The story that unfolded once Mary Margaret and Jefferson made themselves comfortable inside her apartment seemed almost too good to be true, and some of the details seemed fantastic. Apparently Mary Margaret's mother, Eva, had died from a sudden aneurism when her friend had been quite young. Not long after her father, a well-meaning man wanting to provide his daughter with a female role model had gotten married again to a young, promising Finance Analyst, Regina Mills. The marriage hadn't lasted long, her father dying of liver failure, causes unknown, and Regina had quickly managed to gain control of his estate, setting up a fund in his name.

The company went bankrupt two years later, quite unexpectedly. Along with it had gone her trust fund and Mary Margaret had quickly found herself with little money to her name, since her trust was tied up till she turned twenty-one, and an uninterested step-mother who didn't feel the obligation to take care of her. Custody had gone to her mother's aunt, a kind woman named Johanna Smalls, who had raised her and cared for her, even putting her through college. It was during that time that she'd felt the need to look into what'd happened to her father's company. Her name had gained her access to a lot of information and documents and, through stealth, cunning and a bit of luck she had discovered shocking documents regarding money laundering and several other infractions. There were a lot of big names involved, including high-profile criminals, and it all led to the charitable foundation bearing her father's name... His final legacy. The sort of charity he'd dreamed of setting up ever since she could remember.

At the time she hadn't been able to bear the idea of tainting that legacy, his memory, in the eyes of the public. And she had been too scared of people that could come after her for doing so. Some were well-known mobsters, or drug lords, and the thought of facing such people just to send Regina to jail hadn't appealed. But she had kept all the papers, safe and sound, for a rainy day.

And it appeared to be storming like a bitch right now.

"You see, Rabbit, you see? We've hit the jackpot!" Jefferson was all over the place, dancing around the two subdued women "Just the threat of the documents will be enough for her to stand down. I promised Mary Margaret no legal action, no making it public, but it works in our favour. I just wish I could see the look in that bitch's face when she realizes she's been bested!"

Mary Margaret managed a small smile at that, but Belle could see the whole affair had brought back all the bad feelings linked to her father's death and Regina's betrayal. Setting aside her own feelings for a second she wrapped her arms around the brunette, mumbling words of gratitude. Jefferson was quick to plan the next steps, redacting the email that Belle finally sent to Regina letting her know she'd been found out and that they were willing to exchange their continuing silence for whatever proof she had against Moe French. Mary Margaret left Belle copies and retired soon after, no doubt to snuggle in the arms of her Charming and find comfort. Jefferson seemed a bit more reluctant to go. It was like he knew something had happened between her and Gold but couldn't bring himself to broach the subject. Only a call from "the debonair detective Swan" seemed to be able to rip him away from her side, albeit with promises of an "Ice-cream Night" spent watching season one of The Newsroom in their pyjamas.

When she finally found herself alone she called work and left a message she wouldn't be in on Monday, stripped out of her clothes, found her comfiest pyjamas and drape every single blanket on the apartment around herself. Then she closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and started crying.

It seemed like forever before Regina replied but by the following Friday a meeting had been arranged. Regina had agreed to organize an encounter between Belle and her associate, Mr Jones. Jones would deliver the originals of every scrap of paper Regina had managed to find against her father, after which Belle would call Jefferson, who would be waiting right by the offices of the District Attorney of New York County with a manila envelope full of Regina's worst nightmares. The moment Belle called him to tell him she had her father's safety in his hands he'd go back to the office and Mary Margaret would continue to keep what she knew to herself.

Jones had requested the East Docks as the venue, and taking into account that because of the time there were likely to be few people there Jefferson insisted on some form of protection. Regina would not hear of anyone else going to meet her man, and Belle was afraid that if she brought protection Jones would flee before giving her the documents she needed to keep her father safe. After all, Regina had tried to hold on to the papers, pointing out that as long as two people held incriminating evidence against each other neither could use it against the other. Jefferson, however, had been adamant Regina surrender her little atomic bomb. He didn't trust her, with good reason, and knew that Mary Margaret's evidence against her was a hundred times worse than anything she might have on Maurice French.

She came straight from the office, making a feeble excuse to Mal about being MIA for the rest of that day. Being aware of the break-up he boss/friend was treating her with kid gloves, being as nice as someone like Mallory could possibly be, which included several offers of alcohol throughout the day. She gathered her things, faked a smile to the blond Brit and went down the elevator, refusing the customary town car and hailing a cab instead. Steeling her nerves and thinking of her father Belle blurted out the address to an impatient cabbie, settling back on the seat to try and calm her nerves.

She could do it, she told herself, over and over and never quite believing it.

Mallory was in love, not deaf, blind and dumb. She hadn't gotten to where she was by completely ignoring what was going on around her. When Belle and Gold, that unmitigated idiot, had broken up, she'd known something strange was afoot on both sides. Belle had been acting strange for weeks, a nervous, jittery feel about her that she couldn't quite mask with smiles and cheer. She had thought that it might have something to do with her new position in the company and in the public eye, but the girl was maddeningly vague and closed-up about it, dismissing her enquiries easily. She had let it go, trusting Belle to know if and when she was in over her head and needed help.

That had quickly proven to be a dreadful mistake so instead of confronting Belle about it directly she had instructed Jefferson to keep tabs on her. If Belle had any problem that related directly to her new position in Uni Global she wouldn't go the her boss about it, but she was smart enough to ask for the Hatter's help if she ever needed it. A week ago she had gotten a text from the eccentric lawyer, simply informing her that "The Rabbit had hopped into his burrow", which she took to mean that the man was beyond psychological help and that Belle had finally confided in him and he was handling things.

The very next day she'd found out Nick and her were through. Had it been any other couple she might have rolled her eyes and predicted a swift reconciliation after a few days of bitching about the man and proclaiming the relationship "definitely over". But she knew Belle and, to her great misfortune, she knew Nick. Belle was not one to fight over trifles, much less end a relationship over them, and Nick was so pathetically besotted and acutely aware of just what a lucky bastard he was to have found love, the good kind, with a woman such as Belle that it would have had to take something drastic to prompt the separation.

She tried to stay out of it, she really did. She owed Gold no favours, had paid her dues a long time ago and was more than square with the Deal Maker, but she knew him enough to realize something was up and, since she did care about Belle, the girl's fault entirely, she couldn't very well sit idly by. Once she departed from the building she grabbed the phone, dialling Gold's private number by heart. Oh, how far the might have fallen...

"Hello, this is Nicholas Gold."

"It's Mal, Nick. Do I have to tear you a new one or are we going to skip the foreplay and go straight to the action? Your choice, old friend."

