more, just needing to. It's searing, highlighting the need scorching through his veins, and before it can get out of control again, he pulls back with a harsh, "I need to taste you, Felicity."

"Yes," she whispers with a desperate nod. "Yes… Please. Oliver…"

Only later will Oliver have any recognition of the fact that he's still wearing his Arrow gear, that he's still wearing his mask. Years ago that would have bothered him, to the point that he might have even felt guilty about it. But no longer. There's no line between Oliver Queen and the Arrow. There's just him, both of those things rolled into one. In a strange way it's fitting, considering what they're celebrating tonight.

He slides back down the length of her body, pausing long enough to nuzzle her neck and collarbone, to drag his mouth over the sequins covering her breast, to run his hands down her curves. He kneels on the ground at her feet and pulls her legs further apart.

"Oh god," Felicity moans, her hips thrusting up even though he hasn't started touching her yet.

Oliver pushes her dress up further out of the way, loving the way her skin flushes under his touch, how hot she is, how she pants, how her thighs quiver with need. Everything about her screams of anticipation and want, and all of it is emphasized by the gold little pieces she's wearing. He wants to take a snapshot of the way she looks right now in his mind and keep it forever, because she's two steps beyond beautiful and straight on to breathtaking.

She whines his name, looking down at him where he rests between her legs. When their eyes meet, she shudders and without taking his eyes off her, he leans in and presses a kiss against her lace-covered sex, directly over her clit.

Every bit of her responds like a live wire that's suddenly sparking to life. Her head falls back, her body rising up, her hips jerking against his face, seeking pressure from him as her neck flushes beautifully. He loves watching her, loves knowing each stage of her pleasure, watching her get worked up before she falls apart. Because of him.

Oliver swipes his tongue over her through the thin blue lace panties, tasting her through the material. He does it again, pressing harder, his eyes glued to her as he rubs against her.

"Yes," Felicity whines, pushing one of her hands under his hood. She buries her hand in his hair, her nails scraping at his scalp before she grips it, pressing his face closer with a whimper. Oliver runs his hands over her creamy soft thighs before he lifts her legs over his shoulders, his hands anchoring her hips in place. "Yes, yes, yes… Oliver."

He sucks at her through the lace, opening his mouth to take as much of her into his mouth as he can before he concentrates on the little pearl he can feel through the material. He knows her body as well as he knows his own, knows exactly what she likes and where, but he still savors the way she jolts against him with a sharp cry, testing the restraint of his hands.

With all his attention on her, Oliver finds it much easier to slow down, to take his time. He sucks on her, building her up slowly. He abandons her core for a moment to lick and nip at her inner thigh, sucking on the flesh one moment before scraping it with his stubble and teeth the next. But as much as he knows she's enjoying it, it doesn't satisfy her for long. Felicity tugs on his hair hard, making his scalp tingle in a blatant show of where exactly she wants him.

"Oliver… please." She tries to push her hips closer as she presses his face deeper between her legs, but he's got her well-anchored. "Please… pleasepleasepleaseplease…"

The word slips past her lips in a litany of desire, an absolute cascade of want.

He can't deny her. He's never been able to.

Oliver wants to take her panties off, but when he pulls back to do just that, she shakes her head with a desperate, "No, no, don't stop," and he doesn't. He slides one hand over her mound and pulls her panties to the side, exposing her wet sex. Her scent washes over him so powerfully that it makes his head spin and his mouth water. It's pure instinct that has him tugging her further down the chaise, both hands wrapped around her hips, fingers hooked in her panties.

She's soaking wet, her pink folds glistening with her desire.

Oliver licks his way up her slit, making her thrust up against his face with a few desperate bids for air. Both hands slide into his hair, shoving his hood back as she pulls him closer. He does it again, tasting her thoroughly. Her flavor explodes across his tongue, rich and feminine and Felicity. His craving for more is bone-deep and he groans, pushing his hands further around her hips to spread her apart. He teases her with his tongue from her entrance to her clit, gathering up every drop of her essence that her body can provide. He can't get enough of her - he'll never get enough of her - and, god, does he feel lucky to have this, to have her, to share their lives together.

"Oliver," Felicity moans, long and low.

He swirls his tongue around her stiffened clit, rubbing it with the tip of his tongue before flicking at it lightly. Her hips work against him in counterpoint, her nails digging into his scalp.

Every bit of him is keyed into the clues her body gives him - the quickening of her breath, the tensing of her quivering thighs, the tightening grip on his hair. He works her up until she's shaking with her pending release, until her hips move with mindless abandon, until he knows nothing else matters right now but the pleasure he's giving her… and just when she's about to peak, when he hears that telltale gaspy moan that signals her pleasure building to the point of breaking, he pulls back, his tongue slipping down to tease her entrance.

"Oliver, please," she whines. Her dress is a rumpled mess around her, her hair a riot of tousled waves, her skin flushed beyond the telling of it. She blindly drags her fingers down the side of his face, her nails catching on his mask. "Please. Please."

He wants to tease her, to drag this out, but her pleas cuts right through any resolve he might have had.

With a nod and a whispered, "I've got you," Oliver lets one of her legs go and slips it around, sliding two fingers inside her as he wraps his lips around her clit. She chokes on her next breath, her back arching up off the chaise. He strokes his fingers in and out firmly, angling them just right, seeking out that place inside her that responds so beautifully to his touch. Even if he didn't know her body by heart now, he'd know the instant his fingers find that spot because she gets loud.

"Oh… fuck."

It's a sharp cry that bleeds out into the night. It's very possible that some neighboring room might hear her, but he doesn't care in the least. At home they have to be quiet, restrained - three little kids demand it - but here he can make her scream. And he very much intends to take advantage of that.

Oliver sucks on her clit, rubbing his tongue against it with every motion. He presses against her with his fingers, rubbing solidly at that spot inside her, knowing he can make her see stars.

"Don't stop," she cries, her head flying up to stare at him. The second their eyes meet, that seems to push her over the edge more than anything and her grip on him tightens as she nods frantically. "Don't stop. Oh god, yes, right there… Right there, right there, right there."

She's shaking uncontrollably, her cries echoing around them. She's so close he can taste it, feel it surging through her muscles. He wants her to fall apart, to explode around his fingers. Oliver sucks harder, his eyes never leaving hers, and then he adds a third finger, filling her even more. With a soundless scream, her entire body seizes… and then she shatters, her orgasm rocketing through her with a loud cry of his name.

It's entrancing the way she clings to him, the way she undulates under his touch, her hips thrusting uncontrollably against his hand as he strokes her through her orgasm. It doesn't seem possible that he can get harder, but the sight of her as she crumbles under his touch does it.

He needs her.

Now.

But he doesn't move. The only thing he does is let her panties go to tug his mask down, letting it settle around his neck as he stares at her, his lids heavy with arousal.

"Oh… my god," she breathes, her body finally falling still. Her legs fall to the side, her inner walls spasming around his fingers. He slides them in and out a few more times, making her gasp before he pulls them out. "That is… that was…"

"That was round one," he says and just as she looks down at him with an intrigued smile, he licks his fingers clean. The smile disappears as she flushes at the sight.

"Oliver."

"Yeah?" he asks, his voice gravelly as he wipes his chin.

"C'mere," Felicity whispers, crooking a finger at him.

He doesn't have to be told twice. Oliver crawls up over her body, careful to keep his weight off her, knowing how sensitive she gets. But she doesn't seem to have the same cares because the instant he's over her, she wraps her arms around his shoulders and tugs him down on top of her. Her whimper echoes his moan when his hardness settles against her soft, wet heat. It's all his body needs to give in as he falls against her.

"God, Felicity," he gasps, his hips jerking against hers. God, his suit's going to smell like her. He is so not complaining. "You feel-"

Felicity cuts him off with a kiss, humming with pleasure when she tastes herself on his lips like she always does. It's not long before the kiss becomes heated, growing harder, more demanding. He's not sure if it's her or him doing that, but he doesn't care, because she's lifting her legs, letting him settle even further against her sex. He's moving before he can really think, his hips thrusting against her, making them both moan.

"I need you," she says against his lips, her hands sliding up his leather-covered back. He nods, his mind firing blanks, all his focus on the friction she's giving him. "Now, Oliver. Now. Round two."

That makes him laugh, a grin splitting his face. Felicity smiles, cupping his face to keep him still as she kisses him again. She pulls her legs up higher, digging her feet into his ass to push him closer to her. Her face goes slack with a new round of pleasure as he groans her name.

"Now," she reiterates, dragging her nails down his spine, her lips brushing against his as she speaks. "I need you inside me, Oliver, deep, deep-"

It's his turn to cut her off, his lips slanting over hers. She mewls, pressing her breasts against his chest just before she pulls back, shoving on his shoulders.

"Get up," she says, urging him away from her.

Oliver frowns, a sight that makes her giggle, which in turn makes him smile as he does as she asks. It's awkward as hell with the ever-present bulge in his pants, but he manages, offering her a hand up off the chaise. She steps gingerly herself, wincing when the lace of her panties rubs against her tender flesh, but she ignores it in favor of cupping him through his pants. He goes stock-still, his jaw falling open as she starts to work the buttons loose. She's considerably shorter without her heels on, which somehow makes her presence all the more powerful, just like earlier at the house. Although these are far different circumstances and he's more than content to let her take control as she undoes his pants.

When she goes to tug them down, though, the leather proves to be just as aggravating as it had been all night. He huffs out a laugh when she growls at them before helping.

"Have these always been this tight?" Felicity asks as she grits her teeth, pushing them down his hips with his assistance.

"Well," Oliver replies, "I'm not usually spending my nights hard as hell anymore because I had to wait a few hours to get inside my wife."

Felicity chuckles as they finally get his pants down his hips. "Let's remedy that, shall we?"

"Yes," he says with a nod, pulling her back up just enough to kiss her. "Please."

The kiss lingers before he leans down to unlace his boots just enough to kick them away. He yanks his pants off next, leaving him in his boxers and Arrow jacket. He doesn't bother with that, although Felicity does pull the zipper of it down, pushing her hands up and inside the black t-shirt he has on underneath as his hands find her bare hips.

"Your turn," he whispers, hooking his fingers in her panties. He pushes them down her hips until they slide on their own as Felicity unhooks the top of her dress. It falls down, revealing her beautiful, full breasts. She pushes the dress down her hips, leaving her bare before him, and his jaw drops as he takes her in. "I will never get over how beautiful you are."

Felicity flushes with pleasure, just like she had when he told her how she looked in that dress.

Oliver pulls her into his arms, aware for all of two seconds that the outside air around them is still chilly, not that he minds. But his wife… Oliver pulls her close, his hands pressing against her naked back before he slides one up into her hair. She sighs and something tells him that she doesn't mind the cold, either. Her nipples are hard where they brush against his chest, but he knows it's not the chilly air as she presses a kiss to his collarbone before pushing his boxers down, letting his hard erection free.

Felicity doesn't waste a second, tugging on his shirt, urging him to turn and sit on the chaise. He settles back, his eyes never leaving hers as she follows him, straddling his lap. His hardness slips against her wet sex and his hands fly to her hips, gripping her tight.

Words aren't needed, not anymore. They haven't been, because they both just know.

The love and passion and gratitude and hope and warmth and… all of it fills the air between them as Felicity takes him in hand, positioning him at her entrance. His eyes threaten to roll back at the sensation of her heat as she lowers herself down on him, but he doesn't dare close his eyes. They stay locked on hers, just as much as hers stays on him.

She slowly sinks down on him, moving until he's deep inside her, their pelvises flush together. It's worlds apart from earlier. The hunger still simmers under the surface, the passion still present, but there's something softer and more deliberate now. It's raw, intimate, and it takes his breath away as they stare at each other, his body filling hers.

This. This is what their anniversary was about. Not sex, and not even love. No, it's about unity, on an entirely different level, a connection, a partnership. This, beyond anything else, is the best part of his life.

She starts moving, a slow, gentle thrust. Her hands cover his where they rest on her hips, lacing her fingers through his, connecting them even more as she moves on top of him.

It's perfect, in so many ways, so many damn ways…

"Felicity," he whispers, his voice cracking at the end. He doesn't want this moment to end, but it's been such a long night, and he's so close. He wants to stay entwined with her, just like this, but his body isn't going to allow it. "God, baby, I'm so close."

She nods, her eyelids fluttering as she replies, "Me, too." Her hips start moving faster, driving down on him with a new urgency. He helps her, pushing her down even more with their clasped hands. She's so beautiful, and the sight of her pleasure growing urges his on. As the minutes pass, her brow furrows, highlighting the light sheen of sweat on her brow. "Oliver…"

It's not enough for her to come. He knows what she wants, what she needs. He sighs her name as he slips a hand from her hip to where they're joined in search of her tender clit. When his thumb brushes over it, she jerks hard, thrusting down with redoubled force.

She tries to keep her eyes open as she gasps out a desperate, "Oh god," but when he rubs faster, she can't fight it anymore. She falls against him as her pleasure builds. "Oliver… Oliver…"

"I've got you," he whispers, pulling his other hand where it's still tangled with one of hers around her. He cradles her close, pressing his face to hers. "I've got you."

They've got each other.

Always.

Oliver watches her as she crests, his breasts bouncing between them, her hair fluttering in the night breeze, her hips rocking against his. He works his thumb against her, transfixed by the way her lips part, by the noises she's making, the way they echo his own moans.

Felicity suddenly stiffens, but her hips move even faster, her forehead falling against his. She grips his neck, her fingers in his squeezing tightly.

"Oh god," Oliver whines, his thumb losing coordination as sensation takes over. She doesn't need it, though, not judging by the way she clings to him, the way she cries out as she rides him harder. He plants his heels on the chaise, his hands slipping back to her hips as he drives up into her, meeting her every thrust.

"Oh!" she cries out. "Oh god… oh god, Oliver…!"

He feels the instant she breaks, just as much as he hears her sharp shout from deep in her chest. A flood of her wetness coats him as her inner walls clamp down around him, urging him on even more.

She cups his face with shaking hands and whispers, "Come for me, Oliver."

He's so close.

"Felicity, I… oh god!"

She pulls back to look at him with pleasure-glazed eyes, and the instant their eyes connect, Oliver snaps. He grabs her hips and pounds up into her with abandon, pulling her down at the same time…

Oliver comes with a heavy shout, his voice echoing louder than hers. His eyes never leave hers, his vision whiting out around the edges as he empties himself inside her.

It's some time before his vision clears, before his blood slows and the nighttime chill sets in. A breeze drifts over their sweat-dampened skin, but neither of them move. Felicity's draped across him, his arms wrapped tight around her, her body sticking to his and her face buried in his neck. Her hot breath dancing across his skin is blissfully warm and he sighs in contentment as he turns to kiss her temple. Her hair's damp with their exertions as he presses his lips to her, a soft press of affection he'd brand into her skin if he could.

With a happy moan, Felicity pulls back to look at him. If he'd thought she'd been wrecked earlier, it has nothing on right now. She's sin and grace all in one.

"That was amazing," she says.

Oliver nods, taking a deep breath, lifting her as his chest expands. "It really was," he replies, bushing a now-curly strand of hair away from her brow.

"We make a helluva team."

He chuckles. "We do." Oliver kisses her softly, again and again as he adds, "And that, my love, is entirely what tonight was about."

Chapter Text

July 2030

 

An earthy breeze fills the SUV, blowing through the passenger-side window, ruffling his hair as they cruise down the mountain road. It's uncomfortably warm, but at least it's dry, and Will actually finds it quite pleasant with the windows down.

He really shouldn't be here. He wasn't supposed to be. He was supposed to be helping his teammates beat Coast City, but a broken thumb in last week's game meant he was out for at least the next month, if not the rest of the season. At least he isn't dependent on his scholarship, but it still kinda blows, even if there's also no way around it.

So, instead of sitting on the bench this weekend, he's headed to go camping with his dad and his brother. His coach hadn't been happy, and that's an understatement. Yeah, part of him wants to be there for his team for sure, but he also knows this trip is important to his dad and he wants to be there for him even more.

"You okay back there, bud?" his dad asks, looking into the rearview mirror. "You're being awfully quiet."

"I'm fine," Nate replies.

Will glances back at the eight-year-old to find his younger brother staring at the tablet in his hands with a furrowed brow. "What are you doing?" he asks.

"Playing Tetris," Nate answers, swiping at the screen with more intensity than Will's ever seen in any recent second grade graduate. "You've gotta make everything fit in the right place."

"Tetris?" his dad repeats with a little laugh, glancing toward the back seat. "I remember playing that when I was a kid."

Nate blinks, looking up from the screen in his hands. His eyes are even more owlish behind his new glasses. It's cute, even if it adds to his overall meek appearance. "Wow," he says. "That's, like, really old."

"Thanks, Nate," his dad replies dryly as he pulls into a gravel parking lot. It's pretty damn empty considering the nice weather. His dad still heads towards the far corner, adding, "No tech while we're camping, though."

"Is that why Mom didn't come?"

It's an innocent enough question, but Will can't help the laugh that slips out. It's true. His stepmother is pretty awesome, but picturing her out of wifi range is something that does not compute in his head.

"Jules has dance practice and Ellie's got summer camp. Your mom has to take them," Oliver says, casting Will a look that has him covering his grin with one hand. But he does raise his eyebrows back at his dad and after a moment Oliver relents. "And the lack of internet might drive her crazy inside of a day."

"You think?" Will asks from behind his hand, still chuckling.

His stepmom is not what anyone would call 'outdoorsy.' But even if she was - even the idea of it has Will chuckling again - she wouldn't have tagged along. He's sure she'd known that this was an opportunity for the Queen men to bond.

And William is a Queen, in every sense of the word.

When his mom had married David, she'd taken his last name. Will had solidly refused and, despite one hell of a fight with his mom, he'd changed his last name to Queen the moment he'd turned eighteen.

He doesn't want to think about his mom right now. There's more than one reason he's spending the summer at his dad's house this year. It's not just that it's a whole lot easier for baseball practice. There's also his extremely colicky newborn half-sister. And, sure… she's cute and whatever. His mom's entitled to have more kids if that's what she wants, but he doesn't have to like it. He's twenty-two, for god's sake, a senior in college. By the time his mom was his age, she'd already had him. He thinks it's more than understandable if he has a problem with spending his summer coming home to a screaming baby sister.

"You alright?" his dad asks.

Will's head jerks up to find they're parked and both his dad and Nate are out of the car, standing a few feet away from his open window.

"Yeah," he confirms a little uneasily - his dad is staring at him like he's positive Will is anything but - before shaking off his thoughts. "I'm good." He opens the door before his dad can inquire though. Thankfully he lets it slide as Will heads to the back of the SUV, asking, "We got everything?"

"Yep." His dad nods, throwing a small backpack over his shoulder. Unsurprisingly, he's traveling light. Given his life experiences, his dad probably considers the tent and sleeping mats a luxury. Oliver nods toward the trailhead. "We should get moving," he says. "It's a solid mile to the campground and we'll want to get there early so I can catch dinner before it gets dark."

"Catch dinner?" Nate asks warily, looking up at his father.

"Fish, buddy," Oliver tells him, resting a hand on his shoulder. "There's salmon in the river next to the campground. I thought I'd make some spears and we could hunt them together."

Nate's skin goes ashen at that, his eyes widening almost comically. "We're going to kill them?"

Will shakes his head with a silent laugh as he grabs his own backpack from the back of the car. He could have seen this coming from a mile away, but his dad is obviously taken by surprise. He stands there, staring at Nate, looking a little like a fish out of water himself.

"It's… they're dinner," Oliver tells his youngest, clearly at a loss for how to explain it past that. Will winces as he closes the back hatch of the SUV.

"But they're alive," Nate emphasizes. "And we're gonna kill them?"

It's an ironic question, given what their father does when the cover of darkness falls. Not that he actually kills, but Will knows the Arrow doesn't exactly shy away if the situation calls for it, especially when it involves someone he loves. Still, it's a miracle that Nate hasn't wandered out of the playroom at the lair yet to watch their dad on a mission over the monitors. It'll happen eventually. The kid's extremely good at following directions, but there's just no avoiding the inevitable.

Will sighs. It's going to be a mess when Nate finally sees firsthand just what their dad does at his night job.

"Nate, you eat meat and fish all the time," Oliver reminds him, his voice gentle. "Hamburgers are your favorite food."

"Yeah, but I don't have to see the cow die!" Nate protests.

The disappointment on their dad's face sort of guts Will. He knows his dad, knows how much this trip means to him, that he'd envisioned something very different from what's unfolding right now. And Will absolutely wants to help salvage that experience for them both.

"How about Nate helps cook the fish instead of helping catch it," he suggests to his dad and brother. "It'll be like when you help mom at home. Dad can catch it, I'll clean it, and Nate can cook it. With supervision. Sound good?"

The gratitude that slips across his father's face is all Will needs to see as Nate gives a tentative nod. "I guess," his little brother agrees. "As long as there are s'mores later." His eyes widen for a very different reason as he looks back at Oliver. "Are there s'mores?"

"Of course there are," Oliver assures him. "What's camping without s'mores?"

"Might as well be marooned on an island at that point," Will adds dryly, hiking his bag further up his shoulder. It earns him an amused stinkeye from his father as Will walks past the two of them. "You two coming or what?" he calls back over his shoulder.

Oliver chuckles, shaking his head before following, Nate close behind. That his dad doesn't close off and turn tight-lipped says a tremendous amount about how far he's come since Will met his father.

It had been so hard for him at first, and Felicity says it had been harder still in the years prior. But something in his dad has settled over time, grown to accept both himself and his own tumultuous history. And, as much as Will is grateful for that for his father's sake, he's even more grateful for Nate's. His little brother is such a gentle soul, sensitive; if there was a separation between them now, Will can't imagine what it would be like with past versions of their father.

Nate's even older now than Will had been when he'd met their dad, which is a hell of a thing to realize. But while Will had bonded with his father pretty quickly - having longed for the presence of a dad his entire life - sometimes it seems like Nate and his dad don't quite know how to do that. They seem to circle each other, trying to find even footing. They love each other. That's very obvious. Nate's an affectionate kid - sometimes to a fault - and his dad's learned to be expressive about his feelings with his family. But Will's pretty sure there's a lot of times they don't really understand each other. Nate's so precise, so analytical, and their dad is so… not.

That's why days like this are so important. It's why Will's here instead of sitting on the bench. He likes being with his dad and his brother, but he also likes acting sort of like a translator between them. They need it, sometimes.

And he kinda wants to have a chat with his dad.

For as nice of a day as it is, the three of them are mostly alone on the trail, save for one family going the opposite direction. They do a double take, obviously recognizing his dad, but Will's used to that by now. He just gives a nod as they pass before realizing Nate's stopped to pick up a leaf.

"You're quiet," his dad says, jarring him from his thoughts again. Will turns to find his father studying him. "What's up?"

Will shrugs. "Just… stuff."

"About your mom?" he asks, raising both eyebrows.

Will nods. "Some of it," he replies with a sigh.

"She's got her hands full, Will," Oliver tells him as they start walking again. "And I get it if you aren't thrilled to be around a newborn all the time, but you're every bit as important to her as you were a year ago. You know that, right?"

Will lets out a short laugh and shakes his head. He does know that. And after everything his dad's gone through with Jules, he gets why this is something he feels the need to emphasize, but it's really not the core of Will's problems.

"I got it," he assures his dad as they start walking again. It's a painfully slow pace for both him and his dad, but Nate's not exactly quick on his feet anyway. Add into it that he keeps finding new specimens for his leaf collection, and they're more or less stuck matching his stride. "I know she's not replacing me or anything."

"Do you?" Oliver asks with a knowing look. "You've never liked David and I know that's caused problems for you and your mom. I can't say I'm sorry that it means you're spending a lot more time at my place - I'm not - but she's your mom, Will."

"I know that," Will answers. It comes out sharper than he means and that, more than anything, makes it seem like his father's stumbled onto something he'd rather not consider. "I love Mom, and Bethany is… she's fine. The colic sucks, but she'll get over it and then I'll have a little sister. Who will probably be closer in age to my kids one day than to me, but whatever. That's fine. Mom's happy and she loves David and I know it's not Bethany replacing me."

The words give away far more than Will's given any conscious thought to, and his dad instantly picks up on it as well. Oliver stops, grabbing Will's sleeve to earn his attention. He pauses, but he doesn't look at him for a second.

"It's David," his dad surmises. Will's jaw is tight and he works it back and forth as the tension in his muscles mount, but his father isn't done. "It isn't the baby you feel replaced by; it's your stepfather."

Will's eyes dart to Nate where he stands a few feet away. He's picking up more leaves and pressing them in between pages of a notebook.

"Mom and I were fine," Will tells his dad, his voice low so Nate can't hear. "We were fine. Me and her? It was good. We didn't need David or my stupid stepsister Macy or even Bethany."

The way his father looks at him has him feeling about twelve again - it's all sad sympathy and Will hates it. He huffs, ducking his head to avoid his gaze, suddenly wishing he'd never said anything.

"You were fine, Will," his dad tells him after a minute. "But you're an adult. You can't blame your mom for wanting more in her life than just you. I know you get that. She deserved to fall in love and get married, if that was what she wanted."

"I know that," Will grumbles.

"You're moving on with your own life. You've grown up, Will," his dad points out. "If it weren't for baseball, you'd be done with college already. She'd be alone."

"I know that, too," Will admits, kicking a rock. "It's dumb. I get that."

"It's how you feel," his father corrects. "That's not dumb. But, Will, you've gotta figure out how to get past this. They've been married for six years. David's not going anywhere."

Will knows he's right, but it's not something he really wants to consider right now. This wasn't anywhere on his agenda of things to talk to his dad about. The smart thing to do would be to nod and not say anything else, but his mouth's opening all on its own.

"Doesn't mean I have to like him," Will says petulantly.

If he hated how his dad looked at him earlier, he really, really hates the way he just stands there, looking at him like he sees right through him. It's frustrating. He feels petty and ridiculous, but he's also stubborn as hell about this. It's funny, because he's usually a pretty easy going guy. But with this? With this he's dug his heels in and that isn't changing anytime soon.

Will sighs. "Can we talk about literally anything else?" he asks his dad.

He expects his dad to give in immediately - he saw something was bothering him earlier, and he'll see it now - but instead his whole face tightens up, the lines of his brow deepening.

"Yeah, just…" Oliver pauses. "Will, you don't feel that way about Felicity, do you?"

"What?" Will asks. "No, of course not."

The idea hadn't even occurred to him. Felicity is… well, she's Felicity. She's been in his life since he was six. She came with his dad as a package deal. He can't even imagine his life without her at this point and he sure as hell can't picture his dad without her.

"Good," his dad breathes out in relief. "That's good."

"Felicity's been like a second mom to me since I was in first grade," Will adds, not willing to let that stand unsaid. "She's driven me to batting practice and took me to see Santa even though she's Jewish and helped me learn to ride a bike. It's different."

"Because you grew up with her around," Oliver notes before sighing heavily. "Will... I don't know for sure, but I'd bet just about anything that your mom held off on dating until you were older because she wanted to focus on you. You can't hold it against David that he wasn't there when you were growing up. Your mom wouldn't have let him be there. He's a good guy. He's your sister's dad and he deserves the same chance you gave Felicity. Even if he's coming into your life a bit late."

"Yeah," Will grumbles.

It doesn't help anything that he already knows all this. He's self-aware enough to realize everything his dad is saying is true, even if he hates it. He'd really like to hate his stepfather. Sometimes it sucks that, as much as his parents aren't really friends, they always have each other's backs and they always have his best interests at heart. In some ways, he's really lucky. A lot of his friends whose parents aren't together fight a lot. While he's sure his mom and dad have had more than a few squabbles, he's never once been privy to them.

Nate wriggles a bit a few feet away. "Dad?"

"Sorry, buddy," his dad says. "We're almost there."

"I gotta pee," Nate announces. His voice is subdued with embarrassment, which is amazing considering it was just a few years ago that he had a penchant for stripping and running around the house naked.

"Okay," Oliver tells him. "We can stop for a minute. Just find a tree."

The utter look of horror that transforms his little brother's face makes it really, really hard for Will not to laugh. But, oh man, Nate is suddenly bright red with wide, disbelieving eyes and Will sort of wishes the no-tech-ban-on-the-camping-trip let him have a camera on him.

"A tree?" Nate asks.

"There aren't really any other options right now, kiddo," his dad replies, doing his best to keep a smile off his face.

"But that's…" Nate looks around like he's afraid someone might overhear. There's no one, though, and with the way the little guy is dancing, he's going to have to give in sooner rather than later. He doesn't give in though as he practically hisses, "That's not what trees are for."

"It's absolutely what I used them for on Lian Yu," his dad tells him glibly before grabbing his hand. He leads the balking eight-year-old off the path. "Come on. I'll stand guard and block you in case anyone walks by, okay?"

"I'll play sentry on the path," Will chimes in, hooking his thumbs in his belt loops and looking down the empty trail.

Nate wants to fight it - Will's sure he's about to ask if they can just go back to the car and find a bathroom - but it's too urgent for that. He lets out a whimper of frustration before he and their dad disappear in the underbrush.

Not surprisingly, nobody happens along the path. It's stupid, really, because it's a gorgeous summer day and what's wrong with people in this city that they aren't out enjoying nature? They live next to all this forest, but nobody takes advantage of it. Will doesn't get it. But it works for their purposes right now and before long Nate and Oliver shuffle back toward him. Nate's still red-faced and his hands are shoved into his pockets as he stares at his toes.

"Oh, come on, it wasn't that bad," his dad says, ruffling Nate's hair.

Nate pulls a face and ducks away. "How do I wash my hands? I need a sink."

"You can rinse them in the river once we get to the campsite," Oliver tells him.

The incredulous look Nate shoots their dad is just too much and Will has to turn away for a second, unable to stop his laughter.

"I hate nature," Nate bemoans.

"Be glad it's just an overnight camping trip instead of washing up on shore on a deserted island, then," Oliver tells him. "Come on, kiddo."

"But we're not on a deserted island," Nate murmurs and Will turns back just in time to see his little brother sigh dramatically before ambling forward, shoulders hunched and dragging his feet. The kid is overplaying his dissatisfaction, but it's still obviously a hit to their dad who is just out to make good memories with his sons. Oliver pinches his lips together, watching him go for a second before following.

And that's part of why Will's here. He knows how to break through this tension. He's become really good at making himself the jokester, or the butt of jokes. Some days it feels like a weird mix of dad humor and court jester, but it works.

Sticking his finger in his mouth, Will jogs to catch up with his little brother. When he's close enough, he wraps his arm around Nate's shoulders and sticks the moistened finger in his ear.

"Ew!" Nate shouts, trying to shove him away as Will wriggles the finger around. "Dad, make him stop! Will, that's gross."

"Aw, man, talk about gross, you've got pee hands on me now," Will says, pulling his hands away and holding them up in mock surrender. "That's nasty. You haven't even rinsed those things yet. I'm gonna die of Nate cooties."

Nate can't seem to decide if he's more horrified by the wet willy or his own unwashed hands, but at least it gets his dad going. A full-throated, completely amused laugh spills from deep in his chest, echoing down the trail as Nate shoves at Will again.

Mission accomplished, Will decides, pulling Nate closer and giving the kid a noogie.

The eight-year-old pretends he doesn't like it, but he can't hide his growing grin. Nate might be about as straight-laced as they come, but beneath his precise and carefully polished exterior he's still just a little boy and he's always thrilled to be at the center of attention for his dad and his big brother.

"It's cool," Will says, dropping a kiss on his little brother's head. "Nate cooties are my favorite kind."

The boy flushes, shoving his shoulder into his big brother as their father watches on with a quietly happy smile. It's always been easy for Will to bond with his siblings. After some initial hesitation with Jules, he'd found himself completed enamoured with both her and his role as big brother. When Ellie had come along and then Nate, he'd been every bit as thrilled and taken on the role with relish. He's not sure why he isn't doing the same thing with Bethany, but he'd really rather not think about it. It's just different.

It isn't more than a moment before the roar of a nearby river grows loud enough that it drowns out their laughter and, sure enough, they spill into a clearing with a couple of picnic tables and a large, unused firepit. There's no one else around which only reinforces Will's opinion that the residents of Starling City need to get out more.

"Here we go," his dad announces, surveying the campground.

"But… where are we staying?" Nate asks in confusion, his little brow furrowing.

"In the tent," his dad tells him, patting the pack on his back. "After we set it up."

"You mean there's not a bed?" Nate asks in horror.

"It's camping, Nate," his dad answers with some hesitation. "Did you think there would be?"

"I thought… I dunno, there'd be a cabin or something." Nate looks around, like he's waiting for said cabin to magically appear. "There's really not a bed?"

"There's really not," Will says, clapping him on the shoulder. "Don't worry. You won't die of exposure and lack of wifi overnight. That kind of thing takes time."

"Tell that to Mom," Nate grumbles.

Will laughs as Oliver shrugs the bag off his back. He nods at his dad and Oliver tosses it to his eldest, who catches it easily with his one good hand. The damn splint on his other thumb is driving him nuts, but whatever. It's necessary.

"Wanna help me build our shelter, scrub?" Will asks the kid.

"Scrub?" Nate repeats warily. "What the heck does that mean?"

"Is that seriously slang again?" their dad asks, pausing where he's grabbed a stick that Will is pretty sure he's going to use to actually catch them dinner. "That was a thing back when I was a kid."

Will shrugs. "Everything old is new again." The disbelief on his dad's face is probably more amusing than it should be, but Will tugs open the bag and looks at his little brother as their father goes back to his stick, shaking his head. "Wanna give me a hand with this?"

"I guess," Nate says, even if he's obviously not thrilled about it. "Where are the directions?"

Will huffs a laugh because he already knows the answer before their dad says a word.

"It's a piece of tarp and four sticks," Oliver says, most of his focus on his stick. "Why would you need instructions."

That is the wrong thing to say. Nate The Rule Follower blanches. Will could have seen this coming a mile away, but their dad, apparently, hadn't quite anticipated it, which is kind of dumb. His little brother is the step-by-step procedural kid who keeps the rules handy whenever they play any kind of board game, who only follows directions when building with Legos. Who apparently only puts up tents with a list of edicts.

"Because they're instructions!" Nate insists, sounding more than a little panicky at the idea of winging it. "They tell you what to do and they make sure it doesn't fall down!"

"Nate…" Oliver says, looking up from where he's crouched, sharpening a stick with his pocketknife. "So what if it falls? That just means you get up and try again. You've got this."

There's a lesson there, but Nate clearly doesn't see it and the poor kid is flying fast past the point of panic, so Will steps in.

"I've done this before, buddy," Will says. "Don't worry."

"Yeah?" Nate asks, looking up to him.

"Yeah. Loads of times. Don't worry about the instructions." He taps his temple. "I've got a memory like a steel trap."

It's bullshit, but it's not like putting together the tent is that hard. Nate buys it either way, so whatever.

As their dad makes a pile of spears out of pine branches and goes all crazy nature guy on the fish in the river, Will and Nate put together the tent.

It doesn't go as planned, which is both good and bad - Nate laments even more about the need for guidance, but it forces him to think outside the box a little. With Will's help, they start to figure it out. And if they screw up more than once, so what? It's not like the tarp gets ruined and they sort out the shelter together.

By the time it kind of looks like a tent, their dad has four good-sized salmon slit from gill to tail and he's already working on building a fire from scratch. Why, exactly, he doesn't just use a damned lighter, Will isn't sure. It's been a long time since the island, it's not like muscle memory lasts twenty-plus years. Maybe he's trying to impress them, show off his survival skills. It is impressive, though, making an actual campfire out of two rocks and a pile of tinder. But it's the kind of thing Will notices and remembers, not Nate.

"Wouldn't that be easier with matches or something?" Nate asks, ever a fan of efficiency.

"Sure," their dad says, backing away from the firepit as the flame grows from a small spark. "But easy isn't always best. We didn't need matches."

Nate shrugs. "If you say so." He sighs, barely sparing the fire a cursory stare before looking around. "What do we do now?"

"What do you mean?" Oliver asks.

"I mean… we have a fire and food and a tent. It's not dark. Now what do we do?" Nate asks, looking around like surely there's a 'to do' list somewhere near by.

"We camp," their dad replies. "We… play ball or cook the fish or explore nearby."

"Okay…" Nate nods. "Why?"

Will yet again has to fight a laugh as he tugs the elementary schooler in for a hug.

"For fun!" Oliver tells him.

"It's fun?" Nate asks, looking up to Will for confirmation.

"It can be," Will agrees. "You hungry, kiddo? I think we should start with cooking the fish. We don't want bears to run off with it."

Nate stiffens with a sharp inhale. "There are bears?"

Probably not the best thing to joke about. Will's eyebrows go up as he looks at his dad with an 'oops' expression. Oliver's unperturbed though.

"Do you honestly think I couldn't protect you from wildlife?" their dad asks, raising an eyebrow.

Yeah, that's true. There's probably nothing on the entire planet their dad couldn't protect them from. Surely nothing he wouldn't try to protect them from. If nothing else, Nate obviously knows that because he relaxes instantly.

"Yeah… I just… Bears, you know?"

"Bears aren't so bad," Oliver tells him. "It's wolves you'd have to worry about." Nate's eyes go wide at that, but their dad's cool, collected exterior seems to calm him as he nonchalantly continues on, "But your brother's right. We should cook while it's fresh. You wanna clean them, Will? Can you do that with the splint?"

"Sure," Will agrees. "It's not a problem."

It'll be a pain in the ass, but he can manage. His thumb isn't even the part that worries him about the task; it's the smell. He'll probably gag cleaning the fish, but he can deal. He takes the pocketknife from his dad - he couldn't have brought an actual knife? - as they trade spots.

Oliver joins Nate in the tent where they sit down to flip through Nate's notebook, looking over the leaves he's collected while Will guts the fish and ditches the innards into a small ditch he'd dug near the fire.

It's disgusting. He's not a squeamish guy, but the smell never fails to make his stomach twist and he still has to hold his breath while he works. He tries to imagine Nate doing this… ever. He can't. It's just not him. Instead, the eight-year-old sits on the floor of the tent with his dad at his side, trying to journal what kinds of leaves he found on the hike here. For his part, Oliver looks a bit lost, like he can't contribute a whole lot to this endeavor. Will suspects his dad knows exactly which leaves are edible and which ones might be poisonous, but that's probably the extent of his knowledge.

That seems to be okay with Nate, though, because he's more intent on chattering quietly while he does rubbings of the leaves with crayons as his dad watches his work attentively, pointing things out or making suggestions. It's funny, watching the two of them. There's such a strong likeness between them. Will's never felt like he looks a whole lot like either of his parents. His eyes are his dad's for sure, but he looks more like a great uncle on his mom's side than anyone else on his family tree. But Nate… Nate looks like a softer, younger version of their father.

Finishing with the fish and wiping his hands on a sweatshirt he's definitely not going to use later, Will heads over to his dad and brother. "Did you bring a pan or are we roasting those things on sticks?"

His dad laughs, the lines around eyes crinkling up. "There's tin foil in the bag," he says. "Along with seasoning and some ranch dressing for Nate."

"Thank goodness," Nate says with a relieved sigh. This kid takes 'picky eater' to a whole new level, and God forbid anything on his plate touches another kind of food.

But his dad knew that, had planned for it. "Come on, bud," Oliver says, patting Nate on the knee before standing. "You hungry, yet?"

"Sure," Nate replies with a little shrug, setting his journal to the side. "I'm always hungry."

It's true. Picky eater or not, Nate is a bottomless pit.

"How about you roast up the potatoes while I get the fish ready."

As Nate follows Oliver back to the fire, Will heads over to the river to rinse his hands while thy work. The water's warmer than he'd expected. Even in July, it's all still from mountain snowpack runoff. But it's warm enough that he thinks he might see if Nate wants to go for a swim later. The kid's a fish.

He takes his time cleaning up, losing his shirt in the process because he smells like fish guts and that's just nasty. By the time he makes his way back to the firepit, the smell of dinner fills the air and… they're not alone.

Three girls right about his age set up a tent on the other side of the pit. He's more than a little glad he'd ditched his shirt because they all eye him with enough blatant interest that his dad is shaking his head at the dirt and trying not to laugh.

"What?" Nate asks, totally oblivious to absolutely everything going on.

"Hey," Will says, nodding toward the girls with a flirty smirk that he's well aware hits home more often than not.

Okay, so maybe he'd inherited more than just his eyes from his dad.

"Hey," one of the girls nods back. She's a toned brunette with absurdly short shorts and legs that go on forever. Will's not really looking for anything right now, not anything that'd go anywhere at any rate, but damn if he isn't more than happy for the view. And she seems more than happy to give it to him.

"Should we tell them they need to find a tree, Dad?" Nate asks in a hushed voice.

And… what?

Their dad's brow knits in confusion as he looks towards his younger son. "What are you talking about, Nate?"

"Well… those girls are all squirmy," Nate explains. "Do we need to tell them there isn't a potty around?"

Will laughs, choking out a quiet, "Oh my god," as he buries his face in the crook of his elbow, trying to mask his reaction from his brother and inevitably making it worse. He's laughing too hard to hear his dad's fumbling attempt at a response.

That's okay, though, because when he pulls his arm away from his face, two of the girls are still looking at him. And the brunette is tugging on her bottom lip with her teeth in a way that's sort of killing him.

"You know what?" he says, turning back to his father. "I'm gonna go see if they need some help."

His father shakes his head a little in disbelief. "Will…"

"What?" he asks with a shrug. "It's neighborly, right? I feel like they've got a problem I can help fix."

He knows he's got a hell of a shit-eating grin on his face, but he's not even sorry because his ego is soaring at the moment. Those girls are still looking at him with the most obvious interest he's seen outside of his baseball uniform.

"He's being nice, Dad," Nate chimes in. "Maybe we should help, too."

"Pretty sure they don't want our help, kiddo," Oliver tells Nate, who doesn't follow that at all.

"Why?" the eight-year-old asks.

"Well," Will says, slapping his palms against his thighs. "I'll let you handle that question, Dad. Be back in a few."

This is a win-win-win, in his book. The girls get some help, his dad and brother get some one-on-one time, and he gets to flirt with the hottest brunette he's ever seen.

And, man, is he itching for that.

"Hi," the brunette says to him. The blonde who'd been staring along with her grabs the back of the shirt the girl actually working on the tent is wearing to grab her attention.

Damn, but all three of them are cute.

If it were ten years later, if he were a little more mature, he might have honed in on the girl working on the tent. He might have found out she has a sharp sense of humor and a shared love of baseball. He might have discovered that she can sing and that she shares a fear of kangaroos with his stepmom. Things might have gone very differently. His whole life might have taken a completely different turn.

But he's 22 and too distracted by long bare legs and bright green eyes to see that something real is standing five feet away from him.

"Hey," he says to the brunette with a nod. "I thought you guys might like a hand."

"Pretty sure Maggie would love a hand," the blonde who'd been staring at him says. The brunette flushes and hip-checks her.

"Maggie?" he asks, stepping closer, giving her the broadest grin he can. "I'm Will."

He extends his hand and she delicately puts her fingers in his for what has to be the softest handshake in history. The girl working on the tent huffs in annoyance, blowing curly dark hair that's fallen out of its ponytail away from her face. Will's focused entirely on Maggie, though, and the body language that utterly screams attraction. She's ever-so-slightly too close to be a respectable distance away, her hips angled toward him as she chews on her lip, letting her eyes skim down his chest.

William loves camping, he decides immediately. Camping is the best.

As it turns out, their tent is far more complex than his, but that's fine because he can figure it out. It helps that Maggie keeps finding excuses to touch him, to stand a bit too close. More than once he lets his hand find the small of her back, or he touches her arm, letting his hand linger. She's suitably sympathetic when he tells her how he wound up with the splint on his thumb and her friends both kind of fade into the background as she tells him about their epic road trip from National City to Monument Point before starting their senior years.

"That sounds awesome," he tells her as they get the last piece of the tent put in place. One of his hands somehow winds up on her waist as her fingers settle against his upper arm, those big green eyes sparking with heat as-yet unexplored. "Maybe you could tell me more about in a bit. Like after dinner."

"Sure," she says. "We could go for a swim or something."

"I didn't bring a swimsuit," he tells her.

"That's okay," she replies with a little grin. "Neither did I."

His brain short-circuits at that, and it's entirely because his blood flow is rushing elsewhere.

Will vaguely hears a throat clear somewhere behind him, but he doesn't really register his father's presence until a heavy hand lands on his shoulder. He jumps - something that will undoubtedly get him a talking to about being more aware of his surroundings because his dad is ridiculous about safety - and looks back to see a tight smile on his father's face.

"Sorry," Oliver says, offering a plastic smile to Maggie before looking back to Will. "Dinner's ready."

Right. Dinner.

"I'll, uh… see you in a bit then," he tells Maggie, winking at her as she grins back.

His father's fingers tighten on his shoulder and Will gets the message. Yeah, he's here to spend time with his dad and his little brother, not pick up girls, but come on. Maggie is super hot and there's a zero percent chance his father wouldn't have done the same thing at his age. Hell, he probably would've been worse. But Will's better than that. He's always been committed to being better than that, even since he was old enough to use Google and found out way more about his father's wilder years than he'd ever wanted to know.

They both turn to head back to Nate, but a voice stops them.

"You look really familiar."

It's the girl who'd been focused on the tent and she's not talking to Will. She's staring at his dad with a puzzled look, like she can't quite place him. But - as so often happens - Will sees the moment recognition dawns when her eyes go wide and her mouth opens a little.

"You're Representative Queen," she says, pointing a finger his way. "You're running for Senate, right?"

"Uh… yes," his dad admits, instantly shifting into his campaign smile. "I am."

"Oh my gosh," the girl says with a little too much breathless excitement. Will's seen this a hundred times. It'd be great if girls his age could please stop getting giggly around his 45-year-old father. But, things take a sharp turn when the dark-haired girl speaks again. "You're Mayor Moira Queen's son? She's, like, my idol. The work she's done to incentivize business growth in the core downtown areas of Starling City is just groundbreaking. I'm going to do my thesis on her. Is she here, too? Do you think I could meet her?"

This is so not what Will had expected. Judging from the way his father blinks, he's pretty sure his dad hadn't either. But once the shock wears off, Will attempts to picture his grandmother camping and that is just not an image that will compute. At all. Ever.

The funny thing, though, is how his father's face shifts as the situation unfolds. He goes from pleasant but detached to guarded to thoroughly amused in a matter of seconds. Will has to wonder if this is the first time he's run into an honest-to-goodness fan of his mother.

"She's not here," Oliver tells the girl. "Camping isn't really her thing. But it sounds like talking with her might help your thesis. I could probably set up a meeting with her, if you'd like. Why don't you give me your e-mail address and I'll have her scheduler contact you."

Will's not sure he's ever seen anyone quite so excited about meeting his grandmother before - he certainly never has been - but it's oddly endearing. It makes him smile. She looks like someone could knock her over with a feather, she's so giddy.

"I need a pen," she declares, grabbing Maggie's arm. "Tell me you have a pen?"

Oliver laughs. "I can text it to him."

"Whoa, hey, what happened to your 'no technology' rule?" Will challenges.

"The phone is in case of emergency or senior theses," his dad counters. "I'm not going to be totally out of touch with your stepmom. Just don't tell your brother or he'll want to take it and download Tetris."

Fair enough, Will figures. It's not like their family has 'normal people' level emergencies. If someone called it would probably mean there was a sudden gang war going on in the city or assassins were attacking.

"But our fish is getting cold," Oliver continues. "So, I'll get that from you later, okay?" The girl nods, breathing something out that's not quite intelligible. His dad pauses and tilts his head back toward the fire as he looks to his son. "Will?"

"Yeah," Will agrees, giving one last look toward Maggie before heading with his dad back to where Nate sits with their fish and potatoes on the other side of the fire, leaving the girls behind.

"That's trouble," his dad tells him as either Maggie or her friend squeal behind them just out of normal earshot. "You do know that, right?"

"It's harmless fun," Will says. "She's crazy hot and just passing through town. Seems like a good kind of trouble to me."

The huff his father lets out is one of annoyance and, honestly, Will isn't sure he has a leg to stand on here. He hadn't exactly been a paragon of virtue himself during his college years.

