Following the Recipe

Spaghetti – it had to be the easiest, most fool proof meal out there to make that still was tasty. No one could mess it up. Just boil some water, drop in some noodles, and heat up the sauce. Toss a premixed bag of salad into a bowl, bake some already seasoned, frozen garlic bread, and voila! Instant presto, bibbity bobbity boo. Buffy cooked a meal.

At least, that's what she had told herself to get psyched up before going to the grocery store. Typically, when she shopped, she hit up the prepackaged meal aisle. As far as she was concerned, the food poisoning route was not the best option one could pick to show someone how much they cared, but TV dinners and Hot Pockets only went so far, and she was determined to turn over a new leaf.

Now, she didn't have any grand illusions. There was no way in the world she could somehow magically turn into the next Martha Stewart or Julia Childs. For one, she was much too short, and, two, she knew her family and friends. If she learned to cook that well, that's all she'd do. She'd be relegated to the kitchen full time. They'd get her aprons and cookbooks for Christmas instead of CD's and sweaters, and, frankly, she did not look good in big, poofy hats. However, that didn't mean that she couldn't master the art of a good, home cooked meal, fake-out style. In her estimation, it only had to look like she made it. No one needed to know just how much she cheated to show them that they were special to her.

The only problem was that she was even more dangerous with a spatula than she was a screwdriver. Hell, even toast gave her major issues. No matter what she did, she always managed to burn even bread. Knowing that the setting could not be on the six – her toaster's highest setting, Buffy would turn it down to one and just simply keeping popping the toast down until it finished. Or, at least, that's what she told herself she would do. But then she would get distracted by the drips of her coffee filling the pot or by the ads in the morning paper, and, before she knew it, she had popped that piece of toast back in so many times, her kitchen was filled with smoke, and the fire department was knocking on her door yet again.

Okay, so maybe that was a slight exaggeration, but, as she perused row after row after row of pre-made spaghetti sauces lined up before her, Buffy felt more than a little out of her element. Who knew there were so many brands, flavors, and colors of sauce out there? Who knew there was even sauce that wasn't spaghetti or apple sauce? In light of the plethora of choices before her, she felt entitled to a little bit of hyperbole. At least compounding her failure as a cook was something familiar in a world that had suddenly gone upside down and topsy-turvy. It was all rather intimidating.

She had just started the time honored classic 'eeny meeny miney mo' when a voice – a not altogether unpleasant one either – interrupted and distracted her. Now, she'd never find out which jar caught the tiger by its toe and was forced to let it go.

"Please, whatever you do, do not buy canned spaghetti sauce."

Turning around with a ready smirk on her face, Buffy retorted, "well, then, I guess it's a good thing I'm looking at jars of sauce then, right?"

"You know what I mean."

Although his words were meant to sound perturbed, the stranger simply looked amused. And yummy. It was too bad they didn't bottle him, because, right then and there, Buffy decided that she'd buy the entire stock of tall, dark, and scrumptious stranger. But he, she wouldn't share. No, his goodness would be selfishly hoarded and enjoyed by her stomach and her stomach alone.

"I do," she finally relented after several seconds, responding to his statement, "but that doesn't mean that knowledge equals power. For a woman who can't cook, those jars of sauce over there," she nodded towards the discussed wares, "become a life… or reputation saver. At least, that's what I hope. Do not judge the less fortunate when it comes to kitchen bestowed stills and talent. I'm twenty-three, and I've already blown up several microwaves."

Mr. Lickable chuckled. "Really, sauces aren't that hard. It's all about experimentation and tasting. I'm sure, with the proper tutor, you'd be a whiz in the kitchen in no time."

Maybe it was the fluorescent lights… which no one was supposed to look good under but he did. Perhaps it was the late night hour and her wacky, left over nocturnal habits from her college days. Or, yet, it could have just been her natural predilection of turning even the most benign statement into something dirty and perverted. But, whatever it was, Buffy couldn't help but misconstrue the stranger's words, twisting them into extremely tempting offers of sexual rather than culinary satisfaction.

Playing along, she teased, "what, are you a pro?"

"No, I believe that cooking should be about the love of food, not about making money. While I enjoy it, I think that becoming a professional chef would somehow taint my gratification, cheapen it."

Not a single word out of his lips, delectable ones she couldn't help but notice, was carnal or seductive at face value, but Buffy found her heart rate increasing, her palms becoming sweaty, and her breathing becoming shallow anyway in an irrepressible response to the handsome man standing before her. It was insane. While she believed that she possessed a healthy libido, she was by no means a sex fiend. During her twenty-three years, she had been with several men, but they had all been serious boyfriends, and she didn't have one night stands. Sure, it had been a few months since the last time, but, as a modern woman, she knew how to… ease her frustration during the times between relationships. So, why she was reacting so strongly, so single-mindedly to a man, an albeit very attractive one, that she had never met before at 2:30 in the morning on a Tuesday, she had no idea whatsoever.