She made her voice sweet, inviting, knowing that it'd be more upsetting than biting anger. She heard Gold sigh heavily on the other side of the phone.

"I can't do this, Mal."

He sounded... ancient. Tired. Defeated. It was profoundly unsettling. Something akin to pity, or empathy, bloomed inside Mallory's heart, quite against her better judgement. Had anyone ever told her she'd feel sorry for Nicholas Gold a few years ago she'd laughed and probably thrown her drink at them for good measure. The years had made friends out of her enemies, it seemed, and not just enemies out of her friends.

"You can't do that? That's too bad because Belle is fucking fantastic."

The sarcasm was heavy in her tone, and mixed with a trace of worry. She had counted on the problem being that, somehow, Nick had let his temper get the better of him and all it'd need for him to realize his mistake- because it had to be fucking his, it always was- was some good, old-fashioned "pep talk", possibly involving a lot of cursing, guilt and alcohol. But she had been sorely mistaken... Something else had happened.

"I trust you to take care of her, Mal."

It was the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back, so to speak. There was no mockery in Gold's voice, only exhaustion and raw, uncomfortable honesty. Faced with such an unexpected reaction Mallory fought to rally. She had gone to the trouble of calling, she wasn't about to give up on fixing Belle's relationship with the Wall Street Beast just because she'd hit a bump in the road. Something inside her, however, told her this was no minor bump. This was Nicholas Robert Gold completely and utterly broken, beyond caring if she realized it.

"Well, I can hardly keep her from having her heart fucking broken, now can I?"

But as she said that a heavy, unpleasant feeling begun to churn inside her. This wasn't just about Nick, as much as she wished it was. There was something else wrong with Belle, something that she was trying hard not to worry over. Jefferson would surely tell her if the situation was too dire.

"Well, she isn't the only one bloody suffering, now is she?" Gold's voice was coated in bitterness. "Even a beast has feelings, dearie."

He sounded angry and resentful, and Mal rather thought Gold must have been all alone with his pain. She steeled herself against the unpleasant flood of sympathy for him. Nick Gold might be lonely, but he was also used to it. The whole conversation was getting into a bizarre territory, she needed to steer it back in the right direction.

"Look, I called because, God help me, I know you. You love Belle. You want her back. And I want her happy, for some reason... The kid got to me. So you need to cooperate here and tell me what the hell happened."

She thought she would need a lot more to get two sentences out of him but, surprisingly, Gold just started talking, pouring his blackened little heart out almost against his will. Sometimes he sounded angry, at others sad and desperate and it was strange and uncomfortable to listen to. He talked about proposing- and Mal thought she might very well deserve some kind of medal for not laughing at all during that part- and about Belle's strange behaviour the last few weeks, about her pulling away from him, closing herself off. The more he described it the bigger the knot inside Mal's stomach grew. She begun to think she had underestimated the situation, because the Belle Gold described, particularly when he dissected, rather tonelessly, their last spat, sounded nothing like the woman she knew.

"Nick, I think you need to call Jefferson."

She wagered she didn't really need a phone to hear the snort that followed her statement.

"You're barking mad if you think I'll..."

"Call Jefferson. I'm dead serious, Nick. Something's wrong. Very wrong."

The barest hint of panic laced her words, and it was enough to plant a seed on doubt in Nicholas Gold's head. He hand up on Mal, intent on disregarding the growing unease inside of him, but as much as his pride demanded indifference he itched to pick up the phone and follow Mal's rather forceful order. He tried filling his head with numbers, projections and deals.

He hadn't expected Jefferson to call him, but with Mal's words ringing in his ears he couldn't find it in himself to hang up instantly. Something about the Hatter's tone rubbed him the wrong way too, a sort of hidden panic that was carefully masked by his usual manic self.

"Hello, Mr Gold, so glad to catch you. How are you? I'm splendid myself, in tip-top shape, had a check-up a few days ago, Grace makes me go regularly. Doc gave me the all-clear. Anyway, I wanted to talk to you about Belle if you have a moment and I hope you do because it's sort of a time-sensitive issue and I'd be really great if we could discuss it now. Like, now-now."

The rush of words left Gold temporarily stumped but soon anger began to take hold again. How convenient for Madden to seek him out to talk about Belle after having played a stellar role in fucking up his relationship with her.

Fucking perfect.

"Now why would I want to do that, dearie? I doubt I'll want to hear anything you have to say about Belle."

He wanted no details, no explanations, nothing. The less he knew about them the better.

"Oh, but you do, you most definitely do. It's trouble, big, big trouble. Maybe she's dead? I don't know. She won't answer the damn phone, you see."

Blood turned to ice on his veins and he could almost feel the colour draining from his face, leaving him ashen. The hand holding the receiver begun to shake slightly and he forced himself to breath and remember he was talking to someone who was probably certifiably insane.

"Elaborate. Now."

The Hatter begun to talk in frenzied sentences, talking about photographs, stalkers, threats, Belle's father and Regina. Little by little the businessman begun to piece everything together, and he forced himself not to panic. Nothing that involved Regina ever ended well but Belle was the sort of woman capable of keeping her wits about and think on the spot.

She was also dead the moment he got his hands on her. How could she have kept so much from him? The stalking was bad enough but... the blackmail? The reason why she'd left him high and dry on the night he was going to propose?

Another part of him, the part he couldn't concentrate on, was relieved. She hadn't been pulling away because she had fallen out of love with him. She had probably not even realized he was going to ask her to marry him at all. But with that relief also came guilt at the irrefutable evidence that Belle hadn't been sleeping around, like he had accused her of.

"Honestly, Gold, I cannot believe she managed to keep this from you. What did you think Belle was doing when she met me all those nights ago? Cheating on you?"

His silence spoke volumes and the Hatter's sudden frantic laughter was like nails on a chalkboard.

"Are you mad?" Rich, coming from him. "Have you seen the delectable Detective Swan handle her standard issue Glock 19? I like having two functional lungs and all my male organs intact, Spinner."

Shoving the topic aside he instructed Madden to get to the point of his fears. He could beat himself up for his spectacularly erroneous assumptions later.

"Well, it isn't Regina the one that worries me, Miss Blanchard pretty much helped us nail the coffin shut where she's concerned. But I did some digging regarding her associate and I have cause to believe that Mr Jones might not be under her complete control, and that could spell trouble for the little Rabbit."

"Jones?" Surely he couldn't be so unlucky. Jones was a common surname, after all. He imagined hundreds of people in NYC alone were named Jones...