Oliver pauses his stride, giving his son a weighty look. "Aren't you seeing someone?"

Oh. That's what this is about. His distaste for the situation makes a little more sense now. His dad's always been more than a little ashamed of his college-age indiscretions, Will knows that. It's endeared his father to him a hell of a lot more, actually. He's a good guy. He'd just had a rocky decade or so in there.

And it's the exact opposite of what is happening right now.

"Uh, no," Will says, digging the toe of his shoe into the dirt. "Allison and I broke up a couple months ago."

"Months?" his father asks. "Why didn't you say anything?"

"It's not a big deal," he counters with a sigh that probably says that's only partly true. "We weren't that serious."

"You brought her to your sister's birthday party," his dad reminds him. "That seems pretty serious to me."

Will sighs again. He'd been with Allison for almost a year and for a while he'd definitely seen it going places, but it hadn't panned out that way. He's not sure he wants to remind himself of that quite so thoroughly right at this moment.

"We just wanted different things," Will says, staring at the small hole in the dirt he's dug with his foot. "She's going off to grad school in Gotham in the fall and we could've done the long distance thing but…"

He swallows, his voice trailing off because he does want to talk about this with his dad, but he's not sure he wants to do it now, like this.

"But what?" his father prods.

"Can we talk about it tonight?" Will asks. "After dinner maybe? It's just… it's more involved than Allison and our food is getting cold." The worry on his dad's face quadruples at that and Will knows he's coming to all kinds of incorrect conclusions. "It's fine, dad. It's not bad. I promise."

It has a placating effect, but not nearly enough and Will knows telling him what's on his mind is the only thing that will. But he doesn't push, which is one of his favorite things about his father.

"Okay," Oliver says with a nod. "Yeah, you've got it, bud."

Nate doesn't pick up on what's going on when they reach his side a moment later. The kid's already dished out all of their food and has very, very carefully ensured that the potatoes are not touching the fish on any of their plates.

The chatter that follows is pleasant enough. Nate rambles on about his leaf collection and the summer workbook for school that he's somehow already almost done with. Will chimes in with updates on his team's chances at making the finals. Their dad tries to veer away from campaign talk, focusing instead on plans for a family trip sometime around the holidays.

It's nice. Easy.

Until a bug crawls up Nate's knee and he shrieks.

"Get it off! Get it off!" the eight-year-old shouts, jumping up and shaking his leg.

"Hold still," Oliver chuckles, stilling Nate's leg with his hand and picking the large beetle off of his jeans. "It's harmless, kiddo."

"I hate bugs," Nate says, shuddering and rubbing his arms with his hands. "I wish they'd go away."

"We're outdoors," his father points out. "They live here."

Nate pulls a face at that because the logic is irrefutable, but that doesn't mean he has to like it. With a shudder, he stares at his half-eaten fish, but he can't seem to make himself sit down again. "I'm done eating, Dad. Can I go back in the tent and make more notes about my leaves?"

Oliver smiles, but Will can see it's a bit sad, even if Nate can't. They'd gone on this little trip together for a reason and he'd have much preferred to interact with his youngest than for him to lock himself away in the tent. The great outdoors have never been Nate's thing. The beach would have been better. Maybe he'll suggest that to his dad for next time.

"Sure," Oliver agrees. "Have fun."

Nate hesitates. "Just for a bit," he hedges, clearly seeing more than Will had given him credit for. "Let me know when it's time for s'mores, okay?"

"You've got it," Oliver agrees. This time his smile reaches his eyes, and that's apparently good enough for Nate because he heads to the tent and zippers himself inside with little more than a nod at his dad.

Still, as soon as Nate's tucked away in the tent his dad rubs at his brow with a beleaguered sigh.

There's no sound but that and the crackle of the fire for a moment. Through the flames that lick up into the fast-darkening sky, Will can see Maggie and her friends. The look she gives him is a clear invitation to join as they head off down toward the river, but he just shakes his head at her in reply. No matter how attractive her legs are, he's not going to leave his dad right now.

Plus, there's always later.

"We got lucky," Will muses, popping a bite of potato into his mouth and chewing it thoughtfully. His words do the trick, pulling in his father's attention. "From day one we were totally in sync. I know it pissed off my mom, but you gave me the most meaningful present and promise I'd ever gotten, and like that I didn't just know you were my dad, I felt it, too."

Oliver's lips tick up slightly as he watches his son.

"It's different with Nate," Will admits. "Completely different. But the idea is the same. We didn't have to try to find common ground. It was there from the start. Nate already loves you, already knows you love him, but he isn't gonna fall in love with camping any more than you're going to suddenly decide you want to write a book about botany. This is never gonna be his ball and glove, Dad."

A flash of vulnerability skates over his father's face and it occurs to Will that this is a newer facet of their relationship, that it's steadily grown these last few years. He's sure part of it is because he's been around his dad a whole lot more since his mom got married, but he thinks it's more because he's grown up. As a boy, his father had seemed like he was larger than life, a superhero with or without the mask. As a man, his dad is a whole lot more human. As much as he's loved his father since the moment he met him, he finds he much prefers the human version. The real version.

"He's growing up so fast," Oliver admits, shoulders drooping, his face pained. "You and Ellie were so easy to connect with. Jules took a lot more effort, but at least it was a clear path. Once I figured out what was wrong, I knew what I had to fix, how I needed to approach our relationship. And that worked, eventually. We're so much closer now and she's so much happier. I think she's happier, anyhow-"

"She is," Will interrupts. He probably knows Jules better than anyone and his father knows that. Will has been her sounding board, her confidante, her protective big brother and her best friend for pretty much her whole life. And even at her most closed off, she's never been closed off with him and he has never once failed to be there for her. Whether that meant ditching class to pick her up from school after a fight with her friend or going to all her dance recitals, he's been there. She's his sister, he'll always be there. He doesn't just love Jules, he likes her, too. And she's always been in his corner just as he's been in hers.

"Good," Oliver breathes out in relief. "That's good. But with Nate…" He lets his voice trail off with a shake of his head.

"With Nate nothing's wrong," Will finishes for him. "He's not insecure or closed off. He's not unhappy. He loves you like crazy. You're just very different people and it's hard to find things you have in common."

"I played chess with him last week," Oliver says, shaking his head. "He kicked my ass. He goes through every possible choice before making a move. I was never good with being patient. I was bored and I know he could see that."

"You're trying, Dad," Will points out. "Maybe that's enough."

"Maybe. For now." His father's face shutters some at that. "We're okay. I just wish we were better." He takes a deep breath. "But enough about me and Nate. What's going on with you?"

Will swallows hard at the subject change. He leans back, hands resting behind him in the dirt. It's not an easy thing to answer. There's kind of a lot going on with him right now and he's not even sure where to start.

"This about baseball?" Oliver asks. "I know you're disappointed, but you might be better before the end of the season."

Will glances back at the splint on his thumb. They're putting a cast on once he gets back from camping. They'd wanted to do it today as soon as they'd gotten the x-ray back, but Will had waved them off, much to his coach's annoyance. A day won't hurt anything and it's not like he's got a shot of getting back in the game this season, no matter what his dad says.

"I'm done," Will says, sighing hard. "Even if I'm good enough to play in a month, I won't be good enough to play at that level. My college career is over and I know it. I'll finish up my classes in the fall and then… that's it. It's not like I was ever gonna go pro."

"You okay with that?" his dad asks, matching his posture, leaning back.

"Guess I've gotta be, don't I?" Will asks.

"Baseball's been a part of your life for a long time," his father notes.

"Since the day I met you," Will agrees. The two are, in some ways, so very interwoven in his mind. It's always been about so much than just sports to him.

"It's gonna be hard to leave behind," Oliver says. Will nods, staring into the fire before them with blank eyes. "Is that why you weren't at the game today?"

That snaps him right out of the daze he's been looking into the flame with and right into looking at his dad's too-knowing eyes. It hadn't even occurred to him. But now that his father said it… yeah. Maybe.

"My team deserves my support," Will answers. "I just… I'd been looking forward to kicking Coast City's ass all month, especially after what they did to us last year. I wanted to be here with you and Nate, but I'm also not sure I could've sat on that bench and watched Pete hang curveballs every other throw. I'll be there next game."

"Good," his dad tells him. "You're part of the team even if you aren't playing. I get sitting this one out, but they do need you, even if it's just on the bench."

"Yeah," Will says with a grimace. "I know."

A moment of quiet after stretches out between them. The sun has set and Will can hear the girls down by the river. Their soft chatter echoes the crackle of the fire, the hoot of an owl and the quiet songs of crickets. For a beat, he lets himself focus on that. He takes in the scene, living in the moment…

But his dad is watching him expectantly and he knows their conversation isn't over yet.

"That wasn't what you wanted to talk about, though, was it?" Oliver asks, breaking the stillness.

"No," Will admits. "It wasn't."

"Was it about Allison?" his dad ventures.

Will shifts to lean his elbows on his knees as he sighs heavily. "Not exactly."

He really doesn't want to think about Allison. He wants to think about Maggie down at the river without a bathing suit. But even after breaking up two months ago, it still hurts. Not like it did at first, of course, and he knows now that it was inevitable, but that doesn't make it any easier. And, really, what he'd wanted to talk to his dad about really hadn't been the break up. At least, not entirely.

"It is kind of related, though," he admits. His dad says nothing in response, clearly waiting for him to take the lead. After pausing to lick his lips, Will does just that. "It's more about school."

"About school?" his father asks in surprise. That's warranted. He's all of one term away from finishing, his grades are good and he'd had a full ride thanks to baseball. "Buddy, if they're taking away your scholarship because of the injury you know that we'll cover-"

"No," Will interrupts, shaking his head. "That's not it. I mean, thank you. But Coach hasn't said anything like that. It's more about what I'm gonna do after school."

"I thought you wanted to be an athletic trainer?" his dad asks. His face is every bit as confused as his voice and Will finds himself swallowing again before he answers.

"I did," he replies. "At least, I thought I did. Coach had kinda talked it up, but… I think maybe that's not the right fit for me after all."

His father blinks back at him before turning to face him more fully. "Okay, well, did you have something else in mind? Were you thinking of grad school? A bachelor's in sports medicine doesn't really open up the door to a whole lot of other career options."

Will swallows, nodding. "I know that." He swallows again, rubbing his palms against his thighs because they're itchy. He's nervous. For the first time in forever he's nervous talking to his father and it's dumb because his dad won't even object to his plans. He thinks. Probably. Hopefully. "And I do know what I want to do, actually."

Oliver nods for him to continue.

"Right," Will mumbles before clearing his throat. "I've been thinking about this a lot. Since Christmas, at least, and I've done lots of research and I know it's going to mean more training before I'm actually working, but I think this is actually a really good fit for me."

"Will," his dad says. "What is?"

"I want to be a firefighter."

He basically holds his breath as soon as the words tumble out of his mouth. This is something he wants - something he really wants - and the only two people he's told so far have been everything but supportive. But his dad… his dad is different and even though his heart is pounding a mile a minute and his palms are suddenly slick with sweat, he knows that this conversation will not be like the last two.

"A firefighter?" his dad repeats. He's surprised - Will can only imagine what he'd been thinking he was going to say - but there's also no judgement.

Will lets out the breath that'd been trapped in his lungs. "Yeah," he confirms. "Yes. That's what I want to do."

"You've never said anything about that before," Oliver says.

Will nods. "I know. I hadn't really considered it before, but I feel like I could do a lot of good, help people and be part of a team, you know? It just… it seems so much more meaningful than a whole career around sports. I love it, but I don't know if I love it that much."

His dad doesn't respond right away, save for an awed smile that graces his face. Will isn't exactly sure what he said that got to his dad, but the sense of relief it brings is staggering.

"You want to do something meaningful and help people and be part of a team?" Oliver asks.

It's an echo of his own voice and it takes Will all of a second to connect those dots, to interpret the tenor of his father's voice. Pride. It's pride he's hearing and Will thinks he could actually cry at the sound of it, especially after his mom's reaction, after Allison's.

"Yeah," Will replies.

"I think that's amazing," his father says, nodding at him with newfound respect that resonates in Will. "I think I couldn't be prouder of you if I tried."

Will ducks his head at that, smiling down at his feet as his father wraps an arm around his shoulders. Oliver pulls him closer, kissing the top of his head like he's a kid. He doesn't mind it in the least.

"Allison didn't think much of the idea," Will confides in his dad. "She thought it was a waste of my degree, said I should get my masters and do physical therapy or try to get into med school."

"It's your life," his father says. He chuckles under his breath, shaking his head at himself like he can't believe what he's about to say. "It's your life and it's your choice, kiddo. Don't let anyone take that away from you."

"Not even Mom?" Will asks, looking up at his father.

Oliver winces. "You told your mom?"

"Yeah," Will says. "And she wasn't what you'd call happy. Or tolerant."

The drawn out sigh that comes from his father's lips is one that Will had long ago realized is something he only ever does when talking about his mom. His 'Samantha Sigh,' Will privately calls it. They've never once fought in front of him or even hinted at it, but that sigh alone is proof that they don't always see eye-to-eye.

"She worries about you," his father finally says. "She loves you and I'm sure she'd rather see you doing something with lower risk."

"Lower reward, too, then," Will answers without thinking.

His father's smile is immediate and genuine. "Good point," Oliver says. "Don't worry about your mom. I'll talk to her."

"You sure you want to get in the middle of this?" Will asks, raising an eyebrow at his dad.

"You're my son," Oliver tells him. "I'll go to bat for you anytime."

Will groans, ducking out from under his father's arm. "Baseball dad humor? Really?"

"Felt like a home run to me," his father says, completely failing to fight his self-satisfied grin.

"That's horrible!" Will informs him. "Why are dad jokes the worst? Why are they always puns?"

"Just the way it works," Oliver replies, still smiling, looking a little too happy with himself if you ask Will. "The instant you become a dad, the puns start. Maybe someday you'll learn that." He stops, looks toward the river with a wry twist of his lips. "Just not too soon, please."

Will rolls his eyes. "I'm not gonna sleep with her."

"I'm not going to tell you what to do," his father says. "You're an adult. Although… tonight I am proud of your choices. I am most nights."

"Probably not that night I crashed your car into the fountain in front of QI at, like, three in the morning, though, right?" he asks.

"Yeah. Not so much that night," his father agrees. It's been six years, but that's probably still not something he should joke about if the look on his dad's face is any indication. He knows how much he scared his parents that night, not to mention how much he'd scared Jules that night.

"Sorry," he says.

"It's fine," his father tells him. "I love you and I'm proud of you and you're going to be an excellent firefighter. And… I hadn't brought this up with you yet, but out of college or not, you're welcome to stay with us as long as you need. It's still your house, Will. Getting a degree doesn't change that."

Will thinks his smile must grow about ten-fold at that. He'd really been hoping his dad would say something along those lines. "Thanks," he says. "I'll take you up on that."

"Good," his father replies. "Now… I'm gonna go check on Nate. Did you want to come with me?"

"Actually," Will says, looking back toward the river. The girls must have flashlights or something because there's a dull glow lighting up the night coming from that direction. "I was thinking I might go hang out with Maggie. It's been a while."

That's not a lie. He could use the flirting practice, too, not that he's going to tell his dad that.

"Have a good time," his father says before heading back toward the tent, letting Will go on his way.

As it turns out, Maggie is excellent flirting practice and she's not so bad at making out either, but it doesn't go anywhere further than that. Still, he enjoys himself. A lot. It's been too long since he had a girl in his arms and her lips pressed against his. He hadn't even realized how much he missed it. And yes, she's not Allison and part of him still misses his ex-girlfriend, but she's a beautiful, stark reminder that the world is a whole lot larger than he's experienced and there are so many more people he has yet to meet. So, Maggie is fun and nice and sexy and he's happily a bit breathless by the time he leaves the river and heads back toward the tent.

He expects Nate to be passed out by the time he gets there, but he's pleasantly surprised that his little brother is holding out against sleep because what he stumbles upon is about a hundred times better.

A few feet away from the fire, where an open package of graham crackers and a giant bag of marshmallows sit half eaten, his dad has rolled out one of the sleeping mats. His father is lying down on it with Nate curled up at his side as they look up at the stars.

"... is Ursa Major," his father says in a low voice, head dipped toward Nate as he talks.

"I thought that was the Big Dipper?" Nate asks, eyes wide with awe.

"No, Ursa Minor is part of the Big Dipper," Oliver informs him. "That's easy to get confused. But Ursa Major is the biggest constellation in the whole sky. You can see it all year round."

"Could you see it on the island, Daddy?" Nate asks. He's curled up close to his father with such attentiveness on his face that Will decides immediately he's not going to interrupt them. This is too special a moment for that.

"I could," he hears his father agree. "And I knew my family back home could see it. Sometimes I'd just lie there at night and wonder if your Aunt Thea was looking up, too."

"Like that movie? The one with the mouse?" Nate asks. He's so invested all of a sudden. So excited. "With that song?"

"Just like that." Oliver smiles down at his youngest. Will is pretty sure they don't even register him as he makes his way into their nearby tent. "I loved that movie when I was around your age, you know."

"I know," Nate replies in his little voice.

It's very quiet for a long moment after that. Will takes a moment to change out of the soaking wet boxers he'd worn into the river before climbing into a sleeping bag. But there's not another sound save for the pops of the dying fire and the rustling of the fabric as he climbs in, not until he's zippered himself inside.

"Dad?" Nate asks quietly.

"Yeah, buddy?"

"I like that movie, too," he says.

"Maybe we should watch it next weekend," his father offers.

"Yeah," Nate says, a note of excitement ringing in his voice. "That's a good idea. Can I tell you something, Daddy?"

"You can tell me anything, Nate," his father answers.

"I don't really like camping," he admits. He sounds so sad about it.

"I know, kiddo," his father tells him. "We'll find something else to do together, okay?"

"Okay," Nate agrees. "But Daddy?"

"Yeah?"

"I do like this," he says. "This is nice."

"Yeah," his father agrees. "It is."

Will drifts off to sleep not long after that and when he wakes up in the morning, he's not at all surprised to find his father and little brother still fast asleep on the mat outside the tent, Nate's small form curled into his father's protective embrace.

Chapter Text

July 2030

 

If you'd asked Amelia three months ago what she was doing this summer, you'd have gotten a very different answer than what had actually panned out. Namely? Summer school. That'd been the plan because the sooner she can get out of the classroom and into City Hall, the better. But, then Celeste had gone and had herself a quarter-life crisis in the form of walking in on her jerkwad boyfriend screwing his 'just a friend, I swear' study buddy and suddenly Amelia found herself committing to a summer-long road trip instead.

Everything in Amelia's life boils down to a series of plans, but some things are more important than others and she's learned to be flexible when it's needed. And it is needed this time. Amelia takes her friendships seriously. Celeste and Maggie had both been there for her when her dad had an unexpected heart attack during her freshman year - the first of so many plans waylaid by life - and she will forever be there for both of them.

Maggie and Celeste had just been her dorm mates back then. She'd barely known them when they'd found her shaking and crying, unable to put her phone down. Celeste had wrapped an arm around her and held her close while Maggie made her hot cocoa and called an airline to book her a flight home. She hadn't even known their names. They'd just been 'those girls who live next to the common room,' but that'd dramatically changed one late afternoon in mid-March when her dad's heart stopped.

Because of Celeste and Maggie, she'd gotten home in time to see her dad before he died. Because of Celeste and Maggie, she'd had clear study notes from all the classes she missed and passed all of them. Because of Celeste and Maggie, she'd made it through the hardest time in her life with a constant shoulder to lean on and an ever-present ear to listen when she needed it.

Amelia knows the value of that. She knows you don't find those kinds of friends every day. There is nothing she wouldn't do for Celeste and Maggie, who have proven themselves equally loyal.

So, dropping her plans for summer school and pushing graduation back by a semester in favor of a cross-country road trip had been an easy choice, even if it had meant reworking her career timeline a bit.

And it's been fun… for the most part. There's been a lot more camping than she'd anticipated, although it's by far the cheapest option. She's starting to enjoy it, even though she does miss having a real shower at her leisure.

"Laundromat tomorrow?" Celeste asks, dust from the path they're on kicking up with every step. Maggie and Amelia both immediately nod. "I'm not sure I can re-wear these jeans another day."

"Shorts," Maggie answers, like that solves everything. Admittedly, they're a whole lot easier to hand wash in a river and hang out to dry than her and Celeste's jeans. "I tried to tell you guys."

That's true, but Maggie's legs are also in a category all their own. She's a competitive swimmer and her toned muscles reflect every bit of that dedication. Amelia, on the other hand, has spent the last few months favoring the library over the gym and all the hiking they've done on this trip has just barely started to make up for it. Sometimes she misses softball. It got in the way of her studies, but man, it'd kept her in shape. The only thing her butt has to show from all the extra studying is a weird flat edge from the rigid desk chairs the library refuses to replace.

"Maybe we splurge and hit a Wal-mart in the next town for some shorts?" Celeste suggests, casting Amelia a glance. She wants consensus on this. She has on most things since the breakup. It kills Amelia to see her once-confident friend reduced to someone who wants approval on something as simple as buying shorts.

Amelia gives her a definitive nod, looping her arm through Celeste's as they walk. "We'll have to pick up razors, too, then," she says with a little shrug. Shaving in rivers and streams sucks the big one, but if it means spending less money and time on laundromats, then it's worth it.

"Or invest in Nair," Celeste says, wrinkling her nose. Amelia nearly gags over the notion. That's a smell you won't soon forget and the memory of their entire dorm floor stinking for days after a bottle broke still stings her nose months later. She shuts her eyes and buries her face in Celeste's shoulder as she laughs, shaking her head in a firm 'no.'

It's because of this that she totally misses the moment they hit the end of the path and spill out onto the campsite.

"Ho-ly shit!"

Maggie's voice prompts Amelia to look up. She has absolutely no idea what she'd been expecting to see, but a blindingly hot shirtless guy in low-slung jeans is absolutely not it. Amelia's eyes widen, her jaw dropping as she practically drags Celeste to a dead stop.

He's… he's wow. Had they walked into some kind of photo shoot? Are they actually this lucky? He hasn't spotted them yet and the backpack Amelia's been carrying slides off her shoulder and lands with a heavy thump on the ground as she watches the guy. He's running wet hands through his hair and he's sweaty, light actually reflecting off of his pleasantly defined abs.

She can't find her voice, but she can - apparently - whimper somewhat pathetically as she watches his stomach muscles ripple. They actually ripple and the solid shot want that rips through her leaves her knees feeling weak.

Isn't that supposed to be a movie thing? That's not supposed to actually happen. But then he drags his hands down his chest, leaving wet smears of water and yep, it's definitely a thing that actually happens.

Oh dear God, she's been entirely too absorbed in school for way too long. The desire making her limbs tingle is so foreign at this point it's pathetic. When was the last time she even went on a date? Last fall? That chemistry major with the sweaty palms? God, that was forever ago. She needs a date. She needs to get laid. She honestly hadn't realized how much she'd missed boys, missed sex, until this very moment, and now her whole body is buzzing and it's making the world a hot, fuzzy mess.

"Dibs!" Maggie declares. It's the only thing that could possibly jar Amelia's attention. Her lips are about to form the word 'But...' before she stops herself. She wants to fight her on this so much, but this is Maggie and Maggie is flushed and smiling as she bounces on her toes. Amelia would do anything for Maggie. Even though that is so very true, her heart still sinks as the other girl spins back to face her and Celeste. "Please? Please, please? He's like a fully formed daydream just walked out of my head into our campsite and it's been months since I had a date."

"What happened to our 'All boys suck!' rallying cry?" Celeste asks, crossing her arms. She's been holding her ex's actions against every boy in the world since it happened.

"Honey… we said that for your benefit," Amelia tells her. "You know that right?"

"He can totally suck on anything of mine he wants to," Maggie chimes in. "I'm not gonna marry the guy, just mess around with him. Boys are good for some things, after all."

Celeste sighs, because even she isn't going to deny that. Amelia's heard more than enough complaints about stupid boys and their stupid cocks and precisely how much Celeste hates that she misses their stupid cocks to be aware of that. "He is really stupidly hot," she acknowledges.

"Right?" Maggie asks.

All three of them just kind of stare at him for a moment.

"Fine," Amelia relents, hating the word even as she says it. "But only because dibs is sacred. And also, I hate you."

"You love me," Maggie replies with a grin that Amelia is well aware will win the mystery hot guy over in a heartbeat. Maggie is bold, effervescent and stupidly pretty. Her lack of a love life has absolutely nothing to do with a lack of interest from boys. "And you are the best friend in the whole world and I love you right back."

"Yeah, yeah…" Amelia rolls her eyes, but the animus in her tone is all for show. No boy, no matter how hot, is ever going to come between them and Amelia knows it. So do Maggie and Celeste.

But, bowing out or not, there's no agreement that she can't look. Even Celeste is looking, letting out a little sigh as the guy stretches his neck to the side. Stupid hot boys and their stupidly attractive bodies. Amelia's gone from wildly turned on and hopeful to intensely frustrated and more than a little irked in the span of minutes.

"Come on," Amelia orders. "Help me with the tent before you go all Bond girl on this guy."

Maggie laughs as both she and Celeste move to help her unpack the tent.

None of them are exactly focused on the task at hand, though, all three distracted by the boy nearby. Which is, of course, when he notices them. Even from the other side of the campfire she can see how intensely blue his eyes are as his gaze skirts over them. He's not exactly subtle about his interest, either.

And, damn it, his smirk should be illegal.

There's an older man nearby - his father, probably - who's shaking his head, chuckling, and a little boy who just looks confused.

"Hey," Hot Guy says, tilting his chin up at them in greeting. His voice isn't particularly deep but it's warm and a little gritty and it slides down Amelia's spine like honey. Oh, that's nice, and goddamn it, she really hates that dibs is so sacrosanct.

"Hey," Maggie answers. She licks her lips, hooking her thumbs in her belt loops, rocking onto the balls of her feet as she blatantly looks him over. Yeah, there's no question whatsoever about Maggie's interest or that she's totally gained the whole of Hot Guy's focus. Which sucks. Because, yeah it's not like he'd been going to look past Maggie to see her, but a part of her had quietly held out hope anyhow.

The kid near him says something too quiet to hear, but Hot Guy's eyes suddenly go wide and then he's laughing, burying his face in the crook of his arm. God, even his back muscles are solid. It's just not right, especially the way they move as he chuckles. Absently, Amelia realizes his father is laughing too and he's turning more than a few shades redder as he tries to tell the little boy something. Her awareness of them evaporates a second later when she notices Hot Guy has actual tricep definition.

Amelia shakes her head. Watching him is becoming an exercise in torturing herself at this point. While he is oh so pretty to look at it, she can't do anything more than that - stupid dibs - so she turns to the task of setting up their tent. Her willpower is damn solid and so is her sense of self-preservation. Besides, someone's going to have to build it and she's pretty sure it's not gonna be Maggie.

It's not like any of them need help with the tent at this point anyway. A meandering summer-long road trip that's been more truck beds and campgrounds than motels means any of the three of them could probably put together the tent in their sleep. Hell, she's pretty sure they did last week when it took an hour longer than they expected to reach the campground they were headed to. But, someone - Celeste… it was Celeste; she doesn't have to ask - had put everything away haphazardly and when Amelia pulls it out, it's a tangled mess.

Amelia huffs in an annoyance - equal parts due to Celeste's packing skills and Maggie's flirting proficiency - and she busies herself with straightening out the tent poles.

Some part of her registers that Hot Guy has come over. She can hear the introductions going on behind her, but she doesn't turn around. Not even when someone tugs insistently on the back of her shirt.

The tent is a lovely and welcome distraction, but the task isn't hers for long. Maggie apparently thinks acting like none of them know what they're doing with the tent is a great way to hit on someone, something that has Amelia rolling her eyes slightly. She's not much a fan of looking incompetent. Regardless of the fact that it gives Maggie and Will - she heard his name… she should probably stop calling him Hot Guy - plenty of pretense to touch in seemingly innocuous ways, it's not something Amelia would ever have done. But, hey, this is Maggie's show and Amelia's just a bit player, so whatever.

"You okay?"

Celeste's question is quiet, barely above a whisper. Neither Maggie nor Will seem to notice, both of them talking about the summer road trip. His hand is on her hip and Maggie is full-on batting her eyelashes.

"Fine," Amelia assures Celeste, just as quietly. And as she says it, she realizes it's true. This level of childish jealousy is ridiculous. She doesn't even know this boy. It's not like it would be anything, anyhow. She's literally passing through town. "I'm fine. I'm just…" Frustrated, horny, irrationally upset at Hot Guy's - er, Will's - abs. "What would you think about going out to a bar or clubbing the next time we hit a big town? Would that bother you?"

Celeste's smile is small, both unsurprised and obviously pleased. "I love that you guys worry about me," the blonde tells her. "And I love that you dropped everything to go on this trip with me."

"Always," Amelia replies immediately. "Celeste, you know that, right? You and Maggie, you come first. If you guys need me, I'm there. No questions asked."

"I know," Celeste replies with a grin. "And I'd do the same for either of you. We should all have fun this trip. And, I know… I know, you are having fun. It's great. But just because I've disavowed men for the foreseeable future doesn't mean either of you should have to. I think going dancing is a really good idea. We all need to burn off some energy. One way or another."

Amelia couldn't keep the relief from her voice as she asks, "Yeah?" even if she wanted to.

"Yeah," Celeste says before laughing under her breath. "As long as you don't mind me grabbing you to dance with when some skeezeball tries to grind on me."

"Right, because you dancing with me is totally going to make guys leave you alone." Amelia scoffs. "That plays into no guy's fantasy ever."

Celeste winks. "Let 'em dream."

Amelia grins because that's the first honest sign of her friend she's seen for weeks. The once confident, playful girl has been a shadow of herself since the breakup. Amelia is grateful to see her true self surfacing now, and it only fuels her slightly murderous rage toward her ex-boyfriend for stealing that light away from her best friend for so long.

Maggie's voice drifts past the now-completed tent. "We could go for a swim or something."

"I didn't bring a swimsuit," Will replies and Amelia bites back a sigh because she knows exactly where this is going.

"That's okay." Maggie replies. "Neither did I."

It's not even true. Swimsuits had been one of the first things they'd packed after camping gear and hiking boots. But the little choking noise Will makes in reply had totally been Maggie's goal and Amelia had seen his reaction coming a mile away.

Boys can be so predictable sometimes.

"Sorry," a heavier voice says, pulling Amelia's focus. It's the older man who'd been by the firepit. Up close, she can easily see that he's definitely Will's dad. The resemblance is undeniable, even if the older man barely looks old enough to be his father. He's taller, his hair more gray than not, probably in his 40s if she had to guess, but easily at least as fit as his son. Does their family just genetically have muscles or something? "Dinner's ready."

Will says something in response to Maggie - "I'll, uh… see you in a bit then" - but for the first time since she saw him, Amelia's attention doesn't snap back to the boy. No, something else tickles at the back of her mind, some sense of recognition flirting with her consciousness as she looks at his father.

"You look really familiar."

She says it without even realizing she's speaking and both Will and his father stop mid-turn as they're about to head back to their side of the campground. Maybe it's the profile, or maybe it's the pleasant but guarded look that takes over the older man's features. Whatever it is, it suddenly clicks and Amelia's eyes go wide as her jaw drop for the second time that night, albeit for very different reasons.

"You're Representative Queen," she blurts. "You're running for Senate, right?"

The hot guy her age completely fades to obscurity because no amount of good looks and abs are going to distract her from the puzzle pieces slotting together in her head. She barely even takes in the plastic smile and almost sheepish confirmation of her suspicions because she already knows and it leaves her so jittery that she can barely believe it.

"Oh my gosh, you're Mayor Moira Queen's son? She's, like, my idol." The words are sort of tumbling past her lips before she even knows what she's saying, but this is Mayor Moira Queen they're talking about and Amelia's excitement level is pretty much off the charts right now. "The work she's done to incentivize business growth in the core downtown areas of Starling City is just groundbreaking. I'm going to do my thesis on her. Is she here, too? Do you think I could meet her?"

Both Representative Queen - who actually is politically pretty interesting in his own right, if your focus is state politics - and his super hot son are blinking back at her with unabashed surprise. Her friends, though… her friends would have seen this coming a mile away, if they'd recognized Representative Queen. Amelia's focus has always been on local politics and she's been fascinated by the unlikely rise and even more unlikely success of Mayor Moira Queen since reading about her in a news article back in high school.

Her dream - her actual daily fantasy - is a summer interning for Moira Queen's chief of staff. Oh man, she can't even imagine what it would be like to be in that room, to help make things happen, to be where the decisions are made and deals are struck for the betterment of the city. Professionally, that's all she wants. She's got no aspirations to an elected position herself - campaigning and glad-handing isn't her thing - but the work… The work is what she wants. Badly.

"She's not here," Representative Queen says. "Camping isn't really her thing. But it sounds like talking with her might help your thesis. I could probably set up a meeting with her, if you'd like. Why don't you give me your e-mail address and I'll have her scheduler contact you."

Amelia damned near falls over. She opens her mouth to respond in some capacity - in any capacity - her words fail her. Her heart pounds and she's lightheaded and it's a little ridiculous, but this is the foundation of all of her daydreams and it's happening. It's actually happening. Celeste sings into her hairbrush in front of the mirror and Maggie absolutely practices post-Olympic win interviews in the shower - she's heard her for years; dorm bathrooms have unfortunate acoustics. This is her version of that.

An actual introduction to Mayor Queen...

She's tempted to pinch herself.

"I need a pen," she declares, grabbing Maggie's arm with a fervor that's a little more desperate than it should be. "Tell me you have a pen?"

The representative laughs and says something about texting - which is a stroke of brilliance because none of them have pens… or paper, for that matter and this is 2030 who who the hell carries pens these days? - but then he says something about getting it from her in a bit because their dinner is getting cold and both he and his older son head off.

"Oh my God… oh my God." Amelia is literally shaking with excitement as she turns back to her friends. Forget Hot Guy, er… Will, whatever. Forget him. He's crazy gorgeous, but his grandmother is Mayor Moira Queen and Amelia might have just gotten an in to meet her actual political hero and she can't stop shaking. "Did that happen? Did that actually just happen?"

"Take a breath, honey," Celeste tells her gently.

"Do I actually get to meet Mayor Queen? Like, did I just magically get an in to the mayor's office on a camping trip in the middle of nowhere with her hot grandson strutting around like some kind of model?"

"He is like a model, isn't he?" Maggie asks, looking over her shoulder. "This is karma. We have good karma, Amelia. We're good people. We deserve this."

"I didn't look like an idiot, did I?" Amelia asks, eyes snapping back to Celeste, who is absolutely the most objective on this. "I didn't bumble or fangirl too hard, right?"

"Your… interest was energetic and evident," Celeste responds evenhandedly. Amelia groans at the response and buries her face in her hands.

"Don't worry," Maggie tells her. "It was cute. I'm pretty sure they found you charming."

"If they didn't, they're idiots and that man has lost my vote," Celeste declares firmly with unwavering loyalty.

Amelia laughs, and it comes out a little manic-sounding. "We don't live in his district, but I appreciate the sentiment," she tells her friend, who deflates a little at this information.

It's fine, though. Everything is good. No, everything is great.

They finish getting the tent up and inhale some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Their standard dinner is getting old, but PB&J is easy food on the road and cheap as hell, which is sort of a necessity. Will and his dad are still chatting near the fireside, his little brother sitting inside their tent when Maggie decides they might as well head down to the river.

Will sees them start toward the water, and Maggie's invitation is blatant enough. But, there's no missing the way his father's shoulders are drooped in some kind of frustration or sadness and Will only gives Maggie a half-smile and a shake of his head before turning back to his dad.

It's that small moment that has Amelia pausing, that has her attention whipping right back to him. He's turned back to his dad, all his attention on their conversation and it's oddly… endearing. She reappraises Will through new eyes. Looking past the beautiful face and hair that's at the perfect length and the sharp lines of his abs, she wonders if maybe there isn't a whole lot more to him than she'd stopped to consider.

The shot of want that'd snapped to life inside her when she saw him for the first time shifts, morphing into something more complex, something not entirely physical. The feeling warms her from the inside out… and then she frowns. Because it doesn't matter.

Maggie called dibs and that will always be true.

"He'll follow," Celeste says to a clearly bummed Maggie as the three of them head down toward the river, flashlights and towels in hand. "You know he's interested."

Maggie nods, shooting Celeste a soft, grateful smile as he loops her arm through the blonde's elbow. The river isn't far and before long, they reach the water. Amelia toes off her shoes to dip a toe in. It's warmer than she'd expected, thankfully, and she turns to find Maggie and Celeste stripping down to their underwear.

"Explain to me again why we aren't wearing bathing suits?" Amelia asks even as she starts to shimmy out of her jeans.

"Because I lied and I can't be the only one without a bathing suit," Maggie tells her. "Besides, a bra and panties are basically the same thing, right?"

Amelia scoffs. "Sure… if they're Hanes."

She's pretty sure Celeste doesn't own anything that isn't a thong, which maybe is the worst possible thing to wear while camping. But, now that she's thinking about it, she's damned near out of laundry herself and she's pretty sure she's wearing her skimpy dinner-date-at-his-place lace bra and panty set…

As Amelia sheds her jeans, tossing them aside before pulling her shirt off, she realizes she was right. It's the pale blue lace set that definitely earn their dinner-date-at-his-place status.

So… Will's gonna get a bit of an eyeful. A little thrill shoots through her chest before she can tamp it down. That's fine. It's dark. He probably won't get much of a look, but even if he does… She can't help it. Dibs or not, the petty side of her sort of hopes it makes him do a double-take.

"Did you bring shampoo?" Maggie asks, blinking at Amelia in surprise as she pulls something from the pocket of her discarded jeans.

"Yup," Amelia confirms, wading into the water. "Sorry to the fish, but my hair comes first. It's been way too long."

"No lies there," Celeste chimes in as she follows suit. "Pass it my way once you're done?"

Amelia nods before sinking beneath the surface of the water to soak her dark, suddenly-curly hair.

The water is crisply refreshing and she savors the gentle rush of it against her skin as her hair floats around her. She catches light from their flashlights, Celeste's lantern, and the fast-setting sun through the water, everything glowing just a bit. It's beautiful, quiet, and in spite of not having brought soap along, she already feels cleaner, like the dust of the trail is melting away in the gentle current.

Her feet easily reach the ground - the water's barely more than waist high - and she stands up suddenly with a sigh. Water cascades off of her, leaving her bra and panties sticking to her skin as she inhales the fresh air with a soft hum. Her hair is long enough that it brushes the surface of the water and she reaches back to wring out the excess water, stretching her back as she does it, only to freeze when she hears a sound. Not any sound, it's a strangled gasp that draws her attention as well as Maggie and Celeste's to the shoreline.

"H… Hi," Will says, flushing adorably. "That's… You weren't kidding about not having bathing suits, huh?"

"Nope," Maggie declares with a big grin as she heads toward him. She looks the most like she could be wearing a swimsuit, in satiny black that isn't the least bit see-through.

"Do you, uh…" Will starts before shaking his head at himself and shrugging off the awkwardness that really hadn't seemed well-suited to him. He doesn't move to take his pants off, though, which is yet another weirdly endearing thing to do. "I just don't want to make anyone uncomfortable by being here…"

"Aw… that's so cute!" Celeste says. "And really, really thoughtful." She slaps the surface of the water. "Damn it. Stop trying to convince me that all men don't suck, because they do."

"Horrible, terrible, inferior creatures," Will agrees, nodding solemnly. "We're the worst and I'm sorry on behalf of all of us for anything and everything we've ever done."

"That's a long list," Amelia chimes in.

To his credit, when Will looks at her, it's obvious that he tries to keep his gaze on her face. But his eyes slide down to her chest of their own volition. That same thrill shoots through her again as he turns a shade pinker and meets her eyes once more.

"Gets longer all the time," he agrees, tacitly admitting his own slip, his voice low.

It's at this point he would be looking away, because the moment is over, but he doesn't. Instead he swallows hard and her eyes drop to catch the way the dying light catches on the bob of his Adam's Apple. Her breath catches at the sight and when she meets his gaze again, there's an unexpected heat waiting for her there.

Amelia stops breathing altogether as they stare at each other. It lasts a couple of seconds, if that, but it feels longer. Too long, some part of her realizes, but the strange connection - one that's forged from literally nothing - still has her stomach hollowing out. It can't last - not now - and it doesn't because Maggie's leaving the water and joining him on the beach and he's there with her… but it also makes Amelia shiver and she knows - she knows - she's not the only one feeling it.

"Hmmm…" Celeste muses from a few feet away

It's enough to make Amelia look away. She blinks furiously, trying to clear her head. A flood of anticipation is quickly filling her chest, making her heart pound. She meets Celeste's eyes where her friend has a speculatively raised eyebrow. But there's nothing playful about Amelia's look - it's heavy, looking for help from her friend, and Celeste instantly picks up on it.

"We aren't sticking around long," Celeste offers up, addressing Will. "Just washing our hair and rinsing off the day. Amelia and I will be outta here in no time."

Amelia nods along without looking back, but she can feel Will's eyes on her and it burns her skin. It's ridiculous. Electric. Completely nonsensical. She clenches her fingers around the travel-sized shampoo bottle in her hand, digging her nails in her palm to keep herself from looking back.

They absolutely need to go dancing or bar hopping or something because it's intensely clear that she needs to spend some time with a guy in the very near future. That's all this is. Nearly a year of repression in favor of education and friendship has finally caught up with her. That's all it can be. Anything else would be preposterous.

"Okay… if you're sure it's alright?" Will asks again, because apparently he's a gentleman.

Which is not helping.

"No worries at all," Amelia says - her voice almost comes out relatively normal, which is a feat and she almost pats herself on the back - because she just knows he's waiting for her input. Celeste has been clear enough and Maggie is full-on eager for his company. She casts him a quick glance as she sinks down into the water so that it's level with her collarbone. "Like Celeste said… she and I are just here for a few minutes. Then, we'll give you two some privacy. We're all adults. I'm pretty sure we can handle sharing the same river."

There's a long enough pause - a loaded enough pause - where they just stare at each other again before he replies that Maggie actually clears her throat. It jars them both and Amelia finds herself looking back at Celeste who mouths the word, "Dude!" at her emphatically.

Will sounds like maybe he's laughing at himself, letting out a quiet huff of air and a ruefully amused, "Big river," in agreement.

"Yup," Amelia says. "Big river." She turns away from him and ventures further into the water, intent on washing her hair and getting the hell out of there as quickly as possible. The slosh of water behind her tells her that Celeste is following suit though.

"What the hell was that?" her friend demands in a quiet hiss as Amelia dispenses some shampoo into her hand and starts working it through her hair. She must take a while to respond because an insistent, "Amelia," follows a second later before Celeste grabs her elbow.

"I don't know," Amelia admits, glancing over her shoulder. She groans slightly when she sees Will's stripped down to his boxers and is wading into the water after Maggie, their hands linked. He doesn't look her way. "I don't know, okay?" She looks back to Celeste. "It's just… that was… nothing."

"Uh, it sure as hell was not nothing," Celeste counters, taking the shampoo and squeezing a dollop into her hands. She glances at Will and Maggie as she works it through her own hair. "That was the opposite of nothing. You two were zinging all over the place."

"Zinging?" Amelia asks, pausing mid-scrub of her scalp. "What does that even mean?"

"You know… zinging," Celeste says, waving a hand. "Don't pretend like you don't know what I mean."

"Your English Lit professor would be ashamed of you right now, you know that, right?" Amelia demands, in what might be the world's worst redirect.

"Whatever," Celeste scoffs, rolling her eyes. "That was some Hollywood shit back there and you're just going to brush it off?"

"He did," Amelia replies with a one-shouldered shrug. And, wow is that ever true. Glancing his way again, she can easily see in the dim light that Maggie has both hands on his shoulders and his fingers are settled against her waist. Zinging or not, his focus is totally on her friend right now. Which is how it had been supposed to be. "Besides… dibs, right?" she adds.

"Forgive me for saying this, because I'm usually the first to be all 'rah-rah, girl code,' but fuck dibs," Celeste says. "If you'd said anything at all showing actual interest, Maggie would have backed off and you know it."

Amelia sighs, letting her hands drop to the water. "I don't know him, Celeste," she points out. "I have no reason to have any more interest than she has. And besides, it's not like any of this means anything. It can't. Life isn't like Hollywood. There's no happily ever after here."

"You're depressing sometimes, you know that?" Celeste demands before dipping her hair in the river to rinse out the shampoo.

"I'm pragmatic," Amelia replies before doing the same.

Celeste has always been fast to feel, fast to fall hard, and it's crushed her more than once. This road trip is the perfect example of that. She's a dreamer, a romantic. Amelia is not. Crazy connection with a guy in the woods notwithstanding, she's practical, focused, realistic and carefully planned. The only dreams she believes in are the ones she knows how to work towards.

Life's too short for fanciful notions of meaningful connections with guys she doesn't even know.

"One day," Celeste says, shaking her freshly rinsed hair, "you're going to fall head over heels for some guy. Maybe not this guy, but someone and I just hope I'm there to see it because it's going to be amazing."

Amelia can't help the smile that spreads across her face at the declaration. "You're crazy. And hey, you and Maggie are the world's best friends," she says, wading through the water to close the distance between them. "Whatever happens in the future, you'll both be there to see it. No guy, no matter how hot, could ever be more amazing than that."

Celeste's grin is blinding even in the glow of twilight and she rests her cheek against Amelia's shoulder, hugging her arm tightly. It only reaffirms for Amelia that she's right. These girls, these amazing girls, are all she really needs in life. Plans are adaptable and boys are a dime a dozen. Friends like Celeste and Maggie are nowhere near as plentiful.

"Let's clear out," Amelia decides. She dips back once more to rinse her hair before deeming it as rinsed as it's going to get. "Give them a bit of privacy."

Maggie's laughter echoes from somewhere in the background, the sound quickly followed by Will's low chuckle. It's weirdly intrusive being nearby, even if the duo knows they're there. Besides, it's not that dark yet and a quick glance over toward them shows they've only gotten closer.

So… yup, it's time to go.

"Think we can get a signal out here?" Amelia asks as she heads toward the shore, Celeste close in her wake. "We might be able to catch the end of the game."

"We can try," Celeste replies, but she sounds doubtful. Amelia is too, to be honest, which sucks because the Starling City Rockets are playing the Central City Comets and it promised to be one hell of a match up. She'd really wanted to see it, but neither Celeste nor Maggie care nearly as much about baseball as she does and she hadn't been about to suggest they alter plans just so she could see the game.

"If not, I've got some more episodes loaded up on my tablet…" Amelia grins as her feet hit dry land and she grabs a towel to wrap around herself.

"Oh hell no," Celeste protests as she follows suit. "I don't get your love of that damn zombie show when we're all snug and safe in the dorms, but I'm sure as hell not watching it in a tent in the dark in the middle of nowhere! You're nuts."

Amelia just laughs as she dries off as best she can before struggling her way back into her jeans. Celeste does the same before tossing her damp blonde locks over her shoulder and looking back toward the water.

"Hey, canoodlers!" Celeste shouts toward Maggie and Will.

"Is that even a word?" Maggie calls back.

Will laughs, full-throated and stupidly attractive, but the sound dies off when his eyes meet Amelia's. He's still smiling, but now it's strained, confused. She gets that. She feels it, too, and she doesn't hold it against him in the least when he pointedly stops looking at her and fixes his gaze on Celeste instead. Distance feels like a really great idea right now.

"It is now because I said so," Celeste says. "We're leaving you the lantern, but we're headed back to the tent. But, you, mister…" Celeste adds, wagging her finger in Will's direction. "If she doesn't come back to us safe and smiling I will personally beat you senseless with a tent pole. Got it?"

"I'd expect nothing less," Will replies. "I swear to defy tradition and be less awful than most men."

"You'd better!" Celeste tells him before grabbing Amelia's hand and pulling her toward the path back to the campsite.

There's a split second where Amelia's eyes meet Will's once more before she's tugged away by Celeste. Zinging is right, because just his eyes locking with hers sets a tingle spreading out across her nerve endings and makes her heartbeat go double-time.

