Though every part of her ached and she wanted to collapse in bed and forget all of it, Laurel methodically dumped four bags of ice into her bathtub. Maybe she should invest in an industrial icemaker. If nights like this happened with any frequency, it wouldn’t be the worst idea.
Her muscles locked up as she lowered herself into the ice bath, hissing at the cold.
Please god, don’t let nights like this happen frequently.
She had court in six hours, a case she’d been putting together for months. Her face felt puffy, every movement a little tick of bright red pain that made her flinch. Her eyelids had swollen up crying over Sara’s grave, and the emptiness of the AA meeting she’d just left had carved its way through her chest. All of that on top of being beaten to hell and coming off of the drugs and the hallucinations.
She wanted a drink so bad that her mouth felt stuffed with cotton. One glass couldn’t hurt, right? She’d still be able to say no the next time the urge came around. Just one pill now, to take away the edge and make the world softer and quieter.
Instead, she gulped in air and plunged beneath the surface. The shocking cold nearly stole her breath. Jaw clenched, she let out a scream underwater.
When spots threatened to explode at the edges of her vision, she lunged up with a gasp, flinging water everywhere. Hands clamped on the sides of the tub, she trembled and stared off into nothingness, watching a future stretch out bleakly, never improving, never stopping. Sara dead, her father angry and rudderless and so close to falling down the hole. Condescending scorn from Oliver. Polite disinterest from her coworkers. Beaten to hell in the field, ignored at work, and what was even the point of it all? It would never improve. She would never be as good as Sara, she would always be a failure, so why even try?
You have a light inside you.
Felicity’s words pushed through all of it, and Laurel remembered to breathe again. She stared at the wall, gaze unfocused, until it hit her: she was moping. A goddamned pity party, that was what this was.
She was exhausted. She’d been drugged and hit in the face and humiliated. She’d cried in front of more than one person, and now she sat in her own bathtub freezing her ass off in literal ice hours before she was due in court to appear before one of her least favorite judges. No wonder she felt worthless. Everything sucked.
“Are you done?” she asked. “You’ve had your little cryfest. Knock it off, you’ve seen worse than this.”
Her voice sounded unnaturally loud with only the sloshing of the ice bath as accompaniment, but it finally made her take a deep breath and relax her shoulders. Those thoughts had been dark. She focused instead on counting her breaths until the inside of her head didn’t scare her, and then she climbed out of the tub.
She shivered even after she crawled into bed and curled underneath her duvet. As she did, a faint discoloration on the inside of her wrist caught her eye. Her last thought before sleep arrived was to wonder: she didn’t remember getting hit there.
~ * ~ * ~
Things didn’t improve the next morning until she checked her messages during a recess. None from her father, one from Oliver that she deleted without reading, one from Diggle, and three from Felicity, the first a picture of Diggle sleeping at her desk in the lair with his head back captioned Droolggle! Which was terrible but Laurel couldn’t stop the laugh.
Diggle’s single text was timestamped a minute later: She thinks she’s sneaky but she’s not. Please delete that picture?
The second text from Felicity included an offer to send over coffee, and the third a vague gripe about some work project Laurel was sure she wouldn’t understand. Absolutely nothing about her breakdown. They texted for the rest of the recess, and Laurel stepped back into the courtroom feeling strangely lighter.
She deleted the picture first, though. Diggle did say please.
~ * ~ * ~
Of everybody, Laurel had not expected Roy Harper, who’d once slouched across an interrogation table from her, to become her biggest ally. They didn’t have a shred in common—or at least she told herself that until the day Roy met her gaze, and she saw her own banked fury at life’s injustices reflected in his eyes.
She liked and respected Diggle, but Roy was usually the first to give her a sympathetic eye-roll after one of Oliver’s tirades. And out of all of them, she liked sparring with him best. Oliver scolded, Diggle patiently instructed, but Roy just fought back and let her learn from her mistakes that way.
Three weeks after her pity party in the ice bath, Roy ducked a jab and said, “What’s wrong with your wrist? That bruise has been there forever.”
“It’s been less than a month.”
“You sure it’s a bruise?”
“Don’t care.” Laurel doubled her attack, determined not to be caught off-guard by whatever distraction he was trying.