"Killian Jones. Low-level hustler, nasty guy. I should've checked him out before I agreed that Belle go alone, I should've put my foot down, I know..."

"Leave it to me."

He hang up, willing himself not to freeze up. He'd almost forgotten about that part of his past, about the unsavoury memory of his ex-wife's nasty little boy-toy. Granted, Jones had sworn revenge at some point in time, but years had passed and nothing had happened. With his power and money it had been easy to forget, to put it out of his mind for good. Of course Belle would be the one to pay for his supposed sins.

The time called for action, self-recrimination could wait for later. He called for Dove in lieu of a company chauffeur. Unlike most of his staff Dove had made his living as a muscle for some disreputable characters. He owed his life and freedom to Gold and was, by far, his most loyal and dangerous employee. He also happened to have a ridiculously soft-spot for Belle, so he was sure that if a confrontation with Mr Jones went awry he could trust Dove to do the sensible thing and keep her safe. He then extracted his Walther PPK from the top locked drawer of his desk and checked to see it if it was fully loaded before pocketing it.

As he got into the back of a nondescript black sedan he marvelled at the sudden calm that washed over him. Finally, after so much confusion, he had a clear picture of what was going on under his fucking nose. He had knowledge, and with that came the power to act upon it, to control. He let anger, a much more manageable emotion, replace his panic. Anger at Jones and his misguided idea of revenge and justice, at Regina and her annoying little plots to one-up him and at Jefferson and his recklessness.

But above all, his anger focused on Belle. Stupid, reckless, prideful woman.

She better be okay.

At some point, while waiting on the rendezvous spot for Killian Jones, Belle acknowledged to herself that she'd made a lot of mistakes and bad decisions and she's was smack in the middle of one of her biggest ones. The place was more deserted than she'd thought. The gigantic containers around her added an air of privacy she hadn't expected and didn't welcome at all, but it was too late to back down now. Calling Jefferson would only worry him needlessly, as he'd lack the time to do anything. Besides, Mr Jones might not take kindly to see her on the phone, and she couldn't risk her father's safety from jail just because she had a bad feeling. She very much doubted Regina would risk Jefferson going to the authorities with the evidence against her.

She smoothed down her pale-peach shirt, the gauzy fabric letting a hint of the black camisole beneath show, and tried to appear calm, on top of things. In her mind, however, the sinking realization that she should've told Nick was ever-present. Had someone else come to her with such a problem she'd have stressed that there was no shame in asking for help, in needing a hand. Why had she been so blind to her own counsel?

The sharp heel of her booties made quite a noise as it struck the pavement so she tried not to fidget, to better hear when someone else approached. Finally, after what seemed like ages, she heard footsteps growing closer. When she turned, as nonchalant as possible, she noticed a man, roughly in his forties, wearing a leather coat and dark, non-descript clothing underneath. He had a stubble, but somehow the look seem forcibly unkempt, the roguish sort of look that took people hours to perfect. He was smoking and eyeing her up and down, but Belle focused her attention on the manila envelope he carried. That was her father's future, and she was close to saving it.

"Hello, luv. You're the Beauty I'm supposed to be meeting here, right?"

He had a heavy accent, Irish unless she was mistaken, and a charm about him that Belle found cloying and false. She fought against the urge to take a few steps back, managing a nod.

"Mr Jones, I presume."

"Call me Killian, luv. No need for formalities or ceremony. And no reason why we can't get along. Sorry about the pictures and all, by the way. Boss lady's order, you understand."

He looked like he was actually expecting her to drop her guard. He also looked too pleased about running an errand for Regina Mills on a Friday night.

"I'll just take the envelope and be on my way."

She tried to be polite for expedience's sake, but Jones didn't look at all ready to deliver the envelope and be on his way. True fear threatened to grip her, and she pushed it down firmly, though she was sure her expression betrayed her wariness. It was clear that Jones wasn't here to be a good delivery boy and go on his merry way... he wanted something else. Whatever it was terrified her.

"Not so far, beauty. You came all the way here, might as well stay for a while. Give a poor soul like me a few minutes of your time."

She took a few steps back, as discreetly as she could, and thought about breaking into a run when she saw him smile at her uneasiness. But he still held the manila envelope tucked against his body. One of his hands, both of which he'd kept inside his coat pockets, rose, the silver steel of a knife glinting in the scarce light of a nearby lamp post.

"Now, now, beauty, let's not think about getting away. The night's young and so are we, let's make the best of it. I'm not like your crocodile, darling, who likes to hide away in his big, boring mansion and count his pennies."

The man smiled even wider at her confused expression.

"Oh, you didn't know I knew Nick Gold, did ya? Yes, he and I go way back, darling. You know, of course, that he was married. She was a lovely lass, let me tell you, vivacious, sparkling, beautiful. More than he deserved, much more. Vera was sunshine and colour and he was such a bore, even way back then. When we met it was love at first sight. When her hubby decided to pursue graduate school she decided she'd had enough of that insipid life and ditched the bore to be with me."

Nick had mentioned Vera a scant few times, and never with affection. Belle had always taken what he told her with a grain of salt. After all the woman had left him for another. No man would be kind in such circumstances. She'd never expected to meet the man she'd fallen in love with, and Nick had never spoken of him, but clearly there was something more than a cheating spouse between the two of them.

"Vera was loyal, and loving and everything she couldn't be with him. We made each other happy and I worked hard to give her all she deserved. But I've never been much good with honest work. I prefer shady stuff, it's what I do best, luv." While he talked he waved the knife around and half of Belle's attention was inevitably drawn to it. The other half was trying hard to figure out what the purpose of the story he was telling her was.

"Things were going okay, but we hit a rough patch. Had to borrow a lot of cash from the wrong people. We couldn't pay, you see, but it wasn't really an option. By then the crocodile had managed to amass quite a neat little fortune, a business empire. Vera thought he was the answer and sought him out, sure he'd help out his ex for the sake of their past. After all she'd been with him throughout college, had nurtured and supported him... The way we saw it he owed her. But he turned her away, no matter how much she pleaded. He didn't care. That beast has thick skin, my beauty, and couldn't care less about the woman who he had once professed to love. A few days later the loan shark cut off my hand, promising to come back for the rest of me. When Vera went to deliver all the money we had, with the promise of the rest soon to come, she was killed."

His voice was like ice, the anger simmering in his eyes. He grasped the knife more tightly, and Belle begun to feel as those she was finally piecing everything together. This was about revenge. Jones had used Regina to try and get to Gold and when she'd failed to involve him in her problem he'd decided to take more drastic action. Involving her. And a knife.