But it's transient. It doesn't last, because neither of them let it. He blinks like he's trying to clear his vision and turns back toward Maggie while Amelia's eyes shift back to the path in front of her just in time to step over a discarded oar someone had left near the shore. None of this makes sense to her, not at all, but it also doesn't have to because tomorrow they'll be on their way and Will will be on his, and this blip of a moment will be firmly in the rearview mirror.

"So…" Celeste ventures as they work their way down the short path back to their tent. They probably didn't even need the flashlights because the firepit near the tents is still going strong. "What quarter do you think they're in?"

"Inning, Celeste." Amelia laughs, shaking her head at her friend. "Baseball has innings."

"Oh… right," Celeste replies. The blonde might not give a damn about baseball, but Amelia's certain she knew at least that much. She's trying to distract her, to redirect Amelia's thoughts, and the realization has gratitude washing through her.

"It's… what?" Amelia asks, evaluating the nearly-absent sunlight. "Like seven?"

"Something like that," Celeste agrees.

"I'm gonna guess bottom of the fifth and the Comets are up by two," she decides, mulling over the pre-game commentary she'd made the girls listen to in the car.

"You and your precious Comets." Celeste shakes her head. "You want to lay money on that?"

"What money?" Amelia laughs. "I've got like five dollars in quarters and a stick of gum."

"I'll take the gum, then," Celeste tells her.

Amelia just shoves against her shoulder as they spill out into the clearing of their campsite. "The Comets are not losing," she insists. "I refuse to believe that. My boys are winners and Perez's screwball is going to completely dominate that game. I will bet you my gum."

Her words draw the attention of Will's dad and brother who are roasting marshmallows by the fire. The look on Will's dad's face is strange - pensive and surprised, she thinks - but it doesn't last long because the kid at his side tugs his sleeve and says something to him quietly.

The representative smiles down at the boy and nods, gripping his shoulder with blatant affection.

"You guys want some s'mores?" the kid calls out to her and Celeste.

"Hell yes!" Celeste agrees loudly, before clamping her hand over her mouth. "Heck. I meant heck. Ignore that first word, young impressionable child."

"It's okay," the kid tells her, his little voice carrying across the campsite, "I've heard way worse from Jules."

"Who's Jules?" Celeste asks as they head toward the fire.

"His oldest sister," Will's dad replies, holding out an open bag of marshmallows toward them as he watches the little boy. "Who I clearly need to have a chat with when we get back."

"It's okay," the kid says. "It's not like I'm going to repeat any of it. I know the rules."

"That's not really the point, Nate," he replies.

The kid - Nate - just shrugs and pulls a gooey marshmallow off the end of his stick before popping it in his mouth.

"That's a sad attempt at a s'more, my friend," Amelia tells him as he breaks off a piece of chocolate and chews on that as well. His hands are a mess of sugary goodness and he grins broadly at her with a smudge of Hershey's on his cheek. It's adorable.

"It's d'licious," he announces around a mouthful of food.

"Nate!" his father protests, laughing in a way that both deepens the crinkles around the older man's eyes and somehow makes him seem younger at the same time. "No talking with food in your mouth."

He doesn't look sorry, though. He just wriggles in place happily savoring the sweets as he grins up at his dad.

"Look here, I'm a s'more expert," Celeste declares. "Practically a gourmet s'more chef and, for my money, you're missing a key ingredient."

After a heavy gulp so he's no longer talking with food in his mouth, Nate asks, "What's that?"

"Peanut butter," Celeste informs him. "Every serious camper knows peanut butter is necessary for the best s'mores. I'll have you know we have some in our tent, if you want to try."

The little boy's eyes light up and he looks at his father for permission. "Can I?" he asks. "Can I have some? Please?"

His father hesitates a moment, and it's almost ridiculous how torn he looks over peanut butter before he says, "Yeah. We'll just make sure to stop and really wash up well before we go home." Amelia's eyebrows shoot up in curiosity and he adds, "My wife's allergic."

"I never get peanut butter!" Nate declares. "This is awesome."

He scrambles to his feet and, with childish glee, grabs hold of Celeste's hand and pulls her toward her tent. "You're the best for sharing. My name's Nate. What's yours? Did you ever try s'mores with caramel because I think that would be really good," he says in a cascade of words. The kid's on a sugar high for sure and he's looking up at Celeste like she's the s'more guru she proclaimed she was.

"Cute kid," Amelia says to Representative Queen as he shakes his head affectionately after his younger son.

"Thank you. He's pretty great," he agrees. He glances at her, pausing for a second. "Both of my boys are, I think. But then, I'm a little biased."

"Mmm," Amelia echoes, not liking the Insightful Adult look on Will's father's face in the least. "My friends are pretty great, too," she replies. She watches as Celeste tosses things from her knapsack in search of peanut butter before looking back at the representative. "But then, I'm also a little biased."

If she's not mistaken, there's a sheen of respect reflecting back at her in the older man's eyes and she pats herself on the back for not melting into a crazy political fangirl of his mother again.

"So, you're a political science major?" he asks, taking a swig of what smells like coffee from a thermos.

"With a minor in media relations and a few extra business classes," she adds, snapping off the end of a graham cracker and chewing it slowly.

"When do you graduate?" he asks.

"I have two semesters left," she tells him. "It was going to be one, but… Celeste needed company this summer. That was more important."

He doesn't reply right away, not unless you count an inquisitive stare as a response. Something tells her very quickly that Representative Queen is an intensely good judge of character - probably a skill honed by years in politics, if nothing else - and it leaves her feeling like she's being studied. It could be unsettling, but it's not because she gets the sense she's passing with flying colors.

"That sort of loyalty is hard won," he notes.

"It is," she agrees without expanding on the thought.

When it becomes obvious she's not going to say anything else - something else he seems to respect if the pleased quirk of his lips is anything to go by - he asks, "So why politics?"

"Because it's important," she says without a second thought. "Because it's the key to everything in our lives. Employment, crime-prevention, education, environmental regulation… I think if we want the world to be better, we have to start at home and we have to focus on the everyday things. I think we need people willing to dedicate their lives to bettering our communities and I want to be one of those people. Don't you, Mister Representative? Isn't that why you're in politics?"

She's surprised him; she can tell.

"Do you have your phone on you?" he asks.

Amelia nods and tugs it out of her jean pocket, unlocking it before handing it to him. He doesn't waste a second, opening up her e-mail and punching in his information into her contacts list.

"That's my office," he tells her, handing it back. "E-mail me your transcript and schedule. I'll talk to my mother about getting you an internship in her office. If she won't do it, my office will. We need more people with that attitude in government."

It takes her too long to process all of his words, because she can't possibly have actually heard that correctly. She doesn't realize her jaw is hanging open until his amused look registers… and then she's pretty sure she did hear him correctly.

"Re… really? That's… Oh wow," Amelia breathes out, looking down at her phone. "I'm just… wow."

He laughs in honest amusement at her utter lack of words. Nate barrels back to his side with a jar of peanut butter under his arm and a spoon in his mouth as Celeste plops down next to her. She tugs on the end of one of Amelia's fast-drying curls to get her attention.

"Did you choke on a marshmallow or something?" Celeste asks, eyeing the way Amelia keeps opening and shutting her mouth without making a sound. "Are you dying? Because I know CPR and I will do it, if necessary."

"No, I… the representative just said he'd make sure I either got an internship in Mayor Queen's office or in his." If the words come out a little breathless and amazed, there's no way Celeste will be thrown by that. She knows her well enough to expect that.

"Woah!" Celeste answers, her mouth staying in a little 'o' shape long after the word leaves her lips.

"You can call me Oliver," the representative says, stealing the spoon of peanut butter from his son.

"No, sir," Amelia says immediately. "Forgive me, sir, but if there's a chance I'm going to work in your office, I'll be calling you Mister Representative because it's a serious job and a serious title and I will take it seriously."

The words almost make sense. They do in her head anyhow, but the representative covers a laugh with the back of his hand as he shakes his head at her.

"If you prefer," he agrees. "I understand. And provided we can work something out with your schedule and your grades are decent-"

"I have a 3.4," Amelia blurts out. "It could be better, I know, but my dad died my freshman year and I kept going and I passed everything but it was a rough year and it did drag me down. Not that that's an excuse. I know it's not and I know it could be better, but it's… it's not bad, right? That's still decent?"

There's a beat of silence followed by Nate's sad little voice asking, "Your dad died?" He's all wide-eyed and shell-shocked by the very notion.

"Yeah…" she says after a moment. "Yeah, he did."

She doesn't miss the way Nate curls his hands around his dad's forearm. He's so very young, so incredibly innocent still. His father probably seems larger than life to him. Amelia can remember when hers did, too.

"I think a 3.4 is more than decent," the representative tells her. "And I'm very sorry for your loss. I know what it's like to go through something like that."

He does. She hasn't researched him much, but she knows all about his mother and because of that she knows about his years lost at sea, and the death of his father. It's an odd kind of thing to find kinship over, but there's an understanding that settles between them anyhow. Losing a parent isn't something you ever really get over and the scars of that are visible in both of them, when you know where to look.

"Thank you," Amelia breathes out, pushing some hair behind her ear. "I appreciate that. I appreciate all of this."

"Like I said," he says, tilting his head toward her. "Our government needs more people like you."

"You don't happen to know any publishing houses that need people like me, do you?" Celeste pipes up. Amelia smacks her shoulder. "What? It totally doesn't hurt to ask."

"Not a political science major?" Representative Queen asks the blonde.

"Ew. No," Celeste says with a shudder. "English lit."

"Sorry, no," he replies. "I'm afraid I can't be much help there. What about your other friend?" His gaze casts back in the direction of the river and Amelia can instantly tell that he's far more curious about Maggie than he's willing to let on. That's okay. She probably would be, too, if she were in his shoes.

"Art history," Celeste tells him. "Does Will like art?"

"Not unless his sister did it," he replies, a strange note of relief in his voice. Before Amelia can puzzle that out, he switches subjects. "Did I hear you girls say you wanted to see if you could catch the end of the game?"

"Well, Amelia did." Celeste laughs. "You would not believe the yammering Maggie and I put up with about IRAs and RBIs."

"ERAs, Celeste, for the eleven-millionth time," Amelia sighs. "IRAs are for your retirement."

"Whatever," Celeste says with a wave of her hand. "I'm 21 and I don't care about either of those things right now. But for your sake hon, I did check to see if we could catch the end of it, but there's not a good enough signal to watch the game from here."

"Damn," Amelia whispers, though she isn't really been surprised in the least.

"It's okay, though… because maybe I'll cave and watch one episode of that stupid show of yours with you," Celeste allows. "But if I have nightmares, you're going to be the one who is gonna have to stay up with me, got it?"

"Deal!" Amelia announces, grinning widely. "Such a deal. No worries, Celeste. I'll protect you from the walkers. I'll have your back in any and all apocalypses."

"Walking Dead?" the representative asks sharply. "You're watching Walking Dead?"

"You know it?" Celeste asks, standing up and brushing off her jeans. "Amelia loves that show. It's super gross for my money and Maggie hates that there's someone with her name because she's, like, sure the girl is going to die and she says she can't handle that. But Amelia keeps making us watch it anyhow."

"Is there a better road trip through the wilderness show?" Amelia questions rhetorically as she takes Celeste's hand and lets her friend pull her to stand up. "I don't think so."

"We'll let you guys get back to your s'mores," Celeste says, leaning over and ruffling Nate's hair. The kid obviously likes her because he grins up at her before running his fingers through it to fix it. "You can keep the peanut butter."

"Thanks!" Nate tells her through a mouthful of dessert that makes it sound more like 'Fangs.'

Celeste nods her head toward the tent, but Amelia takes a moment to look back at the state representative who might have just changed the whole course of her career for the simple reason that he felt like she could do good in this world. She isn't quite certain what she said to convince him or why he felt the need to take a chance on her, but he's said he will and that is pretty much amazing to the soon-to-be college senior.

Amelia tugs on Celeste's hand to get her to wait as she turns back to the older man.

"I want to thank you, Mister Representative," Amelia tells him. "I can't begin to express how excited I am to have a chance to work in your mother's office, or in yours. Either one feels kind of like a dream to me."

"You're welcome," he tells her. He looks amused about something, but she doesn't really know why. Somewhere in the background, toward the river, she can hear Will's laugh ring out and for an instant the representative looks in the direction where his older son is spending his evening. "Sometimes… sometimes you can just tell when someone is going to be the right fit for something."

He doesn't expand on that observation and, in the weeks that follow, Amelia won't be able to shake the feeling that he wasn't just talking about politics.

But, it will be fifteen years before she knows it for sure.

Chapter Text

June 2016

 

It's a disaster.

An actual disaster.

The room is a mess - no, the entire second floor of the brownstone is a mess, which is a feat in and of itself because it's not that small. It looks like someone whipped through with a multi-colored and toy-filled tornado, leaving nothing but joyful wreckage in their path.

Actually… that's not far from the truth.

Oliver pauses on the stairs, his hand on the gate latch, a breathy chuckle sneaking past his lips as he looks around.

The someone in question - or rather, the someones - are currently napping.

When Oliver had volunteered he and Felicity to babysit Sara while Digg and Lyla went on their honeymoon, he hadn't actually talked to Felicity about it yet. Or given it any kind of thought, really. It was a no-brainer. John's the closest thing to a brother he's ever had and he and Lyla deserved some time alone to celebrate their marriage. And he knows - he's hopeful, at least, although that too feels like a no-brainer - that the Diggles will return the favor this winter when he finally marries Felicity.

So when the idea had come up a few months ago, the words, "We can watch Sara," had come flying out.

They had their own little one at home, and they'd gotten into a routine with her. How hard could it be?

Apparently very.

While he loves having baby Sara around the house, he'd quickly discovered that it's slightly more overwhelming than he'd expected. This is something Felicity had seen far more readily than him, because her face had frozen at his offer to Diggle. He can still see her where she'd spun away from her computers to face him and Digg in the foundry, the squeak of her chair echoing the slightly hysterical laugh she'd let out.

"Sure," she'd choked, the single syllable word sounding like it lodged in her throat along the way out. She'd nodded in reluctant but manic agreement, her ponytail bouncing with the force of it. "Yup. That would be… super."

Digg had been less than convinced after that and it'd taken her four days of reassuring him that despite of her reservations - "very sane reservations, but only because one plus one equals two, which is a lot of baby, and we both know how bad Oliver did in math" - she really would be happy to watch Sara for them.

And she'd meant it, even though the notion had clearly been overwhelming to her.

"Ha," she said one night, "you just wait. Wait until you have two little creatures running afoot. You better watch those huge feet of yours because we are not going to be explaining to John and Lyla that Sara's little fingers are squished because you always forget how fast babies are."

Oliver had just rolled his eyes, poking her side until she was giggling, teasing her about the big feet comment until it'd dissolved into something far more fun and pleasurable than tickling.

Felicity adores little Sara, he knows that. They both do. The giggly little girl - who's recently taken to calling her 'Fiss' in her stubborn attempts to make her little lips form the word 'Felicity' - has absolutely stolen their hearts. And she'd reiterated that point many times, in addition to reminding him that babies are a lot of work.

With their seventeen months of baby practice, Oliver had honestly believed he knew what he was getting them into.

He was wrong.

Rather than doubling the chaos with two children under their roof, the additional one-and-a-half-year-old had actually amplified it exponentially.

Felicity had seen it coming. Oliver hadn't. Which is what makes it more than fair that he's the one at home with the babies while Felicity's trying on wedding dresses with their moms and Thea. In reality, it's possible that their mothers are more overwhelming than the babies, especially because both little girls are napping at the moment.

Which he is currently going to take complete advantage of.

Oliver climbs the rest of the stairs, re-latching the gate behind him before dropping to his knees to pick up some of the mess they've left in their wake throughout the morning. Cheerios are everywhere and he's positive the toys have reached self-multiplying capabilities. It's contained to one floor, at least. Baby gates ensure that much and whoever invented them deserves a kiss. Although some days the barriers seem like they're there as much to protect the house from the kids as it is to protect the kids from the house. Jules can be awfully sneaky when she wants to be; she's definitely inherited his ability to find trouble.

She's so much more than he ever expected.

Before Jules, Oliver's exposure to kids had been limited, but his experience with babies was non-existent. He'd had some idea of how to be a father, thanks to Ellie and William, but he'd had no clue how to parent an infant. Thankfully the criminal element in Starling had been quieter than usual those first couple of months, because he's not sure what they would have done if they'd had to deal with a normal level of citywide emergency. Between amazing amounts of exhaustion and the severe postpartum depression Felicity hadn't wanted to admit she'd had, there'd been little left to give to the city during those days.

He hadn't missed it, though.

It's strange to think that now, because being the Arrow is a vital part of who he is, but being a father to his little girl is so much more. And being home with her - getting up for midnight diaper changes and three a.m. feedings, holding her close as he tries to rock her back to sleep - that feels like the most important thing he's ever done. Like the next step in righting the wrongs his own father had left behind.

He's tried to imagine his dad doing any of this. He can't.

Something gooey coats one side of a foam puzzle piece he picks up, but he barely blinks an eye. That kind of thing doesn't faze him in the least anymore. He sets the toy aside, wiping his fingers on his jeans when he hears… something.

Oliver freezes, tilting his head toward the hall.

The soft rustle from the other room probably would have gone unheard by virtually everyone else, but Oliver's a father and a vigilante. Both roles have honed his senses to what he swears some days are near-supernatural levels.

Ignoring the half-picked up mess - the girls are going to destroy any progress he's made in the blink of an eye anyhow - he makes his way down the hallway toward the nursery.

Technically, there are two nurseries. They long ago started setting one up for Ellie's eventual arrival, giving themselves a tangible reminder that she was real, that they will have her back someday. In just about two more years now, actually. But they don't use that room. It sits empty and silent, awaiting the life that Ellie will breathe into it with her arrival. Her crib, however, has been pulled across the hall to Jules' room for the time being, a temporary bed for Sara.

He figures Ellie wouldn't mind.

And it's an arrangement that Sara seems quite happy with given he finds her still fast asleep when he peeks through the barely open door. Jules, however, is wide awake. She's standing up on her tiptoes, her tiny hands gripping the smooth wooden railing of her crib. She may look like she's innocently taking a gander of her room, but he knows she's looking for a way out. She hasn't quite got it yet, but she's close. How many times has he come in to find her halfway up the rails or inadvertently using her elephant as a stepstool? Too many and it makes him nervous. The thought of his baby girl making it over the side of that crib while he and Felicity are fast asleep is enough to give him an ulcer. He's going to have to convert it to a toddler bed soon. And wow, does that idea sock him right in the gut. In his eyes, she's still just a newborn. She needs to stop growing so fast.

Oliver pushes the door open, which has Jules' head whipping to face him. "Hey there, baby girl," he greets her, keeping his voice low so he doesn't wake up Sara.

"Da!" she announces loudly with absolutely no heed paid to her sleeping visitor.

"Shh," he hushes as he pads across her carpet, holding a finger up to his lips. "We don't want to wake Sara, Julie-bug."

Confusion tugs at her soft little features as she looks toward the other crib. It's been two days since Digg and Lyla left, but Sara's presence still throws Jules.

"Sa' nigh-nigh?" she asks as he reaches her side.

"Yeah, baby. She's night-night," Oliver confirms, brushing the short, dark locks of hair away from her pudgy little cheeks. "You hungry, sweetheart?"

Jules shakes her head no and lifts her arms straight into the air. "Up, Da. Want up. All done nigh-nigh."

Her nap lasted all of half an hour, which is about what he expects from his little girl at this point. Sara tends toward much longer naps than Jules, but she's also far more wild when she's up.

She's damn near weightless as he lifts her up into his arms.

That alone had taken getting used to after she'd been born. He'd been so terrified of dropping her, of breaking her, of accidentally hurting her. He'll never forget how small she'd seemed cradled in his arms in the hospital room, somehow simultaneously making him feel so huge and so tiny in that moment. When he'd cupped her little head in his palm, she'd been so small, but then she'd opened her eyes and looked right at him for the first time. He'd been the tiny one, then, when he'd seen the whole world in her eyes.

But he's had nearly a year and a half of practice at this point and it's second nature now.

"Do you need a change?" he asks, patting her little diapered butt. It still feels fresh, though, and she's not being whiny so he figures she's probably fine. Not that she's paying any attention to his question anyway. She's too distracted by her newfound view, taking advantage of her sudden height as she soaks in everything around her.

Jules has a keen attention to detail. It astounds him sometimes, the things she notices. Her language skills are starting to catch up, barely hinting at the sharp intelligence he knows lies beneath her mostly quiet exterior. She's her mother's daughter, brilliant and insightful, and he's so grateful for that.

"Sa' nigh-nigh?" she asks, looking at the other crib. From her tone, he's pretty sure the question is why is she asleep. Better, why is she here? It's confusing to her and he gets that.

"Uncle Digg and Aunt Lyla went on a trip, remember? After their wedding?" he asks, tucking her hair behind her ear, savoring the soft, smooth texture of her baby skin beneath his roughened fingertips. "She's staying with us for a few days."

Jules clearly doesn't like that answer. Her look sharpens into a pointed glare as she clings to the back of his shirt collar. She grips the material tighter, making a fist, sending her little nails digging into the nape of his neck. They're sharp enough to make him wince. He really needs to cut them.

"My da," she announces, looking from Sara to her father, the glare melting into a frustrated face. Her lower lip juts out, her shockingly blue eyes starting to water. "No Sa'. Sa' go now. Dada is Ju's dada."

Her distress makes his heart crack a little and he holds her closer, pressing her head to his chest as he takes a few steps away from her crib toward the door. "Uncle Digg's her dada, honey," he reminds her. "This is just a long babysitting. Okay? Digg and Lyla will come back and pick her up next week."

Jules pulls back to look him in the eye, wariness painting itself across her face. She's weighing the truth in his words and when her eyes narrow, her little brow furrowing, it makes him smile. It's equal parts adorable and ridiculous, and Oliver shakes his head with a breathy chuckle as they leave the nursery. She must decide she believes him because the judgemental little look fades away as she takes in her new surroundings.

"Momma?" she asks, a hopeful note to her tone.

"She's shopping with Aunt Thea and your grandmas," Oliver tells her. Shopping for wedding dresses. His heart speeds up a tick at the thought of Felicity trying on wedding dresses. His chest tightens with happiness. He's wanted this with her for so long. He kisses Jules' forehead, pausing to breathe her in. Sometimes it still shocks him that he's this lucky. He rubs his hand up and down her back as she adds, "She's looking for a very pretty dress."

"For Ju's?" Jules asks, pointing at herself.

Oliver grins and kisses her cheek softly. "No, baby, for her. For when mommy and daddy get married. It's a special dress. Sort of like a princess dress."

She wants to say something, his little Julie-bug, but she doesn't seem to know the right words. She just sort of huffs instead, pouting as she looks off to the side. He thinks he knows what she wants.

"Did you want a pretty dress, too, Julie?" he asks. "Like Momma?"

Her whole face lights up and a thrill at being right - at reading her so correctly - shoots through him. She nods hard, her dark locks bouncing with the movement.

"Okay, baby girl," he says. "If Momma's going to look like a princess, you should, too. I think that's only fair. We'll find you something extra pretty, okay?"

In truth, Jules is the entire reason they've waited this long to get married. When he'd first proposed to Felicity on the one-year-anniversary of the day Ellie had first entered their lives, Jules had been just over three months old. He'd have married her on the spot, if she'd have gone along with that.

But she'd wanted their little girl to walk her down the aisle.

The idea of that, the mental image of Felicity and their daughter walking toward him at the altar… it'd blown him away. Felicity had never been the sort to be 'given away' or be 'offered' for marriage by her father - had he even been in her life - or her mother, despite her importance to Felicity's life. He can't imagine either scenario. But this… it's different. Fitting. It is, in so many ways, their children that brought them together, and Jules taking those steps at her side feels like everything he never knew he wanted.

Part of waiting had been that she'd needed to learn how to walk first.

"You'll have the prettiest dress there, Julie-bug," he promises. "You and your mommy. Okay?" He huffs out a small laugh, shaking his head as he adds, "You'll probably make me cry."

They will. He's going to absolutely lose it when he sees the two of them walking toward him.

But the idea of any tears at all has Jules swinging from pleased right back to worried in an instant.

"No," she says, shaking her head. "No, Dada. No sad."

"Oh, no, honey," he replies. "I won't be sad. I'll be so happy that I'll cry."

She doesn't believe him about this one. Or she doesn't fully understand. Either way, her side-eye game is remarkable and it's out in full force. The sight of it - her icy blue eyes narrowed at him in wary judgement - makes him chuckle again. He presses another kiss to her pudgy little cheek.

How is that look so damn cute? He has no idea, but it is.

Oliver's not sure he's convinced her of anything, but she's also one and a half. Her attention span is slim when it's not honed in on something she's decided she must have immediately. With a sigh, she looks around again, gaze flitting around. He wonders what she sees, wishing he could look at the world through her eyes.

When her line of sight fixes on something for a bit, he follows her gaze.

She's staring at a pair of framed crayon drawings hanging in the hall outside of what will eventually be Ellie's room.

The moment Ellie had created them two years ago is so clear in his head. "This is going to go up right next to the picture you drew for daddy," Felicity had said to the happy little four-year-old. And it had. Both pictures serve as vital reminders for them that she'd happened, that just because the world thinks that a distant cousin named 'Lily' had gone back to her birth parents doesn't mean Ellie was any less theirs, any less a crucial part of their lives.

It's incredible how quickly you can fall in love with your children. That's been true for him with both of his daughters, with his firstborn son, and he knows without a doubt it will be true for Nate when he comes along, too.

They make his heart so full.

"I do," Jules says, pulling his attention back to the present where his little girl sits in his arms, her small hands curled around the back of his neck.

Her eyes are still fixed on the art.

"No, sweetie," he tells her. "You didn't do those. Ellie did. A long time ago, before you were born. She drew them for Mommy and Daddy."

The look on her face is the closest thing to a scowl he can imagine from a child who isn't really even a toddler yet.

"Ju's do," she repeats. Her insistence is striking and his little girl is nothing if not stubborn. He knows he's not going to convince her, in spite of the fact that her art skills are just scribbles at this age. She's not physically capable of stick figures yet.

So, he tries another tactic.

"Do you remember how we told you about Ellie, Julie-bug?" he asks, tucking her against his chest as he cups her cheek. He walks toward the pictures she's eyeing. "She's your sister, but she had to go away for a while. You'll get to meet her in about two more years, though, okay? And you'll be a great sister, Julie-bug. You're going to love her." He pauses in front of the framed art, tapping the frame of one of them. "She drew these."

Jules heaves a great sigh. It's such a big sound for such a little girl. "No, Dada. I do."

"Honey…" he starts before cutting himself off and shaking his head. How do you get through to a stubborn one-year-old who's sure she's right? "You're both brilliant little artists," he finishes, trying to shift the conversation.

Jules just looks at him. He feels like he's being scrutinized by his little girl. The way she stares at him, it's more like she's looking through him. There's also a hint of disappointment there, and he wants to fight against it because he never wants to let her down… He's just not sure what to fix right now.

With another sigh, Jules lets go of his neck and wriggles as she says, "Down, Dada." She has absolutely no heed for her own safety as she moves. There's no chance at all of him dropping her - not now, not ever - and she knows that on a bone-deep level.

Oliver sets her down and she toddles across the room to a little table in the corner of the family room. He's right behind her, so he sees her grab a dark purple crayon. She clenches it in her tiny fist and starts scribbling on a piece of construction paper.

"Oh," he realizes as what she'd meant dawns on him. "You wanted to color. That's what you were saying. I'm sorry, baby. I didn't understand."

She's too zeroed in on her drawing to reply. When it becomes obvious her art is where her attention is at and where it's staying, he goes back to cleaning up the space around her. He divides his attention between the wreck the girls have made of the family room and his little girl drawing quietly at the art table. Jules bites at her lip as she works; she's dedicated with a single-mindedness that's surprising from someone so little. But that's his Julie-bug.

It's a solid ten minutes before she puts down the crayons and gets up from the table, paper in hand. She walks over to where Oliver's been squatting down, putting wooden blocks back in a bin and puts her hand on his knee as she holds out the paper.

"I do," she announces firmly. "No Elle. Ju's."

There's an honest note of distress in her voice and Oliver wants to kick himself for misinterpreting her earlier.

"I know," he tells her, pulling her up onto his knee with one arm as he takes the paper with his other hand. It's a riot of scribbles in a torrent of colors with sparkles throughout. Donna had bought her glittery crayons last week, proclaiming they were a necessity, and Jules had been more than a little fascinated at the way they reflected the light… especially on the baseboards of her room. "This is beautiful, Julie-bug. I love it a lot. I can see how hard you worked on it."

"Up?" she asks. She's not asking to be picked up. She's touching her picture and pointing back toward Ellie's drawings. She wants the picture up on the wall, like her sister's.

"I think we can put it up outside your room," he offers. "Just like Ellie's is outside of hers. Okay?"

The relieved little smile that curls her red, bow-shaped lips makes him want to hold her closer. He settles on his haunches, paying no attention to the dull throb in his knees as he tugs her further into the crook of his arm.

"Did you want to read a book together?" he asks. Mostly because he wants something to keep her occupied while she cuddles up to him.

"No," she says, tapping her picture. "Up."

"Now?" he asks. She nods firmly. Once Jules gets something in her head, it's pretty hard to dissuade her. With a nod, Oliver says, "Okay then. Up it goes."

He stands up, Jules still in his arms as he adjusts her so she's sitting on his hip. It only takes a few minutes to find some tape, but it takes longer for Jules to agree to his placement of her picture. It takes even longer because he doesn't want to put her down, so he ends up juggling her, the tape and the picture, something that makes his little girl squeal with delight when he leans forward. The art winds up angled oddly and lower than an adult eye-level, but she deems it perfect, which means it's good for him, too.

By the time Jules is nodding with a quietly happy smile, the picture is practically laminated to the wall and Oliver can hear the front door shut downstairs.

"I think your mommy's home," he tells her. Jules sits up straighter, her neck stretching out as she cranes it, looking around for her mother. Footfalls sound on the stairs, getting closer. His soon-to-be wife is trying to be quiet, probably not wanting to wake the girls, but both he and Jules hear her anyway.

The moment Felicity's blonde hair comes into view, Jules squeals, "Momma!" as she reaches for her mother.

"Hey, you!" Felicity greets, navigating the baby gate with practiced ease. "How's my Julie-bug? Did you have a good nap?" She takes Jules easily from Oliver, leaning in to kiss him softly. "And hey to you, too."

"Hi," Oliver says, rubbing his hand up and down her spine.

There's a dress bag draped over her arm and it's all Oliver can do to keep his eyes off of it. He flat-out fails. They're six months away from their wedding. They've booked a location and caterers and a florist. Invitations were sent long ago. There's no question they're well on their way to being married. They have been for years, really. But the sight of that bag over her arm, something so tangible right there proving their wedding is just around the corner…

It absolutely thrills him.

"Sa' nigh-nigh," Jules informs her mother before putting a finger to her lips and making an exaggerated shushing sound.

"Oh!" Felicity says, eyes widening as she leans her head toward her daughter's. "Thank you for that. I guess I'd better be more quiet then, huh?"

Jules nods. It's painfully cute, this little moment between them, but Oliver is distracted by the dress bag.

"You found one," he notes.

Felicity smiles as Jules lays her head against her shoulder. "Two, actually."

Oliver's heart trips over itself as he blinks at her in surprise. She laughs lightly, which is proof enough on its own that he's expressing that look of surprise. "Because… you wanted a back up?" he ventures, fishing a bit.

"No," Felicity corrects, jostling Jules slightly against her hip. "One of them is way too little for me. But it just might fit a certain little Julie-bug." Jules lifts her head from her mother's collarbone at that, looking up with excited eyes. "Did you want to try on a pretty dress, baby girl?"

She squeals in response and claps her hands. Felicity laughs beautifully before giving her daughter a loud smack of a kiss on the cheek.

"How about we go get you changed and then you can show off for Daddy, okay?" she asks.

Jules nods, looking more than pleased at this idea as she says, "Yeah, yeah," in response. Oliver watches his girls head toward the bathroom, Felicity tossing him a wink over her shoulder.

He was wrong.

They're going to make him cry way before the actual wedding.

His whole heart is in that bathroom with Felicity and Jules, but he busies himself by picking up a little more, putting the sparkly crayons back in their box, straightening up the pile of unused construction paper. It's distracting, knowing his little girl is dressing up like she will be for his wedding, and more than once he finds himself having to redo or re-pickup certain things.

It doesn't take long at all for the bathroom door to reopen, but it feels like forever. He vaults up from the floor and towards the bathroom.

"Ready?" Felicity asks, poking her head out and looking down the hall toward him.

"Yeah," he replies. "Yes." He fidgets, wiping his suddenly damp palms against his jeans. He swallows hard, emotion choking him as he keeps his eyes fixed on the entry to the bathroom. His eyes sting with unshed tears for a second, but he blinks them away. God, he hasn't even seen her yet and he's already about to lose it.

"Okay, baby girl," he hears Felicity say quietly. "Go show Daddy your dress. Walk slowly, okay? It's big and I don't want you to trip."

Oliver holds his breath as the moment stretches out, lengthening toward the infinite, practically stopping time as he waits.

All the air escapes his lungs in a sudden rush when his little girl carefully steps out of the bathroom. She holds up the bottom of her skirt as she ambles towards him, half-focused on not tripping and half-focused on his reaction.

His daughter is absolutely beautiful, so much it hurts. And she looks so grown up.

Oliver's knees go weak and his vision blurs as his eyes and throat both clog with tears.

The dress itself is red, a brilliant scarlet color that makes him think of pens and laptops with bullet holes and an IT girl who would prove to be the love of his life. The top part of the dress is an intricate ruby-red lace design with white beneath it. The bottom is the same brilliant color, but a soft, satiny looking fabric that bunches up a few times, giving it a waterfall effect.

Even objectively speaking, it's beautiful. But it's that his Julianna is the one wearing it that hits him hard. It feels like the dress was made specifically for her, setting off her naturally red lips and bright eyes against the rich fabric and the dark hue of her hair.

This is what his baby is going to be wearing when he marries her mother, when he finally makes Felicity his wife.

Just knowing that nearly bowls him over.

"Julie-bug," he croaks, crouching down to her level as she gets closer to him. "You look… so beautiful, sweetheart."

"I 'cess!" she declares when she reaches him, holding up the bottom of her skirt as she looks down at the dress.

"You are," he agrees, brushing her hair behind her ears. "You are a princess. Look at you."

She's so big. When did she get so big? How is she walking and talking already? How does she look like such a big girl? Every now and then, it floors him, makes him want to hold onto her in this moment and never let go.

"You like it?" Felicity asks. She's leaning against the wall at the start of the hallway. She's next to Ellie's pictures, her shoulder brushing the edge of one of the frames, but she's transfixed on the sight of her fiancée and daughter, a beatific grin on her face.

"It's perfect," he says. "This is…" He pauses, shaking his head as he strokes Jules' cheek in awe. "I can't imagine anything better."

He wishes the wedding were today. Right now. He absolutely cannot wait to make Felicity his wife. To see her and Jules walking toward him, to have William standing next to him, to cement their family in a new way… it's everything, and he can't wait.

"I'm glad." Felicity bites her lower lip as she smiles. "I had it made so it would compliment mine."

That tiny reveal has his heart thumping wildly and when he looks up at her, it goes even faster. He loves this woman so much. He loves his family so much. They are, by far, the very best part of his life. It's all happened in such a whirlwind and while it's had its stormy moments along the way, he wouldn't trade any part of it for anything.

Pulling Jules into his arms, the tulle underpinning of her skirt rustling as he moves, Oliver stands up and crosses over to his soon-to-be-wife. He cups her cheek before leaning in to kiss her. It starts simple and soft, but she's intoxicating and he deepens it.

Drinking from her lips solidifies something inside him - it grounds him, heightens everything, makes him hopeful. He'd never felt anything like that before her. He hadn't even known it really existed outside of childhood fairytales.

It's all still forming in front of him, these hazy outlines of his life, but the picture it's painting hints at everything he wouldn't have dared hope for even just a few years ago.

Felicity melts against him, Jules sandwiched between them, giggling as she squirms. He just holds onto her tighter, holds onto Felicity tighter, the frame of Ellie's picture pressing into his arm.

Life's not perfect, it never will be, but right now?

It's absolutely perfect for him.

Chapter Text

December 2015

"Ho-ly frak."

There's a reason Felicity does most of her shopping online, and it's not just a love of technology and the time-saving aspect of it all. Even at the best of times the mall is a zoo, but the week before Christmas? It's an absolute crush of people.

She clenches the little hand holding onto hers, more than a little afraid the child attached to it will disappear if she loosens her grip.

William makes no move to leave her side, though. He's looking around, taking it all in, but he's not overly distracted by animated reindeer or lavish storefronts with the shiniest and newest toys on full display. He sees it all, but that's it. Felicity's shopping experience is nothing like the poor woman across the way who keeps having to grab one of her kids by the collar to keep him still, or the man who is quickly reaching his frazzled quota as his six-year-old drags him to different stores.

No, Will's just… he's just so good. He's perfectly content at her side, never straying as he rambles on about the activity around them, being his typical goofy, good-hearted self. She couldn't have asked for a better almost-stepson.

It seems like there's a million reasons to love Will and Felicity discovers a new one every time she sees him. He's owned a piece of her heart from the instant she'd watched him hug Oliver for the first time, clinging like he never wanted to let go. But that'd been more surface-level. She hadn't known him yet. She'd only known what he'd meant to Oliver, how much they'd both needed that connection.

Now, though, after a year and a half, she knows this little boy a whole lot better.

She knows he'll do anything to make his baby sister giggle, and that he's surprisingly attuned to how everyone around him is feeling. She knows he thinks of others first and is perpetually willing to sacrifice things he wants to do for the sake of anyone he cares about. She knows he stands up for littler kids on the playground and that his quirky, half-toothless smile can warm up a whole room.

He's accepted her so readily in his life, taking her in with the same ease he'd welcomed his dad. He was a little shyer at first, a little less certain about what to call her or how she fit in his life, but she couldn't have asked for a better transition for their family where William was concerned. He's just so easy.

"What about a Christmas sweater?" Will asks, tugging on her hand so she looks down at him. A huge grin lights up his face at that idea. He looks like a jack-o-lantern, three of his front teeth missing and the fourth so wiggly it might fall out at any moment.

"You want to get your dad a Christmas sweater?" Felicity asks, raising her eyebrows.

William nods. "One of the ones that light up." They stop mid-aisle and someone grumbles as they brush past - so much for the Christmas spirit - so they step to the side near the wall where they're slightly less in the way. "Maybe with bells on it."

"I…" Felicity tries not to laugh at that mental image and barely succeeds, choking out a cough to cover the sound. "I'm not sure that's exactly your dad's taste, kiddo."

"That just makes it funnier!" Will grins. "Can't you picture it? Imagine how much Julie-bug would love it."

She would. Her baby girl has just started running - running, not walking; she skipped that stage entirely, it seems - but she'll stop for anything shiny or bright and flashing and just giggle, clapping her pudgy little hands in total delight. When Will had come over last night with a necklace that lit up like Christmas lights, Jules had been thrilled to be held by him for a solid hour and a half, just staring at them, smiling in adoration up at her big brother. Felicity never had a sibling, but she's incredibly grateful that her baby girl has a big brother like Will. There aren't a lot of seven-year-old boys who'd willingly entertain an infant for hours.

"I like where your head's at," Felicity decides with an approving nod, because the idea of Oliver in an ugly light-up Christmas sweater is something she definitely needs to see. "Maybe some reindeer antlers, too." Will gives an enthusiastic nod. "Good, it's decided then. But let's also get him a present for him, too, because to be honest, bud, that one's gonna be for you, me and Jules."

Will huffs out a snort that's ridiculously reminiscent of his father. "True," he replies, his smile collapsing on one side into a smirk as he shrugs a shoulder. "It'd be awesome, but I want to get him something he'll really like, too."

Felicity wonders where, exactly, one finds those horrific sweaters. JC Penney's, maybe? Sears? K-Mart? Etsy? She doesn't know, but she's going to find out because now that Will's brought it up, seeing Oliver's secretly amused face while he becomes the fittest, most attractive man ever to wear an ugly Christmas sweater needs to happen. She might get two for him - one that's for the kids and one just for her.

Yeah, that's definitely happening.

That still doesn't solve the current gift predicament, though.

"Any thoughts?" Felicity asks, trying not to wince as she looks down at William. The boy sighs, giving her a weighty look. Yeah, Oliver's hard to shop for. Forget the fact that he has a bazillion dollars, he just don't value things. Half a decade on a deserted island will do that to you.

"I think we've gotta wing it," William says.

The little boy purses his lips, casting a look around the bustling mall. It's pure worry and consternation, but it's barely there long enough for her to see. He's so easygoing that it slides off his features easily, but she still spies it. She knows how much this means to him. Last Christmas, he'd only just been getting to know his dad. He hadn't even stayed overnight until that December, but it'd still all been so fresh and new. He'd made his dad a vase that Christmas and while Oliver had loved it - he'd have loved anything at all from William - and it still sits on his desk at QC, she's sure that Will wants to find something more meaningful and personal this year.

"Don't worry, we'll figure it out," Felicity says, wrapping an arm around his shoulder and tugging him close. "We're like… shopping super sleuths. We'll get him the perfect present. It's hiding somewhere here, we just have to find it."

Will's whole face lights up again and just like that, he's filled with childish energy again.

"Can we get Jules a present, too?" he asks, his eyes bright and hopeful. The mere suggestion has her heart clenching with warmth and happiness.

"Of course we can," Felicity promises, squeezing his arm. "Do you know what you want to get her?"

"Books," William immediately replies. Cute as it is, that notion gives Felicity pause because her baby girl isn't even one yet. She's not much of a reader. In fact, Felicity's pretty sure Jules would shove a real book in her mouth, coating the pages in astounding amounts of drool.

"Uh…" Felicity says, wondering if there's a board book her baby doesn't own and hasn't eaten.

"I want to get her Berenstain Bears so I can read it to her," William explains. "It's got a brother bear and a sister bear and they love each other lots. I wanna tell her stories about that so she knows how much I love her, too."

A torrent of emotion slams into her at that, nearly bowling her over. William stares up at her like it's obvious, like there's no question about this at all. It's overwhelming in the best way possible how amazing he is, how fast and how fully he's bonded with his half-sister.

When Felicity had first found out Oliver had a son… well, there'd been a lot going on at the time and she hadn't really had much of a chance to process it then. If she had, she can't imagine she'd have been all that thrilled about it. They'd still been so new as a couple, and finding out the man she was in love with not only had a son he never knew about, but also that his mother had orchestrated the lies to keep them apart? It would have been a lot. It had been a lot, but at the time, it'd been overshadowed by Ellie and then Jules. Despite how hard everything had been for a while there, she's grateful that it'd taken the shock value away from William's introduction. She's just so intensely grateful for his presence in their lives. Their family wouldn't feel right without him.

"That is an absolutely wonderful idea," Felicity says, her voice thick. "Come on, there's a bookstore up near the food court. We can hit that first and window shop along the way for your dad."

"Okay!"

The familiar chords of a song cut through the moment, making her shiver. It's barely audible over the rush of chatter and bustle of people, but it's there. She shudders every time she hears this damned song, like someone just walked over her grave.

"How about we get out of here," Felicity says, slipping her hand into his. They weave their way back into the throng of people, heading toward the door as she tries to block out the ever-present holiday music that's been playing for at least a month. "This song gives me the heebie-jeebies."

"It's Little Drummer Boy," William tells her slowly.

"I know," she groans as they spill into the main walkway of the mall. "Whatever happened to Silver Bells? Or Santa Baby? Er… you might be too young for that one."

Is he too young for that one? It's pretty suggestive, although she doesn't remember her little brain jumping to sex when she'd heard it at his age. She doesn't know.

This whole mom thing is taking a lot more getting used to than she'd anticipated.

William laughs, shaking his head. "It's a Christmas song, Felicity! Nobody's too young for those."

"Right," she breathes out. She's gonna go with that because it's easier. "Anyhow… bookstore?"

"Yes!" William declares, easily redirected. "Onward!" He declares it with a dramatic gesture forward, nearly smacking the back of the old lady who's walking in front of them. William's mouth forms an alarmed 'o' shape as they slow to match the woman's actual snail pace. Felicity suppresses a chuckle and the two of them maneuver closer to the storefronts to bypass the slower stream of aimless walkers in their way.

On one hand, this is the least rushed Felicity's felt in a while.

Jules is at home with Oliver, so she doesn't have to worry about the timing of feedings and diaper changes and naps. Work's been quiet - both kinds. QC is always slower over the holidays and there's been a strange lull about the city lately. It's like waiting for the other shoe to drop, but it never does. There's typical gang violence and drug deals, but nothing much above the SCPD's capabilities. Not for a while, anyhow. It's actually been nice. They've needed a chance to breathe. Sara, Sin and Roy picking up the slack for Team Arrow after Jules and Little Sara had been born had been a huge blessing - a necessity, really - but with the girls getting a little older, it's been a relief to have the city relatively quiet as they ease back into their roles as protectors.

On the other hand, though, she's not exactly keen to spend her day bumming around the mall. She hadn't even enjoyed it as a teen and she definitely doesn't want to do it now.

"What about a nice shaving kit?" Will asks suddenly, snapping her attention back to the moment. "One of those old time ones with the brushes?"

"No," she says with a shake of her head, the words coming out before she can even think about it. "That's a hard veto." It would be difficult to describe how visceral a rejection she has to the idea of Oliver shaving. A trim, sure. But she's attached to his scruff, as well as the accompanying beard burn against her thighs. Not that she's about to tell her almost-stepson that, obviously. "What about something… baseball-y."

"Baseball-y?" Will asks with a little laugh, staring up at her with that jack-o-lantern smile of his. "That's not a word."

"It is, because I just said it," Felicity replies with a lofty lilt, a teasing smile in place. "And you knew what I meant."

"Sure," Will concedes, shaking his head. "I'm gonna tell my teacher you said that."

"Feel free to remind her that Shakespeare made up loads of words," Felicity advises. "So… baseball-y thoughts?"

"I don't know what it would be." Will chews his lip as they walk. "Like autographed cards or something? I don't know if he'd even like that."

She doesn't either and she once again internally bemoans that her fiance is the hardest person in the entire world to shop for ever. But they'll figure this out. They have to. It means too much to William to give up and she's not about to let the little boy down.

"Well…" she ventures as they round the corner, slipping through the doorway to the bookstore. "Maybe a book about baseball?"

The second she says it, she knows it's a lame suggestion. Will does, too. He kind of shrugs, clearly grateful for her efforts but not sold on the idea.

"Let's just get Jules the bear books and then we can work on something for Dad," William suggests.

"Fair enough," she agrees as they head back towards the kids' section.

Will's obviously familiar with this store because he knows exactly where to go to find the books in question. He's a strong reader for his age, even if he's more interested in things like sports and video games, and she finds herself wondering how often he's here with his mom. Probably a lot, she realizes as he waves to a cashier who seems to recognize him. Uprooting their lives and moving to Starling City had been a big change for William and Samantha - even if it had made the every-other-weekend custody arrangement a lot easier for everyone involved - and this bookstore chain is always laid out the same way. A bit of familiar normalcy had to be a good thing for William in the midst of moving and adjusting to his rapidly expanding family.

"Got it!" Will tells her triumphantly, holding up a box set of books with so much delight that it has Felicity grinning right along with him. He can barely lift the box and she wonders if he's picked up the entire series. Not that it matters. It's not like she's going to tell him he can't buy his little sister books. He could insist on getting her the entire kids' section if he asked, to be honest, and Felicity might just agree to keep seeing that toothless grin of his.

She walks over, taking the box from his hands. It's heavy, enough that she lets out a small, "Oomph," as she looks at the pictures on the back of a cheery bear family complete with cartoon-like cub siblings. She vaguely remembers this series from her own childhood. Felicity runs her fingers over the drawings - she definitely remembers liking them, and that William wants to get these for Jules makes her love them.

"It's perfect," Felicity says.

Will's so pleased with himself. It's too cute for words.