Before she could contemplate her rejoinder further, though, come up with something witty or flirtatious in response, the stranger continued to speak. "That doesn't mean, though, that I'm adverse to the idea of teaching someone else how to cook. Lessons between new friends sounds like a good way to get to know one another, if you ask me. Plus, it'd save you and whoever else you were planning on feeding from having to eat canned spaghetti sauce ever again."

"Trust me, with my friends and family, canned spaghetti sauce from me would be a huge upgrade from what they're used to being served, but sure," Buffy agreed, surprising herself with how readily she was accepting the man's offer. Despite the fact that they really were strangers, that she knew nothing about how besides his philosophy on cooking, she felt safe in his presence, comforted, like she already knew him despite the fact that, five minutes before, she would have been able to do nothing more than fantasize about his existence.

"I'd say that we could meet at my place, but I'm pretty sure you need more than just two pots and a single mixing bowl to become the next Top Chef."

He laughed again, and she felt a surge of feminine power rush through her at the knowledge that she could make him smile like that, that he enjoyed being in her presence so much. "That's fine. You can come to my place." Pulling out his cell phone from his pocket, he handed it to her, while, at the same time, held out his empty hand as he waited for her to reciprocate. She did so, and, as he talked, he plugged in his own information into her mobile. "We'll talk this week, figure out a date and time for your first lesson. Make sure you wear something less… clean, because some people say that a cook's greatness is in proportion to the size of the mess they make when they're in a kitchen."

"If that were true, then I'd be the one offering to teach you."

"We're not talking about the kind of mess left over from the spray of a fire extinguisher." Playfully pouting at his rib, Buffy glared at her spot-on accuser. "We're talking flour in your hair, egg yolk dripping down the counter, and food underneath your finger nails."

"Sounds sexy."

He winked at her before re-exchanging their cell phones and walking off. "By the way, my name's Angel."

"Buffy, and that, Emeril, has yet to be determined."

The sound of his laughter trailed behind him as he disappeared down the labyrinth of grocery aisles, most of which she had never braved before. Abandoning her endeavor, Buffy simply returned the few items she had already selected to the shelves and left the store. Her 'you matter to me' dinner would wait… at least until her friends and family wouldn't be forced to seek out those 'Mister Yuck' stickers she plastered the inside of her mother's cabinets with when she was six. For now, they'd stick to their take out and their boxed cereal, and, in the meantime, she could start planning her next meeting with Angel. Surely, it couldn't be that difficult to seduce and sauté at the same time, right?

If nothing else, she planned to find out one way or another, no matter what the culinary results might be.

% ~ %

"Sugar in spaghetti sauce," Buffy asked, disbelievingly. "It doesn't taste sweet?"

Contradicting her, Angel said, "doesn't it?"

"Well, not in the traditional sense," she huffed. "I mean, it's no cheese cake, it doesn't remind me of chocolate, and it definitely doesn't taste like marzipan."

Nudging her towards the stove where they had already dumped several cans of tomato sauce and paste into a large pan, Angel wondered out loud, "how does a girl who can't boil water know what marzipan is?"

"Hey, I only said I couldn't cook. There was nothing whatsoever said about my lack of eating abilities."

He laughed, picking up a wooden spoon and handing it to her. "Now, before we add anything else, I want you to see what this tastes like, so you can build from it in the future by yourself."

If it wasn't such a clichéd, 'I'm the next romantic comedy star' moment, then Buffy would have sworn that, as Angel passed the spoon to her, she felt sparks pass between them. Making sure that she hadn't accidentally lowered her sleeve into the burner flame, she dropped her gaze towards their touching fingers, but the range was where it was supposed to be as were their hands. Reacting reflexively, she pulled away from him, lamenting her instincts as soon as the loss of his touch registered in her brain.

Needing a distraction, she dropped her nose to the simmering pot and inhaled the scent of the still-in-progress sauce they were making. "It smells like tomatoes."

"It won't. And I said to taste it, not smell it."

"Look, when it comes to food, I have one basic rule. If it smells gross, looks gross, or sounds gross, then it probably is gross. I'm not eating that."

Chastising her, Angel complained, "Buffy…"

But she cut him off, holding up one single, objecting hand. "Before we go any further, there are a few things you need to know about me. One, I'm stubborn. I mean, we're talking trace back the lineage of the mule, and you'll find me as their first ancestor stubborn. When I make up my mind about something, call it a night, because there will be no changing of my brain's guards. Two, I'm picky. I like corn but only if it's off the cob, caramel is fine but only if it's sandwiched between enough chocolate and nugget to give Augustus Globe pause, and, while I'll dip my pretzels in honey-mustard, I don't like honey-mustard pretzels. And, finally, the fact that you want me to eat off of something that was made from a tree, well, that's just really not that appetizing."

