Pairing: Rumbelle (with helpings of Red Cricket and Mad Swan)

Rating: NC-17 (For Part 3)

Summary: The terms of the deal are easy to hammer out: he wants forever. Is the proposal the proves tricky. A "Withdrawal" Sequel.


A man sat down gingerly on a bench in front of the tall, imposing building that served as headquarters of Imp Inc., toying with the handle of the umbrella he was carrying and checking repeatedly his watch, his gestures nervous and a frown on his face. Said frown was quickly wiped away by the appearance of a brunette in high heels, a pencil skirt and a fiercely red silk blouse running out of the main door of the building with a raven-haired woman in tow.

"Come on, Eminem, I only get five minutes with my cricket before we have to head over to Belle's work" the woman said before her eyes lit up as they locked with the ginger-haired man's "Cricket!"

Ruby Lowell, rising star of Imp Inc. and soon-to-be VP of Acquisitions, according to recent rumours, let her hair out from the stylish bun she had painstakingly put it up in the morning and, stiletto heels and all, ran towards her boyfriend, jumping into his arms with exuberance and firmly planting her lips over his parted ones. The ginger-haired man, apparently anticipating such an attack, caught her effortlessly, his arms supporting her weight with an ease few would have imagined. He opened his lips immediately, feeling his girlfriend's tongue happily trace the inside of his mouth with long, predatory strokes that did wonderful, entirely inappropriate-when-in-public things to his body. He sunk his fingers into her hair, telling himself he meant to delicately pull her away and not just get her to title her head a bit in order to kiss her deeper, which is what he ended up doing.

Months earlier he wouldn't have been able to be so affectionate in public but Ruby had brazenly rid him of his most prudish ways with patience and a lot of touching. He had discovered, to his pleasant surprise, that when in private the woman who had so thoroughly kissed him before ever speaking to him turned somewhat shy and insecure and loved taking things slowly, wining her confidence little by little. And when he had finally won her over truly and completely, one rainy afternoon after meeting for lunch, while waiting for the weather to take a turn for the better, it had been more than worth it, because along with the physical fulfilment had come Ruby's voice in his ear, sleepy and unguarded whispering a "Love you, cricket" before falling asleep. He had looked way too happy after that, as Marco, while meeting him outside the Court Room, had commented.

"I'd say there's a good woman behind that smile, doc" he had teased him good-naturedly "About time, too"

He had blushed and ducked his head, a silly grin plastered all over his face.

And now he had an armful of Ruby, and her mouth closed around his bottom lip, gently biting him. All was right with the world.

"Hello, darling" he rasped the moment she released him, blushing like a schoolboy "How was your day?"

The brunette's smile was dazzling as she recounted how she had made a sixty-year-old executive storm out of the building after winning over a bid.

"Mr Gold even publicly praised me, which is a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence"

Archie nodded, being well-acquainted with Ruby's boss. At first it had been strange, bizarre even, that after meeting Ruby's gran the ultimate step had been to meet, formally as Ruby's boyfriend, her best friends and their own men. When she had casually mentioned her boss would be attending the dinner he had almost choked. He had heard rumours about Mr Gold, his hellish temper and ruthless demeanour and wondered why his girlfriend was insisting they dine with him.

"He's Belle's boyfriend" she had casually commented.

Dinner at Ruby's Upper-West-side home was, surprisingly, rather lovely. He had met James for the first time, though he was rather familiar with the drama that had surrounded his divorce and his first months with Mary Margaret because of Emma. Jefferson was also a new face, though he had met him as a lawyer, and whenever he was not playing the Hatter he was rather interesting and funny. Archie had never had close male friends but both James and Jefferson had since invited him for beers and to watch football games. Charmont was a man's man, the typical popular guy everyone flocked to, and Jefferson the eccentric character that exuded a confidence and a flair the psychiatrist envied greatly and that the lawyer had maintained no matter how many times Emma had stressed during dinner that no, they were not a couple, seriously, stop asking.

The most enigmatic character had been, without a doubt, the CEO of Imp, Inc. Dressed impeccably in a suit and surrounded by an intimidating aura, Mr Gold had showed up with a bottle of very expensive white wine right before dinner, apologizing off-handed to Ruby and privately a bit more to Belle, who dismissed his gestures of contrition with a small smile and a kiss Archie was surprised to see Gold not only return but deepen till the brunette had slapped him gently in the arm and chided him for his bad manners in company.