"I'm... I'm sorry she died," she managed to croak out, wishing her voice sounded stronger, more confident. The twilight had given way to the evening and, aside from a few street lamps, there was little light around them, the containers making the open space look small and confined.

"Yeah, well, sadly your boyfriend didn't have the bleeding heart you do, love. Refused to acknowledge it was his fault Vera died when I confronted him. And I'm pretty sure he got me landed in jail, whispered a few words to the right person to properly screw me over and bury me where he wouldn't need to deal with me. But I... I have a way to make friends. I'm a friendly man. A man's man. And I do what I do best... I survive. And I come out on top."

He had come very close to her while talking and Belle found herself retreating once more. Quick as lightning, however, the hand that wasn't holding the knife darted to her waist, snagging her somehow. When she looked down she saw that instead of a hand he had a hook and had deftly looped it around one of the belt loops of her black pants. He pressed the flat of the knife against her throat, so delicately it was almost like a lover's caress.

"I spent a lot of time imagining how I'd pay the crocodile back for what he took from me, but it wasn't till he got stupidly infatuated with you that I began to see a way. Regina, of course, had no fucking idea I was using her, he was content thinking she had hired some mindless lackey with a bit of a sour history with dear old Nick. Never realized it all went much deeper."

Before she knew it her back hit the metallic wall of one of the containers, Jones taking advantage of it to press her up against it. It was the closeness couple with the way he seemed intent on nudging a knee between her thighs that almost sent her into an outright panic. Suddenly the knife wasn't as much of a threat as other parts of him and her mind came alive with dozens of gruesome scenarios much worse than death. His face was too close for comfort and in his eyes she could see it... Intent.

"Come, come, sweet, no need to struggle so. I'm not a bad man, I don't wish to hurt you. You're just going to be a... a message, so to speak. Maybe you'll even like it, sweetheart, who knows?"

He let the blade trail down her neck, making a superficial slice on her collarbone as it inched closer to the first button of her shirt. Fighting through the fear that threatened to paralyze her she managed to grasp the wrist of the hand holding the knife and pull it away from her skin. She then took a deep, calming breath and screamed as loud as she could.

The place was a maze of containers, shrouded mostly in darkness, and for a long time Gold felt like he was walking around in circles. He'd instructed Dove to stay by the car and, if he wasn't back in an hour, to use the GPS on his phone to track him down. Jones would certainly underestimate a man with a limp but he'd become violent and skittish if he spotted the hulking bodyguard. Belle was safer if he played on Killian's misconceptions.

When he heard the scream he didn't know whether to be relieved or scared right out of his fucking mind. He ran as fast as his shoddy knee would allow him in the direction of the noise, his keen sense of hearing soon picking up the sounds of a struggle. Good girl, his Belle, fighting tooth and nail. He took out his gun, making sure the safety was off before gripping it tightly, very glad he'd taken pains to learn how to shoot with his left hand.

He spotted them easily, Belle's peach-coloured blouse standing out amidst the dim lighting. She was being shoved quite violently against the wall of a container, Jones looming over her with a knife at her throat and his hook snagged on her hip. The bastard spotted him from afar, tightening his grip on Belle and pressing the blade closer to her skin.

"Ah, crocodile! Wasn't expecting you, but it's a lovely surprise all the same."

Jones was grinning from ear to ear, and only the fact that his body was partially shielded by Belle's kept him from shooting the bastard then and there, particularly when he saw that he had a knee between Belle's thighs.

"Let her go. Now."

He injected as much authority and power into those words as he could, keeping the gun trained on Killian's head. It was a clear shot and he'd take it if he so much as breathed the wrong way near Belle. The idiot laughed at him, acting as if he had the upper hand. Clearly he didn't know Belle very well if he imagined this was a fight between just the two of them. It served his purposes, though, to have him dismiss her so. He just had to wait for her to see an opening and act on it.

"Now why would I want to do that? She's quite entertaining, Gold. Feisty, just how I like them."

He detached the hook from her waist to let it trail over her ass, and Gold breathed deeply in order to remain calm. Killian was trying to goad him into letting his anger cloud his judgement, he needed to get a grip and remain calm.

"Is this about Vera, Jones? Because, frankly, I'm getting tired of the old song and dance. I thought you'd moved on."

Nothing unhinged Killian Jones like the mention of his ex-wife. Once upon a time, and for entirely different reasons, he'd been like that. The Irishman, indeed, rose to the occasion, baring his teeth at him and completely disregarding Belle, though he still kept a tight grip on her.

"You don't get to speak her name, crocodile! You're the reason she's dead, and you're gonna feel what it is to lose someone you love! And all your fucking power will mean nothing, nothing!"

He was trembling with rage, and a slip of the hand caused the knife to slip and leave a thin, long gash along Belle's left forearm. She bit back a cry and Gold lurched forward before Jones placed the knife back against her neck.

"Stay where you are, crocodile."

He halted at once, gripping his cane tightly with one hand and his Walther PK with the other.

"Let her go. She has nothing to do with this. You wanted me, dearie? Well, here you have me. But let her go."

Jones snorted.

"Does it seem fair, you with a gun and I with a knife and my hook? Drop the weapon and I'll think about letting this little beauty go free. After all, I'm not anything like you. And I happen to be a gentleman."

The most terrifying thing about Killian was that he believed half the things he said. He seemed to have been on the verge of sexually assaulting a woman who he was pinning up against a wall and still he called himself a gentleman and believed it wholeheartedly.

Reluctantly he lowered the gun to the floor, kicking it forward when instructed to do so. It slid till it was halfway between them. Jones, too busy eyeing the weapon on the floor, took his attention completely away from Belle. She took full advantage, ramming her heel hard on his right foot and shoving him away when he lifted his injured foot off the ground and lost his balance. She ducked away from him, evading his hook as it attempted to catch a bit of clothing at her back. When he realize she was out of his reach Jones lunged for the gun, but Nicholas managed to slam the hilt of his cane against the man's shoulder.

The Irishman went down heavily, a surprised look on his face and suddenly all the pent-up rage Gold had inside needed to get out. Jones had stolen his first wife, written him off as a cripple, attempted to terrorize him but, above all that, he'd tried to harm Belle in an effort to get to him. Had worried and scared her for weeks, driving a wedge between them. He was to blame for everything, his fault, his entirely and he swung the cane over and over, wanting the man to feel a tiny bit of the pain he'd put him through. The pain he'd put Belle through. At some point he discarded the cane in favour of his own fists, uncaring of the fact that punching him required a proximity that put him close to the man's hook. He hardly felt the attempts Jones made at slashing at him with it, the weapon getting snagged on his sleeves.

