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.
Emma's coffee was nearly cold. She winced as she sipped it, knowing that there wasn't a Starbucks open for miles and wondering whether she was brave enough to try the nearby diner. The night had been quiet so far. For the first hour, she'd been doing paperwork against the steering wheel, occasionally knocking against the horn until she had to drive to another street before the locals could come after her for disturbing them. When she'd finished with her bail bondsperson work, she sat back and waited for the rides to come in. It was Thursday and that was normally when the weekend started as far as New York City was concerned. Her phone was silent, though, and the streets were deserted. It was just starting to rain.
She sighed and leaned her head back, wondering whether it was time to give up and go home. She lived in a tiny studio in Brooklyn, but she never liked being there very much - her neighbours on one side played house music late into the night no matter what day it was, and she strongly suspected the two men on her other side were running a meth lab. The thumping and shouting from every one of her surrounding walls didn't help with her lifelong insomnia, so staying out on the roads was a much better option. Making an extra 50 bucks a night was well worth it when the other option was lying in bed, wide awake, staring up at the ceiling and wondering whether it would be an overreaction to call the police or not.
Her phoned buzzed, and she leaped to look at it. There was a ride request nearby: a man called George who already looked drunk and insufferable in his profile picture. Still, she clicked 'accept' and headed over, collecting the middle-aged businessman from outside a house that she already knew was something akin to a brothel.
"Midtown?" she asked as he clambered in. He nodded, adjusting his shirt and belt buckle. She shuddered, thinking about the poor woman inside that house who had just had to tolerate him for an hour, and drove him over the bridge into the city.
By the time they parked again, George was happily chatting about his work as a stockbroker and how life couldn't be better for him. Emma was willing to go along with it so she'd get a good tip, but she couldn't help but notice that he had a tan line where his wedding ring normally went.
"Late dinner?" she asked as they pulled up outside a restaurant. He nodded.
"Wife," he said, like that was the only name she deserved. Emma forced a smile.
"Have a good one. Don't get up to anything too crazy."
He threw her the kind of smile that made her skin crawl, and then thankfully swaggered off into the building. Emma shuddered and cracked the window, waiting for the icy wind to blow the scent of him away.
She waited there for a moment. There were plenty of people around and eventually someone had to need a ride - if she could park up without a cop or meter maid noticing her, she'd be out of there in five minutes. But then she glanced up at the restaurant directly next to the one George had just walked into and frowned. There was something familiar about the woman standing outside it.
She was wearing a short black dress and painfully high heels, and the coat she had on on top didn't look particularly warm. Her hair was shoulder-length and dark enough to be called black, and there was something so intoxicatingly interesting about the bubble pout of her lips. She was standing with a man and was wearing body language that screamed please don't touch me, I'm giving you the brush-off. The man, though, didn't seem to have noticed. He was leaning toward her and grinning too widely, and even when she staggered backward, he seemed to take that as an invitation to move closer.
The very second Emma realised where she recognised her from, she shifted the car back into gear and began to move it forward. Once she was in line with them, she cranked down the window and leaned as far across the car as her seatbelt would allow.
"Hey," she called out, having to repeat herself three times before the woman noticed her. She jumped when she eventually spotted her. "Did you call for an Uber?"
Regina blinked at her, then looked back at her date. An eternity passed.
Then, mercifully, she got it. Nodding, she said, "Yes. Yes, I did."
"Really?" the man, leaning forward again. Multiple beers were visibly weighing him down. "When?"
"When you were in the bathroom," Regina replied as vaguely as possible. He looked disappointed, and she knew if she didn't move fast enough he'd offer to share the ride with her. "Thanks for a lovely night. I really should be getting home, though."
Before he could reply, she stepped forward and kissed him dryly on the cheek. She was already walking away when he reached out to the vacant spot in front of him like he was about to pull her closer.
Emma shuddered at the sight of his big hands grasping around nothing.
Regina got into the car, bringing the smell of perfume and fresh cooking with her, and said, "Are you my knight in shining armour?"
Emma put her foot down and pulled out into traffic before the man could come after them.
"I guess so. Does that get me an extra big tip?"
She was momentarily worried that would offend her, but Regina just snorted. "If you get us away fast enough."
Emma forced back a laugh and headed in the vague direction of where she'd driven last time. When Regina didn't pause to correct her choice of destination, she decided to settle back and assume she'd done the right thing by wading in to rescue her.
"Who was this week's guy?"
Regina rolled her eyes. "His name was Robin. He didn't pay for dinner."
"You're kidding?" Emma asked, turning to look at her. Regina wasn't crying this time, which was an improvement, but she didn't look very happy. There was a bitter pout to her lips and new creases between her eyebrows. "How did he manage that?"
"The bill came and he got his wallet out, and I got mine out too and said I'd pay, and he just... put his away."
"What?" Emma spluttered. "God, I know feminism is a thing and we don't exactly expect men to foot the bill anymore, but letting the other person pay for the whole thing? He's got a nerve."
Regina smiled wryly. The truth was, she'd been quietly raging for the past 20 minutes, but after her weeks and weeks of bad dates, she wasn't even sure she had the right to be mad anymore. It was good to have another person fuming on her behalf.
"I guess I asked for it."
Emma glared at her. "Don't say that."
"What? I just mean—"
"I know what you mean. Don't say it. Women never 'ask' for anything unless they specifically say the words, 'Please, sir, do this to me'. Having good manners isn't grounds for being taken advantage of."
Regina could only blink at her. She knew she was right, but she'd never heard someone be that vehement about it before.
After a beat, she forced a smile and said, "Thank you for getting me out of there."
She watched Emma as she spoke the words. Emma drove like the men Regina knew: one hand on the wheel, the other draped somewhere in her lap or propping up her head. There was a faint black line appearing from beneath her watch strap - a tattoo, Regina assumed, or possibly an accidental line of pen. Her seat was low and she spread her knees wide, but above all that she had smooth, pale skin and delicate blonde curls that cascaded for miles. She was a princess dressed in a stable boy's clothing - it was the strangest combination she'd ever seen.
"It was just lucky I was nearby," Emma replied. "Normally I hang out in Brooklyn since that's where I live anyway. I just happened to drop off a guy right next to you."
Regina nodded. "What's it like, driving in Brooklyn?"
"It's okay. I've lived there 10 years and I know a lot of people."
"But don't you...?" Regina started to ask, then realised how the question would sound coming from her. She lived in a five-bed house in Fairfield County - if she started criticising Emma's neighbours, she'd earn herself a slap.
Luckily though, Emma just smiled. "Yeah, there can be some interesting people. But to be honest, that's the same anywhere - if you work past 11, most of the people you pick up are either drunk or abusive or both."
"Isn't that scary?"
"Sure. But I'm okay with it."
Regina frowned. This woman was probably only 10 years younger than her, but a sudden, smothering wave of protectiveness had just come over her and she wasn't entirely sure how to bat it away again.
"But you still need to be careful," she said slowly. "How often do you drive alone with a guy who's bigger than you?"
Emma thought about it. "I don't know. Two, three times a night?"
"And what would happen if he tried to attack you?"
At that, Emma turned to look at her. "Why do you care?"
"What does it matter? If someone tries to attack me then I'll deal with it at the time."
"What?" Regina exploded. "Are you deliberately trying to martyr yourself?"
She was expecting Emma to swell in response, but she just laughed. "No, of course not. I just mean that this is a job, and I do it because I can handle it. I'm not worried."
"So if a huge man attacked you, you'd be able to fight him off?"
"Maybe not, but he wouldn't be getting home, would he?"
"Regina," Emma cut her off, ignoring the little sizzle of joy she'd felt when she realised this woman had actually learned her name. "I assure you - no one has ever been concerned about my wellbeing before, so you don't need to pretend to do it now. I'll be just fine."
That hurt Regina more than she'd expected - not because she'd been brushed off, but because Emma had said it so candidly. No one has ever been concerned about my wellbeing before. If she'd been exaggerating or looking for sympathy, Regina probably wouldn't have minded so much, but for some horrible reason, she suspected it was the truth.
Either way, Emma didn't seem that bothered. That made it even worse.
But she decided it wasn't her place to push for more, so she forced a smile. "Do you drive full time?"
"Nah. I'm just starting out in a new job and the money's not great, so this is how I earn some extra cash."
"What's your other job?"
"Bail bondsperson," Emma said, shifting slightly. "What do you do?"
"I'm... in politics," Regina replied vaguely. People were normally impressed when she admitted she was the mayor of her small town, but for some reason she suspected this woman wouldn't be. "And that's only my day job, too."
Instantly, Emma grinned at her. "I assume raising your son is the other one."
"He is. Ever since the divorce he's been more protective of me, which unfortunately means he gets in a whole lot more trouble."
Emma laughed. "Cute. You must have your hands full, what with that and the fact that you're trying to date your way down the Eastern Seaboard."
"Unsuccessfully, I might add."
"Did you try looking for a new site like I said?"
"I... didn't," Regina admitted. "Maybe I'm self-sabotaging."
"Maybe. But luckily you know I'm always around on Thursday nights now, so I can get you out of the really bad dates whenever you need."
A strange and unfamiliar smile crept over Regina's face. "Do you only work on Thursdays?"
"I'm out most nights. Usually I take weekends off because I'm finally tired by then."
Regina looked at her curiously. "What do you mean?"
As Emma glanced back at her, a flash from the streetlights crossed her face. Regina saw that there were a few freckles dotted across the bridge of her nose.
"I just don't sleep very well, so I kill time driving around trying to tire myself out."
"You'd sleep better without the coffee," Regina pointed out, nodding to the cup that was sitting between them. Emma automatically rolled her eyes.
"There's a fine line between being up all night and falling asleep at the wheel."
"Well, luckily you seem to have mastered it, right?"
Emma glanced across the car to find Regina grinning. She had the most strangely beautiful teeth, and dark eyes that never got any brighter even when a flash of someone's headlights sparked across them. The smile on her face was infectious, and Emma turned away again with her cheeks hurting.
"It's a long walk from here back to the state line," she said dryly, earning herself a faint laugh. "Don't push it."
When they got off the highway, Regina directed Emma back to her house. It had started raining and the night was freezing cold. The heater seemed to be the only thing that actually worked inside Emma's car, and by the time they pulled up at the bottom of her driveway, Regina felt warm and totally drowned by the smell of coffee and cinnamon and vanilla. She looked up at her big, empty house and sighed. When she turned her head, Emma was looking up at it too.
"Nice place," she commented, thinking about her own home, where the bed was only five steps away from the fridge and the water didn't get hot unless you had 15 minutes to spare. "It's just you and your son?"
Regina jolted suddenly, like she'd only just remembered that she was supposed to have common sense. She knows your address and she knows you have a young kid - she could be up to all manner of bad things.
Emma saw her expression at once and laughed. "I'm not going to rob you, you know. A life of crime never worked out very well for me."
Choosing to overlook that comment, Regina replied, "You can never be too careful. Maybe I should get some cameras installed."
"Maybe I should - you might be stealing gumdrops out of my glove compartment."
Regina chuckled and rebuttoned her coat. "I guess I should get inside. I'm sorry you have to drive all the way back to the city now."
"Don't mention it - it's part of the job."
Regina nodded, although she didn't feel very reassured. The night was pitch black and drizzly and Emma's face seemed to look younger every time they met each other's gaze.
But she forced herself to grab her purse and repeat her thanks. "Maybe I'll see you around again?"
"I'm sure you will." Just as Regina was reaching for the door, she added, "Hey, wait."
Regina looked back at her, confused, before her whole face suddenly turned burning hot. In a hideous flash of embarrassment, she remembered that she hadn't ordered the ride through the app, which meant she hadn't paid Emma for it.
"Oh my God," she spluttered, wrenching open her purse. "I'm so sorry. I forgot—"
"What?" Emma interrupted, frowning at her sudden panic. When she saw Regina grappling around for her wallet, she sank slightly. "Oh. Look, don't worry about that. That's not what I was going to say."
"Don't worry about it? You just drove me 40 miles in the middle of the night."
Emma ignored her and reached into her door. After a few seconds of rummaging, she pulled out an old Burger King receipt and a pen.
"I was just going to say that if you have another bad date and need a ride again, you can call me directly," she said, scribbling down her cell number and her full name for good measure. "I don't want you getting stuck with the other scumbags who use this app."
She folded the paper and held it out. Regina was watching her with wide eyes and a slight frown on her forehead, her hand still half buried in her bag. After a pause, she slowly reached out and took it.
"Thank you," she said, her voice smaller than normal. After a beat, she asked, "Why are you being so nice?"