He had said little over dinner, but his comments had been polite and engaging. Charmont had seemed cowed in his presence but Madden had gone toe to toe with him, under the watchful eyes of Belle and Emma, and no discussion had escalated into heated debates, thankfully. Then, all of a sudden, Gold had turned his attention to him, grilling him with a soft voice and impeccable manners, asking about his job, his prospects, his interests, his family, everything. And Archie had only stuttered at first, the feeling of Ruby's hand on his thigh giving him confidence he had never had before. At the end of the meal, after swallowing the slice of apple pie in front of him without really tasting it, Gold had sat up, citing an early morning as pretext to be on his way, Belle deciding to accompany him mumbling something about an early morning too that Ruby had snorted at.

"Far be it from me to get in the way of sex" Ruby had dismissed her friend's apologies with a knowing smirk "But we need to ditch the boys some day and have a girl's night out. That is if you can get away from Mr Gold's clutches"

The mentioned businessman had rolled his eyes, his arm snaking around Belle's waist with ease, eager to get her alone and in his limo.

"This was lovely, Ruby, we must repeat it sometime" he had glanced at Archie, who had been resolute and hadn't lowered his gaze one bit. That had made de older man smile "And I like this one. Has more spine that I thought at first. You may keep him, provided your work doesn't suffer"

And with those words he had been gone, Belle throwing an apologetic look over her shoulder and a smile at Ruby. The girl had squealed the moment the couple had been gone.

"He approves!" she had gushed, jumping into her boyfriend's arms "That is gonna make life so much easier"

The psychiatrist in him had rattled something about father-figures and childhood traumas but Archie was just so glad he had been accepted he had hugged Ruby close to him and smiled at her enthusiasm. These were Ruby's closest people and to be welcomed by them meant to be more tied to her, which was everything he wanted from life and had been ever since she had, quite unexpectedly, kissed him at the Charity Ball.

And it had made life easier. Ruby had been able to take days off work when he had come down with a horrible flu to care for him without Gold saying as much as a peep, and take longer lunch breaks to help him buy new suits or just eat together.

He snapped his mind back to the present, a lovely present with an armful of Ruby, a snickering Mary Margaret and James in the background. He set his girlfriend down with a shy smile, his large hands skimming over her arms, almost against his will. He had never felt comfortable touching people or being touched but he could not get enough of her for some reason.

"Five minutes are up!" Mary Margaret pointed at her watch "Belle's waiting, and she texted that the dry ice will not keep the ice-cream frozen much longer"

With an apologetic smile Ruby wiped some stray lipstick from her boyfriend's cheek, Archie titling his head towards her hand, seeking contact with her skin.

"You better go" he finally said, his voice soft "Your friends are waiting"

With a little nod and another fleeting kiss Ruby ran back towards Mary Margaret, both girls climbing into the back of a town car. He watched it take off with a wistful smile on his face, thinking the two buses he had taken to get there had been totally worth it.

"Well, Archie, you up for a drink?" Charmont slapped him on the shoulder, a grin on his face "I don't much look forward to going home to an empty apartment"

Before he could accept, though, both men heard the tale-tell thump of a cane against the pavement and turned to look at the imposing figure of Mr Gold, smiling in a way that was meant to mask his discomfort.

"Charmont, Hopper, what fortunate occurrence is to meet you both here" he said, like he wasn't completely aware that they were going to be there, waving their girlfriends goodbye "I heard something about a drink. Mind if I join you?"

The Scotsman took the gawking and round, stunned eyes as a yes, motioning for both men to follow him.

"… do we go?" Archie reluctantly enquired, looking at James for guidance. Though Gold seemed to tolerate him he was still more than a by wary of the man.

"He signs my pay checks. Let's hurry"

Silently thanking his neighbour for watching Pongo he quickly followed the two businessmen, trepidation coming off of him in waves.