For several seconds, Angel stared at her, no expression registering on his face. Finally, he broke his silence, a grin tugging at the corners of his mouth. "Typically, when I'm getting to know someone, I like to give them the basic facts about me before I bring out all of the neurosis, but, hey, whatever works for you. Me? Let's see… three weird things, huh?" Reaching for the previously debated sugar, he handed it to Buffy and gave her the measuring cups. "Well, one, I have this thing with pens where I will only use black ink. No blue, no red, and certainly no green. Just black." Standing behind her, he helped her measure out half a cup of sugar and dump it into their sauce. "Taste that, see if it's sweet enough for you, and, if not, add a little more sugar until you're happy with how it tastes." Releasing her and leaving Buffy feeling bereft, he went back to standing beside her. "Two, I'm ambidextrous. It's a quirk that definitely has its advantages." Remembering her aversion to wooden spoons, he grabbed a metal one for her before continuing. "And, finally, I iron - everything."

"Well, then, I guess you're the perfect, freaky cooking instructor for my frozen-food, freaky world. What's next?"

"Try the Italian seasoning."

% ~ %

Dropping her purse and keys onto Angel's entryway table, Buffy yelled out in greeting towards her new friend, "alright, my own personal Bob Knight of the cooking world, what's on the menu for tonight."

As Angel rounded the corner to meet her at his front door, she nearly squealed in delight when she saw him dressed casually in a pair of shorts and a tank top. Granted, she would have preferred that he had even less on, but beggars couldn't be choosers, and his toned arms alone would be enough fodder to last her erotic dreams for months. "We're grilling."

"Isn't that a waste of time, though," she argued. "I mean, someday, whenever I settle down, my husband will want to prove his manliness by crowning himself our street's grill master. If I know how to use one, too, that'll just be redundant."

"Are you engaged?"

"No, not currently, but it's time to call in Tevye yet either."

Chuckling at her pouting countenance, Angel replied, "well, for now, you'll thank me. Besides, even if we men like to prove our masculinity with our grill skills, nothing impresses a guy more than a woman who can make a mean steak."

"Somehow, I highly doubt that."

Leading her towards the back of his house and out onto the deck where he already had the grill and a platter of meat sitting and waiting for her to break and massacre them, respectively, Angel insisted, "surely, there's someone in your life now who would appreciate a grilled pork chop or the perfect cheeseburger?"

As she tied her apron, Buffy admitted, "Dawn - that's my little sister, she loves cheeseburgers, and, since our mom passed away, she's been forced to go to fast food joints to get her regular fixes. And then there's Giles. He's all about the barbeque sauce… which is strange, when I think about it, because I never associate barbeques with stuffy British dudes."

"Giles," Angel questioned, and, if she didn't know better, she would have sworn that she heard a note of jealousy in her cooking tutor's voice. But surely….

"Oh, Giles, he's my… Well, he's…" Buffy really didn't know how to describe the older man. He had been in her life for so long and meant so many different things to her that it was quite impossible to pin a simple descriptive title upon him. There was no word to explain just how much he meant to her. Shrugging, she admitted, "I guess you could say that he's my everything, you know? In fact, he's who I was wanting to cook for that night when you found me in the store. Yeah, my sister deserves a good meal, too, but she's also a teenager, so she'd probably just end up complaining about it anyway. Giles works so hard, and he's so selfless that I just wanted to do something really nice for him to show him just how much I care."

"I see," Angel said, his tone almost sounding curt. Although his sudden shift in attitude was disconcerting, Buffy soon forget about her bafflement as she struggled to grill and not ruin the food before her. Time passed quickly, the food eventually finished, stored away, and the dishes washed, and, before she knew it, she as out the door and on her way home, plans for the next week's lesson already set. As she pulled away from Angel's house, her curiosity towards his earlier behavior was already forgotten.

% ~ %

There was a question that Buffy had wanted to ask Angel since the moment he offered to give her cooking lessons, but she had been hesitant to bring it up. Not only did she want to keep their interaction loose and fun, but she didn't want to make him feel cornered or under a microscope, but three weeks in and after watching his behavior towards her shift dramatically from flirtatious to almost brotherly, she was at her wits end. She needed an answer, the consequences be damned.

Initially, going in, she had believed their arrangement was just an elaborate dating ruse. She would go over to his place a couple of times, she'd pretend to be learning how to cook, but more smooching would be going on than slicing, and, rather than worrying about if she would know all the cooking tools and supplies Angel referred to while she was with him, she'd be concerned with getting a bikini wax and making sure that her birth control was up to date. Eventually, make outs against the fridge would turn into dates where Angel would cook her dinner and then she'd let him ravish her on the kitchen table for dessert. Sadly, her expectations, though, had not materialized, and, while her dreams might have become just that much more elaborate and satisfying, her reality was downright frigid in comparison.