Emma shrugged. "Someone's got to be in this city, right?"
It was the first time they'd been able to look at one another face to face, and Emma felt slightly breathless from it. Regina's features were dark and perfectly symmetrical, apart from the scar that was running up from her top lip. It made something inside her go hot and itchy.
She forced a smile and watched as Regina's gaze automatically flicked down to look at her lips. She still looked confused, but rising up beneath that was another expression that Emma couldn't read.
"Thank you," Regina repeated, putting the receipt into her purse and then grabbing some bills. Her hand was steady when she held them out. "For the ride."
"Really, don't worry about it. It's not a big deal."
"I don't argue over stupid things," Regina replied flatly, pushing the notes into Emma's hand. "You provided a service and I'd be a terrible person if I didn't pay you for it. Now, get home safe."
Feeling strangely like a teenager who'd just been scolded by a teacher, Emma nodded. As soon as she had, Regina opened the car door and hurried off into the rain, ducking her head to keep the icy water out of her eyes.
It was only once she was safely inside the house that Emma looked down to find two 50 dollar bills in her hand. She looked up, ready to call Regina back, but the front door was shut and Regina was gone.
"I really didn't think I was going to hear from you again."
Regina smiled. To be perfectly honest, she hadn't thought it was going to happen either.
Robin was grinning at her. He had a beer in one hand and the other was resting on the table between them, like he was expecting her to reach out and take it. When she didn't reply to his statement, he added with a wink that made her knees go tense, "I guess you couldn't stay away, huh?"
"Sure," she replied tightly. "I've had a nice night, Robin."
She hadn't. If anything, this date had been worse than the previous one. After a week of absolutely zero luck on Tinder or Bumble or any dating app she'd been able to download to her phone, she'd decided that a night out with an unbearable man was probably just that bit preferable to a night in alone. He might at least be better behaved this time, now that they knew each other already, and he could even split the bill. Either way, she'd forced herself to show up and be pleasant company, even though a tiny part of her mind was already fixated on when she'd finally be able to get in her new favourite car and go home.
Going home alone obviously wasn't what Robin had in mind, though. For the past two hours, he'd been fixing her with a look that suggested he had a very different idea.
"Tell me," he said, leaning back in his chair. "Am I finally going to get to see that fancy house of yours?"
"Finally?" Regina asked, trying to laugh. "It's only date number two."
"Sure, but I've been waiting to be invited back since the first time we messaged."
"I'm not sure," she replied, her hands clasped in her lap. The waiter had taken their plates away a long time ago and she'd been waiting for an excuse to leave ever since. "I'm still taking things slow and seeing what happens. I hope that's alright."
If Robin had been a gentleman, he probably would have smiled and said, "Of course. I understand." But instead, his smile slipped.
"Oh," he said. After a beat, he straightened up. "That's okay. You know, my roommate is usually out on Saturday nights. You could come over then."
"That's in two days."
"Two days longer than I want to wait," he replied, grinning.
Just like that, Regina snapped. "You know - this has been fun, but I think this will be the last time we see each other."
"Because we want very different things, and we're not that well matched in the first place. It's probably best to call it quits now so you can find someone else."
Robin frowned at her. "Look, I can wait if that's what's bothering you. We can have dinner again next week."
"No," Regina replied firmly. "Thank you, but I think I'm done."
She waited for him to explode or try another tactic, but instead he just sighed. A second later, he got up, picked up his coat, and left.
When the waiter brought over the check, Regina thought she might cry.
Without pausing, she grabbed her phone and pulled up the number she'd typed in a week earlier. Then, before her server could give her another pitying look, she threw a handful of notes down on the table and walked out the door.
Emma's stomach leapt three inches higher the second her phone started ringing. It came up as an unknown caller, but she knew who it was. She'd been waiting for her all evening.
"Is now a bad time?" Regina asked. Emma was already checking her hair in the mirror and turning her engine back on.
She drove across town, trying not to speed as she imagined how Regina's date might have gone. As much as it shamed her, she desperately hoped she would say it had been terrible. She couldn't stand to imagine the day when Regina climbed into her car with an excited smile on her face and said, "I think he's the one." The mere thought of it made her feel sick.
Emma barely knew her, but the image of her with some unworthy man with bad cologne and a stubbly face was something that had started appearing in her dumbest nightmares. It was made all the worse by the fact that she was being so ridiculous. It was pretty typical of her to get an inappropriate crush on the most unavailable person possible, but even compared to her usual heartbreaks, she knew this one was going to hurt. One day Regina would stop calling, would stop needing her services, and Emma would be left feeling bitter and resentful and stupid for ever letting her snake into her mind in the first place.
But, as she approached the address Regina had given her and spotted her leaning against the wall with her arms folded against the cold and her head down, Emma realised she was still happy to go along for the ride. She pulled up and honked the horn, and when two dark brown eyes that reminded her of chocolate so dark it was almost too bitter to eat glanced up at her, her heart leapt. She forced on a casual smile and waited for Regina to get in.
"Hey," Emma replied, looking out at the busy street instead of at her. "How was your night?"
She hated herself for being relieved when Regina sighed.
"Bad. I'm looking at nunneries I can join."
"A bit drastic, don't you think? At least find a book club first."
Regina laughed humourlessly. "Do I look like I have time to read a book?"
"Um. Yes? You strike me as the kind of person who settles down with a glass of red and a Tom Hardy novel most nights," Emma replied as she pulled out into traffic. Then she blushed, because she could all too clearly picture Regina curled up by a fire with her legs tucked under her and a pair of glasses on her nose. Maybe her son was sleeping beside her, having refused to go to bed and then inevitably ended up falling asleep with his head in her lap and his thumb in his mouth. Regina would be absent-mindedly stroking his hair as she read and then, when it was time for her to go to bed, she'd carry him upstairs before going into her own room and changing into a clingy silk nightdress that—
"Hardy?" Regina mercifully interrupted just as Emma felt her cheeks beginning to burn firetruck red. "I don't think so. The wine, though, is about right."
"Mm?" Emma asked, blinking frantically to try and get rid of her glazed expression. "Sorry?"
She could feel Regina blinking back at her. "What...?"
"Sorry. Right. I was just... concentrating on the road."
For a second, Regina felt like she should be embarrassed for chattering away when her driver was clearly just doing her job. Then she spotted the pink in her cheeks and smiled. "Has it been a long day, by any chance?"
"Err. Yeah. Sure."
"Do you want some peace and quiet?"
Emma turned to look at her, her eyes pleading. Regina was taken aback by her soft tone when she replied, "No. Not really."
She smiled again. "Okay. Will you tell me about your day?"
Emma nearly swerved into the next lane. "You want to hear about my day?"
"Of course - why wouldn't I?"
"I don't know. I just don't get many questions other than what time I'm getting off tonight."
Regina scoffed. "Huh. Given that I was on a date tonight, it would have been nice if I was getting asked that."
A split second passed before she realised what exactly had just come out of her mouth. She slapped her hand across it, embarrassment ebbing from her. "Oh my God."
Emma glanced at her. "Did you just make the joke I think you made?"
"I'm so sorry. I... I had a lot to drink to try and get through tonight."
Her words were met with a loud laugh. "You don't need to apologise - I'm not going to call the cops on you for making a sex joke."
"It was not a sex joke."
"Oh really?" Emma asked, leaning one arm on her door in a way that made Regina's stomach ache. "Then do explain its subtle nuances to me."
Regina glared back at her. "No."
"No, please - I feel like you're about to educate me."
"I think that's beyond the capabilities of one person," Regina replied. Her tone was bitterer than she'd intended, but Emma just grinned.
"You know, sometimes I forget that you're a politician. Then you come out with shit like that and it all comes screaming back to me."
Without thinking, Regina folded her arms over her chest and pouted. "Tell me, are you always free to come and pick me up because everyone else is sick of your attitude?"
"Probably," Emma replied cheerfully. "Or maybe I just always make myself free for you."
Regina's heart twisted from one side to the other. She's kidding, idiot, she told herself as she forced a smile. "Good. That's precisely how it should be."
There was something so needlessly regal about the way Regina talked, and Emma was slightly ashamed to realise that she loved it. It was more pronounced tonight - either because Regina really was a little bit drunk or because she'd finally loosened up enough to remove the stick from her ass - and it was putting a gigantic puppy grin on Emma's face that she couldn't shake off.
Of course, Regina noticed at once.
"Why are you looking at me like that?" she asked suspiciously, her eyes on Emma's rounded cheeks. "Am I making a fool of myself?"
"Would you stop talking if I said yes?"
"Then no. You're just making me laugh."
Weirdly, that was even more confusing to Regina. "See, that's what I don't understand. Why do you want to talk to me?"
"Well, it makes the time go faster."
"Bullshit," Regina replied, enjoying being able to curse for once since her son wasn't around and her blood alcohol level was above 0.1 percent. "That would just be mindless chatter. You actually want to talk."
"Five minutes ago you asked about my day, and now you're mad that I want to talk to you about yours?" Emma pointed out. "No wonder you can't find a man."
She worried that maybe she'd pushed it too far, but to her surprise, Regina let out a bark of laughter. "God, you're obnoxious."
"I know. It's kind of charming, right?"
"That's one word for it."
Emma grinned. "Do you actually want me to tell you about my day?"
"Go ahead, unless it's going to be just as unpleasant as the rest of this conversation."
Ignoring her, Emma settled into the drive and started talking. "So, I was meant to spend most of it tracking this guy down, but he turned out to be even stupider than most of the people I deal with. I found him in a Starbucks at 11am and spent the whole afternoon at the movies."
Regina laughed. "Not such a hard day, then."
"Well, I went to see the new Star Wars and it was awful, so that was pretty tough. What about you?"
"...what about me?"
"How was your day?"
"Well..." Regina shifted in her seat. Weirdly, she wished she had another drink in her hand. "I got my son ready for school, then I dropped off his overnight stuff at my sister's before I went to work."
"What exactly do you do for your job?"
"Run the town," Regina said simply, then remembered that she hadn't admitted what her title was before. She grimaced.
"Run it?" Emma asked. "Are you being a snob again?"
"When have I been a snob before?"
"Like, literally always. What do you mean, you run it?"
Regina felt her cheeks turn pink. "I just... I'm the mayor, alright?"
Emma accidentally knocked her elbow against the horn, causing the car to honk in surprise. "The mayor?"
"Why is that so shocking?"
"Oh, don't give me that. You didn't mention it before because you know full well it's a big deal."
"Or because I thought you'd ask me for a dubious favour."
"You live in a different state to me, Madam Mayor - what exactly would I ask you for?"
"Don't call me that," Regina snapped. "Besides, I wouldn't put it past you."
Emma raised her eyebrows. "Because your opinion of me is just that low, or because people often do that when they find out about your job?"
Regina fell silent and turned to stare out the window. That somehow gave Emma her answer.
She said more gently, "Well, I'm not going to. I'm getting on alright, and it's not like I have a kid of my own who I'm trying to sneak into a good school."
Burningly grateful for the way Emma had steered the conversation in a completely different direction, Regina asked, "No? So, it's just you?"
"Just me," Emma replied, still smiling but sounding less joyful than she had for the whole ride so far. "Going it alone."
Regina nodded. Before she'd met her ex husband, she'd thought that was how her life would turn out too. She was shy around people she didn't know and a total hardass around people she worked with, with didn't exactly lead to many friendships. Leopold was the only person who'd been okay with that - until, of course, the day he found a whole cluster of other women who could give him the same things that Regina did and also didn't expect him to show up to dinner on time.
Before she knew what was happening, Regina was saying that out loud. "When my husband left, I thought that being alone was going to be the worst thing to ever happen to me. But actually, it turned out okay."
Emma's heart pulled. She couldn't imagine anyone deciding to up and leave this woman, but she knew it wasn't her place to ask how that had happened. "You're not really alone, anyway. You have your kid, right? What's his name?"
"Henry. After my father."
"Oh yeah? Your dad must be pretty thrilled about that."
"He's... dead," Regina replied flatly. "He died a long time ago."
"Oh. God, I'm sorry." When Regina didn't immediately reply, Emma tentatively added, "Mine did too."
"Well - I assume so. I never met him or my mom so I've just always told myself they're dead. It's easier, you know?"
Regina blinked, taking her in. She didn't look like someone who'd grown up without parents - Emma sat confidently and talked easily, and she had the perfect hair and flawless skin of someone who Regina would assume had always had it easy in life. Sure, she was working part-time for Uber, but she also had another job that sounded fairly respectable - maybe Regina was a snob, because that had been part of the reason why she'd felt comfortable sitting beside her.