Both men had expected Mr Gold to some posh cigar bar or one of those elegant Gentleman's Clubs with wooden panelling, plush leather chairs, old paintings and the like. Instead Gold led them on a merry chaise, turning corners so many times James and Archie, native New Yorkers, found themselves lost in the Big Apple. The street they ended up in looked grimy and badly-lit and prompted Archie to grip the handle of his umbrella tightly, ready to use it as a weapon. Gold entered a pub just around the corner, the other men following him in reluctantly. Inside the scene was chaotic: there was beer everywhere: on tall glasses, all over the floor, spilled over the bar and the tables and on the clothes of most of the patrons. On one corner a group of men of various ages, all clearly English and dressed in red European football jerseys, were watching a match on television, groaning or cheering, smacking each other around and loudly cursing the players in a very colourful language. Some other patrons were smoking as well as drinking, and talking loudly to each other, every once in a while two or more drunks getting into a disagreement and throwing a few punches around, getting riled up till the more sober friends dispelled the situation or they got unceremoniously thrown out.

Without batting an eye at the scene in front of him Gold pushed past the drunks and the football fans and dropped down on a booth at the far corner of the room, James and Archie quick to join him. He ordered a pint of beer, Charmont asking for the same and nudging the psychiatrist to follow his example, trying not to look as shocked as he felt at the mere idea of his boss drinking beer in a dingy pub. His jaw almost hit the floor when Gold proceeded to take out a pack of cigarettes and light one up, taking a deep draught and releasing the smoke with a sigh of relief.

"I rather needed that" he said, his brogue thick. The moment their beers arrived he took a rather large swig, downing half in seconds and gesturing the bartender for a new glass. James tentatively took a sip of his beer and nudged Archie again to do the same, both men waiting for some sort of explanation as to the rather strange turn of events that had landed them in a shady pub in the middle of a bad neighbourhood with Mr Gold, of all people.

"Well… how 'bout those Yankees?" James took a swig of his beer, sputtering at the bitter taste of the Guinness, unused to it. Gold snorted.

"I don't follow baseball. Boring game, really" he made a moue of distaste, prompting Charmont to try again.

"Oh, yeah, you Brits are all about soc… football, right? So, what are you? A Man U, fan? Maybe Liverpool? Arsenal?"

His boss snorted once again, downing his beer in one long draught. The Marketing VP found himself impressed against his will.

"Those are English teams. I'm Scottish" he bit out, his brogue thick and mocking "I'm a Falkirk man"

James nodded and fell silent, unwilling to risk speaking again and accidentally putting his foot further into his mouth. He nudged Archie with his foot yet again, prompting the psychiatrist to stop sipping timidly at the lukewarm beer and try to strike any form of conversation. The safest topics were quickly shot down: sports, books, movies, music, current events, even the weather only received clipped answers at best.

It was more than uncomfortable, the silence that seemed to wrap itself around the tree men like a cloak, but it was the increasingly despondent look about Gold that made Hopper screw his courage to his sticking place and address the elephant in the room.

"I can't help but see that something seems to be upsetting you, Mr Gold" he carefully chose his words, knowing that saying the wrong thing would cause the businessman to close himself off and lash out with a rather scathing remark. Probably about his hair "Maybe sharing your problem would help"

Mr Gold stared at him through a curtain of smoke and a haze of alcohol, his eyes carefully measuring him till, finally, he nodded slightly and fished something out of an inner pocket of his suit jacket, placing it squarely in the middle of the table, being careful to keep it away from the drinks.

"This" he said, the word more akin to a hiss "Is what's wrong with me"

Both young men looked at each other before James swiped the square box from the table and opened it, revealing the glimmering Art Nouveau ring inside, the big, round pale rose diamond catching the eye immediately.

"Err... congratulations?" the VP frowned, clearly lost "When were you planning to propose?"

"A month ago... And two weeks ago. And last Friday" Nicholas let out a throaty, depressing chuckle "You can imagine how successful I've been so far"

He emptied his second glass of beer, motioning for a bartender to serve him more, never minding that he had just placed over a quarter of a million in plain sight. James hurriedly closed the ring box and hastily gave it back to his boss, who cradled it, thumb stroking the soft surface before putting it back inside his pocket.

"What happened?" Charmont asked, showing true sympathy. Gold made a gesture with his hand, vague and rather unhelpful, and took another long drag of his cigarette, putting it out and reaching for another, lighting with quick, easy movements.

"That's... a rather long story" he finally bit out, his voice and general look defeated and tired. James cast a sidelong glance at Archie, who nodded.

"We've got time" he offered, honest curiosity and empathy coming off him in waves. Gold sighed, combing a hand through his hair, loosening his tie and taking another gulp of his beer before finally meeting the eyes of the men in front of him.