But Roy—after taking a kick to the side—jogged back, signaling time-out.
Laurel scooped her hair out of her face. “What is it?”
“Does it hurt at all?” Roy asked, nodding at Laurel’s arm.
Why was he so hung up on this? Laurel probed the bruise to show that it was normal, and frowned at the lack of pain. “Why does this matter to you? Unless it looks like cancer or something. Wait, does it?”
“No—not like cancer. It’s just that—that’s exactly what mine looked like when it first showed up.” Before Laurel could ask what he was talking about, Roy checked over his shoulder and rolled up the leg of his track pants to expose one ankle.
“I wrote it off as a bruise,” Roy said, “until the lines and color came in. What the hell, right? I thought these things were a myth.”
“Or a society-wide prank,” Laurel said absently. Her brain raced as she bent to study the crown above Roy’s ankle. Brilliant gold, set with black and red gemstones, and dripping blood from the rim. A deathly sharp arrow pierced through the crown, red at the tip darkening to deep black feathers. Unlike a tattoo, though, the colors seemed to pulse with life.
She’d never, ever seen a soulmark in person, but she’d never really thought about if they were a myth or not. What was the point when they were so rare? But this one could only have one explanation. “You must really love Thea.”
Roy hunched his shoulders and rolled the hem back down. “I guess,” he said.
With color that strong? There was no guessing about it. “When did this happen?” Laurel asked instead of pointing that out.
“It just showed up, and it got pretty clear. Damn thing feels really stupid and corny.”
Trust Roy to take something deemed the height of romance and declare it corny. It almost served him right.
Except…Laurel looked at the bruise on her wrist in bewilderment. “It looked like this?” she asked.
“Pretty close. It’s too purply to be a regular bruise.” Roy wrinkled his nose as though the color had personally offended him.
Laurel raised her wrist to the light, her chest tightening. A bruise would have faded to green and yellow by now. If it truly was a soulmark, it could only be the stuff of dreams and fairy tales—two of the farthest things from her reality.
Roy met her gaze; for a second the feeling suffused her that he understood what was going on inside her head better than she did. “Need a minute?”
Maybe. “It’s a lot,” Laurel said.
When she flexed her wrist, she finally caught sight of a faint-yet-deliberate black line, and realization struck home. A soulmark. She had a soulmark on her wrist. She swallowed hard. Why now? And for whom? If anybody, it should have been for Tommy. He’d died saving her. That sort of sacrifice was worthy of some visible badge of love, surely, but her skin had been unblemished even as his coffin had been lowered into the earth.
She lowered her arm and shook her head, squaring off against Roy again.
He bounced on his toes and took the first swipe. “Wanna talk about it?”
“I don’t know,” Laurel said. “Maybe I should Google it first. What the hell?”
Roy shrugged and broke her attempted arm-lock, sending them to opposite corners of the mat. “I looked. It’s hard to tell the real stuff from the bullshit. It’s mostly a bunch of people saying that vaccinations are why we don’t really have them anymore. And people saying they’re just tattoos.”
Laurel rolled her eyes at that old theory. It beat the ‘government is dumping chemicals in the water to suppress soulmarks’ kooks, but not by much. She’d always thought it had something to do with genetics, maybe, since the marks rarely showed on both parties. But nobody in her family had ever talked about having one. Not that they would have. People had always been odd about this sort of thing. Even Laurel’s grandparents would have called it old-fashioned and—Laurel glanced at her wrist—it was private, wasn’t it?
The split-second distraction cost her; five seconds later, she groaned and tapped the mat before Roy could actually choke her.
“How about the library?” she asked as they climbed back to their feet. “Did you find anything there?”
“Why would I go to a library?”
“Because that’s where—never mind.” Laurel attacked first this time. “Does Thea know?”
“No. She’s got other shit on her plate right now. And you’re not gonna tell her.” Roy twirled out of the way, kicked off the wall, and flipped her right onto her back.
She hit the mat with a groan. “Ow. I won’t tell Thea. Your secret’s safe with me.”
Roy hauled her back to her feet. “I won’t tell yours, either. Whoever they are.”
The trouble was, she had absolutely no idea who that could be. Or why now. She hadn’t seriously had feelings for anybody since Tommy’s death.