Her silence made Emma go tense. "I turned out okay, though. My foster families were fine and I can even tie my own shoelaces."
She was lying - they hadn't been fine, and she'd struggled to do that until she was 12. But Regina was looking at her with a mixture of pity and suspicion that was so toxic it felt like it was clogging up the air in the car, and she needed those words to break through it.
They worked, to an extent. Regina shook her head, looking suitably ashamed of herself. "Sorry - I wasn't thinking that. I was just trying to find a more articulate way to say, 'Shit, that sucks.'"
They both knew she was lying, but that was okay - Emma was still glad she'd made the effort to. She smiled. "It's the middle of the night and you're drunk and in an Uber - don't worry about being articulate. Just be you."
Those words carried Regina the whole way home. She'd had a privileged upbringing, even if it hadn't been particularly happy, but she couldn't remember once being told that being herself was enough. Her mother had tried to mould her into a miniature version of herself, and her husband had tried to turn her back into someone who was young, carefree, beautiful and happy to wait on him. Even her son, who she loved with her whole heart, resented her obsession with broccoli and early bed times and no video games during the week. She couldn't believe that she was 40 years old and the first person who'd wanted her to stay exactly as she was was a cab driver.
When they pulled up outside her house, Regina was devastated. Their journeys together seemed to go faster and faster, and she'd reached the point where she was longing for traffic just so they could sit together a bit longer. She glanced over at Emma's hands, which were loosely wrapped around the wheel and were completely devoid of jewellery or nail polish, and sighed wistfully. Emma glanced over at the sound and immediately caught her eye. Neither of them looked away for a moment.
Emma felt hot all over. The sudden urge to lean forward and roughly press their lips together had crept up out of nowhere, and she forced herself to shake it away.
Regina was just looking at her - no expression or expectation on her face, but simply watching her and letting herself be watched in return. Her cheeks were pink from wine and from talking in the warm car, and her perfectly white teeth seemed to glimmer from between her red lips. Her hair was slightly messy. Emma wondered what it would feel like to reach out and smooth it back down.
A throb between her thighs made her jump, and just like that, the spell was broken. Regina glanced away, her own heart pounding, and reached for her purse.
"No," Emma replied, hoping the shake in her voice wasn't too obvious. "Don't worry about that."
Regina already had her wallet in her hand. She blinked. "Why not?"
"Because last time you paid me $100 for a $40 journey, plus you just paid for two people's dinner yet again," Emma said. When Regina didn't react, she raised her eyebrows and gestured to the money. "Put it away. I'm not taking it."
For some reason, that made Regina feel like she couldn't breathe. She glanced down at the wallet in her hand and wondered what her body was going to do with it.
Realising she wasn't going to put it away of her own free will, Emma reached out and placed her fingers on Regina's wrist. She pushed, gently guiding the money back into her bag.
And just like that, Regina was on fire. The skin on her wrist was sparking and she heard herself gasp, yanking herself back an inch even though Emma was already pulling away. Her heart had gone from pounding to thundering, and there was a strange twisting deep in her stomach that made her feel like she might double over. When she zipped up her purse, her hands were shaking.
Emma watched her worriedly as she scrabbled for the door handle, wondering if she'd gone too far by making contact with her. She'd had another rough night, after all, and she'd been felt up by enough gross men recently to warrant that kind of reaction to a simple touch to her wrist. She wanted to kick herself - even more so when she realised that Regina was climbing out the car and she'd lost her chance to say sorry.
But then Regina paused. She was standing outside and the freezing air was creeping into the car, but Emma didn't mind. From her position, all she could see was Regina's tiny waist and her left hand resting on the doorframe. That sight alone made her mouth go dry.
After a moment, Regina turned and leaned back into the car. She was smiling nervously. "Next week, maybe?"
Relief flooded Emma's whole body. "Definitely. I'll be waiting for your call."
Regina nodded and closed the door. Emma waited for her to get inside before she drove off, just like she always did. She watched as Regina strode up the path, unlocked the front door and switched on the lights. Then, just before she closed the door again, she hesitated. She turned, spotted Emma still waiting for her in her yellow car, and waved.
"Henry," Regina said, exasperated, for the fifth time in 20 minutes. "Can you please do that somewhere else?"
Henry looked up from where he was bouncing his basketball against the dining room wall and pouted. "But it's raining."
"I know, but if you're going to scuff up my wallpaper, you could at least do it in your own bedroom."
"There isn't room," he insisted. Noticing that his mom was looking down at her phone again, he got up from the floor and shuffled closer. "What are you doing?"
"Who?" He tried to peer over her shoulder. "Who's Daniel?"
Snatching the phone away, she replied, "None of your business, young man. Now, I thought you had English homework to do?"
"I started it, but I need help."
"Then why didn't you ask me?"
"Because you've been too busy texting."
Regina rolled her eyes. Daniel, the latest man she'd been chatting to on Bumble, had just sent her another message. So, it's a date, then? How about Wednesday?
He actually seemed to be quite a nice man, which was alarming - he asked insightful questions and hadn't used the eggplant emoji once, and the photos on his profile showed a beaming face that looked both thoughtful and polite. Emma had been right - when you moved away from Tinder, the options were slightly better.
Just thinking of Emma made her jolt. I can't do Wednesdays, she replied. Only Thursdays.
He replied immediately. Thursday's perfect. I'll set something up.
She put her phone down. Henry was still looking at her.
"Alright then," she said. "Let's take a look at that homework."
The face watching her from across the table was even more youthful than it had appeared on her phone. Within 15 minutes of sitting down, Regina had found herself blurting out, "Are you sure you're 45?" Rather than get offended, Daniel had just laughed and proffered his driver's licence. He wasn't drinking, but only because he had an early meeting in the morning and would need to drive. He listened to Regina's stories and nodded with genuine interest in all the right places.
So why, Regina asked herself, did she feel so disappointed?
"Tell me more about your job," he asked over their entrées. His eyes were a kind of navy blue - she wasn't sure she'd ever seen that before. "It sounds fascinating. When did you get into politics?"
Regina swallowed. "When I was 21. My mother already had a hand in most of the town's workings, so as soon as I was old enough to be useful, she 'suggested' I follow that career path too."
Daniel nodded again, his expression earnest. "Do you enjoy it?"
But she couldn't help think how Emma would have reacted to her admission: so, she forced you into it? She sounds like a piece of work.
She shook the voice out of her head and smiled. "Yes, I do. It's very rewarding."
At the end of the meal, Daniel insisted on paying and then offered her a ride home. "I really don't mind, and I won't try and barter my way into your house - I promise. I just want to make sure you get back safely."
It was a kind offer, and Regina had no plausible reason to say no. So she pulled on her coat, let him guide her to the door, and tried not to think about the person she'd rather be getting in a car with.
It was 1am when Emma finally stopped staring at her phone and drove home. She'd barely picked up anyone all night - the hours between 9 and 12 were strictly reserved for one person, which meant she'd spent most of the evening tapping 'ignore' on her app and doing sudokus against the steering wheel. When it reached 11pm, she'd put the book away and turned the engine back on so she'd be ready when her phone rang. By midnight, she was debating getting another coffee just so she wouldn't doze off and miss the call entirely.
At 1:30am, she walked into her studio apartment and kicked the door shut behind her. Her sudoku book was now mostly filled in, which annoyed her even more. Even her neighbours had gone to bed, leaving her alone to open her freezer, pull out a microwave burrito and heat it in complete silence.
There was the most pathetic bitterness in her mouth. She had absolutely no right to be upset - she knew that - but that didn't stop her from smacking her palm into the side of the microwave when it beeped too loudly. She wasn't mad at Regina - she was mad at herself for letting a total stranger become such a recurring presence in her mind, and for getting her hopes up so high that to have them crash back down again had felt like the end of her entire world.
She sat down at the kitchen table with the burrito and sighed. She took three bites before she threw the rest away and went to bed.
Regina looked down at the text again. For some reason, she'd been dreading its appearance all week. Now that it was right in front of her, she felt slightly sick.
"I just don't understand you," Zelena said, sipping her coffee. Henry was running around and around the kitchen island, being chased by his cousin, and both Regina and her sister had long given up on telling them to stop before someone got hurt. "You've been trying to find someone you like for months, and then as soon as a guy shows up who's actually nice and attractive and not insane, you're suddenly not sure? What's the matter?"
"Nothing's the matter. I just... I'm not sure I felt a spark."
"Sparks aren't real," Zelena said flatly. "You just find someone you can tolerate and you go with it."
Regina wrinkled her nose. "Is that what happened with you and Hayden?"
"No, Hayden was actually nice at first and now he's regressed to being merely fine. But all I'm saying is, you've got your hopes up too high. If this guy seems decent then you should at least stick it out."
"You know," Regina replied, "I feel like, as my big sister, you're supposed to give me better advice than this."
Zelena shrugged. "But he's nice, right?"
"Yes, he is. But maybe that's the issue? He was a bit too nice. A bit safe."
"Fine, so maybe you won't marry him or join a bike gang together - but you can at least go out again and see if you change your mind. If he's nice then he won't kill you, at least."
"That isn't good advice either," Regina said flatly.
"Just text him," Zelena said, taking another sip. "One more dinner. See how you feel. If he's still boring then you can call it a night and finally resign yourself to spinsterhood forever."
"Great. Thanks, sis," Regina replied, picking up her phone.
Sounds great, she wrote, before automatically adding, How does Thursday work for you?
Before she'd left for her date, Regina had felt nervous. She'd found herself drinking a glass of wine before she'd even left for the train station. By the time she arrived at the restaurant, she felt sick. She'd ordered another glass of wine the second she sat down.
This meant that, two hours later, she was drunk. Really drunk.
Daniel, at least, was drinking with her that night. His cheeks had gone slightly pink from the wine and his laugh had become less cautious and more free-spirited. He still reminded her of a little boy, for some reason - he was so eager and fascinated by absolutely everything. It was nice, but it also made her feel a bit sticky. She couldn't imagine ever whispering with him about some dirty joke or mocking complete strangers together. If she pointed out that the woman at the next table was wearing blue eyeshadow up to her eyebrows, he probably would have gone quiet and then earnestly told the woman how beautiful she looked the second Regina had slipped off to the bathroom.
He was pleasant company, but that was it. And that wasn't enough.
She remembered sitting in Emma's car two weeks earlier and feeling the brush of her fingers against her wrist. She'd actually jumped - something had shot through her like a faulty wire and the tiny web of veins beneath her skin had felt slightly crackly ever since.
Deciding to put this to the test, she unveiled her warmest smile and reached across the table.
"Sorry," she said, gently touching Daniel's hand. "I'm talking far too much, aren't I?"
Daniel immediately looked down at her fingers, his eyes wide, and smiled. Regina, meanwhile, felt like she was looking for a ripe avocado at the supermarket.
Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
"Not at all," he replied, still not shifting his gaze from their sudden contact. "I like hearing you talk."
"Of course. You might be the most interesting person I've ever met."
Regina nearly rolled her eyes at the exaggeration, then wanted to kick herself for thinking that.
"And you might just be the sweetest," she replied in her most flowery voice. You can jumpstart this, she told herself, shifting her hand again so it was suddenly holding his. He's nice. He's cute. He would treat you well. You can make this work.
Daniel was positively beaming. "You think?"
"Absolutely. I just can't understand why someone hasn't snatched you up already."
When his cheeks went even pinker, Regina let go of him and grabbed her wine glass instead.
She was undoubtedly staggering by the time they were done in the restaurant. Daniel didn't seem to mind: he was chuckling fondly at her as he helped her into her coat. She headed to the exit with him walking a few paces behind her, but then he quickly overtook her so he could open the door for her. In any other lifetime, she would have swooned at his manners. Right then, with her tongue tasting of Merlot and her head slightly foggy, all she could think of was that spark in her wrist that had somehow filled her nose with the smell of cinnamon.
She stepped outside and instantly tilted to one side. Quick as a flash, Daniel was beside her, pressing his hand against the small of her back to keep her steady. It didn't make her feel gross or slimy like it had when Robin or Killian had touched her - instead, she was genuinely shocked by how it felt like absolutely nothing. It was like her own brother was guiding her out the door. She sighed and took a few steps down the road, not even feeling the bitter cold because her body was wrapped in wine and confusion.
And then, out of absolutely nowhere, she found herself picturing the little wrinkle that perched at the side of Emma's nose when she was talking. The way her eyelashes were long enough to become part of her silhouette in the dark car. She talked in a low voice and didn't smile all that much, but Regina was suddenly longing to be sitting next to her. She felt exhausted and sad and like she desperately needed to be held by someone.
