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Little Pick-Me-Ups

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It was getting increasingly difficult not to curl her lip with disgust. Over the course of the evening, the words coming out of his mouth had gotten progressively more oily and suggestive. Regina had endured almost three hours of it, but the restaurant was emptying out and it was time for her to make her excuses and go.

Although, 'restaurant' wasn't really the right word for the place Killian had decided to take her to for their first date. He'd suggested somewhere called The Rabbit Hole in a part of the city she'd never been to before, but because she was all about trying new things right then, she'd gone along with it. She hadn't realised that it was a dingy bar in one of New York's worst neighbourhoods, or that the only food they served came in sealed foil bags. 

She'd found herself sitting primly upright on a chair that wobbled whenever she leaned too far to the left. The fact was, she didn't mind going to bars or pubs for first dates - it was only Tinder, after all, and she couldn't expect every man in New York City to want to wine and dine her at Le Bernardin. But Killian had guided her into that place with an air of grandeur, sweeping his arm across the dimly lit room like he was showing her a side of the city that only he knew about. He'd ordered them both rum and Cokes without asking if that was what she wanted. As Regina had nursed her first glass, he'd moved onto his third.

All of that would have been forgivable if it weren't for the lecherous look in his eye.

"I really do think I should get going," she said. She'd already used that phrase twice before, but he kept ignoring her. "It's late and my sitter will need to get home."

That was a lie. Thursday nights were date nights on Regina's calendar now, as they were the one day a week when her sister, Zelena, was able to take her son away for the evening. Henry went to stay at his aunt's house, shrieking with his cousins and eating way too much ice cream, while Regina psyched herself up for yet another disappointing evening on the town.

Killian did manage to register the second part of her sentence, at least. "Sitter? You have a kid?" 

"I told you," she said, because she'd mentioned it multiple times but he'd always been too busy staring at her chest to register it. "Henry's six. His father and I got divorced a year ago."

She was half hoping that would be enough to put Killian off, but he just shrugged. "As long as you're on the market."

Sucking back the taste of acid, Regina forced a smile and got to her feet. "I'll head home now, if that's okay."

"No problem," Killian said, much to her relief. Then, in the first display of chivalry he'd displayed all night, he added, "I'll walk you out."

"It's okay. I can just—" 

"Don't be silly. What kind of gentleman would I be if I didn't see a lady to her car?" 

Regina smiled tightly yet again and pulled her coat on. It was January and the worst possible time for dating, but at least all her thick layers gave her some kind of protection from men like this.

As soon as they stepped outside, Regina realised what her next problem would be: she didn't know this neighbourhood, it was dark and threatening, and there weren't any cabs in sight. She looked blindly around for the comforting glow of an available vehicle, but just came face to face with Killian, who was once again leering at her with eyes that looked like they might even have make-up around them.

Regina shuddered and tried to smile. "Which way are you going?" 

"That way," he replied, gesturing to their left. He was only wearing a leather jacket, but the cold didn't seem to be bothering him in the slightest.

"That's a shame. I'm going that way," she replied vaguely, not evening bothering to point to her right because she was so thoroughly done with the evening. "I had a nice night, Killian. Get home safe."

Then, because she'd had manners drilled into her from a young age and she couldn't just walk away without any gesture whatsoever, she leaned forward to briskly kiss his cheek. He smelled of alcohol - not just the drinks he'd been chugging all evening, but sweeter liquors and possibly even marijuana, if Regina remembered her college days correctly - and his face was stubbly. The second she made contact with it, he groaned and grabbed her wrist.

She felt herself being shoved back against the wall but didn't register that she was being kissed until she felt the sharp little hairs on his chin irritating her. His mouth was wet and hot and slightly furry from beer, and before she could push him away and deliver a slap to the other side of his smug face, she felt his right hand slithering down her body. It reached the bottom of her dress and tugged.

Regina shrieked and shoved him away, almost sending him into the road. He staggered back a few steps and blinked, then grinned. "Is that a no?" 

Rage was simmering inside her, but she didn't like her chances against a man half a foot taller than her and swollen with too much liquor. She straightened her dress and turned away, marching in the opposite direction to him and ignoring his disgruntled calls after her.

She walked for a while. She felt hot all over and slightly sick, but she kept moving just in case Killian was coming after her. Eventually, when she reached a street that was slightly better lit, she stopped and looked over her shoulder. The road was deserted, and she could finally collapse onto a low brick wall and catch her breath.

She hadn't spent much time in Brooklyn before, but to her memory it had always been fairly animated and friendly. Right then, it was closing in on midnight and there wasn't a soul near her. She still hadn't seen a taxi rushing past.

With a groan, she pulled out her phone and downloaded Uber. With the way her night had gone, she might as well crown it all off by getting murdered by an unlicensed driver.

