Times Like These

Chapter 22

Christopher Monroe was buried on Thursday. He received full military honors: flag draped coffin, twenty-one gun salute, and taps being played by a lone bugler. Oliver didn’t attend. He’d wanted to. He’d known that Felicity would have wanted to be there but Oliver didn’t want his presence to detract from the service. Digg had gone in his uniform and Oliver had made sure everything was paid for. And when he found out Monroe had a four year old niece he was helping to support he made sure she wouldn’t need to worry about her future. It was truly the least he could do.

The days dragged by, each passing hour with no new information and no word on where she was felt like a stab to his heart and by the time Saturday had come and it had been a week Oliver found that he was numb.

He’d been putting on the hood more, or training. The searches, and scans he left to Digg, unable to sit still long enough to be effective in front of the computers. It all just reminded him of her. If he kept moving it helped. If he got to put the fear of god into some thugs and leave them battered and bloody for the SCPD it helped a little bit more. But nothing could ease the ache that had seemed to take up a permanent residence inside his chest.

Her mother had been quiet until Wednesday. Then there had been calls and texts sent almost continuously. The F.B.I wouldn’t leave Nate’s parents alone but no one knew why. Oliver had been forced to make up a story about how Felicity was knee deep in the middle of dealing with a merger and she’d call when she could.

Much like the glass of scotch, the phone was thrown across the lair, shattering unsatisfactorily against a concrete pillar. Digg hadn’t said a word, just ordered a new phone with all the same settings.

Thursday, while Digg was at the funeral Oliver finally gathered up the courage to go into the office. His mother had been asking him to stop by for two days, there were papers that needed his signature and he had been putting it off.

The tie around his neck felt like a noose and although he knew he should be greeting other employees and behaving like the CEO he set his eyes straight ahead, boarded the executive elevator and didn’t say a word.

Their offices were dark and his breath caught as he slowly approached Felicity’s desk. He’d automatically gone to their floor, not even considering his mother would be working out of a different office.

For the longest time he just stared. He often caught himself looking at her through the glass walls during the day. She was always a bright spot of color and animation, guaranteed to calm him and remind him of the good things even when he didn’t know thats what he needed. But the drawn blinds and dimmed lights just made the space look grey and dreary like all the life had been leached from it.

His mother found him, hands in his pockets, just staring at her desk. He let her lead him away where he silently signed the papers she put before him, not even asking what they were for. He stiffly accepted her hug and left without looking back.

Saturday was the worst. He and Digg didn’t say more than two words to each other the majority of the day. There was rumblings on the street that the Triad was attempting to re-establish their base in Starling and Oliver almost welcomed the distraction.

But that night as he suited up and strapped on his quiver his eyes crossed the worn wooden crate he’d dragged back from the island.

He could feel Digg’s eyes on him as he opened the lid and stared inside. Near the bottom was one of the copies of the notebook he’d brought with him. He hadn’t touched it since the Undertaking even though he still had every name memorized.

His hand hovered over the slim book, hesitating. But it had been a week. A week and there was nothing to go on. Any hope he had was now so faint he didn’t even know if it still existed. Instead of waiting for a call that said there was a new lead he was now waiting for the call that said they’d found her body.

“You sure you want to do that?” Digg’s voice cut through the lair just as Oliver’s hand wrapped around the notebook.

His eyes squeezed shut as he gripped the book tight, head tilting to the side in frustration. He didn’t want to talk. He didn’t want John to try and convince him to find another way, to not give up. He was at the end of his rope and drowning and the only one who had known how to throw him a lifeline wasn’t there to throw it.

He was braced for the lecture. For the speech that was sure to come about how pissed she’d be if she knew what he was contemplating. How she’d waited for him for five months, so he could surely give her more than seven days. How this was Felicity Smoak they were dealing with and she was smart and resourceful and they couldn’t underestimate her.

The silence was long and he could hear Digg get up from her chair. But instead of coming to his side the other man was halfway to the stairs when he finally did speak.

“She’s not dead yet, Oliver. So pull her out of the fucking coffin.” his usual calm demeanor had snapped, and all there was to be heard was anger, and disappointment, and then the slamming of the door as he left.

