November chill gusts through Starling, the roof of the police department's main headquarters is ninety feet off the ground, and I forgot to bring an extra set of Under Armour to the lair tonight. Huddled close to the rooftop service door, I am freezing my ass off.
The wind blows the hood back onto my shoulders. That's the sixth time now.
Dad claims the hood always stayed on for him, no problem. Mom's theory is that the buzz cut provided traction, and every time the subject comes up, she finger-combs my hair and bites her lip ruefully. She has given up telling me when I need a haircut. Abby, on the other hand, cheerfully reminded me this morning that her stylist would be happy to see me if I ever get tired of looking like the back end of an Angora goat.
I tug the hood down around my ears, which started aching with the cold about an hour ago, and I adjust the lock picks slightly. A little twist, the barest wiggle and –
Warm air washes over my face. Out of petty spite, I put a little swagger into my step as I stroll into Police Chief Len Broussard's secure building.
SCPD is not out for my blood the way they were for Dad's in his first year as the Arrow. For one thing, I'm not dropping bodies. For another, they have neither the manpower nor the expertise to spare for someone who's been basically helpful anyway. They're not the force that Captain Lance commanded back in the twenties.
"After the tech bust," Mom explained, "the city's revenues plunged, and SCPD just couldn't pay the salary they used to. They started hemorrhaging qualified people, and now half their officers moonlight on private security details to make ends meet. Ask Dig about their ethics and professionalism. He'll tell you some stories."
"You mean the details turned into protection rackets?"
"I mean that some officers got creatively... entrepreneurial about keeping the peace. Chief Broussard hasn't exactly discouraged it either."
So yes, I take a little perverse joy in fritzing out the security cameras in the hallway with magnetized flechettes.
I head for the secure archives, where their most sensitive files are stored, isolated from the cloud where Mom can't get to them and locked behind a steel door with a thumbprint scanner. The first time I ninja'd my way in here, I stole a Coke can with a set of beautiful, un-smudged pizza grease fingerprints from the head of Internal Affairs. We lifted the prints, sent them to Central City, and Barry sent us back a funky little latex thumb glove that looks kind of naughty but works like a charm.
Dig says Captain Lance used to just give case files to Team Arrow, just that easy, like Christmukkah presents. These days, if I want to know what SCPD knows about Starling's psychotic lowlife community, I have to find out the hard way.
After eight months of regular visits, I know the floor plan like it's my own house, and I slip from shadow to shadow down the deserted hallways to a door marked: Restricted Area, Authorized Personnel Only. I pull out my official authorization keys - the torsion wrench and the hook pick - and I make quicker work of this lock now that my fingers aren't stiff with cold.
Archives are a couple doors down. The thumb condom gets me in, no problem, and in the pitch darkness I hear the faint hum of the three mid-thirties model data storage libraries Mom calls Larry, Curly, and Moe.
I slip the drive key into Moe, and I whisper into the comm, "Done. It's all you."
"Thank you, sweetheart," Mom says in my ear. Things start flashing to life on Moe's display, and I resist the urge to drum my fingers on the plastic Wayne Enterprises logo while I wait. Breathe in, breathe out, and focus, Dad would say. If you're bored in the field, you're not paying enough attention.
Dad knows his shit. The moment I zone back in, I notice the footsteps. I turn the library's monitor off to mute the light, and I melt into the shadows. The footsteps - high heels, by the sound of it - pass right by the door without so much as a pause.
"Got it," Mom says on a yawn. "Time to pack up for the night."
"On my way."
I ease the door open a crack, and I look up and down the pitch black hallway. Just because it's new and cool, I flick on the night vision Mom recently integrated into my mask, and I glance up and down the hallway. All clear.
"Hey," I whisper into the comm. "What exactly is an Angora goat?"
"Oh, you know," Mom says sleepily. "They're all curly and silky, and people make mohair sweaters out of them. The junebug gave me one for my birthday - a sweater, not a goat - and it's the softest thing I've ever…" She trails off. I hear another yawn, and I can picture her rubbing the bridge of her nose. "Come on home, Arrow."
