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Strawberries and Chocolate

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Flour, soft and white. Sugar. Eggs. Vanilla. Cinnamon. Even years after the war's end, Ana still found these things luxurious: all the baking ingredients she could possibly want, available at inexpensive prices, of no particular difficulty to obtain.

It gave her the freedom to experiment, to blend the rich, layered tortes and fluffy pastries of her youth with the heavy cakes and cookies of America's less refined palate. Edwin did most of the daily cooking, which she appreciated, but Ana truly loved exploring what Howard's state-of-the-art kitchen could produce.

She had been waiting for the spiced, layered cake to cool on its rack for upwards of an hour now, tapping her fingers on the table while she attempted to read a lady's magazine. It was not holding her interest today. She put it aside after a fourth attempt at reading an article on a new style of hair-braiding, and touched the backs of her fingers to the upturned cake.

It was surely cool enough to serve.

She cut two slices, still gently warm, and put each one on its own plate with a strawberry and a drizzle of chocolate. Yes, she thought in satisfaction. It looked very nice indeed.

 

***

 

With a plate in each hand, Ana trekked down the stairs to Mr. Stark's extensive basement.

"Mrs. Jarvis?" Chief Sousa looked up from a crossword he was working, chin propped in one hand, the lamp above the table sending his shadow wavering out long across the floor. "You know, nobody's supposed to be down here except for Peggy and me. It's for your own safety."

"I know, Miss Carter said so earlier, but I did not think you would send me away when you see what I have brought," she declared, plunking a plate down in front of him.

"Oh, is that what smells so good?" He glanced at the other plate of cake balanced on her open hand. "Uh -- is that for --"

"It didn't seem fair to let her smell it, and not offer," Ana pointed out.

"Okay, yeah, well, just -- I need to look at it first, if that's all right? What've you got in here?"

"Just cake," Ana promised. "Cake and a fork."

"Hmmm." He gave the fork a critical look. "Do you have to give her a fork?"

"Well -- it's sticky, I didn't mean for her to eat it with her hands ..."

His look lingered on the fork; then he sighed. "Fine. Give her the fork. I just need to make sure we get back everything you put in her cell. And ... Mrs. Jarvis, be careful, and try not to listen to anything she says. Do you want me to come back there with you?"

"No no, not necessary," Ana promised him, and gave him a confident smile (more confident than she felt, honestly) before she took the plate of cake back to the corner of the basement where they were holding Dottie Underwood in an improvised cell.

It looked like they had used one of Mr. Stark's vaults, with the front blocked by a grid of iron bars rather than the usual vault door. Miss Underwood was lying on a makeshift bed on the floor, arms crossed under her head. She watched Ana approach, and rolled over to sit up.

"How nice! A visitor."

"Don't forget, I'm listening to every word you say back there," Chief Sousa called indistinctly through a mouthful of cake.

"And an audience," Miss Underwood remarked wryly; something flashed on her face, there and gone before Ana could read it. Miss Underwood scooted forward to the front of the cell and held out her hands through the bars. "What's that you have there? Is it for me? How did you know it's my birthday?"

"Um ... it's your birthday? I -- I had no idea." Ana's courage faltered, and she hung back, out of reach, clutching the plate of cake in both hands. Could she grab me? Hurt me? She'd felt sorry for Miss Underwood, locked up in this dismal place. Now she was acutely aware of how thin those bars really were.

"News to me too," Chief Sousa remarked.

"Oh, don't be afraid." Miss Underwood tilted her head to the side, ignoring him, all her attention on Ana. "I'm all locked up. Couldn't hurt a fly. My, but that cake does smell good. How very sweet of you!"

"I've heard many stories about you," Ana said. "You have hurt more than flies." But ... Chief Sousa was right over there, and he had a gun on his hip. Cautiously, she leaned forward just far enough to set the plate in Miss Underwood's extended hands.

Miss Underwood smiled and, with a careful, almost theatrical flourish, she separated her hands and brought the plate through the gap in the bars; it just fit. "Oh, but I wouldn't hurt you. You've brought me birthday cake. Ooh, and with a fork too! I'm surprised my lovely jailor didn't confiscate it."

"Thought about it," Chief Sousa called over. "I decided not to, provided we get that fork back. If we don't, you're eating all your meals with your hands from now on."

"Oh, yes sir, by all means." Leaning forward, Miss Underwood whispered, "I won't be in here long enough to worry about that."

"I am not here to help you escape," Ana whispered back hastily. "Just in case there was any mistake. I did not bake a file into the cake, or anything of the sort."

"Oh, I know. But don't worry." She winked. "I'll remember that you helped me when I get out. I never forget anyone who brings me cake."

