Riley's comfortable in the kitchen, but then he was always in there with his Nana. First it was because he wanted to be the one to get the warm cookies from the oven or a spoonful of ice cream from the maker, still soft and not quite frozen. Later he just liked to help her out, see her smile at him and tell him what a good boy he was. By the time he was fifteen, Riley just got caught up in the stories that went with the things she was making. And like anybody with an appreciative audience, his Nana would tell him how she learned to make the pot roast or the spaghetti sauce, and told him the secret to her spinache souffle was fresh nutmeg in the mix.
Tonight he's making cornbread in the pan he remembers from her kitchen.
The pan arrived in the mail a few days ago in a box filled with wadded newspapers and a padded envelope. The letter was written in Nana's scrawling handwriting, addressed to her Riley-boy, and he had to lock himself in the bathroom so Xander wouldn't get all worked up at seeing him cry over the whole thing. It wasn't too bad until he found the pack of papers and notecards tied up with kitchen string and realized she'd sent him her recipes. Each one had a little note on the back or at the bottom, but they were all the stories she used to tell him condensed down into a line or two. He shuffled through every single one of them and his life came flickering back at him in snapshots of memories.
Her recipe cards are guidelines instead of measurements, but it doesn't matter. He's seen her make it all so many times, stood there and stirred or whisked or flipped things over when she said to. He doesn't need numbers to know "a little bit of the grease" translates to just so much bacon cooked up in that cast iron skillet. He doesn't need to know how much corn meal or how much buttermilk; it all comes together fine in the bowl. As he mixes, Riley hears Nana in his head telling him about the time Pop tried to make cornbread himself and burned it all up, or the first time she served it to her mother in law and got the woman to admit it was as good as her own.
Xander wanders in, cautious but drawn by the smell. Since the package arrived, Riley's been quiet and Xander's been fretting about it. Best he could seem to do to make things better was keep the bed warm and spoon up in the middle of the night, and not say anything at all. He gets that the grief is more than just Riley's grandmother passing away, but he doesn't know how to explain that he gets it. So he walks on eggshells and tries not to let that get in the way of things either.
"So... Betty Crocker's finally possessed you and you're going to bake me an irresistibly evil cake?" Xander asks as he looks at the bowls on the counter and in the sink. "Brilliant plan, by the way. No man can resist cake. Not even evil cake."
Riley grins despite himself. It's the first smile he's had in days, and even with the regret he feels that his Nana never met Xander, never got to see who it was who made her Riley-boy feel as completely loved as he did with her, he can't let that continue to keep hold. Nana would have hated to see him that way. And he knows she would have loved Xander, would have understood that sometimes the best things don't come from following some exactly written recipe. Some things are just better when you improvise.