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the highway in the dark (was it the cry of the river?)

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They don’t leave until late. They'd meant to be gone by noon but there had been goodbyes to make and luggage to pack and the car hadn't been ready and so it was nearly sunset by the time they hit the coast. All either of them wanted to do was run, to get as far from Starling as it was possible to get for a while but in the end they both succumbed to exhaustion, weighed down by the last few months and so they turned off the highway. They found a tiny, hidden cottage inn and checked in at midnight.

 

They stayed in that tiny, beachfront room for three days, lay in bed, ate room service, watched movies neither of them could remember the next day. Oliver woke every morning to sunlight through the open window and the familiar scent of salt, having slept without dreams. The breeze reminded him, somehow, of both long afternoons on the water with his parents and Thea and longer nights huddled in the tree line above the beach. Both carried the memory of sharp sea breezes. Neither of them moved most mornings, staying curled up in the sheets, dozing in the still quiet. The anxiety of the last few months – the last few years even – had slipped away suddenly, left him lightheaded and off balance. Despite it, he watched Felicity without any doubt, clear headed and certain the way he hadn't been about anything since he’d been young and stupid. The haze of grief and pain and exhaustion that had followed him since the Gambit had finally cleared and the relief and gratitude washed over him in waves, leaving him breathless. They could have this; they could outrun the past and the future and the whole world, for a few days at least.

 

He stirred fuzzily at dawn with Felicity behind him, forehead pressed to the nape of his neck, legs fitted close against his, one hand on his back. She pressed down and he hissed at the slight pain, tensing up. He closed his eyes again, ignoring the topic with a twinge of guilt. He breathed long and slow, willing her to believe he was sleeping, to let it go. She traced the half-healed outline with the tips of her fingers and he cringed away from her touch, unable to stop the reflex. He twisted round to face her, half to hide the half-healed brand and half to see her face. He couldn’t take it if her reaction was disgust. He knew it wasn’t logical – he hadn’t made an effort to hide it, she’d already seen it, but- She reached for him, pulled at him, hands moving restlessly over his arms and shoulders and neck, until he was crouched over her.

 

There were questions dripping heavy on her lips but he pressed his face to her throat and instead she wrapped her arms around him, urging him down until he lay in her arms, his weight half on her and half on the bed, where she could run one hand up his back, the other still covering the brand like she could erase it, wipe him clean if she tried hard enough. His other scars – yes, they showed the things that had happened to him but in the end, they were scars. They also showed he had survived; the wounds had healed, even if they couldn't be erased. Slade had branded him, once, but he had learned to touch the dragon set deep into his skin and think of Shado's smile and strength, the gifts she had given him, as much as he thought of her body on the forest floor.

 

Ra’s had branded him as well, but he refused to linger on it. Ra’s may have ended up dead on that dam but in many ways he had still won. Oliver had bent. He had kidnapped Lyla, cool-headed, steel-spined Lyla. He had let all of them think he was dead and they would die in that cell, and accepted it would cost him everything. He had accepted it, but it hadn’t come through. They had landed the plane safe and Felicity had been there, looking at him with unbelievable hope.

 

He breathed her in, and on the morning of the fourth day they headed inland.

 

The peace didn't last, never lasts. The second week, he wrenched himself up from a dream, dropped his head to his knees, clutched the mattress with both hands and sat trying to drag in oxygen, finding that every breath burns like acid. He stumbled to his feet, crashed across the room, slammed the window shut against the heavy, persistent snow. The room was still ice cold, and his vision blurred, the mountain looming up before him. He looked down and jerked his head up because all he could see was blood and steel. He shoved away from the window - he could feel it under his palms - even as his knees gave out. He ended up half sprawled on the carpeted floor, choking and sobbing, fingernails drawing blood from his palms, the world swimming before him.

 

It wasn't the first time, but it was the first time Felicity had woken, certain something was wrong. The first time she saw him clinging to the world by his fingernails, the past pulling at him and held his hands, told him it would be okay, wrapped him in the covers she dragged from the bed and sat with him until he could breath, until he could tell her the colour of the walls and the watercolour paintings above the bed. She pulled him up from the floor. She brought him hot chocolate and turned the heating right up and lay with him while he shuddered and tried to get his breathing under control. She fell asleep around dawn, when he had finally worn himself out enough to lay silent and still in the grey pre-dawn light.