Ana looked up at the iron grate, the bars set securely into the sides of the vault. "How are you going to escape? Though ... no, what a foolish question; of course you wouldn't tell me."

"No, I'm afraid not." Miss Underwood scooped up a forkful of cake, and extended it through the bars. "Here, for you."

Ana looked at her in confusion.

"Oh, my dear," Miss Underwood said, holding out the fork invitingly. "As much as I appreciate the gift, you should take the first bite. How else will I know that Peggy and friends haven't convinced you to put something in it -- sleeping pills, say, or arsenic?"

"I wouldn't do anything of the sort!"

"I trust you, but of course one can't be too trusting." Miss Underwood offered a winning smile -- her lips were painted very bright red, an echo of Miss Carter's favorite color -- and extended the fork a bit farther. "Would it hurt?"

"Well ... I suppose not." Ana took a cautious step forward and reached out a hand to take the fork, but Miss Underwood's hand retreated just slightly between the bars.

"No, no. Open wide."

"I ... uh ..."

"You don't have to do anything she tells you," Chief Sousa called. "Dottie, stop flirting with the visitors, please."

"Only Peggy can tell me to do things, dear." Leaning toward the bars, she whispered, "Just a bite. One bite, for me?"

Ana hesitantly went down to her knees -- she had to; this wouldn't work standing up -- and opened her mouth. Dottie's cherry-red lips curled in a bright grin, and she gently, very gently, placed the fork into Ana's mouth. The rich, spiced sweetness of the cake settled on her tongue. It still held a little warmth, just slightly warmer than skin.

She had to close her lips around the fork and move her head back to slide the cake off the fork's tines. Chocolate and strawberries, bursting on her senses.

"Mmmmm," Miss Underwood breathed, pulling the fork back and dipping it into the cake again. Ana had a brief, worried instant when she was expecting the fork to be extended to her again, but this time Miss Underwood took a bite of her own, licking it off the tines with relish. "You are a most excellent cook. What do you call this?"

Ana swallowed, clearing the stickiness from her mouth, though the sweetness lingered. "Um, it's cake. Just cake."

"Oh, I thought it might be a traditional dessert from the old country. You know, we had traditional desserts in my country too." She licked another bite off the fork. "But I've never eaten most of them. Do you know what I got for my tenth birthday party?"

Ana shook her head.

Miss Underwood leaned forward, a smear of chocolate on her glistening red lips, and the look in her eyes was ... odd. Glittering. Hot. "They broke all ten of my fingers," she whispered, "and left me cuffed to a drain pipe. I was allowed to have dinner when I had freed myself."

Ana swallowed thickly.

Miss Underwood blinked, and the frightful look in her eyes (somewhere between tears and something much worse) snapped back to a gentle glimmer as she smiled again. "Anyway, I've never had a birthday cake of my very own before."

"Well, I -- I am glad to be able to give you a cake for your birthday." Ana moved out of reach, trying not to be too hasty about it. She felt a bit shaky. Her mouth still tasted of chocolate and strawberries. "I -- I -- I have to go now. I can, um, come back to collect the plate a little later?"

"Oh, I look forward to it." Miss Underwood waved with the fork. "Ciao, now!"

Ana beat a hasty retreat, stopping only long enough to pick up the empty plate from the edge of Chief Sousa's desk.

It was not until later that day, when she went to unlock the garden shed, that she realized the ring of keys she normally wore in a special little pocket of her skirt was missing.

She hurried back into the house, fairly flew down the stairs to the basement, only to find Chief Sousa slumped unconscious over the table (not dead, not dead, thank goodness, though he was going to have quite the headache when he woke up) and the iron grating of the cell standing open, with no sign of Miss Underwood anywhere.

"Don't feel bad," Miss Carter told her later, as Ana slumped disconsolately at the table. "It's not your fault. No one blames you. She's pulled the wool over the eyes of many an agent, believe me."

Ana nodded, but the worst part was, she really didn't feel that guilty about it. ... Well, she did feel guilty about poor Chief Sousa, who was currently on the couch with an ice pack pressed to his head. But she didn't feel as terrible as she suspected she ought to feel about Miss Underwood not being in that basement cell anymore.

The first thing she'd found when she came into the kitchen to call Miss Carter at the SSR was that the entire rest of the cake was missing from its rack. The plate on which she had taken Miss Underwood her slice of cake had been neatly washed and placed on the kitchen table, with a single strawberry in the middle of it and a drizzle of chocolate on top.

The thing about it was ... she wasn't entirely convinced that Miss Underwood had been lying about her birthday.