Oliver stood staring at the book as he fought for control, fought to find the last scrap of strength and willpower he had to put it back and shut the lid.

He patrolled for hours that night. The names of the people in the book cycling through his mind as he roamed the alleys and rooftops, never stepping out of the shadows. Once he almost cracked. He knew how easy it would be to find one of them, sneak in undetected, and growl the familiar phrase once again before he put an arrow through their throat.

An image of Felicity looking at him sadly, shaking her head as she walked away filled his vision and he knew he couldn’t. She’d forgive him, he knew that, she might even understand, but a part of her would always have expected more from him, and ever since she’d entered his life he’d expected more of himself.

He spent the last hour sitting on a rooftop watching the city, looking into the blackness and wondering if she was there, if she’d been there all along or if she was so far gone he’d never find her. It was the sharp pain in his side as he took a shuddering breath that made him get up and finally move.

When he stumbled back into the darkened lair to patch up his own injuries it was later than he had thought. The bruised ribs and blow he took to his shoulder was going to leave a mark. As he collapsed on the couch with ice packs placed strategically he couldn’t help how his thoughts strayed to her. He hoped she was unhurt, and as safe as she could be. He wouldn’t let himself go any further. As much as he was expecting the worst, right then, at those moments before he allowed himself to try and rest he couldn’t give in. Digg’s words rang in his head, and he fell asleep to ‘She’s not dead yet’ playing over and over in his mind.

The repeated trilling of his phone and Digg’s boots on the stairs made him pull his sore body off the couch after only a few hours of sleep. Digg tossed him the phone and a bag of food as he sat up, lukewarm ice packs falling to the floor with a plop as he tried not to grimace.

Oliver felt his stomach drop as the caller I.D showed Lance and he almost couldn’t bring himself to answer, fearful of what he might hear.

“Detective?” he said hoarsely, causing Digg to freeze.

“Wanted to give you a heads up, there’s a chance we’ve found the car, the first one Howard rented that he turned over to Samuels. One matching the description was spotted a few hours from here in Oakdale. Plates aren’t the same but the make and model are and it’s a rental.”

“He could have switched the plates easily,” Oliver finally got out, mind whirling at the chance she could be found,

“Could have,” Lance replied before pausing, “Look, Oliver…Jackson…he understands how invested you are but after what happened last time…If you show up at the scene he’s going to have you arrested.”

The hand holding the phone fell away as Oliver rubbed his tired eyes and tried to control his breathing, “I don’t know how he expects to keep a media blackout if he does that,” he bit out with a growl, tired of the red tape and the lies.

“Oliver…just…stay in Starling. It’s a long shot, I’ll be honest. Someone matching Samuels description was seen with the car but…brown hair, late twenties matches a lot of guys, doesn’t mean its him.”

“Do you think she’s even here?” It had been the question he’d been avoiding, but each day that had ended with nothing made him wonder if anyone was even looking in the right place.

Lance sighed, “Honestly…I don’t know. The profiler seems to be certain he’s taken her back to their hometown but…if he has he’s doing a damn good job hiding. There’s been no contact with his parents or hers or any other family and friends. They’ve got units on every location associated with the girlfriend and there’s been no movement.”

Oliver sank back into the couch, once again conflicted on whether staying in Starling City had been the right call. The last thing he wanted was to hear she’d been found and then have to wait hours to get to her.

“Right now, I think there’s still every chance she’s nearby.” Lance continued, but the silence that stretched between them over dead air held the words they weren’t saying. What if she was already dead and Samuels was long gone?

“How far is Oakdale?” Oliver finally asked, purposely changing the subject,

“Three hours in good traffic, we’re leaving in ten. I wasn’t supposed to even call you until we got there but…I trust you’ll behave.” he said evenly but with a warning to his tone, “I swear to you son, if she’s there you’ll be the first to know. You can get in your fancy chopper and be here before you know it.”

There was nothing left to be said and the sharp click of the call being ended rang in his ears for a long while.

Digg was waiting expectantly and Oliver filled him in as they ate.