I swing home through the night exactly like a silent guardian, or maybe like a watchful protector, and definitely not at all like a shivering dumbass with his nose running from the cold. Arrowing is extremely glamorous and sexy, let me tell you.
Back at Panoptic, I slip into the storage closet, through the unmarked door, and down into the lair. Please stop calling it a lair, Dad always says, so Mom and I refuse to call it anything else.
Down in the warm flicker of the synthetic torches, my parents are waiting up for me on the oversized sofa. At least Dad is waiting up. Mom is asleep on his shoulder, her glasses folded up on the end table next to him. He smiles at me, mouthing a "Shh." I snort back the snot that's threatening to run down my face. He gives me a look – I thought we trained that out of you when you were six – which I shrug off.
Mom's computer glows to life when I sit down in front of it. I slip in the drive key, pull up George Miranda's case file, and print a copy for Dad. He doesn't like reading on screens, says his eyes aren't what they used to be.
When I get out of the shower, he's perusing the last page."I'm not a lawyer," he says in a murmur that won't wake Mom, "but this looks like enough to convict him. There's only one reason Laurel would drop the charges."
"One of the cartels," I say, nodding along. "Miranda is either Salvatrucha or..." I take a breath, "or Black Hand."
The Hand took it on the jaw two years ago when the FBI received an unmarked package containing a single data key, on which they found enough information to incriminate half the mob captains on the West Coast. Since then, the Feds have been gleefully arresting mobsters left and right. A year ago, Jason Mora was limping up the steps of the courthouse to testify against his former employers when he was shot in a drive-by.
I admit I read that headline with a certain amount of satisfaction. May the imps of hell winch his intestines from his guts and cut him in quarters every morning before breakfast.
While the Feds landed the big fish, I've been drag-netting the little shrimp. It's not going nearly as well for me as for them. The fifth time that Laurel's office let one scuttle right back into the water, the Arrow called her from a ghost phone to demand a meeting on her rooftop.
"Ms. Lance," I said, hood down and morphvox on. "I'm getting a little tired of gift wrapping scumbags and watching you return them with the tags still on. Four times is unfortunate, but five is just rude."
She closed her eyes and took a calming breath, as she so often does with that brat Jonny Queen. There was no way in hell she didn't recognize me. But if she wanted to playact having no personal connection to the Arrow, I was willing to do that song and dance.
"I have to work with the justice system as it is," she said, "not as I'd like it to be. If witnesses shut their mouths and lab work disappears and judges rule evidence inadmissible, I don't have a case. It doesn't matter what I know, it only matters what I can prove." She crossed her arms and shifted her weight over her sensible shoes. "I'm not sure you understand how complicated the situation can be."
I shrugged. "How do I un-complicate it?"
She shook her head. "You do your job, and let me do mine."
Back at the lair, Dad did his best to explain. "She's not wrong about the systemic challenges. And on top of that, I wouldn't be surprised if somebody were leaning on her."
I tried to imagine the District Determinator running scared from a threat. "That doesn't sound like the kind of thing she'd put up with."
"It didn't used to be." Dad leaned back against the desk wearily. "You were still in high school when it happened, so you probably don't remember the Hennessey murders. Rick Hennessey was on Laurel's team when she was lead prosecutor on the Dozier case. She took it hard when he was killed."
"Somebody bumped off a city attorney?"
"Him and his whole family," Dad said quietly. "His daughters were thirteen and fifteen."
I whistled. And I shut up judging Laurel Lance.
Besides, I can't say I'm eager to tangle with murderous international crime syndicates myself. This one in particular. "Much as I enjoy pissing in the Black Hand's cornflakes," I tell Dad, "I'm kind of hoping it's not them this time."
"So am I. Wounded animals are not famous for their calm and compliance."
I give him an irritable look. "Yeah, that. Also the bit where it's fifty-fifty their jefe knows exactly who sicced the Feds on him."
Jason Mora knew our names. The night we burned down his little fiefdom, he went straight into federal custody before he could report back to his boss, and he probably preferred it that way. The leader of the Black Hand, known only as Galen, makes a Darth Vader severance package available to those who fail him. But in Mora's year negotiating a plea deal, there's no telling what information he might have passed along from behind bars.