Just like that, she was spinning round and grabbing Daniel by the front of his coat so she could kiss him. She felt him blink in shock, staggering back a step, before he realised what was happening and slid his arms around her waist. The way he was tenderly holding her was too submissive, too gentle, so she nudged him back and pressed him up against the wall. She desperately wanted him to jerk, to grab her in response and spin them round so she was the one being pinned back and gasping breathlessly as he kissed her, but it never happened - he just sighed happily and reached up to cup her face. Whenever she tried to deepen the kiss, he shifted position and softened it again.
That's when Regina realised what the problem was: he was soft. There wasn't an inch of sharpness to his entire body, and she could never be with someone like that. If they were together, there would be no push and pull; no wicked jokes or crackling tension. It would be safe and samey and she would die of boredom within a year.
She pulled back abruptly, struggling to catch her breath. Daniel seemed to whine at the sudden loss of contact.
When he saw the resolute expression on her face, he blinked. "Are you okay?"
"Yes. I'm..." Regina started, then trailed off. Her heart was pounding, but not in the way it should be after a kiss.
"Alright. I'm, err..." Daniel said, smoothing down his hair. "I was going to get the bus home. Do you...? Would you like to join me?"
Sadness enveloped Regina faster than she could have ever imagined. Blinking back tears, she stepped forward and kissed his cheek.
"I'll see you around."
She started walking off without another word. Daniel called after her, sounding confused and worried but not angry, and that just made her feel even sadder.
As soon as her phone started ringing, Emma jumped. It was clipped into the holder on her air vent, which meant Regina's name came flashing up like a beacon right before her eyes. She couldn't bring herself to believe it - it had been two weeks, and in that time she'd managed to convince herself that everything was over and they were never going to speak again. She'd touched Regina's wrist and made her flinch, and even though she'd seemed okay when they parted ways, the following silence spoke volumes. She hadn't slept much ever since.
But here she was again, calling because she needed Emma in spite of everything. Emma's hand was shaking when she reached out to answer it.
"Emma?" Regina replied. Her voice sounded strange - slightly wobbly, and small. "Are you free for a ride?"
Emma sped across down and found Regina leaning against a wall in a half-empty street. She was huddled inside her coat, looking small and slightly lost. She didn't notice the car pulling up in front of her, and when Emma honked the horn, she jumped like she'd forgotten she was even waiting for someone.
"Hi," she said she as she got inside. Right away, Emma could smell another person on her - a fresh kind of aftershave that was surprisingly nice but also reminded her of something she herself would have worn when she first came out at 18. She winced.
"Hey," Emma replied, forcing herself to look straight ahead. "How was your night?"
When Regina replied, "It was good," Emma thought she might cry.
"That's great," she said, trying to sound happy. "About time, huh?"
"Was this your first time hanging out with him?"
"No. We had a date last week too."
Emma's heart sank. That explained a lot.
"Cool," she said, forcing a smile. She looked across the car, hoping to catch Regina's eye and feel that jolt of fire in her stomach that always warmed her through, but found her staring down at her lap with her jaw looking slightly wobbly.
When Emma spotted the smudge of lipstick at the corner of her mouth, she felt a plummeting sensation in her gut.
"Oh, God," she blurted out. "Did he try something?"
Regina looked blearily up at her. "What?"
"The guy - did he do something to you?"
She was surprised when Regina let out a humourless laugh. "No. I don't think he had it in him."
Regina sounded like she was slurring, which was odd. Emma desperately wanted to reach out and touch her arm, but she remembered all too clearly how she'd reacted the last time she did that.
All of a sudden, Regina let out a huge sigh. "Why is it so hard?"
"Dating. Finding someone. You meet a person who should be perfect for you, but they're not and the thought of them touching you makes your vagina curl in on itself," Regina said bitterly. Emma forced back a laugh as she began driving. "I can't believe I'm having to decide between being alone forever and being with someone I don't like just because I know I should be attracted to him."
Emma's stomach hurt again, but she asked, "So, the date didn't go that well after all?"
"That's what I'm saying," Regina said, exasperated. She was talking so much louder than usual and it was weirdly making Emma feel better. "Yes, it went well. It was kind of perfect, as dates go. He was a gentleman and he's handsome and he listened to me and told jokes that were very nearly funny. But I didn't like him. What the hell is wrong with me? He could be my Prince Charming but I'm fighting it. Why?"
She demanded that final word like she was expecting Emma to actually have an answer for her. Blinking, Emma replied, "Regina, you don't need to beat yourself up just because he wasn't right for you."
"Because that's not your fault. You say he was perfect, but obviously he wasn't. Why would you force yourself to like someone when there's always going to be someone better?"
Regina snorted and turned her head toward her window. "Doubtful."
"You're very sassy when you're drunk," Emma pointed out. "But seriously - he sounds nice, but that isn't enough. People don't get swept off their feet or railed against a headboard for 'nice'."
"That's what I thought, but my sister told me I'd set my hopes too high."
"Well, she sounds like an idiot. There's nothing wrong with wanting to find someone who you actually like."
Regina laughed faintly. "I kissed him."
"Yes. I thought maybe it would... spark something."
Swallowing down the pain in her throat, Emma asked, "And did it?"
"No. I felt like I was kissing my brother."
"Gross," Emma laughed. After a beat, she asked, "Are you going to see him again?"
Regina suddenly realised that she was longing for Emma to say something else entirely. She wanted her groan and said, "Regina. You're beautiful and you're smart and that man can't do anything for you. But I know someone who can."
But that was unlikely, so instead she just shrugged. "I'm not sure."
"Don't be a dumbass. You don't like him - that should be the end of it."
"How does giving him another chance make me a dumbass?"
"You know exactly why. Besides, if he actually likes you, then wouldn't you be stringing him along? That's not cool either."
Regina glared at her. "I... Shut up."
"I'm just saying. It seems like you've given it a fair shot, but it's done. It would be better for both of you if you moved on and let him do the same."
"That's easy for you to say. How old are you?" Regina snapped.
"Right - you're 10 years younger than me and you're beautiful and probably have people lining up to date you. I'm a single mother in my forties who's starting to get a muffin top."
Emma automatically glanced across the car at Regina's outrageously narrow waist. "I really doubt that."
"It's true. I'm past my peak and no one will ever want to fuck me again."
Hearing Regina say a curse word nearly made Emma slam on the brakes. "Regina, I can assure you that's not true."
"Oh, really? How can you be so sure?"
"Just... you know. Common sense. You're... nice. To look at," Emma stammered, feeling a bit dejected when Regina immediately rolled her eyes.
"I'm running out of chances," she continued ranting. "And fine, maybe I don't want to end up with someone who would refuse to argue with me and irons his underwear, but I also don't want to never be touched by another man again just because I'm picky. I'm not sure how I can win this."
"Since when do you win dating?"
"You know exactly what I mean so please stop interrupting me," Regina snapped. She ignored Emma's laugh and carried on. "It just gets harder and harder and I can't help but wonder if at some point I really do just have to settle for someone who's just sort of nice and actually likes me. Maybe at my age that's the best I can hope for."
"Regina, you're 40," Emma said flatly. "You're not diving into your pension. That's not even close to being old - plus, you're hot."
The words slipped out all too easily, and it was only because she had her hands on the steering wheel that she didn't instantly reach up to clap one over her mouth. Regina turned to look at her, blinking.
"I mean... sure," Emma stammered. "Of course. Objectively. You're... come on. You're gorgeous."
She could feel the warmth of Regina's surprised smile against the side of her face. "That's nice of you to say."
"It wasn't my most poetic line," Emma laughed nervously. "But it's true. Don't be so hard on yourself just because you keep picking up total duds - the right person will come along soon enough. Like I said before, I always think it happens when you're not even looking for them."
Regina slowly nodded. "Yes. You might be right."
By the time they reached Regina's house, she felt marginally better. Her mouth still tasted funny from drinking too much wine - and from having someone else's tongue inside it - but she was smiling nonetheless. As usual, when she saw her home appearing at the end of the road, her heart sank slightly. While that 45-minute drive had become her favourite part of the week, by far her least favourite was the moment she watched Emma drive away again.
"So, here we are," Emma said, shifting the car out of gear. "I guess it's—"
"Do you want to come in?" Regina blurted out. "For a drink?"
Emma blinked at her. It was gone midnight and it was raining again, as it always seemed to be when she dropped Regina off, and the thought of driving all the way back to the city made her bones hurt. Still, the outburst had taken her by surprise, and for a second all she could do was look at Regina and watch as her cheeks turned from pink to red.
"Seriously?" Emma asked eventually.
"Sure. I mean... It's a long drive and I feel like I owe you one by now," Regina replied. She was stammering slightly. "But... You know. You don't..."
Emma had gone hot all over, because usually "do you want to come in for a drink?" meant something very specific, but she had to assume that's not what Regina had in mind. She looked over at her - at her sweet, flushed face and her slightly smudged eyeliner - and smiled faintly.
She doesn't like you, you idiot, she reminded herself. She's lonely and tipsy and she just wants someone to talk to.
"That sounds really nice," she said gently. "And I'd love to. But I have another ride waiting."
It was a risky lie since she hadn't been near her phone in the last half hour, but it worked: Regina deflated, but nodded. "Right. Sorry, I forgot that you actually work for a living."
"Crazy, right? It'll never catch on."
Regina smiled. "I'll give it a try one day."
She handed over the money for the ride - this time, without an argument - and slipped out into the rain. Emma couldn't notice that her steps were a bit wobbly as she walked toward the front door.
As normal, Emma waited where she was to make sure she got inside safely. At the last second, Regina turned, waved, and then disappeared inside.
The second she was gone, Emma collapsed forward in her seat with her forehead pressed against the steering wheel. The groan she let out was low and hurt her throat.
The car smelled like her. Emma had already tried to find the perfume she wore, but after a half hour in the store she'd had to accept that Regina wasn't the type to buy perfume from Walgreens.
She stayed there for a few more minutes trying to soothe the ache in her chest. By the time she finally drove off, the smell had gone.
"Mother, it's me," Regina hissed into the phone. She'd excused herself to go to the bathroom 10 minutes after sitting down at the table and she was already dreading having to go back to it. "Why in the hell did you set me up with this guy?"
"Because I think you're well suited," Cora replied coolly. "Is there a problem?"
"He's 25 years older than me!"
"And he walks with a cane."
"Regina," her mother sighed. "You're being very judgmental."
"He won't even tell me what his name is," Regina hissed. "He said, 'Everyone just calls me Mr Gold.' Isn't that slightly sociopathic?"
"He has good connections and knowing him will help your career. It's just one dinner."
"I'm going to kill you," Regina replied flatly. "This is the most humiliating thing that's ever happened to me."
"That's not true. Remember the time you and your sister were playing dress-up and you accidentally drew on your eyebrows with permanent marker?"
"That wasn't an accident. Zelena did it because she thought it would be funny."
"Even so, going out for dinner with someone who works on Wall Street doesn't even come close. I did you a favour."
"People probably think I'm having dinner with my father."
"Don't whine. And don't slouch," she added, making Regina automatically straighten her spine even though it hadn't been curved to begin with. "Don't leave him waiting, please - it's very rude."
Regina groaned and hung up without saying goodbye. When she returned to the table, Gold was just sitting there - not looking at his phone, not reading the menu, not pretending to observe the room. He was just sitting, staring straight ahead, waiting for Regina to come back.
"Hi," she said, forcing a smile. He returned it - a quick flash of his teeth that reminded her of a shark. "Did our server come over?"
"Not yet." That was the end of his sentence. Regina swallowed.
"Right," she said. "Shall we get a bottle of wine?"
"Certainly. Do you mind if I choose? I have a bit of a refined palate."
Regina forced herself not to roll her eyes as she handed the wine list over to him. She waited for him to make conversation about his favourite kind, or even to sniff at the less expensive ones on the page, but there was nothing - he just sat in silence, his cold grey eyes scanning the menu, until eventually the waiter came over.
"We'll have a bottle of the Bordeaux." Again, Regina found herself trying not to laugh - his 'refined palate' had led him to pick out the exact same bottle that she, the commoner, would have chosen.
But then he was just watching her again. Even though they were sitting down, his right hand was resting on the cane that was propped up against the edge of the table.
She glanced down at it, forcing another tight smile, before saying, "So. My mother tells me you're a hedge fund manager?"
"How long have you been doing that for?"