Someone accepted her request and, as she tried to control her frantic breathing and her furiously pounding heart, Regina watched as the little car on her phone screen headed toward her. She could still taste Killian in her mouth. The last person she'd kissed had been another online date a few weeks before Christmas - it had been better than this one, but not by much. She'd only done it to be polite, and she'd gotten home feeling just about as dirty and as used as she did right then. 

Her eyes were stinging. She'd thought that, after a year of being divorced and feeling so lonely and affection-starved she could die, she was finally ready to get back out there and see what Manhattan had to offer her. Now she was 10 dates down and even more disillusioned than before. At the rate she was going, her next attempt at romance would end with her dead in a ditch somewhere on the outskirts of JFK.

She instinctively pulled her dress down again, even though it was as long as it would go and she was probably going to stretch the fabric. She couldn't wait to get back home and pull on pyjama pants that covered her up properly.

Then she heard the noise of a car approaching and looked up. She frowned. She'd always heard that every Uber driver in the city cruised around in a Toyota Prius, but the vehicle that was rattling along the road toward her was bright yellow and at least 30 years old.

It pulled up alongside her and waited. Regina groaned.

She forced herself to her feet and headed over, instinctively going to open the door to the backseat. There wasn't one. She wrinkled her nose and edged forward, pulling open the passenger door with an aggrieved expression.

The smell of coffee and cinnamon instantly wafted out at her. When she looked into the car, she paused again.

"Hi," the woman in the driver's seat said. "Regina, right?" 

Regina blinked at her. She was young - in her late 20s, probably, if her toned arms and line-free face were anything to go by - and had long blonde curls that cascaded down over her black sweater. She wasn't smiling, but she looked expectant and relatively harmless. Regina swallowed and tried to nod. "Yes. Sorry. I didn't know there were many female Uber drivers."

"There aren't," the woman said plainly, gesturing to the seat next to her. "Do you mind? It's freezing." 

"Oh. Right." Regina slid in and shut the door behind her.

"Sorry. The back's a bit of a mess right now," the driver said as she shifted the car into gear. "Plus the handle on that seat doesn't always work so sitting in the front is just easier."

"Right," Regina repeated. Her throat was hurting. To force conversation more than anything else, she asked, "What do you do if more than one person needs a ride?" 

"Struggle," she replied. She pulled away from the curb in silence, immediately leaning her left arm on the window and her chin on her palm. Regina was glad when she didn't speak again - it left her to sigh and turn toward her own window, focusing on the road that was whipping past instead of the anxiety that was still bubbling away inside her stomach.

Except, it wasn't that easy. She could still feel his hand creeping up her thigh.

She sniffed hard and turned her head further. The smell of coffee was starting to be a little stifling, but she didn't trust herself to ask if it was okay to open to window.

Beside her, Emma was riding comfortably. She was always relieved when she saw a woman's name appear on her driver's app - not that she had any issue with driving men around, as long as they didn't puke in the footwell or save her phone number to use later. It was just a whole deal less stressful when a girl climbed into her passenger seat, especially at that time of night. Usually, it even meant she could have a normal conversation that didn't actively make her blood boil.

This woman didn't seem to want to talk, though. The app had said her name was Regina, and Emma immediately knew that it suited her - she was classically beautiful and just a bit snobby, and the address she'd given her was one of those fancy-pants neighbourhoods just over the border into Connecticut. Emma had almost flinched when she'd seen her sitting uncomfortably on a low brick wall in her own grubby neighbourhood.

"You're a long way from home for a Thursday night," she commented. When Regina didn't reply, she added, "Visiting friends?" 

She waited. Regina was staring out her window, most of her face obscured by either her dark hair or the dark night, and for a second it seemed like she wasn't going to respond at all. Then, in a quietly gruff voice, she said, "Mm."

Emma bristled. I'm not asking for much, she said to herself.

And because people who were more stubborn than she was had always been her worst enemy, she decided to push harder. "Friends from college?" 

She received a faint sigh for her efforts. 

"It's nice that you're still in contact," she continued, slightly enjoying the awkward silence now even though she knew it was going to earn her a two-star review. "I hardly have any friends from back then."

Yet again, she got absolutely nothing. Emma gritted her teeth and looked straight out at the road, letting the minutes tick past until her jaw started to ache. The ride was going to be a long one if it carried on like this, and she couldn't even turn the radio on because it had finally bitten the dust a week earlier. 

She wrinkled her nose and glanced across at the passenger seat once more, opening her mouth in one final attempt to get this woman to engage. Then she paused. Her gaze fell to where Regina's hands were - one was gripping the purse in her lap, far too tightly to simply be worried about her Uber driver being a mugger. The other was sneaking up to her cheek, scrubbing at something quickly enough that if Emma had turned her head a second later, she would have missed it.

She hesitated before reaching into her door. Thankfully the tissue packet she kept in there still had a clean one left.