So, as Angel helped her mix up his special Mac N' Cheese which had more ingredients than she had parking tickets, a recipe his mother passed down to him, she ventured into uncharted, dangerous waters and plunged right in. "You know, you never did tell me what made you take pity on me all those weeks ago and offer up your expertise cooking services."

He shrugged a lone shoulder in response, the gesture dismissive and nonchalant. "Why not? I can cook, well I'd like to think, you couldn't, and you seemed nice enough. I really didn't think you were a knife burglar set on getting an invitation to my house so you could make off with my precious cooking tools."

"No, really," she pressed him, "I'm being serious." And she was. She wanted him to say that he asked her as a means to get her number, so he could seduce her with nothing on but an apron and have a legitimate excuse for such a lame getup, that he figured tit for tat and that a way to a woman's heart was through her stomach, too.

"So am I," Angel insisted instead, making Buffy emotionally deflate. "A guy can never have too many friends, and you were funny. Now, finish up that Mac N' Cheese, because we have several more casseroles to make tonight. One successful dish does not make you a casserole specialist, Summers."

"Yeah, yeah," she joked back, but her heart wasn't in it, and, for the rest of the night, Buffy simply went through the motions, following Angel's directions but uncaring whether or not her lessons were fruitful.

% ~ %

Buffy had been curious as to why Angel wanted her to meet him so early that Saturday afternoon. Typically, her lessons were at night which made her absence easier to explain to her family and friends. As she walked through the door, though, and entered his kitchen, all her doubts evaporated when she saw what had to be the biggest turkey in the history of all turkeys waiting for her on her tutor's table. It was the Paul Bunyan of poultry, the Jolly Green Giant of Thanksgiving symbols, the feathered version of the Hulk.

"What? Is? That?"

"Every chef needs to know how to cook a turkey."

"Yeah, I got that much, but what the hell was the farmer feeding that thing? Steroids? Spinach? Other smaller turkeys?"

Teasing her, Angel asked, "are you saying you can't handle it?"

"Oh, I can take everything Tyrannosaurus Tom has to dish out and then some, but what are we going to do with all the meat once he's completely roasted?"

"I'll keep some, you'll take some home like always, and I thought we'd send the rest…"

"You mean most of it," she corrected him helpfully, mockingly.

"… to one of the local homeless shelters. They can never have too much food donated."

"Oh," she replied, somewhat contritely. "That's a really nice idea."

"I thought so."

They fell into silence as they began to work, easily falling into the routine they had formed over the past few weeks. Together, they moved fluidly throughout Angel's kitchen, both of them reaching up for and bending down for the various instruments they would need for that day's lesson. As they rummaged, they allowed the noise of the rustled and moved pots and pans to fill the otherwise quiet room until it was Angel who broke the stillness with a question.

"So, what does your sister think of you taking cooking lessons?"

"I don't know," Buffy revealed. "I haven't told her."

Suddenly stopping his actions, Angel looked at her. "Does anybody know about you coming here?"

"No, I wanted to keep it to myself. When I've officially graduated from Angel's School of Culinary Awesomeness, I plan on cooking them this giant celebratory dinner and surprising them. Between you and me, I'm hoping they'll think that I just sort of woke up with the talent, but I don't think I'll be that lucky. That'd be like Yosemite Sam suddenly capturing and killing the Road Runner every single time they faced off. Never gonna happen."

"Where do they think you're at then this afternoon?"

"Christmas shopping," Buffy answered. "I know it's early, because most people don't start until after Thanksgiving, but, as long as the malls are decorated and the muzak stations are set to carols, I'll immerse myself into the holiday hoopla."

"And me?"

Screwing up her face in confusion, Buffy parroted, "you what?"

"Do they know about me?"

She laughed. "Definitely not. If I told them about you, I'd have to explain how we met, and, if I explained how we met, I'd have to go into why I'm suddenly spending all my Saturdays with some stranger I ran into at the grocery store. That wouldn't work well for my ambitious, ambush dinner plans."

"Oh," he said quietly, too quietly in Buffy's opinion. If she didn't, at that point, believe him to be hurt, she definitely would have after she heard his next comment. "You still consider us strangers?"

"No," she was quick to reassure him. "Absolutely not." Turning to face him, Buffy allowed herself to reach out and grasp one of Angel's hands in her own. "We're friends, definitely friends. If I said something to make you think that I…"

"It's fine," he reassured her quickly, releasing her hand to busy himself with the task before them. "We're fine." Clearing his throat, he changed the subject. "So, how do you feel about sticking your arm up a turkey's ass?"