Of course, if Galen knows who we are, he also knows that the last time his organization went up against our family, their Starling headquarters got blown up and their unhackable computer got hacked and their super secret trafficking operation got shut down and their sensitive data got mailed to the FBI. All in all, kidnapping Felicity Queen was the worst strategic blunder the Hand has ever made in North America, with the possible exception of that turf war with the L.A. Bloods.
But if Warlord McMurder decides we each need a bullet in the brain, there's not a hell of a lot we can do to stop him.
I roll my lips together. "We never should have left Mora alive."
Dad shakes his head. "Let's not have that argument again."
"I'm just saying."
He casts me a dark look. "You don't know what you're talking about."
I throw my hands up. "If our secret identities are such a big secret, you'd think we ought to work a little harder to keep them, you know, secret."
"How would you have done it?" Dad says, voice so low it's nearly a growl. "Shot him? Bludgeoned him? Strangled him? Would you have looked him in the eyes while he died?"
I don't have an answer to that.
I used to think Mom struggled with insomnia. I'd catch her in the kitchen at two in the morning, we'd share a midnight pint of ice cream, and she'd wander back to bed. A few weeks after I learned the truth about the family business, we killed a pint of Ben and Jerry's Salted Caramel together, and she told me the real reason she was awake at 1:42am.
"He has nightmares. They wake me up sometimes."
I thought of the island, of the grandparents I never had a chance to meet, of the man I would have called Uncle Tommy if he'd lived. "You think he dreams about people he lost?"
"Most of the time," Mom said wearily. "Tonight it was about people he killed."
Dad stares me down, and I look away first.
"If there's no getting to Miranda legally," I say, "I guess the Arrow will have to pay him a friendly visit."
"Tomorrow night," he says, jostling the shoulder Mom is sleeping on. "Felicity, wake up. Time to go home."
Her eyebrows scrunch together, she makes an irritable noise, and she burrows closer.
"Hey. Mrs. Queen," I try. "Your son's been arrested again."
Dad can give me all the side-eye he wants. It works.
"You are not funny at all," Mom informs me when she's lucid. "Do we think Miranda is working for a cartel?"
"Mmm. Friendly visit?"
The next morning at the ungodly hour of seven o'clock, Uncle Roy picks me up in the old, worn-out Jeep he loves too much to replace, and we head for Blue Falls National Park in a fine mist of rain.
"Good morning," I mutter, passing him a thermos of coffee.
Bed-headed with dark circles under his eyes, he sums up my feelings on the matter: "Yeah, we'll see."
It is not our best training day ever. The compound bow doesn't mind the wet, but I definitely do. Soggy and cold and tired, I scale trees and leap over fallen logs and roll down banks of leafmeal, cursing under my breath the whole way. I dutifully shoot whichever tree trunks Uncle Roy designates as the enemy, but after an hour, I start getting sloppy.
"Elbow up," he growls for the third time. "God damn it, Jon, you know better."
"Yeah, I do!" I snap right back. "And yet you keep saying it."
His expression darkens, and I wonder if we're about to throw down. But instead he holds out a hand. "Give me the bow."
I admit to some sulkiness as I hand it over.
"We're wasting our time here," he says, turning on his heel and stalking away.
I scowl at his back the whole way to the Jeep. When we climb back in and crank the heat up, I slide down low in the seat, strip my gloves off, and hold my hands up to the vents. "I know I kind of sucked today."
"You didn't suck, you were just tired," he says irritably. "Did you hood up last night?"
"And the night before. Five hours of sleep in two days isn't really enough for this."
He nods vehement agreement. "Believe me, I know."
After four years as Arsenal and nearly three as the Arrow, Uncle Roy of all people knows exactly what I'm talking about. If I'd shot him a text saying, Hey, out til three burgling SCPD's archives, don't show up til noon, he would probably have given me a few extra hours. "So that's my problem. What's yours?"