Suddenly the whole sordid story was pouring out of him in waves, starting from the very beginning. Deciding to propose to Belle had been the easiest decision he had ever made. He had never considered not having her in his life once it had been clear she wanted him. But he had known from the beginning that the trick would be finding the perfect time. Belle was a free-spirited, determined little thing who desperately wanted to carve her place in the world, and he had no wish to get in her way. He knew the moment he asked her to marry him she'd be reduced to being "Mrs Nicholas Gold" unless she could prove her worth before, get her name out in the business world before it was forever associated with his.

That's why he had stood by as Mallory had taken over a great part of Belle's life. That's why he never begrudged her the long nights at the office, the weekends where they had stayed at home so she could work on some numbers, the endless cocktails and functions where he hadn't been able to have her by his side. They had never hidden their relationship from the world, but they had downplayed it, and Gold had spent more than a bit of money ensuring that little about them was printed.

He had known, though, that the moment he proposed all that would be over unless she had managed to really make a name for herself before. So he had waited, and with every one of her professional achievements he had felt one step closer to fulfilling his own dream.

Then Mal had fallen obscenely in love. He hadn't seen that coming. Apparently it had happened somewhere around the time the Blue Ribbon Charity had thrown that Enchanted Forest Gala (he could remember little of the actual event, most of his memory devoted to the interlude in the Coat Room and the image of Belle clad from head to toe in gold) and had quickly escalated from there. Nick had done his digging... After all, Belle was friends with Maleficent and so her boss's happiness impacted in her own. As far as he could tell James Hook was an outstanding fellow, a former proud member of her Majesty's navy who had suffered a serious injury while on a routine manoeuvre and had lost a hand in the process, being honourably discharged afterwards. He had turned himself into the successful CEO of a ship-building empire. He was educated, a gentleman of the old ways with a rather wicked sense of humour about him (and suddenly it made sense that he'd go for someone like Mal, who was all sharp teeth and sharper claws). He had never imagined Mal's sex life would be the key to his every wish and desire coming true but, in a roundabout way, it had been. The CEO of Uni Global had fallen hard and fast, not that Gold could particularly criticize her, glass houses and all, and three months into her whirlwind romance he had called him in to have and after-office drink. There, after the two had emptied half a bottle of whiskey between them , she had frowned, titling her head.

"Fuck, Nick, when did you and I become friends?" she had said, like the mere idea repulsed her to the core, which it probably did. He had stared at her before downing his drink, barely feeling the alcohol burn.

"I've no idea, actually" he had answered "I can't really say I saw it coming"

They had spent some more time in comfortable silence, staring out the huge windows of her office into the city below them, looking pensive. Finally Mal had blurted out:

"I'm going to miss New York nights the most" at his confused look she had added "I'm moving to England in a couple of months. I'll split my time between London and NYC, but I'll probably end up spending most of my time over there"

He had looked at her with renewed interest, the questions in his eyes too obvious to even be voiced aloud. Mal had let her guard down, laughing at herself, and for once she had lost the jaded look she always carried and Gold had seen what Belle always did: the woman behind the tailored suits and catty remarks.

"I never thought I'd fall in love past my forties, but here I am" her tone had been self-deprecating but her lips had curled slightly, a hint of a smile there "Head over heels, the whole nine yards. And James has been wonderful, striking the kind of balance between old-fashioned and forward-thinking... Also, the sex is amazing" she had smirked, and Gold had wondered just how much she had had to drink "And I mean amazing. Whatever you old men lack in flexibility or raw power you more than make up for in..."

"Mal, I'm begging you not to finish that sentence" he had deadpanned, utterly serious. It was one thing to be no longer fighting with the CEO of Uni Global and it was quite another to be having some sort of "girl talk" with her.

"Oh, come on, Nick, don't be such a fucking prude. Anyway, James does this thing with his tongue..."

"For your own sake, Mal, I hope you had a good reason to call me in here. So you're leaving, or at least relocating for a great portion of your year across the Atlantic. What does this mean for Uni Global?"

The real question ("What does this mean for Belle?") had floated in the air around them, unvoiced but ever-present.