They pay quickly - the line's shorter here than most stores - and she makes note of the way Will's eyes linger on some Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles paperbacks near the register. She'll have to order those online for him later.

"So… where to now, kiddo?" she asks, taking his little hand in hers as she hefts the bag of books over her shoulder.

They head back out into the mall, but Will stops unexpectedly the moment they're out the door, drawing her surprised attention toward him.

That jack-o-lantern smile she's enjoyed so much this afternoon is nowhere to be seen and in its place is a wistful look that feels out of place.

"Hey…" she ventures, tugging on his hand. "What's up?" She tries to follow his line of sight, but all she sees is ridiculously over-the-top Christmas decorations.

"Nothing," William replies, shaking off his obvious disappointment and offering up a far more muted smile than earlier. "It's nothing."

"Why don't I believe that?" she challenges, giving him the 'mom' look she's been trying to perfect for the last year or so. She must finally be making progress because he squirms a bit under her gaze and sighs.

"It's just… Santa's over there," he admits, unconvincingly acting like this isn't a big deal to him. "It's fine. We need to find a present for my dad."

"You went to see Santa with your mom last weekend, didn't you?" Felicity asks. "She said you were going to."

"We were," Will says. "But the line was too long. It's okay. I'm not a baby. I don't need to see him anymore. I can just write him a letter."

For someone who never even celebrated Christmas growing up, Felicity finds the notion of her stepson missing out on Santa completely unacceptable. It's sort of amazing how much the idea bothers her.

"Just… hang on a minute," she tells him, noting that the line really isn't that long right now. She shuffles the bag on her shoulder to pull out her cell phone, shooting off a quick text. Luckily, the response comes quickly and she smiles as she pockets her phone again. "You figured out what you're asking Santa for this Christmas?" she asks, looking down at Will.

"I have a few ideas," he replies. "Why?"

"Because you're going to need to tell him in a few minutes," she advises with a soft, pleased grin. She hadn't been sure how Samantha would take the request - she'd probably wanted to take her son herself - but everyone wants what's best for Will and this is the best chance he's going to have to see Santa this year. And it helps that the line is just a few kids long at the moment.

"Really?" Will asks, eyes widening incredulously. He practically buzzes with excitement and Felicity wishes she'd kept her phone handy to snap a photo for both Oliver and Samantha. But, in other ways, it's sort of nice that it's just them. It's a bonding moment between her and William, and she's grateful for that.

"Really," she confirms, tugging his hand as they weed through the crowd like a lifesize game of Frogger, heading for the line to see Santa. They reach him in no time, the excitement at seeing the large man in a red suit making the push of people around them not quite as daunting.

When they settle in line, Will throws himself at her leg in a giant hug as he says, "Thank you, Felicity!"

She laughs, hugging him back as an elf comes up with an iPad in hand and a cheery grin on her green-painted lips.

"Well, aren't you just the cutest," the elf pronounces, leaning down to meet Will's eyes. "That's a sweet hug for mom."

"Oh, I'm not his-" Felicity starts, but Will cuts her off.

"Felicity's my stepmom and she's awesome," Will announces.

"You're a lucky boy then," the elf nods. It's a little patronizing, the day in and day out faux-Christmas cheer obviously getting to the poor elf this late in the holiday season, but William doesn't pick up on it. He just echoes, "Yup!" and leans his head against Felicity with a comfortable ease that serves as a vivid reminder of how far their family has come, how much it's grown in this past year.

"What sort of package were you two thinking about then?" the elf asks, standing up fully, clearly talking to Felicity now. She punches a few buttons on the iPad. "You can just visit Santa, if you'd like, of course, but we also offer all kinds of photo packages and memorabilia. We have mugs and mousepads and ornaments."

"Um…" Felicity says, glancing at the iPad's options. "We'll take the digital package." She can't possibly get herself to pay for the prints when she can just have the file.

"That all?" the elf prods. "We have a new option to have it printed out on your very own stocking."

"I have a stocking," Will interrupts, looking at the elf with suspicion. "Santa should know that."

"Well of course he does, silly." The elf laughs nervously. "It'll just be five to ten minutes, okay?" She hands Will a candy cane and wanders off before either Felicity or William have a chance to respond.

The seven-year-old doesn't bother with his candy, though, stuffing it in his pocket and craning his neck to look around the family in front of them in search of Santa. He's painfully excited and Felicity suddenly wishes Jules were here, too. It would be so cute to have a shot of Will holding his baby sister while they sit on Santa's lap. Next year, she decides. She'll do that next year, when Julie's old enough to be wide-eyed with excitement about the whole thing. Even with the frenzy that will undoubtedly surround the wedding, she'll find time to take the kids to do that.

"You're coming with me, right?" Will asks, tugging on her hand, pulling her back to the present.

"What?" she questions, blinking at him in surprise.

"To see Santa," Will clarifies, as if he could have meant anything else. "You've got to. You need to tell him what you want, too."

"Uh, well…"

Felicity bites her tongue rather than point out she's Jewish. While he knows that, religion is still a weird thing to navigate and she doesn't want to get into details without talking to Samantha first. That's really something she should have anticipated, now that she thinks about it. She'll call Samantha tonight after Will's in bed.

Sometimes it feels like they parent him by committee. It's taken time to find balance, but she, Oliver, and Samantha all agree that William's best interests are the most important thing. Presenting a unified and supportive presence for him is both a necessity and a priority for all of them.

The line moves and they step up, now at the front of the line. "I don't see any parents sitting on Santa's lap, Will."

"Maybe they aren't on the nice list," Will suggests.

She fights a laugh and fails, bending down to kiss him atop his unruly mop of hair.

"Maybe not," Felicity agrees. "Maybe I'm not either. Did you ever think of that?" It's meant to be a joke, but the concern that covers his face tells her it doesn't come across that way. He gives her a serious frown and she quickly adds, "It's fine, Will. Santa doesn't bring me presents. I don't need to be in the picture." He hums in what she takes to be agreement, but stays uncharacteristically quiet. Felicity brushes his hair back in an effort to get him to look up at her again. "Will, I-"

"Hey now, little man!" the elf says in her overly chipper tone as she returns. "Santa's ready for you!"

For the first time since seeing the holiday display, William actually looks a little nervous. He hesitates, his grip on her tightening minutely. Felicity wants to stop time to pull him aside and make sure he's okay, but then he's nodding, letting out a steadying breath and stepping forward, right toward the white-bearded man in an oversized throne-like red velvet chair.

It's ridiculously over the top and is probably intimidating to plenty of kids, but William walks right up to him. He politely nods at the strikingly convincing Santa, but instead of stepping up to sit on his knee, Will stands toe-to-toe with him and looks him in the eye.

"Mr. Claus, sir," he says and Felicity wonders what in the hell he's doing, exactly. "I know I'm supposed to ask for a present, but you can't really wrap what it is that I want."

"Well then, I suppose we'd better hear what it is, shouldn't we?" the Santa asks, leaning forward conspiratorially, focusing wholly on William as he rests his bearded chin against the palm of his hand.

"Yes, sir," William agrees. "I need you to put Felicity on the nice list." Felicity freezes, because… what? But William isn't done. "She's the best stepmom in the whole world ever and she said you don't bring her things and that's not right. So you don't have to bring me any presents this year, if you'll just put her on the nice list. I think you made a mistake by not putting her there, but she can have my spot."

It's the most innocent, most selfless and earnest thing that Felicity's ever heard in her entire life. She doesn't realize her hand is moving until it's pressed against her mouth with shaking fingers as her eyes water up. She knows people are looking. There's a quiet, "Awww," from a parent in line and the weight of Santa and his elf's eyes sit heavily against her skin. She doesn't notice, or care, really. All her attention is on her stepson.

"Will, honey," she manages, her voice cracking. She stops to clear her throat, but Will is a boy on a mission and he's not about to let this go.

"It's not right," Will insists again, meeting her eye for a moment before turning his pleading gaze to Santa. "I'm sorry, sir, but your list is wrong. If anybody deserves to be on the nice list, it's Felicity."

Santa's eyes twinkle - which is ridiculous and cliche as hell, but maybe that was a job requirement for the role - and the bearded man obviously enjoys the part he plays. His smile looks genuinely touched and honestly affectionate as he rests a gloved hand on Will's shoulder.

"It's very clear to me, young William, that you love your stepmother very much," Santa tells him.

"I do," William says. "And she loves me, too. She didn't have to. My friend Marcus' stepmom doesn't even like him. But right away Felicity always acted like I belonged, like she needed me in her family."

"Oh, Will," Felicity chokes out. She walks toward him mindlessly, her feet acting of their own accord. She pulls him into her arms, kissing the mop of light brown hair atop his head. "You do belong. You've always belonged and I do need you in my family."

It's meant to be bolstering, but Will takes it as further evidence of his point. "See?" he asks, looking back at Santa. "She's very nice. The nicest, even! I think maybe your elves have just seen too many Disney movies. Stepmoms aren't always like that."

That Santa manages to keep a straight face and nod in agreement after that statement is a true testament to the man's acting abilities. Felicity isn't sure she could have managed it, were she in his boots.

"She is," Santa agrees. "And it's quite clear that you're very lucky to have each other. But my lists are for children, Will. My brand of Christmas magic is meant for girls and boys like you who believe in both the power of goodness and imagination."

"Also not so much for Jews," Felicity mutters under her breath. Santa hears her, though. His eyes meet hers briefly - that same twinkle is still there, how is he doing that? - but it bypasses Will completely.

"But you always bring my mom something," the boy notes stubbornly.

Felicity's not positive, but she thinks Santa's probably groaning internally just like she is. She really needs to talk to Samantha and Oliver about this whole holiday thing because it's clear they need to all get on the same page about a few things. But for now, it's obvious Will isn't going to give up and she's not about to ruin his day by putting her foot down when all he wants is for her to get a present.

Santa meets her eyes over WIll's head, an unspoken question clear in them, and she immediately nods in agreement.

"Well then," Santa says, "I suppose I have made an oversight, haven't I?"

"So Felicity gets a present this year?" William asks, perking up, sending his impending victory.

"I'm pretty sure I can manage something," Santa says with a quick wink.

Will gives a little fist pump of victory - proof of just how much she's influenced her almost-stepson's life in this past year and a half - before diving in to hug the Santa. The old man chuckles - he chuckles… it's all very appropriately jolly - and pats him atop his head as William mutters a heartfelt, "Thank you."

"Oh, you're very welcome, Will," Santa tells him quietly. "It always a gift to see the sort of selflessness and good-heartedness you just showed me. I dare say it's the very best part of my job."

Felicity believes him. It's clear that this man relishes his role of Santa and that this is precisely why. For all the demands he must hear, for all the sobbing toddlers and infants with dirty diapers that get passed off to him for a quick photo, he also sometimes - sometimes - gets moments like this.

"You have a better grip on the spirit of Christmas than most, Will," Santa continues, patting his knee. "Now how about you have a seat, tell me what you'd like for your present and we'll snap a photo?"

Will smiles and climbs up on Santa's lap. Maybe Felicity should step back a few paces, give them some space like most of the parents ahead of them in line had done, but she feels like she's been drawn into this experience at this point and she doesn't want to leave it.

"I'd like one of those bubble machines that makes like eleventy-billion bubbles," Will informs him.

"That's a lot of bubbles!" Santa declares in faux astonishment.

"It is," Will nods. "I saw it on tv and it looks super cool and I know my little sister would like it, too."

She would. Bubbles are second only to things she can chew on, as far as Jules' favorite things go.

"Jules will clap and giggle and it'll be the best," Will continues.

"Is this for you or for your sister?" Santa asks knowingly.

"Santa…" Will sighs, "it's for both. Nothing's more fun than making other people happy, especially my little sister. She has the best laugh ever and it makes me feel happy, too."

This statement is, to Felicity's mind, her stepson in a nutshell. He's such a kind, sweet, selfless boy and he will do just about anything to make the people he loves laugh. He gets so much joy out of things like playing peek-a-boo with Jules or hamming it up for his dad. Discovering that about him - watching as he slowly acclimated to the changes in his family and opened up this side of himself - has been an absolute privilege to watch.

"I think those are the very best sort of presents," Santa says. "I'll see what I can do."

"Felicity," Will says, looking her way. "What do you want to ask Santa for?"

Her immediate response is a flustered, "Uh…" because this is something she's not given any thought to at all. Not even a little. But Will misreads her hesitance.

"Don't worry," William tells her. "You don't have to sit on Santa's lap, too. I'm sure you can just tell him."

Wouldn't that have made for an interesting Christmas picture to bring home. The thought of Oliver's reaction alone...

"I… I would like…" Felicity starts, dragging out the words to buy herself time to find an answer. She's about to say 'a surprise' - which is ridiculous because she hates surprises - when the right answer hits her. "I'd like tickets to do something together as a family, because I like spending time with you and I like seeing you and Julie-bug happy, too."

She knows Santa is looking at her, but her attention is on William, who's smiling that broad, toothless grin of his with so much delight that it feels contagious. She's already coming up with ideas - the children's museum where Jules can mess around in the infant sensory area while Will puts on a play to entertain her; a ballgame where Will's excitement about the sport spills over to Jules, who won't understand a thing but will look adorable in the smallest jersey in existence; the state fair where Will can squeeze into a roller coaster cart with his dad before riding on a pony with his little sister… Okay, maybe Jules is a little young for that last one, but the possibilities stretch out in front of her and she wants them. She wants all of them.

"Can Felicity be in the picture, too?" Will asks, looking up at Santa. "Please? My dad will like it even better if she's in it, too. They're very mushy."

Santa doesn't even try not to laugh at that one. He gestures for Felicity to join them. It's kind of weird. She's not sure exactly what she's supposed to do, how she's supposed to pose, but Will is right - Oliver will love a picture of them with Santa. Samantha, however, probably would prefer one without.

"I'll order a set with me and a set without, okay?" Felicity asks, glancing toward the elf who apparently pulls double-duty as a photographer. The green-lipped, pointy-eared girl nods. "I'm sure your mom would rather have pictures with just you," she adds, looking down at Will.

He shrugs, but he doesn't contradict her and before Felicity knows it, Santa's resting an arm around her shoulder and she's leaning against his throne-like chair as an elf snaps pictures. She could not have imagined how this shopping trip would go when they set out this morning, but she also wouldn't change a single thing if she could.

The pictures are done quickly - they've already spent more time than most with Santa and the line behind them is growing a touch restless - but as they go to step away, Santa grabs Felicity's elbow and she pauses to look back at him.

"You have a wonderful little boy there and a beautiful family," he tells her.

"Thank you," she tells him, looking over to where William stands with the elf, unwrapping a candy cane. "And thank you for being so good with Will."

"My dear, it was a joy," Santa says, taking her hand. "Happy Hannukah."

"Merry Christmas, Santa," she smiles, squeezing his fingers before letting go and making her way over to Will, wrapping an arm around the boy and pulling him close. "You, my friend, are the very best almost-stepson in the whole world, you know that?"

"Yeah," Will says with a chipper, off-handed tone, his speech slightly impaired by the candy cane he's sucking on. "I'm pretty great. Can we get the Christmas ornament, too? They print your picture on it, see?"

She looks toward where he's pointing and, indeed, there's a ridiculous number of things you can buy with your picture with Santa printed on it. Does anyone really need a ballcap with that on it? She thinks not. But of all the money-making chachkies they're pushing, the ornament is by far the most appropriate and she actually thinks it's kind of fun.

"Yeah," she agrees. The elf nods nearby and punches something into her iPad. "Yeah, I think that's a good idea."

She picks up the display ornament. It's clear other than the photo printed on it and it occurs to her very suddenly what Will needs to give Oliver for Christmas.

There isn't anything material that anyone can buy for Oliver Queen that he can't buy for himself. There isn't anything he wants that they can give him. Except this. Except his family. Except moments together.

"Will, let's pick up some tickets to a Rockets game for the whole family as a gift to your dad," Felicity suggest. "We can put it inside the ornament and wrap that for him."

The way Will's whole face lights up at that idea tells her she's hit on the perfect idea.

"Really?" he asks. "Really, really? That's a great idea! And you'll come, too? And Jules?"

"Yeah," Felicity agrees. "That's the present, kiddo, a fun thing to do together for our whole family."

She's known for the last year that Will gives the best hugs in the world, but they never get old and she's amazingly happy to have this little boy's arms wrapped tightly around her. There is no gift in the world that can compare with how much her family means to her and she's absolutely certain that there never will be.

Chapter Text

May 2034

 

"Oliver!"

Felicity shuts the heavy drapes to block out the afternoon sun, leaving nothing but the dim glow of the television and the distant illumination from the stairwell. She checks the edges, getting an eyeful of a sharp sunray. With a quiet, "Gah," she cuts off the last remnants of sun trying to sneak through before turning back to the living room.

She blinks, making out little more than the outlines of her kids as they pile on the sofa.

It's perfect for family movie time.

They're just missing one key element.

Felicity angles her head towards the stairs, raising her voice louder as she yells, "Oliver!" again. Where is he up there, or did he crawl into the far recesses of Jules' room?

"Coming!" her husband calls back. His voice is tiny where it wafts from the top floor. His footfalls thud on the stairs, getting louder as he gets closer.

Felicity catches a glimpse of him, but he doesn't head to the family room, continuing down the stairs to the floor below. "Wrong way, honey," she calls after him as she grabs the remote. She vaguely sees him waving his hand at her before she rounds the sofa to join the kids. Her eyes are still adjusting to the low-light, so she misses Nate grabbing some of Jules' popcorn. It's too late to warn him, though - he's already got it shoved in his mouth by the time the movement registers.

He should really know better by now. He's eleven and he's been burned before.

"Oh my god," Nate says, pulling a face and scrambling for a glass of the lemonade Felicity had brought up. "What did you do to that popcorn?"

"Serves you right for stealing some," Jules replies, all nonchalance as she pulls the bowl closer to herself while Nate takes a few heavy gulps. "Get your own."

"It's cayenne pepper," Ellie informs him, grabbing a kernel from her own bowl where it's perched precariously on her knees and popping it into her mouth. "And mine's covered in blue cheese, so don't even think about it."

"Why would you even do that to popcorn?" Nate demands.

"Says the boy who insists on caramel corn?" a deep voice adds. Oliver appears a second later, carrying two bowls of popcorn. He passes one to Nate who promptly takes a handful and shoves it in his mouth in an attempt to drown out the wicked spiciness of his sister's cayenne-doused snack.

Felicity wonders if it even tastes sweet after the lemonade he just inhaled.

Oliver crosses over to her, handing her a bowl of normal buttered popcorn - it's classic - with a soft, "Here."

Felicity takes the bowl from her husband with a grateful smile. "Any word from William?"

"He'll be by later," Oliver replies, his now-empty hands finding her hips with practiced ease. He gives her a quick kiss before adding, "He was on shift until this morning. He wanted to take a nap before he came by."

"I thought he didn't work yesterday," Felicity says as Oliver sits down in the oversized side chair. She moves to plop down on the floor - she's not about to deal with squeezing into the little space left on the sofa - but her husband has other ideas. Oliver grabs her hips again and pulls her back onto his lap without warning. Felicity yelps in surprise - "Oliver!" - nearly upending the bowl, but his hold on her is solid as he cuddles her close. "You're going to make me spill the popcorn!"

Oliver's grin is blinding as he smiles up at her. She rolls her eyes, settling in as he grabs a few pieces of said almost-spilled popcorn. He pops them into his mouth before gripping her chin, pulling her lips to his. His fingers are warms and his lips are buttery and the combination makes her melt. Felicity sighs, savoring the press of his mouth to hers, and presses closer, her tongue darting out to taste just a little bit more.

"Ugh," Nate says, wrinkling his nose. "You're gonna make me gag on my popcorn."

Jules snorts. "So, that's something to add to the list of things you should have grown to expect by now, then, right?" Felicity can't see her oldest clearly in the low light, but she has no doubt her daughter's raising a speculative eyebrow at the boy.

"He changed his schedule," Oliver tells Felicity, drawing her attention back to him as he answers her earlier question. "One of his roommates worked a rough day earlier in the week. Bad crash. They lost a kid the same age as the guy's little sister. Will offered to trade shifts and give him a few extra days off. It sounded like he needed it."

Felicity's heart sinks at that, a wash of sympathy running through her. "Will's okay though?" she asks.

"Yeah," Oliver confirms, kissing her temple. "He wasn't even working that day."

The harshness of reality is too clear for all of her children. It's been such a struggle at times to balance doing what's right - what's necessary - while mitigating the occasional awfulness of reality for their kids. They haven't done nearly as well as she would have liked. When she looks back, she sees so many mistakes they've made over the years, so many things she'd do differently, situations she'd avoid entirely if she could. But hindsight is 20/20 and life is a learning process. Or so she tells herself. Logic and her desire to make the world a better place for her kids at nearly any cost don't always go hand-in-hand.

Still, all-in-all, they've raised four amazing children.

Will's a hero in his own right, these days. It's more of an everyday kind of way than his father, but no less important. She's loved that boy since the day she met him, but she's not sure she's ever been as proud of him as she was the day he came home from a camping trip and told her he'd decided to be a firefighter. He's a good boy, her stepson. A good man - he is 26. The sense of accomplishment she gets out of knowing she's had a part in helping him grow to be the amazing person he's become is no less than what she feels for any of the children she bore herself.

"Are we watching this movie or what?" Ellie asks, tossing her a look.

"What?" Oliver deadpans.

Felicity smacks him on the chest as Jules groans, throwing a piece of popcorn at her father, payback for the horrid joke. Ellie snickers and Nate scoffs, but Oliver just catches the popcorn and eats it. He doesn't blink at the cayenne, sharing the same affinity for spice as his daughter.

This is exactly why she'd lobbied for movie time, why she keeps pushing for dinners with all of them, and family outings that have nothing to do with politics or business or vigilantism.

After everything that happened on that earth-shattering day two years ago, after all the setbacks they'd suffered with Jules and the problems that'd started with Ellie because of it, Felicity's insisted more and more that they need to spend time together. All six of them. They need this. She needs this. She needs Jules to regain that sense of confidence she'd finally grown into. She needs Ellie to see there's more to the world than just fighting the monsters that lurk in the shadows. She needs Nate to see his sisters are whole and safe. Scars from that day linger - she glances at the silvery line running down Ellie's neck; some are more visible than others - but they're healing.

She won't allow them not to.

"Come on!" Ellie says, a cheer that Nate adds to.

"All right, all right," Oliver says. He takes the remote from Felicity's hand and cues up the movie, oblivious to her inner monologue.

It's an old movie, but she thinks the kids will like it, despite its age.

They're certainly settled in for the long haul.

Jules is spread out like she owns the entire sofa, one arm draped across the back while her other hand scratches at Buster's head where he sits dutifully at her feet, graying muzzle resting on her knee. Nate's on the other end, feet folded beneath himself, back ramrod straight as he watches the screen with a comical amount of seriousness etched into his features. Ellie's between them, her feet wedged under her brother's thigh. She takes a deep breath, snuggling deeper into the sofa before leaning her head against her sister's shoulder.

After a second, Jules leans back, resting her cheek on Ellie's head.

Tears burn Felicity's eyes. They're closer now, her girls. Thank God. It had been so bad there for a while. Last fall had been… Her lungs tighten. She doesn't even want to think about it now. And she doesn't have to - not in a way that lingers, anyhow - because it's not true anymore.

Ellie and Jules are maybe the closest they've ever been right now.

Felicity wonders if anyone would notice her getting up to take a picture.

"Your feet are like icicles, Ellie," Nate protests, pushing at his sister's legs. She just digs her toes in more, sticking her tongue out at Nate as she intentionally annoys her little brother. "Ellie!" he whines.

Felicity sits up to tell Ellie to keep her feet to herself, but she doesn't have to.

"Hush it and eat your popcorn," Jules interrupts. "You're missing the movie." Her eyes don't waver from the screen, clearly expecting Nate to listen, and he does. With a resigned sigh, they all settle in to watch the movie.

It doesn't last long.

"Why are we even watching this?" Nate asks. "Isn't this ancient? It's in 2-D."

"The reboot comes out in, like, a week," Ellie tells him.

"Plus, it'll be fun to watch Dad rub his fingers together in frustration throughout the whole thing," Jules notes in a singsong voice, dragging out the word 'whole' as she smiles at her father.

She's not wrong.

"Have you seen this?" Felicity asks her oldest.

"No," Jules replies. "It's older than hell."

"Jules," Oliver warns, his voice heavy, but Jules keeps going.

"But I did see the commercials for the new one and no way is Dad gonna cope with some actor shooting a bow and arrow like that."

"They're physically impossible shots," Oliver interjects, unable to resist. The frustration in his voice is very real and more than a little funny. "How am I supposed to take that seriously? Is a little authenticity too much to ask for?"

"Honey," Felicity says, "it's a movie about two human science experiments, a spy, a billionaire in a flying suit, an archer and an alien god fighting the alien god's evil brother and his army for the fate of the world." She blinks up at her husband. "You're worried about authenticity?"

"You say that like none of those things are possible," he replies, raising his eyebrows as he looks down at her. "We both know better."

"Yeah," Felicity hedges, waving at the screen, "but none of them were that pretty. That right there screams 'entertainment' more than documentary."

Oliver levels her with a dry look, to which she smiles in return.

"I like how we watch a movie and spend the entire time talking about it," Jules says, twisting one of her sister's curls around her finger.

"We're more fun," Ellie replies, resting her chin on her sister's shoulder and looking up at her.

"With colder feet," Nate adds, not looking away from the television. Ellie snickers and wiggles her toes. Nate pulls a sour look, earning a broad, toothy smile from Jules.

It'd be so easy to tell them to be quiet and watch the movie, but Felicity doesn't dare, and neither does Oliver. Her husband rubs his hand up and down her back, the tips of his fingers dancing against her arm, and she knows he's watching their kids and not the movie as he eats their popcorn.

There's a peace in this easygoing moment that they know better than to take for granted. They've fought for this, refused to fail their family day in and day out for years. It hasn't always been easy, but it has always, always been worth it.

Oliver sighs against her hair, pressing a kiss to the top of her head. It's contentment he's breathing out against her, a bone-deep a sense of calm and fulfillment he would never have expected to find in his life, if asked twenty years ago. But they are each other's allies in every sense of the word, a team in all the ways that matter, and they have fought - continue to fight - for each other, for their family and for their city.

Because it's worth it.

They can't win every battle, though, something that's sharply evident when Oliver tenses up and holds her more tightly. On screen, a complex of buildings the size of a small town gets swallowed by the earth. It's far too reminiscent of the Undertaking and Felicity knows he's bracing himself against those memories. They don't haunt him as frequently as they used to, but their failures - especially that one - still sit heavily on Oliver's shoulders.

Felicity splays her hand over his chest, rubbing a small comforting circle over his heart. It soothes him, just enough for him to relax, to turn into her, to let her share the burden that won't ever fully go away.

She'd expected him to suggest they name Nate after Tommy, when their son had been born. They weren't beholden to the names the other timeline's version of themselves had chosen for their kids, after all. But when their son had come into the world, when Oliver had cradled the newborn in his arms for the first time, the baby blinking up at him with surprising alertness, Oliver had greeted him with a soft, "Hey there, Nate. How's my little man?"

And just like that he'd been Nate.

She'd been the one to insist his middle name be Thomas.

"Yeah. Yeah, that's perfect."

One of her favorite memories is of her son - not even an hour old and completely dwarfed in the security of his father's arms - as Oliver looked down at him with teary-eyed joy. As clear as it is in her mind's eye, watching her not-quite-teenage son dodge a piece of popcorn thrown by one of his sisters, it feels like forever ago.

He's gotten so big.

They all have.

Never is that more evident than when Ellie suddenly shifts uncomfortably. She pulls away from her siblings, chewing her lip as she glances bashfully toward the television. For a second, Felicity doesn't get it. She looks at the screen with a furrowed brow, but then it clicks - for both Felicity and Jules.

"So, she's cute, huh?" Jules asks, elbowing her sister. It's good-natured, or it's meant to be. But even if Felicity hadn't seen her middle child stiffen, her face blazing red even in the dim light as she stares down at her knees, Felicity knows she's still uncomfortable about being called out on being attracted to anyone.

As Ellie shrugs a little, Felicity says warningly, "Julie."

"What?" Jules asks, completely oblivious. Or maybe willful ignorance is more accurate. Her approach to everything lately seems to be making herself as bold and brash as possible, spoiling for a fight should anyone call her out. Felicity can't even imagine her blushing and avoiding eye contact. "She's not wrong. Natasha is, like, super hot."

"She's a good fighter," Ellie mumbles, not looking at anyone.

"She is," Oliver chimes in, casting Jules a weighty look.

Jules might think she gets what's going on with Ellie, she might even think she's being supportive, but she doesn't really get that Ellie isn't comfortable talking about this yet. She's never walked in Ellie's shoes, never grappled with her own sexuality, and the sisters are very different people with vastly different ways of dealing with their own discomfort.

The nineteen-year-old rolls her eyes and opens her mouth to say something - Felicity's ready to cut her off - but another presence in the room quickly shifts the dynamics.

William steps up behind the sofa, saying, "I'd kinda love to see her fight Big Sara, myself," as he tugs on Jules' dark-haired ponytail, making the girl yelp.

"Jerk!" she proclaims affectionately, slapping at his hand as her dog gets up and rounds the sofa to greet Will. He whines and butts his greying muzzle against the man's hand.

"Glad to see you, too, kid," Will counters Jules as he scratches the dog's chin. Jules huffs in feigned annoyance at the name as Will drops a kiss on the top of Ellie's head and claps Nate on the shoulder before looking at his stepmom. "Felicity, I tossed some laundry in the washer. I hope that's okay."

"Of course," Felicity replies. She's always loved this kid - he's such an easy person to love - but she's even more appreciative of him when he so easily and single-handedly reroutes Jules.

The smile he gives her is all warmth and gratitude - it's so Will - and it makes Felicity smile in return as he says, "Thanks." And then, before anyone can protest, he hops over the back of the sofa and squeezes in between Ellie and Nate, much to the chagrin of his younger siblings. Will's not too tall, but he's still a grown man and he's both well-muscled and stocky. It's a very full sofa, and while everyone grouses, none of them are really complaining. "Our laundry room was kind of overwhelmed. Elliot was procrastinating as always and then Javi and I were both on last night working that fire at the docks. Everything reeks of smoke back home."

"I was out there, too," Oliver tells him, ignoring the movie in favor of his oldest son. "On the wharf."

"I didn't see you, but I thought you might have been," Will replies. "After we realized it was a drug lab that went up in smoke, it seemed very much up your alley. You get the guy?"

"Yeah." Oliver nods. "Dropped him off with SCPD. They've got more than enough evidence to lock him up for ten-to-twenty, at least."

"Good," Will says, his voice lowering, his face becoming more grave as he stares blindly at the television. Felicity wonders just how bad the fire had been. It's a rare day that Will isn't an easy-going jokester. But she doesn't ask about it, not right now, not with the other kids here and Will doesn't immediately volunteer anything.

Jules, on the other hand, does not have the same approach as her mother.

"Why?" she asks, concern furrowing her brow. "What happened?"

"It's…" Will falters, giving a strained half-smile as he shakes his head. "Tessa had a beam fall on her."

Oliver sits up taller. "Is she okay?"

"She will be," Will confirms. "Broken leg and some second-degree burns on her left arm. I'm gonna run by the hospital later and babysit her twins to give her husband a break."

"Need any help?" Ellie offers immediately.

"Sure," Will agrees, tugging his little sister closer. "You can change the diapers."

"Ugh," Ellie says, wrinkling her nose, but she doesn't change her mind. "Fine. But you get to clean the spit-up."

"Deal," Will proclaims, grabbing her hand and shaking it firmly.

Felicity sort of forgets they're watching a movie, despite how loud it is, until Nate speaks up.

"I really like this Pepper person," he says. "But I don't understand why she's with Tony. He's kind of a jerk."

"You'd probably rather she was dating Coulson," Jules declares, offering some popcorn to Will. He knows better, though, stealing some of Nate's instead.

"Coulson is the best character in this movie so far," Nate insists. And, oh, her little boy would think that, wouldn't he? "He has more sense than everyone else put together and he's trying to do the right thing. I like him."

"Of course you like him," Jules scoffs. "You basically are him."

"I'm going to take that as a compliment," Nate informs her, holding his chin up in quiet defiance.

"Suit yourself," Jules says, shrugging one shoulder.

"Look, Coulson is great and all, but nobody beats Captain America," Ellie announces, looking back and forth between her siblings.

"Remind me not to show her the sequels," Oliver mutters in Felicity's ear, his fingers stroking along her forearm as she leans her head against his chest. She's not watching the movie. Not really. Her kids are far more interesting.

"He fights with a shield," Jules tells Ellie. "Like, points for how he throws it and all, but that's a terrible weapon."

"It's protective," Ellie counters. "Because that's who he is. He's there to protect people."

"Sometimes the best defense is a good offense," Jules replies. "And, sorry, but a shield is the worst weapon ever."

"It's not the weapon that matters," Oliver pipes up. "It's the person fighting with it. Anything can be a weapon if you wield it right."

Jules sighs. She can be so dramatic sometimes… most of the time. "Obviously. But, come on, Dad, you can't tell me a shield beats guns or a bow and arrow or actual lasers that you shoot out of your hands."

"You would side with Iron Man," Ellie proclaims, shaking her head at Jules.

"Uh, cause he's badass," Jules tells her. "He flies and shoots lasers. Tell me again how a shield compares to that."

"Well, I like the shield," Ellie declares. "I think it's awesome. And incredibly useful when it reflects laser beams back at people who underestimate it."

Jules plasters on a smile, staring at her sister. "You're infuriating."

"I aim to please," Ellie counters with an identical grin.

Nate breaks through the moment when he looks up at Will and asks, "Which one's your favorite?"

"I'm not sure," Will muses. "Do I have to have a favorite?"

"Yes," Jules says at the same moment that Ellie says, "No."

Will chuckles. After a moment, he says, "I like them when they're a team. I think they bring out the best in each other."

It's an answer that makes her husband damn near preen with 's a grudging agreement between the kids after that, even if Jules watches Will like she's wary of his answer.

"Definitely not showing them the sequels," Oliver mutters into her ear.

Felicity nods. "Definitely not," she whispers back. If what the kids are getting from this is 'yay teamwork,' the next in the series is a terrible idea.

But, that's not really what has Felicity's focus at the moment.

No, that's Jules.

Because, in years past, Felicity is well aware that it isn't Iron Man her oldest would have sympathized with. No, it would have been Loki. That resentment, that bitterness and sense of displacement - earned or not - would have hit home with her. But now she doesn't even seem to register the similarities.

And, thank God for that.

"Why do the villains always try and talk people to death?" Jules asks as Loki tries to subjugate a crowd on the screen. "Do they all love the sounds of their own voices?"

"Yes," Oliver confirms. "Always. It's ego."

"Well, that's convenient for us," Ellie replies absently as she watches the show.

Us.

The word sends a shiver up Felicity's spine, one Oliver clearly feels because he holds her a little tighter.

Ever since what the girls went through two years ago, Ellie's pushed so hard to grow up faster, to be a part of the team and take up the mantle of a vigilante. As a mother, that makes Felicity equal parts terrified and proud. She's always known that one day her little Ellie-bug would join the family business, take a place at her father's side - or even replace him - protecting the city. But she's barely sixteen and there's such a thing as trying to grow up way too fast. She's rushing through the stages of her life that she ought to be savoring. And telling her daughter to slow down, to take a breath and give it time, has done no good at all.

It keeps Felicity up at night, makes her worry in ways she never has for her middle child before.

Ellie had been such an easy kid for so long. In some ways, she still is. She's kind, smart, thoughtful, and generally happy. But then there's also this - a single-minded drive to mold herself into the hero she thinks she's fated to be. That's always been there with Ellie, to a point. But since the kidnapping, since everything turned upside down… Well, her dedication has grown tenfold and it slices through Felicity's heart with a fresh sense of terror.

"Well, hello there," Jules says sharply, leaning forward and eyeing the television with way too much interest all of a sudden.

Felicity glances at the screen to find they've hit Thor's arrival. She looks back to her oldest who is rather blatantly checking out the movie's superhero god.

"You're ridiculous," Will tells her, flicking her ear.

Jules bats his hand away without looking. "He's crazy hot," she says. Without even realizing it, Felicity starts nodding along in agreement.

"Really?" Oliver asks, a hint of almost-playful incredulity in his voice as he stares down at her.

"I mean… he's…" Felicity tries, feeling more than a little defensive as she looks back to the screen. Thor's throwing his hammer and his biceps are just… "Yeah."

"Ha!" Jules barks loudly. "Mom's got taste!"

"I knew that, thanks," Oliver tells her dryly before looking back to his wife.

"Sorry, honey," she tells him. "He's one good looking Norse god. But look on the bright side, at least I'm not all doe-eyed over Hawkeye and his archery."

Exasperation colors his face as he gestures at the screen. "Those shots aren't even real!"

"I know," she tells him, patting his chest. "I know. It's just Hollywood, hon. None of this is real. Not even Thor… and I'm pretty sure Hemsworth doesn't have those muscles anymore."

"Is Hawkeye even in this movie, yet?" Will asks.

"For like thirty seconds or something," Felicity replies.

"Thirty seconds too much," Oliver grumbles. Felicity laughs. "It's true," he defends.

Why is he so adorable when he's grumpy? It's ridiculous. He's pouting and all she wants to do is kiss it away.

"You'll always be my favorite archer," she promises him with a little smile, running her fingers through the mostly-gray scruff along his cheek. She angles her head up to press a lingering kiss to his downturned lips. He holds fast, but it's not long before he's giving in with a smile, kissing her back.

"Ugh," Nate protests in the background.

Felicity doesn't agree with her youngest's disgust. She hums in quiet delight as they part, her hand still against her husband's cheek, savoring that connection. Neither of them pay Nate's protest any mind, instead resting their foreheads together, noses brushing softly.

She sighs in contentment.

"You're missing the fight scene with your mushiness," Jules tells them around a mouthful of popcorn.

It's true, but it's not like either of them care. They both learned long ago to relish quiet moments of closeness when they can. This is so much more worthwhile than watching Bruce Banner turn into the Hulk or Loki's escape or the ship lose its engines. They get more than enough destructive moments of excitement in their lives. Quiet moments of holding on to each other are the ones they grab onto and don't let go of. And they do…

Right up until Nate's protest is about something else entirely.

"What the heck!" he shouts at the television. "No, that's ridiculous. They can't kill Coulson. He's the best character! What kind of movie is this?"

"Sorry, kiddo," Will says, bumping his shoulder against his little brother's.

"Why would they do that?," Nate asks, his voice high with distress. He's all tension and a set jaw. Her baby is such a feeler, takes everything to heart. It makes her want to wrap him up and protect him from the world sometimes. "Why would they kill him?"

"They needed something to pull them together," Oliver tells his son. "Something to motivate everyone to become a team."

"Well, I hate it," Nate declares. "He was the best character in this movie. This movie's stupid."

"If it helps any, he's not really dead," Felicity advises her little boy.

"He's not?" Ellie asks. "He looks pretty dead to me with the giant hole in his chest."

"There was a whole thing in the tv show," Felicity tells her, waving her hand. "They basically Lazarus Pitted him. Without the crazy. Or… with a different breed of crazy, really…"

"That doesn't help," Nate tells her.

"Nate," Oliver starts, pausing and looking toward his wife for a moment before continuing. Just from the look and his tone, Felicity knows whatever he's about to say is far more important than the movie itself. "We've been lucky, for the most part. But what they do, what we do… it's dangerous. People get hurt. People die. There's no pretending that's not true. Not even in a movie."

Nate frowns, clearly not enjoying the healthy dose of reality. "I don't wanna watch this anymore," he says, putting his popcorn bowl on the coffee table and folding his arms.

"Oh, kiddo, don't quit now," Felicity sighs. "It gets better from here. I promise."

"No one else dies?" he demands.

"Spoiler alert?" she asks, looking between the kids, who all nod. "No one else dies."

Nate stares at her, waiting for the other shoe to drop, but there isn't one. He finally sits back with a heavy frown. He isn't thrilled about continuing the movie, but at least he stays. Will wraps his arm around the younger boy and rubs his shoulder comfortingly. It does exactly what it's supposed, settling Nate some, at least enough for his frown to soften as he leans into his brother.

On screen, the fight spills onto the streets of New York. Buildings crumble and aliens invade, spreading chaos and violence. In some ways, it's very familiar. They've seen scenes like this over the years, fought these battles. But Felicity has no doubt that it's far more reminiscent of reality to her and Oliver, and even William, than the younger kids. For all that there are still battles to be fought and won - and there always will be - they've made a tremendous difference these past two decades. Their city is safer, their world a little bit better.

But the scene that plays out on the television isn't reality and it isn't the midpoint of their story; it's the start. And the Avengers have so much more work to do before their world reflects their heroism. Felicity can increasingly see the fruits of their efforts in the streets of Starling. She knows full well this kind of fight is worth it. But she's also well aware that it is a fight and it is not something solved within the span of a movie.

"Okay, but look at that shield," Ellie points out, gesturing at the television with one hand as she stares at her sister. "Tell me that's not amazing."

The metal disc bounces around on screen in improbable ways, taking out aliens left and right before boomeranging back to Captain America's hands. Cinematically, it's fun. In reality, it's not like that would actually work. At least, Felicity's pretty sure it wouldn't. It's not like she's some kind of crazy ninja warrior girl. But she's been around fighting for a few decades now and she's got a good idea of what's realistic and what's not. That's not realistic, she decides, before reminding herself it's not supposed to be.

"Uh huh," Jules replies with a sigh. "Almost as amazing as flying around with lasers shooting from your hands."

"Ugh," Ellie huffs in exasperation, shaking her head as she looks toward the ceiling. Jules is far too self-satisfied with her sister's frustration and Will is obviously thoroughly amused by both of his sisters, but it's Nate who once again grabs her attention. He's so focused on the screen, so intense, and Felicity can't help but wonder what her little boy is thinking.

"This would be so much less messy if Coulson were there," Nate grumbles after a moment. "All those people just keep getting caught in the crossfire. All those buildings are falling. Their jobs are gone, their homes… I thought the Avengers were supposed to save the day?"

Things are so simplistic to him sometimes.

"They do, baby," Felicity tells him. "But you can't win every battle in a war. That's not how it works."

Oliver swallows hard behind her, his hand jerking slightly against her skin. She runs her fingers along his, soft and soothing, chasing away the memories of battles lost.

"I just figured…" Nate starts, shaking his head a little. "I mean, it's a movie."

In spite of having seen the rougher aspects of what Team Arrow does, he's retained the childish innocence that an almost-twelve-year-old should have. As much as it amazes her, she's grateful for it, but she also wonders how long that can possibly last.

It's something that his sisters both lost long ago.

"Exactly," Jules points out. "It's a movie. It wouldn't be entertaining if they won every fight, would it? That'd be boring."

The look on Nate's face tells Felicity he doesn't agree, but he also doesn't speak up. He's made of very different stuff than either of his sisters. He will never take up the family mantle - not like Ellie will, or like she wonders if Jules might. Nate's too gentle for that, too much of a pacifist. She can't even imagine what it would take for him to be pushed into their world of vigilantism.

Felicity actually expects Jules to keep poking at her brother, but the older girl falls oddly silent watching the television.

On the screen, Iron Man is pulling his great act of heroism, moving to sacrifice himself for the city. Jules is visibly bothered by it. Her brow furrows, her jaw clenching tightly as she stares at the screen.

She's not the only one who picks up on Jules' discomfort. Ellie leans against her sister again, resting her cheek on Jules' shoulder, wrapping her arms around the older girl's elbow. It's somehow both supportive and protective.

"Tony's gotta live," Ellie tells Jules in a quiet voice. "Mom said so. And, anyhow, who would be a pain in the ass to Captain America with him gone? That's half the movie."

Jules is a little mollified by that, shooting her sister a small smile before looking back nervously at the screen.

If Felicity had been asked before the movie who her oldest would identify with most strongly, Tony Stark would not have been her pick. But, looking back, maybe it should have. Like Iron Man, Jules so often hides her feelings behind a sense of false bravado and outlandish behavior. That's varied a lot over the years, hitting its worst peak just under a year ago, but it's undeniably her default mode when she feels threatened or scared.

The rest of the fight unfolds. The Avengers save the day and they all survive unscathed - more or less. Nate's pretty annoyed that Coulson's still gone when the credits roll, but he grudgingly admits he kind of enjoyed the movie. It leaves Jules quietly thoughtful and Ellie excited, talking about working some of Natasha's moves into her training.

It's just a movie, Oliver reminds Ellie. What works on screen doesn't usually work in real life. But she won't be dissuaded. It's only Will reminding her that she wanted to help him babysit that keeps her from rushing down to the gym to spar against a training dummy.

Sometimes Ellie terrifies Felicity. She's so gung-ho, so ready to don a mask, and yet… she's not ready in the least.

These days, it's Ellie - not Jules - who she thinks might give her an ulcer.

"Thanks, Dad," Jules tells Oliver as she stands. Behind her, Nate is collecting their popcorn bowls and lemonade glasses. "You were right. That was a good movie."

"Glad you liked it," Oliver tells her. Felicity's still curled up on his lap, not inclined in the least to move. His body heat suffuses through her, leaves her comfy and so very loved as his hand strokes along her arm. "Maybe we can all go see the reboot. If it's any good."

Felicity expects her daughter to say no, to tell them she has plans with friends or she's not interested. After all, she's a nineteen-year-old college student and she probably has better things to do with her time than to hang out with her parents and siblings. But Jules surprises her, biting her lower lip and nodding a little. "Yeah, okay," Jules replies. "That might be fun."

"Do you have dance practice tonight?" Will asks from behind her.

"No," Jules says, glancing at the clock. "But I do have a date and I should go get ready because Miles is gonna be here in like an hour."

It's almost five months that she's been seeing this guy, which is a record for Jules. While she won't say it's serious with him, she also won't say it's not. That alone is enough to give Felicity pause, but what she's seen of Miles himself does even more so.

She's met this kid a few times and he seems nice, but it's all very surface-level interaction. It feels forced, fake. On one hand, she's just his girlfriend's mom. She doesn't expect him to be super interactive with her. But, on the other, she worries that it's all there is to him.

Jules talks about him like he hung the moon, like he's some brilliant philosopher and a musical genius. But all she sees is a kid with who took a break from college to focus on his band. He reminds her of Cooper without the intelligence to back up his ego and it makes her wish Jules could learn from her mistakes secondhand. But she can't and Felicity doesn't want to risk damaging her relationship with her daughter in an attempt to force it. She's more than a little worried that this boy is going to utterly shatter her little girl's heart because she's pretty sure that Jules has given more of it than she realizes. All she can do is be there to help pick up the pieces once he's gone.

"I've got a group project to work on," Nate tells them, derailing her thoughts. Knowing him, he's probably doing the entirety of it himself. That or he's worked out a detailed assignment chart. Either one is possible.

"Okay," Felicity nods from her spot on Oliver's lap. "Thanks for grabbing the dishes."

"Sure." Nate smiles as he heads back downstairs toward the kitchen.

Jules gives a little nod their way before jogging to her room to get ready for her date. Will, for his part, wraps an arm around Ellie and says, "Thanks for the help babysitting. I'll just move over my laundry and then we can get going, okay?"

"Okay," Ellie agrees, smiling up at him.

"Glad you're okay, Will," Oliver tells his oldest son. "Give Tessa our best and let me know if there's anything her family needs, okay?"

"Yeah," Will says with a nod. "I'll make sure to do that. But, honestly Dad, you caught the guy who did this to her. That's more than enough."

There's absolutely no missing the pleased look that takes over Oliver's face at his son's pride and approval. William's acceptance of Oliver has always meant so much to him and it's always been so freely given. It could have been so much more complicated. Felicity knows that. But they got lucky. William's a great kid, an easy kid, and he has always been as eager to have Oliver in his life as Oliver has been to have his son in his.

Will squeezes his father's shoulder in silent affection as he heads back downstairs toward the laundry. Ellie follows shortly on his heels, dropping a kiss on both of her parents' cheeks before she goes.

And then, it's just them.