He thought he heard someone talking, but it was difficult to tell over the roaring of the blood in his ears. Jones was grunting in pain, his face bloody and his hand an hook clutching his torso. But it was not enough, no matter how satisfying. Like a rabid dog Jones needed to be put down once and for all. He would not live looking over his shoulder, feeling like a coward. He'd take control.

He found the gun lying a few feet away, kicked there in the scuffle. He picked it up and aimed it carefully at the spot between Jones's eyes. No need to make the man bleed to death. He'd be quick about it, show him more mercy than he deserved. It was then that he once again heard a voice, and felt hand land on his extended arm. The touch was soft, warm, loving.

"Don't do it, Nick. Walk away. Come with me."

A part of him wanted to ignore her, wanted to revel in the idea of spilling the Irishman's brains all over the pavement. But he found himself lowering the gun all the same, the rage subsiding. Jones wasn't worth it in any case. His attention shifted to Belle, who was pressing herself against his left side, shaking. Leftover adrenaline, most likely, though the night was chilly and she was frightfully underdressed for it.

"You're a lucky man, Mr Jones. But I'd get out of town and never return if I were you."

He grasped one of Belle's hands and tugged her gently away. He felt... numb, as if every emotion in him had suddenly been snuffed out. His knee was killing him, the adrenaline had left him shaky and unsettled and only Belle's hand in his own kept him grounded. With a bit of effort he managed to locate the town car, the hulking figure of Dove looming beside it. The gentle giant smiled surreptitiously after spotting Belle but otherwise showed no emotion, opening the door for them. Gold let himself drop heavily on the leather seat, closed his eyes, tipped his head back and sighed.

What a mess.

The ride back was long and silent. At some point they stopped holding hands, and Belle had to bite her lip to keep herself from making a soft noise of protest. She curled up on a corner of the backseat, trying to process everything. She clutched the manila envelope she'd rescued from the floor, wishing she could burn it right then and there. Tears gathered in her eyes, relief, fear, shock and confusion battling inside of her. Nick was a glacial presence beside her, his eyes closed and barely moving. She wanted, foolishly, to erase the distance separating them and curl up on his side, force him to wrap his arms around her till she stopped shaking but she didn't dare. She had chosen to go about things alone, had made a conscious decision to keep him out of the loop. It seemed so stupid, in retrospective, so arrogant and idiotic. She should've known she was in way over her head, should've asked for help when she needed it.

"I'm sorry," she managed to croak out, looking at her hands. "I was stupid and reckless and I should've told you everything from the get-go but I was so caught up in being my own person and standing on my own two feet that I got stupid." Tears started spilling down her cheeks and she tried hard not to sob openly. This was all her fault, she didn't get to have a meltdown.

Once she'd started talking it was easier to tell the whole story from the beginning. Gold remained impassive and almost unresponsive a few inches away, not giving any indication he could hear her. After a while she felt silent once more, exhaustion making her close her eyes and doze off. Dove woke her up gently some time later, helping her out of the vehicle with the softest touch possible. She had expected to see the familiar sights of her neighbourhood, but met instead the imposing facade of Gold's building, the man himself crossing the entrance. Dove ushered her in as well and she reluctantly stepped into the private elevator with Nick, trying hard to pretend the situation wasn't awkward.

Walking into the penthouse felt ridiculously like coming home. She'd missed the cluttered, eccentric mess and the smell, not to mention the view. Without some of her things scattered around it looked a bit naked, but Nick hadn't felt the need to fill the empty spaces with anything. She went straight to the guest room, fishing out the first aid kit from beneath the sink in the bathroom and went about cleaning up the rivulets of blood and applying antiseptic to the cuts. They were shallow things, more like long paper cuts. They stung, but she'd live. A few bruises were blooming on her skin, direct consequence of Mr Jones's gentlemanly touch, but otherwise she was fine. She kicked off her booties with relish, massaging her feet as she contemplated what she was supposed to do. Was Nick meant to come fetch her? Would Dove come back? Was she supposed to go away on her own when she was ready?

The uncertainty made her uncomfortable, but she sat down on the bed to wait it out. At some point she dozed off again, and when she woke up she had a cashmere throw, one she knew well, slung over her curled-up form. Most of the apartment was quiet and dark, and the only light came from the master bedroom. She tiptoed there, expecting to see Nick either asleep with the lights on or stewing. He wasn't in the bedroom, but the door to the bathroom was wide open. Belle peeked inside, surprised when she saw Gold was leaning with both hands on either side of the sink, his head bent and his hair obscuring his face. He was sans his jacket and vest, his shirt torn in places where Jones had managed to dig his hook into. His knuckles were bleeding, skinned badly and bruised in places and he had kicked off his shoes and belt but little else.

He seemed to be out of it and Belle hazarded he'd been like that for a long time. Mustering up all her bravery she quickly ducked out to retrieve the first aid kit she'd used earlier and then returned, stepping into the bathroom unannounced and taking Nick by the arm to gently turn him around. He let her, not fighting her when she begun to unbutton his shirt and then tugged it off, letting it flutter to the floor. His thin cotton shirt let her inspect his arms, a few bruises starting to show and several cuts sporting crusted blood. She made small, upset little noises as she traced each and every cut with her fingers, exploring to see if any needed medical attention.

She washed the cuts in warm water, cooing nonsense when it was apparent they stung, and carefully applied antiseptic. She paid special attention to his skinned knuckles, recalling how savage he'd seemed when he'd beaten Jones to within an inch of his life.

"This will hurt for a while. I'm sorry. I'm very, very sorry."

On impulse she cradled both his hands in hers and lifted them up to her lips, carefully kissing his injuries. The antiseptic tasted bitter but she kissed every knuckle slowly, wanting to convey properly her feelings. She wasn't talking about the injuries and they both knew it. She'd wounded him deeper by not trusting him, by keeping her problems a secret from him. She'd always trusted him, despite the rest of the world doing the exact opposite.

"You lied to me."

His voice was gruff, dark. His hands shot out to clutch at her arms, the grip gentle enough on her bruised skin. Belle fought the sudden need to retreat, to step away from his reach and run. But she'd created the mess, she needed to clean it up.

"I'm sorry. I wanted... I wanted to prove myself. To stand on my own two feet."

"So I'm some sort of obstacle in your way? That's what you see me as? A crutch to be avoided? A bad habit?"

His voice rose in volume, disbelief making him high-pitched. He tried to stagger out of her arms but she pressed forward, intent on finishing her task. They might not be together anymore, and she might have fucked things up for good but he still needed to take care of himself better and she'd force him to do it if that's what it took.