"Well, though I don't plan to relinquish my current position, I know that moving the headquarters to London is out of the question. Though I can manage most of my business from England Uni Global's heart must remain in New York. And I happen to have just the person to care for it in my name"

He had forced himself not to react, even though his mind had been jumping to all the right and delightful conclusions and his fingers had been eager to wrap themselves around the ring box stashed with his ties back at his penthouse. Mal had looked, at that moment, like the cat that had managed to finally eat the canary.

"I'll leave control of the NY branch to Belle, and she'll be my eyes and ears here, running most of the interests of the company in the US and Latin America. I'll deal with Europe and Asia. I'm making the formal announcement in a week. I wanted you to know first because I suppose you'll have your own arrangements to make in light of this new development" she had polished off her drink, a grudging sort of respect dancing in her eyes.

"I'd never thought you of all people would have waited. But you did, and you were incredibly patient about it. A pity, really, I would have liked nothing more than to rile you up. You never did oblige" she had sighed "Oh, well. You waited, and I have to reluctantly respect you for that. And in a week Belle will become one of the most respected and powerful women in business and you will finally be done wishing and hoping"

He had acted like he hadn't known what he was talking about, but it had done him little good.

"I'd wager my last bottle of Russo-Baltique that you've had a ring for the last six months at least" one look at his face had told her all she needed to know "Even further back, I bet. Well, in a week nothing will be standing in your way. I wanted to give you the news myself. Louboutins would make an excellent 'thank you' gift, by the way. I'll e-mail your secretary my shoe size and a list of pre-approved models"

She had been surprisingly gentle, not teasing him nearly as much as she could have, and Gold had been hard pressed not to just track down Belle and propose the moment he laid eyes on her. But he had been determined to do it properly, to propose the way Belle clearly deserved. So he had waited some more. He had stood in the background as the announcement had been made at a very lavish function, and had let her assimilate her new status, enjoy the culmination of her rather long journey and the beginning of a whole new game.

Once an appropriate amount of time had passed he had planned the perfect evening down to the most trivial detail. Under the pretext of wanting her to unwind he had managed not to make Belle suspicious of him taking her to see a musical ("Beauty and the Beast", because he knew how much she adored the story). The show had not been as awful to stand as he had thought and after that he had whisked them both away to a small and exclusive Arabian restaurant, ready to propose over her favourite dessert, Baklava.

He had felt the flutter of nerves in his stomach somewhere around the middle of dinner, but he had ignored them, resolute to stop being a coward when it came to finding some happiness in his life. He had been born ready to spend his life with Belle, he was sure it, made for her like she had been for him.

Somewhere around the second course, however, he had realized his stomach pains had nothing to do with nerves and all to do with the undercooked Shish Barak he had ordered as his first course. He had barely had enough time to limp to the bathroom before unceremoniously puking his guts out for the better part of an hour, having the presence of mind to lock the door so Belle wouldn't see him in such a state, reducing her to a mass of worries on the other side of the bathroom door.

Some nervous waiter had ended up calling 911 and so he had finished the evening in a private room of the New York Presbyterian University Hospital, hooked to an IV drip and loosely clutching Belle's hand, trying to hold on to his last shreds of dignity.

Attempt One had been thus classified a resolute failure, and quickly dismissed in favour of a Plan B, which included an "impromptu" picnic on a secluded spot of Central Park, with steaming cups of Starbucks coffee and caramel and truffle cupcakes from Magnolia Bakery. They had enjoyed each other immensely and had wound up cuddled close on the shores of Belvedere Lake, watching the ducks. She had nuzzled against him, a sigh of utter contentment serving as the signal it was time to finally pop the question, and had mumbled against his neck:

"You know, a girl could get used to being spoiled like this"

It had been the perfect opening line, and he had felt like the world had finally decided to give him a break. He had reached into his coat pocket, the tip of his fingers brushing against the cold surface of the ring box when a cry had pierced the air, the kind of full-belied shriek that only terrified little kids could muster. Belle had scrambled to her feet, concern etched across her face, and he had had no choice but to follow as she approached a bawling little girl with brown, straight hair and watery-blue eyes, looking everywhere for her mommy. It had taken close to twenty minutes to calm the little darling down and so Gold had been forced to sit on a bench next to Belle watching her cradle and rock a toddler with her eye colour and his hair, his lungs constricting and his heart beating against the still-full ring box.