His jaw sets. "Look, you're coming along fine," he says evenly. "You're picking it up even faster than I did."
"Not as fast as Dad," I grumble.
"Nobody picks it up as fast as that freak."
At my age, Dad was some kind of weird, implausible savant with a bow, and I doubt I will ever be the archer that he is. Of course, I've only had two years to get there. I've studied martial arts since the age of seven, but I never touched a bow until the day after Dad finished physical therapy for the reconstructive surgery on his knee.
"Good as new?" I asked him when the therapist left the house after their last appointment.
"Maybe not new," he said, reaching into the fridge and snagging a water bottle. "Good as any other fifty-four year old knee."
"Maybe Mora's goons did you a favor, forcing you to finally get it fixed instead of just limping around being stoic and grumpy."
He shot me a glare. "I'll send a thank-you note." He cracked the bottle open and gulped down most of it in one go.
Really, it worked out very conveniently to our cover story. The emergency surgery after that crazy rescue mission was easily concealed as a long-overdue, scheduled procedure to repair old damage that had been getting progressively more painful every year. My broken ribs were harder to explain, but given my history of emergency room visits after telling someone, "Hold my beer and watch this," no one was too suspicious.
"So, you're all healed up," I said, taking a seat at the kitchen island. "And, you know," I patted my ribs, "I'm all healed up. So I was thinking we could head to Panoptic, maybe go down to the basement, and I could kick your ass."
He grinned, crumpling the empty plastic bottle in his fist. "You could try."
It was fucking glorious.
We started unarmed, then we did a little knife work, moved on to some ground fighting, and to cap it all off we broke out the staffs and had the time of our lives trying to bash each other's faces in for an hour or so.
Sweat-drenched, panting, and still chuckling, we both sank down on the mats and leaned against the wall.
I figured I had him in the right mood, so I went for it: "You know, we saved those people at the Port Authority."
Dad turned to look at me, and his mouth quirked into a smile. "Yeah, you did."
"For once, I didn't feel like a screw-up."
His smile started to fade. He knew where this was going. "I've never been prouder."
"But if we hadn't been there for our own reasons," I said slowly, "no one ever would have known they were there. We got Mom back, but other people - people who don't have money, or connections, or a very specialized skill set... who's going to swoop in and save them?"
He looked away from me. "There will always be someone out there who needs help."
"What you did back then," I said, gesturing to the glass cases at the other end of the room, where the green-clad mannequin stood in shadow, flanked by bows and specialty arrowheads. "It helped, didn't it?"
"I like to think so," he said quietly.
I looked him in the eyes. "Teach me how."
Dad closed his eyes and took a slow breath, like he'd known for weeks that this was coming. Then he just looked at me. Ten or fifteen seconds feel like an eternity when Oliver Queen is silently staring you down, but I didn't dare do anything but wait.
At last, he said, "Please don't ask me for that."
"If shit like that is going on in my city - people in shipping containers, for fuck's sake - then I want to do something about it."
He shook his head. "There are other ways."
"Yeah, but this is the only way I don't suck at."
Dad got to his feet, and he turned the full weight of his attention on me, so heavy I could almost physically feel the pressure. "You'll spend most of your time in pain from one injury or another," he said in a low, gravelly voice I hadn't heard since the night we went to get Mom. "You might get help from SCPD, or they might take a shot at you. You will lie to people you care about, and when you stand them up or let them down, you won't be able to explain. When you make mistakes - and you will - people will pay for it with their lives. You'll see things you'll never get out of your head, and you'll do things that most decent people wouldn't understand. You will not get any awards. Most of the time you won't even get thanked. You won't be able to save everyone, and sometimes it will feel like you can't save anyone."
Dad had never emotionally unloaded on me quite like that before. It took me a few seconds to recover. "Ok, so all of that," I managed to say. "But there are people out there who are alive because of you. Kids who still have their parents. There's that too, right?"
Slowly, just once, he nodded. "There's that too."
"I don't know, but it seems like... like it would be worth it."
His smile had an unmistakable sadness in it when he held out his hand. "Tomorrow morning we'll go out to Blue Falls and see how you are with a bow."
