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It Smells Like Joy

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It starts with cookies.

She wakes up early in her small bedroom in the loft, far earlier than she'd normally like to on a day off.

But the smell of freshly baked cookies is wafting through the apartment, and if there's anything that's going to get her out of bed early on a Wednesday morning it's the scent of delicious food.

Growing up she rarely had that.

Her memories of Christmas revolve more around cracked Chips Ahoy set out on a plate, with grubby hands grabbing them and crushing them further in a rush to get at least one. Her Christmas is a generic wrapped package, with a sticker on the corner that someone forgot to remove: Girl. Age 8.

But this Christmas Eve?

She wakes up and it doesn't matter that it's so goddamn early (except, it really truly is unreasonably early), or that her eyes feel gritty because Neal was up half the night crying non-stop (although, okay, she'd prefer if he'd shut up for more than an hour at a time).

She used to crouch in front of the TV every Christmas, because even the crappy foster houses had televisions, and she would stare at all those sitcoms of fake families celebrating the holidays. 

Those fake families are her only concept of how holidays are maybe supposed to go.

She knows it's not all like that. She's a grown-up now, and she has lived too long and seen too much. But still, around this time of year she can't help but remember the hope, the desperate hope, she had every year when she begged Santa for a family to call her own.

~

Emma stumbles out of bed, tripping because her foot gets caught in the sheet. She's downstairs in two second, hair unbrushed and pajamas scruffy because she's just so eager to see what's going on. To experience something herself for once.

She just knows that Snow is in the kitchen baking cookies for all of them.

Except when she rushes eagerly into the kitchen, she's in for a surprise.

It's not Snow at all.

Regina.

Regina is leaning toward the oven, and if Emma stares for a moment at the way her skirt hugs her ass perfectly, well...she's only human.

Emma has never been subtle, and she's even less likely to be subtle at 7am on a Wednesday morning, especially when she stayed up until 3am perfecting her video game skills (someone has to best the kid). 

All of that is to say that Regina knows within seconds that Emma is in the kitchen, and she swings around, glasses perched on her nose. 

Emma, of course, is still shocked to see Regina there. And so she's awkwardly standing there gawking when Regina turns to look at her.

"Miss Swan?" Regina asks, raising an eyebrow in a way that Emma can only describe as haughty (cause yeah, she uses big words sometimes, thank you very much).

"Re-regina."

And there's the tiniest smirk blossoming on Regina's face. "Astute, dear."

"But what are you doing here?" And she inwardly cringes, because that sounds an awful lot like she doesn't want Regina to be there, and she's not entirely sure that's the case at all. But, you know, it's 7am. In Snow and Charming's loft.

"I-" and this time it is Regina whose words falter. "I was just making Henry Christmas cookies." And for just a second her eyes flutter to the floor, her mask slipping with the disappointment of being rejected. Of never being wanted. 

Emma barely has a chance to see that, and to feel a subtle ache, before Regina continues. "I do hope that's acceptable dear, seeing as how you prefer to exist on take-out alone."

And Emma knows that's supposed to be a dig, to get back at her for making Regina feel vulnerable. But because she knows all that and because, to be honest, she knows from experience that any food is better than no food at all well, it's kinda hard to be insulted.

"Sure, sure," she grouses, amused, and she wanders closer to the kitchen counter, heaving herself onto a stool.

"What do you think you're doing?" Regina barks out.

But Emma doesn't answer. She's too busy staring in awe at tray after tray of perfectly crafted cookies. 

Little gingerbread men with tiny pearl buttons. Christmas stockings with perfect icing stripes of green and red. Perfectly shaped Snickerdoodles that she can already tell have just the right amount of cinnamon.

It's just...it looks like Christmas, like something a real mom would do on Christmas. And Emma finds herself blinking back tears.

"Emma?" Regina asks, with what Emma thinks may be a faint hint of concern.

"Sorry, sorry," Emma sniffles as she looks up at Regina. "It's just I," and she shakes her head, blonde hair briefly obscuring her from view. "Never mind."

"Are you sure, dear?" Regina asks, and Emma must be imagining the concern and curiosity.

"Yeah, yeah, totally sure." Emma looks up and all Regina can see is a happy grin. In an odd way it's disturbing. "These look awesome!" Chipper Emma adds.

"Hmm." Regina sniffs, but in a regal way. "Of course they are."

And Emma chortles (giggles really), "of course."

Regina doesn't know why, but for some reason she keeps talking. "I always bake cookies the morning of Christmas Eve."

"Yeah?" Emma leans forward against the counter, elbows on the table with her chin resting on her palms. She looks like a little kid preparing for story time.

Not adorable at all.

And maybe that's why Regina keeps talking, softly of course, as she focuses on the cookie batter, blending everything perfectly with a large wooden spoon. "When I first got to his world, I didn't know anything about Christmas. But I learned quickly, through television and books and movies."