"No! I was stupid, I wasn't thinking! I'm just so afraid all the time of not measuring up, of not being good enough! There were- are- so many expectations and I got caught up in trying to meet them, in trying to prove that I'm worthy..."

Insecurity wasn't something he associated with Belle and it took Nick by surprise, making him pause. She was just so... confident, all the time. Always smiling, always brave, always optimistic. His little Belle, so much better than him in so many ways... He'd always assumed she saw herself the same way, but was kind enough to overlook HIS many flaws.

"I... I begged you to tell me. You should have told me. You could have... Belle, that man could've..."

He couldn't say it, but the unspoken words hung in the air between them. He was half-worried and half-angry, his mind refusing to stop concocting up all manner of gruesome scenarios.

"All that talk about trust, and all the while you'd been lying to me for weeks. Weeks! I'm supposed to be the person you can tell anything to, Belle. I've... I've forced myself to be vulnerable for you so many times! I've laid myself at your feet!"

He turned his back on her, escaping the bathroom but making no move to go beyond the bedroom. He raked his hands through his hair, a nervous gesture Belle knew too well. Everything about him was an open book she'd learned to read a long time ago and she wondered, for a moment, how she'd react to discovering there were sides of him he'd purposefully kept from her. Over time she'd coaxed him to shed his layers, never pausing to contemplate she might not be repaying him in kind.

"I... I didn't realize." Her voice sounded small but sincere enough to manage to appease him a little. She'd always been other people's support system, the friend always there to help. She hadn't thought about how little she asked for help from others, how the mere idea made her uncomfortable. She'd thought the idea of going to Nick for help repelled her because she had something to prove, but now she wondered if it went somehow deeper.

"You asked for my trust but weren't willing to give me yours in return. How is that fair?"

He sounded exhausted, defeated, and it almost made her cry again. Lashing out was almost automatic.

"And how's it fair that you thought I was cheating on you? When I've never given you a reason to doubt me like that. I can't keep paying some for other woman's mistakes."

Belle might have never known Vera but the woman had ended up impacting her life in unexpected, insidious ways. And every time she thought she was finally vanished the ghost of Nick's ex-wife returned. She hated it when he doubted himself and hated him when he doubted them. It felt like a slap in the face every time he let the past fill him with doubts and suspicions regarding their relationship.

"Don't try and change the subject! What I did was wrong, and I'm trying to do better, but you were the one who almost got herself killed for her stupid pride!"

He was snarling, leaning on the sink to compensate for his bad leg. His undershirt was spotted with blood, some of his cuts oozing again. He had kicked off his shoes at some point and not even his expensive pants could make him look the least bit civil. For Belle it was a maddening feeling, knowing that she was right but he was more so, and wanting to both inflict pain and apologize till her throat was raw. She approached him with the intention to slap him and beg him to forgive her at the same time, and somehow that got tangled up in her head and she ended up fisting her hands on his undershirt, rising up on her tiptoes and kissing him, hard. It felt like punishment and atonement at the same, time, brutal and soft.

He responded in kind, hauling her close, pressing her almost uncomfortably against his body as he opened his mouth to hers. Her tongue easily found the spots inside that made Nick moan and grunt. His hands splayed across her back, fingers digging into her skin as they explored everywhere, needing to feel her. She was warm, even through the gossamer fabric of her blouse and the silkiness of her camisole, and yet he could feel her tremble, vibrating with energy. He wanted to drink it all in, to somehow find the way to bind them together beyond their flesh and bone, in the most primal and basic way there was. Belle, it seemed, was of the same idea, pressing herself as much as she could against him, seeking out his skin beneath his t-shirt, running her nails roughly down his back in a way that had him moaning in obvious approval. He'd missed having evidence of Belle in his life, her things around the apartment, a hint of faded, smudged lipstick on his cheek, faint trace of her perfume around his collar. But those scratches, her scratches, would linger, would remind him of her every time they stung under the spray of the shower or forced him to sleep on his stomach. He welcomed them, biting back the need to beg her to press deeper, make them longer.

It felt like they were still arguing, with tongues and teeth instead of words and accusations. She left his back alone only to yank on his hair, his scalp tingling in utter bliss at the familiar tugging sensation he didn't realize he'd missed. He growled in appreciation, shifting them both around so he could haul her atop the sink and grant her an easier access to his hair while his hands struggled to undo the buttons of her shirt. It was made out of a thin, scratchy material and was torn in places where Jones had dug his hook and the mere memory of Belle in that man's arms, struggling and shaking and trying to be brave in spite of the cuts and bruises already on her body, had him ripping the garment off of her. The camisole was unceremoniously yanked above her head, Nick immediately pressing his palms against the bared skin with something akin to a sigh of relief. He felt her contort so she could unclasp her bra, pushing him away so she could shrug the garment off while he got rid of his t-shirt. New bruises were already appearing on his skin and he let her brush the tips of her fingers against them, cooing softly and making nonsensical little noises of comfort while he breathed raggedly and fought to get a hold of himself.

After a while she pulled him back against her, skin touching skin. Her legs went around his waist, heels pressing against his ass to encourage him closer. She slanted her lips against his, tongues readily meeting each other over and over, their time apart feeling both like a lifetime and a second. It was artless and desperate and sheer fucking heaven, particularly when he left her lips, swollen and wet because of him, to scrape his teeth against her skin, nudging her head back so he could suckle at the spot right where the beginning of her jaw met her throat. It might have been Belle's skin, but that spot was his by right and he'd missed it fiercely.

His hands left her back to travel lower, clawing at the fabric of her pants with blunt nails, a growl escaping him at the unwelcomed feel of clothing instead of Belle. He grappled for the button and fly of her pants, but the position didn't allow anything other than unhelpful attempts to unclothe her. His hands went to her waist then, easily coaxing her onto her feet and out of the bathroom. He let himself lean heavily on her, his face pressing against her neck, sucking on the skin where it met her shoulder. He didn't protest when she pushed him up against a wall, her nimble fingers quickly ridding him of his belt and undoing his pants, tugging them down with force till they pooled on the floor. He returned the favour with uncoordinated fervour, his teeth on her neck as clumsy and eager as his hands at her waist. Soon enough he was dragging her pants down, bending awkwardly on account of his bad knee.