"Longer than you've been alive, I'd wager," he replied. A weird thing to be smug about, she thought. "Cora told me you're the mayor of your town."
"That's right. I'm in my first term."
"I see," he replied slowly. Then, right off the bat, asked, "Republican?"
He hadn't been smiling before, but now it looked like his entire expression had been pulled back by five inches. "Oh."
Yet another conversation ended there. Regina was twitching in her seat.
"Do you live in the city?" she asked desperately.
"No, I'm up in Connecticut. I'm not sure I could handle city life."
She'd opened a door up for him - why's that? Have you always lived up there? Would you ever consider moving closer to Manhattan? But instead of asking any of those questions, he just nodded, waiting for her to continue with something that he found more interesting. When she just sighed and sat back, he eventually said, "Would you excuse me for a moment?"
The second he had disappeared into the bathroom, Regina was on her feet. Without even glancing at the waiter, she grabbed her bag and coat and headed for the exit.
It felt weirdly exhilarating - not just because she'd done something so callous and walked out without saying goodbye, but because she knew exactly how much it would upset her mother. She'd never done anything like that before in her life and it had left her feeling breathless.
Until she realised it was only 8:30pm, the streets were swarming with people, and she had nothing to do but go home again.
She groaned and considered just getting the train back, since it was early and they'd still be running like normal. That idea only stayed in her head for half a second before she found herself grappling for her phone.
It rang twice before being picked up. "This is early."
The mere sound of Emma's voice made her heart lift.
"I'm hiding in an alley," she hissed. "Come and save me."
"Are you okay?"
"I'm going to kill my mother, but otherwise yes. I just need rescuing."
She didn't sound like she was in danger, so Emma laughed and asked for the street name. The relief she felt whenever Regina went on a bad date was starting to slowly grow, and she hated herself for wishing they'd get even worse until she gave up altogether. She was a horrible, horrible person - but that didn't stop her from speeding across the city as fast as her rattly old car could take her.
She thought maybe Regina was exaggerating about where she was hiding, but when Emma pulled up, she found her actually crouching beside a dumpster. It was such a ridiculous sight that she couldn't even bring herself to honk the horn for fear of drawing attention to her.
Regina spotted the yellow car at once and hurried over. Emma was still laughing when she got in beside her.
"Hi, sweetie. Did you have a good night?" Emma chirped. Regina ignored the leap in her chest at the ironic nickname and pointed to the busy road ahead of them.
"I'll give you a hundred dollars to not ask any questions."
"Absolutely not. What happened this time?"
Regina sighed and rubbed her palm over her forehead. "He was 65 years old."
"My mother set us up. She told me he works in finance and has impeccable manners, and it's very hard to say no to her. She neglected to mention that he's old enough to be my father and takes 15 minutes to lower himself into a chair."
"So you ran out on him?"
"I wouldn't have," Regina insisted, "if he'd at least been pleasant company. But he was rude and condescending and didn't want to let me order the wine in case I messed it up. I was sitting there trying to think of things we might be able to talk about and then I realised that life's too short. So I left."
"Oh my God - I'm so proud of you."
"Really? You don't think I'm awful and rude?"
"Well yeah, obviously you're both of those things," Emma replied coolly, earning her an eye roll. "But you're starting to realise your own worth, finally. That's amazing."
Regina felt her entire body go hot. Even worse, she was mortified to realise that she was sappily smiling and unable to stop.
"Well," she muttered. "Maybe your dating advice has finally started to sink in."
"About time. I should be charging you for my words of wisdom."
Regina sighed and looked out the window. She could see the restaurant at the end of the block, but thankfully not the man who might still be waiting inside.
With her head turned, Emma was able to watch her. It was the first time they'd been in the car together at the beginning of the night. Not that Regina looked much different - she always had the air of someone whose hair never got messy and never ever got food in her teeth - but her perfume smelled stronger and her lipstick was still a bold, bright red. Emma could see the expectation and the hopefulness in her perfectly curled hair, like maybe this date would be the one to finally change everything. Maybe this guy would be nice and funny and kind, and she'd finally feel like she wasn't going to be alone forever after all.
Remembering how much she'd hoped that every single date Regina went on would fail, Emma felt a cold weight of guilt sink inside her.
"So, you want to go home?" she asked eventually. Regina nodded without replying. "It doesn't seem very fair that you got all dressed up for nothing. Did you even get to eat?"
"No, but that's okay. I'll make something when I get back."
Regina's voice was flat and tired, and it made Emma ache. Without saying another word, she shifted the car into gear and pulled out into the road.
After about 30 seconds, Regina realised they were driving downtown. "Where are we going?"
"You were expecting a night out, so you're getting one," Emma replied. "Want to try something new?"
Regina blinked at her. She was tired and annoyed and the thought of getting into her pyjamas was overwhelmingly tempting, but then she saw the resolute look on Emma's face. The muscles in her arms were tensed from how tightly she was gripping the wheel.
She smiled. "Sure."
"Great. I know a place."
Emma had been a little worried about taking Regina to a restaurant like this. It was one of her favourite spots in Brooklyn, but she suspected it wasn't exactly Regina's scene. She didn't need to be concerned, though: the second they walked through the door, she caught the look of awe and interest on Regina's face.
"Yeah," Emma replied, gesturing to the crammed-together tables. "Is this okay?"
"This is great. I've never had Korean food before."
She looked so utterly out of place. They found a table and Emma watched as Regina peeled off her expensive coat, revealing a tightly fitted red dress underneath. She was wearing a delicate gold necklace and matching diamond earrings that glittered as she sat down. Emma's mouth went dry when she realised they were sitting opposite each other for the first time.
The next surprise came when Regina immediately ordered a beer, leaving Emma to stammer that she would have the same. She'd thought that after a few weeks of them riding together that she'd come to know all of Regina's ticks and quirks - like the way she wrung her hands when she was unsure of herself, or how she had different smiles that varied in sincerity depending on what they were talking about. But right then, Emma realised she was still full of surprises, and she was itching to see them all. She wanted to know what made her smile the brightest, and what she looked like in the mornings, and how soft her voice could go when she was really, truly at peace.
Her heart was aching, and she had no one to blame for that but herself.
"Are you sure this okay?" she asked again as they scanned their menus. Regina had a little crinkle in the side of her nose that Emma was worried meant she wasn't sure about the food after all.
But then she looked up and said, "Do you want to share an order of pork dumplings?" with an excited glint in her eye, and Emma finally relaxed.
"I'd love to."
They ordered their food and Emma was left gaping at Regina as she drank her beer straight from the bottle. Her designer dress made her stand out a mile from every other person in that place, and yet she was content enough in her seat that she started to blend in.
"I'm actually relieved by how this evening turned out," she admitted as their entrées arrived.
"Of course. I'd already been dreading that date because I should never trust my mother with anything when it comes to my love life, so I wasn't all that surprised when it was a disaster. But now I'm here having a genuinely nice time with a friend instead. It all worked out for the best."
The smile she wore as she said that was so pure and gentle that Emma thought she might slip out of her seat. There was something childlike about the way she was sitting there - excitedly reading the menu, scanning the walls and their pictures, then sifting through the condiments on their table to find the right sauce to add to her crispy squid.
"Careful," Emma warned as she grabbed the hot sauce. "That stuff is pretty lethal."
Regina shot her a look that nearly withered her skin from her bones. "Please."
"Alright - don't say you weren't warned."
She watched as Regina put a sizeable dollop of it on her plate, then picked up her chopsticks. She waited for the sweating and swearing to start.
But Regina just chewed happily, smirking at the disappointment on Emma's face.
"I'm Puerto Rican," she eventually said. "This is nothing."
"You're kidding. The first time I tried that it nearly killed me."
"I grew up eating this sauce. Well," Regina corrected herself. "Not this one. My father used to buy this one called Mi Madre Pique and bring it back to America with him. I've been eating it for as long as I can remember."
"And it's hotter than this?"
"I think so. It's been a long time since I've had it."
Regina shrugged, looking down at her plate. "After my father died, we stopped keeping it in the house. And I don't know any Latin American supermarkets that sell it in Connecticut, so... I've just gone without."
"That's a shame," Emma replied, hating the sadness on her face. "Maybe this is a good substitute for now?"
Regina looked up again, her dark, fierce gaze locking instantly onto Emma's, and smiled. "It's delicious."
Emma had never been stared at so intensely before. Regina looked at her unapologetically, like it was her right to take her in and she was going to do so for as long as possible, and it made Emma's entire body go hot. She shifted slightly, her eyes dropping to the deep scar that ran from Regina's upper lip towards the crease at the edge of her nose, and smiled. "I'm glad. After all the bad nights you've had over the past month, you deserve one that's at least tolerable."
"It's more than tolerable," Regina said, letting the compliment slide out easily. She took another sip of her beer. "Thank you for inviting me."
Emma blushed. "It's really no problem. I... like talking to you. Is that okay?"
It wasn't what she was asking at all, but thankfully Regina didn't seem to realise that.
"Of course it's okay. I enjoy our conversations too."
That was good enough. Emma smiled again and nodded, intending to go back to her food but finding herself stuck staring at the woman sitting across from her. Her cheeks were slightly pink from being inside that hot, crowded room, and Emma longed to reach out and cup them with her hands.
Eventually, Regina laughed uncomfortably. "Why are you staring at me? Do I have food on my face?"
Of course, she didn't, but Emma felt like her throat was closing up. "Hm? I mean - yeah. Just there."
Regina grabbed her napkin and brushed at the patch of skin where Emma was pointing. When the paper came back clean, she sighed.
"Do it for me."
She handed the napkin across the table, then leaned forward expectantly. Emma's whole body filled up with heat.
Reaching out with a shaky hand, she took the napkin and guided it towards Regina's face. Without thinking, she bypassed her cheek entirely. She brushed the paper over the scar on her upper lip, tensing as a familiar rush surged through her.
At once, Regina jumped. Her muscles went tight.
There it was again - that shock that lit her up inside. It felt like electricity that had the potential to kill her, but instead it just tickled her, dazzled her, made the inside of her skin feel like a thunder cloud, before subsiding and leaving her breathless.
Her eyes locked onto Emma's, and for a second, neither of them spoke. From that one look, she knew Emma had felt it too.
She slowly sat back, her appetite gone. There was a churning in her stomach - like nervous butterflies, but faster, as if they too had been electrocuted.
Tentatively, Emma smiled at her. "All gone."
Fuck, Regina thought, trying to smile back. It's her.
The realisation burned inside Regina for the next week. She wasn't stupid: she'd known something was happening. You didn't spend all day and all night thinking about your cab driver just because you enjoyed their banter. But after 40 years of only ever looking at men - even if a lot of that time involved wondering why none of them did anything for her - the idea of feeling anything other than friendship towards a woman made her slightly dizzy. It was a door she wasn't sure she was ready to open, even though she desperately wanted to peek behind it and find Emma waiting for her.
She didn't go on Tinder all week, nor did she answer her mother's increasingly irate messages. For seven nights, all she could think about was Emma's sweet, earnest face looking at her over the dinner table and how it had warmed her heart more than the Korean hot sauce.
She was itching to text her, but she didn't. Her world felt slightly tilted, and she took the time she needed to steady it again.
All of which meant she found herself sitting on the couch with Henry come Thursday. It was the first time in months that she'd been home on a Thursday night, and she could tell from how close he was sitting against her side that he'd missed it. He'd never said it, though, because even at six, he wanted her to go out and find someone to make her happy. She squeezed him closer and kissed the top of his head.
He fell asleep with his head in her lap at 9:30. He was never allowed to stay up that late - especially not on a school night - but it felt like a special occasion, so Regina just hitched him further up on her thigh and placed a blanket over his small body. She picked up her glass of red wine from the table beside her and took a sip, her eyes on the TV but her mind somewhere else. When her phone buzzed, she initially thought she'd imagined it after fixating on Emma for so long.
But no - it was her. It was just gone 10pm and even though Regina was rarely finished with her dates by that time, Emma had texted her.
Need a ride tonight?
Regina's heart rose, then sunk. The vanilla-cinnamon-latte smell of Emma's car washed over her.
I'm afraid not, she replied, then bit her lip. How could you put so many feelings into so few words? After the debacle with the old man, I decided to take a break this week.
She hoped Emma understood, even though she hadn't come close to saying what she meant. Miles away, Emma was looking down at her phone and smiling.
She's not on a date, she told herself, relieved. Every week, the knowledge that Regina was out with a man who might end up being her soulmate filled her with sick dread, and in that moment, it ebbed away slightly. Sure, that meant Emma didn't get to see her, but it also meant her heart was safely waiting in Connecticut. She could deal with that trade.