It had taken two hours to find the terrified mother of the little girl, an over-worked wedding-planner assistant (and the irony hadn't exactly sat well with Nick, at all), who had practically tackled Belle down the moment she had spotted her daughter in her arms. Afterwards she had been full of gratitude and kind words, which had forced him to stand around and hear her tearfully sob some awful story about being tired of bridezillas and her awful boss and just closing her eyes for a second while her little Susie rode the carousel. By the time she had opened them little Susie had disappeared. Of course she had contacted the police, which only meant more standing around, giving statements. By the time the lost-child nightmare had ended his knee had all but given out on him and he had had to lean on Belle on the way back to the town car. The rest of the evening had been a blur of heavy pain medication, soothing hands in his hair and a deep sense of failure.

So he had planned some more, wracking his brains no longer for the perfect proposal scenario but for one that was fool-proof. No food, no people, no distractions of any kind, no obstacles to get in his way. He had chosen his flat as the appropriate venue, far away from amateur cooks and misplaced children. He had planted the ring box inside an old wooden box where they stashed some bonbons to eat in the study by the fire, cuddled close on the bearskin rug Belle adored so. He had cooked for her, nothing unusual, and had quickly lit up the appropriate roaring fire for the occasion, prepared to wait five minutes, so as to not seem too eager, before asking Belle to get him a bonbon.

The smoke had put an end to that idea pretty quickly. It managed to fill the room with surprising alacrity, and they had barely had any time to react at all before the smoke had managed to trigger the sprinkler system and the whole room had become some sort of chaotic mess of water and thick smoke. They had scrambled to get all the electronic devices away from the sudden monsoon, remembering next the old, leather-bound books. Belle had been driven almost to tears when they had had to declare an old copy of Paradise Lost as, well, a lost cause. They had stayed all night up dealing first with the fire department and then with their water-logged study, Belle refusing to wait till the morning to try and get some of the books dry, using her blow-dryer to accomplish such a task. In the end he had spent one of the most unromantic weekends ever, trying to save his Persian rug and two Verger chairs and, quite regrettably, finding a final place of rest for his beloved bearskin, irreparably stained with soot and smelling of smoke. He had had the blasted fireplace checked, finding it clogged up pretty badly with creosote, and had spent a small fortune getting the study smelling fresh and clean again. At the end of that particular weekend he had clung to Belle, seeming to offer her comfort but really trying to reassure himself she was there, and he had all the time in the world to propose to her, come hell or high water...

Again.

But he had gone to work Monday morning more defeated than hopeful, unable to shake the feeling of frustration and failure. He had spent the rest of the week pretending to be in a better mood than he was (he couldn't even snap at work, the ever-watchful Mary Margaret sure to tell Belle if he seemed particularly upset by something) and feeling rather glad Belle seemed so preoccupied with her new position and responsibilities that she hadn't picked up on his strange mood, like she usually did. He had come to the conclusion he needed to talk to someone and, Mal being out of the question (he didn't trust her to completely keep this from Belle, female loyalties and all that) he had pounced on the unexpected opportunity when he had found both Archie and James talking about getting a drink on the entryway of Imp, Inc.

"And now here I am getting drunk with people who don't really like me, smoking for the first time in years and spewing my guts out on a Friday night, with nothing but the promise of an empty apartment and a cold bed in the near future. Fucking perfect"

He snubbed his third cigarette of the evening rather viciously, his movements barely betraying the fact that he had had more to drink than both other men put together. James and Archie looked at each other, torn between a deep sympathy for Gold's plight and the very inappropriate urge to laugh, which they blamed the alcohol for. Finally the psychiatrist, after finishing the rest of his first and only beer, and regrettably finding himself not as clear of mind as his companions.

"Well, Mr Gold, sharing is always a good first step" he encouraged, trying to sound more like a friend and less like a shrink "Now that you've shared your frustrations and fears with us you are ready to accept some constructive criticism and, perhaps, some helpful advice as to how to better deal with..."

A swift kick in the shin promptly stopped him mid-rant. James laughed and clapped a confused Archie in the back with a little more force than what was called for.

"What the doc means, Gold, is that you need to chill down, first. I admit, you've had a rough couple of weeks, but it's not as hopeless as you seem to imagine" he smiled that million-dollar smile that had gotten him in the cover of business magazines and had gotten him elected "Sexiest up-and-coming entrepreneur" three years in a row. He took the smokes and the beer away from Gold with barely a thought, grabbing next the ring box from Gold's protective grasp and setting it on the centre of the table.