 

They didn't go out that day, abandoned their plans for the day. They lay on the couch, Oliver exhausted and not-quite-fragile - the twitch of a hand that betrayed him, the slow blink that sent Felicity's stomach plummeting. He refused to look her in the eye, watching the TV without taking in anything and she had the creeping sensation he wasn't seeing it at all - not in the terrifying way the world had slid out from under him last night, but in the way he sometimes got when he was stuck thinking about people and places and events a thousand miles and 5 years away, long nights of hearing the clang of metal on metal or the thump of skin and muscle on wood somewhere behind her, unwavering, repetitive patterns.

 

He tries to force himself up, out of this fugue but everything is heavy and he just wants to sleep, but he can't. The images are repeating, looping, played out on the inside of his eyelids every time he closes his eyes so he keeps them open and doesn't sleep. Memories are still better than believing it was real, than his mind tricking him, telling him he was back on that mountain, knowing he was dying, knowing he hadn't been good enough, had been beaten, had failed-

 

She went to bed at 11:00. He stayed on the couch, still awake.

 

She woke at 3:00 to him sitting on the end of the bed, looking at her. Too tired to speak, she tugged on his hand until he lay beside her, not touching but his eyes finally closed. He had nightmares, old demons, ones he should know how to slay, but he still wakes shaking, the pillow wet. He was surprised, and ashamed. He hadn't cried at Sara's funeral, but he could still cry over ghosts.

 

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They leave, Felicity determined to get somewhere warmer, somewhere with no snow or ice to trigger flashbacks, somewhere with happier associations. She finds a cabin, in a forested area, close to a few small towns but still isolated. He nods at her choices, dark circles reasserting themselves even as he pulls himself back together. He starts running in the mornings, coming back later and later, soaked in sweat but no less restless. They go out, play at being tourists, eat what the locals tells them is the best cheesecake in the state.

 

Things do get better. They take pictures of themselves in front of ‘Welcome To…’ signs to send home to Thea and her mom and the smiles are mostly real. He buys her good wine and the tacky fridge magnets she collects; she buys him mint choc chip ice cream and books for when the bad days aren't so bad. They discover a shared passion for screaming at sports neither of them understands because the TV in the cabin is somehow picking up rugby matches. They keep moving, keep travelling, just driving, the way he had dreamed of, and there’s comfort in it. It feel like maybe they’re going somewhere better than where they started, wherever they end up. The Porsche breaks down in the middle of nowhere so they curl up in the back seat, drink red wine out of the bottle and take turns reading trashy thrillers aloud to each other. They fall asleep wrapped up in each other tight enough to block out the world. It doesn't stop the dreams.

 

He wakes from yet another nightmare and she's watching him. "Tell me?"

 

He shakes his head mutely.

 

She sat up and found her glasses, squinting at him. "Please talk to me." She still gets no reaction. "I'm here Oliver. Please, just-“ She rose up onto her knees and reached for him but he shifted back, out of reach. She was left with one shaking hand raised in mid-air, unable to touch him. She let it fall limply to the duvet. There was an uncomfortable silence as they sat untouching in the bed.

 

He couldn’t take it anymore and broke the silence. “I’m afraid. I’m just afraid, because good things don’t happen, and I’m just waiting for this to end because it will. It always does.” He said it quietly, staring straight ahead at the wall. He’s got what she used to jokingly call his ‘dead-shark’ face on, but it’s not funny right now because there’s no emotion in it, not even fear, like, he’s already shut down, locked away everything that makes him human, makes him Oliver, her Oliver, and she knows that he can do it because he does it so much but right now all she can remember is him standing over John with a sword in his hand and she’s a little afraid-

 

He turned his head towards her and suddenly she could see that his eyes were wet, tears gathering even as he choked down any other sign of distress and she’s almost ashamed. He doesn’t look threatening or cold, just a little broken and trying not to show it.

 

“Things get hard. For everyone. Things get might harder for us, but that’s just because we’ve never done anything the easy way.” She shuffled over slightly so she was kneeling in front of him. She leaned forwards and wrapped her arms around his neck, pressed her forehead to his temple, then his shoulder, ran her hands up his back mindlessly. She tried to tell him all the things he wouldn’t believe if she said them out loud, tried to make him feel safe. She was there, he didn’t need to be on his guard like this. She forced herself to pull back so she could see his face and tell him, with all the conviction she did and didn’t feel. "We’re also very good at what we do. And whatever happens, we’ll face together.”