She put her phone away and sighed, then glanced down at the passenger seat. She lived in a diverse neighbourhood, which meant it hadn't been too difficult to find a Latin American supermarket earlier that week.
Emma reached out for the bottle of Mi Madre Pique hot sauce and put it in the glove compartment.
Maybe next time.
God, it was impossible to sleep.
Regina glanced at the clock: 3am again. It was Tuesday night and she swore she'd become nocturnal all of a sudden. The second her head hit the pillow, it was filled with thoughts of blonde curls and toned arms, and it made her want to do things to herself that no one else had ever bothered to. Instead, she lay there in silence with one forearm beneath her head and her eyes on the grainy ceiling. She hadn't known Emma long enough to be able to recall her laugh in the middle of the night, and she wondered whether calling her just to make her giggle would be insane.
She told you she doesn't sleep much, she reminded herself, reaching for her phone. Then she groaned and snatched her hand back, because she was being an idiot. This poor woman didn't even know what was going on inside her head - if she got a random text from one of her passengers at 3am she'd probably call the cops.
But then Regina sighed, because deep down, she knew that wasn't true. Emma hadn't been merely her driver for a long time. Instead, she'd become her knight in shining armour, her confidant - maybe even her friend. She'd taken Regina out for dinner just to make up for the fact that her night up until then had been crappy, and she'd even tried to pay the full bill until Regina had slapped the credit card out of her hand. They hadn't talked much about the people Emma had dated in the past, but somehow Regina suspected the list didn't only include men. Someone who looked at women with soft, adoring eyes and a smile that was just hesitant enough to show that she wasn't trying to be pushy didn't waste their time being heterosexual.
Regina groaned. 3:30am. She couldn't go another week without seeing her.
She grabbed her phone again, but didn't open her text messages. Instead, she pulled up her browser and began searching.
Emma's chair was tilted so far back she could barely see out the windshield. She'd started work an hour earlier, but it was another cold, quiet night and the ride requests had been minimal. As she sat there gazing up at the roof of her car, she repeatedly reminded herself not to think about whether Regina would be on a date that night - it didn't matter, it was none of her business, and if she kept thinking about her then she'd slowly go insane. It also didn't matter that she was suddenly sleeping better - it was a coincidence. It had nothing to do with the fact that her brain loved dreaming about a woman with dark hair and dark eyes and a dark smile so much that it was willingly shutting down for the first time in years.
Her phone buzzed, and she glanced up.
Free for a ride?
Emma nearly squealed. It was only 8pm, which was a good sign - it meant Regina's latest date had gone just as badly as the last one, there wouldn't have been any kissing, and if she was really lucky, she might get to sit and chat with Regina some more before they even started driving. When she replied saying yes, of course, Regina sent her an address in Hell's Kitchen. Emma sped across town holding her breath, her fingers starting to itch as she got closer.
She spotted her right away. For once, Regina wasn't slumped against a wall or hiding behind a trash can - she was standing right against the edge of the sidewalk, her back straight and her hands in her coat pockets. Her hair was slightly curly and she was wearing gold hoop earrings.
There was an empty parking spot directly in front of her, so Emma pulled in. Regina smiled when she saw her, but she didn't move.
Emma frowned, then reached out and rolled down the window. "Hey. You coming?"
Regina ignored the question entirely. "You can park here, right?"
"Um," Emma replied, glancing up at the sign. "Yeah?"
"Good. Then come on."
"Come on where?"
"Get out the car," Regina replied. She sounded haughty and important, but the reason her hands were in her pockets was because they were shaking. "I thought I'd take you out for dinner tonight."
Regina watched as Emma's face went pink with shock.
"Yes - unless you have a busy night planned?"
"No," Emma replied immediately, killing the engine. "Absolutely not."
As Regina stepped back from the curb, Emma pulled down her visor and glanced at her reflection. Recently, she'd taken to dressing up a bit more than normal, just in case she happened to find herself riding with the new love of her life. Still, she wished she was wearing a nicer shirt or had put on proper eyeliner.
But when she climbed out the car and Regina saw her at her full height, the smile she received made her realise it didn't matter what she was wearing. It didn't matter that she was just a cab driver or that she lived in a studio apartment with windows that didn't open all the way because the landlord didn't want a suicide on his hands. Regina liked her anyway, somehow, and that was all she cared about.
When Emma was by her side, Regina's smile widened. "This way."
She winced when she heard how industrial she sounded, but Emma didn't seem to mind. She tentatively followed her halfway down the block until they came to a bar. It wasn't the kind of place Emma went to on Saturday nights - the lettering outside was sharp and made of brushed steel, and there was a curtain just inside the door to keep the cold out.
Regina stopped outside, looking unsure of herself. "They... serve food. I thought maybe this would be a good middle ground."
Emma understood what she meant at once: Regina knew she wouldn't feel comfortable in the fancy restaurants she went to on her normal dates, but a dive bar with a sticky floor wasn't the right atmosphere either. Here, they could both be comfortable. They could even pretend it wasn't a date at all for as long as they needed to. She nodded and let Regina lead her inside. When she told the hostess that they had a reservation, Emma thought she might cry.
And then suddenly they were sitting opposite each other, Regina in the cushioned booth on one side of the table and Emma in the hard-backed chair opposite her because she'd grabbed it before Regina could insist. She inhaled sharply as Regina took off her coat: she was wearing a black dress that clung to her frame and lipstick so red it reminded her of sour cherry candies. Five minutes in and Emma was already swollen with the urge to lean across the table and see if it tasted like them too.
"I'm sorry for springing this on you," Regina said, twisting her hands slightly. "I guess I thought it was going to be a cute surprise, but maybe I'm just being pushy."
"Is that unusual for you?" Emma asked, smirking. She felt nervous too - underneath the table, she was wiping her palms on the fronts of her thighs.
Regina automatically rolled her eyes. "I don't know why I bother."
"Well - either because you secretly think I'm charming and you enjoy my company," Emma mused, "or because you want to even the score after last week, and then you'll never speak to me again."
"We're rapidly approaching the latter."
"I figured. But I'll still take what I can get."
They both smiled at each other, and just like that, some of their collective nerves faded. The each grabbed a menu and, when the server came by, ordered a cocktail apiece - Emma a Long Island iced tea, and Regina an apple martini.
It took barely three sips before Emma heard herself blurting out, "Why did you want to go out tonight?"
Regina looked up over her own drink with wide eyes. "What do you mean?"
"Like... this is your date night. But you're here with me. Did something happen?"
Something huge and life-changing had happened, but Regina knew that wasn't what Emma meant.
"I guess I just..." Regina started, searching for an excuse. But then she caught sight of the soft, hopeful look on Emma's face and sighed. "Annoyingly, I had more fun with you last week than I've had in ages. And you were kind to me and distracted me from yet another disaster and... I guess I just wanted to repay the favour. You know - do something nice for you."
The beam that broke out over Emma's face nearly melted her from the inside. "That's really awesome, Regina."
"Sure. I mean... I think we have a good time and I like getting to talk to you. And last week was fun. So this is... great."
She was trying desperately to rein herself in, but even so she sounded breathless and overexcited. It was humiliating. She swallowed and tried again. "And you look really nice."
For fuck's sake, Swan. Even worse.
But Regina smiled back at her, her cheeks instantly going pink, and Emma realised that it was time to calm down and just ride this as far as she could. Regina had planned this, after all, so she must like her in some way - maybe not in the same heart-skipping, daydreaming-about-her-eyes kind of way as Emma, but something was still better than nothing.
"Thank you," Regina said, looking down at the table. She'd started picking at a napkin at some point - she didn't even remember taking hold of it. "I probably should have just called you and asked you if you wanted to go out but... I wasn't sure you'd say yes and I didn't know how to go about it, and—"
She was rambling, but before she could embarrass herself even more, Emma cut over the top of her. "Of course I would! God. And, you know - who doesn't like surprises?"
"Me, actually," Regina said wryly, making Emma laugh.
"Well, luckily for you, I love them. So this is perfect and I'm glad we're here."
Her voice was firm, and it finally made Regina relax. She smiled. "I'm glad we're here too."
"Cool. Now, I've already got my eye on one of those pizzas that just went past. What do you think?"
Regina scrunched up her nose automatically. "Honestly, I'm surprised that you're a pizza-sharing type." Then she paused and added hopefully, "Do you think they serve onion rings?"
Emma just about melted on the spot. Eventually they ordered a large pizza to share and the side that Regina's heart was already set on, and then they settled down with their food, their half-empty cocktails and their slightly nervous conversation that was slowly getting smoother.
"Did you ever hear from that guy you walked out on?" Emma asked as she forced herself to cut her pizza using a knife and fork so that Regina wouldn't haul her ass out.
"No. I've been getting a call from my mother every single day though," Regina said, selecting an onion ring and biting down on it with a blissful expression on her face.
Then she paused. "Sorry - you're using cutlery for pizza?"
Emma instantly dropped her fork with a clatter. "I was only doing it so you wouldn't think I was a commoner."
"Emma, I'm not part of the monarchy. Besides, we're in a bar and I'm already kind of drunk. Just do whatever makes you comfortable."
Emma did so immediately, abandoning her cutlery so she could navigate the giant slice of melted cheese and pepperoni towards her mouth, but then she paused. "You're already kind of drunk? After half a drink?"
Regina's long pause wasn't lost on her.
"I... I've been a bit nervous about this," she admitted, looking down at her plate. "So I guess I haven't eaten much over the past few days."
God, it took every ounce of Emma's self restraint not to reach across the table, grab the front of Regina's expensive dress and pull her into a kiss. They'd only known each other a month or two, but already she'd been exposed to so many sides of her: the sharply spoken, slightly bitter mayor who looked at her Uber driver with suspicion and didn't want to answer any questions. The woman with soft, sad eyes who was trying so hard to find happiness that it didn't even seem to occur to her that she was making herself miserable in the process. And now, this new woman - the one who kept blushing and fiddling with her ring and refusing to make eye contact because there was something at war in her chest and she was having a hard time making sense of it. She looked unsure of herself, and that was truly new to Emma - even when she'd been sad or drunk or annoyed or even frightened, she'd had a straight back and a stern face. Now, some of that had been chipped away. She looked like she wanted to try and open herself up, but she had no idea where to start.
Emma put down her slice and, ignoring Regina's admission, said softly, "You're really pretty. Do you know that?"
Regina's head shot up at once. "Sorry?"
"Is that a weird thing to say? Maybe I'm a little bit drunk too," Emma lied. "I just don't want you to feel nervous. You're funny, and I like you."
And Regina so desperately wanted to ask what that meant. You like me? Or you 'like' me? The words were already threatening to come out and so she took another sip of her drink, hoping that Emma would realise her tight smile wasn't out of discomfort - just confusion. And hope.
"I... thank you. No one's told me that in a long time."
"Really? What about the first guy who was trying to nail you?"
Regina rolled her eyes, both at Emma's turn of phrase and the man in question. "Well, yes, I guess he probably did. But it's not the same thing, is it?"
And it wasn't. "No. It's not."
They finished their food and ordered more drinks, and as Regina loosened up, Emma fell even more in love with her. Her hands stopped fiddling with whatever was in reach and started broadly gesticulating, adding even more meaning to her voice which was already deeper and darker from the alcohol she'd been drinking. Her lipstick was starting to fade because she kept unconsciously licking her lips, and that too made Emma melt - she was sitting across from her, watching in real time as her guard came down for her. She was opening up; letting herself be Regina for once instead of Madam Mayor or regalregina77 or whatever her dating profile was called. Emma sat back and smiled, her palms itching, and by their third drink, she couldn't take it anymore.
"It's getting pretty loud in here," she said, making Regina's heart sink. She's going to say it's time to leave. But, instead, she asked, "Do you mind if I move next to you?"
Regina blinked, looking down at the space in the booth beside her. They'd never sat that close before - in the car, there was a mass of badly oiled gears between them, and in recent weeks there had always been a table. Now, it would just be air and fabric. If Regina wanted to reach out and put her hand on Emma's leg, absolutely nothing would be there to stop her.
The thought made her ache.
"Of course. Go ahead."
Emma hopped up and moved across, placing her glass beside Regina's. As soon as she sat down, Regina caught a waft of vanilla that made her thighs clench.
And then their thighs were almost touching and Regina's whole body was on fire. Part of her longed to edge away before she got hit by that electricity again - the one that had snuck inside her weeks ago and still crackled away in the middle of the night when she couldn't think of anything except how she needed to know exactly what colour Emma's eyes were - but instead she just smiled. When Emma turned to smile back, she got her answer: green. Ocean green, with blue around the centre and flecks of gold that looked like the sun reflecting.