Once down he took her time peeling the stockings off her legs, breathing in the subtle smell of her. He pressed his forehead against the soft flesh of her stomach, thinking of how he'd imagined resting his hands there while they posed for wedding pictures, stroking it softly to feel their child inside of her, spending lazy afternoons resting his head against it while she caressed his hair and read the Times out loud. He'd built up a life inside his head, a life for them both, and didn't know whether to cling to it or mourn it.

"Nick..."

The naked need in her voice made him shudder and muffle a moan against her skin, planting a kiss right over the waistband of her panties and trailing his lips upwards as he scrambled up as elegantly as possible. Belle grabbed him by the hair, pulling on it as she pressed fleeting, teasing kisses on his lips. She was leading him to the bed but he forced her to change course, walking her backwards towards the white chaise longue right against the massive windows of the room. It was an old, gorgeous piece restored to perfection, the silk brocade rich and luxurious but, more than all that, it was the most exposed area of the room. His living room had a lovely view of central park but his bedroom had a full city view, with sprawling skyscrapers dotted with tiny lights. Each one of those lights was a room in someone else's home. Some were close enough to distinguish furniture and people as they went about their day, which meant those same people could see a nude Belle, hair wild and lips swollen, pushing him into the longue and straddling him, hips snug against his and hands on his chest. He might be thin and old and lame, but he had a beautiful woman on top of him, warm and alive and wanting him, and he wanted everyone to see. He imagined plenty of stupid little boys had looked at Belle during their time apart, thinking they had a right to let their eyes linger in inappropriate places. The mere idea had tormented him for weeks, making him snap at investors and snarl at Mary Margaret.

They had no right to stare, Belle belonged to him and the way she loomed over him on the chaise, her body holding his down, showed everyone he belonged to her. It was a claim, and they both knew it. He had lost count of the number of times he'd arrived to a meeting sporting a love bite on the top side of his neck, Belle well aware he liked her to mark him where no shirt or suit jacket would cover it. He'd missed those marks, and the knowledge that each one had a twin on her own body. He'd missed being hers, utterly and completely and he almost purred when she bent down and closed her mouth around the skin between his neck and left ear, wetting the surface before sucking greedily.

"Yes, yes, please!" He arched beneath her, bracing himself on the edges of the chaise. "Harder, Belle, fucking harder."

She complied, stroking his throat with her hands as she scraped her teeth against the budding bruise, a bit of pain mingling with the pleasure. He howled, hoping desperately that everyone in the vicinity could hear him. Belle's grip on the base of his neck was deliciously possessive, and he gave into the impulse to splay his hands across her back, embedding his blunt nails into her skin in a way that had her thrusting her hips against his. He could tell she was wet through her panties and his boxers and he wiggled desperately, trying to draw attention to the fact that there was still fabric between them and that was not acceptable. He kneaded the sides of her waist, his fingers pointedly brushing the lace of her underwear over and over till Belle made a small, desperate little noise on the back of her throat and scrambled off of him, shimming out of her panties while he tore his boxers off with little finesse, kicking them to the floor somewhere. Soon enough his lap was once more full of Belle, skin pressed snuggle against skin as she leaned over to kiss him, tugging on his hair to get him to tilt his head to the side.

Abruptly she hissed, and Nick broke the kiss to look her up and down, wanting to know the reason for her distress. It took him little to realize one of his hands was pressing against a scratch on her side, no doubt made when she'd escaped Jones. He squashed the initial impulse to fret over it, pressing his palm roughly against it instead.

"Feel that, dearie?" He asked, voice rough and dark. "Hope it hurts, sweetheart. It's what you get for being stupid and careless and it better hurt, and it better last so you'll think twice before risking your neck in such an idiotic way."

He hissed the last part, digging his fingers into the cut one last time before pulling away, looking suddenly weary, almost exhausted.

"Please, Belle, I... Just don't. I can't..."

She cut him off with a deep kiss, grabbing the sides of his face and holding him in place.

"I'm sorry," she whispered against his lips before caressing his tongue with hers over and over. She slid her hands down slowly, trying to bring comfort without words. He didn't need words, he needed actions. She lowered her head to trace her lips across his injuries, taking time to lick every cut and kiss every bruise. He was restless beneath her, muttering in a thick brogue she seldom heard from him. It was a mixture of pleas and expletives, anger and helplessness that she tried to soothe away one at a time. He grunted suddenly when her fingers found his cock, looking like it'd been hard and ready for a long while. She slid her nails carefully across it, from base to tip, listening carefully as his whimpers turned to moans.

When he started bucking into her touch she wrapped her hand around him, the other stroking his left flank soothingly, and started pumping. He didn't seem to want to stay still beneath her, his fingers kneading into her hips rather painfully before traveling upwards to tease her ribcage and cupping her breasts. The feeling sent a jolt of electricity through her, making her breathe deeply through her nose to calm down.

"Missed you so fucking much..." His words were slurred but understandable even over the roaring of her blood on her ears. "All the time. Missed your things, your fucking perfume on my sodding shirts, stubbing a toe on an abandoned pile of books in the middle of the goddam foyer..." He howled when she cupped his balls and retaliated by pinching her nipples with just the right amount of force. "Every fucking time something happened I wanted to call you to talk about it but I couldn't and it fucking hurt..."

He keened loudly all of a sudden, arching his back and yanking her hands away forcefully.

"No, not like this... Please, Belle, please, please..."

Her body moved without conscious thought, her hips shifting to take him inside of her. He felt hot and hard, and even though she was very wet it was a struggle to adjust to him being in her. On instinct her inner muscles gripped him tightly, as if afraid he'd go away. She willed herself to relax, scared for a moment of being overwhelmed by everything. Nick's hands kneaded her breasts softly now, as if having his cock inside her had drained him of a large part of his anxiousness. Belle thought he might have transferred it all to her because suddenly she felt antsy, fill to the brim with energy she needed to release. She rose on her knees till she felt his erection almost slip out of her before sinking back against him. It didn't take long for her to find a rhythm that turned the dull pulsating sensation inside of her into a burning need, uncomfortable and perfect at the same time. She couldn't find it in herself to care that they were sweaty, or that some of her cuts, particularly the one he'd dugs his fingers into, were open and oozing trickles of blood. All she cared about was that she needed him harder, and more, because she was going to go out of her fucking mind if she didn't come soon but somehow that just wasn't happening.

"Stop thinking. Stop going away from me. Be with me, sweetheart. Here." He pushed his torso upwards till he was precariously sitting on the chaise, and wrapped his hand around her neck, yanking her close for a kiss. His other hand traced a fiery pattern down her chest, over her belly and past the nest of curls he adored so much. It took him next to no time to locate her clit, grazing it with his thumb before rubbing more firmly. She began to shudder above him to the point that when he pressed his face against the side of her neck he could feel the skin vibrate.