Heels clicked on the stairs before she could say anything. “If whoever’s down here is fighting for real, warn me so I can get the Super Soaker,” Felicity called.
Roy and Laurel exchanged a look. “We’re just sparring,” Laurel said.
“Oh, that’s good, then. I was just—” Felicity rounded the corner and jerked back. “Sweaty! Wow, you are so—that’s—sweaty, yes. Both of you. Very, ah…”
“Yeah, that’s what happens when you work out,” Roy said.
“Yes, right, that would be it. You’d think I’d be used to it.” Felicity scurried across the base to drop her purse off at the bank of monitors. It might have been the light, but she seemed a little pink. She stood up absurdly straight and turned to give them a bright, false smile. “Good workout?”
Roy and Laurel shrugged in unison.
“Right. Good talk. Try not to bleed on the mats, I’m not sure they’ve been disinfected lately.” Felicity wrinkled her nose, and Laurel had to fight a grin as she faced off against Roy.
Neither of them brought up the soulmarks again.
~ * ~ * ~
Roy left first, as he had a shift to cover, and he seemed to leave in a hurry, probably embarrassed by how much he’d shared with Laurel. Though she knew she should go home and get some work done, Laurel groaned and slid down one of the columns to sit on the mats and drink her water. She sagged back, closing her eyes. Absently, she wrapped her fingers around her wrist.
“You’re getting better,” Felicity said.
“You’re being nice because you’re my friend, but I’ll take it.”
“But I mean it, though.”
“I wouldn’t exaggerate to make you feel better. Actually, that’s a lie, I’d totally do that. But I’m not doing that now.”
“I believe you,” Laurel said. Should she get some a watch with a wide band to hide the mark? Or maybe a bracelet. She’d ask Felicity for input, as her friend was pretty great at accessorizing, but it might mean bringing up the soulmark. And she wasn’t sure she wanted to do that.
Those were her feelings. Right there on her arm, for all the world to see. Sure, right now the image was faint, barely there, but if her feelings grew… What feelings, though? Nothing had changed with her lately—or romantically at least? And what would it look like? What would her soul manifest when mingled with somebody else’s? There wasn’t a single creative bone in her body.
“You know, if you think any louder, they’ll hear your thoughts over in Central City,” Felicity said, her fingers still typing. “Having trouble at work? Or…with your dad?”
Her father remained the last thing she wanted to discuss. Laurel opened her eyes. “Have you ever given much thought to soulmarks?” she asked.
Felicity’s forehead crinkled. Instead of the teasing Laurel expected, her friend squinted. “Who told you? Was it Oliver? That rat, he swore he wouldn’t.”
“Wait—you have one?” Laurel sat up. First Roy, and now Felicity? What were the odds?
But Felicity blinked in confusion. “No, of course not. I just—I thought you were talking about, like—never mind.”
“Well, now you have to tell me,” Laurel said. “You can’t leave it like that, it’s not nice.”
“You have to promise me you won’t—gah, fine.” Felicity flounced back to her computer and typed in a long string of passwords. A very long string. Then, head hung, she turned the monitor so Laurel could see it.
It took her far too long to recognize the woman with the black hair and the St. Andrews cross, but she scrambled to her feet to get a closer look. “How old is this photo? You look so young!”
“College,” Felicity said through gritted teeth.
“The black hair is so cute on you, though. I wish I could pull that off. Wait, were you—you were full-on goth?”
“For a little while.” Felicity sounded like she was waiting for Laurel to reach an inevitable conclusion.
And it didn’t take an old high school valedictorian long. She’d made friends with people in the goth scene in high school, mostly to give her an edge on getting into the homecoming court. And the one thing they believed above all: “Had a thing for soulmarks, did you?” Laurel asked.
“No!” But the word came out too quick.
Laurel casually moved her wrist behind her back. “It’s okay if you did, I think it’s adorable.”
“I may have drawn up some designs.”
“How very goth of you.”
“Shut up,” Felicity said, but she was smiling. “Thank god I never got to the tattoo stage of things because my ex turned out to be a colossal asshole. Maybe I should be glad I never manifested one. The color would be gone by now, and it would be nothing but a sad reminder.” Felicity hit a key and the picture vanished. “We used to get high and talk about soulmarks all the time.”