Felicity sighs, burrowing further into her husband's loose hold around her. She holds onto him as much as he holds onto her. It's a quiet moment, domestic and simple, a calm in the storm of their lives. She doesn't have to be at QI and he doesn't have to be at the Senate and there's no big bad launching a war against the city. Their kids are safe and happy and - for the moment - all beneath their roof.

These are the moments she loves to savor.

"Should we get up?" Oliver asks after a minute, his fingers stroking down the length of her neck softly.

"Mmm, no," she counters, cupping his cheek and leaning her head against his bicep as she looks up at him. The affection that lives in their shared gaze is breathtaking, blinding, perfect. "I like it here."

He smiles down at her, those soft wrinkles that line his eyes deepening with his joy. "Me too," he tells her. "I'm exactly where I want to be."

She doesn't have to tell him that they both are.

He already knows.

Chapter Text

November 2038

Cami McMasters is the prettiest girl Nate Queen's ever seen.

She transferred in at the start of the year, all shiny blonde hair and long legs and a confident smile that draws people to her. It sure as hell drew Nate to her… at least to a point. It's not like he's actually going to approach her, but her impact on him is still pretty sizable. The first time he saw her, he'd been talking to his buddy Matt about plans for the debate club. He went from discussing words-per-minute goals to stopping mid-word with a quiet, "Woah." Matt still makes fun of him, but he's pretty sure that's only because he didn't see her first.

His reaction hadn't been a whole lot more coherent, after all.

Scuttlebutt has it that Cami moved from Gotham because her dad had taken some VP job over at Merlyn Global. In theory, this should give them something approaching common ground to have an actual conversation. But in reality, she's a year older and about a dozen steps up the high school social hierarchy ladder. Queen or not, Nate's a nerd on the debate team while Cami was quickly welcomed onto the cheerleading squad and that - in high school - absolutely defines their roles.

They share exactly one class: French.

Nate hasn't been able to get out so much as a 'Bonjour' in front of her all year. His mouth goes dry and his hands get clammy and he has to hold his school books in front of himself because he's sixteen. His stupid body responds to virtually everything at the drop of a hat, but especially to Cami. If he did, by some miracle, manage to talk to her, with his luck his voice would probably squeak and break like it did back in freshman year. It's probably just as well that he can't seem to eek anything out.

Either way, he can't stop looking at her and, to his simultaneous excitement and horror, he's pretty sure she's starting to notice.

"Whatever, man," Matt tells him when he starts to panic at lunch. She actually meets his eyes after one of her friends nudges her and nods in his direction. It more or less short circuits his brain. He's been watching her on and off since the bell rang. "Maybe if you, I dunno, said something to her you might have a shot."

"Are you crazy?" Nate blinks at his friend. "I can't talk to her! She's… she's her. And I'm me. Those two things don't overlap."

"Bet you'd like to 'overlap,' though," Matt smirks as their friend Carlos busts up laughing. The two of them high five over the table.

Their flippant attitude annoys Nate though, because it's not like that. Or… okay, he's sixteen, so it's at least a little bit like that, but that's not all it is. Yes, her cheerleading uniform does things to him because those legs are just… They give him thoughts. And he spends way too much time staring at her lips, but that's not entirely because he's imagining doing things involving them; it's mostly just because of her smile. It just sends a rush of something through him and makes him feel two shades brighter about absolutely everything. And her laugh… wow, don't get him started on that.

"Whatever," Nate says to his friends, taking a too-big bite of his sandwich to avoid having to talk.

"Aw, don't be like that," Carlos replies. "Look, your girl's crazy hot." Nate almost chokes on his food at Cami being described as 'his girl.' Carlos gives him a solid thump on the back, which does nothing to help his near-death-by-tuna-fish-sandwich, as he continues. "But you've never got a shot if you can't even say hi."

"You've got a better chance than the rest of us," Matt notes, his tone vaguely bitter.

Nate clenches his jaw. Matt's great and all - they've been friends since middle school - but the semi-regular reminders of his last name and his family's wealth have always been something of a buffer between them. The jealousy grates on Nate's nerves just as it absolutely frays their friendship.

Carlos, however, more than makes up for it.

"Yeah, on account of you're fuckin' tall dude and you've got big feet," Carlos grins with a suggestive wiggle of his eyebrows that makes Nate blush.

He's not wrong. Nate's grown like a weed these last few years, in slight defiance of genetics. His mom isn't that tall and he's already nearly the same height as his dad, much to his father's chagrin. It puts him a solid head above the vast majority of his classmates and would have easily gotten him a spot on the basketball team, had he been interested in such things.

But he's not. This is also much to his father's chagrin, even if he doesn't say it aloud. Nate's interest in sports is non-existent. Economics, on the other hand…

"She broke up with Landon," Matt notes. Nate stops mid-chew and swallows hard, his eyes going wide. "Hadn't heard that yet, huh?"

"What?" Nate asks in place of a response, because he's half convinced his ears stopped working. "I mean, when? What happened?"

"Tuesday," Carlos advises around a mouthful of the cafeteria's attempt at mashed potatoes. "You really didn't hear?"

"You two didn't tell me!" Nate points out. "Who the hell else am I gonna hear it from?"

They look at each other and shrug. Traitors.

"It's, like, all anyone's talked about since it happened, dude," Carlos tells him.

"Nate was too busy staring at her like a choir of angels was about to start singing and birds were gonna do her hair or some shit," Matt says with a smirk. "He wasn't listening to anything that anybody was saying."

Matt might have a point, but come on. The girl he's been mooning over for months is suddenly single and his friends don't tell him?

"You two are shit friends," Nate informs them sullenly, which only makes them laugh.

"Does it even matter?" Matt asks. "It's not like you're gonna talk to her anyhow." Nate pauses and chews on the edge of his lip as he thinks. "Are you?"

Both Matt and Carlos stare at him with huge eyes, their lunches forgotten.

After a beat, Nate says, "Maybe."

Matt drops his sandwich.

"Holy shit, you're gonna do it. He's gonna do it!" Carlos announces in a too-loud ring of triumph before hopping up on his plastic seat with a booming voice that rings out across the whole cafeteria. "My boy's gonna do it!"

Nate drops his forehead on the table with a heavy thud, smushing his glasses up against his face. He knows the entire lunchroom is looking their way and his face is probably bordering on fire engine red at this point.

"Sit the fuck down, dumbass," Matt instructs, yanking Carlos by the arm so hard he almost falls into his lunch.

In the background, beyond the dull roar of chatter and laughter from his classmates, there's a teacher yelling something about detention to Carlos.

"Worth it!" his friend crows victoriously.

Nate can't pick his head up. He's just gonna stay like this forever, he decides. That seems like a reasonable solution.

"Is she looking?" he mutters into the laminated particle board the school calls a table.

"Dude, everyone's looking," Matt tells him.

Fantastic.

"Come on," Carlos whines, pulling on the back of his shirt. "You're making it worse, man. What are you gonna do? What are you gonna say to her?"

Nate doesn't sit back up, but he does turn his head to the side to look at Carlos, cushioning it against his arm. "Dunno," he says, shrugging. "Thought I might start with 'hi' and go from there?"

"Solid plan… Solid plan…" Carlos declares, stroking his chin. "Probably best not to start out with 'I love you, please have my babies' in the long run."

Matt snickers across from them.

"I need new friends," Nate mutters.

Despite the persistent nagging of his buddies, it takes Nate six days and at least twice as many false starts before he manages to say a word to Cami. And when he does… well, it doesn't go precisely as planned.

Hi. He'd been going to say hi. Simple. Clear. Friendly. It's a good word. The perfect word, really. In his head, she'd been going to say, 'Hi, Nate' back before biting her red-stained lip and blushing at him and… Yeah, that'd been the start to more than one dream featuring her in the week that followed. Unfortunately, as it turned out, his brain had gotten a bit ahead of his tongue.

It all starts off perfectly enough. He's standing outside of French class when she arrives. It's first period and they're both early. It's just them and Nate can't breathe because his luck is just not this good.

But then he opens his mouth.

"Bon-hi," he says.

The attempt at a word just hangs in the air for a moment, dangling awkwardly between them, and he wishes with a tremendously fierce desperation that he could grab it and shove it back in his mouth.

Oh my God, what even was that?

"Bonjour, I mean." He laughs nervously as she raises an eyebrow at him. "I mean bonjour. Because… you know… French class. Bonjour… which means hi. Not Bon-hi, which means… nothing."

His verbal floundering doesn't even come close to dialing anything back. He wants to die, because she's looking at him like he's crazy. How the hell had he failed at the word 'hi?' A toddler can say hi! He feels like he might be sick, which is actually the only thing he can think of that would make this situation worse at the moment.

"Oooo-kay," she says with a derisive laugh and a dismissive shake of her head as she tries the doorknob to the classroom.

It's open. He hadn't even bothered to check and now he feels like even more of an idiot than he did before.

When he tells his mom the next day that he's got a headache and needs to stay home sick, she doesn't question it. He's absurdly grateful for the long weekend he spends wallowing in his room.

But Monday comes - as Mondays tend to do - and he can't avoid the world forever… unless maybe he could? He's a responsible kid. He could totally be home schooled or do one of those online high schools or maybe transfer somewhere else.

The idea seems reasonable for the whole weekend and the better part of Monday morning.

"Bon-hi!" Matt greets him at his locker.

"I hate you," Nate grumbles back. "I honestly hate you right now."

"Gotta laugh at yourself, man," Carlos advises, slinging an arm around them both. "Life sucks otherwise. I made an entry for 'bon-hi' in Urban Dictionary over the weekend, by the way. You're welcome."

"Do you think it's too late to take Russian instead of French?" Nate asks, tossing a book in his locker and slamming it shut. "My dad could help me. I could catch up."

"Sorry, man," Matt tells him. It is November and now is not the time of the school year to pick up a new language, but Nate really doesn't care if it means avoiding that classroom forever. "Look at it this way, though. It really can't get any worse."

Carlos smacks Matt upside the back of the head at that, making him yelp as he looks at his friend in annoyance.

"What's wrong with you?" Carlos asks. "Why would you jinx him like that, man? Dios mio."

"I think I'm gonna throw up," Nate groans.

And, yeah, he is definitely feeling a bit green. Carlos and Matt both back up three steps. It's clear they remember the state fair last summer with their impromptu hot dog eating contest followed by the Mountain of Doom roller coaster. Never let it be said his friends don't learn from their mistakes.

Nate would love to say it's food poisoning and have a reason to go home, but he knows better. It's just life. He takes a cleansing breath. It mostly settles the butterflies having a riot in his stomach.

Mostly.

He really, really doesn't want to go to French. Like at all. Ever again. How mandatory is the foreign language requirement really?

"Hi, Nate."

For a long second - the longest of his sixteen years - he's frozen stock still. Were it not for the bug-eyed looks and dropped jaws on his buddies' faces, Nate would be absolutely certain he was hallucinating. Because that voice - that voice - does not talk to him. Not ever. Not beyond the awkward and slightly derisive but still somehow melodic, "Oooo-kay" last Thursday.

Carlos smacks Matt's chest repeatedly right up until Matt punches him in the shoulder to put a stop to it. But Nate… Nate barely registers any of that, because two feet to his right stands Cami McMasters.

And she's talking. To him. She's wearing her cheerleading uniform - which is… it fits her well, very well - and she's talking to him and he cannot breathe.

It's nothing compared to when she looks him up and down, blatantly checking him out before biting her lip and blinking up at him through her lashes.

Holy hell.

"Did you have a good weekend?" she asks.

Her friends are somewhere in the background, whispering to each other, and for what feels like a solid minute he's positive he's being pranked. Any second now everyone's going to start laughing and he's going to have to change schools or possibly cities. That's a thing he can do, right? His parents aren't, like, attached to Starling City or anything.

But no one laughs. In fact, Cami's friends are eyeing him with something that looks a whole lot like interest.

He's so floored that his mouth forgets how to work.

"'Hi,'" Carlos hisses as he bounces up and down. "'Hi' is the word you're looking for, dude. Fucking say it!"

"H… hi," Nate manages, swallowing hard.

She gives him a blinding smile.

Is this a dream? This might be a dream. If it is, he totally doesn't want to wake up because…

Wow.

"You're sorta cute," she says.

Matt and Carlos make noises that are somewhere between a laugh and some kind of dying animal and he might kill them both. He knows how. His dad made sure of that. But this might not be quite the circumstances he'd meant for his son to test out those skills.

"You're… I, uh… Wait, what?" he asks. Nate's brain has stopped working entirely, but his body hasn't. Thank god he hadn't put all of his books in his locker; he uses his calculus book as a shield to hide a growing issue in his pants.

"Are you going to the game tonight?" Cami asks.

The words ring in his ears. He knows he's supposed to answer, but his tongue just doesn't work, so he just kind of stands there instead, staring at her like a bug-eyed goldfish that can't close its damned mouth.

"He is," Carlos says, slapping him on the back. The hit jumpstarts his lungs and Nate sucks in a breath, which is something he'd apparently forgotten how to do. "Hi, ladies!" Carlos adds, nodding past Cami to her friends. "What's up?" They laugh, but Carlos isn't focused on them. No, he's focused on being the best wingman in history and Nate loves his friend. Carlos is the goddamned best. "He's going to the game. Wouldn't miss it for the world. Right, Nate?"

"Right," Nate says in another rush of breath, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose. "Yes, wouldn't… wouldn't miss you. It, wouldn't miss it. The game. Or you, there, at the game. Where you'll be."

"I guess I'll see you there, then," Cami says, her eyes running over him again. "Maybe we could hook up after. You could give me a ride."

"Oh, he'll give you-" Carlos starts, but Nate has enough presence of mind to slap a hand over his friend's mouth. He knows exactly where Carlos' mind has gone and he's back to the possibility of having to kill his best friend.

"Definitely," Nate manages. "Yes, I'd… I'd like that. We could maybe hang out. Or, you know, whatever."

"Or whatever," she agrees with a grin, her green eyes flashing with a spark that shoots right through him. He's suddenly harder than he's ever been in his entire life and he has absolutely no clue how he's going to make it through French class - where she is speaking French and looking at him like that - without freaking exploding.

"I'll… see you then. There. At the game," he replies with a nod. He's actually been nodding, he realizes suddenly. Possibly for quite some time. It's kind of a miracle she hasn't just laughed in his face by now.

"It's a date," she tells him, moving to walk past him. But not before touching his arm lightly with her carefully manicured nails. They linger - her fingers touching his bare skin - before she heads down the hallway.

He's going to die by choking on his own tongue. He won't get the chance to go to the game because holy shit she talked to him and asked him out and called it a date and she touched him and he's going to die.

"Holy shit!" Carlos shouts, his voice muffled by Nate's hand. As soon as the girls disappear around a corner, he bounces up and down, forcing Nate's hand to fall away. "Holy shitballs, dude!"

"What. The. Fuck?" Matt asks emphatically, laughing and throwing his hands out in a gesture that's at least as much of a question as his words. "What just happened? Did our boy score?"

"Oh… oh, our boy scored," Carlos declares, the two of them high fiving each other with a loud smack. "Cami McMasters, dude. Cami Mc-fucking-Masters!"

"What just happened?" Nate asks, looking at them both. "Was that real? Did that just…"

"Did you just get asked on a date by Cami McMasters, you mean?" Carlos asks.

"You damn well did, man," Matt nods. "You got like a magic lamp or something? You hiding a genie from us? What the hell?"

"What… the… hell?" Carlos echoes heavily, shaking his head.

"I don't… I have no idea." Nate shakes his head in stunned bewilderment. "I didn't think she even knew my name."

"Well she does," Carlos replies as Matt nods in agreement. "She does. And I'd say she wants to know a whole lot more about you than just your name, if you know what I mean."

"I know what you mean," Matt says with raised eyebrows. "And I do believe you're right. Good thing you've got a hot car, Nate."

"That's…" Nate says, swallowing heavily, because yeah, the implication had been there but she can't possibly have meant that, can she? "I mean, maybe she just wants a ride after the game."

"She wants a ride, alright." Carlos snickers, because he could not possibly let that joke slide, but at least he hadn't said it in front of Cami. Matt nods along, laughing like it's the funniest thing in history.

Nate's a little less thrilled by the joke and its implication than his friends, which is silly and probably stupid on a couple levels, but it's true. He likes Cami. He likes her smile and her laugh… And, okay, her legs and the way her butt looks in that cheerleading uniform; there's no denying that. Sure, he's had plenty of less than wholesome daydreams about her, but that's all they'd been - daydreams. In reality, he'd kind of like to take her to dinner and hold her hand and talk to her, get to know her… Maybe get the chance to kiss her goodnight. As amazing as what they're suggesting would be - as much as his body very, very much likes that idea - he's not sure that's realistically what he wants.

But he's a sixteen year old boy and he's not going to tell his friends that.

"Shut up," he says instead, flushing as he hikes his bookbag further up his shoulder.

"Hey, think you could hook us up with some of her friends?" Carlos asks, wagging his eyebrows. Nate shoots him a look. "Too soon?"

"Come on," Nate says instead of answering. "The bell's gonna ring any second. We've gotta get to class."

Somehow, Nate makes it through French class, though not without extreme difficulty. Cami keeps glancing back at him whenever the teacher's back is turned. She's chewing gum - which isn't allowed - and he keeps seeing her tongue peek out between her gloss-stained lips whenever she blows a bubble. His pants are so damned uncomfortable that he wonders if this is what dying feels like. Has anyone ever died of being entirely too turned on? Is that possible? God, just don't let him be the first to go like that. That's all he asks. If he makes the history books, he really doesn't want that to be why.

The second that class ends, she heads straight for him. "See you tonight, Nate," she says in a throaty voice, running her hand along his shoulder.

He ends up being late to math because standing up is so not an option.

Nate makes it through the day, though he's not entirely sure how. The entire drive home is a complete daze, but he gets there in one piece and somehow in record time. He tramples up the stairs with a shouted, "Hi, Mom" along the way. She's working from home today and she calls back, "Hi, Nate! I'll be out in a few minutes."

He barely registers her words because he has to leave for the game in two hours and he needs to take a shower and clean his car and change his clothes and brush his teeth and thank god the guys aren't here or they'd laugh at him and call him a girl.

But this is important - she's important - and Nate wants to get this exactly right. Details matter.

He's halfway through changing out of his shirt when he realizes he should clean his car before showering and he bolts back down the stairs in a rush, grabbing a trash bag as he heads toward his electric Tesla roadster.

When his dad had wanted to get him a car for his sixteenth birthday, his mother's stipulation had been that it needed to be electric. That his dad had tracked down an extremely eco-friendly, very sporty convertible was something she'd definitely not anticipated and she hadn't been happy about it. Nate's pretty sure that's because of the time his older half-brother had driven their dad's sports car into the fountain in front of QI fourteen years prior. But, somehow - Nate absolutely does not want to know how because his parents can be totally gross and they're weirdly sappy with each other in a way that parents just should not ever be - he'd talked her into letting Nate keep it.

And he's grateful because it's an awesome car. But that doesn't mean that Carlos didn't leave McDonalds wrappers all over the floor of the passenger seat.

He's gotta clean. And have a talk with Carlos. But one of those things can wait and the other can't.

"Mom!" he shouts from in front of the doorway to the garage. "Where's the vacuum?!"

"What?" she asks, popping her head out of her office. She takes in his appearance with no small measure of surprise on her face. "Nate, you just got home from school and I appreciate the help around the house, but Raisa and her niece came yesterday and-"

"No!" Nate interrupts before realizing he's cut off his mother. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to… It's just that's not it. I need to clean my car."

She takes two steps out of her office, moving slowly. He has the distinct impression that he's being studied like a particularly troublesome line of code. It's unsettling.

"Why?" she asks, watching him closely. He's pretty sure she already knows the answer.

"I'm giving someone a ride home from the game," he tells her. "I need to clean."

"You're going to the game…" she echoes. It doesn't sound at all like a question but he answers anyhow.

"Yes," he confirms.

"With one of the boys, or…" She waves her hand from him to continue.

"No," Nate says, shifting awkwardly. "It's not… Not the guys."

His mother gasps, way too much excitement flooding her features. "Nate, do you have a date?"

Good lord, he doesn't have time for this.

"Maybe?" he asks, feeling frazzled and desperate. "I honestly don't even know, Mom, she just said maybe I could give her a ride home after the game and I don't want her sitting on crumbs from Carlos' old french fries."

"Nate!" she declares with something bordering on a squeal that reminds him way too much of Grandma Donna. Luckily for him, he's entirely too smart to point that out to his mom, though. "Honey, you have a date!"

"Okay," he agrees, because that's easier, "but I don't have a vacuum cleaner. Mom, help me!"

"Right!" she says, nodding a moment and holding up her finger. "I'll be right back. You get started."

"Thank you," he sighs, hurrying out to his car and beginning the chore of making it presentable.

It's actually not as bad as he'd thought, but he definitely needs to have that chat with Matt and Carlos about their eating habits because this is not cool. He's gonna ban fast food from his car entirely. He's just fished a sock out from under the passenger seat - and, really, how the hell had that gotten there? He's pretty sure it's not even his - when his mom shows up with a hand vacuum that she holds up like a trophy.

"You're the best, Mom," he tells her. Nobody's better than his mom. Nobody.

"I have my moments," she agrees, leaning against his car. "So… tell me about this girl."

There it is. He'd never had a shot at getting through this afternoon without that question being asked. Not after his mother found out there was a girl to ask about, anyhow.

"Uh, her name's Cami," he says, glancing at her and trying not to blush as he thinks about his pending sort-of-date. "She's… she's just special, is all."

"Special?" his mom asks.

"Yeah." He's not really all that keen to elaborate.

"Is she in debate club with you?" his mom asks.

"No, uh… French class," he tells her, running the hand vacuum over the seat with a near-silent whir. "Debate isn't really her thing."

He realizes a moment too late that he probably shouldn't have offered that information up to his mother.

"So, what is her 'thing,' then?"

His mother's intuition and top-notch investigative skills might have saved the city plenty of times, but they're a whole lot less exciting to her kids.

"Um… cheerleading," he admits. When his mother doesn't he respond right away, he swallows hard before looking up to find her more-or-less frozen in place, her eyebrows reaching previously unseen heights.

"Cheerleading," she repeats in a totally monotone voice.

"Yeah," he agrees, chewing his lip.

"You have a date with a cheerleader."

Her voice is no less monotone and Nate's not sure if he's more offended on Cami's behalf or indignant on his own. Honestly, is it so unthinkable that he could have a date with a cheerleader?

"She just transferred in this year," he says, trying not to get his hackles raised, but his mom undoubtedly picks up on his defensiveness anyhow. "And that has to be hard, right? To transfer to a new school for your senior year? But she's got this great smile that just… you'd never know things were hard on her. She smiles and the whole room lights up. And it's… She's beautiful and I can't even form words when I'm around her, but she asked me to drive her home from the game."

"She's a senior," his mom repeats. Of course that's the part she picked up on. "You have a date with an older cheerleader."

"She's only a year ahead of me," he says in exasperation, standing up straight and tossing the vacuum onto the seat. "And what's wrong with cheerleading, Mom?" He's so much taller than his mother now. He forgets that sometimes. He thinks she does, too, given the way she looks up at him in surprise.

"Nothing, honey." She smiles, clearly trying to smooth things over, but her eyes look every bit as concerned. "I guess I'm just surprised. You don't really date much and… I don't know. She just doesn't sound like what I expected."

He gets that, at least in theory. Nate's focus is school, and it would make sense for him to develop an interest in someone like himself, someone at least as concerned with the math portion of the SAT's as they are with the movies opening that weekend. And maybe Cami is. He doesn't know that yet. Hopefully he'll find out tonight. But that isn't why he fell for this girl and he knows that's the part that's surprised his mother.

"I like her smile, Mom," he says softly. It's a simple statement, but it leaves him feeling raw, because it's as honest as it is uncomplicated.

"You like her smile," his mother repeats. She shakes her head, looking at him affectionately.

"Yeah," he agrees.

"Oh, Nate…. Okay," she agrees, rising up on her tiptoes to kiss his cheek. "Take your phone. No drinking. Be safe and drive carefully."

"I'm not leaving yet," he points out, looking down at his clothes. God, he needs a shower. He's a bundle of nerves and hormones. "But I do have to get moving."

"I'll leave you to it then," she agrees, hugging him tightly before letting go and heading back into the house.

He watches her go for a second, thinking that she - of all people - should understand. She's like him, a nerd to the very core, and his dad is decidedly not. Nate can only imagine how many eyebrows were raised when his parents first got together.

Maybe he and Cami will be like that.

First, though, he needs to clean his car.

As with most things, Nate is meticulous and his car is pretty much spotless and smells like lemon-scented cleaner by the time he's done and headed for the shower.

He spends half of it remembering exactly how glossy Cami's lips had been in French class and envisioning them blowing something far less wholesome than bubblegum. He feels a bit guilty about that, but there's also no other option. He's been at least half-hard since this morning and if he hadn't taken the edge off he was never going to make it through their date without completely embarrassing himself.

It takes him way less time than planned to get ready. The thought of waiting is too much, though. He's far too antsy; he's gonna crawl out of his skin if he just sits here.

And maybe he can catch the cheerleaders warming up if he's early.

Nate makes an effort to slip out quickly, not really wanting to field more questions from his mother, but she materializes out of thin air at the last minute, stopping him on the way out the door.

What follows isn't what he expected. It is, however, one of those moments that reminds him why his mom is his favorite person in the entire world.

"Nate," she says, smoothing over his school sweatshirt across his shoulders before resting her fingers against his collarbones and looking up at him with blatant affection. "Have fun," she tells him. "I hope everything about her is as great as her smile."

Something about those words - something about his mother - calms him, brings a sense of peace he hadn't quite realized he was missing. She makes it all slow down just a bit, makes him stop and take a breath as he smiles back.

"Thank you, Mom," he replies, kissing her cheek. "Me, too."

Nate's distracted enough that he's halfway to the school before he realizes Cami will be performing at the game, so he won't have anyone to sit with. Which sucks. After all, it's who-knows-how-many hours of sitting on cramped metal bleachers in the cold watching a game he barely understands, and one he doesn't care about at all.

The realization tanks his mood, until he pulls into the stadium parking lot and sees a very familiar rusted out Honda Civic smack in the middle of the lot. He shakes his head with a grin as he pulls his car up next to it, meeting the eyes of the two people sitting on the hood.

"I'm not even gonna give you shit about leaving trash in my car," he tells them as he gets out of his car. "I'm just glad you're here because what the hell else was I gonna do during the game?"

"Uh, watch it?" Matt asks, taking a swig of what is probably disturbingly cheap beer out of his thermos.

"You're gonna be too focused on a certain cheerleader to even know we're there anyhow," Carlos adds, taking the thermos from Matt and tipping it back. "Besides," he adds, offering a sip to Nate. He passes, if only because it smells horrible from here and that's just about the last thing he wants on his breath while he's talking to Cami. "We're hoping some of her friends follow her gaze and decide they just have to meet us."

Nate laughs and rolls his eyes. Of course that's what they're thinking.

"Judge all you want, man," Matt tells him, hopping off the hood of his car. "Jamie's hot and single and did not flip me off at all today, so I think I might have a chance. You've already got your girl. Don't scoff at the rest of us single guys."

Nate can't help but laugh a little at that, too, because it's ridiculous and Matt's totally ahead of himself. All Cami had done was ask him for a ride home. But still… hearing those words from his friend and knowing there's even a kernel of truth to them feels kinda awesome.

"Come on," Carlos says, jumping off the hood with enough vigor that the car shakes and groans in protest. "Let's go get the good seats. Maybe the girls are stretching and throwing each other in the air and stuff."

As it turns out, the warm-up is well underway and the three boys manage to get a bench right in front of the squad.

Cami waves and winks at him. Nate swears his heart beats so hard it might just hop out of his chest. When the cheerleaders take a break and she makes her way to lean over the railing to talk to him, he's pretty sure he stops breathing entirely.

"Hey," she says. "You came."

"Oh, I can promise he'll always come for you," Carlos says, completely serious.

And on that double entendre, Nate's goodwill toward his buddy evaporates yet again. Luckily, Cami either doesn't get it or pretends not to get it and he's so very grateful for that.

"You look really great out there," he tells her instead. He mentally pats himself on the back for an entire sentence that actually makes sense being spoken in her presence without any fumbling whatsoever.

"Thanks." She grins broadly with a raised eyebrow. "You look really great up there."

Nate ignores the chortles of his friends next to him because… wow. Just wow. Every inch of his skin breaks out into goosebumps that have nothing at all to do with the cold and he can feel his pupils going blown as his pants grow tight for the eight millionth time today. He has the sense that she knows exactly what she's doing to him, though. It's a notion that's only affirmed when her coach calls her back and she blows him a kiss before striding away with far more sway to her hips than necessary.

"She's gonna kill me," he whispers as his friends hit his arm. He barely feels it. He's pretty much numb to everything but her.

It stays that way the entire game.

He could not care less about the score. If it weren't for Matt and Carlos, he wouldn't have even known who won the damned game - the other team, as it turned out, but he doesn't care about that either. He's there entirely for her, for Cami, and there's never any question about that whatsoever.

Every time she looks up, he's looking back at her. He soaks her in, staring with bated breath when the other girls toss her in the air, when she does those crazy flips that show off both tremendous athleticism and a flexibility that admittedly gives him thoughts that should make him blush. And, yes, he stares at her ass when her skirt flips up and he marvels at the lines of her body when she flips end over end.

But mostly he watches her smile.

Man, would the guys laugh at him if they knew that part.

They don't, though. He keeps it to himself. It feels too private to share, like a secret between him and Cami, and there's a tremendous thrill that runs through him. Him and Cami, they're… something. The very idea would have stunned him just yesterday. He'd have thought it impossible. But now… now he's sitting in the freezing cold at the end of a football game he doesn't give a damn about because she asked him to be there.

Cami comes back over when the teams start disbanding and heading back to their respective buses or locker rooms or wherever they go. The bleachers start emptying out, not that Nate notices. All he sees is her and all he feels is the anticipatory excitement dancing along his nerves.

Despite the crowd starting to disperse, Nate's buddies loyally stick to his side.

"That was rough," Cami says, shaking her head at the field.

"That's what she sa-" Carlos starts until Matt mercifully slaps a hand over their friend's mouth.

So, okay, maybe Matt doesn't have to go, but Nate still might kill Carlos.

"I didn't even notice," Nate tells her. "I was too busy watching you."

She laughs and blushes, biting her lip and glancing at her toes before looking up at him through hooded eyes.

"Shit, dude, that was smooth," Matt says approvingly.

"Wanna get out of here?" Cami asks him with a quirked eyebrow and a hand on her hip.

Nate honestly can't say yes fast enough and he happily leaves his friends in the dust. When she slips her hand into his as they walk to his car, he's absolutely flying high, feels like maybe he's ended up in one of his daydreams. But her palm is hot against his in a way that bleeds warmth through the rest of him, in a way that feels real. Still, he can't stop stealing glances at her to reassure himself that she's actually there.

"Wow," she says, stopping in her tracks when they get to his car. "This is… one hell of a car. I mean, I'd heard you had a nice car but this is… wow."

It is. It's way flashier than anything else that anyone has at school, which had sort of made him self-conscious at first, but it's a really awesome car so he got over it.

He opens the passenger door for her, his eyes finding those long legs of hers of their own volition as she slips into the seat. He practically leaps across the hood to get to the driver side.

"You want the top down, or…" he asks, starting the car up.

"Obviously," she laughs, closing her eyes and reaching her hands skyward where the roof is already pulling back. It's a stunning sight, gorgeous, and he just stops and stares at her for a moment, waiting until she's opens her eyes and meets his gaze.

"As you wish," he tells her, feeling cheesy as hell for quoting the movie that had been his Aunt Thea's favorite, but doing it anyhow.

"Hey, Nate?" Cami asks, sliding her hand up his thigh as he revs the engine a bit for show. He chokes on his own breath as his leg twitches under her hand and his cock goes to full attention immediately. "Screw going home," she continues, licking her lips. "How about we take this car of yours for a spin?"

There's no way in the world he's going to say no to that.

They peel out of the parking lot with way more abandon than he usually shows, but Cami laughs and lets the wind send her ponytail flying wild, so he feels considerably more carefree than usual. He really doesn't think about where they're headed. He just drives. Anything to keep that smile on her face.

Nate is not a rebellious boy. He doesn't really drink or speed or test boundaries except, apparently, to impress Cami McMasters. For her, he pushes the limits of his car, sending it peeling around the corner of the road, just to hear her laugh, and going way faster than the speed limit just because she loves it.

They're a few miles up the road, more or less in the middle of nowhere, when her hand slides up his thigh and flexes dangerously close to his crotch.

She leans over closer, until her lips are practically touching his ear. "Pull over," she orders.

He does before the words even register, veering onto a conveniently placed access road to the nature preserve that stretches along the south side of the city. He shifts into park and kills the engine before turning toward her and when he does he's surprised to find her so close their noses nearly brush.

A grin spreads across her face. He can't see her mouth, but it's in her eyes, in the way the apples of her cheeks rise. This close up, he can see the flecks of darker color in her bright green eyes and he breathes out her name, his breath ghosting across her lips.

But she doesn't respond with words.

No, she responds far more emphatically than that.

Her cold fingers press against the side of his face and he shivers, but that has nothing at all to do with the cold. A rush of blood pounds in his ears, his heartbeat wild and uncontrolled, because a girl - this girl, his dream girl - has one hand on his thigh and her other on his face and her nose brushes against his in a way that's more teasing than tentative.

None of it feels real, right up until she kisses him.

Then it's incredibly vivid and entirely real.

He's kissed girls before. Two of them, actually, but neither had been anything like this. Neither had left him feeling like his skin was electrified and he might either fly or melt into the seat. But this does. She does. And when she tugs on his lower lip with her teeth, he can't possibly cage in the moan that rises up in his throat.

She doesn't stop there.

Before he can even register what exactly is happening, she's climbing into his lap, straddling him sliding her tongue against his.

His brain whites out entirely.

This is new for Nate and as much as he can't believe his luck, he also can't quite figure out what to do with his hands. Is he supposed to touch her? Should he keep them at his sides? It's not a thing he's actually going to ask, obviously, so it's a bit of a relief when she takes his hands in hers to guide him. The relief is short-lived though, because she sets his hands low on her hips and his fingers curl around to cup her ass.

Relief is the furthest thing from what he feels then.

"Oh my god," he whispers against her lips, choking on the last word when she presses her weight down right against his rigid cock. "Cami."

He can't help the way his fingers dig into her ass, pulling her harder against him, or the way his hips jump in a desperate bid for friction. He's sixteen with a lap full of warm girl and he just doesn't have that much self control.

"Hi," she says in reply, leaving a short series of pecks on his lips before trailing down to the underside of his jaw. He's not even embarrassed about the moan he lets out at that because wow. He's never even come close to feeling like this before. It's absolutely overwhelming in the best possible way.

Groaning out her name again, he lets go of her ass with one hand and slides it up her back to tangle in her long blonde ponytail. The whimper she gives when he tugs slightly to guide her mouth back to his hits him on an entirely different level. He loves that noise - it's utterly galvanizing, spreading a sense of confidence through him that he hadn't had before, and it spurs him on.

Nate kisses her harder, hungry for her in a way he's never been able to sate before. But he can now. Now, he's allowed to do this. And the reality of that is settling over him quickly, leaving him as bold as he is desperate for her.

Angling her head for better access, he drags his lips down her jaw and the long, slim column of her throat until he reaches the juncture of her neck and shoulder where he sucks at her skin. She cries out at that, a noise that disappears amongst the canopy of trees surrounding them as she crushes her breasts against his chest. Even through the material of her cheerleading uniform, he can feel the way her nipples have pebbled with arousal. For him. God, this is just… how did he even get here?

Her hands tangle in his hair, holding him in place as he most definitely leaves a hickey on her neck. Fuck, but he loves the idea of that, seeing that in French class tomorrow and knowing he'd left it there. Everyone seeing it there.

"Nate," she gasps out in a disjointed, breathy voice that dissolves into a whimper. Something inside his chest roars to life at that sound. He craves it with a bone-deep need that makes his hands shake. "Oh my god." It's a half-moan and half-laugh that rings out in her voice. "This is the best idea I've had in years."

"Fuck, Cami," he groans as his hand on her hip slides down to slip beneath her cheerleading skirt. His palm is sweaty as hell, but the fabric helps that some, and then it's just his shaking fingers cupping her butt, relishing the feel of her skin where the back of her thigh gives way to the pert curve of her ass. His hands are god damned trembling, both the one gripping her rear and the one working her ponytail loose, burying itself in her hair as the locks tangle around his fingers in a tremendously satisfying way.

She's a whole lot calmer than him, or maybe she's just hiding her nerves better. She scrapes her school-color-painted nails down his chest and he inwardly curses himself for wearing a sweatshirt because he can barely feel them and he'd very much like to, but then his brain short circuits entirely because she's reached his pants and her hands don't stop.

That smile he loves so much turns positively devilish, but he can't keep his eyes on her to watch it because all of a sudden she's cupping him through his jeans and rubbing her hand against the hard line of his painfully erect cock.

His eyes slam shut, his whole being focused on the sensations she's sending through his body. Absently, he registers a soft hushing noise. It takes a moment to recognize it's her and that he's breathing way too fast, gulping back air on a moan that is as instinctive as any noise he's ever made.

God, he's going to have the worst case of blue balls in history later.

Unless, he realizes as the pressure lessens slightly and his eyes shoot open to find her dragging down the zipper of his fly, he really, really doesn't.

"Relax," she urges, reclining his seat a bit and scooting back so she's sitting more-or-less on his knees as she tugs down the top of his jeans and boxers.

He honestly can't believe this is even happening right now. He completely expects to wake up at any moment, desperately needing a shower and a change of sheets. But that doesn't happen.

Instead, Cami pulls his cock free from his clothes and her eyes go huge.

"Oh… wow," she declares, running her thumb up the vein along the underside of his dick. Sparks shoot right through him and he can't help the whimper he lets out as he thrusts himself against her hand. She goes a bit off kilter, her ass hitting the steering wheel and accidentally honking the horn, but he absolutely doesn't care about that at all because they're alone and Cami McMasters has her hand wrapped around the length of his cock, pumping him in an almost lazy way that makes him see spots.

Clearly, she knows what she's doing. She gives a little twist at the end, rubs her thumb across the head of his cock and spreads the fluid about that's already started leaking. Blindly, he reaches for her, tightening one hand over her thigh and sliding the other underneath the top of her uniform to cup her breast. It's tight, not easy at all to work his fingers beneath the fabric, but it's worth it, especially when she mewls and rocks herself against his knee when his thumb finds her nipple.

"You're impressive, Nate Queen," she tells him, licking her lips as she twists her wrist and eyes his cock. God, that gives him thoughts. Thoughts that might actually have a chance of happening. He's not sure how to process that. "Where have you been hiding all this time?"

Nowhere. He's been hiding nowhere. He's been blatantly staring at her with interest the entire school year. He's been doing the exact opposite of hiding, really.

"Was always right in front of you," he tells her, grunting slightly as he thrusts into her warm, soft hand.

"Yeah, but I didn't know it was Nate Queen standing there," she says with a bit of a laugh.

Hand jerking him or not, he freezes at that.

"What?" he asks blankly.

She's thrown by that, looking down at him like it's obvious, like surely he'd have figured this out. And, unfortunately… he's wondering if maybe he just has.

"You were… just this kinda cute, geeky junior," she tells him with a laugh and a smile. It's suddenly a whole lot less attractive than it has been these past few months. His heart drops as he pulls his hand from her shirt. "I didn't know you were Nate Queen. I didn't know you at all."

"But now you think you do because I'm Nate Queen," he says dully. His raging erection flags some, even with her hand on him, because her words sink in and he starts to feel sick. "That's why you're here, doing this. It's why you asked me to drive you home. Someone told you my last name and that made me worth your time."

She actually looks affronted at that. "You couldn't even say hi to me, Nate," she points out. "How was I going to find out anything else about you?"

That's a solid point, but it does nothing to renew his interest.

"I dunno," Nate sighs, sitting up, forcing her to slide off his lap into the passenger seat. He tucks himself back into his pants as he says, "I guess maybe by saying hi to me? By asking around… or whatever."

"I did ask around," she retorts. "That's how I found out that you're Nate Queen and you have an awesome car."

"And that's… all you needed for all this?" he asks, gesturing between them.

"You weren't complaining a few minutes ago."

Yeah, but he'd also sort of built this up in his head into something it wasn't, something it had never been. And, if her sudden interest thanks to his last name and his car is any indication, something it never could have been.

"You're right," he admits. "And that was my mistake. I'm sorry for letting this get so far out of hand."

The incredulity on her face is unmistakable. "What are you even talking about? You've been staring at me for months and I'm totally happy to screw you right here and now and you're apologizing and backing off? Is this, like… do you need me to be your girlfriend first? Because I will. You can tell everyone you're dating an older cheerleader and I can tell everyone I'm sleeping with Nate Queen whose car probably costs more than my first year of college will and whose cock would make my ex-boyfriend weep with jealousy. It's a win-win, Nate."

If his heart weren't already shattered to bits, that would have done it. She doesn't understand. Not at all. And he absolutely cannot believe the way this has all played out… but it has and he's just glad things didn't go further with her before he'd realized what was going on.

"You're beautiful, Cami," he tells her. "And I like you a lot." She smiles at that, reaching for him again, and he realizes definitively that she doesn't know him in the least, because she hasn't figured out the rest of what he's about to say. He stops her. "But I don't want to be with someone who's with me for my car or my last name. That's not enough for me."

She pulls back in confusion. "Nate…"

"I'm going to take you home," he says, starting the engine. "I'm really sorry for the misunderstanding."

"I don't get it," she tells him as he pulls out onto the main road. "You honestly just want to be with someone who likes you for being a dork? For... what, being captain of the debate club? For color coding his notes on actual index cards in French class or whatever?"

"Yeah," he tells her, offering her a chagrined glance. "I want to be with someone who likes me for who I am."

"And being a Queen isn't part of that?" she challenges

"It is," he agrees. "But that's not all of it."

They don't talk the rest of the drive to her house past her curt directions. When they get there, the air between them is uneasy, but Nate doesn't let it bother him. The realization that the awkwardness is entirely from her confusion dawns on him. He's not confused in the least. In fact, he thinks he's a whole lot clearer than he's been in months… maybe clearer than he's ever been.

"Thank you… for the ride," she says as she gets out of his car.

'Thank you for the education' feels like a rude thing to say, so he just tells her, "You're welcome" instead and wishes her a good night. He waits until she's safely in her house before he pulls out of her driveway and it's only then that he lets himself really feel the sadness and frustration that's been brewing in him since the second she said his whole name.

He'd never thought… well, he'd never thought Cami was like that and it guts him to realize he'd never known her at all. Her smile… he'd liked her smile. He'd thought about ways he could earn that smile, ways to make her laugh, to make her happy. God, that sounds ridiculous to him now. He hadn't even really had any idea how to do that, though, hadn't known her well enough to know what makes her smile, what makes her laugh. His interest in her had been every bit as surface level as hers had been in him. A bit more wholesome, maybe, but every bit as shallow. And he thought he'd known her. He'd thought she was special. How could he have been so stupid?

Kicking on the virtually-never-used self-drive feature of his car, he stews in those feelings the whole way home, letting himself wallow in a way he couldn't have with her there. By the time he's walking through the door into the house, he just wants to lock himself away in his room, listen to that sappy music he'd sworn to the guys he'd bought for his sisters, and mope.

Obviously, this is why his parents are both hanging out in the kitchen when he tries to walk through. Because the universe hates him.

"Nate!" his mother says, hopping off a barstool and trying to catch his eye, clearly reading his mood. "Honey, what happened?"

"I don't want to talk about it," he mumbles, eyes skittering past his mother to land on his dad.

There's a strange solidarity in his father's eyes and while Nate can't read him exactly, he has the feeling his dad knows what happened. He thinks both his parents do and just the idea of that is enough to make him feel sick.

His mom tries to stroke his hair from his brow, but he catches her hand and squeezes it before letting go.

She sighs. "Oh, Nate…"

"I'm just gonna go to bed, I think," he announces. "It's late. I'll see you in the morning. Love you."

"Love you, too," his mom tells him, her shoulders drooping.

"Night, Nate," his dad echoes, a rich softness shining in his eyes when they meet briefly.

Nate takes the stairs two at a time, hurrying up to his room, desperate to put some distance between himself and his parents. He can already see them speculating on what had happened, can already hear what they're probably saying. God, he feels like such a moron. He really does.

When he reaches the sanctuary of his room, he feels like he can finally breathe. He closes the door way too hard, the slam of it emphasizing the end of what was supposed to be the best night of his life so far.

The relief is short-lived, though. Despite his words to his parents, he's not tired at all. And, now that he's finally in his room, now that everything's finally over, he feels adrift. Aimless.

Nate stares at his bed, at his desk, at the clothes he'd left on the floor in his hurry that afternoon.

Just because it feels appropriate, he turns on some music. It's sad and slow and the woman's voice has a mournful quality to it that seems to come back into popularity every few years. It more than suits his mood. Nate flops down on his bed lengthwise to stare up at the ceiling, listening to the voice bemoan distance and time and misunderstandings.

He doesn't even bother taking off his shoes.

The song shifts a few minutes later to something even more fitting, throaty wails about heartbreak and betrayal, but Nate's heart sinks more when he realizes Cami hadn't betrayed him. Not really. He'd been the one to make assumptions and jump to conclusions. She definitely hadn't hidden where her interests had lain.

He should probably be thankful for that.

It's two minutes into the song when there's a firm rap on his door.

Nate sighs because deep down he'd known this was coming.

"You can come in," he says without looking up.

The door creaks open, but it's not his mother's torrent of concerned babble that comes next. No, it's his father's heavy footfalls followed by a squeak from his desk chair. Nate rolls his head to the side to see his dad straddling the chair, arms folded across the back of it and his chin resting on his forearms.

"Hey, bud," he greets with a grim smile.

"Hey," Nate replies. He sighs again, his chest feeling heavier with each one. "I'm fine. I promise. I just had a crummy and really confusing day. That's all."

"Okay," his dad says. "I just wanted…" His voice trails off as the song switches over and he looks up toward the speakers built into the walls. "Are you listening to Adele?"

"What?" Nate asks with a laugh. He sits up, shaking his head. "No, that's…" Okay, this isn't actually something he can deny. "Fine. Yes, yes I am. I'm listening to Adele. Would you believe it's Ellie's?"

"Not remotely," his father deadpans.

Nate sighs again, his shoulders falling. "Yeah," he says, picking at the stitching on his plaid blue bedspread. He pulls on a thread until it unravels. "That's about my luck."

"Look, I know you said you didn't want to talk about it," his dad ventures tentatively. "But I thought maybe you just didn't want to talk about it in front of your mom."

"What?" Nate asks, furrowing his brow at his father. He's always been way closer with his mom, so he's not quite following. "Why?"

"Well… for one, your fly is down," his dad informs him. Nate looks down at his lap so hard and fast his neck kinks. He turns about four shades pinker as he quickly remedies that situation. "And for another, you've got lipstick all over the side of your neck."

Nate groans and falls back on his bed, throwing his arm over his face in a weak attempt to hide from the world. Of course he has lipstick all over his neck. He can still feel her lips on him, making his skin itchy. He wishes his bed would just swallow him whole. That'd be awesome about now.

"You can tell me anything," his dad says. "You know that, right, Nate?"

Something about his voice is more intense than usual and Nate knows he means it. He always knows he means it. They haven't always seen eye-to-eye and they really don't have much in common at all, but his dad would do anything for him. He doesn't think there's been a time in his life he ever doubted that.

He can't bring himself to look at him, though, as he nods without removing his arm. "Yeah, I know. Thanks."

"Good," his dad breathes out, sounding a little relieved. "That's good. And if you don't want to talk about it, that's fine. But if you do, that's fine, too."

It's complicated. Because, does he want to talk about the world's most embarrassing date with his father? Not really. But he also doesn't have much experience with girls - neither do his friends - but his father does. One extremely horrifying Google search a couple of years ago had proven that fact to him with far more clarity than he'd been prepared for. And, maybe more applicably, his dad knows what it's like to be a teenage Queen and navigate the world of girls.