I took the hand he offered, and he pulled me to my feet. "Thank you."
He headed for the showers. "Five o'clock," he tossed over his shoulder. "You'd better be awake."
In the quiet depths of the forest, soaked to the ankles by the chill September dew, I loosed my first arrow from the carbon fiber longbow that Dad carried on Lian Yu thirty years before.
It disappeared among the trees. I reached for another.
Arms crossed, Dad said, "No. Go get it."
I didn't bother with surprise or indignation. I sighed, and I went to find the arrow. Then I went to find eight more after that one.
But after two years, after hundreds of hours of practice, after thousands of murdered tennis balls and mortally wounded trees, after getting fussed at by Dad and Uncle Roy and Aunt Thea in turn, after pulled muscles and aching flexor tendons and bowstring bites…
Let's just say I hit what I aim at.
"You're coming along fine," Uncle Roy repeats. "I probably didn't need to be that much of a dick to you."
We don't really do heart to hearts, but it's worth trying again: "Yeah, what's up with that?"
He presses his lips together. "Thea's starting that treatment today."
"Is she nervous?"
He chuckles. My aunt has a sixteen year history of chatting casually to nurses like a stone cold badass while undergoing medical procedures that would make me swoon like a Victorian maiden. It's Uncle Roy who gets edgy and prickly and unbearable over these things.
"It's not a big, invasive thing," he says, shrugging. "Just a shot."
She's had approximately a zillion of those. Uncle Roy still can't look. "They don't expect any nasty side effects?"
"Fatigue, mood swings, low grade fever, muscle cramps, aches and pains…"
I live with two women, neither of whom is shy. I know where I've heard all that before. "Gene therapy gives you PMS?"
He frowns at me. "Well, that's creepy."
"You're telling me."
"No, it's just," he shakes his head, eyes on the road, "that was Thea's reaction, word for word."
I grin. "So, not so bad."
We are ignoring here that the list of possible side effects of any given attempt to make my aunt walk again includes: edgy, prickly, unbearable husband; fighting with husband over appropriate level of optimism; accusing husband of wanting you to stay in the wheelchair; accusing him of resenting you for the wheelchair; indignation at husband's snarky insensitive replies; and, finally, storming out of the house to stay with your brother for weeks.
Aside from the repeated, heartbreaking disappointments, there are reasons Aunt Thea has not agreed to an experimental therapy in eight years.
"We'll see," Uncle Roy says, leaning back in the driver's seat and draping his hand over the wheel. "One day at a time."
I take that as my cue to drop the subject, and we spend the drive home talking single cams versus hybrid cams, aluminum alloy versus carbon fiber. The rain pounds on the roof of the Jeep, and the windshield wipers squeak out a steady rhythm.
"See you Monday," Uncle Roy says when he pulls up in front of my house. "Don't wear the tie with the Budweiser frogs."
I'm not allowed to wear the Jim Beam t-shirt whose logo shows through my white button-down either. "Our clients need to feel like we are taking their cases and their concerns seriously," Lyla said. "If you're going to walk around as a billboard for whiskey, you could at least wear a respectable Scotch."
Much as I love working for Panoptic, their dress code is fascist and their Executive Vice President is kind of a smartass.
When I open the car door, I spot Abby coming up the sidewalk, still rumpled and bedheaded from her sleepover a few blocks away. She perks up when she sees the Jeep.
Uncle Roy calls out his open window to her: "Hey, sweetheart, you going to come tell me hello?"
She steps up on his running board and pecks his cheek. "Hello. How was guy bonding time?"
She leans her elbows on the window frame. "You don't happen to know if Aunt Thea finished my winter formal dress, do you?"
He knits his brows at her. "Which one is that?"
"The only one I asked her to…" Abby's eyes widen. "She's making another one?" Both her hands patter excitedly on the steering wheel. "She's making another one!"
"Well, shit." He lets his head thunk back against the headrest. Then he looks up sternly at her. "When she gives it to you, you had better act surprised."
"Oh, I will," she says, beaming.
"And I mean really sell it."