When Regina realised there was a hand near her face, she jumped. She turned to look at it and found it steadily holding a tissue, waiting for her to take it. At once, her eyes began to sting even harder. She hesitated before reaching out for it, using it to dab at her eyes without smudging her make-up. She realised she needed to blow her nose and paused, wishing the driver would at least put on the radio to cover it up. In the end, she was forced to blow as quietly as possible, hoping it was somehow inaudible to the woman next to her.

Beside her, Emma was stifling a laugh. Once her passenger had finished blowing and took one last, long sniff, she felt better.

They carried on driving in silence until a small voice piped up from beside her. "Thank you."

Emma smiled but didn't look round. After a beat, she asked, "Rough night?"

She wasn't really expecting an answer - she just didn't know when to keep her mouth shut. She spent her days by herself, because she was only just getting started in the bail bondsperson game and had no one to hang around with while she was waiting for a perp to show up, which made it even worse when her nights were spent in silence too. She rarely slept properly, so she drove people around all night instead. If she couldn't talk, she'd go insane.

There was a long pause, which she decided to take as her final sign that this woman didn't want to speak to her. She settled back in her chair and waited for the next 30 or 40 minutes to pass by.

But then Regina sighed. "Yes. It wasn't the best."

Forcing herself to keep her eyes on the road, Emma asked, "So. Not hanging with college friends, then?" 

"No," Regina replied, laughing tightly. "I've... started dating again recently." 

"Oh? How come?" 

"My husband left me a year ago," Regina said flatly, not giving her driver the chance to offer her feeble condolences because she was sick to death of them. "I thought I was ready, but the dating scene is..."

When she didn't finish her sentence, Emma offered, "...rough."

She felt her passenger laugh again. "Yes. Exactly. I guess I forgot that men can be so unpleasant." 

There was something about that word that made Emma's entire body go rigid. She glanced across at Regina's hand again - it was still clinging onto her purse like she was getting ready to use it as a weapon. Somehow, just like that, Emma knew what she was talking about.

She groaned and shook her head. "There are some serious scumbags out there."

"So I'm learning. I'm starting to think that it isn't worth the effort."

"Don't say that - there's got to be, like, one nice guy left."

"Who's also single and in his forties and doesn't mind taking on a six-year-old as well? I doubt it."

Emma felt the corners of her mouth flicker. "You have a kid?"

"A son. It's been because of him and his nosy, interfering aunt that I joined Tinder in the first place."

"Tinder?" Emma asked, nearly swerving into the next lane. She looked across the car once more - Regina was beautiful, dignified, a bit scary and wearing perfume that smelled more expensive than Emma's apartment. "Well, there's your problem right there. Why did you choose that app?" 

Regina looked back at her, her dark brown eyes still slightly wet. "There are others?"

"Loads of others. Tinder is the worst of the worst, unless you're in your 20s and just trying to get laid."

Part of Regina wanted to recoil at her candid language, but the rest of her just laughed with something that felt weirdly like relief. "I don't think that's my scene anymore."

"No, probably not. When you get home tonight, get your son's nosy, interfering aunt to help you find something better. Maybe you'll have more luck."

It was strange, but Regina found herself smiling. She assumed this was what people meant when they said the best part of a night out was drunkenly telling your life story to a cab driver at the end of it.

You're never going to see her again, she reminded herself. And she clearly wants conversation.

Regina straightened up and asked, "Are you married?" 

Emma blinked. "No. Why?" 

"Just wondering. Does that mean you're dealing with the dating scene too?"

"Nah. I was for a long time but to be honest, I think the right people come and find you when you're ready for them. I never had much luck trawling the internet, so I just stopped." 

Regina considered that. "And has someone come and found you?"

Her question was greeted by a wry laugh. "I spend my nights driving strangers around to make some extra cash. What do you think?"

"Right. So, you're damned if you do..." 

"Exactly. I'm just not wasting my time anymore," Emma replied, grabbing her cup of coffee from the centre console and taking a sip. "One of these days, some sexy, sensitive veterinarian or something will get in my car and we'll be married within the year. I'm sure of it."

Regina laughed at her dry optimism. "Seems like you've got it all planned out. I'm sorry they didn't find you tonight."

"It's not a problem," Emma replied, smirking. "You'll do for now."

By the time Regina was back home again, she felt better. The journey had passed quickly and the driver had even waited outside until she was safely inside the house before she drove off, which was surprisingly reassuring after how her date had ended. Regina kicked off her heels and walked into the kitchen. It was cold and some of Henry's pencils were still scattered across the table. She slowly gathered them up into a bundle and packed them inside their box. 

When she opened her phone again, Uber was blinking up at her, asking how her ride was.

How would you rate your driver, Emma?

It was only then that Regina realised she'd gone the entire journey without learning that woman's name.

She paused before tapping the five-star button. Just like that, Emma's profile was gone again, and Regina realised she was never going to see her again.