For half a second, he contemplates calling his brother, or even Ellie or Jules, to talk to them instead. He's pretty sure any one of them would commiserate and offer their perspective. God knows all three of his siblings have had their own disastrous relationships.

But some part of him just wants his dad.

"It just… wasn't what I expected," Nate mutters. "That's all."

His dad kills the music, and for a long moment it's just silent. Eventually, Nate removes his arm from his eyes and turns his head to the side to look at his father. He can't quite decipher the look on his face, though.

"You, uh…" His dad stares at him. "You had your wallet with you?"

It feels like the world's weirdest non sequitur.

"Yeah…" Nate says slowly. "I was driving."

"Good," his dad replies shortly, before licking his lips and swallowing hard. "And you… used it appropriately?"

It takes Nate a moment to get what his father's saying, but once he does, the reality of it crashes into him and he sits up abruptly, his face turning a solid red.

Condoms. His dad's talking to him about condoms. What a wonderful end to this fantastic day.

"That wasn't… it wasn't…" he starts, but he doesn't know what to say. He gestures soundlessly, as if his hands will make the words he needs appear out of thin air. "It wasn't like that," Nate finally manages.

"Oh thank god," his father sighs, his arms dropping off the back of the chair as tension bleeds out of him. "You're a responsible kid, Nate, and I trust you to make good choices, but girls have a way of making good judgement fly right out the window at your age."

Yeah, Nate's aware of how great his dad's 'judgement' was in his late teens and early twenties. The fact that Nate has a 30-year-old half-brother makes for even more vivid proof than a Google search. He kind of gets it - for a few minutes there, the only things that'd mattered were the overwhelming sensations filling him.

He might have given in, he thinks, if it'd been the right girl.

"I'm sorry your date didn't go well," his dad continues.

"That's kind of a massive understatement," Nate says. "It was a disaster."

"Any way I can help?" his father asks.

"Short of putting me in witness protection?" Nate questions. "Probably not."

"You sure?" his dad asks. "It's been a while, but I used to be pretty good at the whole dating thing."

Nate raises an eyebrow at him. "Not according to Big Sara," he says. She 's the master at subtle undertones and misdirection, just as much as she's blunt as hell sometimes. More than a few times she'd let a comment slip that colored in parts of his dad's history Google couldn't cover.

"Fine," his father huffs, having the nerve to look offended. "I learned a lot of it the hard way, but I did learn it. That's all I'm saying. So if you wanted to talk to someone who's been there…"

Nate pauses and chews his lip at that for a moment.

"Did you ever... " he begins before stopping himself. God, he can't believe he's actually going to say this, but he can't talk about it with his friends. He's not even sure he can talk about it with Ellie or Jules. Or William, even. Nate picks at his comforter again. "Did you ever go out with a girl who was only interested in you because you were a Queen?"

Part of him doesn't want to meet his father's eyes. He's embarrassed about this, which is ridiculous because he hadn't really done anything worth being embarrassed about. Still, the whole experience left him feeling sour and a bit ashamed. He'd honestly thought that Cami liked him for him.

When he does finally look to his dad, all he sees is sympathy without a trace of judgement.

"Yeah," he replies. "I definitely did."

Nate's not sure if that makes him feel better or worse.

"Your mom said you really liked this girl," his father adds.

Nate sighs. "I did."

"You didn't know that was why she was interested, huh?" his dad asks sadly.

"No," Nate grumbles, his cheeks burning as he admits, "not 'til she was sitting in my lap with my hand up her shirt."

"On a first date?" his dad asks, looking way more amused than Nate feels is fair. "Buddy… don't be me. You'll make a mess of things and you'll hurt yourself and lots of girls in the process before you figure it all out."

"I'm not," Nate argues, pushing his glasses up. "I just… it wasn't that it was a girl. It was that it was this girl… Cami. I've been trying to work up the nerve to just say hi to her for months, Dad. And then she asked me out and the next thing I know we're in my car and she's kissing me and it's like she finally saw me, you know? Only, all she saw was the name and the car and a chance to make her ex-boyfriend jealous."

His dad nods, but not in pity or because he's trying to cajole him. For the first time in a long time, Nate feels like he's seeing his dad through a different lens and it's… refreshing. And a little annoying that it's happening on this night, but still, it's nice.

"That does suck," his dad agrees. "I had pretty much the exact same thing happen to me at your age."

"You did?" Nate asks. "Really?"

"Well, I hadn't been trying to talk to her for months, but finding out mid-date that she was only after my name, money and a chance to make someone jealous?" Oliver asks. "Yeah, absolutely that happened. More than once."

"Well, what'd you do?" Nate asks, sitting up straighter and looking toward his dad for guidance.

It takes a moment for him to remember that his dad wasn't exactly the same person back then, nor was he really anything like Nate is today. The wince his dad gives and the tilt of his head to the side is a damned clear reminder that Nate and his father are wholly different people.

"I, uh…" Oliver scratches the back of his neck. "I was grateful to have my wallet with me."

"Aw… Dad," Nate pronounces with a scrunched nose and a shudder. "Thank goodness I have more sense than you did."

For a long moment, his dad just stares at him with raised eyebrows as he puts some pieces to a puzzle Nate can't see together. For the life of him, Nate can't figure out why until his dad starts speaking again.

"Are you telling me that this girl - the one you've had a crush on for months - that she wanted to sleep with you…" Oliver blinks. "And you turned her down?"

The question makes Nate a little self-conscious. "Well… yeah," he answers uneasily. "What did you think happened?"

Oliver laughs, shaking his head in disbelief. "I figured she changed her mind or set down some boundaries. You really turned down a girl you've been interested in all year?"

"I didn't want to be with someone who didn't want me for me." Nate gives him a one-shouldered shrug. "You know?"

The grin that spreads across his father's face makes him look years younger and the look of pride in his eyes is unmistakable.

"Nathaniel Queen," he says, shaking his head. "You're twice the man I was at your age and you're gonna be fine." His dad gets up, walking over to Nate. He kisses him on top of his head before ruffling his hair. "One day you're gonna find a girl who doesn't give a damn that you're a Queen or that you have money," Oliver promises him. "And she's going to be the luckiest girl in the world because you're one hell of a guy, Nate."

Nate's a good kid, and he knows it. He usually has his parents' approval, but never before has he had it so readily from his father quite like this.

He ducks his head, saying, "Thanks, Dad," to his toes. His father pats him on the shoulder before heading toward the door and Nate calls out, "Where are you going?"

"To tell your mother that you're fine, your date has no idea what she missed out on and that we have the best son in the world." He grins. "But I'm pretty sure she already knows that last part."

Nate rolls his eyes, but that doesn't mean the words don't mean the world to him. They do. It actually surprises him how deeply they hit him, how much this whole talk has helped.

"Thanks, Dad," he says again.

His father just nods before tilting his head back toward the speakers. "You want Adele back on?"

Nate thinks about it for a moment before shaking his head, smile still fixed on his lips. "Nah," he says. "I'm good."

And, to his amazement, he really, really is.

Chapter Text

 

 October 2032

Sara Diggle hasn't said a word since the moment she got into her mother's car. It's not that there's nothing to say; it's that there's too much. She's so mad she can't even speak, so scared she can barely breathe. She feels too much all at once and she doesn't know how to sort through any of it.

The silence screams loudly, though. It fills her ears, making tiny, everyday hints of the world outside seem deafening. A car horn, the hum of the car's heater, her brother's jeans rustling where he shuffles in his booster seat in the back - the total absence of conversation heightens all of it. Right up until her mother sighs, that is, and pulls into the hospital parking garage. It's absurdly packed and Sara wonders how long they'll have to circle before finding a damned spot.

Her patience won't allow it to be long.

"Honey, if we'd told you-"

"Don't." She's so angry her voice quakes and it only amps up her ire more. Her whole being feels off-kilter; does her damned voice really have to follow suit?

"There was nothing you could've done." Her mother is nothing if not stubborn and Sara, in her clearer moments, can admit she comes by that trait honestly. "We needed you and Connor safe."

"Ellie and Jules weren't safe!" Sara snaps, her anger boiling over. Blood rushes to her cheeks, the roar of her own pulse rushing through her veins pounds in her ears. "I could have helped! I could have been out there looking for them. I could have-"

Her mother abruptly hits the brakes, making the car rock as she stops in the middle of the ramp to the garage's third floor. "Why the hell do you think I didn't tell you?" she demands, turning to face her. She ignores the honking of a car horn behind them as she stares at her daughter. "I love you, Sara, but you are way too close to this. You being in the field would have put all of us in more danger, including Ellie and Jules."

It's not true. Sara wants to scream it at the top of her lungs, stomp her feet and deny her mother's words with every last breath in her body. Even though a quiet voice in the back of her head whispers that her mother might have a point, Sara pushes it away, shoving it down and pushing herself forward.

"I'll be eighteen in two weeks," she points out, unbuckling her seatbelt and reaching for the door handle. "Good luck keeping me locked away then."

"Sara," her mother starts, but the teenage girl ignores it, pushing open the door and stepping out. "Sara, what the hell are you doing?"

"I'm going to be there for the people who need me," Sara snaps back, slamming the door shut with more force than necessary. "I'll see you up there."

The teen solidly ignores her mother's barely audible creative swearing as she heads toward the parking garage stairwell. Part of her almost feels bad. She knows why her parents made the decision they did and she's well aware that it wasn't out of any kind of malice or mistrust. They wanted her safe. They wanted control over the situation, as much as they could have it.

But, damn it, this is Ellie! And Sara had been sitting in class doing homework while her best friend in the whole world had been kidnapped.

She blames herself, she realizes as she tromps down the stairs as quickly as she can, her sneakers squeaking against the smooth concrete. It's ridiculous because she couldn't have known what was going on. Sure, it was a bit weird that neither Ellie nor Jules were at school that morning. She'd figured something was up, but it's not like her mind should have realized immediately, 'Oh, clearly my best friend has been kidnapped.'

Except this is their lives. Except there's been an ever-present danger in every shadow since before any of them were born. Except, if she had connected the dots and called her mom and dad right away, maybe they'd have found her sooner.

Maybe she wouldn't have been hurt at all.

Sara swallows down the sick feeling that creeps up the back of her throat. She ignores the tears burning her eyes as she hikes her backpack further up her shoulder, finally reaching the bottom floor. Wrenching the door open, she spills out of the stairwell and onto the street. She jogs across the crosswalk to the hospital entrance. Fall leaves crinkle under her feet and there's a solid bite to the October air, but she barely notices either. She's too in her own head for that right now.

The doors to the hospital slide open before her and she's in an elevator before she even has time to think about it. She knows the layout of this place well, after all these years. It's not like either of her parents are infrequent visitors, given the work they do.

Before long, the elevator dings and she takes an immediate right when she gets off. She knows exactly where to go, not needing the large colored stripes on the floor to guide. She finally rounds a corner that will take her where she wants to be…

The moment she does, though, her feet stop dead in their tracks.

She'd been so dedicated on getting here, so single-minded about it, that she never stopped to consider what it would be like when she did.

The sight before her blurs her focus, throws her even more off kilter, because all of a sudden it's a lot more real.

Jules sits on an oversized chair in the hall, bandages wrapped around her wrists and body practically swimming in a dull blue-grey hospital gown, as she stares at a closed door. Nate's curled up against her, looking like he's trying to bury himself in her presence. He seems so much smaller than ten, right now. They both look like lost, little children. Nate's saying something quietly to Jules, but she doesn't even look his way, much less respond. After a moment of silence, he tucks himself under her arm and pulls it tightly around himself. Jules allows it, but she also does nothing to encourage it.

She just… sits.

Sara's feet are moving before her brain can catch up.

"Hey," she says. Her voice sounds odd to her own ears - raspy and worn, which is the opposite of true - earning her both Nate and Jules' attention. Sara's stomach pitches when Jules looks up at her.

It's more like she's looking through her, like she's not really there.

"Sara!" Nate declares. He lets Jules' arm fall away and barrels down the hall into Sara's arms, letting out a little sob as she wraps both arms around him and strokes his hair. He might not have been taken - and thank God for that; she can't imagine sweet little Nate in that position - but it's clear he's in desperate need of comfort right now.

"I got here as soon as I could," she tells him, cradling the back of his head. He responds by leaning into her; she bears his weight entirely, playing the part of the pillar of support he so obviously craves right now. She looks up to find Jules is still staring at her with the same frighteningly expressionless look on her face. "Where is everyone?"

Jules just blinks for a second before going back to staring at the door in front of her.

Sara suddenly finds it hard to breath as she follows her gaze, her hands shaking as she grips Nate.

Ellie's behind that door, she knows it as much as she knows she's holding Nate right now, and she's hurt. Badly. Every inch of Sara's being tells her to go to her best friend, to prove to herself that she's going to be okay, to hold onto her because she came so close to losing her forever. But she doesn't. She freezes, utter terror holding her in place. She can't move. She can't do it. Opening that door and walking through that threshold makes it real. It means Ellie and Jules had really been kidnapped, they'd really been held against their will and tortured by a madman. Her mom might have been light on the details, but Sara had long ago learned to read between the lines.

"Grandma Moira went to take a call from Uncle Roy," Nate replies. "He kept trying to get through, but Grandma's cell wouldn't work in here. Your dad had to… get back to the place, with the stuff from today." The lair, he means. Nate pauses before adding, "Mom and Dad are in there with Ellie."

"They left you two out here alone?" Sara asks.

"Yup," Jules says dryly, speaking for the first time, sparing Sara another look. Her eyes are painfully dead, and it's enough to send a shiver slithering down Sara's spine. It's the kind of closed off she hasn't seen from Jules in years.

"Grandma and Uncle Digg were supposed to stay with us," Nate says, looking up at her with wide eyes. "They just stepped away for a minute and Mom and Dad will be back. The doctor wanted to talk to them."

The thought of the doctor needing to talk to them about Ellie's wellbeing socks her in the gut and just like that, a surge of adrenaline spikes through her. The almost irresistible urge to throw herself at Ellie's door takes over - she just needs to see her, to just make sure for herself that she's okay.

She wants to so bad she can taste it.

But she stays put anyhow.

Sara blinks hard, staring at the door before giving Nate a nod. And then she looks back to Jules' vacant gaze. She can't storm into Ellie's room when the doctor's in there with her parents, no matter how much she wants to. But Nate and Jules both need someone right now, too. Even if one of them is a whole lot more up front about that than the other.

"Give me a second, Nate," Sara says, squeezing his shoulder before letting go of him and walking over to Jules. Nate hangs behind in the middle of the hall, aware that this part of the conversation really isn't for him. He looks so lost, so small, and Sara's heart hurts for all of them. She squeezes into the seat next to Jules. "You okay?" she asks quietly.

"Always am," Jules replies. Her voice is dull, empty and it sends another chill right down Sara's spine.

"Jules…" Sara's hand brushes the bandage on the other girl's wrist and Jules flinches, pulling her arm away. "Shouldn't you be in a hospital bed?"

"Ellie's the one in the bed," Jules tells her. "I'm fine in a chair. The focus is on her… where it should be."

There's something about the way she says it, a distant resignation that sits poorly with Sara, and despite the fact that she and Jules have never been particularly close, she still considers them friends. Concern wells up, leaves her needing to fill in the gaps to what's going on with the girl. She'd feel that way even if it weren't for Ellie, but she also knows that Ellie would be worried for Jules.

Ellie can't be there for her right now, so Sara sure as hell is going to be.

"They said…" Sara starts, breaking off and shaking her head as she fortifies herself. "My mom said you were both chained to the floor. She said there was a knife…"

"She'll live," Jules replies, misreading Sara's question. "He… Ellie's neck will have a scar. And she lost a lot of blood. It looked like so much blood…" She looks down at her hands and flexes her fingers. For the first time, Sara sees how sore the other girl's skin looks, like she'd scrubbed the flesh of hands until they'd grown raw. Sara's breath catches in her throat. Ellie's blood. Jules had been trying to get all of Ellie's blood off of her hands. Sara cringes, her stomach revolting at the very idea of Ellie's blood being anywhere but inside her body where it belongs, before forcing herself to refocus on Jules.

The other girl's hands shake.

Watching her now, Sara wonders if she realizes she did get all the blood off.

"She'll live," Jules repeats, setting her hands down gently in her own lap. The movement is jarring, like watching a robot learning how to use its limbs for the first time, not that Jules seems to notice. She just goes back to looking back at the door in front of her.

"And you?" Sara asks softly. She wants to take Jules' hand, to wrap an arm around her, but the other girl is the most defensive and closed-off Sara can remember and she knows without a doubt that would not be welcome right now. It'd probably make things worse.

"He didn't hurt me," Jules tells her absently. "I wasn't the one he cared about."

That makes no sense in Sara's head, but she lets it slip past because there's so much Jules isn't saying and the picture doesn't make sense in Sara's head so far.

"What did he do to you?" Sara asks. The second the words are out, she wants to take them back. She can't think of a more intrusive question and she has never been the person Jules would lean on, but it's already out there. Jules' face cracks, so slightly it's barely noticeable, but it's enough, and Sara wonders if maybe Jules needs to answer it, to herself even if she doesn't say it aloud.

"He talked," she finally says, looking at Sara. "A lot. One truth after another."

Sara frowns. "What does that-" she starts, but her question is cut off by a new voice in the hall.

"Jules."

Will damn near barrels down the hall, heading straight for them. Jules is back to moving in slow motion as she looks up, but the way her breath hitches when she sees who's saying her name gives her away. The instant he reaches her, Will pulls his sister up out of her seat, gathering her up in his arms. He lets out a sob of relief, closing his eyes as he presses his face into her hair, breathing in his little sister's scent. "Oh my god, Jules."

"I'm okay," she says, her voice cracking.

It's the first sliver of emotion Sara's seen from the other girl since she got here and it's the only one she lets out. Jules purses her lips together tightly and ducks her head, pressing her cheek into her brother's chest. It's all she allows herself, as close as she'll come to opening up. It's strange for Jules to be so reserved with Will, of all people. She's always been closest with him.

Will must find it strange too, because he backs off slightly to look at her. He cups her face, tilting it upward, so she looks at him. She doesn't want to. That much is obvious. Her hands are shaking more as they settle over his and she sucks in a nervous breath, but she doesn't pull his hands away or step back.

Instead, she looks up at her brother with barely concealed terror. She's been affected by this so much deeper than she wants to admit and she knows he will see it, but she also can't seem to look away.

Sara can see Will's heart breaking all over his face but he covers it by taking a deep breath, his gaze dropping to the bandages on her wrists. When he looks her in the eye again, it's all intensity and determination.

"Are you?" he asks. It's more of a challenge, and Jules absolutely takes it that way. "Jules, whatever happened, whatever he did-"

"I'm fine," Jules tells him a little too harshly. She blinks hard and taking a steadying breath. "I am. The bandages are… we were tied up. There were chains. And I tried to get free to help Ellie, but I couldn't. My wrists are just cut up. I did that myself. He didn't want to hurt me. Just Ellie. I'm fine. It was about Ellie."

It's impossible to miss how concerned he is, which tells Sara she'd been right. There's a whole lot more going on with Jules than she'd tried to let on.

"Julie," Will says with a short, humorless laugh before pinching his eyes shut and kissing her forehead. "I'm not even fine. I know you're not either. And that's okay. We'll be okay. Just don't shut yourself away, alright? You're so brave and so strong. Stronger than me. I can't even begin to tell you how scared I was."

Jules' face crumples as she lets out a little sniffle. She chokes down a sob, her nose turning red as she nods wordlessly. It's a tiny motion, though, and Sara can't help but wonder how much she means it. Will seems to sense the same thing because he pulls her close, hugging her tightly, trying to engulf her with what he wants her to understand instead of speaking it. His bulk overwhelms her, making her look so very small.

Nate hovers a few feet away from his siblings and Will must see him out of the corner of his eye because he reaches out with one hand and pulls the younger boy into a hug with them. The ten-year-old burrows into the embrace, digging his face into Will's abdomen.

The moment doesn't last, though, as Moira Queen reenters the hall.

Will immediately stiffens in his grandmother's presence as she freezes, adopting an absurdly prideful look. She's aged gracefully, the only signs her silver-laced white hair and her thinner frame. But even if there was more, her attitude would easily make up for it as she stands taller in the face of her estranged grandson.

It's good to see some things are normal, anyhow.

"William," the mayor greets primly. The hall drops several degrees and Sara shudders. "I was unaware you were here."

"Where else would I be?" he asks, letting go of his sister and brother to step between them and his grandmother. Sara doesn't miss the way Nate wraps himself around Jules, clinging to her. Jules just watches them blankly, her arms limp at her sides. "Where were you? She was just kidnapped and you left her alone with her baby brother? What the hell is wrong with you?"

Nate's "I'm not a baby!" protest goes completely ignored as Will squares off against the Queen matriarch. Sara's pretty sure he's been spoiling for a fight since the moment he found out his sisters were in danger and Moira's presence only serves to make that impulse worse. She's always brought out the worst in him.

Moira narrows her eyes. "I don't like your tone," she says, stepping closer. "Or your implications, for that matter."

"Screw implications," Will snaps, his voice echoing down the long hallway. "I'm saying it flat out. You can't even stick around to support your traumatized teenage granddaughter. You're the worst excuse for a relative I can even begin-"

"I don't care for your accusations today, William," she interrupts. "And I don't have the energy for them." She waves at Jules, her facade cracking ever so slightly as she says, "Julianna is fine - although what she's doing out of a bed, I haven't a clue." Will bristles, glaring at her, like she's the one who forced Jules out of bed. Moira looks back to him. "Can we not do this today? I am not the monster you think me to be, regardless of what your mother might have told you."

"Oh…" Sara breathes, wincing, her eyes snapping to William.

That was the absolutely wrong thing to say. Even she knows that. But Moira Queen is stubborn to a fault, and while Sara's sure she's hurting as bad as everyone else, she can't seem to help the patronizing tone she always takes on whenever Will appears.

Sara braces for the fallout as Will takes a step toward his grandmother.

"Don't you dare bring my moth-"

The door to Ellie's room opening cuts him off as his father steps out.

"What is going on out here?" Oliver demands, looking between his oldest child and his mother. They both wilt, sheepish and even a little ashamed that their ongoing spat reared its head now.

Sara Diggle has known Oliver Queen her entire life. Despite the fact that he's well into the latter half of his 40s and nearly all his hair is gray, he's never once looked old to her until this moment. There's an exhaustion that's more emotional than physical etched into his face. His eyes are bloodshot and the smile lines she so often sees on his face are nowhere to be found.

It brings out a fresh sense of panic that races through Sara's blood and she's up and stepping towards him before she can think. "Ellie?" she asks. Everyone looks at her, but she only has eyes for Oliver. "Is she okay?"

Her question seems to both deflate the tension and amplify the fear-fueled stress in the air. And isn't that what's driving the animosity in the too-loud battle between Will and Moira? But as many problems as there are, the only thing Sara wants is to see her best friend.

"Yeah," Oliver replies, his voice too soft. His shoulders fall. "She is now." The way he says it is chilling, like there'd been a whole lot of question about that for a while. He seems to collapse into himself even more as he continues, "She, uh…"

He cuts himself off, though, as a doctor appears behind him, exiting the room. The man puts a comforting hand on Oliver's shoulder, offering him a sympathetic smile as he pulls the door shut behind him.

"I'll be back later to check on her," the doctor says.

"Thank you," Oliver replies, giving him all he can muster for a smile at the moment. The doctor nods, more than understanding, before leaving the fractured family alone. Oliver scrubs his face and takes a fortifying breath and says the rest on an exhale. His voice cracks. "She lost a lot of blood. She was in shock when we got her here. They had to do a blood transfusion. They, uh… they didn't have enough in stock, but Felicity has the same blood type, so she volunteered. It was enough. For now."

Sara's chest hollows out. For now. What does that mean? For a split second, Sara's entire world narrows down to trying to remember what her blood type is. She knows it - her parents made sure of that - but she can't remember it. A quiet, logical part of her knows she and Ellie aren't compatible, but what if? Sara wrings her hands. She has to do something.

"It's… she doesn't look good." Oliver sighs, but then he smiles at Sara. It's so tired, so heavy, but it's real. Shaky and a little uncertain, but it's real. "But she's okay. She's better. Ellie's better." The words seem to trip him up and his smile falters. Sara's heart practically falls out of her chest, because she can't tell if he's trying to convince them or himself. "She's going to be fine."

"Oh, Oliver," Moira whispers, a hand pressed to her mouth.

"There was so much blood," Jules mutters, staring blindly at the wall, lost in her own memories.

Will can't seem to decide who needs his attention most. He settles for wrapping an arm around Jules as he looks at his father. "Where's her chart?" he asks.

"Son…" Oliver shakes his head, barely getting the words out. "You don't want to see it."

"I see blood loss all the time, Dad. I do this for a living, remember? I'll know exactly what the doctor's saying."

"That's why I don't want you to see it," Oliver replies, his voice weak and tear-filled, saying everything he refuses to out loud.

It was bad, so much worse than she could comprehend. It's enough to make Sara stumble backward until she finds she's hit the chair she was sitting in earlier.

Will tries again. "Dad…"

"She lost consciousness in the car," Oliver interrupts. It doesn't escape Sara's notice that Jules nods at that where she continues to stare at nothing. "Her pulse was weak, her skin was clammy…" Oliver's voice dies and he closes his eyes for a second before leveling his son with a look. "Will, you really don't want the details."

There's something desperate about the way Will shakes his head, like he can't believe anything he's being told until he knows, until he sees it for himself. He was so strong a moment ago, but now with his dad here, telling him facts, but not the right ones… Sara wonders if Will knows how hard he's holding Jules as he bites out, "Were her lips and nails blue?"

"Will…"

He doesn't want to say it.

"Dad, I can't not know how bad it-"

"Yes," Oliver says, cutting him off again. It's sharp, his voice rough and as terrified as Sara's ever heard it. "Yes. And her breathing was thready and shallow and… It was bad, Will, okay? But she's okay now, and that's all that matters."

That should be a comfort, but it's not as Will shakes his head - it's like he can't stop - as he starts talking. "You can't know that," he whispers. "Dad, she was in hypovolemic shock. She might be stable now, but there's the risk of organ failure or a heart attack or-"

"Damn it, Will," Oliver snaps, so loudly Nate starts to cry. Sara grabs him, pulling the terrified boy close. Later she won't be sure if she did that for him or for her. Pain, regret and guilt flash over Oliver's face as he glances at his youngest, but he doesn't move. His voice is frighteningly low as he says, "She's fine. I know because I've seen this injury before."

Incredulity covers Will's face. "I get that you've seen a lot, Dad, but just because it presents the same doesn't mean her body's going to react the same. There are dozens-"

"No," Oliver corrects. "I've seen this injury before. Exactly this injury, on the other… The other Ellie has a scar identical to our Ellie's wound."

"What? But that…" Will pauses. "That's… Okay, but you can't know that it happened the same way."

"Yes, we can," Jules says blankly. "She told us."

"What?" Will asks, looking down at his sister in confusion.

"She was here," Jules replies, meeting his eyes without an ounce of emotion showing. "She came back to save herself, to save this Ellie."

"And you," Sara adds without thinking.

Jules blinks at Sara. "Sure," she agrees. "I was there. So, Ellie saved me, too."

"She's here?" Moira asks in a near whisper, stepping forward to grab his sleeve. "Oliver, the other Ellie's here?"

"She was," Oliver says, giving her a sympathetic smile. "But she had to get home, Mom. The man who took the girls…" It hurts him to even say the words. "He's from her timeline. She had to bring him back and seal off the breach he created."

The disappointment on Moira's face is obvious and Jules lets out a little huff, shaking her head.

Oliver catches it. He opens his mouth, like he wants to say something before changing his mind. "Jules," he says instead, "the doctor wanted you to stay in bed."

"I've done enough sitting in one place today," she counters. "He didn't hurt me. I don't need a doctor."

"Sweetheart…" Oliver sighs, stepping toward her, but she instantly steps back. He immediately halts as she moves away from her father, away from her brothers, away from all of them into a space all her own. She wraps her arms around herself, pinning her father with a hard glare.

"I'm fine, Dad," she bites out. "What I need is space."

Oliver is crestfallen at that declaration, torn, and Sara knows the instant she sees him turn to Will, a lost look on his face, that he's hanging on by a thread, that he has absolutely no idea how to deal with any of this. He's the Arrow, a state senator, the mayor's son and the husband of a fortune 500 CEO. But for all the power he wields, today was so far outside his control that he must feel like the rug's been pulled out from under him. Shades of his worst nightmares have played out in front of him all day long and the strain of that is readily visible.

"Okay," he replies after a minute. "Okay, you can have space, if that's what you need. But… baby, please just go lie back down? Please let the doctors take care of you? I know you say you're fine, and maybe you are, but I just… Sweetheart, for me. Please."

"And for me," Will echoes.

Jules' eyes dart to Will at that, a dark look of something Sara can't even begin to name flitting over her features. But something in the combined plea must work because after a long silence, she finally nods. Oliver lets out a muted sigh of relief as Jules scratches absently at the back of her bandage. It must be harder than she intends, because she hisses in pain when her nails scrape over her wounds.

"Will can sit in the corner…" she ventures with a shrug. "If he wants."

"I want you close, but not too close. I don't want to make it seem like I want it," is what Sara hears.

It echoes the Jules she'd known as a little girl and a sense of foreboding slips down Sara's spine.

"Okay," Will immediately agrees. "Okay. I'll go with you, Jules."

She nods and turns to go back to a room down the hall. His eyes linger desperately on Ellie's partially open door for a moment and Sara has the distinct sense that he wishes more than anything he could be in two places at once. Will pauses long enough to say, "Get me if anything changes with Ellie," before following in Jules' wake.

"Is Mommy okay?" Nate asks, his terrified little voice breaking through the odd quiet that Jules and Will have left behind.

"She's fine, Nate," Oliver tells him. "She didn't get hurt."

"But… she gave Ellie her blood," Nate points out, looking between his dad and his grandmother. "She still has enough for her, right?"

"Oh, Nate," Oliver sighs. In spite of the older man's exhaustion and that the ten-year-old is really too big for it, he steps forward with a gentle, "C'mere, buddy," and scoops the boy into his arms. The fear of the day fast overwhelms Nate once he's in his father's arms and he bursts out in wet, desperate sobs against his dad's shoulder. "Mom's fine. The doctors made sure not to take too much, okay? She's just tired and she forgot to eat lunch. They gave her the room next to Ellie to take a nap and give her some fluids. Did you want to see her?"

Nate hesitates, looks from Ellie's room to the one next door with indecision tearing him in two.

"Go see your mom," Oliver tells the boy. "Grandma will go with you, okay? Ellie should rest more before you see her. The doctor doesn't want too many people in there at once anyway."

"She's really gonna be okay?" Nate asks, looking his dad in the eye, desperate to hear the words again.

"She really will," Oliver promises, sounding far more convincing this time. "You can see her in a bit. Just… let her get a some rest first. I know Mom will feel better to have you with her. She could use a hand to hold right now and I need to be with Ellie. So, that's your job, okay? You hold your mom's hand and I'll hold Ellie's. We can switch later."

That's a heavy enough responsibility that Nate goes along with it. He nods as his father puts him down before looking at Moira.

"Mom," Oliver says with an exhausted sigh. "Can you take him to see Felicity? I don't really… he needs to see his mom and we should give Ellie some time to… rest."

"To look more like herself," Sara thinks. That's what he's not saying. He doesn't want to scare his son with the sight of his incredibly pale, suddenly-weak, bedridden sister. The thought alone is making her chest start to feel heavy.

"Of course," his mother agrees, reaching out a hand for her grandson. Nate takes it easily, allowing her to tug him along. It's such a stark difference from his brother.

The moment his mother and son disappear behind the door to the next room, Oliver's shoulders sag. He closes his eyes, letting out a tremendous sigh. For a second, Sara wonders if he's forgotten she's there.

"Where's your mom?" he asks, shattering that illusion. He opens his eyes a second later to fix his gaze on her.

"Parking," Sara replies. "In theory."

"In practice?" he asks.

"Circling the parking garage for an empty space and probably considering hotwiring a car to move just so she's got a spot," Sara answers. She doesn't really care where her mom is. What she cares about is a dozen feet away behind a closed door. She stands again, stepping closer. "Can I see her?"

He had to have known she was going to ask, but he stands stock still, weighing her request anyhow.

"Please, Uncle Oliver?" Sara asks. She sounds young and needy, but she can't help it. "I'll let her rest and I know she'll look worse than she is. I can deal with that. I'm eighteen this month, practically an adult. And I know they probably said family only, but-"

"You are family," Oliver cuts her off. It's startling how much gratitude hits her at that firm declaration. "I've known you every day of your life, Sara. You're family to me and I sure as hell know you're family to Ellie."

It strikes Sara that she hadn't known just how much she needed to hear that today, but she really, really had.

"Okay," Oliver decides aloud, raking his hands through his silver hair. "She's been in and out a lot, but maybe she'll rest easier if she knows you're there."

Sara stands a bit straighter at that, nodding fiercely and adjusting her hold on her backpack. Her fingers have a death grip on the strap so much that her knuckles hurt, but she needs something to hold onto, something to ground herself in this moment, and that will do.

With yet another weary sigh, Oliver turns back to the room. His hand rests on the doorknob, but before he turns it, he looks back to her. "It was close, Sara," he says. He stares at her, trying to make her understand. "A few minutes more and… It was close. And she looks it."

"I can handle it," Sara tells him. "I want to handle it. I need to be there for her. She would be for me."

Oliver surprises her by offering up a small smile. "I have absolutely no doubt that that's true," he says. Without another word, he opens the door and gestures for her to enter the room.

Sara takes three steps into the bleak hospital room and stops.

"She already looks better," Oliver says from behind her as he shuts the door with a quiet snick.

"This is better?" Sara chokes out, looking back at her best friend's father.

"Yeah," he confirms, a pained look gracing his face as he looks past her to his injured daughter. "It is."

That can't possibly be true. She's never seen Ellie so pale, so devoid of life. There's a huge bandage on her neck and an IV in her arm and a cannula in her nose. She's asleep, but Sara has to stare a long time to see her chest move at all, to prove that she's really breathing. She's so still, and it feels so wrong.

"Felicity didn't want to leave her," he adds, crossing the room to a chair at his daughter's side.

He doesn't elaborate on what happened to make her leave, and Sara doesn't ask. She's afraid to - did she freak out, or did she pass out giving blood? Did people do that?

Sara's eyes dart to him. It's always seemed to Sara that her Uncle Oliver carried the weight of the world on his shoulders - or maybe just the weight of the city - but she's never seen him bow under it. Not until today. It's almost frightening how human that makes him seem, how normal. She wonders if this is what being an adult will be like, to see beneath the masks of confidence and certainty that everyone seems to wear.

Now that he's back by Ellie's side, though, now that he's near his daughter again, seeing with his own two eyes that she's okay, he seems… better. Stronger. It's fortifying and comforting in a way Sara didn't even realize she needed to see.

"You can sit with her, too, you know," Oliver says. It's only then that Sara realizes she's still barely standing inside the room, her sneakers rooted in place on a square of mottled linoleum flooring. "She's pretty medicated… antibiotics and pain meds, something to help her platelet levels. She should sleep for a while."

"I thought you said she was in and out a lot?" Sara asks. She forces her feet to carry her forward to Ellie's bedside, but every step takes effort, like she's slogging through quicksand. Ellie looks even more ashen up close. Sara tells herself that's really just the horrible hospital lighting, but she's not sure she believes that.

"She's a fighter, my Ellie-bug," Oliver says, kissing his daughter's fingertips. "Even when she shouldn't be, she's a fighter."

The closer she gets, the more her whole world narrows down to Ellie. All she sees is her best friend's limp hand held tightly in her father's soft grip, the colorless hue of her skin, the way her body looks so very tiny against the clinical hospital bed.

Every inch closer she gets to Ellie, Sara finds her frustration mounting. This is wrong. This is wrong. They're supposed to be at volleyball practice right now. Ellie should be ribbing her about her spike and laughing in that way that lights up the whole room. She shouldn't be here. She shouldn't be like this.

Sara doesn't even realize she's moving until she finds herself collapsing into the chair across from Oliver at Ellie's side. She reaches for Ellie's free hand, but finds she can't unclench her fist. Her knuckles are so tight they hurt and her jaw is so tense it feels unmovable, so she grits her teeth as she lets the back of her hand brush against the skin of Ellie's fingers.

When the other girl doesn't respond, something inside Sara breaks, a torrent of fear and frustration and anger coming out in a muffled sob. She turns, burying her face in her own shoulder as her eyes burn hot with tears.

To his credit, her Uncle Oliver knows her well enough to pretend not to notice. Sara is not the sort to unburden herself on others and she'd just as soon spare herself the embarrassment of someone else acknowledging them.

But anger… anger is different. Anger she can share.

"I want to kill him."

She exhales the words through thinned lips so quietly that she's not sure for a moment that he even heard her.

"Me too," he agrees a beat past when she'd have expected an answer, his voice every bit as quiet as hers had been.

Sara nods hard. Brushing hard at her watery eyes with the hand that isn't touching Ellie - she can't move that one; she won't - she looks at Oliver to find him already looking at her. Their eyes lock. He's got to be every bit as angry as her, more angry even, but he doesn't look it. He just looks sad and it eats away at Sara's insides like acid. Because how can he sit here? How can he push back the need to follow after the man who'd hurt Ellie and slit his throat?

"You should have," Sara bites out, not caring that this conversation will likely get back to both of her parents. "You should have driven an arrow through his neck and left him to bleed out on that warehouse floor."

Her words don't stun him. They don't disappoint him or convince him or anger him. No, his reaction is far more infuriating than that. He smiles at her, thin and compassionate, and Sara wants to scream until her voice runs raw because this is the only response she really, truly didn't want.

"Ellie and Jules needed me," he tells her after a moment. "Helping them is always more important than hurting someone else."

"Is that a rule of wearing a mask?" Sara snarks.

"No, Sara," he replies, shaking his head at her. "It's a rule of being a father."

She doesn't know what to say to that. It's such a stark reminder of what he's done - of the life he's led and how much he'd nearly lost today - that shame washes through her at her own self-righteousness. Ellie's her friend, her best friend, but she's Oliver's daughter. And whatever she's feeling, she knows he must feel it ten-fold. She can't even begin to imagine that, but it has to be true. Ellie and her dad are so close.

"I'm sorry," Sara grits out, looking back to Ellie's hand. After a second, she manages to loosen her fists so that her index finger runs across the back of the other girl's hand.

"Don't be," Oliver replies. "I can't be upset that my little girl has a friend who loves her that much. I never could be. I'm so glad that you two have each other."

She can feel Oliver looking at her, but she doesn't look up this time. She just nods. There's too much going on in her head and Sara can barely process her own desperation and anger. She has no desire to share more of it. She's so very on edge right now and it feels like any little thing just might become too much to handle.

"Can I ask you something?" he asks after several long minutes with no sound beyond the frustratingly generic sounds of the machines hooked up to Ellie.

Sara's voice is rough as she replies, "You can ask." The "I might not answer" goes unsaid.

"Jules," he says, swallowing hard and squeezing Ellie's fingers before looking at her. "What did she say to you in the hall?"

Sara looks up at him, the question taking her by surprise. It probably shouldn't. If she feels on the edge of breaking, she has to wonder if he isn't a few steps past that. His eyes are so haunted, so pained and guilty. For all that Ellie is Sara's primary focus, the question and that look are a stark reminder that half of Oliver's heart is across the hall with the other daughter he'd nearly lost.

"Not much," Sara replies. "She was pretty closed off. It reminded me…"

"Of how she used to be," Oliver finishes. His whole body sags when he breathes out. Sara's not sure she's ever seen him so defeated. It's jarring. "Sara... "

He pauses, shutting his eyes. He takes a breath, but it's shaky rather than fortifying and when he locks gazes with her again, every single ounce of terror and pain is horrifying visible, like he's dropped a wall and he's willingly showing the turmoil behind it.

"You two are friends," he reminds her. "Not… not like you and Ellie. I know you aren't that close, but you're friendly, and she's your age." He pauses, licking his lips, and she wonders where he's going with this. "She won't talk to me. Didn't say a word the whole ride here. She just stared at Ellie with this vacant stare and… Sara, if she tells you anything, anything at all about what happened, please, please tell me. I want to help her - I need to help her - but she won't tell me what happened. The doctor said physically she's fine other than her wrists, but…"

"She hurt them trying to get to Ellie," Sara blurts out. She'd have told him anyhow, but the sheer desperation in his voice is just too much for her to handle and she needs something to get him to stop talking before she's pulled right down with him.

"Jules told you that?" he asks, a glimmer of hope shining through the desolation in his eyes. "She said that?"

"Yeah," Sara replies. "Nate was there, too. She might talk to him. Or maybe Will. Probably Will. But she said she and Ellie were both tied up and he only wanted to hurt Ellie. She fought to get to her sister and hurt herself doing it… How bad are her wrists?"

He doesn't answer right away, just looks at his own hands like maybe they've failed him. "She'll probably have scars, too," he finally says.

The answer is heavy enough that Sara can't find words to follow up with, but Oliver saves her the burden because he's not done asking questions.

"Was there anything else?" he asks. "Every time anyone's asked her what happened, what he did, all she's said is that he hurt Ellie and did nothing to her."

"She said the same to me," Sara confirms, replaying the conversation in her head. "She said all he did was talk to her."

"Talk to her?" Oliver asks. His voice is alert and honed in, all razor-sharp with hard edges. "About what? What did he say?"

"She said… 'true things'," Sara replies, trying to pull the words out of her memory - it's foggy; today has been such a blur - but the answer clearly brings Oliver no relief. "That's all she said. No specifics."

"If she says anything else…"

"I'll tell you," Sara confirms. "But… Uncle Oliver… I'm not sure about this, but I don't think you should wait for her to talk about it. I don't know that she will."

"Yeah," he agrees, running a hand through his hair. He's lucky he's not losing it, with how often he's done that today alone. "I know that. Jules is… I love that girl so damned much, but she will shut down and she will lash out."

"She will," Sara agrees. Silence descends. A moment later, her curiosity gets the best of her. "What do you think he said to her?"

"I think he knew how to hit her where it hurts most," Oliver confides. His voice is quiet, almost childlike, and it's haunting. "I think he told her that she didn't matter, that Ellie was the only reason he was here. I think he told my little girl over and over again that she was worthless. And I think she believed it."

The likelihood of that slithers across Sara's skin, leaving a shiver in its wake. At around eight years old or so, she can remember Jules shunning Ellie. The younger girl had been so confused, so hurt. She hadn't even done anything, she'd protested, but that hadn't stopped Jules from being mean anyhow. Uncle Oliver and Aunt Felicity hadn't let that stand, had redirected the older girl with gentle but firm guidance. Sometimes it worked better than others. "You never wanted me anyhow" had been Jules' go-to refrain in those days. Sara's not sure the last time she heard that; the change in Jules since those years is remarkable. But it hadn't been sudden.

She's left wondering if maybe Jules' wounds from today weren't every bit as brutal as Ellie's.

"There's so much the girls can't say about their lives," he says, shaking his head. "So much they keep secret for my sake. They suffer so much because of it."

Sara can see where this is going and she knows without a single doubt precisely what Ellie would say to her father right now, were she awake. But she's not. Sara's always had Ellie's back. That's not about to change now.

"They're safer because of you, Uncle Oliver," she tells him firmly. Her fingers unfurl and grip Ellie's, seeking out solidarity, or maybe strength. She finds both. "All of us are. What you and the rest of the team do, we're all better off for it. Ellie and Jules are both proud of you and so am I."

He smiles at her, but he doesn't look convinced. Even though he's the one who brought it up, he's obviously not keen to stay on the topic. "They're both going to need to talk about what happened today," he tells her. "Ideally, they'd go to a professional, but with what I do... I don't know. Maybe ARGUS has someone. I'm willing to owe Amanda Waller a favor or two for this."

"Either way, we'll all be there for them both," Sara says. "For as long as it takes."

"I appreciate that," Oliver replies. "And they'll need that, too, but I don't know if that's going to be enough."

"Maybe Barry knows a therapist he trusts? They have all kinds of doctors and science type people," Sara suggests. "Or maybe Big Sara knows someone? She sorta seems like she knows everyone."

"Maybe," Oliver says, though he doesn't sound like his hopes are high. "Mental health isn't exactly a priority with assassins."

"That's probably a major oversight on their part," Sara advises dryly.

Oliver actually chuckles. It sounds rusty, but that she got him to do it at all makes her proud.

"It might be," he agrees. "I'll figure something out. I just don't want to leave it to chance. Not this time. I shouldn't have last time."

When Jules was little. That's what he means. The last time they'd helped her work through feeling like Ellie was somehow more important than her.

"This is different," Sara tells him. It is, in so many ways, and it's clear that Oliver knows that. The weight of responsibility sits so heavily on his shoulders that the strain is visible.

"Yeah," he agrees on an exhale. "Yeah, it is."

It seems like he's resolved something with that statement, because he stands and leans over to kiss Ellie on her forehead. His lips linger against her skin like he's trying to breathe his own strength into her. Sara's not sure where he gets it from, at this point. Her Uncle Oliver has been to hell and back more times than she knows, but he has more stubborn willpower to keep putting one foot in front of the other than anyone else she's ever met.

"I'm going to go sit with Jules for a bit," he says, looking to Sara. "If anything changes, if she wakes up, please come get me right away?"

"Of course."

"Thank you." Oliver brushes Ellie's hair from her temple before stepping back slightly. "I'm sure Felicity will be back just as soon as the doctors let her. And your parents."

Now that he mentions it, her mom is taking an awfully long time to park. Sara pulls her cell phone out of her pocket and glances at it to find a text.

"Dad called her back to the lair," Sara tells him. "Some reporter connected the dots about what happened to Ellie and Jules. He needed her on the computers to block it from getting out." Oliver stands a little straighter at that, falling into Arrow mode on a dime. He's so ready to fight for all of them. She wonders how often he forgets they all fight for him, too. "They've got it covered," Sara assures him. "The story's dead in the water and Mom's erasing all traces of the photos some jerk snapped on their cell of you guys coming into the hospital. We're cool. Dad's already on his way back."

It's obvious he wants to make sure for himself, but the alertness slowly fades from his frame as her message sinks in. He'd trust her parents with his life, with his daughters' lives, but he also tends to expect the worst whenever a crisis hits home.

"Good," he says after a moment. "The girls don't need that out there. Recovering is going to be hard enough, but if their classmates see pictures and the media starts speculating…"

"They were in a car accident," Sara asserts firmly. "I was driving and the passenger side got hit. That's how they got hurt. I got lucky. I'll back them up. You don't have to worry about that. We'll keep the media out of it. I'll text my mom to plant a police report and email our teachers."

Maybe it's the presence of an actual plan, something approaching a way to move forward, but Oliver looks more at ease than he has since she got here. Sara's grateful to have some part in giving him that.

"Sara… thank you."

"That's what family does, Uncle Oliver," she replies. Her fingers curl around Ellie's like she's trying to physically hold onto her place in her best friend's life. "You never have to thank me for that."

The smile he offers back in response actually touches his eyes and it feels like a privilege, today of all days, to be able to give him that. He rounds Ellie's bed to reach Sara's side and leans down to kiss the top of her head, too.

"We're lucky to have you," he tells her, squeezing her shoulder as she smiles up at him.

"I've got Ellie," Sara promises.

"I know you do," Oliver replies. "I'll be back in a bit."

With that, he heads to the door, but Sara has one more thing she can't leave unsaid. "Uncle Oliver?" she ventures, as his hand lands on the door handle. He glances back at her. "We're going to be okay. It might take a while and it might not be easy, but we'll be fine because no one in this family will ever give up on either of them."

He doesn't reply in words, but the little nod of his head and the thin but genuine smile that graces his lips as he looks down to where she holds onto Ellie's fingers like a lifeline feels like answer enough.

A moment later he's gone, leaving Sara alone with Ellie.

The quiet that follows is unsettling.