"This is your goal. From now on you eat, breathe and sleep with this ring in mind. We're gonna stay here and plan a course of action. Think of every possible contingency, every obstacle, ever tiny possible problem. We'll make it perfect down to the last insignificant detail. It'll be so flawless, and make Belle so utterly happy, you'll forget all about the other times you tried to propose" he was getting into the idea, his eyes shining, and his charisma seemed to be having some sort of effect in Gold, who looked a bit less downtrodden and grudgingly impressed "Now, you gotta tell us all about Belle's likes and dislikes. This has got to be a proposal tailor-made for her, so the more input you give us the better it'll be"

The Scotsman looked still a bit sceptical, but James merely smiled wider and leaned forward, making Archie mimic him unconsciously. Finally he shrugged, threw caution to the wind and dived head first into what could very well be the best or the worst idea ever, feeling he had little to lose.

After all, things couldn't very well get any worse, could they?


Meanwhile, somewhere in a spacious, rent-controlled apartment in the Upper West Side Ruby Lowell was in the middle of doing Mary Margaret's nails, gleefully painting them a deep pink. Emma was rolling her eyes at both of them, a bowl of popcorn in her hands as Moulin Rouge played in the background, the digital surround sound living up to its name. Belle seemed to be the only one watching the movie, sharing her pint of ice-cream with a rather bemused Mallory Ficient. It was Mal's last night in New York City and it had seemed fitting to have some sort of last "girls' night out" with her closest friends... except she didn't have any. She had enemies, she had acquaintances, she even had lackeys. But the awful truth had presented itself after a thorough perusal of her cell phone's contact list: she didn't have any friends. She had Gold as a reluctant... ally? Drinking buddy? Fellow snarker? She got along with some other powerful CEOs, all male, but she would trust none of them with any sort of personal information.

What she did have, however, was Belle. The assistant-turned-honest-companion. The girl who had managed to befriend her against her own wishes. The woman who had had her mortal enemy's car thrown into the East River simply to get rid of her for an evening.

She had threatened James, she knew that. He had told her all about it, looking rather happy about the whole situation, painting a vivid picture of a smiling, wide-eyed Belle shaking his hand for the first time while he waited for her to change out of her pantsuit and into something more casual for their night out on the town. She had chit-chatted idly with him, inquiring about his business and making appropriate remarks about the fascinating world of ship-building. And just as Mal had announced that she was about to come out Belle had smiled widely at James and told her in no uncertain terms that if he hurt Mal she would end him.

"I'd give her dibs, of course, allow her a first crack at you, but the moment she decided she had had her fill I'd step in and ruin you. Your company, your reputation, all you cared about. Gone. In shreds. On fire. So please do be careful, Mr Hook. This is merely a friendly warning"

She had smiled again and gone to fetch Mal's coat, cooing over the woman's beautiful Chanel blouse before bidding them a good evening and retiring. When he had told her about their conversation, hours later, tangled both in bed, Mal checking her e-mails on her phone while her other hands petted his hair and James languidly stroking her back, she had laughed, her face lighting up with a strange sort of warmth for a second.

"She'll do it, too" she had warned him, her eyes letting him know she meant it "I know how that girl looks like, but don't underestimate her. Those who do don't fare well"

The idea to chastise Belle hadn't even crossed her mind. She had been so pleased at the idea of someone caring for her well-being that everything else had taken a back seat to that. So on her last night in New York City she had invited her little assistant out for a drink ("After all, my dear, you no longer work under me. Let's celebrate that"), but Belle had apologized and told her she had a previous engagement.

"A girls' night out with a couple of friends. Watch some movies, eat junk food, drink like sailors... The usual" Belle had paused for a second before adding "I know. Come with us! The more the merrier"

Mal had had her doubts. She had met Belle's friends, and she very much doubted they'd want to spend their time together with a perfect stranger, older to boot and with her horrid reputation. They had barely batted an eye, to their credit. Mary Margaret had politely received them both at her home and soon a blonde, Emma something, had handed her a Margarita and ordered her to drink up.

Soon she had found herself wrapped in a conversation about the latest Fall collection, the girl known as Ruby sharing her passion for Ellie Saab and Alexander McQueen (and her hobby of teasing Belle over her clearly smashing sex life) and her not-assistant-anymore offering a bite or two of her Strawberry Cheesecake ice-cream. After three Margaritas and two chick flicks she had felt right at home.