Her eyes flicker toward Emma, who is smiling at her. The blonde nods with understanding. Because that sounds awfully familiar to her.

"When I got Henry, when I finally had a child of my own, I wanted him to have everything. And I wanted to raise him appropriately for this world. So Christmas, well, I don't know, I just started celebrating it. Not the religious aspects, not really, but the idea of family and giving to others, I wanted him to have that. To have, well, I suppose you could say holiday spirit."

And Emma is totally not tearing up again.

"Anyway, I also liked the idea of traditions, of things we would do each year as a family, so from the year he was first given to me," And Regina meets Emma's eyes at that, and for the first time ever it almost feels like a thank you. Like an understanding of what Emma gave up. "Every Christmas Eve I bake cookies, and he is allowed to pick two to eat with breakfast."

"He gets to eat cookies for breakfast?" Emma is very much like an eager puppy, bouncing upright on her stool.

And a second later she regrets her eager display of enthusiasm, because somehow the spell is broken.

"Really Miss Swan." Regina states firmly.

"Sorry," Emma bites her lip and sits straight on the stool, suddenly very sad that the genteel feeling is gone.

~

Henry comes bounding into the kitchen a moment later, and his enthusiasm for the cookies is almost as great as his birth mother's.

"Thanks, Mom." He smiles, hugging Regina tentatively around her waist.

And Emma watches as Regina tries to hide her beaming grin.

Snow wanders in through the front door shortly afterward, and Emma is shocked to see her mother bundled up in a coat and a hat, with baby Neal in tow. She'd assumed they'd both be asleep.

Snow unzips his coat first, and Emma catches sight of a festive onesie, bright green and red with the words "Baby's first Christmas" shakily drawn on and okay, that's kind of cute. 

But then Snow shrugs out of her own coat, and Emma's catches sight of her sweatshirt "Mommy's first Christmas", and her heart basically breaks right there in the kitchen.

She just stares at it, and Snow notices, smiling and tugging on the end of the sweatshirt so that it covers her still rounded belly. "Isn't it adorable? The dwarves made it for me for Christmas."

"Yeah," Emma's voice is raspy from the tears she's rapidly trying to swallow. Luckily she's pretty good at faking emotions. "Adorable."

Just then she looks down in surprise, and finds that Regina is pushing a warm cookie into her hand. 

The older woman is somehow behind her, and Emma can feel the proximity in a way that's...kind of weird. Thrumming through her, and somehow calming her. 

She looks down at the cookie in her hand, and she clearly somehow missed it before. It's in the shape of a candy cane, and sketched across it in beautiful letters is her name: Emma.

Glancing up, surprise chasing the tears from her eyes, she sees that Henry is joyously chewing on his own candy cane, she can just make out the 'H' that's left.

For the briefest second, Emma thinks she feels Regina's thumb rub against her hand. Comforting.

But then it's gone and Regina is back on the other side of the room, leaning against the stove and looking throughly bored, cold, and indifferent.

~

Regina had said two cookies.

But Regina has gone, and somehow that irritates Emma, and she's in charge anyway.

So Henry eats six, and then whines for the next thirty minutes about a stomach ache.

~

Later that night she and Henry watch Elf, side by side on the couch in the living room.

She turns it up loud to try and drown out the noise of Snow soothing Neal, trying to sing him to sleep.

Her mind wanders and it's only when Henry burps loudly that her focus returns.

"Ew kid," she scrunches up her nose at him.

"Sorry," he mumbles, and she notices that he's eating another cookie.

"No more cookies kid!"

"Yeah, sorry Emma." 

She takes the plate, still piled high with cookies, back into the kitchen. And after she's covered it, she reaches into the cupboard and draws out another plate. Gently brushing a finger over the now plastic wrapped candy cane: Emma. 

Smiling softly she puts it back on the shelf and returns to the couch.

~

 Henry falls asleep before the movie ends, and Emma has to be happy at how perfect this moment is.

Hanging out with her kid, watching Christmas movies.

She'd never dreamed she'd have such a thing.

But she does.

And yeah, maybe this Christmas, her first Christmas, isn't shaping up the way she wants it to. 

But Henry he's pretty great.

And, truth be told, her mind whispers, so is Regina.

~

She lies in bed for a long time, watching the shadows chase across her ceiling, and listening to the squeals of her younger brother.

How Henry sleeps through this is a mystery never to be solved.

She sniffles loudly, demons always more vibrant at night.

Her Christmas is memories of the one family that almost kind of sort of was a family for a moment. Of actual new gifts: a doll and a stuffed puppy. One of which got left behind at the foster home when the family decided to trade her in for a younger cuter model, the other one got stolen at one of the foster homes later, sometime between placement two and placement six.

Still, she will not cry.