% ~ %

They were seated across from each other the next weekend at Angel's kitchen table, busy peeling, chopping, and slicing various kinds of vegetables and fruits. There were carrots and apples, potatoes and peaches, fresh peas to shell and cranberries to process, and, so far, she had only managed to cut herself just once. Buffy was pretty impressed, and, luckily, for Angel being the macho, I don't get hurt and even if I did I would brush off my pain in an annoying display of raw testosterone guy that he was didn't have any band-aids, she had come prepared. They were pink and neon, and, if she stared at it on her finger long enough, Buffy swore she would get a migraine.

"You know, you never told me how you learned to cook. Not to be sexist, but it's not something most men can do… or so says Cosmo."

Without glancing up from his work but, yet, at the same time, keeping the mood between them relaxed and comfortable, Angel launched into his past. "My mom married young, and, in her own words, stupidly. Before she realized my dad was the biggest mistake of her life, though, she already had me. She left him anyway, and it was just the two of us while I was growing up. Coming from a big, Irish family, she was used to everyone sitting around the dinner table at night together, sharing a meal, and, even though it was just the two of us, she didn't want to let go of the tradition. So, we just added to it, and I would help her cook every night before we sat down to eat together.

"When you're young, you just pick up on things easier, faster, so, before I knew it, I could cook anything without actually learning how to. I guess I wouldn't have to cook now as much as I do, especially since I live alone, but I find it relaxing, and my mom's always sending me new recipes that she finds for me to try. We'll both make them, try them, and then compare notes. Even though she still lives back out east, it's a way for us to remain close, and, like I've told you before, I enjoy cooking, so why not, right? What about you," Angel asked, nodding his head in her direction. "Why can't you cook… seeing as how most women can… or so says Cosmo?"

Buffy giggled. "You read Cosmo?"

"Every week," he said. "I never miss an issue."

"It's a monthly magazine."

Teasing her and without missing a beat, her cooking tutor replied, "well, the one you read might be."

Rolling her eyes in amusement, Buffy let the joke drop to answer her friend's inquiry. "My mom cooked when I was growing up, but she didn't really enjoy it, and it wasn't an every night thing. After my dad left her, she worked a lot of hours to support Dawn and I, so she didn't always have the time to make dinner. We'd either fend for ourselves, eat at our friends', or she'd pick up take out on her way home. By the time I realized that she never taught me how to cook, it was too late; she was already gone."

"And your sister?"

"Dawn," Buffy questioned, snorting derisively. "Don't get me wrong, I love my baby sister, but patience is definitely not one of her virtues. She can't sit still long enough to let her toenails dry after I paint them for her. Forget learning how to cook."

"Well, maybe she'll change her mind when she sees you doing it."

"Even if you'd never told me, that statement alone just proved that you're an only child."

% ~ %

She was elbow deep in bread dough when her eyes started to water and she started to sneeze. At first, Buffy thought that it might have just been some flour dust in the air, but, when the sudden allergy attack wouldn't let up, she knew it to be something else, something more. Reaching up to rub her nose, she inadvertently got dough on her face. When she instinctively went to wipe it off with her other hand, she simply smeared it all over her face, making both her reaction to the batter even worse and her appearance downright laughable. By the time Angel returned to the kitchen from the bathroom, she was a sniffling, sneezing, swearing mess.

"I leave you alone for two minutes, Summers, and this is what I come back to."

"Shut up and help me," she ordered him, none too amused, but her surely attitude did nothing to diminish Angel's enjoyment of her predicament.

Once she was all cleaned off but still miserable, he said, "you must be allergic to the live yeast."

"But I eat bread," she argued.

"Yeah, but the yeast isn't alive anymore once it's baked."

"You keep saying alive, as if it's not a food but some kind of animal," Buffy pointed out, feeling relieved when Angel took the bowl of bread dough away and simply put it in the fridge, away and out of her sight and area of reaction.

"Well, that's because it basically is. Yeast is a fungus, a micro-organism. What, did you not only sleep through home-ec but biology as well?"

"That's totally irrelevant right now," she playfully snapped. "You just told me that I eat fungus on a daily basis. If I didn't have twenty-three years of eating and enjoying bread already under my belt, I'd never touch the stuff again."

"Not all bread has yeast in it," Angel reassured her, already reaching for another mixing bowl. "All the various fruit, dessert breads don't, so we'll focus on them instead."

"Hello, sweet implies sugar. Why you didn't automatically just relegate us to that area of your baking expertise, I'll never know."

As they set to work mixing up batches of zucchini bread, banana bread, cranberry-orange bread, and apple bread, Angel asked, "how did you not know you were allergic to live yeast until today? I mean, I met you in a grocery story. They're always using it in the bakery."