“You going to go anyways?” Digg asked,

Suddenly the breakfast he’d been eating sat in his stomach like a rock and he shoved it aside. “I don’t know. If…if she’s there and I’m not…but if she’s not…I don’t know if I can do that again.”

Digg nodded in understanding, “How about I call the hanger and have the plane fueled and ready, just in case?”

It was a compromise, and an olive branch after their exchange the night before, although Oliver recognized it wasn’t Digg who should be taking the first step.

He opened his mouth to say…he wasn’t sure what exactly but Digg held up a hand and stopped him. “Did another name get marked off the list last night?”

“No,”

The hand fell and Digg got up and made his way back to the computers, “That’s all I needed to know,”

There was a new text on Felicity’s phone from Lance. He’d emailed a file containing what they had on the new intel, and it held an admonishment for the Arrow. Lance suggested he stop trussing up the bottom feeders of Starling and focus on what was important.

Oliver had almost broken another phone when he read it.

Even though his ribs and shoulder burned in protest he knew the only way he’d get through the next three hour wait was to push through the pain as he trained. He was an hour into the salmon ladder and about to work on his target practice when Digg suddenly called him over.

He was standing at the large touch surface table, a map of the surrounding area pulled up. Oliver could see where Starling City was clearly marked, as well as Oakdale, but there was one more location even further out that Digg had circled and labeled.

“What’s that?”

“Ashford,” Digg replied, a lightness in his tone that hadn’t been there in over a week,

Oliver crossed his arms and stood back, waiting for the explanation.

“Ashford, population around eight thousand. Small township about six hours from here.” Digg said as he picked up a tablet and made a few taps.

Oliver was beginning to become angry. None of what he was saying was giving him any idea as to why he thought this small town was important.

“Ashford’s main economy comes from a factory two towns over, it’s basically a bedroom community surrounded by farmland. Typical American small town.” sensing Oliver’s rising ire he swiped his hand up on the tablet, throwing two images onto the screen in front of them, “So typical it even has a diner.”

The image on the left was a roadside view of a quintessential diner, one level, awning out front, shabby paint job and a large sign that proclaimed ‘Ashford Diner’. The image on the right was a picture of a half scorched take out menu also from the Ashford Diner.

“Look at the location on the menu,” Digg suggested and Oliver realized with a start it wasn’t the same one. He looked over at Digg, brows drawn together in confusion.

“That menu was in the backpack that Samuels left at the plaza, it’s from their hometown. The name’s the same. I was looking at the map, trying to get a feel for Oakdale and the name Ashford popped out at me. I knew I recognized it from somewhere.”

Oliver stared at Digg half in shock as he processed what was being suggested, “You can’t think…”

“All the tech isn’t getting the job done! He’s smart. He’s stayed off the grid and it’s been working! He also didn’t go back home because he knew they’d be looking for him there. But this…” Digg said emphatically as he pointed at the screen, “This makes sense. He needs to re-live what happened, and this town with the same name gives him that chance. When she was going through the items in the backpack Felicity said she remembered that Nate and Jenny were supposed to go to the Ashford Diner the night he wrecked. They never made it. What if he’s trying to make sure they make it this time.”

Oliver took a few steps back as he raked both hands through his hair even though his eyes never left the small dot that said ‘Ashford’.

“John…”his voice was low and desperate and half broken, the call from Lance had already sent his mind whirling with the possibility that she’d be found that day. To couple it with Digg’s discovery left him reeling.

“I know, man. I know. But…it’s the first real lead we’ve had. Samuels is too smart to get caught on a camera and he’s got plenty of cash to keep him quiet for a long time. Every instinct I have is telling me that lead the F.B.I is chasing is a dead end and this is our shot to bring her home.” it was the intensity in his eyes and the way his voice never wavered that had Oliver nodding before he even realized what he was doing.

“How far again?”