"Someone should make it illegal for Ewan McGregor to smile" Mal deadpanned while stealing another spoonful from Belle's carton "And she should contractually made to strip in every single movie. I mean, this was a movie about a renowned French Whorehouse. I was expecting some nudity. I feel cheated"

Emma snorted.

"Oh, yeah" she agreed, eyes now glued to the screen "I mean, I appreciate the guy's voice, and I'm not saying he can't act, but Ewan, baby, that's not why I'm watching this movie"

"He gets naked in Velvet Goldmine, Trainspotting, Young Adam and The Pillow Book" Ruby offered "We could watch one of those"

Mal raised her glass to the brunette, impressed. Mary Margaret rolled her eyes.

"Ruby is some sort of savant prodigy when it comes to nude men in movies. It's a gift" she muttered, tossing aside the magazine she had been perusing to pay attention as Christian sung "My Song" on the screen.

"We won't have time for them all, though" the detective pointed out "Bummer it's your last night in town"

"I could always livestream them" Ruby announced "I'll just ask Belle to gimme your e-mail address so you know when the next movie night will be. Just kick that sext Brit you've got out of your bed, buy some alcohol and grab your laptop. Easy"

The blonde CEO smiled.

"I do believe we are kindred spirits, Miss Lowell" she replied, downing her drink and letting the girl refill her glass "I'll take you up on your offer. E-mail away" she turned to look at Belle, who was smiling at her "And do keep me in the loop in matters regarding Belle and that snake Gold. I fear my little friend doesn't always tell me everything, and I do not trust Nick with her"

The Columbia graduate objected profoundly, drunk enough to grab a fistful of popcorn and throw it at her former boss and current co-worker.

"I tell you everything Mal, for shame"

"Well, you've been very quiet as of late" Very quiet when Mal had expected important, joyous news. The brunette shrugged, reaching for her cell phone when she was it beep.

"There's been nothing new to report" she defended, her wistful smile, the one she always got when they ended up talking about her boyfriend, vanishing as she scrolled down an e-mail. An ugly shadow settled over her face, and Mal's instincts, the ones honed from years of dealing with back-stabbers, liars and cheats, when on high alert. Belle was more than upset, more than anxious.

Belle was afraid.

"Is everything alright, dear?" she asked casually, not wanting to give anything away. At Belle's strained smile she decided to drop the subject, but the moment the girl's eyes strayed back to the movie she caught Emma Swan's gaze, making it very clear she needed to talk to her. The detective mumbled something about an empty Margarita jar and marched into the kitchen, unsurprised when the older blonde appeared moments later.

"Miss Swan, I was hoping you could give me the Mad Hatter's phone. As I have it understood he is rather a good friend of Belle's and has some interesting connections. I'd like to ask him for a little favour"

Swan looked her up and down before fixing her attention on the blender.

"And what makes you think I'd have his number? He's Belle's friend, ask her"

"Oh, I'd prefer not to bother her with this. And as for you, my dear, you can hardly make out with one of the top names in business law in the middle of the a crowded hall of the New York County Supreme Court building without the entire corporate world knowing all about it. Rather ballsy of you, by the way"

Emma Swan, though and proud member of the NYPD blushed like a schoolgirl.

"Look, I just had gotten shot, bullet grazing my temple. He found out, freaked out and when he saw me he... kind of forgot about the other people. It happens to him from time to time"

The CEO smiled, the sharp, bitchy twitch of her lips she had perfected over the years. Emma sighed, grabbed a pen and a post it note and scribbled down the number.

"Here" she handed the woman the pink square paper "I'm only giving this to you cause I know you have Belle's best interests at heart. I saw her face when she checked the cell phone. Something's up, something's been up for a while, but she won't tell us, and I don't have the heart or the time to go behind her back. But you seem like the woman for the job, and Jefferson will get you what you need, probably for free" she poured the contents of the blender into the pitcher "Just tell me if it gets too bad. 'Cause if it does, we'll all want to get in on it"

She walked out from the kitchen after that and Mal paused to fold the paper and stash it in the pocket of her silk pyjamas before going back to the living-room, just in time to catch the beginnings of "Like a Virgin"

She'd call Jefferson in the morning.