"Someone will have to give me an Emmy afterward."
She's still grinning as we head up the front walk together. But as we come through the front door, the first thing we hear is Mom screaming.
I bolt for the sound, Abby close on my heels. It's coming from the kitchen. We round the corner, my wet boots skidding on the wood floor, and -
God, my parents are enough to put you in a diabetic coma. A fucking tickle fight. Honestly.
"Do you people have to get up to cutesy bullshit the second you have the house to yourselves?"
They're still laughing, Mom hanging over Dad's arm where she's been trying to escape the corner of the counter he's backed her into. Flour streaks his shirt and puffs from her hair.
"Blame Dad!" she says. "I was minding my own business, making pumpkin spice bread, and he... " Her brows draw into a frown. "Abby?"
Next to me, pale as the flour, Abby approximates a smile. "I thought - sorry, it was stupid."
Abby scared me some, in the weeks after our run-in with the Black Hand. She slept too much and then not at all, ate too little and then binged on comfort food. She woke sobbing from nightmares that people were coming to take Mom away again or that they were bursting through the front door to line us up against a wall and shoot us. It was over two years ago, but right now her shaking hands make it feel like yesterday.
My parents break apart, Dad to a stool at the kitchen island, and Mom to the shelf full of cookbooks. "You up for a challenge?" she asks Abby, pulling one down. "I want to try making this semolina souffle cake with pistachio creme anglaise. What do you think?"
Swallowing down her embarrassment, Abby goes to look at the recipe. As she passes Dad, he scoops her into a quick hug, then lets her go on her way like it didn't even happen. I think my parents just executed a perfect flanking maneuver of got-your-back and no-big-deal.
Before I knew about the family business, I was well aware of how seamlessly Mom and Dad could work together to guilt trip, lecture, and scare me straight. They did a hell of a good cop/bad cop, swapping roles depending on who was more pissed.
It never occurred to me that they also strategized with Abby, who never seemed to need any parenting, perfect little unicorn with a mane of woven rainbows that she is. Now I can't unsee the tactics and tag-teaming at work, and I admit to being impressed.
"I meant to ask," Abby says, hands busy with saucepans and whisks and measuring cups. "Where was everyone last night? I stopped home to pick up clothes, and nobody was here."
And here comes my absolute least favorite part of my night job.
"I was at Panoptic late," I say.
The trick to lying, my parents always say, is to tell the most innocuous version of the truth.
"Dad and I had a nice night out together," Mom says, smiling over her shoulder, and since she must regard this as technically true, I have to resist the urge to scoff at my parents' idea of date night.
"You were at Panoptic at eleven o'clock?" Abby says to me. "I know Dig and Lyla aren't working you that hard."
The trick to lying to Abigail Queen is to develop ugly yellow calluses around your soul until it resembles the big toe of a long-distance barefoot runner. I shift my weight casually to lean against the doorjamb, give her a you-caught-me smirk, and mutter, "I, ah, may have gone out afterward."
She gives me a look I can't decipher, but which I am ninety-nine percent certain does not mean, I admire and look up to you as a positive role model, big brother, and I appreciate your honesty and straightforwardness with me. Then she shrugs and turns back to the standing mixer.
I go have a shower, and I wash three pine needles, a burr, and what I think might be dried bird shit out of my hair.
Like I said. Arrowing. Extremely glamorous and sexy.
The following night, I gear up and head out for my come to Jesus meeting with George Miranda. On the ride across town, I rehearse in my head the various communication strategies I can use to get through to him, convince him to alter his life trajectory, and motivate him to fulfill his potential as a human being.
Threaten another juror in an ongoing trial, and I will nail your feet to the floor and use you for target practice.
Too specific. It's only fair to make clear the full range of actionable offenses.
If you ever come to my attention in a criminal scumbag capacity ever again, we will not be having a nice chat like this. I will be putting an arrow in your guts. You will be shitting through a bag for a long, long time.
No, Dad said that threat was juvenile and gross.
I will be putting an arrow through one of your kidneys. I'll let you pick which.
Ooh, concise. I like it.