“Six hours, but I could probably get there in five,”

Oliver shook his head, “No, that’s too long, we’ll take the chopper.” he said decisively, already moving to grab his jacket and phone,

“Choppers too conspicuous. The last thing we want to do is spook him. We wouldn’t have a car when got there and we don’t even know where he’s holed up.” Digg replied sensibly and it drew Oliver up short,

With a frustrated grunt he turned back, “Fine, but five hours and not a second more.”

“You calling Lance?”

Oliver paused and considered it for a moment, “No, they’re already halfway to Oakdale, and I doubt Jackson would divert for this. We’ll do this, just us. If…” the hope bubbled so quick in his chest it made his heart clench and he had to shut his eyes tight before he could continue, “If she’s there…we’ll contact them.”

“Fair enough,” Digg said, grabbing an extra weapon from the locker and then they were taking the stairs two at a time.

When Digg pulled the Escalade out Oliver didn’t say a word, “Bigger gas tank, won’t need to stop,”

Soon enough they were flying down the interstate, the practically empty Sunday morning roads stretching ahead of them. Oliver knew it would be the longest five hours of his life, but every mile they put behind them made him hope just that much more. If she wasn’t there…he didn’t know if he’d come back from that.

Little was said as Digg barreled down the highway. Nothing needed to be said. They knew their mission: Bring her home, by any means necessary.

Two hours in he got a text from Lance saying local PD had lost the car before the F.B.I had arrived and they were setting up a temporary command center in Oakdale until they found it.

When he relayed the news to Digg he just shook his head and let out a huff of expected annoyance, “Because it’s not them. Just some poor businessman who’s about to have his world turned upside down when he’s stopped by a SWAT team in full tactical gear.”

Oliver turned the phone in his hands and stared out the window for a long moment, “You really think…”

“I wouldn’t get your hopes up. I wouldn’t get mine up but…” he sighed and shifted in his seat, hands tightening on the wheel before he continued, “In the Army everything was drilled into you. When to fire, when to take cover, when to advance. Every soldier was expected to react the same way every time. And that works. Most of the time. Except when it doesn’t and you ignore the hairs on the back of your neck and theres a bullet finding its target before you can turn. I never ignored those feelings and it saved my ass more than once. And I know you work the same way.”

Oliver dipped his chin once. He understood. On the island he’d had to use all his senses in addition to the repetitive training. Pinpoint accuracy didn’t mean anything if someone could get the drop on him. He wouldn’t know how to function without using his instincts.

“My instincts are telling me this is it.”

“I trust you,”

It was just three words but it said everything he couldn’t voice just then. He had to trust Digg, he had no choice. He had to trust that this was it, that by the end of the day he’d have her in his arms again. His very survival depended on this ending, and ending soon.

They continued on. No stopping for food, or bathroom breaks, the GPS map silently guiding them closer to their goal.

There was no more contact from Lance, but Oliver hadn’t thought there would be. When they passed the exit that would take them to Oakdale he considered having Digg turn off, but only for the briefest of seconds. He trusted Digg, the connection to the other diner made sense, he had to have faith it was right.

For another hour they drove, Digg pushing the limits of how fast they could go without having to deal with a traffic stop. Another hour of trying to ignore the screen that told him how long until they reached their destination. Another hour before his phone rang and everything changed.

He looked down to see an unfamiliar number which made his brows draw together in confusion. There weren’t many people who had his private line.

“Lance again?” Digg asked, as the phone rang again,

“No…I don’t recognize the number,” he replied, and by the third ring a wash of anger overtook him. He didn’t have time for misdials, or god forbid the press.

“What?” he snapped into the phone, fully expecting a request for an interview. Instead there was silence and then a sound he’d never forget as long as he lived. A gasping sob that made a chill run up his spine and his breath catch in his throat. And then his name. Her voice saying his name.

Time didn’t just still it came to a sudden grinding halt and nothing else around him existed. She’s alive. She’s alive. She’s alive. It rolled through him, consuming everything in its path as the confirmation he’d so desperately needed was right there.

“Felicity?! Is that you?” the words were out of his mouth before he knew he was speaking, the questions pointless because he knew it was her. Every cell in his body was telling him it was her. “Are you okay? Where are you? Are you hurt?” he couldn’t stop. He needed to know everything immediately.