"I've heard you scream for Jones tonight. Now I need you to scream for me. Scream, Belle." He pinched her clit, making her jolt. "Be a good girl and scream for me, darling."

A twist was all it took for her to climax, crying out his name for the world to hear. Her shriek pushed him over the edge as well, his balls tightening before he spilled himself inside her, the orgasm seeming to last forever. He barely felt his knee protest when Belle fell over him, skin covered in cold sweat and chest heaving. He stood on shaky legs, stumbling a few feet towards the bed and sluggishly ripping off the covers, urging Belle beneath them. He wasted no time wrapping himself around her from behind, his entire body sighing in relief. This is how he was supposed to sleep always. This was right.

He dozed off, waking up hours later to find Belle's lips and hands all over him. They coupled slowly, trapped in that space between dreaming and waking. The slight pain from the cuts and bruises eased Nicholas panicked mind, letting him know that he wasn't imagining her in his arms, warm and soft and utterly wonderful, and when exhaustion once again settled over him he didn't fight it. When he woke up a second time, reaching out to her, he found the other side of the bed cold. He shot up immediately, fighting the bile that rose.

"Belle? Belle!"

She appeared almost at once, wearing her underwear and the black camisole and biting her lip in a way he knew meant she was feeling guilty about something. She could barely look at him in the eye.

"I... I thought it'd be best for me to go. I was gonna wake you up when I was dressed. I... I thought it'd make things less awkward. I've caused you enough problems."

"Get in here now."

Cold fury coated his voice, leaving no room for argument. Belle slid inside the covers, eyes tearing up. His hands delved into her hair, smoothing out the curls.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to sound so... I..." He sighed, pressing his lips against her temple. "I just woke up alone and thought... No, don't cry, Belle, don't cry. Tell me what's going on. Please. What did I do?"

Whatever he said made her sob harder and he cursed loudly before pulling her into his arms. She seemed to come apart then, crying into his shoulder, her whole body shaking. He held her close as she broke down, muttering comforting nonsense as he stroked her hair. It took a while for her to calm down but she finally did so, leaning her back against his front and hiccupping every now and then.

"Night finally caught up to you?"

She nodded, burying her face against the side of his neck and breathing in his scent.

"What happened at the docks was stressful, it's only natural to cry."

He was too emotionally and physically exhausted to do so. Otherwise he felt he would've been bawling his eyes out. Belle shook her head.

"It's not that. It's... it's this. I... I screwed this up. When I woke up you had your arms around me and I was sleepy and content and thought that I never wanted to leave the bed..." She paused, sniffling in a rather unbecoming way. "And then I realized that I meant it. I wanted... I want... forever. But I messed it up and now it's never gonna happen and I thought it'd be best if I left quietly because I..."

He twisted away from her, opening the drawer of his nightstand to pull out a black ring box, which he pressed into her hands.

"I agonized over how to do this properly. In my dream scenario you weren't crying, or bruised, or emotionally drained but at least nothing's on fire and neither of us is throwing up." He watched her open the box, gasping at the sight of the ring, which he hope was big enough to compensate the way he was fucking the proposal up. "Marry me, Belle. We can work everything out, we can talk until we're blue in the face, but... I want you to marry me. Marry me and we'll never leave this bed if that's what you want."

She laughed, nodding and offering her left hand so he could slide the ring on her finger. When the bed sheets didn't spontaneously caught fire he allowed himself to relax, pulling her down to lay beside him, kissing her and allowing the knot in his chest to loosen. They would talk more in the morning, start to work things out properly but it all could wait a while. They were in no rush, after all. They had forever.

"It's Sunday evening. I need to go, Nick."

Gold grunted, tightening his grip on Belle's waist and nipping at her nape for daring to suggest they get up.

"No leaving. Dove will pick out clothes and have them here in the morning for work. You stay."

She giggled at his tone and punched him lightly on the shoulder.

"It's not about work. I just remembered I promised a friend I'd help her out on an errand she couldn't do."

He wasn't impressed.

"Dove do errand. We stay."

"Okay then." Her voice was suspiciously sweet and accommodating. "Then call Dove and tell him I'm supposed to go to the Starbucks I used to work. The security system broke down so I was supposed to let the repairman from the security company in after work tomorrow, around seven, and hand him the keys after checking his ba... what are you doing?"

From then on it was all a flurry of movement and confusion as Nick yanked her out of bed, limping around the room and tossing clothes around. He shoved a pair of socks into her hands, instructing her to "get fucking dressed". Belle rolled her eyes, watching him unearth a pair of jeans from somewhere inside his walk-in closet and putting them on.

"These socks don't even match. And they're yours!"

He turned to look at her like she'd grown a second head.

"What the fuck does it matter, Belle? Just put them on! I'll be taking them off in roughly thirty minutes anyway."

She shimmied into her tight pants while he grabbed her peach blouse and black camisole, the former torn and the later rumpled. She took the camisole from him and yanked it on, discarding the ruined shirt with a sigh. Nick grabbed her from behind, burying his face in her hair.

"I'll buy you one like it. I'll buy one in every colour they have. But don't throw that one. I want to keep it."

He didn't tell her he planned on having a handkerchief made with the fabric, feeling silly and sentimental about it. He leant her one of his cashmere sweaters instead, an old burgundy one she loved to borrow and hunted for her booties while she tried to tame her hair.

"Clock's ticking, dearie!" He singsonged, struggling into his coat while holding onto his cane. "The night's not gonna last forever!"

She giggled as he yanked her out of the apartment, quickly shoving her into the elevator and pressing himself against her. He let out a low, throaty laugh and nipped playfully at her neck in response, rubbing himself against her like an affectionate cat. She could feel his smile against her skin, and for a moment felt so happy she could barely breathe. She wrapped herself around him as much as she could, needing to hold him tight. The engagement ring dug into her finger, heavy and wonderful.

"Mal will probably approve of me skipping work in favour of marathonic sex but how 'bout you? Can Imp Inc spare you?"

He shrugged, tilting his head up to kiss her forehead.

"I could indulge in some vacation time. I've been a veritable beast lately, I'm sure everyone will be more than a bit relieved."

His tone was light and humorous but the implication of his words made Belle press tighter against him. It had taken Nick, the most guarded and vulnerable man she knew, four tries to propose, during which he had gotten food poisoning, had had his study flooded and had fought with his ex-wife's former lover. Nicholas Gold, scared lifeless of putting himself out there had gone through hell for her. He could indulge all he wanted as far as she was concerned.