 

"Why? Why would you stay, after everything?" He said, hands finally coming up to cradle her hips, her waist. His voice was cracking and she thought he was too. Thought she might be hearing her.

 

"Because you changed me. Changed my life. I was bored, before you, you and your crusade. There was so much I could do but I just drifted, did whatever I was supposed to and didn’t bother to look for anything more… I have lived more in the years since you walked into my office than in the decade before. I had purpose, I had people and problems that challenged me. I had equals, people who kept up and demanded I keep up. The last few years have been so, unbelievably hard. I really did hate you for a while but I don't regret stepping into this. Not for a moment." She locked gazes with him, close enough that he could feel her warmth, which their foreheads knocked together when she leant into him. She said it quietly, her voice not quite the whisper his had been but strong, even as she offered up her deepest thoughts, lowered every barrier, every wall. He would have told her anything, in that moment.

 

He leaned in too so they’re pressed closer together. "I don't deserve this. Don’t deserve you, don’t deserve to live when so many others haven’t. Don’t deserve to make it out alive. I don’t see a world in which this could ever happen. I hoped, but- But I don’t believe. Not really." He took one shuddering breath after another, dropped his head to her shoulder heaving like he couldn’t breathe with the weight of the admission and she wrapped her arms around him, like it was the most natural thing in the world.

 

"It wasn’t your fault and you deserve to be happy. You can be. You’re not going to lose this.” She whispered into his ear. “They wouldn’t want you to suffer Oliver. Tommy, Sara, Shado, all those other ghosts. They wouldn’t want you to live always waiting for some punishment just for living. They wouldn’t.” He was making harsh, choked sounds that she realised were not quite completely suppressed sobs and she could feel moisture seeping into her shoulder. She murmured nonsense into his ear and held on tight until her arms ached like she could keep him from flying apart, until he was silent again, breathing slowly and freely. She got up, stiff from too long in one position and held out her hand.

 

“Come to bed. There’s no threat here.”

 

He did.

 

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He woke up the next morning and went running, like every day. It didn't feel like every day though. The burn of his muscles felt less like pain somehow. He came back calmer than he had felt in weeks. Felicity was still asleep. He dug out the collapsible bo staff Sara had sent while she had been away - an unmarked box with an unsigned note - don't get rusty, I'm coming back for that rematch. He stood outside the house and fell into the katas she had taught him, late at night when neither of them could sleep, each set feeding into next, one after the other, the way she had showed him. He struck and blocked invisible opponents until he felt settled, everything driven far away except each separate but connected movement. It was simple. He sat and watched the last of the sunrise, waiting for Felicity to wake up.

 

They moved on from that cabin, still headed south. The nights got better, if not all of them at once. He still avoided her eyes on the days he didn’t feel worth anything. There were still days where he couldn’t seem to move, feeling like the air was made of stone, others when he wouldn’t stop moving, training until he could feel the pain cutting through the fog. Felicity got bored, restless, impatient, said things she didn’t mean - except the ones she did mean, because there’s a lot they haven’t discussed because Oliver is less allergic to emotion than he used to be but it’s still not exactly his favourite thing. He hates it worse than psychologists.

 

He never really believes they’re safe. When she wakes alone in the middle of the night, the loss of his presence beside her enough to wake her, she assumes it’s nightmares until she realises that it’s not, that he wakes deliberately to pace the space they were sharing that night, checking windows, doorways, clearing each room in turn. Eventually she learns to sleep through it usually, and even when she doesn’t, to take the quiet sounds of him just outside the door as proof enough that he’s here and safe and not a world away, hurting and afraid and beyond her reach. It still bothers her, that he can’t feel secure in anything but it helps him, and every time he comes back to her, lies beside her calmer than when he left. He does it less and less as time goes by, becomes less twitchy even when his back’s not to a wall.

 

They’ve been gone three months before they start thinking about going back. They both look a little too long at real estate agents windows, accumulate catalogues in the bottom of their bags. They’re both thinking it – they both know the other is thinking it - but they’re also both thinking about what that life would entail and neither of them can do it. The catalogues end up in the bin and Felicity bookmarks real estate agents in Starling. They talk about the future, hesitantly. They look a month ahead and book flights home. They look a year ahead and talk about looking for somewhere to live – two bedrooms, Oliver insists, even if he hasn’t asked Thea yet. They look a lifetime ahead and she asks him if he wants children. He doesn’t have an answer, but they have time.

 

They both believe that. It’s hard, but they do.