Her voice was so thick with tears he could barely understand her, “Oh god, Oliver! I…don’t have enough time.”

His heart dropped. She was still in danger. She hadn’t gotten away from Samuels.

“Has he hurt you? Where are you?” his eyes burned at hearing her, knowing she was alive, knowing she was out there somewhere but not safe. Blood rushed through his head and left him almost dizzy at the shock of actually speaking to her.

The words spilled out of her, fast and desperate and he struggled to pay attention, “I only have a minute. I’m in Ashford. It’s a small town, I don’t know where. There’s a motel off the main road. Room twenty.”

As soon as she said Ashford his head fell into his hands. Digg was right. Digg was right. They didn’t have to search any longer.

“We’re on the way, Digg figured it out and we’ll…” his eyes cut to the GPS to see how far they still were from Ashford, “dammit we’re almost two hours away. I’ll call the local police–”

Her frantic, panicky plea cut him off, “NO! You can’t! Oliver…he’s unstable, you don’t…you don’t understand and…he’s got…oh god, he’s got Monroe’s gun. I think he killed him.”

She knew about Monroe. The twisting in his gut grew worse and he knew he made some sort of sound, something desperate tore from his chest at the thought of Samuels threatening her and the large SUV suddenly felt small and confining.

“Felicity…” her name emerged from his throat full of everything he couldn’t say just then. Run. Stay safe. Don’t get hurt. Please stay alive until I can get to you.

She was crying, he could hear her struggle for breath, and all he wanted was to be with her right then. He’d give away his fortune if it would get him to her faster.

“Oliver I…I have to go now. I’m out of time. I’m sorry. He can’t know I called…” she sounded small, and sadder than he’d ever heard her before, and he knew she didn’t want to hang up.

“FELICITY! NO!” his vocal cords burned with the strain. She couldn’t hang up. She couldn’t leave him in the dark once again.

Her sobs broke him, his heart aching at her pain, “I’m sorry,” she whispered so softly he almost missed it, “I lo…I’m so sorry. Just hurry.”

“FELICITY!” he yelled again even though he’d heard the click,

His fist slammed into the dash with enough force to crack the plastic. The phone fell forgotten into his lap as he sat back and covered his face with his hands, palms feeling the wetness on his cheeks he didn’t even know was there.

“Oliver!”

“She’s alive. She’s in Ashford. You were right.” Oliver said without dropping his hands, “You were right,”

“Is she okay?”

“I don’t know. She knows…she knows about Monroe. Samuels has his gun.” Oliver relayed as he wiped his face and stared at the GPS screen once again, “They’re at a motel in town, she said it was off the main road. Room twenty. She must have found a way to call, but she said she didn’t have enough time…” he trailed off as his thoughts strayed to the worst. What if they were this close but got there too late?

Digg’s jaw clenched but he didn’t echo Oliver’s thoughts even though it was obvious he shared them. “Call Lance, they’ll be about an hour behind us if they leave now.”

“I’m not waiting,” Oliver said almost angrily,

“No chance in hell. We’re getting her out.” Digg agreed immediately, “But they still have to know,”

Lances phone rang twice before he picked up, “Look, Oliver I told you I’d call if we–”

“She’s alive!” Oliver stated, talking over the detective, “She’s alive and she called me.”

“What?! Are you sure?”

“She couldn’t talk long. He’s holding her at a motel in Ashford, it’s about three hours from where you are now.”

“Queen, if this is some sort of wild goose chase…”

“She is alive!”

There was a beat of silence before he replied, “Okay, I’ll tell Jackson and we’ll roll out. But don’t you go and do anything stupid! You hear me? You wait until we get there.”

“I can’t do that, Detective,”

Lance was sputtering out a protest as Oliver hung up.

“You were right, Digg,” his voice was barely audible as he shut his eyes tight and tried to replay her words over in his head. Just to be able to hear her again after so long…he could feel a fresh sting of tears as he pinched the bridge of his nose and took a deep breath.

Digg didn’t say a word, his only reply was to push his foot down on the accelerator as their ETA steadily continued to shrink.


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