~

Emma bites her bottom lip, shifting nervously on Regina's front porch with the carton and bottle clutched in her hand. 

She doesn't want to ring the bell, doesn't want to bother Regina too much, doesn't want to go where she's not wanted.

But oh, she also wants the door to swing open.

And just as she's giving up, releasing a sigh and turning to leave the porch, she feels a rush of heat.

The door is open and Regina is illuminated, backlit and just...Emma can't even think, distracted by the sight of Regina in an oversized cardigan and black leggings.

"Emma?" And that's how surprised she is, that she uses Emma's first name.

"Hey, I um, though maybe you could teach me how to bake cookies?"

"Now?" Regina wrinkles her brow.

And okay, it's kind of late, but Emma just couldn't sleep. Always has a hard time sleeping on Christmas Eve. For some reason she thought that tonight, without Henry, Regina might be the same. But she clearly isn't and...Emma turns to leave again.

"Emma?" And if there's an urgency in Regina's voice, well Emma must be imagining it.

"You might as well come in I suppose."

Emma smiles widely as the door closes behind her.

~

They end up in the kitchen, which makes sense since Emma's here under the pretense of learning how to bake.

Not that she doesn't want to learn.

"I brought egg nog?" And somehow it's a question.

"I don't believe I've ever had that dear." 

"Really? Oh, it's totally a Christmas drink!" And Emma eagerly accepts the glasses that Regina hands to her.

She pours the nog into the glasses, topping each one with a generous amount of rum.

"Rum?" Regina frowns.

"What?"

Regina scoffs, "a gift from your pirate?"

"What, ew, no. You just...I dunno I always drink egg nog with rum. Try it." And Emma slides Regina's glass toward her.

Regina takes a small sip, and offers Emma a small smile. "It's quite nice."

"Yeah?" Emma says with a sigh of relief.

And Emma seems so pleased that she has done something right for once that Regina can't help but respond more vehemently than perhaps (and she's never tell Miss Swan this) she really feels. "Very nice, dear." And she drains the glass.

"You can have more!" Emma says with a proud little grin.

They're three glasses in, and both pleasantly tipsy, by the time they start baking.

~

Baking is, to be frank, a disaster.

To start with, Emma manages to drop the bag of flour, and it explodes with a puff of aerated white, coating the kitchen and both of them in the process.

"Regina," Emma gasps, "I'm so sorry!"

And Regina just shakes her head.

When they get to the icing Emma, and Regina has no clue how she manages this, gets icing everywhere. All over her hands and face and mouth. 

Okay, so maybe Regina can guess how it got in Emma's mouth.

Why is she still staring at Emma's mouth?

She really needs to stop staring.

~

Finally, finally the cookies are in the oven. The shapes a little less perfect than normal but somehow still...better. Just having another person there for the process, Regina is...content.

They retire to the living room, and to the flickering of the fire.

They both end up side by side, sitting on the floor beside the fire, because the temperature has dropped, it looks like it might snow after all, and they were so distracted by baking that it didn't occur to them to turn of the heat.

They've turned it up now though, and they're waiting.

"You have," and Regina leans forward, brushing her lips against Emma's forehead like it's the most natural thing in the world. "A little bit of icing right there." Her lips brush again and Emma's eyes flutter shut in pure pleasure. 

Regina's barely touching her but it's just, somehow, perfect.

"Also," and Regina's hands are traveling down her body, brushing over her shirt and breasts and thighs and jeans. "Flour."

And Emma leans forward to suck off a clump of icing that has somehow found its way to Regina's neck.

"So good," Emma manages to pant out, as Regina rubs her knuckles along the seam of her jeans. 

"You had some flour there," Regina states with the slightest slur.

"Uh huh," Emma squirms closer. 

The oven timer beeps, and before Emma can open her eyes again Regina is gone.

~

It's Christmas morning and she wakes up to the weight of a teenage boy bouncing on her mattress. "C'mon Emma, get up!"

And she blinks the room into bleary focus. And yep, it's the loft. Did last night happen?

But she can't focus on that too much, because her teenage son is dragging her out of bed, whether she wants it or not.

She stumbles into the kitchen, just as discombobulated as the morning before.

Except this time?

This time she's not surprised to see Regina.

And she grins wildly as she sits on the same stool as yesterday and Regina slides her a place of waffles and bacon and eggs.

"Merry Christmas," Regina says somewhat shyly, as she hands Emma a fork, fingers lingering against her wrist.

"Merry Christmas, Regina." Emma smiles. And holds back her laughter as she catches sight of the mark where she sucked icing off Regina's neck.

Christmas is this: food, and time with your kid, and bonding with his adoptive mother. Christmas is your first real gift ever, a cookie shaped like a candy cane with your name traced on it so that you know it's just for you. Christmas is freshly baked cookies, which smell an awful lot like joy.