"Much better," Emma said, rubbing her hands on her jeans once more. Every drop of moisture in her body was leaking out through her palms and she wondered just how humiliating it would be if she touched Regina's arm and left a grease stain behind.
You're not going to touch her, you stupid sexual predator. It was a bitter voice in the back of her head that she'd been hearing since the day she came out, but suddenly, something quietened it: it was Regina herself, watching her with wide eyes like she was waiting for something amazing to happen. She was holding herself rigidly, but Emma recognised that posture from her own body. There was a spark waiting to jump between them and neither of them knew if the other person would accept it.
And finally, Emma had to admit it: Regina liked her. Maybe she had only ever been with men before, and maybe she'd never even thought about another woman until a stupid yellow car had rolled up in front of her, but the truth was undeniable. That something that always hung in the car between them wasn't imaginary, and she didn't need to berate herself for wanting to explore it. As long as she treated Regina right, Regina might even want to explore it too.
She felt shaky, but she still managed to ask, "Is this okay?"
She was referring to the fact that she was suddenly an inch away from her, but Regina still nodded without even waiting for her sentence to be over. "Yes. It's perfect."
Emma realised after drink number four what her favourite thing about Regina was. It wasn't the scar above her lip or the perfect symmetry of her face - it was the way they could be so unbearably mean to each other and only ever find it funny.
"You know, you should consider buying another shirt," Regina suddenly blurted out after her fourth martini. "Especially as you spilled marinara sauce down that one."
Emma looked down and realised she was right. "Oh, fuck. Why didn't you tell me?"
"I didn't notice until you plonked down next to me. The table was hiding all of your sins before now."
"All of them? I doubt that," Emma said, licking her thumb and trying unsuccessfully to remove the red sauce from her white tank top. Regina watched her finger disappearing between her lips a second time and tried not to shiver. "But I can move back over there if my sloppiness is that painful to you."
With her eyes still glued to Emma's hands, Regina murmured, "No, that's alright. It's easier to make fun of you over here."
Giving up on her shirt, Emma looked up with a grin. "I'm not sure you want to start that game, Regina. I have plenty of comments of my own."
"Oh really? Like what?"
"Seriously? You're holding a martini glass with your goddamn pinkie sticking out."
"So?" Regina asked loftily, although she hadn't actually realised that and already wanted to curl it back into her palm. "I have class."
"No, you're just an asshole."
"Those aren't mutually exclusive."
Emma laughed and reached up to push some of her messy curls away from her face. That waft of vanilla came back again, nearly making Regina drop her glass entirely.
"Fine," Emma conceded. "A classy, obnoxious asshole. That's quite the triple threat."
"Speaking of, I'm also very threatening," Regina said. She was trying to sound intimidating, but from the way that Emma instantly started laughing, she had to admit she was probably too drunk to manage it.
"I am! All of my constituents are terrified of me."
"Are they all lazy white men?"
Regina blinked. "Um. Yes."
"Well, there you have it - men hate women who are more powerful than they are. I, on the other hand, have nothing but love for them, which means you can't intimidate me. It's physically impossible."
The challenge in her voice was so slick with smugness that Regina wanted to reached out and wipe her face clean. "Don't test me, Miss Swan."
Emma heard the warning in her voice and inwardly trembled, but on the outside, she just smirked. "Nope. Still not working."
"Look, I'm not asking for a standoff. I'm merely making the point that you're not as scary as you think you are."
"I'm far scarier," Regina replied, leaning closer. Emma jumped slightly, which only made Regina feel more adamant. "You just haven't seen that side of me yet."
Emma looked dryly back at her. She wasn't entirely sure how far she was willing to push this - she kind of hoped it would end with Regina getting so pissed off at her that she pushed her back against the booth and kissed her until she was finally quiet - but she suspected that might just be wishful thinking.
"The floor is yours, Madam Mayor," she said in a low voice. "Show me how scary you can be."
Regina didn't think twice about it. She put her drink down, straightened her spine, and gestured to Emma with one curled finger. "Come here."
Emma blinked. "I'm already right next to you."
"I'm showing you my scary side," Regina snapped. "Just pretend."
"Right, right, sorry. Okay," Emma replied, leaning forward. "Here I am."
Regina, meanwhile, didn't move an inch. "Closer. I have something to say to you."
Emma did have to admit that her voice had dipped to such an extent that it reminded her of bubbling tar. She swallowed and edged closer still, trying not to let her amused smile slip.
When they were only inches apart, Regina just looked at her. There was a new expression on her face - it was cold and unimpressed, and it reminded Emma of all the teachers who had kept her behind after class in middle school in order to yell at her. She swallowed and waited, trying not to blink, until Regina leaned forward so abruptly that it almost sent her sliding off her seat.
"Miss Swan," she said flatly, leaning right into Emma's face and letting her gaze drift from her eyes to her lips and back up again. She noticed right away that Emma's smile was gone. Her pupils were wide and she could hear her breathing. Regina had already won, so she put on her cruellest smile. "Did you seriously think you could beat me?"
Emma couldn't catch her breath. She'd long lost track of whether this was part of their game or whether Regina was actually asking her, so she just stayed silent.
"Listen very carefully," Regina carried on, completely closing the gap between them so the tips of their noses were nearly touching. "Don't ever try and play a game with me that you can't win, because I will destroy you by any means necessary. Do you understand me?"
Swallowing, Emma slowly nodded. That just made Regina smile more.
"Good," she said. Without thinking, she reached out and tucked a strand of Emma's hair behind her ear. It was slightly knotty from how much she'd been playing with it all night, but it was still silky and made her toes curl. "Now, get the hell out of my office and don't come back until you're ready to play on my terms."
They stayed where they were, their eyes locked and their breath on each others faces. Emma thought for a second that she might pass out.
And then, suddenly, "Sorry. Can I take these glasses?"
They both pulled away and looked up at their server, who was gesturing to the littered table.
"Please," Regina said coolly. "And another round, as well."
"You got it."
Regina smiled at him, then turned back to Emma, who was sitting with her hand over her heart like she needed to check it was still working properly.
"Do you see now?" Regina asked coolly. It filled her up with pleasure when Emma instantly nodded.
"I think I'm going to have nightmares tonight."
"I doubt that. I was just proving a point."
Regina picked up her nearly empty martini and finished it, making sure her pinkie stayed out the entire time. Emma didn't take her eyes off her until all of the faded green liquid was gone.
Even when the bar got quieter again, Emma didn't move back to her old seat. When she returned from the bathroom, where she'd been alarmed to find out that both her hair and her eyes were totally wild and she looked like she'd been getting screwed in a back alley all night, she deliberately positioned herself as close as possible to Regina's side. Their thighs touched, and neither one of them said a word.
"I need to ask about something," Regina said.
"I keep noticing something here," Regina said, gesturing to Emma's left wrist. She was wearing a watch with a thick strap that almost completely covered the delicate black lines on her skin, but sometimes when she moved, they came peeking out again. "Is that a tattoo?"
Emma immediately blushed. "Oh. Yeah."
"Can I see?"
She couldn't remember the last time she'd shown it to someone. Her last one-night stand had been a man about four months earlier, and even though her watch had come off and at some point he'd gathered up her wrists to pin them above her head, he hadn't even noticed it. To most people, it wasn't even worth commenting on.
But Regina was looking at her with interest and just a hint of uncertainty, like she already realised she might be pushing her luck, so without saying a word, Emma unbuckled her watch and held out her hand.
After a beat, Regina reached out and gently cradled it in her palm. Her hands were cool even though the room was hot. Emma hoped her shaking wasn't too obvious.
"It's lovely," Regina said, her left hand reaching out so she could trace the pattern with the tip of her finger. The flower was small and dainty and Emma knew it didn't suit her in any way - her friends always made fun of her for it, which was partly why she always kept it covered. "Is it very cliche if I ask if it means anything?"
Emma smiled faintly. "It's a bit of a long story. But yes - it does."
"Will you tell me?"
Skipping over the events leading up to it - the years of foster homes, of adoptive families who sent her packing once she got too troublesome for them, of running away and finding herself crashing with any stranger who looked like they probably wouldn't assault her - Emma nodded. "I just sometimes need the reminder that not everything is terrible, you know? Even when things are completely shit, flowers can still grow. They can go through cold winters and being trampled underfoot, and still thrive if they're given time. I just like knowing that even when things are bad, they're probably going to get better again."
When she looked up, Regina was smiling at her. She was still cradling Emma's wrist like it was something precious.
"I like that," she said. "That's a very good reason."
"Thanks. It's a bit out of character, maybe, but—"
"Oh, because you're so cold and independent and don't need anybody?" Regina cut her off dryly. "Please. You have an open heart and it's worthy of love. Your flowers are still going to grow."
Something scratched at Emma's eyes, and before she could stop herself, she asked, "Can I do something?"
Regina looked back at her with amusement. "Of course."
"Okay," Emma said, gently removing her wrist from Regina's hands. She took a breath.
Edging forward in their shared seat, she kept her gaze on Regina's face. Her wry smile had disappeared as quickly as it had come - the second she realised what Emma was asking for, all the humour had left her.
Emma waited before she moved again. Their faces were close together, but they weren't touching and Regina had all the room she needed to pull away if she wanted to. She wasn't in a corner - this was her decision to make.
And just like that, she made it. Without waiting for Emma to close the gap, Regina tilted her face forward and press their lips together. She felt Emma sink with relief, her breath rushing from her as their mouths finally came together with a gasp of relief.
Emma considered pulling away again a moment later, to give Regina another second if she needed one, but then she felt two hands sliding round the back of her neck. She groaned and sunk in further, placing one hand on Regina's cheek. It was hot and pulsing as her jaw worked, and Emma couldn't help but rub her thumb over the smooth skin. Regina moaned - almost a cry - and tugged her closer, not caring that they were surrounded by people or that the table in front of them jingled with glasses as Emma's hip bumped into it. She all but yanked Emma against her thigh, deepening the kiss, and trying to ignore the prickling in her eyes when she felt Emma's body press up against hers, all solid and warm and trembling.
Time moved faster when she was kissing Emma. When her tongue slid into her mouth, Regina felt like she had something hard and hot rubbing her between her legs. Her entire body was throbbing and before she knew it, she was genuinely asking herself whether it would be inappropriate to grab Emma's hand and shove it under her dress, fuck whoever might see them or what they might think or—
And then Emma's mouth was beneath her hair, slowly kissing her neck and teasing at her earlobe. Her breath was hot and sweet from their drinks and Regina moaned out loud, audible to Emma even over the music. She laughed and edged closer, draping her leg over Regina's until her knee was between Regina's thighs and resting just close enough to her cunt that either one of them could have shifted an inch and closed that gap. Regina obviously knew it too, because as she whined she grabbed Emma's thigh and squeezed, pleading with her to do it for her because she wasn't brave enough yet, and then whimpering when it didn't happen. Emma laughed again, biting down gently enough on Regina's neck that she wouldn't leave a mark but still left her gasping, and then suddenly she was being shoved backward. Regina's hands were on her shoulders, holding her at arm's length, and she was visibly panting. Emma had never seen eyes that dark before.
She swallowed, ready to apologise. Then she realised that wasn't why Regina had stopped.
"That drink I offered you last time," she said. Her voice caught midway through the sentence. "Do you...? I mean..."
Emma remembered, and she nodded at once. Her jeans were too tight against her pussy and the throbbing was already starting to kill her.
"I'd like that."
Regina had never paid a bill so quickly. She all but shoved Emma out the door, groaning with disappointment when she realised they need to go to her car to check the parking and grab Emma's things. She waited impatiently at the edge of the sidewalk, bouncing in the frozen air, and watched as Emma rummaged around in the glovebox for something. When she turned back around, Regina was confused to find her holding a small bottle.
"This is... a bit lame now," Emma said, holding it out. "But I bought this for you."
Regina looked down at it, still bewildered, until she recognised the label. The Spanish words got caught in throat and she was mortified to realise that she might be about to cry.
She swallowed hard and said, "We need to get a cab right this second."
"Why? Are you that cold?"
"No," Regina said, stepping forward and trapping the bottle of Mi Madre Pique hot sauce between them. "Because if I don't get you onto my couch soon, I'm going to do something that people like me don't normally do in cars."
"I don't have sex before the third date."
Emma couldn't help but laugh. Regina had thrown a fistful of notes at the cab driver, tugged Emma by her hand into her house, and said those words while she was simultaneously pulling her into the living room.