Ellie is a lot of things, but silent has never been one of them. Forever bubbly and full of life, she draws attention to herself effortlessly, but this… it's foreign. Oliver being there had been a bit of a buffer from how grave the situation really is, but with him gone, with just the sound of Ellie's rhythmic breaths, it's all suddenly a whole lot more real.

It's terrifying.

Sara swallows hard, staring at her best friend. She can see how close it had been. She doesn't need the grittier details to tell her that. The blonde's pallor is all wrong and the bandages on her neck and her wrists are startlingly large.

It doesn't matter, she decides, trying to force resolve into her own bones. They'd both lived. That's what matters. They're both going to be okay. She'll get Ellie some pretty bracelets for Christmas, something to cover the visible scars. And she'll be at her best friend's side to help cope with the ones that can't be seen.

"You sure know how to scare the hell out of us, don't you?" Sara whispers. She keeps her voice quiet, even though she knows from the click of the IV that her friend has a fresh dose of some painkiller that will surely keep her asleep.

"I bet you were brave, though," Sara adds, running her fingers along the back of Ellie's knuckles. "Because that's you, Ellie. You are so strong. You always have been. You won't let this beat you, because you won't give it that much power over who you are. As soon as your eyes open, you'll be smiling back at me and laughing over something. I know it."

Ellie sleeps on.

Sara swallows hard, rubbing her thumb across one of Ellie's nails like a worry stone. An unsettling feeling washes over her as she wonders if she's trying to reaffirm how Ellie will react or if she's trying to convince herself. They've all been through a lot together, the kids of Team Arrow. Danger is far from foreign in their lives and they've all seen their parents hurt, sometimes severely. But this is different. This is Ellie and Sara can only venture a guess as to how her friend will cope.

But she needs this. She needs to believe it. She needs to say the words aloud and force herself to have faith in the truth of them. Because the alternative is unacceptable. The alternative means the bastard who took them won. And Sara's unwilling to accept that.

Suddenly, holding onto Ellie's hand isn't enough. The hospital bed is small, but Sara's not about to let that stop her. Sara lets go of Ellie's hand and, very carefully so she doesn't jostle Ellie too much, she climbs onto the bed. It's a tight squeeze and Sara has to lay on her side facing the other girl. The guard rail digs into her back and Ellie's elbow is jammed into her ribs, but Sara doesn't mind.

This is exactly where she needs to be.

"You'll be okay, Ellie," she whispers. Tears sting at her eyes as she shuts them, blocking out reality for the moment while she presses her lips to Ellie's temple. She reaches across the other girl to lace their fingers together. "You'll be okay, I swear. I'm gonna be here. I'll help you. You'll be fine. You're fine."

She half expects Ellie to respond, to laugh and meet her eye with an answering, "Of course I'm fine, silly. I've got you!" But nothing happens and Sara chokes down a bit of a sob instead as her wrist brushes against the bandage on Ellie's.

Ellie might be fine, but she almost wasn't. They'd almost lost her. And the weight of what nearly happened settles over her, blanketing her in a suffocating what-if that steals her breath away. But, even asleep, Ellie's presence helps. Her hair tickles at Sara's nose and her scent washes over her, leaving Sara feeling more grounded, more at home. And the warmth of Ellie's palm against hers, the rush of her breath against Sara's collar, is proof enough that her best friend is alive, that she's thriving in spite of everything. And she'll keep thriving because Sara Diggle will not accept anything else.

"Thank you, Ellie," Sara murmurs. "Thank you for being so strong. Thank you for not leaving me. I don't know what I'd do without you. I don't want to know."

But that, too, is a quiet declaration that goes unheard as Ellie sleeps on. It's fine. Sara will tell her all of this again later. She'll be there for Ellie and for Jules however she can. There's not even a question of that.

She scoots down slightly on the bed to rest her head gently against her best friend's chest, soaking in the sound of the other girl's steady heartbeat. It's a constant thump that rings out in Sara's ears, screaming of life and strength. It feels like that strength fortifies Sara, too. She shuts her eyes, savoring the sound, letting it wash over her and drown out everything else.

Until the door cracks open.

A spike of adrenaline clashes with a near-violent need to protect as Sara moves to face the intruder. It's instinct that has her on edge. She's ready to defend Ellie in an instant - or maybe to defend this insulated bubble between the two of them that she's forged. Every inch of her is ready to fight. Her arm tightens around Ellie, probably more than it should, and every muscle she has coils, ready to spring.

But, as it turns out, it's just her father at the door.

It still takes a second for that recognition to click and for Sara to stand down, but even then her heart pounds, the urge to shield her best friend not dissipating in the least.

Surprise washes across her dad's face, but it melts away quickly. "It's just me," he assures her as she sits up and blinks, running her free hand through her hair.

"Sorry, I…" she starts, but she doesn't know where to go with it.

"It's been a rough day for everyone," he fills in, shutting the door behind himself.

"Yeah," Sara agrees. "I sorta think we might have a few more of those ahead of us."

Her father hums in agreement and nods, but swiftly changes the topic. "She looks better."

"She just needs time," Sara says, looking back down at Ellie. "That's all."

"She's gonna need you, too." Her dad walks over, taking the seat Oliver had vacated earlier. His elbows rest on his knees as he leans forward and meets her eyes. "You know that, right?"

"I've got this," Sara nods firmly.

"There's more to this than just the kidnapping and being hurt," her dad tells her. He's doing his intense and knowing face, which is always makes it feel like he's looking right through her. "She was saved by an older version of herself from another timeline. That's a lot to feel like you need to live up to."

"The only thing Ellie needs to be is herself," Sara insists. "If she wants to follow in her dad's footsteps and put on a mask, that's fine. If not, that's fine, too. I'll have her back either way. She saw one possibility for her life. It's not some kind of destiny." Her dad nods, a tiny smile pulling at his lips. Sara glances at Ellie before looking at him once more. "But I'm pretty sure I've found mine."

Her father visibly jerks at the declaration, and Sara can see the 'no' already on the tip of his tongue. It's not the first time she's implied an interest in taking a spot on the team, but it's probably the clearest she's been about it. Neither of her parents will be thrilled, but she's also not about to back down. Seeing Ellie like this, so badly hurt, knowing it could have been even worse, that cements her resolve.

"What if it'd been Connor?" she asks. "What if it had been Nate? What if it had been some kid we didn't even know? How can I sleep soundly knowing that I could be doing something to help people, but chose not to?"

"Sara," her father says, shaking his head.

"I can't turn a blind eye, Dad," she tells him. "You and Mom raised me better than that. And I think we both know that Uncle Oliver and Aunt Felicity raised Ellie better than that, too."

"This isn't a decision you should make because you think Ellie's going to need you suited up beside her, Sara," her father tells her. His eyes are serious as he pins her with a knowing gaze, but he's wrong. He's wrong and deep inside he knows that, because she can see the fear behind his admonishment.

"If she wants to work nine-to-five and buy a place in the suburbs with a white picket fence, I will help her job hunt and paint accent walls," Sara replies. "But that doesn't change anything for me. I will still put on a mask and I will still help clean up the streets, because people who do live their lives like that deserve to feel safe."

Her father sighs heavily and presses his fingertips against his eyes. It's pretty obvious that she made the right argument, gave him reasons he couldn't counter logically. Her father is a towering man, a pillar of infallible strength, but lately when he stops, when he lets everything catch up to him, he looks worn to her young eyes. He looks old.

Fifty-five seems ancient to her, at seventeen, and she has to ask herself how many more years he can keep fighting this never-ending battle. Two decades, he's done this. Two decades he and Uncle Oliver have taken on the worst this city has to offer. But age and injury have taken their toll. Experience mostly makes up for that… so far. But they aren't getting any younger and Sara is starkly aware of the fact that their mission becomes more and more dangerous to them with each passing year.

"We can talk about this later," her father decides, sitting back in the chair. "This isn't the time or the place for big decisions."

"Sure," Sara agrees readily. She's stroking Ellie's hand, she realizes all of a sudden. Her fingers falter - when had she started doing that? But it grounds her in a way she needs, so she keeps going. "But this isn't a sudden choice and it's not something I'm giving up on. We can wait until Christmas break to really start training and I'll hold off until I've graduated to join the team on the streets." She gazes at her dad. "But I'm set on this path."

"No way in hell I'm putting a deadline on training," her father counters. "You'll wait until I say you're ready before you're out on the streets." It take a second for his own words to register. She can see the moment they do because his face turns drawn and ashen on a dime.

It's not 'if' she'll join the team. It's when.

And her father knows it.

Sara's not sure if that's more exciting or terrifying. It's both, if she's being honest. She has no illusions that she's picking an easy life, but she also knows she's picking the right path for herself.

But her thoughts on her future evaporate when Ellie suddenly inhales sharply.

"Ellie?" Sara asks, sitting up a little more, touching the side of her best friend's face.

Terror and confusion pollute Ellie's normally happy gaze when her eyes shoot open. It only takes an instant for her to realize where she is, who she's with, but in that instant Ellie looks as primal and defensive as Sara has ever seen her, like an injured and cornered wild animal. She scrambles back against the head to the bed as both Sara and her father move to try and soothe her.

"It's me," Sara tells her, pulling back both hands and holding them up non-confrontationally. "You're safe. You're in the hospital and you're safe. We've got you."

"No one's going to hurt you, Ellie," Sara's dad tells the injured girl. Sara looks with pleading eyes to find her father standing at Ellie's side, using that same heavy gaze he'd pointed her direction earlier. "Take a second. Don't push yourself."

Everything seems to come back to Ellie in a rush because the primal nature of her fear shifts as Sara watches. The blonde's eyes dart around the room, her hand flying to the bandage on her neck. She's still utterly terrified, but it's not for her own safety anymore.

It's something else entirely.

"Ju's?" Ellie rasps. She shouldn't be trying to talk at all. It has to hurt like hell and she can't even manage the whole of her sister's name, but that's beside the point to Ellie at the moment. Tears fill her eyes, her brow furrowing as she grabs onto Sara's hand with surprising strength, everything about her pleading.

"She's okay," Sara tells her. Ellie lets out a little sob and falls back against the pillows. "Jules is fine. She's in the room across the hall just because the doctors want to keep an eye on her. Your dad and Will are with her. The only thing she hurt was her wrists when she tried to get to you. She's going to be okay."

"No," Ellie counters, shaking her head. Tears slip down her cheeks and she winces as she takes too big a gulp of air and strains the muscles of her neck. "Not 'kay. Need Jul's."

"Don't talk." The command from her father is kind but firm as Sara looks to him for guidance. She feels so helpless right now. Seeing Ellie like this is hard. She's so frightened, so battered, and Sara would do anything at all to bring her best friend's easy-going smile back. But it's not as simple as that. The world rarely is. "I'll get your dad. I'll get Jules, too, if she's up and about, but you don't move a muscle, Elizabeth. That means no talking, too. You got me?"

Ellie nods, a quick, nervous gesture that seems so out of place for her. The sight of her so small and so uncertain, makes Sara angry enough that she could scream. How dare someone do this to her? How could they make her shrink back in fear and hesitance?

Absently, Sara registers her father leaving, the door snicking shut behind him, but her focus remains on Ellie. Lost, sad, little Ellie who seems almost unrecognizable in an oversized hospital gown with her shoulders hunched and her eyes darting around the room like she's looking for something.

She is, Sara realizes. She is looking for something. She's looking for threats.

Sara wonders how long it will be until she stops searching the shadows around her, how long before she sleeps without nightmares. A long time. She's certain of that much.

"He's not here, Ellie," Sara tells the other girl. Ellie jolts and looks to her. Their gaze locks together and Ellie waits, watching warily like Sara might have answers for her. Sara's not sure she does, but she's absolutely going to try. She takes Ellie's hand and grips it harder than she should. Ellie's nails dig into her palm, but the bite against her skin shifts reality into sharp relief and she relishes it. "He's gone and he's not coming back. Not for you or for Jules or for anyone else. I won't allow it. So stop imagining that he won. Don't give him that much power over you."

Something like recognition slips across Ellie's features, softening them and solidifying her resolve all at once. She gives a little nod before looking around again, but she's not searching the darker recesses of the room for threats this time. No, she's looking for something specific. And, a moment later her eyes brighten slightly as she reaches for her cell phone on the nightstand next to her bed.

"You'd better not be thinking about calling anyone," Sara tells her dryly.

The look Ellie offers back is response is so very her that it feels like a bit of a triumph just to be able to bring that out in her today. Her lips curl up in a half-smile as she cocks her head and raises one eyebrow.

"You're ridiculous," she says without saying it.

A surge of near-blinding affection and relief shoots through Sara at the sight of it. But she doesn't linger on that long because it becomes clear a second later, when Ellie lets go of her hand, that the injured girl is using her phone's notepad as her voice and Sara is keen to see what she has to say.

Sara cranes her neck to try and get a look at the screen. She can't quite get a glimpse, there's a resounding glare. But it scarcely matters because a moment later Ellie flips around the phone so she can read it.

It's just four words, but they make Sara's breath catch in her throat because there's no doubt to their meaning.

'WE won't let them.'

She looks from the tiny screen to Ellie's face. All traces of that scared little girl are gone in the blink of an eye and settled in their place are the beginnings of a warrior, determined and unyielding. In this instant, Sara knows with complete certainty that the years to come will find them fighting side-by-side, shoulder-to-shoulder, making sure nothing like this happens ever again to anyone in Starling City. In this instant, the future is so clearly painted in front of her eyes, she feels like she could reach out and touch it.

"We won't," she agrees.

The sense of unity between them is so fierce, so solid that it's startling, but the moment doesn't last because an instant later, Ellie's dad is bursting through the door looking as harried as Sara's ever seen him. He's a powerful man, always seeming larger than life when she was a child. Between him and Aunt Felicity and her parents, it seemed like they could beat anything, like the world ran according to their plans. Maybe it's just that she's lost the illusions of youth, but it doesn't seem like that to her anymore.

"Ellie," he breathes out, crossing the room in a few large strides to gather his daughter up in his arms. Sara backs off as he does, slipping off the bed. She feels a bit like an intruder at the moment, but Ellie drops her cellphone on her lap and grapples for Sara's hand, securing her in place at the bedside. In spite of the way Ellie grips onto her hand, though, the girl's entire being is honed in on her father. She clings to him like a lifeline and his face is buried in the crook of her neck as he breathes her in. "You're okay, baby," he whispers to her. "You're gonna be okay. I should've been there. Should've known, been faster. I'm so sorry, Ellie."

Sara blinks and looks away, trying to be less present in this very private moment. But even as she casts her gaze to the side, she can see Ellie shaking her head in dissent from the corner of her eye. It's Jules that Sara's looking directly at, though, the dark-haired girl standing blank-faced in the doorway, her arms wrapped around herself. Will's a few steps into the room, grabbing the tablet hooked on the foot of Ellie's bed and pulling up her chart, one hand resting on her ankle. Sara's not sure if he's taking her pulse or if he's just trying to anchor himself in the reality that his little sister is here, that she's recovering. Sara gets the need for that. She's awfully glad that Ellie hadn't let go of her hand. That connection feels vital right now.

"Not-" Ellie rasps out before her voice fails her and her whole face twists in pain. Her father backs off at that, but not by much. Just enough to look her in the eye.

"Don't try to talk," he orders her. Sara gets the feeling this is going to be a frequent command in the coming days. "Or, if you really have to, at least make it a whisper. Will, can you grab the doctor?"

"Yeah," Will agrees, even as Ellie huffs in exasperation. He walks over and kisses her on the top of her head with a quiet, "I love you, Ellie-bug. You scared the hell out of me," before heading out the door, gripping Jules hard on the shoulder and whispering something to her that Sara can't hear as he goes. But Sara's attention doesn't stay with Jules for long because Ellie lets go of her hand to pick her phone back up and type out a message.

'Not your fault,' Ellie writes, holding her phone up to her dad with both eyebrows raised at him pointedly.

"We can talk about it later," Oliver replies, with a thin smile that tells Sara he doesn't believe Ellie's words in the least.

It's clear from the way Ellie's lips twist that she's not thrilled with his answer, but her gaze slips past him to settle on her sister and she immediately reaches a hand out toward the girl. Jules, however, makes no move to close the gap between them. She shifts uneasily instead, all wariness and apprehension.

'Please,' Ellie mouths at her sister. 'Please, Jules.'

It seems like Jules is looking for some way to escape, but there's nowhere to go. After what feels like an eternity, she takes a few hesitant steps toward her younger sister. The moment she's within arm's reach, Ellie grabs hold of her and pulls her in. Jules makes a choked noise that she tries to mask with a cough as she looks to her toes. But Ellie isn't about to allow her so easy an escape.

The bed creaks as Ellie shifts, rises up and leans forward to press her lips to her sister's forehead, letting go of her hand for a moment to hold both sides of the other girl's face.

Jules shudders at the touch. "Ellie…" she rasps out, still staring at her own feet. She breathes out a hard sigh, working her jaw from side to side as she tries - and fails - to stave off tears. They drop one after the other straight onto the speckled linoleum floor.

Pulling back, Ellie makes the one gesture in sign language that virtually everyone seems to know. She presses her fingers in the 'I love you' sign against her sister's chest, right over her heart, and it jars Jules enough that she looks up and meets Ellie's eyes. Sara has to glance away from the sight. There's too much raw pain there, too much longing and disbelief.

"He lied," Ellie says in the quietest, most determined whisper Sara can even imagine. The sound of a wracked, muffled sob follows and Sara's certain that Jules has covered her mouth in an attempt to cage the noise in. She can't, though, and Jules has never dealt well with confrontation.

"Jules, honey," Oliver's saying. Sara can see him reaching for her, but Jules steps back from both of her family members.

"I'm sorry," she chokes out. "I just… I have to go. I need some air. I'm… I'm really glad you're okay, Ellie."

"Julie, please don't go," her father pleads with her. "Not right now."

"I won't go far," she promises, as if that's the issue. "Just down the hall. It's fine. I'm fine. Stay with Ellie. She's the one who needs you right now. She's where your focus should be. I'm okay."

That's the furthest thing from truth that Sara can imagine. Jules is obviously anything but 'okay.' She's splintered and broken, her entire sense of self cracked right down the middle, but she's also the sort of person who needs to process things on her own and her father knows that.

"There's a balcony off the waiting area on this floor," he tells her. "Get some air. I'll find you in a bit."

"You don't have to," Jules says immediately, her tone defensive and snappish.

"I want to, Jules," he tells her softly. "You're my daughter and I want to."

Jules nods once, sharp and decisive, a total contrast to the way her eyes water and her lower lip quivers, and she bolts from the room without another word.

"Jules," Ellie tries to call after her, but she can't make her voice loud enough and her whole face twists in pain at the attempt. For all the effort she puts forth, Jules doesn't even register her attempt.

"Don't strain yourself," Oliver tells her again. Sara wonders if he already feels like a broken record. "You've got a lot of healing ahead of you."

"Yes," Ellie agrees in a tiny voice, her gaze still lingering on the doorway her sister had disappeared through moments before. "We both do."

Chapter Text

January 2015 

 

She's so tiny.

The words circle around in Oliver's head as he picks the infant up out of her small bassinet. For a second, the rustle of her little blanket is the only sound in the room past the faint rush of hospital life outside their closed door and Felicity's soft, steady breathing.

Jules is sound asleep, just like her mother.

He moves slowly, careful not to jostle her too much in case she wakes, aching to be fed again or cranky with a messy diaper. And oh do newborns have messy diapers, something he learned the hard way when he opened her first diaper and found black sludge waiting for him.

She barely reacts to the movement, though, adjusting in his arms. She shifts in the warm blanket swaddled around her, the only indication she gives that she's aware anything is going on. It's loose enough that she can move her arms a bit. The nurse had done is more snuggly earlier, but Oliver's still learning. His baby girl's little fists poke out, making tiny tents in the soft material. With a quiet sigh, she settles again, her tiny bow-shaped lips forming an 'o'.

"You're perfect," he whispers.

Absolutely perfect.

Jules makes the tiniest of sounds in response, her little brow scrunching up, but she doesn't wake.

"Shh," Oliver hushes. The sound is barely audible - and completely for his own benefit - as he holds her closer. "Shh…"

It's been a few hours since he first heard her sharp cry as she entered the world, since he looked down at where the doctor sat and saw his little girl for the first time. She's absolutely perfect - great weight, great length, great everything - but despite that, his mind had had a hard time coming to terms with the tiny creature he saw and the incredibly loud noise she'd been making. He must have made a sound because Felicity had bolted upright with exhausted, panicked eyes, her nails still digging into the back of his hand, her hair wild as she'd tried to get a look, asking, "Is she okay? Is she alright?"

"She's perfect."

He's well aware that he's probably ruining the meaning behind the word 'perfect,' but if there was ever a word created to describe the tiny human in his arms, it's that one.

The infant twists in her blankets, turning towards him in her sleep, seeking his warmth.

A beatific smile graces his lips, a thousand and one emotions tugging at his heart as he snuggles her closer to his chest, wanting to give her his warmth and so much more.

God, he wants to give her everything. Warmth, security, love, happiness… all of it.

And he will, he knows it without a single doubt. She's the reason why he's fought so hard all these years, why he does what he does every night - he wants to make the world a better place, for the people in his city, for the love of his life, for his son… and for her. For his baby girl, his Jules. For all his children, really, her and Will and Ellie and Nate, but right now, in this moment…

It's for Jules.

And he will move heaven and earth to make sure that happens.

Oliver feels the certainty of that promise in his bones. No, it's deeper than that. It's in his every cell, every tiny molecule that makes him who he is. He will move mountains for her - hell, he'd rearrange the entire goddamn planet if it meant keeping her safe, if it meant she was happy.

"Shh," he whispers again, carrying Jules over to the rocking chair in the corner of the room. She whimpers slightly and wriggles, but doesn't wake, not even when his knee hits the edge of the chair. He lets out a soundless, "Aah," before stilling it, unwilling to let anything ever jostle his little girl while she sleeps. It takes every bit of muscle in his core to keep her still as he sits down.

It works.

Oliver lets out a little sigh of relief and settles back, careful not to move her too much. But she's quieted again, sound asleep and silent aside from the little puffs of air she breathes out, ghosting across his arm. God, will he ever tire of watching her?

No. He won't.

Wonder and joy and love fill him as he stares at the tiny life in his arms. Tears blur his vision as it all collects in his chest. It's so much, almost overwhelming.

"Hi," he breathes, so soft so as not to wake her. "Hi there."

A rustling sound hits his ears and Oliver's eyes fly to the bed, holding his breath in case he woke her mother. Felicity's gone to the world, though. She's curled up on her side, her hand on the edge of the mattress, just out of reach of the empty bassinet. Her hair is still wild, strands spread out in a crazy halo, highlighting the soft slackness of her features as she sleeps.

She's so gorgeous it makes his chest ache. She's beautiful, even more so than before. Sometimes he doesn't think that's possible but then he wakes up next to her, or he brushes his fingers over her cheeks - which always makes her smile - or he whispers how much he loves her and he catches that happy sparkle in her eye…

He thinks it every damn day - something she'd playfully rolled her eyes at yesterday just before she'd gone into labor - but today…

Today she gave him his daughter. His beautiful little girl. His Jules. His Julie-bug.

Oliver looks back at the tiny bundle in his arms.

He still can't believe she's finally here.

Oliver slowly starts rocking and Jules slumbers on, so completely trusting. She's warm and comfortable and safe in his arms and that makes him feel about ten thousand feet tall. He takes a deep breath, feeling like his chest is expanding to twice its size.

Minutes pass by unmeasured, and Oliver doesn't move an inch the entire time save to brush his fingers over her dark head of hair or to settle his hand over her little body, quieting her arms when she adjusts. Jules sleeps as if she's never slept before, which makes sense. She went through her own mini-trauma, making the transition from a safe, secure place to a bright, new world.

He wants to stay right here, forever. He knows he can't, just as much as he knows he doesn't really want that, because he also wants to show Jules everything. He wants to show her all the good in the world, the good he and her mother fight so hard for, the good Felicity showed him, the beauty that waits for his little girl.

But right now, he wants to revel. He wants to just be, just exist with her for a second.

"My little Julie-bug," he whispers.

It feels like the closest thing he's uttered to a prayer in years.

Oliver runs his fingers over her head again, brushing some of her already wild, wispy hair down before cupping it gently. He can't stop marveling at how tiny she is. It's kind of blowing his mind. The smile that's been permanently stuck on his face since he heard her first cry grows. She's tiny, yes, but he also knows she's got the entire world inside of her. That's one thing Felicity and Ellie taught him, and it's something he wants to teach Jules - to not be afraid to go after what she wants, after what makes the light that lives inside her so bright.

His touch is soft as a feather as he runs his index finger over her little brow and then down the bridge of her tiny nose.

The second he reaches the tip, Jules' eyes open.

Oliver starts, his next breath catching in his throat as he freezes, waiting. What for exactly, he's not sure, but he doesn't move, waiting for her. She makes a face, like the fact that she's awake at all right now is utterly deplorable and personally offensive. It's the cutest goddamn thing he's ever seen. Oliver absolutely melts. Her face screws up even more and Oliver can't help the breathy chuckle that slips out and somehow, it's enough for her to hear it.

And then she's looking at him, her eyes finding his.

He'd thought his entire world had started when he first met Felicity, when he first met their daughter from the other universe, when he first told the woman of his dreams that he loved her, when he first heard she was pregnant. He thought it'd started when he first saw his little girl coming into the world, when he first heard her cry…

And it had each time, in its own way, but when Jules looks up at him, when she meets his eyes in this serene little bubble that's all their own?

This moment will be locked in his mind until his last day.

Oliver's heart bursts with pure love as he meets her cloudy grey eyes.

"Hey there, Jules," he says. He strokes her nose again before letting his finger drift down her cheek. "Hi there, beautiful."

Jules' shoulders shift to and fro as she gurgles up at him. He tugs the blanket loose, letting her arms free. Her hands are so, so tiny…

Without warning, her little hand finds one of his fingers, and she squeezes.

Oliver laughs, tears blurring his vision again. He blinks them away, not wanting to miss a single second. Her grip is strong, wicked strong, and it makes him laugh again when she just stares up at him, holding his finger with her little ones, blowing spit bubbles out of her mouth.

She's just…

"Perfect," he whispers, his voice catching with emotion.

Jules scrunches her nose, her fingers tightening around his even more. He runs his thumb over the back of her fingers. She's so soft. He counts her fingers again - he already did a few hours ago, her fingers, toes, arms, legs, ears - and they're all accounted for.

Oliver's not sure how long they stay like that, him holding his daughter, his love sleeping soundly a few feet away, nothing but the gentle sound of soft breaths and the quiet creak of the chair as he rocks.

He doesn't realize he's saying anything until his voice catches on the first few words.

"Here comes the sun," he sings, the words barely above a whisper. They're just for Jules and she seems to know that as she watches him. He's never been much of a singer, but his baby girl is the least judgemental audience imaginable, as she stares at him with enraptured, curious eyes. "Here comes the sun, and I say… it's all right…" He strokes the back of her fingers, staring into her eyes, singing in time with the rocking of the chair. The song comes out of nowhere, he has no idea why this song popped into his head, but it makes his heart feel full, so he keeps going, slightly amazed he knows the words. "Little darling, it's been a long, cold, lonely winter… Little darling, it feels like years since it's been here…"

The lyrics ring true, in a strange way. His life has changed so much since that fateful day when Barry blew into the foundry, a red blurred stranger with a little girl tucked in his arms, a little girl who would change the trajectory of his life irrevocably. He'd had no idea what Ellie was going to give him at the time. Not only Felicity and the greatest happiness he'd ever known, not only starting him on a path towards recognizing his own self-worth…

But Jules, too.

Without Ellie, he wouldn't have his daughter and for that…

God, for that he's so grateful.

Not missing a beat as he continues singing to his baby girl, he sends out a silent 'thank you' to the other Ellie, wherever she may be in the other 'verse. For so long, just the thought of her had made his insides feel like they were being shredded, and god, what Felicity had gone through… Losing her had gutted them both and coping with that loss had been a painful learning process. But it was all worth it.

Because it meant they got Jules.

"Here comes the sun…" His eyes burn with tears of pure joy. "Here comes the sun, and I say, it's all right…" Jules stares at him, a look of such contentment fixed on her face. As if to answer her, Oliver strokes his finger down her cheek. "Little darling, the smiles returning to the faces…" He grins at her. "Little darling, it seems like years since it's been here… Here comes the sun… here comes the sun, and I say, it's all right."

Oliver leans down and kisses her forehead gently.

He plans on it being quick - his stubble crossed over into beard territory late last night during Felicity's long labor - but the second he catches a whiff of her, he pauses, his eyes slipping shut as he savors her scent. It's absolutely indescribable - something pure and unique and addicting. He takes a deep breath, cuddling her close, savoring the moment. Who knew one day he'd be in such complete awe about how amazing his newborn's head smelled? The thought makes him laugh - in amazement - because if anyone had told him this is what he had to look forward to a few years ago, he wouldn't have believed it. He never would have thought he'd get this, his Felicity and now his Julie-Bug. But he does have it, have them, and it's…

"Perfect," he whispers against her forehead, pulling back to look at her. Her eyes have slipped shut once more, but that doesn't stop him from tapping her nose before running his finger down the length of it again. "You're the sun, Julie-Bug."

A choked, "Oh," pulls him back to reality and Oliver looks up to see Donna standing a few feet away. He hadn't even heard the door open, much less realized someone was in there with him. So much for those Arrow reflexes, although he also knows if it'd been a real threat, the person wouldn't be walking away with their life. Donna's camera is up like she's recording and he wonders how much of the last few minutes she'd captured since she's come in. She wipes her eyes, her lower lip trembling as she grins at him. "I didn't mean to interrupt."

"No," Oliver says with a quiet smile, shaking his head. "It's okay. I'm just…"

He looks back down at his daughter and he's speechless all over again. He sighs instead as Jules gurgles some more, her eyes opening once more, immediately finding him. He vaguely remembers reading somewhere that newborns can't see very much for a while, and even if they can, they have no idea what they're seeing. But she knows. He feels it.

Donna inches closer, her breath catching when Jules' eyes shift to her. Her hand finds his shoulder, as if she needs the balance as she breathes, "Oh, Oliver, I can't believe how beautiful she is."

"Neither can I," Oliver replies.

Donna leans over, her long fingernail tickling Jules' plump cheek. "You look just like your mommy, sweet thing."

Oliver's heart skips a beat at that, at the precious information about Felicity that they haven't taken time to explore just yet.

He looks up at the her. "Yeah?"

Donna gives him a serene, "Mmhmm," as she smiles at Jules. She wiggles her finger for emphasis. "Those cheeks and the way her hair sticks up only on the right side. Felicity had that. It took weeks for it to finally stay down."

That makes him laugh, a little snort because it's the most random fact she could have picked. He suddenly wants to see all of Felicity's baby pictures with a fierceness that takes his breath away.

"She's got your brow, though," Donna adds. "And your nose." She reaches over Oliver's shoulder, tickling the side of Jules' nose. "All Queen right there." Oliver chuckles, staring at Jules. He doesn't even bother trying to see it. No, all he sees is Felicity and he loves it. He hears the rustle of Donna's sequined jacket as she stands up straight again and he knows she's looking at Felicity. "She's still asleep?"

Oliver follows her gaze, nodding. "Yeah," he replies, eyes drifting over Felicity's supine form. His palm itches to cup her cheek, to brush the stray hairs away from her temple. "She's exhausted."

She'd been up a bit ago to feed Jules, something both her and Jules were surprisingly adept at - it was almost as if Felicity's body had known instinctively what to do. She'd slid Jules into place against her chest, right where she needed to be against her breast, and Jules had found her nipple almost right away, latching on. They're lucky, the nurse had told them; it's not always so easy.

There must be about a hundred pictures of that first feeding alone, some with Oliver right there, others of just Felicity and Jules. He found himself wanting to see them, to see if he could spot every single similarity between her and their daughter.

Donna nods, but she doesn't say anything, which Oliver would find strange except Jules shifts, pulling his attention back to her. Her little mouth yawns, but it seems like the action itself startles her a little, like she hasn't quite figured out what she's capable of yet. Every single thing is new to her still, unexplored, and the reality of that makes Oliver's heart brim to the top because she is all possibility right now.

The older woman smiles and leans over again, smoothing the infant's hair down with a soft, "So much like your mommy," before sniffling a little and pulling out her phone again. She opens the camera, aiming to take yet another picture, but pausing at the image on her phone. It's clear she still has up the video she had been shooting when she walked in, because when she shows Oliver the screen a large play button sits over the scene of him and Jules, a look of pure adoration on his face. He smiles. "Were you singing to her?" she asks him.

A light flush colors Oliver's cheeks, but he doesn't duck his head or hide his face. He gives Donna a small nod, looking at Jules. "Yeah."

"Well," Donna sighs, shaking her head at the phone with a teary smile. "Isn't that just the sweetest thing ever?"

Before Oliver can respond, the hospital door opens again, this time revealing Moira Queen in all her regal glory. She'd spent the night at the hospital with them, having been there since the second Felicity's water broke. It helps that they'd all happened to be taking a slow stroll around the Queen Manor gardens, talking about the most recent update on Isabel Rochev's fate, something his mother was keeping a keen eye on. She'd left early that morning for some mayoral business, but despite the fact that she'd skipped a night of sleep, she doesn't look it.

Felicity must be starting to rub off on him - or maybe he's just ridiculously exhausted himself - because he suddenly finds himself wondering if always looking perfect is one of his mom's superpowers.

Moira's face instantly softens when she takes in the scene, her eyes skating over the room before lingering on Jules.

"Hey, Mom," Oliver greets with a serene smile, one that also has quite a bit of pride in it under the scrutinous eye of his mother.

"Hello." The door slips shut behind her with a little snick. "And how are we doing?" she asks as she sets her purse on a nearby chair, making her way over. She smiles at Donna, her hand coming out to touch her arm in greeting before her eyes find Jules again.

"Somebody's awake," Oliver replies, indicating Jules.

"Oh, yes she is," Moira breathes, and not just because she wants to stay quiet for Felicity's sake, but also because her granddaughter takes her breath away. Oliver looks at her in time to see her eyes watering as she huddles with Donna over him and his daughter. "Hello, little one."

Jules' eyes rove around, her arms moving to and fro, her little mouth puckering up as she reacts to all the commotion. Oliver instinctively lays his hand over her chest and it settles her, her eyes immediately finding his.

Moira makes a sound somewhere between a sigh and a choking sob, her hand gripping Oliver's bicep, right below where Donna still holds his shoulder.

"She is so beautiful, Oliver," she whispers. She really, really is. "You both did very good."

Oliver huffs out a chuckle. "I barely did anything," he says, rubbing Jules' chest in a comforting motion that makes her little lids flutter. "This is all Felicity."

"Oh," Donna suddenly says, turning to Moira. "You have to look at this video I just took."

Moira smiles politely, turning to Donna as the other woman pulls up her phone, hitting play on the screen. Oliver watches Jules as they watch the video, but his ears are perked, wondering how much of the scene she caught. He hopes all of it.

For a long moment it's mostly silent until he catches the sound of his voice singing the Beatles song. His mom's hand never leaves his arm as she watches, which means he knows the instant she recognizes it.

"Is that 'Here Comes The Sun'?" she asks, her voice a little thicker than it was a moment ago.

Oliver nods, looking up. "Yeah."

"Oh, Oliver," Moira whispers, shaking her head. He tilts his head in question as she smiles at him, loving nostalgia coloring her face. "You remember that?"

He furrowed his brow. "What?"

"Your father used to sing that to you," Moira replies.

Oliver's chest tightens, a rush of emotion he can't begin to name, much less fathom, crashing through him. His voice is uneven as he asks, "He did?"

His mother cups his cheek, her thumb brushing over his cheekbone. "When you were little and you couldn't sleep, or when you had nightmares. You were very young," she adds, her tone shifting slightly, highlighting the changes his parents went through all those years ago, not only as individuals, but in their marriage. She smiles at him. "But yes, he used to sing that song to you." She laughs under her breath. "It was the only Beatles song he knew all the words to."

The more she speaks, the more familiar it sounds. He doesn't have a tangible memory to hold on to, he realizes as he looks back down at Jules, but the feeling is there. It's a warm, loving feeling, one of security and happiness. The very same feeling he wants to pass on to his own child.

Oliver takes a breath and it catches in his throat as he stares at his daughter.

His father wasn't perfect, by any means, either as a man or as a dad. But that doesn't take away from the safe feeling he gave Oliver as a child, from the love he obviously had for him, from the sacrifices he'd made for his son when it mattered most.

And oh, does he have such a better understanding of that now than he did before.

Tears blur his vision for what feels like the hundredth time in the space of an hour and he blinks them away, smiling at Jules.

"Here comes the sun…" he murmurs to her.

He vaguely hears Moira asking Donna, "Will you send that to me?" and her soft, "Of course." He's too enamored of Jules to pay any real attention, though.

Oliver strokes his finger down his daughter's cheek again as her eyes slip shut, as she succumbs to the warm cocoon of sleep.

"Here comes the sun," he whispers to her. She is the sun. His sun. "And I say… it's all right."

All of it, he thinks, all of it is so very right. His family, the one they're just starting, healthy and strong… the love of his life, the woman he's going to marry, sleeping safe and sound… the daughter she gave him secure in his arms… his mom - rather, his moms, he thinks with a silent chuckle - gathered around him…

It's everything he wanted all those years ago, but never put a voice to, everything he yearned for but never thought he'd get.

His life is exactly how it should be.

"Here comes the sun, and I say, it's all right."

Chapter Text

February 2019

"Hey now, little miss!"

Jules freezes where she's kneeling on a barstool, still wearing her bright red 'Priscilla the Pirate Princess' pajamas. She's got one elbow hooked on the counter for balance, her other hand suspended mid-air…

Right over a bowl of freshly whipped cream.

With one hand still securing Ellie into her high chair, Felicity points a finger at her eldest. "That is not finger food," she finishes.

Ellie lets out a squeal as if Felicity is talking to her, but she ignores the squirming little girl, keeping her eyes on Jules. She can see her daughter trying to plan a way to weasel her way out of trouble. Ideas tick through her clear blue eyes, her bow-shaped little lips holding an 'o' shape.

She doesn't move a muscle for a long moment before finally widening her eyes.

"I didn't eat it," Jules counters, all feigned innocence. She's ridiculously good at that, playing the part of a little angel perfectly. It used to work on Felicity, a lot more than she'll ever admit - not that Oliver lets her forget when she chastises him for it - but Jules is four years old now and Felicity knows better.

It also doesn't help the evidence is all over her fingers.

Felicity narrows her eyes with a pointed, "Oh?" as she turns to finish fastening Ellie into her seat. Clicking the last buckle in place, she whirls in spot to fix her eyes on her older daughter.

Jules settles back on the stool - Felicity will never not have a mild heart attack when her daughter sits like that. One wrong turn and she's falling backwards to smack her head on the floor. But her balance is freakishly impeccable, thanks to her father. Although Jules also inherited his entire lack of subtlety. Felicity catches him glancing over his shoulder to see what's going on, and Jules catches it, too. Her blue eyes dart between her parents, lingering on his broad back before she looks at Felicity again.

Oliver doesn't look her way again, though. Nope, he's back to mixing batter and trying not to laugh. He's failing. His shoulders vibrate as he chuckles under his breath, shaking his head. Traitor. He can stare down big bad supervillains but he can't admonish his four-year-old with a straight face?

And Jules does need to be put in her place right now, no matter how damn cute she is with a smear of whipped cream from the corner of her mouth all the way up her cheek.

"Julianna," Felicity says, fighting to keep her face stern. It's hard, though, and Oliver's smothered laughter isn't helping anything. "We do not lie."

The little girl's brow furrows as she looks at the bowl of freshly whipped cream. Right in the center is a gouged out hole the size of her finger. It could not be more obvious that she'd swiped some if she'd tried. It's not a look of guilt that has Felicity pausing, though. It's the confusion on her face, like she's trying to suss things out. But, as Felicity is quickly realizing is typical of her oldest, she says nothing until she's figured out exactly what she wants to say.

For a preschooler, Jules is surprisingly reserved, plays things remarkably close to the chest.

"But…" Jules finally says, her voice suddenly sounding so young. "We lie all the time." She looks up with guileless eyes. "Every day. I'm s'posed to lie. You said so."

Well…

Shit.

Felicity catches Oliver from the corner of her eye nodding slightly, glancing at Felicity with a silent, 'She's got you there.'

She does, not that she needs him pointing it out. Felicity bites back the urge to shoot him a look that says, 'And thank you for the help, mister,' considering who's who of the masks in the kitchen currently.

Their lives do require a certain amount of… creative storytelling, if there was ever a way to describe it, and no small amount of absent details. But that's different. This isn't neglecting to mention to her friends that her dad is the Arrow. This is lying to her parents. And a line needs to be drawn there.

"Not to each other, though," Felicity corrects her. Ellie babbles happily behind her, the nine-month-old making adorable, unintelligible noises that she utters pretty much constantly. The infant's sticky hands grab for her. How are they sticky, exactly? She just washed them. But Ellie can wait. Felicity's eyes never leave her oldest as she adds, "We tell each other the truth, Jules. Always."

Jules frowns, her brows furrowing even more as she thinks hard about that, trying to process the distinction in her little head. It's not an easy thing for such a young girl, and Felicity gets that. Hell, she wasn't exactly the model child for telling the truth when she was little, and it only got worse after her dad was out of the picture.

Felicity stays quiet, letting her process. Ellie gets too good a hold on her t-shirt and she reaches back, unwinding her ridiculously strong little fingers, but all her attention stays on Jules. This is too important to treat lightly, especially because of the line they all have to walk due to her and Oliver's extracurricular activities. It's a burden she wishes her children didn't have to carry, but the thought of lying to them about it is unacceptable.

All the more reason they're all as honest as they can be with each other.

"So…" Jules ventures, biting her lower lip. She tilts her head to the side as she studies her mother with those piercing ice-blue eyes of hers. "Does that mean I'm s'posed to tell you that for your birthday Daddy got you-"

Oliver suddenly spins around, joining the conversation with an abrupt, "Hey! No." He lets out a nervous laugh, avoiding Felicity's gaze as he gives Jules a look. "No, it does not, Julie-bug. Surprises are different."

Felicity turns her narrowed eyes on him. She studies her husband, and when he looks at her, a little blush lights up his cheeks. He ducks his head, scratching the back of his neck bashfully as he turns back to the mixing bowl. He picks it up, like he needs something to do with his hands, before turning to face them again.

Just what is he up to?

Oliver glances at her again, feeling her stare, and when she raises an inquiring eyebrow his way, he shoots her a quick wink. That, in combination with his still-flushed skin and sleep-tousled hair and tight Henley with his shirt sleeves rolled up, all on top of cooking them breakfast? It's a problem. Desire tugs at her core, heat unfurling deep inside her, and like he knows it, his smile turns slightly carnal. Felicity's narrowed eyes turn into a half-hearted glare. How did this turn around on her?

He sends her another wink, making her squirm.

'Stop it,' she mouths sternly, because they are far from alone. The reminder does the opposite, though, as her mind brings up the many delightful ways that whipped cream can be used. Like he's in her head, his grin grows larger and she says, "Oliver," in a low, slightly harassed voice.

"How?" Jules asks, snapping their attention back to the present.

Felicity blinks a few times, clearing her head, turning back to her daughter along with Oliver, who asks, "Hmm?"

"It seems the same to me, Daddy."

"Oh. Well." Oliver turns to pour the batter into the waffle maker. He clamps the lid shut and starts it before giving his daughter all his attention. "It's just… some things are a surprise to make people happy." He walks over to the island, taking the barstool next to her. He brushes some of her hair off her forehead, pulling some of the strands free where they'd dried in the whipped cream on her cheek. "Like presents. Lies are things you say or don't say to keep yourself or somebody else from getting in trouble."

Jules huffs out a troubled sigh and looks down at the giant bowl of freshly whipped cream in front of her.

There are a million things she could say in this moment to make things all the more complicated. She could ask why they lie about Arrow-related things. She could wonder if her father would get in trouble - if both her parents would - if she didn't lie about that. She could ask what would happen to her if that ever happened.

But, thank god, none of that comes up.

Instead Jules makes a mournful little pout, her voice dropping as she says, "I just really like the whipped cream." Her lower lip quivers, her nose turning red - that happens so easily with her fair complexion. She's fighting back tears, keeping them trapped in her eyes by sheer force of will alone. It's obvious this is quickly becoming a matter of dire consequence to her. Most things are when you're four, Felicity's learned. Which pajamas are worn to bed seems to have life-or-death levels of crucial importance, and that has nothing on which stuffed animals get to sleep in the bed. Jules wipes her eyes a little too hard, sniffling, "I didn't mean to lie about it."

Felicity tries to stay firm, she does. But she thinks it might be a losing battle this time. Jules is oddly emotional this morning. Maybe it's a growth spurt, or she just hadn't slept well, but whatever it is, everything's pretty close to the surface for her today. That is all the more evident when Jules covers her eyes, as if that act alone will shove the tears back where they belong, just as the waffle iron chirps.

As if they'd had it coordinated the entire time, Felicity heads for their toddler with a soft, "It's okay, baby," as Oliver goes to check on the first waffle, knowing she's got this. He does pause to kiss the top of Jules' head and scratch at Felicity's back when she passes before getting back to the breakfast.

Felicity hears the distinct clatter of Ellie's sippy cup hitting the floor behind her, but the infant's happy gurgles let her keep all her attention where it needs to be.

Jules ducks her head down with another wet sniffle, but she reaches for her mother as Felicity closes in and scoops the little girl up into her arms.

"It's okay," Felicity repeats. "It's just whipped cream, honey. You didn't mean to lie about it. It's not that big a deal. I just want us to learn from this, okay? Mistakes are fine as long as you learn from them." She can't see Jules' face where it's tucked into the crook of her neck, but her dark hair bobs as she nods, taking a heaving gulp of air. Felicity rubs her back, up and down, dragging her nails down gently along the slight ridges of her spine, the surefire way to soothe her daughter. "You okay, Julie-bug?" she asks. Jules nods harder, her nose brushing against her mother's collarbone. "Okay, good. Did you sleep okay?"

"Just want whipped cream, is all," Jules mumbles into her skin. "It's yummy."

"It is yummy," Felicity agrees before tickling her side. Jules squirms, letting out a giggle, but it's short, entirely because her mother knows exactly where she's ticklish and not at all due to a mood change. "Don't you want to wait for waffles, though?"

"I guess," Jules allows with a huff. She pulls her head back to look at Felicity. She shrugs, glancing at Oliver. Her eyes are a bit red-rimmed but dry. "If I gotta."

The clatter of a plate follows and Felicity looks up to find her husband leaning on the island with both elbows, pushing a plate with the first, freshly made waffle across toward them. "Good thing we've got one done, then," he says with a soft smile all for their little girl.

Jules licks her lips as she eyes the treat. Oliver's waffles are ridiculously good. He adds a dash of amaretto to the batter, as Felicity had found out about a year into their marriage. It's absolutely sinful how delicious they are. The entire family loves them, something that's been evidenced repeatedly by Roy and Thea showing up 'just to say hi' many a weekend morning.

"I want one…" Jules allows before her eyes flicker to her baby sister. "But Ellie's never had them, so she should get it first."

Oliver sighs as Jules' eyes turn to linger on the whipped cream with an absurd amount of longing once more, shaking his head affectionately at his older daughter and her selfless statement. It's not the first time she's done that by a longshot and they both know it won't be the last.

And she's not wrong, Ellie hasn't tried this particular breakfast yet.

Truth be told, Felicity's been looking forward to this morning for years. She remembers clearly how much the first Ellie had adored Oliver's strawberry waffles and watching her baby girl experience them for the very first time is something she's been daydreaming about since before her daughter was born.

But, she also really doesn't like the sad look on Jules' face.

"You are an awesome big sister, kiddo," Felicity tells Jules, bopping her on the nose. "That's very kind of you, do you know that?"

Jules shrugs, aiming for nonchalant but she hasn't quite mastered it yet. She will, though, way sooner than Felicity is ready for her to.

"Well you are," Felicity emphasizes, "and…" She pulls open a drawer and grabs a utensil. "It's a good thing we've got way more spoons than waffles."