"Yes, you met me in a grocery store… during the middle of the night when the bakery's closed. I don't think I've ever gone to the grocery store during the day, and, if I did, I've totally blocked the experience from my memory."

"Ah," he remarked, "so that's why I've never met a pretty girl there before. Are you telling me that all beautiful women go to the store late at night?"

While, on one hand, she realized that Angel had just given her not one but two compliments about her looks, on the other, Buffy was jealous - irrationally, blindly, insanely jealous over the fact that he was asking her about other women, other pretty, beautiful women, so, reacting accordingly, she cattily commented, "only the non-anorexic ones which, in this day and age, leaves about three women – me, myself, and I."

But Angel didn't seem to pick up on the intrusion of the green-eyed monster into their conversation. Instead, he kept working on his damn bread, exasperating her even more. How a man could be so blind to a woman who was pretty much head over heels in love with him, she'd never know. Perhaps all the yeast, over the years, had gone to and affected his brain… or some other discerning member of his anatomy.

% ~ %

Buffy liked making pies. Yes, they were a tedious dessert to start and finish, but there was an artistry about them, and, if nothing else could be said about her, her sense of style kicked ass. Apparently, that applied to how she designed the lattice work on pies as well, because her nine-inch circle of goodness made Angel's look like child's play.

With just a couple weeks left before Christmas, they were finishing off their lessons with desserts, and she was certainly not about to object to Angel's time table… at least, the desserts part of it. The fact that their lessons were soon going to end, well, that she most certainly didn't agree with, but she didn't know how to change his mind. Sure, he said that they would still be friends afterwards. They'd get together and have dinner once a month, or they could even go grocery shopping together if she wanted, but never once did his post-instructions suggestions veer towards the romantic or the date-like. Quickly, she was running out of time, and Buffy didn't know what to do.

While it was passé, she was at the end of the line and willing to try anything, so, during the course of that evening, she planned on seducing Angel through conversation, through showing him just how much she was interested by asking about his life and then listening to him as he talked about it. He already knew so much about her or so it seemed, and all she knew about him were those first three facts he shared with her all those weeks ago and why he both learned how to and enjoyed cooking. Hell, she didn't even know what he did for a living.

"You know, I feel like such a toad, but I just realized that, during all these weeks, you've bought every single ingredient we used, and we've used a lot of ingredients. You're going to have to figure out how much you spent, so I can reimburse you."

"Buffy, I didn't offer to give you cooking lessons so that you would buy my groceries."

"I know that," she reassured him, "but I also know that you've done more cooking this past month and a half than any one person could eat in an entire year."

"Trust me, I'm fine. I don't want your money, just you friendship."

"You say that, but I still don't even know what you do for a living. How do I know that you're not skipping out on naughty magazines and porn to pay for my rather late attempt to fix one of my many inadequacies?"

"Please, I'd sacrifice electricity to keep my porn."

"Ah, but then how would you watch it?"

Laughing good-naturedly, Angel finally got around to answering her initial question, and she loved the fact that there was not an ounce of uneasiness between them at such an explicit sexual reference. Maybe that was because she knew for a fact that Angel didn't own either naughty magazines or porn, but, still, the easy repartee was fun, nice. As for how she knew of his status as a naked woman ogling free household? So what if she snooped around his place a little. Snooping was a woman's right, her prerogative. If she wouldn't have snooped just a little, she would have been disappointing and letting down her entire gender.

"I own and run my own business, Buffy. I do quite well for myself."

Curious, she pressed, "what kind of business?"

"Do you know that art supply store down town?" She nodded her head in affirmation, showing him she knew which business he was referencing. "That's mine. I moved out here after high school to go to college. Majored in art, graduated, and couldn't make a living selling my work, so I had to find another way to both support myself and paint. At first, I just worked at the store, but, when the old owner decided to retire, I offered to buy the business off of her. Now, all these years later, here I am, well enough off to both teach you how to cook and keep myself stocked in Penthouse and Playboy. It's a hard life, but somebody has to live it."

"Very funny," she rolled her eyes. She wanted to tease him about the fact that he was an artist and she had still kicked his ass when it came to designed the lattice work for their pies, but, rather, she focused on the lead-in he had offered her concerning his age. While she had been forthright about the fact that she was twenty-three, Angel had been mysterious when it came to how old he was. She knew that he was older than she, but what she didn't know was just how much so. "Speaking of all those years, just how many exactly are we talking about here? I mean, graduating college would have put you at twenty-two, a few years trying to sell your art and working at the store for the old owner would put you at around twenty-five, so what I want to know is how old are you now?"