"Okay," Emma replied. "I'm not expecting anything."
"Okay. Good. Good. Right." Regina let go of Emma briefly just to tug her coat off and throw it in the direction of the nearest armchair - something she'd never done before in her entire life - before grabbing Emma's wrist again and pulling her closer. "Then kiss me."
For once, Emma didn't have a witty reply. She just grabbed Regina's waist, properly feeling for the first time just how narrow and taut it was, and did exactly that.
Her own coat went flying before they tumbled down onto the couch. Maybe they'd both decided that they'd wasted enough time skirting around one another over the past month, because suddenly they couldn't move fast enough. Regina fell back with her arms around Emma's neck, and Emma instantly set up camp with her knee wedged between Regina's legs. She didn't push it any closer and instead returned to Regina's neck, needing to hear those frantic moans again but without the music from the bar there to mute it. Regina threw her head back instantly and whimpered, her nails digging into the base of Emma's head as she urged her to go faster.
They were both breathless. Emma kept on kissing her throat, desperate to leave a dark purple mark that would make her knees weak in the morning but refusing to blemish Regina's perfect skin. Instead, she headed downward, getting furious when she was cut off by the neckline of her dress and then suddenly remembering what Regina had just told her. Immediately, she stopped and went back up to her face, finding Regina's lips parted and waiting for her.
"I don't sleep with people before the third date."
The words were hissed practically into her mouth. Emma pulled away with a laugh.
"You just said that."
"I know. I'm just reminding myself."
Regina glared at her, then wriggled free from beneath her. For a horrible second Emma thought they were done, but then she realised what was happening: Regina climbed out from beneath her, guided Emma up into a sitting position, and then clambered on top of her.
Emma looked up at her with a dry mouth. "Oh."
"I don't sleep with people before the third date."
"Regina," Emma sighed, gently holding her waist. "Do you think I'm going to pressure you into—?"
"No," Regina interrupted, kissing her hard before she pulled away again with a sigh. "I just know what I want right now and I need to show some self restraint."
"Oh, really? And what is it that you want right now?"
She got another glare for that, but it was worth it. Regina leaned forward, the warm weight of her body pressing down against Emma's lap, and hissed into her ear, "I want to spend the entire night fucking you."
Emma moaned out loud, throwing her head back. "Regina."
"But I don't sleep with people before the—"
"Say that one more time and I'm leaving," Emma snapped. "Please, can we at least keep kissing?"
"No, because when I kiss you, it makes me want to rip your clothes off."
"So, what then? Do you want to watch Monsters Inc and go to bed?"
Regina was visibly squirming. Her cheeks were red and she was gripping the back of Emma's neck like she was trying to stop herself from doing something much worse with her hands.
After a long moment of silence, Emma forced herself to sit up straighter and reached up to cup Regina's face. That, at least, seemed to calm her slightly.
"Regina," she said softly. "Do you want me to go?"
"Do you want to just talk?"
"Then, what do you want?"
Regina fidgeted again, groaning when her pulsing cunt pressed against the button on Emma's jeans. The five apple martinis were still swirling inside her and she suddenly wanted more than anything to reach down and shove Emma's hand inside her underwear, riding her fingers until she came with a gasp that extinguished the lights.
She realised then that Emma knew that. She could feel it burning from her. And yet, she was still waiting patiently for her to tell her what she thought they should do instead.
Regina swallowed hard. "I've never felt like this before."
"I mean... I've been... aroused before," Regina said awkwardly. "I've wanted to have sex before. But I've spent so many weeks wondering... Not knowing why I kept thinking about you or whether you were thinking about me and wondering if I'd ever seen you again, and..."
She couldn't get her thoughts straight and it was infuriating. She groaned and rubbed a hand over her face.
Emma smiled. "I've been thinking about you since day one."
Just like that, Regina was looking down at her again. "You have?"
"Of course. You were so beautiful and so fucking grumpy," Emma said, ignoring the slap to her shoulder, "and I wanted you right away. But you were only dating men and I didn't know if you'd ever thought about women like that before and... I'm bi but I always worry that if I come on to girls too strongly, they'll pull away and think I'm disgusting or something. I didn't want to frighten you off - especially not if you're still struggling with dating and not ready for anything too heavy yet."
The smile Regina gave her was soft enough to melt her. "I could never think you're disgusting. You're the first person I've wanted to spend any time with at all in months."
"You are. And that's why I'm really, really struggling not to take you up to my bedroom right now."
Emma laughed, letting her hands drop from Regina's waist down to her hips. "Well, as much as I would love that - you have your rules and I'm going to respect them."
"You are?" Regina asked, visibly disappointed.
"I am. However," Emma added, her eyes suddenly flashing. "Can I try something else?"
It was almost what she'd said in the bar only an hour ago, and the memory made Regina lose her breath.
"Yes," she gasped. "Please."
"I'll stop as soon as you tell me to," Emma clarified. "And I won't take your clothes off."
"You won't...? What exactly are you planning to do, then?"
"You really have only dated men, haven't you?" Emma asked dryly. "Just tell me if you want me to stop, okay?"
Regina nodded furiously. "Of course."
Excitement skipped inside Emma's chest. She tilted her chin up to capture Regina's lips once more. Finally, it was slower - some of Regina's franticness had disappeared, and she was able to sink her body into the curve of Emma's chest and wind her arms around her neck like she was trying to disappear into her, rather than like she was trying to stop time from slipping away. She shifted her hips slightly and ground down once more against Emma's lap, moaning at the rush it sent through her. That single movement gave Emma the reassurance she needed to keep going.
She gently peeled Regina's arms away from her neck, soaking up her confused expression when she pulled away from the kiss and peered down at her. Emma coaxed her arms back, easing them slowly incase this was something that Regina would hate, until they were crossed behind her back. When her fingers shifted to grip her wrists and hold them in place, Regina's eyes nearly popped out of her head.
"Too much?" Emma asked, but Regina shook her head.
"What are you doing?"
"I told you - trying something. Say stop if you don't like it."
Regina nodded, her body already heaving. Emma swallowed, keeping her grip tight, and placed her forehead on Regina's chest. The smell of her was so strong - expensive perfume and clean clothes and fresh air and just a drop of alcohol that must have gotten spilled down her in the bar. Emma inhaled and closed her eyes, steadying herself, and then brought her right hand up from Regina's hip.
The second it found its place over Regina's breast, they both groaned. Regina instinctively tugged her arms like she was trying to get away, but she was relieved when Emma ignored her. Her wrists were held in place as Emma gently caressed her over her clothes, feeling every curve of her chest and her waist before returning to her hips. Regina could feel herself throbbing, and she knew she was starting to shake. Emma's sweet, glassy eyes kept glancing up at her, checking she was okay, and whenever they found her panting and wriggling and silently begging her to go on, she smiled slightly and did as she was told. When she squeezed Regina's breast again, she could feel a hardened nipple against her palm.
Suddenly only having one hand was maddening, and she released her wrists. Regina fell forward at once, kissing Emma hard, and moaned out loud when she felt both her breasts being squeezed and toyed with. Right then, her rules were her least favourite thing in the world - she wanted Emma to grab the top of her dress with both hands and tear it open. She wanted to be thrown onto the couch and fucked until she was crying. She wanted to take Emma up to her bed and tie her to the headboard and spend the rest of the night between her legs working out exactly what it was that would make her scream. But then Emma's careful hands were sliding down again, grabbing Regina's hips and rocking her harder than she would have dared to do herself.
"Oh, God," Regina cried out without meaning to. She thrust her fist into her mouth and bit down. "Do that again."
Emma buried her mouth against Regina's neck and, as she licked and sucked, held Regina's hips firmly. She pulled her forward, guiding the join of her thighs to exactly where she knew the button on her jeans was, and moaned at the noises that followed. Regina started clinging to her again, her fingers diving into Emma's hair and gripping hard, trying to keep herself in one place. The rocking got faster - half because Emma was moving her and half because Regina's dignity had long flown out the window - and before she knew it, she was panting and whining as she humped herself against Emma's lap. The friction was blinding and she buried her face in Emma's hair, breathing it in as she rocked harder, whispering words she didn't even know the meaning of into her ear as she fucked herself on nothing.
She didn't noticed that one of Emma's hands had left her hips under she felt something new against the inside of her thigh. Emma was as good as her word: she didn't even try to peel Regina's underwear aside. She just pressed the pad of her thumb against the soaking wet spot in the centre of the silk fabric, and she moaned incoherently when she felt the full weight of Regina's body starting to grind against it.
Regina was burning all over. She was sweating. She could barely breathe and her mouth was full of fabric and Emma's hair, but all she could think about was the arm that was holding her steady and the hand that was fucking her without even touching her bare skin. She rocked and rocked and suddenly gasped, long and loud, and when she came, it was with a shake that made her head snap back. She moaned to the whole room, her chest heaving, and let the feeling of her thighs shaking uncontrollably wash over her until finally some sense of control came back to her.
When she slumped forward against Emma's chest, she thought she might cry. Emma was holding her tight, her hand removed from beneath her dress, and even though she was panting too, she didn't complain. She reached up to stroke Regina's hair and waited until Regina was ready to pull away. When she did, she grabbed Emma's face with both hands and kissed her hard. Her tongue was messy and desperate and Emma knew she was trying to say thank you when she didn't have the words.
She grinned when they pulled apart. She could smell Regina everywhere and even though she hadn't fucked her, she could taste her too. It was worth the weeks and weeks of waiting, and although she herself hadn't come and probably wouldn't for a long time, she felt satisfied. Exhausted, but satisfied.
She reminded herself of that when Regina reached down and began fiddling with her jeans.
"It's okay," Emma said, stroking Regina's hair away from her face. "Not tonight."
"Of course. I promised, didn't I?"
"But I... You..." Regina swallowed. "Was it... bad?"
Emma rolled her eyes and kissed her cheek, making her blush. "You can be really stupid sometimes."
"Because we've done enough, and I wanted to make you come and make you realise you can trust me and that I won't do anything you're not ready for. Have you ever fucked a woman before?"
Regina blinked at the abrupt question. "I... No. I haven't."
"So, why rush? That third date isn't too far away, you know."
Laughing, Regina let her head drop forward. In a way, she was relieved - as badly as she wanted to touch Emma there and then, she knew it probably was too soon. She was glad that at least one of them had the sense to realise that.
She nodded. "Thank you."
"Seriously, don't mention it. And I really hope that was okay for you."
Regina snorted, like there was any chance Emma hadn't noticed how frantically she had been humping her five minutes earlier. "I can be stupid sometimes?"
"I'm being respectful!"
"Well, don't. I much prefer you when you're giving me orgasms that make me forget my own name."
Emma grinned. "I have loads more where they came from. And hey, I can recommend plenty of 'special' websites if you need them - you know, if you want to bone up."
Regina squawked with laughter at the disgusting pun and leaned forward to kiss her again.
"Idiot. But fine - maybe I'll take you up on that. Just to make you squirm."
After a few more kisses - long, deep, breathless ones that had lost their earlier urgency and instead become soft and grateful - Regina got up and held out her hand. "I hope you don't hog the covers."
"I don't, but I do sometimes snore after I've been drinking."
"Charming. If you wake up in the middle of the night with a pillow pressed over your face, it's your own fault."
Emma grinned and let Regina lead her upstairs, their fingers intertwined. Climbing into bed beside her was unreal - like slipping into pure silk and being cradled by it.
She wasn't at all surprised when Regina took hours to take off her make-up and apply all her serums, but it did come as a shock when she paused awkwardly before turning off the light and asked, "How do you feel about spooning?"
Emma's heart nearly broke. "I'm always a fan of that."
"Great. Do you..." Regina started, then swallowed. Yet again, even after seeing so many sides of her, Emma was blessed to see a brand new one in the soft hours of the night. "Would you mind holding me?"
But Emma was already slipping in behind her, loosely curling an arm over her waist and drawing her close. She felt the tension leave Regina's muscles instantly.
The light went off, and in the dark, Emma was left to soak in the smell of her and feel the stretch and shrink of her body as she breathed. Neither of them spoke again. It was the first time they'd simply been silent together since the night they'd met - Emma with her hand casually looped through the steering wheel and Regina clutching her purse like she was still planning to run - and both of them felt grateful when they were just able to sink into it.
When Regina turned her head, sought out Emma's face in the dark and gently kissed it, she felt Emma's smile radiate back at her. The warmth of it stayed with her until she was fast asleep.
Thanks again to @shazmit for the amazing prompt!
You can find me on Twitter at @_starsthatburn