“So you don’t think they’re a myth?”
“Myth? No. Mystery? Yes. Like, nobody knows where they come from, how they start, how they magically stand for a connection to a complete stranger. Why they never fade away! How the coloration works.” Felicity spun her chair around once, gesturing wildly. “The science doesn’t make any sense and they’re so rare now. Plus all the social stigmatisms about them which are frankly ridiculous. We don’t burn people at the stake for them anymore! Get over it, people.”
“Uh-huh,” Laurel said as she processed the information. Roy was going to kick himself for not knowing there was an expert so close.
“Did you know that they were once considered marks to be a sign of being lower class? Because of arranged marriage, of all things. Victorians found them to be a social faux pas, and we still hide them to this day because of that.”
“You have definitely given this a lot of thought,” Laurel said.
“Only a little,” Felicity said, hunching forward. Laurel wanted to reassure her that no, it was cute—and helpful besides—but she wasn’t sure how to word that. So she squeezed Felicity’s shoulder. Felicity glanced down, seemed to hesitate, and patted her hand. “What brought all this on?” she asked.
“I came across mention of them while looking up precedents the other day,” Laurel lied.
“There are a few legal cases,” Felicity said with a thoughtful frown. “They instated some laws in—I can’t remember where, but I want to say Maine. Anyway, there were some law that you had to prove your soulmark was for your future spouse if you wanted to get married. As you can guess, that one got laughed out by the Supreme Court.”
“As is only right. What were they even thinking?”
“I know, right?”
She really needed a shower, but Laurel plopped herself on the edge of Felicity’s desk, listening to a tirade about how ridiculous it would be to enact laws when they won’t even allocate money for serious, peer-reviewed research into soulmarks. Laurel found herself debating back. She herself had more opinions on the subject than she would have expected, given that she hadn’t thought about soulmarks since she was a kid. Felicity was intensely, almost intimidatingly smart, but Laurel had the law background, and it was fascinating to their differences in logic.
When Felicity’s phone beeped, both women jumped in surprise. “Oh, I’m supposed to meet Ray like five minutes ago,” Felicity said.
Laurel glanced at the clock, frowning at how much time had passed. “Guess that’s my cue to clean up,” she said. “I’m pretty sure I stink.”
“I didn’t want to say anything.” Felicity flashed her a radiant grin and easily ducked the towel Laurel lobbed at her on the way by.
She’d missed this, she thought as she cranked the shower on. She wasn’t close to her current coworkers—she carried far too many secrets for that—and after things had fallen apart with Joanna, her main source of harmless and interesting debate had dried up. A friendship of years had dwindled to nothing but tepid birthday greetings on social media.
Just another sad reality of her life.
She showered and scrubbed at her wrist in case it was dirt, but the blemish didn’t change. There were far too many unanswered questions that were guaranteed to devolve into a thought spiral, so she changed into her civilian clothes and stepped out into the main area of the base. Mercifully, Oliver still hadn’t arrived. She really wasn’t up to dealing with him at the moment.
Felicity’s desk chair was also empty, save for a sheaf of paper. A pink sticky note on top bore her name in block letters, and a little note: To help with your case! Good luck! :)
Laurel paged through. Felicity had apparently taken time to print out resources on soulmarks, even though she’d been late to meet Ray. It was such a thoughtful gesture that Laurel felt a twinge of guilt over lying to Felicity about it in the first place.
Still holding the stack, she pulled out her phone to text Roy. Her breath caught in her throat. Distantly, she heard the sound of the paper hitting the floor and the sheets fluttering as they scattered.
The soulmark on her wrist no longer looked like a bruise.
~ * ~ * ~
Laurel didn’t sleep that night.
She did rub the skin on the inside of her wrist raw as she heated up a microwavable meal. And she paced the inside of her apartment so much that her Fitbit congratulated her on doubling her step goals of the day. She also had a stare-down with the paperwork that Felicity had given her. She wasn’t sure she wanted to know the answers contained within. The excitement over soulmarks had twisted into something like hot panic, burrowing inside her.