Gazing at her carefully, Angel seemed to be looking inside of her, sizing her up before he finally answered. "I'm thirty. I'm thirty, and I'm single, and I'm sick of it," he informed her. "When you asked me before why I offered to give you cooking lessons, I lied. Yes, everything that I said was the truth, but there was more to my actions than just friendship and the love of food. Like I said, I'm sick of being alone, you made me laugh, I was attracted to you, and I was trying to pick you up. Seeing as how I didn't, maybe that should tell me why I'm still single."

While she had been hoping for a little honesty when it came to his age, Buffy had not been ready for him to be quite so honest about so many things. Yes, he had told her what she had wanted to hear, but, now that she had heard it, she didn't know how to respond, how to act, or what to say, so, instead, she didn't. Rather, she simply dropped her gaze back to her pie, focused on her cooking, and decided to regroup for another day, another lesson. After all, they were baking cookies the next week - all day, in fact, to prepare for the holidays. Surely, she'd be able to come up with something to say by then.

She hoped.

Perhaps she should email Santa an amendment to her previously sent wish list. Buffy had a feeling she was going to need all the help she could get to untangle the bewildering mess she suddenly found herself in.

% ~ %

Seven days.

Seven days, and, still, Buffy had no idea as to how she was going to unravel the mystery that was her relationship with her cooking tutor. He had offered to give her lessons because he was interested in her, and she had accepted his gracious offer because she was interested in him, but, now, here they were, nearly two months later, and the closest thing they had shared to a kiss was accidentally using the same fork to taste the chicken tortellini casserole with once a long few weeks before. She was confused, somewhat irrationally bitter that Angel had, evidently, changed his mind towards and about her, and mad at herself for not taking the bull by the horns weeks ago and making a move on him before things became tense and weird.

Needing answers but lacking any sense of decorum or tact whatsoever, she simply delved into the issue. Mouth full of chocolate cookie dough batter, she asked, "so, why didn't you ask me out then? Why'd you change your mind?"

Chuckling, Angel replied, "what was that? I couldn't hear you around all the tooth decay and salmonella poisoning going on inside your mouth."

Swallowing, she glared. "Not amused. You know exactly what I said, and do not attempt to ruin my first real taste of chocolate chip cookie dough since long before my mom died. Suddenly, I feel fourteen and carefree again, like I just got home from school after having a really bad day, and my mom greeted me with a bowl full of cookie dough, two spoons, a box of Kleenexes, and An Affair to Remember."

Busying himself by dropping tablespoons of dough onto the baking sheets, Angel responded, "I don't know."

"Nope, sorry. I don't buy it. Try again, please."

Suddenly angry, she watched as he tossed the spoon away and spun around to face her. "Damn it, Buffy. You know exactly why I didn't ask you out."

"I do?"

"Yes. I have three words for you: 'he's my everything.'"

Avoiding his gaze as her mind skittered about, attempting to put the pieces together and solve the puzzle that was Angel's romantic reluctance, Buffy searched her memory for a reference to whatever it was Angel was talking about. Going back through all their past conversations, she finally landed upon the answer. "Giles."

"Of course, Giles, Buffy," he yelled. "I don't know about all the other guys you know, but I don't make it a habit to ask out girls who already have a boyfriend."

Repeating herself despite the fact that she knew she must sound like an imbecile, she said once more, "Giles?"

"As if this moment wasn't embarrassing enough, do you really have to keep saying his name?"

"No," she said, shoving her cookie dough away. "I don't have to."

Suddenly, she had no appetite, but that wasn't a shocker. Considering the words Giles and boyfriend in the same thought would be enough to turn her off of food for life. Buffy just couldn't believe that Angel actually thought that she was romantically involved with Giles. He was her father figure, a surrogate favorite uncle, her best friend, her caregiver and support system when her mother passed away, the crazy, old, stuffy British dude who made her laugh, but her boyfriend, her lover? Absolutely not! But how to tell Angel that he was wrong, how to make him see that, since the night she met him, the only man she had been able to think about at all was him? She couldn't just say the words. No, for this, it was time for her to bring out the big guns; it was time for the grand, romantic gesture. She just had to figure out what exactly that would be first.

% ~ %

Maybe she and Angel weren't such the dynamic duo in the kitchen. While Buffy was still convinced they could be life-altering together as a couple in the bedroom, they had closed their two month long weekly instructions with a burnt monstrosity of a red velvet cake. After announcing that it would be their final lesson, Angel had seemed distracted, and she had been living inside of her own head since the week before when she figured out that he was, in fact, interested in her but believed her to be unavailable, so, by the time the smoke detectors went off, the cake had been past the point of no return, and they had simply thrown away the frosting they had made while waiting for it to bake. Tossing the frosting without tasting it was probably a good idea, too, because Buffy was pretty sure, upon retrospection, that she had put in flour instead of powdered sugar. However, she didn't share that tiny morsel of embarrassment with her tutor.