But when I skid down the roof of his shed and get my first good look at his back yard, the door is already hanging askew from one hinge, jagged splinters protruding from the jamb.
Someone beat me here.
I start running when I hear the first scream.
It's not a big house. When I burst into the living room, arrow nocked and raised, I find my guy on the wrong end of a vicious beatdown. Miranda is curled on the floor, yelling his head off in Spanish. Two ragged-looking men and one woman crowd around him, kicking the shit out of him.
Well, I can't have that.
My first arrow lodges in the nearest scruffy bastard's ass. Literally. His ass. It's the least likely place to nick an artery or cause permanent debilitating damage, but it will definitely slow him down, and it's hard to remove without help.
"I'd rather you didn't shoot people in the ass while wearing my hood," Dad said the first time it happened.
I told him all my reasons. "Am I wrong?"
"No," he admitted. "It's just… tacky."
Scruffy the Bearded Thug isn't a fan either. Grubby and Grunge aren't even a little bit grateful to get matching arrows in the shoulder and calf. All three roar with pain and instantly forget the crumpled, broken mess on the floor.
Then they rip the arrows out like Nerf darts, and they rush me.
"Jesus Christ," I hiss, because even if they are sloppy and predictable as a rom com, three psychotically determined attackers at once are going to be a problem. I sidestep Scruffy's wild haymaker and rattle his skull pretty good with the leading edge of the bow, but then the woman is on me with her grungy fingers clawing for my eyes. I grab her wrists and swing her into the wall before Grubby takes a flying leap and slams his shoulder into my gut.
Not good. If they get me on the floor, they'll do exactly what they did to Miranda. Not good at all.
I slip a little leaf-bladed knife into my hand, and I send Grubby tumbling away with blood pouring into his eyes from a slash across his forehead. Scruffy reels from a gouge across his quads. Anyone sane would reassess their chances at this point and back the hell off.
But they don't.
Grunge tugs up my sleeve at the wrist, and sharp pain closes around my forearm. I drop the knife.
"What the hell? You don't bite people!" I yell, grabbing her by the throat and trying to figure out a way to get her off me without tearing the skin even worse.
That's when Scruffy brings the lamp down on my head.
It rings my bell so good it doesn't even hurt. Just nauseous numbness reverberating through my skull.
This would be such a stupid way to die. So I lash out viciously and in all directions, letting muscle memory take over. All three have been losing blood fast since they ripped those arrows out, and they're finally starting to fade. A punch to her arrow wound puts Grunge down, moaning in pain. An elbow to the head does it for Scruffy. Grubby I have to bounce off the floor a couple times before he stays down.
Then I stumble over to Miranda, who has fallen silent. I half-sink, half-fall to my knees next to him, and I reach for the pulse in his neck. Nothing. His skin is warm through the thin material of my glove, but he's wholly still.
Stupid with the blow to the head, I say, "No, wait," and I roll him prone. Stare into his pallid face, search his half-lidded eyes.
He was alive just a minute ago.
I roll him back onto his side. Then I throw up in the pool of blood I'm kneeling in, and when I hear sirens I wonder vaguely what CSI will make of the Doritos in their evidence.
I don't know how I get out of the house or down the alley, but eventually I remember to tap my comm back on. "Watchtower? Hey. Watchtower."
It's Uncle Roy who answers me. "Arrow, what happened?"
"Thought I got there in time," I mutter.
There's a pause. Then, very firmly, "Tell me where you are."
"Twelfth and Marion. No, I mean Market. Twelfth and Market."
A slightly longer pause. "Go to the overgrown lot on the corner and stay hidden. I'm coming to get you."
"What about my bike?"
"You parked it out of sight, didn't you? It will survive a night in the Glades."
In the brambly lot, the grass has grown up tall enough to hide a pony. It keeps me well hidden until Uncle Roy comes to get me in my X5 and guides me to the car with a hand on my back. The passenger seat is covered with a towel to soak up the blood all over me.
"So prepared," I say. "Didn't take you for a Boy Scout."
"I called Elaine," Uncle Roy says. "She's just ending her shift at the ER, and she's going to come take a look at you."