At two a.m. she broke down and flipped the first page. Maybe soulmarks could be platonic. A close friendship or connection, right? There were many types of love in the world.
The first essay in the stack slam-dunked that hope into the garbage. Many theorists speculate that if soulmarks could represent the love one has for a friend or a close family member, statistically they would be greater in number.
Love. Romantic, probably sexual love.
An actual soulmate. One-sided at least.
Laurel made herself a cup of coffee, deliberately not looking at her wrist as she dove into the pile. The first essay, she set aside to be read later. The next presented a guide for how soulmarks worked. The onset appeared like a bruise on the skin, but slightly off-color. It was believed that this was actually somewhat common, and that soulmarks for most never reached the next stage: Manifestation. Where the “bruise” took on a design and occasionally color. Maturation, the third stage, could take anywhere from seconds to years.
Other essays presented theories about the origin on the marks, one scientific study diving into genetics. Sample sizes remained too small to truly study the phenomenon, the conclusion read.
Another more fanciful article attributed the marks to magic. Prior to hearing about the strange things happening in Central City and fighting a few metas herself, Laurel would have tossed that one in the trash. But it made a lot of sense, didn’t it? She’d listened to Felicity and the Star Labs crew debate the metahumans and how the powers had developed after the explosion. Every power had something that tied thematically to its new owner. Couldn’t that be an extension of these very rare soulmarks? Felicity liked to quote something about how magic was just science people didn’t understand yet. Did having a soulmark make one susceptible to the meta powers, too? Maybe they had nothing to do with one another and Laurel was merely grasping at straws.
Or maybe she was merely trying to avoid the anxiety crushing her throat for entirely different reasons.
Sara was the Lance who liked women. Who’d liked women, Laurel corrected herself, her stomach sinking the way it did whenever she had to put Sara in the past tense. Laurel remembered the girls Sara had kissed in the hallways at high school, the one she’d brought home but only called her friend (their parents had never suspected a thing, but Laurel had regretted how very thin the wall between their bedrooms was that night). And then there was Nyssa, whom Laurel found impossible to read. So yes, liking women and men had been Sara’s thing.
Laurel was firmly heterosexual. 100%.
Never questioned it.
She groaned and flopped back onto her couch, finally giving in and looking at the design on her wrist. The outline of the feather circling her wrist, that had to stand for the Black Canary. How she delivered justice. The fact that the feather was drawn up in circuit board patterns, with faint color easing in among the black lines? Only one person in her life really fit that. And the soulmark manifesting right after a heart-to-heart with that same individual? This was a mystery even Oliver at his most obtuse could solve.
But she’d never been attracted to a woman before. And Felicity? As her soulmate? She liked Felicity. She liked the quiet support and the way her mind sped along, faster than everybody else’s in the room. How she could type and laugh and drop accidental euphemisms all at the same time. But that fell firmly into friendship territory, and after the awful two years she’d endured, a genuine friend felt like an oasis in the desert. Friendship did not an attraction make.
Laurel lowered her wrist so that she could cover her eyes with her arm. Everybody she’d been attracted to before had been strictly of the manly variety. Not that there were actually a lot of people on the attraction list for her. Where Sara had seemed to gain a new crush almost daily, Laurel’s were sparse and few between. There had been her high school boyfriend, who’d been her chemistry partner for two semesters before they’d so much as kissed. A brief summer fling with another lifeguard, though he’d been way more into the physical side of things than she had. And then Oliver. And finally Tommy.
Come to think of it, for all the number of ill-advised dates she’d endured, the actual list itself was almost pitifully short.
And fate had decreed another entry. One she most definitely not attracted to. Sure, Felicity was cute. Gorgeous, really, if you were into that professional-meets-nerdy-girl-next-door look. Laurel lifted her wrist again and opened her eyes to study the feather. Did this mean she was gay now? Did sexual orientation even matter with soulmarks?
Ironically, the person she wanted to ask most in that moment was also the last one she wanted to tell about this, ever. Felicity had a boyfriend and this was all probably an accident anyway. Maybe she was hallucinating it. Maybe it wasn’t even a soulmark, but some kind of new meta in town with super weird powers. That could be it.
But as she fell into an uneasy sleep, Laurel sincerely doubted that.