Walking towards Angel's front door with him following closely behind her, she remained silent, a distant plan starting to form in her mind. The next day would be December 23rd, her last day of work before the holidays, and Buffy was determined that she would spend Christmas and New Years with everybody she loved, and that list now included Angel... whether he knew it or not.

Slipping on her shoes, she turned to her friend and would be lover and said, "I hope my disastrous cooking gene didn't rub off on you."

Distractedly, he replied, "I think it's just the oven. I'm going to have a repair guy come out and look at it tomorrow. The thermostat might need adjusted… or something."

"Yeah, or something," she agreed, though Buffy knew for a fact that it wasn't the oven that was broken. Instead, it was them.

"Well, thanks, you know, for teaching me how to cook. My friends and family thank you, too, though they just don't know it yet, for saving them from a lifetime of Miss Callender's pot pies and Campbell's canned soup."

"You – and they – are all welcome, Buffy."

Reaching for the door knob, she offered, "so, I guess I'll see you around then?"

"Yeah."

"Merry Christmas, Angel."

Smiling wistfully, he returned, "happy holidays, Buffy."

And then she was outside, and the door was shut in her face.

% ~ %

Angel was surly and brooding that morning as he got ready for work. While neither the emotion nor the behavior was foreign to him, he tried to keep his bad moods to himself and away from his place of business. There was no need to subject his customers to his animosity, but, nevertheless, as he dressed and skipped breakfast that morning – the thought of going into the kitchen making him nearly nauseas, he couldn't help how he felt.

Despite the fact that it was painful to be around Buffy while knowing that she was with someone else, he knew that it would be easier to have her in his life as his friend than not at all. For two months, he had looked forward all week to their Saturday cooking lessons, but stupidly, naively, selfishly he had put an abrupt stop to them the night before. There were so many other things he could teach Buffy to make, but, instead of prolonging the agony of being near her but not with her, he had cut their relationship short, sending her practically packing out his life despite their promises to stay in touch.

As he had shut the door on her the evening before, he had seen the pain and disappointment written plainly across her beautiful, shining face, but he had been unable to change his mind, to open the door and his heart back up, and welcome her return with a smile and quick quip. If he couldn't have her as his girlfriend, as his lover, then he didn't want her at all. When he loved somebody, he loved all of them, and he couldn't handle Buffy not returning his feelings to the same depth and sincerity.

Trudging down the stairs and into his foyer, he slipped on his coat and shoes, picked up his keys, and went to leave only to open the front door and discover a cupcake on his welcome mat. Frosted red with white detailing, there was the letter 'I' on it. Noticing that there were more cupcakes across his front porch, down his stairs, and then across his sidewalk, Angel didn't pick the first one up. Instead, he followed the trail, compiling the list of letters until words and sentences started to form. Finally, he reached the last miniature cake only to find it held in a pair of hands he knew better than he knew his own.

"So, what do you think?"

"About what," he prodded her, needing her to be explicit.

"About what I said," Buffy answered.

"But you didn't say it," Angel countered. "You spelled it."

He chuckled as Buffy huffed in frustration before complaining, "you know, you really know how to kill the mood. Talk about ruining a girl's big, romantic gesture."

"Just say it, Buffy," he begged her. "Please."

Finally, she relented. "I'm not dating Giles. I want to date you."

Without replying and surprising her, he picked her up, the cupcake she held in her hands falling to the ground to rest among the others. Squealing part in delight and part in disbelief, she asked him, "what are you doing?"

"What does it look like I'm doing," he queried rhetorically. "I'm carrying you over the threshold."

"But this isn't our house together, and we're not married."

"Yet," was all he would say in return.

Although Buffy did not retort, she colored prettily, and he knew she wasn't adverse to the idea he was, in a roundabout way, proposing. "But what about all my cupcakes that I made for you? I slaved over a hot stove last night, mister, baking those for your ungrateful ass."

"And I appreciate the gesture, but I'm not a big fan of sweets. You know that."

"Yes, but I am."

"Hey, I just managed to catch you after all this time. I don't want you going and eating up everything in sight, getting fat on me already." Before she could protest, before she could pinch, or poke, or punch him in angry response, he added, "let's wait a few years for that when you're pregnant with my child."

Quickly, her mood shifted back and, in reward, she bestowed him with a kiss upon his cheek. Pulling away, she pouted, "but I'm hungry now."

"And I just realized that I forgot one very important cooking lesson." Without waiting for her to complain that she really wasn't in the mood to cook, Angel pressed on, "you're not a proper cook until you've mastered the art of a very, very, very late breakfast in bed."

As he kicked the door shut behind him, Angel smirked, for what was going to be on that breakfast menu had yet to be determined.