When he gets me to the lair, Elaine is waiting for me at the base of the stairs. She shepherds me to the med table and says, "Let's see what we've got here."
Her voice is pitched low for a woman's, and she keeps up a calm, steady stream of nothing in particular while she shines a light in my eyes and makes me follow her finger. When I was little, she did the same thing when she smoothed band-aids on skinned knees or pressed ice packs to bruises. She'd put my hand on her shoulder and say, Squeeze as hard as it hurts.
"Hold out your arm for me, honey, thank you, now let's have a look, ooh that's deep, but no worries, we'll get it patched up for you, here we go."
I close my eyes, try not to sway with the dizziness, and I let her clean out the two semicircular bite wounds on my arm. Uncle Roy hovers nearby keeping one ear to the police scanners.
They are the best possible people to whom I could come home injured. Dig and my parents always look tempted to lock me behind a baby gate, and Aunt Thea expects everyone to share her pain tolerance and nonchalance toward scary medical instruments.
But Elaine sounds good and smells good, and her hands move so smooth and sure that I hardly feel a thing. It's like laying down in a bubble bath and getting up clean and bandaged.
My head clears, but in case I get dizzy again, Uncle Roy stays within earshot while I change out of my blood-drenched leathers and have a quick shower.
"Take these," Elaine says when I emerge with a towel around my neck. She holds out two white pills and a bottle of water. "It's a grade one concussion, and you're going to hurt for a while. It's fine to go home and sleep it off."
I down the pills. Then I skim my hand up her arm, and I give her shoulder an affectionate jostle. "Thanks, Lanie."
For the first time, she lets the mask slip, and she looks at me with something other than pleasant professional care. Her mouth twists in a rueful smile. "You know, two summers ago," she says, reaching out and finger-combing my hair away from my face, "when you went to get Felicity at the Port Authority…"
I frown at her.
She drops her hand, shakes her head. "I was just thinking."
"When Dad told me the story, I knew you'd end up here."
"Here, like concussed with somebody's teeth prints in my arm?"
"Here in the Arrow's secret lair, wearing green leather and eye makeup. Dad and I weren't exactly crazy about the idea. We tried to talk Roy and Oliver out of it."
Uncle Roy's crossed arms confirm this story. I'm not going to lie, it stings a bit. "Why?"
"I used to babysit you, remember? It was my job to keep you safe."
My eyes ache, I'm pretty sure I can feel my pulse in my brain, which would freak me out if I had the energy for it, and Elaine is being ridiculous. I let my heavy head fall forward and head butt her shoulder. She knows what I mean by it.
After she's gone, Uncle Roy asks me for the story. I tell him in as much detail as I can.
"They were on something," I conclude. "Had to be. They just would not go down."
"Thrill kill?" he suggests. "Or it could have been a rival gang. The Black Hand isn't short of enemies."
"If it was a hit, why were they unarmed and tripping balls?"
"They got the job done."
I cast my eyes down. Five minutes sooner, and I would not be replaying the listless fall of George Miranda's head when I rolled him over.
"Hey." He pulls my gaze back up with the force of his. "I spent years watching one self-centered jackass named Queen beat himself up over how everything bad that ever happened was his fault, because obviously the world revolved around him and his choices." He leans back against my mom's desk. "Don't really need a repeat performance."
"Wow." I nod appreciatively. "Truly you have a gift. Have you considered a career in the helping professions?"
"I'm serious. It gets old."
"I bet." Before I can stop myself, I blurt out, "I've never touched anybody dead before." Maybe I'm still concussed. "I mean, at a wake, sure. When they're all prettied up and framed like a picture. But not…"
Uncle Roy nods. "One second, there's a person there, and the next," he snaps his fingers, "there's a body. Just like that."
"Yeah." Just like that.
As with so many things down here in the lair, I barely need to explain, because I've got a whole team of Yodas who've already lived it. I can't imagine how Dad did so much of this shit on his own.
Uncle Roy drives me home, I sneak upstairs without waking anyone, and I collapse gratefully into my own bed.