Jules is confused for about half a second until she sees a spoon diving into the whipped cream. The way the toddler's eyes light up in absolute delight more than makes up for the impending sugar high as Felicity hands her the heaping spoonful. She immediately takes it, sucking a bit of the treat off the end, leaving a smear of it across the tip of her little button nose.

"Thanks, Momma," Jules says around a mouthful of whipped cream.

"Just don't double dip," Felicity says with a wink. "You okay to be put down?"

"Mmhm," Jules replies with a nod, not that she's really paying attention. All her focus is on the spoon in her hand as her tiny pink tongue darts out to lick more of the sweetness. She's utterly satisfied for the moment and Felicity sets her down.

Ellie slaps the tray of her high chair with an insistent noise.

"Oh!" Felicity says, turning to look at the baby. Ellie's got the innocent look down pat - she might as well be wearing a halo over her little golden curls - but the sippy cup on the floor and the carpet of cheerios meant to keep her busy tell another story entirely. "I'm so sorry, were you not getting enough attention?"

Ellie giggles and claps her hands together, very possibly applauding her mother for getting it right. The rumble of Oliver's chuckle sounds again - he clearly agrees - as Ellie bounces excitedly in her chair.

"Is this what you're looking for?" Felicity asks, grabbing the waffle.

Ellie practically vibrates with excitement and an emphatic nod.

Thank god those crazy chairs have straps. Ellie will be walking any second now, but Felicity's pretty sure she could climb just about anything if given half the chance. Baby parkour is a real thing and she one hundred percent blames Oliver. It's a good thing they'd invested in convertible cribs because Ellie's is already switched over to a toddler bed after they'd found her sitting atop her dresser after naptime last week. Jules keeps begging for hers to be switched to a 'big girl' bed but Oliver won't even discuss it. His baby cannot possibly be big enough to have outgrown a toddler bed.

He takes his denial very seriously.

The man himself appears behind her, his hands slipping over her hips to pull her back against his chest, abandoning the waffle maker for the moment. He kisses the back of her head before tilting to kiss her bare neck, making her smile as he wraps his arms around her waist. She can see him turning his head slightly to check on Jules and then Ellie before looking down at the waffle she's cutting up.

Felicity leans against him in a nudge. "You got your phone?"

Oliver hums and nods, his chin digging into her shoulder where it rests. "I do. There's just one thing I need…"

"What?"

He stands, turning towards Jules - she's right where Felicity left her, completely focused on her treat - as he says in a sing-song voice, "A big hug from my Julie-bug."

It's become a bit of a secret weapon to use with Jules, because it never fails to elicits a smile from their daughter. This time is no different. The little girl looks up, her nose scrunching into a grin as Oliver crouches his way towards her. When the spoon is safely away from her mouth, he scoops her up, earning a precious giggle that warms Felicity's heart. Oliver's careful to make sure the remaining whipped cream doesn't slip off the spoon as he tickles the toddler, earning himself another giggle. It's not the full-bodied laughter Jules is capable of, rare as it is, but it's more than enough considering where she was a minute ago.

Felicity focuses back on the waffle, but she hears an admonishing, "No, Daddy, that's my whipped cream!" She looks to see Oliver play-diving for the spoon again. "No," she giggles, pushing one little hand over his mouth to keep it closed. "Ellie first, Daddy!"

That same deep sigh comes from Oliver again before as he smiles at her. "Alright, Julie-bug. But first..." He lowers his voice, nodding to the spoon. "Finish that."

Felicity shakes her head, knowing exactly what he's going to do. She looks from the corner of her eye to see Jules doing as he says, licking the spoon clean before Oliver takes it. As he gets her another spoonful of whipped cream, her eyes get ridiculously huge with an inhaled, "Ooh!" as he hands it back to her.

Oh, for the love of…

They are so going to have a talk later.

But before Felicity can give him The Look, Jules does it for her.

"Momma," she says loudly, holding the spoon high, "Daddy just got me more whipped cream."

It's the cutest frakking thing Felicity's heard all morning and before she knows it, she's snorting in laughter, especially when Oliver lets out a breathy, "Jules."

"We don't lie to each other, Daddy," Jules replies primly, right before taking another healthy bite of whipped cream. The sweetness makes her smile and then she's fully focused on the treat once more with a soft, "Mmm."

"You're right," Oliver says with a nod, kissing her temple. "You're very right." He makes a point of looking at Felicity. "I'm sorry."

Felicity's still grinning as she finishes cutting the waffle to pieces. "As long as you're the one handling the sugar crash and burn later, I am good."

Oliver deflates a bit at that, looking at Jules and her snack. Yeah, he's in for it later, especially with a second helping, all on top of the waffle she hasn't even eaten yet. But he doesn't argue, because he knows he's earned it.

He kisses the little girl's head again before setting her down.

Ellie smacks her lips together with an insistent noise, pulling Felicity's attention back to her. She's straining in her chair, trying to reach for the waffle.

"Hold on a second, young lady," Felicity orders. She scoops dollops of whipped cream and pureed strawberries atop of the waffle pieces. It's gonna be a mess, but that's okay. The house is already a near-constant disaster and besides, life itself is messy. That's no reason to miss out on it. Ellie's noises grow more insistent, verging on the edge of whiny. "Hold your horses there, it's coming."

Good grief, are both girls hitting growth spurts? Oh man, she really hopes not. That's entirely too much grumpiness to handle all at once. Not that she can really do anything about it. They're growing up, whether she likes it or not.

Most of the time she's in the 'not' category. Felicity has learned that she loves these ages, messy as they are.

"Alright!" Felicity turns to the baby. "You ready?" she asks Ellie in a teasing voice, grinning as she crouches and tiptoes toward the infant, playing with her.

Ellie instantly picks up on her mother's mood. She instinctively knows something fun is coming and she babbles excitedly, clapping her hands before ducking her head down with a giddy grin, trying to crouch just like her mother.

Oliver's got his phone out, his eyes on the screen but darting to the real thing with a huge smile as he records the moment, capturing it for them to rewatch over and over again through the years. And they will, she knows, because Ellie hasn't even gotten the plate yet and already she's so excited she might burst.

When she reaches Ellie, Felicity rubs her nose against the baby's in blatant affection, the plate just out of her reach.

"Don't leave her hanging, honey," Oliver says.

Felicity can hear the grin in his voice and she glances at him, smiling in return before turning back to Ellie.

She slowly sets the plate down in front of her.

Ellie's got a fist full of waffle before the plate hits the tray. Whipped cream and pureed strawberries squeeze out between her tiny knuckles as she sticks her entire fist into her gaping mouth.

The instant it touches her tongue, her eyes get huge, her gaze switching to her father with the funniest expression.

"Have you tried this?" her face asks. "Do you know how good this is?"

For an infant who has yet to utter anything approaching a word, her meaning is painfully clear.

"Mmmmmmmmmm!" Ellie yells sharply before diving face-first into the plate. Felicity and Oliver laugh as she lets out another loud, "Nmmmmm!"

"Oh, Ellie!" Felicity says in a half-protest, but it fades into more laughter because her daughter's face is absolutely covered in a mess of red and white when she looks back up. There's strawberries on her nose and whipped cream across her eyebrows, but she clearly doesn't care at all because she's bouncing excitedly again with a, "Guh! Guh! Mmmmmmm!" of bubbly enthusiasm, earning more laughter from her parents.

"There is a bath in your future, little one," Felicity tells her, grabbing a piece of waffle before it can plummet to the floor as she looks back at Oliver. "Did you get all that?"

"All of it," he says with a nod, his grin still in place, but now he's got his phone turned over to Jules where she's sitting back on the barstool, humming happily with the spoon in her mouth.

She totally double-dipped - rather, she triple-dipped, thanks to her father. They both know it, but Felicity doesn't call her out on it. Not this time.

Ellie makes another loud noise and Felicity looks back to her to find the baby touching her fingers together experimentally, marveling at the way they stick together. She's already downed half the waffle, which is absurd. A growth spurt, for sure, and it only confirms how not ready Felicity is.

But she's even less ready for what happens next.

Ellie picks up a piece of waffle and holds it out.

"Ju," she says loudly.

Felicity blinks, startled. She cannot possibly have heard what she thought she heard.

"Did…" Oliver starts. Felicity doesn't have to look at him to know his jaw's on the ground because hers is right there with his. "Did she just…"

Ellie waves her hand. "Ju!"

She's holding out the piece of waffle toward her sister.

"Oh my god," Felicity breathes. "Oh my god, Oliver…"

"Ju!" Ellie repeats with growing excitement.

"Is she trying to say my name?" Jules asks looking between her parents.

"Ju!" Ellie shouts again, bouncing. She's so thrilled about this, about being understood and the focus of everyone's attention.

"Oh baby girl," Felicity says, pressing her hand to her mouth. She feels like sobbing, which is ridiculous. This is a happy moment and quite possibly the cutest thing she's ever seen - and Oliver got it on video - but it still hits her painfully hard. She wants to curl around both her girls and freeze this moment in time. It slips by so fast - too fast - and she just wants to stay right here, in this moment. Pressing her lips together, she manages an uneven, "Oh my god," as she turns to look at Jules.

"I think she wants to share her waffle with you, Julie-bug," Oliver confirms, his voice just as rough as Felicity's.

Jules looks skeptical of her father's words - and a little grossed out - but she still slides off the barstool and pads her way over to her baby sister. Cheerios crunch under her feet and there's a squishy noise as she steps on a fallen piece of strawberry-soaked waffle. Felicity couldn't care less about any of that, though, because Ellie is handing Jules a soggy piece of her breakfast as if it's the greatest gift ever given. The older girl takes it with a hesitant look. Felicity can't blame her - Ellie had just dove face-first into the waffle - but Ellie has no hesitance at all.

"Mmmmm," the baby says, smacking her lips together. She's imitating eating it and Felicity can't muffle the soft little cry because this is the most precious ever. "Mmmmm. Ju, mmmmmm."

Jules pops the bite of waffle into her mouth and Ellie claps delightedly before pressing a sticky palm to her sister's cheek.

"Thanks, Ellie," Jules says, looking around like she's not sure if she's being ridiculous or not by attempting to communicate with her baby sister.

Ellie just laughs and claps her pudgy hands again with absolute joy.

Felicity can't stand it another second. She needs to hug her girls and she doesn't care that it means she'll be taking a bath right along with them or the tiny strawberry handprints that will absolutely stain her shirt.

Life's too damn short to care about that kind of thing.

She closes in on them both. She unbuckles Ellie swiftly, picking her up before kneeling down to pull Jules in with her other arm.

"Oh, I love you both so much," she murmurs, pressing kisses into both of their hair before pulling back to look at Ellie. "And you, my little motor-mouth! You're talking!"

"Ju!" Ellie proclaims again, pointing at her sister. She's so very proud of herself.

"Yeah! Jules!" Felicity confirms with a laugh. "And you are just the sweetest baby in the whole world to share with your big sister, you know that?"

Ellie's response is to blow a strawberry-whipped-cream raspberry at her mother, which only makes Felicity laugh. Her language skills aren't exactly developed, but still… this is big.

"You're growing up way too fast," Felicity sighs, brushing Ellie's curls from her forehead. Her palm brushes over a tiny strawberry in her hair. Felicity makes a silly face. "You need to slow down, please," she tells her before looking at her oldest. "You both do." Behind the baby, Oliver's fiddling with something, making Felicity look up. "What are you doing?"

"Sending that video to everyone we know," he replies before looking up from his phone. His eyes are shiny with unshed tears when they meet hers, his grin watery.

She's in the same boat.

It's mornings like this one that floor her the most, the realization that they've made themselves this family, and that it's perfect. It absolutely bowls her over some days.

Oliver chuckles as he heads across the kitchen to join them. "I expect a bunch of crying emojis and hearts back from your mom any second."

Felicity laughs because that will definitely happen. And she'll be surprised if Thea and Roy aren't here within the hour. Sure enough, Oliver's phone starts vibrating where it sits on the counter, but he ignores it. His focus is right where it needs to be. He slides down onto the floor with them, settling on top of crushed cheerios as Ellie reaches for him. He takes her with a happy grin and Felicity pulls Jules further onto her lap. She holds the little girl close, rocking her slightly.

"Ju!" Ellie announces loudly again, looking at her father as she points at Jules, showing off her new trick.

"I know, Ellie-bug," he says. "We're pretty proud of you."

Ellie beams at the praise, even if she doesn't really understand it. She gets the tone, and that's the important part. She understands she's made her parents happy.

"I can't believe her first word is Jules," Felicity says, staring at her baby in awe. "That's just… Oliver, that's just…" She chokes up instead, unable find the words to explain how that makes her feel.

"Yeah," he agrees, meeting her eyes. They don't need words. They're on the same page without them. "I know."

Felicity leans over their daughters' heads to kiss her husband. It's chaste considering the bundles between them, but it lingers, serving as a reminder of the solid base that's allowed for all of this. It makes her heart soar, makes her feel so light that it's heady. Because it's not just about the two of them - it's about their entire family, about the home and life they've built together, the home they'll continue to build together.

She's so insanely happy with all of it, so grateful for it.

She wants to live in this moment forever.

"Daddy?" Jules asks a moment after her parents end their kiss. Their foreheads are pressed together and Oliver doesn't seem able to relinquish that contact because he just tilts his head down slightly to look at his daughters pressed between them.

"Yeah, honey?" he asks.

"I'm kinda hungry," Jules admits. As if on cue, her stomach rumbles loudly. "It's nice that Ellie said a word, but can I have a waffle, too?"

Oliver laughs and touches her little cheek. "Of course," he replies. "I'm sorry, sweetheart, we just got a bit distracted there for a minute. Next waffle's for you. Promise. It won't take more than a minute."

"'Kay," she agrees.

Her tummy growls even louder as Oliver passes Ellie back to Felicity before getting up to head back to the waffle maker.

"Is that a hungry sound or is that a growing sound, my big girl?" Felicity asks, poking at Jules' stomach. The little girl's giggle is a whole lot more genuine this time and Felicity revels in her daughter's smile as she snuggles her closer. "You gotta stop getting bigger on me, okay? It's official, all growth spurts are cancelled. I want to hold on to both of you just the way you are right now."

And, while Oliver hums to himself a few feet away, fixing them breakfast, and Ellie chews on her thumb as she gurgles, and Jules rests her head against her mother's shoulder, that's exactly what Felicity does.

Chapter Text

August 2032

For a guy who'd been dumped that morning, Will's in a really great mood. To be fair, it had been less the end of a relationship and more an inevitable moving on, a satisfying last page at the end of a short book, and he doesn't regret how things went in the least.

Addy had been fun. He'd liked hanging out with her and the sex had really been pretty damned good, but he'd never once deluded himself into thinking they'd keep up pretenses once she went back to Central City for her senior year of college. He hadn't even wanted it to. He's got enough going on in his life. He doesn't need an actual girlfriend. Casual dating and short term hookups are, in his experience, the way to go.

Work takes up the bulk of his time, but it's his family that has most of his focus. Ever since the accident that took his mom's life and left Bethy in the hospital for weeks back in February, he's grounded himself in being more present for his family, for both sides of it.

He's the only link Bethy will ever have to her mom. She's too little to even remember her and his stepfather absolutely needs the help. But he's also more aware than most that life is short and unpredictable - as a firefighter, he sees that every day - and the life his dad and stepmom choose to lead puts them more in harm's way than most. So, it seems like such an easy choice to prioritize his relationships with his siblings and parents over anything more transient that he might find with a girl.

"Will!" a little voice shouts from the back seat of his car, as if to underscore his thoughts. "Want yum yums."

"Hold on, Bethy," he tells her, maneuvering his car into a parking spot at city hall and grabbing the diaper bag he keeps on hand. If you'd asked him a year ago, he would never have guessed he'd have a car seat in his car and a repurposed gym bag full of diapers and teething rings. But that's life. And, as much as he misses his mom, he can't imagine his life going any other way, now. "Want some applesauce?" he asks, catching his two-year-old sister's eye in the series of mirrors set up so he can check on her in her rear-facing seat even while he drives. She's almost big enough to turn it around, which sort of blows him away. It feels like just last week she'd kept him up all night with colic and he'd escaped to his dad's house instead of dealing with it.

"Yes!" she declares happily, making grabby hands back toward him.

"Give me a second to open it, squirt," he says, unscrewing one of those miraculous applesauce pouches that even a two-year-old rarely makes a mess with. It's out of his hands the instant the treat is within Bethy's reach and she hums happily as she sucks down the applesauce with gusto. "You could've said 'thanks,' you know."

The scolding is halfhearted at best, though, because she grins hugely around the nozzle of the applesauce and, damn it, Will is a sucker for all of his siblings. It probably helps that Bethy looks just like his mom and that socks him right in the gut, because wow... he misses her.

But he's got people in the here and now that need him, and he can't allow himself to be anywhere but the present.

"Alright, let's get moving before we're late," he says, mostly to himself, as he unbuckles and grabs the diaper bag. He really should get a real one. Swapping out sippy cups for gym socks is getting old. But, it works for now. He slips out of his absurdly reasonable, top-safety-rated car and opens the back door, getting to work unfastening Bethy from her seat.

"Wanna play," Bethy says to him as he works. She makes her eyes utterly huge as she says it and blinks with an innocence she absolutely does not possess. If Will hadn't been so much older than his other siblings, if he couldn't remember so clearly when Jules and Ellie and Nate had pulled that same damned look, he might have bought it. But he's grown up around little kids and he's well aware that Bethany knows precisely what she's doing.

Besides, they've already got plans.

"Soon," he promises her. "We've got fun plans today, squirt, but we've gotta do something first."

"Wanna play!" Bethy shouts with increasing annoyance.

"Then be a good girl and we will," Will tells her sternly with a firm look. He might be a sucker for his siblings, but he's not about to be a pushover. His stepfather caves with Bethy way too much as it is. He's not going to follow in those footsteps and the sooner his baby sister learns that, the better.

"I good," Bethy tells him, her little face crumpling. She doesn't cry, though, and he's so grateful for that that it's almost absurd. Bethy's wail sounds like a dying animal and it never fails to set every nerve on edge.

"Glad to hear it," he tells her, lifting her up from the seat and resting her on his hip as he shuts the car. "Let's keep it that way so we can play and have fun later, okay?"

"'Kay," she agrees, chewing on the nozzle to her applesauce.

He hefts her up a bit, getting a better hold as the two of them head up the steps toward the entrance to City Hall. A grimace pulls at his lips as he jogs up the steps, keen to get this over with as fast as possible. He hates coming here. It leaves him feeling like he's at a disadvantage, like he's off-kilter. And, in some ways, he is.

His estranged grandmother has been mayor for fourteen of the last eighteen years. She's powerful, beloved by the city and her staff, and being here, being on her home turf… it makes Will feel petty. It makes him feel like he's being childish for holding on to a lifelong grudge against an old woman.

But Moira Queen is anything other than helpless and it would be a dire mistake to see her as weak. She is a master of manipulation and public opinion. Will knows better than to give her an inch because she'll take a mile in return and make you feel like you asked her to do it.

So… maybe he had offered to pick Bethy up an hour or two early today. A toddler makes for an awesome excuse and buffer all in one. And, the fact that his little sister is the spitting image of his mother gives Will a bit of a boost, too. If anything in this world had ever been able to make Moira Queen uneasy, it was absolutely his mom. Will learned years ago not to face off against his grandmother without a plan.

Which is why he's pushing his way through the glass doors to City Hall armed with a toddler.

Much to his chagrin, he's been here frequently enough that he knows his way around the building and the guy working the front desk just waves him through without question.

They take the elevator entirely because Bethy likes to push all of the buttons. It'll probably annoy the hell out of whoever gets in there next, but Will doesn't so much care about that. He does care about the way Bethy's eyes brighten in delight as she makes the buttons for each floor light up.

"Oh, not that one, squirt," he says, pulling her hand back as she reaches for the alarm. "All the others are fine, but let's leave that one be."

"Red button," she declares, reaching for it again.

"Very good," he tells her, grabbing her fingers and kissing them as he steps back just far enough that she can't inadvertently set off the building alarms. "It's red. Good job. Super proud of you for knowing that. How'd you get so big?"

She blows a raspberry at him instead of answering with words, which feels like the most appropriate punctuation possible for a two-year-old.

When the elevator dings a moment later - they'd only been going one floor - he steps out into a flurry of activity. That's not incredibly unusual around his grandmother's office, but also feels more orderly than usual and he pauses to soak in the environment for a moment.

Two people look like a well-oiled machine as they put together binders in tandem. There's a few people on phones who appear to be communicating whatever they've accomplished through a series of intricate hand gestures that Will can't quite seem to figure out as a tall woman with dark hair taps something into a tablet.

"Hey, Will." He turns to the side to see his ten-year-old little brother nearby with a coffee carafe. "You're early," Nate continues, glancing up at a clock. He keeps walking, though, never breaks stride as he refills the cup of someone on the phone. "I can't leave yet. They need me."

"No," the brunette woman with the tablet says sharply, pulling his attention over to her. She's not talking to him or Nate, though, she's talking to someone on one of the phones. "Give me that." She leans over the guy's desk and takes the phone from his hand. "Jack? Hey, this is Amelia. You're gonna want to rethink that position… Uh, no, not because the mayor said to - though she did - but because I said to. Do you really want to be the lone holdout on the council, because believe me if you stick with this position, you will be."

Will just stares at her as she works. He's not the only one. Both of the other people on the phones have finished their calls and the binder-assembly crew has paused to watch her, too. Nate seems like he's the only one still working, playing the part of a barista for everyone there. Will's not sure how, though, because this woman is… she's a force of nature, captivating, and he can't pull his eyes away from her even though Bethy is pulling on his collar in a way that digs into his neck.

"Don't even try that with me, Jack," she continues, shaking her head. She's leaning so far over the desk that she's practically climbed atop it. Her respectable-length skirt has ridden up to just-this-side-of-unacceptable levels and her silk blouse is… it's draping very nicely and Will's more than a little envious of the eyeful that the guy she'd taken the phone from must be getting. "If you want the mayor to play with you on cap-and-trade, you're going to support the Every Family Home initiative… Jack… Jack… It's not a debate, Jack! I'm telling you how it is…. Yes… Yes, I'm authorized to offer that…. Don't even try that with me, you know we can pass this without you, but the mayor wants a unified front and you're going to give it to her because you really, really want to keep your seat and it would help you a whole lot if your very popular mayor were pictured in the paper shaking your hand and thanking you for putting aside politics for the good of the city's homeless population, wouldn't it?"

There's a long moment of silence where the brunette's face turns a gorgeous but frustrated shade of red. Will feels sort of suspended in time as he watches her, but that might be because no one other than Nate and Bethy are moving. Most of them don't seem to even be breathing.

But then the brunette starts talking again and it's with a fury that's both fierce and a little blinding.

"I swear on the damned city charter, Jack, that if you do not back the mayor on this, I am going to find whoever is running against you and I will run their campaign for free," she swears, before cocking her head to the side and pausing, amending her statement. "No, you know what? If you don't back it, I'm going to run against you myself. It's not really what I want to do, but we both know I can kick your ass from here to election day. So here's what it comes down to - do you help a whole lot of homeless citizens improve their lives and earn yourself the mayor's thanks or do you have me as a thorn in your side for the rest of your political career?"

The slow grin that works its way across her face is visible from across the room and Will feels like someone pulled the rug out from underneath him. She was pretty before, sexy as hell, but that smile… holy shit.

"Aw, you know you love me, Jack," she's saying, scooting back off the desk and straightening her skirt. "What was it you said was your favorite thing about me? Was it my 'gumption?' ...Mmm, maybe just not when it's focused on you. Give Cecile and the girls my best. I'm gonna go and let the mayor know she has your full-throated support."

A second later, she's holding the phone skyward with a booming "And that is how you get Jack Baker's backing, boys and girls!"

There's a lot of excitement around the room then, a couple of cheers and someone gives her a literal pat on the back. A flush of triumph has worked its way across her cheeks and she's just… she's absolutely captivating.

"Amelia's awesome," Nate says suddenly, as if reading Will's thoughts. He hadn't even realized his little brother was standing next to him. "She's crazy fierce and she knows how to get things done. Grandma says she's the best. She's not chief of staff, but I bet she will be some day. I'm pretty sure it's only because she hasn't been done with college very long."

He looks from Nate back to where the brunette - Amelia - had been standing, but she's moved. In fact, she's walking right toward them. For a long, long moment, Will's aware of absolutely nothing else but the woman striding his direction. Or… actually, maybe it's Nate's direction, he realizes when she reaches them and holds out her mug for Nate to pour her some coffee. The kid is more than pleased to do exactly that. It's sort of silly.

"Thanks," she says with a grin at Nate. "You have been a most excellent helper and absolutely played a part in our success today."

Nate's awfully proud of himself at the proclamation, standing straighter and squaring his shoulders as he nods crisply at Amelia, but her eyes drift over to Will as she takes a deep sip of her scalding hot, very black coffee.

"Congratulations," he tells her.

"Thank you," she murmurs into her mug.

"You know that's not what most people would consider a celebratory drink," he tells her. He doesn't really mean to make his voice go gritty and check her out while he says it, but that happens anyhow.

God damn but that blouse should be illegal on her. It's not even especially low cut, but the way that silk clings to her chest, he just… yeah he's been looking too long.

"Are you flirting with me while holding a toddler?" she asks with blatant amusement as she sets her coffee cup down on a nearby desk.

Nate huffs and walks off somewhere, grumbling about girls and how this is an important place of business. Personally, Will can't wait for his little brother to discover an interest in the fairer sex because wow is he gonna have fun throwing things back at the kid one day.

"That depends entirely on if it's working," Will replies with a smirk.

She's interested, that much is obvious immediately. Will's very, very good at picking up on body language and between the way her pupils dilate and the way the silk blouse absolutely does not hide her nipples tightening in the least, she's particularly easy to read. That he manages to keep his groan internal at the sight is something of a personal triumph.

"Might work better if you didn't have applesauce all over your neck," she replies. Her tone is playful and she's staring at his adam's apple as she licks her lips. He swallows hard, because he feels her gaze so strongly that she might as well be touching him. A riot of shivers sets out across his skin and he feels like she's stroking every damned nerve ending he's got. He can't remember the last time a woman had him so utterly drawn in so quickly. Had that ever happened?

"Don't like kids?" he asks as Bethy lays her head on his shoulder with a heavy sigh.

"I love kids," she corrects, giving the toddler a gentle smile. "I'm just not used to being hit on by guys holding their…" her voice drifts off expectantly.

"Little sister," he supplies, his lopsided grin growing by leaps and bounds at the proclamation.

"Ah," she notes, giving Bethy another smile. "So you're on double-duty for the big brother role today, then?"

"I am most days, when I'm not working," he agrees. "Family's important to me."

"Right," she breathes out, shifting her weight from one foot to the other. She's trying to find a flaw. He can see that. He's got plenty of them, frankly, but so far he's passing her quiet tests with flying colors. "So… what is it you do that you aren't at work at 4:30 on a Thursday?"

"I'm a firefighter," he replies, smiling at her in earnest. He can feel the edges of his eyes crinkling in amusement. They only deepen when she makes a little noise in the back of her throat.

"A firefighter?" she asks.

"Starling City Fire and Rescue Station 52," he confirms. "And as someone who's responded to two calls in the last month involving homeless residents who collapsed with easily treatable illnesses, I'm very grateful for the work you're doing to help get people off the streets and back on their feet."

"Well," Amelia says a bit more soberly, brushing some hair behind her ear. "It's your grandmother's initiative. So, maybe it's her you should thank. I just work here."

"My grandmother…" he echoes, feeling a bit like ice water is slipping down his spine.

"Yeah," she agrees. "You know, your grandmother. The mayor."

"Right," he bites out. Suddenly it feels like there's an enormous expanse between them, but somehow that does nothing at all to dim the way she manages to send a zing of attraction right through him without even trying. "So… you know who I am, then."

She laughs at that, light and disbelieving as she shakes her head. "Will Queen, I knew who you were the first time we met. I definitely remember it now."

Well, that throws him for a loop. Suddenly he's wracking his brain because he could not possibly forget this girl. She stands apart from every woman he's ever met and he's pretty sure she's not even trying. But… but nothing registers.

"The first time?" he asks.

She chuckles and looks to the side, leaving him staring at her profile. She's beautiful from every angle, he finds, and he wants to see more of her, make her laugh with a completely different tone than she is right now, because right now he feels like he's not in on the joke.

"We were both camping," she says as she looks back, taking pity on him. "That's how I got this job. Your dad put me in touch with your grandmother's office."

"You were putting up a tent," he realizes, as he looks at her in a whole new light. He feels like maybe he's seeing clearly for the first time in a long time. "You washed your hair in the river."

She pauses at that before tilting her head in agreement. There's nothing overt, but something in her eyes is obviously pleased at being remembered and he's hit with the sudden sense that he'd missed something back then, that he'd gone left when he should have gone right, and he doesn't know quite how to backpedal.

"I did," she agrees quietly. "And then I walked back to the campsite with one of my friends to give you and my other friend, Maggie, some space."

Maggie… he doesn't remember her. He has a vague recollection of dark hair and soft lips and long legs, but none of it means anything. It's all indistinct, ill-formed in his mind's eye. Amelia, though… Amelia he remembers. He remembers the way the air felt charged with expectation when their eyes met, just like it does now. He remembers her rising up out of the water like some kind of siren, dark wet hair trailing behind her and a soaked, pale blue lace bra that hid nothing.

It's this very instant that he knows beyond any shadow of a doubt that he made the wrong choice that day. There's something here, something he's only found maybe once before, with his ex-girlfriend Allison back in college. He's not really looking for that kind of depth right now. He's not sure if he even has room for that in his life, but maybe… maybe for the right woman… maybe if it were real...

"I'll tell her you said hi, if you like," Amelia offers, pulling him back to the moment.

"Who?" he asks, because everyone other than Amelia has faded well into the background at this point.

"Maggie," she replies a bit incredulously.

"Oh… Sure," he says easily with a shrug. "If you want to. Tell her I hope she's doing well."

"Did you want me to pass along your number…" Amelia fishes.

"Actually, I'd rather you keep it for yourself," he tells her.

She sucks in a ragged breath and raises one eyebrow as her gaze locks heavily with his. It feels like the temperature in the room goes up at least a few degrees and lightning chases something across the expanse of his skin. He wants… he wants something. He doesn't even know what, but he wants something with this woman.

"That's a bad idea," she replies in a near-whisper.

"And why's that?" he asks, shuffling forward half a step, edging ever-so-slightly into her personal space. She absolutely does not back up in the least. In fact, if he's not mistaken, she leans inward just a bit.

"Conflict of interest," she supplies. "I work for your grandmother. You're a Queen. You're…"

"I'm…?" he prods.

"Someone my best friend saw first," Amelia points out. "And most definitely called dibs on."

"I can debunk all of those reasons," he offers. "If you're interested."

"I'm interested in you trying," she replies. They're scarcely a foot apart. Bethy's weight against his shoulder redoubled some time in the last few minutes and he knows without even looking that the toddler's fallen asleep. It's just as well, he's grateful not to have her interference at the moment.

"First of all, I don't have any kind of relationship with my grandmother, so that's not really a point of contention," he starts.

"Isn't it?" she asks.

"It's not for me. Won't be for her. Doesn't have to be for you," he tells her before moving on. "Secondly, I'm a Queen, but I was a Clayton first. Neither the public nor the press look at me the same way as the rest of my father's family because I'm the bastard borne from my father's youthful indiscretions. Now, my family doesn't see it that way, but the rest of society? They do."

"Their loss," she tells him.

"It doesn't bother me," he shrugs. "It never has. I know who I am and I know my place in my family. The rest doesn't matter."

"And Maggie?" Amelia asks curiously.

"Expiration date," Will tells her.

"I'm sorry?" Amelia laughs. He wants to taste it. He wants to kiss her while she's laughing, feel the vibration of her amusement against his lips, breathe it in, let it soak into his soul. What the hell is this? How can he - on sight - feel this much toward this woman?

"Dibs has expired by now," he tells her, the words coming out heavy and affected. "I didn't sleep with your friend. I didn't date her. Whatever she and I had is long over and you and I… you and I haven't even started yet."

Her breath catches and she stares at his lips, running her tongue over her teeth. He absolutely cannot help the strangled noise that gets stuck in his throat at the sight of that and if he weren't holding Bethy, he's pretty sure he'd step forward, rest a hand on her cheek and test exactly where they stand.

But he is holding Bethy.

And beyond that, they're in her workplace and they're absolutely not alone.

"William."

The voice shifts everything on a dime. He steps back, feels steel working its way down his spine as he grits his teeth and turns slightly.

"Grandmother," he greets. His voice is all chilly, hard edges that are impossible to miss.

"I understand you're here to pick up your brother," she supplies primly. Nate's at her side, looking incredibly proud to be a part of a grown-up conversation. He absolutely misses the nuances of Will's relationship with their grandmother, such as it is. He's only ten. He doesn't get it yet. "You look well."

"I am," Will grits out.

"Glad to hear it," she replies. Her hair is entirely silver these days, but she still looks much the same as Will remembers from the first time he met her. She's stately, his grandmother. Composed. He'd give almost anything to watch that composure shatter, to see her express something, anything, showing that she regretted in the least what she'd done. To him, to his father, to their entire family. But she never has. She never will. And Will is not the sort to ever let that go. His stubbornness, ironically, seems to have come from her. "And you're still working that job with the firehouse?"

"I'm a firefighter," he snaps at her, incredulity slipping across his features. "It's not an after-school hobby. It's my career."

"Honestly, William," she chides. "I was only making conversation."

"Not very well," he bites back.

"Fine," she replies, holding her head high. "Forgive my attempt at civility. How dare I be so bold as to attempt to talk to you."

"You and I have nothing to talk about," he grits out.

He holds her stare for an abnormally long time, right up until Nate sighs heavily and draws both of their attention. Will immediately feels bad when he sees his little brother's crestfallen face. This isn't fair to him. All he's ever known of Moira Queen was a grandmother who doted on his existence every moment of his life. She's encouraged him, been proud of him, made absolutely no secret that he's her favorite - even if she's never said so outright. Nate's never had to wonder why his grandmother never thought he was even worth knowing. He doesn't remember being five-years-old and crying in the corner of his kindergarten class because every other kid's dad had shown up for the family picnic. That's not his reality. And as much as Will cannot stand his grandmother, he also can't begrudge Nate the positive relationship he has with her.

"Sorry, kid," Will tells Nate, squeezing his shoulder and pulling him closer in a one-armed hug. Nate relaxes a little bit immediately. He's such a tactile kid, so eager for affection. Even just a half of a hug seems to mean the world to him. "You have a good time?"

"Yes," Nate says, looking up at him with suddenly bright eyes. "I learned a lot. I don't like politics, but it's very important to understand for business. If I'm gonna run QI one day, I need a good background."

Will grins down at the boy. He's so serious. Will's pretty sure he's never been that serious in his entire life, but definitely not when he was ten-years-old. "You're gonna run the world one day, kid," he tells Nate, ruffling his carefully combed hair as the younger boy bats his hand away. "But for now, I think maybe you've had enough career-prep. How about we go do something fun and way more age-appropriate than interning in the mayor's office over summer break?"

Nate looks suspicious of this suggestion, his eyes narrowing as Will chuckles. "Like what?" he asks with more skepticism than any soon-to-be fifth-grader should be capable of.

"You don't want it to be a surprise?" Will asks.

"Am I the sort of person who usually likes surprises?" he asks, raising both eyebrows. That'd be a firm 'no.' In that way, and in so many others, Nate is very much like his mother.

"Fine," Will relents, shaking his head affectionately. "I thought we'd hit the county fair. It's a short walk from here. We can ride a few rides, grab some incredibly unhealthy dinner and catch the fireworks before we head home."

The look on Nate's face makes it very clear that he can't decide how he feels about this idea. He's a good kid, but sometimes he forgets to just be a kid. Will's recently decided it's his personal mission to act like an elementary schooler while he still is one.

"You can help me win Bethy a stuffed animal and we can gorge ourselves on cotton candy," Will points out. Nate's weak spot is sweets, always has been, and Will knew before he even said it that an offer of cotton candy would earn him Nate's agreement.

And, sure enough, his face lights up at the idea. "The blue kind?" he asks, as if that makes a difference.

"Any kind you want," Will tells him, grin spreading from ear to ear as he watches his little brother's growing delight.

"You don't want to have too many sweets, though."

God, but his grandmother's voice grates on Will's nerves like nails on a chalkboard. Can't she just let anything go? Can't she just let Nate be a damned kid?

"I thought maybe I'd just buy him his own cotton candy machine," Will tells her tightly. "He can keep it in his room and make as much as he wants on demand."

"There's no call for sarcasm, William," she berates. Her tone makes it seem like she's talking down to him. She has a way of doing that, of making him feel six years old all over again, hiding in his father's kitchen and listening to him tell his grandmother that no, no she cannot see him because his mother isn't here and he made her a promise.

His grandmother had used that same tone on his dad. And Will… Will hadn't understood then. His mom's parents both died when he was too little to remember them and the idea of a grandmother, in his head, had been someone who'd bake cookies with him and push him on the swings at the park. But Moira Queen is not the cookie baking-type. At least not with him. Will had learned that the hard way.

"I'm surprised you recognize it," Will tells her dryly. "Isn't sarcasm a bit too close to humor for you?"

"William Clayton," she says sharply. "I expect considerably mo-"

"Queen," he corrects, cutting her off abruptly. His voice is as cold as ice, which is sort of incredible because his blood is absolutely boiling. Nate laces their fingers together, a silent show of solidarity that Will desperately needs. Nate helps. Bethy, her soft little puffs of breath against his neck as she slumbers on… she helps too, in her own way. He is very present with his family in this moment, regardless of his grandmother's words. "Despite your very best efforts, I am a Queen. I am my father's son and you do not have the right to take that away from me."

"Of course you are," she replies in a hushed voice. It's the first time in his life he can remember her looking uneasy. Color drains from her face and her head is dipped almost deferentially. Will's not sure what to do with that. "I misspoke. Your name was Clayton. Old habits die hard, I'm afraid. You're obviously a part of this family and I would never do anything to try and distance you from it."

With those words, any trace of goodwill that her discomfort might have earned her absolutely evaporates. The nerve of her…

"Forgive me, but if that were true, we wouldn't be having this conversation in the first place, would we?" he asks.

His point is utterly undeniable and his grandmother simply holds her chin high and stares at him with silent defiance. Will doesn't care. At least that's what he tells himself. He gave up on his grandmother more than a decade ago and it would be foolish to expect anything to change now.

"I don't have to have cotton candy," Nate says in a tiny voice. Will looks down to find his little brother glancing between him and their grandmother uneasily. "It's not that big a deal. Even if they have the blue kind. I don't want you to be upset at each other, so we can just skip it."

"No way," Will tells him, kneeling down so he can see Nate eye-to eye. It's awkward with Bethy asleep and Nate's actually a bit taller than him when he squats, apparently. When had that happened? Is he growing again? No wonder he always wants snacks. "No way. This wasn't about you and it wasn't about cotton candy, okay? Everybody wants you to have fun. Nobody's mad at you, okay? Not your grandmother and certainly not me."

"I'm not upset with you," Moira agrees. Her voice is thick and her smile forced, but Nate doesn't seem to notice. "You should enjoy your time with your brother. Everyone deserves a bit of a treat now and then."

"You did good work today," Amelia chimes in. "You should take a break, reward yourself."

Will hadn't forgotten she was there. He's entirely too aware of her presence for that. But he had sort of overlooked that she'd been an uncomfortable witness to his ongoing spat with his grandmother. In theory, that should make things incredibly awkward. In practice, it doesn't quite play out that way. He glances up at her to find her already watching him. There's no mistaking the way her breathing speeds up or the way she hesitates a beat before smiling kindly at Nate.

Judging from the quiet hum from his grandmother, Will's pretty sure he's not the only one there to pick up on the oddly intense vibe between them.

Unfortunately.

"You did good work, too!" Nate declares, looking at Amelia with excitement. "You should come with!"

"I… I don't…" Amelia starts.

"You should," Will cuts in. His voice is soft as he looks up at her. "I'll win you a stuffed animal, too."

"But no cotton candy?" she asks with a hint of a grin.

"If it'll make you really smile, you can have mine," he replies. "Every last bite of it."

Will ignores the disgruntled huff of annoyance from his side. He doesn't give a damn about his grandmother's opinion, but Amelia's eyes dart her way quickly before meeting his gaze again.

He goes to stand up fully, but Bethy slips to the side and throws him off balance a little, making him stumble slightly. It's Amelia's hand that steadies him, reaching out and gripping his forearm. He must have scuffed his feet against the carpet at some point because there's a literal shock that zaps him the moment her fingers graze his skin. It's visible, a tiny little bolt of static electricity that leaves him sucking in an unsteady breath and staring at her in blatant surprise.

He hasn't kissed her yet, has barely even touched her, and the tension is so thick that it swamps the room, makes him feel like his head is swimming.

It's amazing and he wants more of it.

"Come with us," he says, some of his teasing nature falling to the wayside. He wants this so badly. There's nothing to joke about with that.

But Amelia withdraws her hand like she's been burned and takes a small step back. "I'm not exactly dressed for a county fair," she points out.

"I'll buy you a t-shirt," he tells her.

"I doubt they sell shoes," she replies, tilting her head down toward the heels that nearly put her eye level with him.

"I'll carry you," he grins.

She laughs and ducks her head, looking up at him through a curtain of dark hair and it's… it's so beautiful he forgets how to breathe for a moment. "Don't you already have your hands full?" she asks, looking to Bethy.

"Piggy-back ride," he suggests. He's mostly kidding, but it earns him a full-throated laugh and Will has always been happy to look a bit foolish for the amusement of others. That's most definitely true with Amelia.

"I can carry Bethy," Nate chimes in. "I can even hold her while you guys go on the rides she can't go on."

Amelia's laugh dies off, but she's still smiling, a soft look of clear affection as she turns to Nate. It's just like when she'd looked at Bethy and it strikes Will that she'd been telling the truth earlier. She really very much does like kids.

"It's tempting," she says. She looks quickly in Will's direction. "But I have work I need to do."

'You're tempting. But no,' is what Will hears and his heart drops a little at the subtle rejection.

"But-" Nate starts. Will cuts him off, though, resting a hand on his little brother's shoulder. Nate's too little to get the undercurrent of what's going on and Will's not going to push a woman who's turned him down.

"Okay," Will tells her. "Congratulations again on getting the support you needed. I hope you have a nice night."

The way she watches him makes him think she might be reconsidering, but after a moment she says, "Thanks… It was good to see you again, Will."

"You too, Amelia," he agrees.

Every ounce of tension that's been there still lingers, but it feels like they're watching each other across a vast canyon right up until she turns and walks away. Will hits on a lot of girls and, though it works out in his favor more often than not, Amelia's far from the first one to shoot him down. She is, however, the first to make him feel like he wishes he could rewind the last few minutes and try a different approach.

"You were right," comes his grandmother's dry voice. "You are your father's son."

It's not a compliment.

Will bristles at the comment, the hairs on the back of his neck standing up as he glares his grandmother's direction.

"Nate, darling," she says, looking down at the boy only after she's spoken. "Why don't you run to my office and grab my purse for me? We can make this little afternoon trip of yours my treat."

There's clear confusion on Nate's face, which is well-placed because it's not like they have any need whatsoever for their grandmother to fund anything, but he does as he's told. Because he's Nate and the day he doesn't listen to directions, Will is going to wonder what alternate universe he's fallen into.

But his thoughts don't linger on Nate long because the moment the boy's out of earshot, Will's grandmother is clearing her throat to earn his attention.

"Amelia is the most promising staffer I've ever had," she tells him sharply.

"She seems more than competent," Will agrees, wondering why the hell they're having this conversation.

"The very last thing she needs is the distraction of a young man who thinks a two month fling is a long term commitment," she clarifies.

Will absolutely cannot believe his ears. Defensiveness rises up, suffusing his entire body with annoyance and coiled up anger as he turns to face his grandmother fully.

"You have no idea what you're talking about," he bites out.

"Don't I?" she questions, quirking a disbelieving eyebrow. "Amelia is going places professionally. What she needs is someone like her, someone driven with ambition and purpose, not a boy offering piggy back rides to the carousel."

"How about we let her decide what she needs," Will snaps back.

"William," his grandmother sighs with a tisk and a shake of her head. "She just did."

She did.

It's true.

But it's also nowhere near as simple as his grandmother is making it sound, because when he glances Amelia's direction, she's staring back. He's not about to approach her again. He took his shot and he's not gonna nag. But it's also not like she thought he was beneath her, not like his grandmother seems to be implying.

"Forgive me if I can't take seriously the relationship advice coming from a woman who screwed the man who murdered her first husband."

Moira Queen is a dangerous woman. She always has been. Will has never had any delusions about that, but it's never been as obvious to the naked eye as the look of pure hatred that flashes across her features.

"You have no business bringing up Robert and Malcolm," she hisses at him.

It's appropriate. William's always thought her a snake.

"And you have no business sticking your nose in my love life," WIll counters. He's not an imposing man, but he is taller than his grandmother and stepping into her personal space leaves him feeling like he's looming over her. He hopes she feels the same way. "You and I share two things - a last name and a quarter of my DNA. That's it. I put up with you because my father does. So, I will pass you the potatoes at holiday dinners and I will smile at you for my brother's sake, but don't for a second think you have any say over my life. You don't even have my vote."

Something solidifies in her eyes, a resolve he's seen frequently from her in the face of adversity. But not like this. Not toward him.

Good.

It's a whole lot more honest than any attempt at familial affection.

"Am I clear?" he asks.

"Perfectly," she responds.

Nate, bless him, has fantastic timing, running up with his grandmother's purse in hand almost immediately after the word leaves her mouth.

"I found it!" he says proudly, missing the undercurrent between them entirely, per usual, as he hands his grandmother her bag.

"Thank you, darling," she tells him as she takes it and unzippers the front compartment, pulling out her wallet.

"You can keep it," Will tells her, staying her hand. "I don't want your money."

"It's for Nate," she points out, giving him a heavy look. It's meant to remind him that they try not to do this in front of Nate. They're civil in his presence. He's young and he misses a lot, but he's not blind entirely. Sooner or later he's going to figure out something deeper is going on and he's going to want an explanation. But Will hasn't forgotten these things, he just also isn't willing to play by his grandmother's rules anymore.

"Well, you can pay for him when you take him," Will counters. "This is my treat. I have 'that job at the firehouse,' remember? I wouldn't offer if I couldn't afford it."

There's his trust fund, too, of course, but he doesn't touch that and his grandmother is well aware of it. He wants to make his own way and he doesn't want any part of the fortune passed down by his grandparents.

"Fine," she allows after a beat. There's really nothing else she can say, after all. She turns to Nate and straightens his collar, not that it needs it. "Have a good time and listen to your brother," she instructs, as if there had been any doubt he would follow Will's rules. "Tell your sisters I said hello, will you?"

"Sure," Nate agrees. "Thanks for letting me help today, Grandma."

"It's my pleasure, my hard little worker," she says, cupping his cheeks and smiling with obvious affection. Will wonders if she means it. He wonders if she ever has.

"Wanna get out of here?" Will asks his brother. "You're pretty tall these days. I wonder if they'll let you on the Mountain of Doom yet."

"Don't be silly," Nate smiles, shaking his head. "I'm not that big."

It's true. He's not. But Will's not going to give up until he's got his baby brother laughing like the little kid he is and if that means a few teasing comments, he's more than ready to play the part.

"My mistake," Will deadpans. "I thought you were seventeen."

"Will, you're ridiculous," Nate grins. It's all teeth. "Jules is seventeen. I'm ten."

"Are you sure you're not twins?" Will says with mock seriousness. "I could swear you're taller than her."

"I am not!" Nate giggles.

And there it is.

His eyes are bright and his cheeks pink. He's a little kid wearing a button-down collared shirt and volunteering to pour coffee at his grandmother's office on his summer break. But, for a moment… for a moment he looks like the child he truly is. He'll spend plenty of time inside offices one day. Will is sure of that much. It's joy like this that he needs to make sure is also a big part of the kid's experiences. There's f