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Strawberries on Mountaintops

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"You've never had strawberry shortcake?" Ward said. "Seriously? How is that even possible."

"Maybe? I don't know! I don't remember. I've sort of heard of it," Danny said. "It's like cake with fruit on it, right?"

"Sort of? No? Actually not very. It's its own thing. Really, how have you never had it?"

"We used to pick strawberries in K'un-Lun," Danny said with a reminiscing expression. "Usually from Master Li's garden because the ones on the mountainside were tiny and sour. Then we'd get beaten when we got caught --"

"Right. I'm making sure you have strawberry shortcake the next time we stop somewhere that sells it."

*

But he never did; there were fights and ninjas and airplanes and boats and, eventually, it was three months later and they were back in New York before he even thought of it again.

"Did you know Danny's never had strawberry shortcake?" he asked Colleen. Technically he was dropping Danny off after a business meeting at Rand, but Danny had invited him in, so now he and Colleen were being awkward at each other while Danny was in the bedroom changing out of the suit and tie with which he'd girded himself for dealing with Rand's investors.

"Lots of people have never had strawberry shortcake, Ward. It's not a universal experience."

"Thanks for the reality check."

Colleen turned around from loading the dishwasher and ran the back of a gloved hand across her forehead. It occurred to Ward, with typically excellent timing, that she might have liked it if he'd helped, now that it was too late.

But she was looking at him thoughtfully. "This is really important to you, isn't it?"

"Not that important. It's strawberry shortcake."

"I mean ... Danny. Doing things for him. Making him feel welcome here."

The way she was looking at him made him nervous. Like she was trying to see into him. His instinctive reaction to that kind of thing was to bristle up, put out spikes, and repel boarders.

Which of course was part of the reason why she, accurately, thought he was an enormous asshole.

But he'd been trying to do less of it lately. Especially with Danny, and Danny's loved ones. So he just said, "Yes. I do."

Colleen kept giving him that look as she peeled off her dish gloves. Then she said, "Why don't we have it here? Tomorrow night, maybe. We'll get takeout and have strawberry shortcake for dessert."

"Er ..."

"You can bring the shortcake," Colleen said, her gaze challenging. This was a woman who used to fight cage matches, and the look in her eyes was very much a Bring it kind of look. Except in this case, the weapon of choice was shortcake and strawberries.

Her expression suggested that katanas might be considered a valid second choice, however.

"Okay, yes, fine, I will," Ward said hastily, just as Danny came out of the bedroom, barefoot in sweat pants and a hoodie.

"What are we doing?" he asked, looking back and forth between them.

"Having strawberry shortcake," Ward said.

"Now?" Danny asked, looking cheerful.

"Tomorrow," Colleen said, and added in an inscrutable tone, "Ward's bringing the shortcake."

"Cool," Danny said.

*

Of course she gave him the hard part. Strawberries were strawberries; you couldn't really mess it up. Shortcake, on the other hand, came in a million varieties.

He ended up hitting three bakeries, and knocked on the door with his elbow. Colleen opened it and raised her eyebrows at the sight of Ward with his arms full of bags.

"We're providing the takeout," she said, and peeked into one of the bags. "Aha."

"There were options," Ward said helplessly. He thought about pointing out that he'd done it himself rather than dispatching an intern to do it, but managed to stop himself in time; it probably wouldn't help.

But Colleen smiled, and stepped back. "Danny did this too," she said. "Remember the catering date, Danny?"

"Oh, hey, Ward," Danny said from the kitchen. The dojo-apartment was warm and spicy-smelling and, as always, oddly homey. Ward deposited his bags on the counter, next to takeout bags from a Szechuan place. "Wow, that's a lot. Is that all shortcake?"

"Over-achieving is a Rand-Meachum trait; I should have known," Colleen said, but she sounded cheerful about it. In fact, she looked cheerful too, bright-eyed and slightly flushed from the glass of wine in her hand, not at all like a woman who had just had her quiet evening at home crashed by her boyfriend's relatives.

"Covering all my bases," Ward said.

Danny was slicing up strawberries. Ward lurked a bit; then Colleen shoved a plate into his hand. "Better get yourself some dumplings before Danny gets at them."

"Hey!" Danny said, and, as if to prove the point, popped a strawberry into his mouth.

"Go get dinner before you eat all the dessert. I'll finish up here." Colleen swiped the bowl out of his hands and pointed him at the food. Danny heaped a plate with more food than it seemed like any human being could eat, which was a trait of his that Ward had almost forgotten about until he'd gotten the Iron Fist back and suddenly started burning through calories like a marathon runner again. Maybe all that shortcake was going to come in handy after all.

Colleen stirred sugar into the strawberry mixture, put it in the refrigerator, and came to join them at the table, where a dozen takeout containers had been spread out and were being systematically demolished. Danny, Ward couldn't help noticing, had remembered his favorites and made sure to order them. It was a kind of thoughtfulness that still gave him a clutch in the chest, a sort of pleasure he wasn't used to.

As usual at Danny and Colleen's, he started out the evening feeling like an interloper into their domesticity and then found himself drawn into it in spite of himself. It made him happy, seeing them happy. There had been a shadow on Danny during most of the time they were in Asia, a noticeable damping down of his usual high spirits. But now there was an incandescent joy lighting him up from the inside, and Colleen had her own version of it, quieter and calmer but no less intense. It was a kind of happiness, of contentment, that seemed to be able to reach out and wrap Ward up in it too.

"Dessert time," Colleen announced. She got up, and Danny began stacking the dinner plates and moving takeout boxes aside.

"Have you seriously never had it?" Ward asked. "At this point, I'm not sure that you aren't just messing with me."

"Not that I remember. It's not like I remember everything I ate when I was a little kid, though."

"I'm just going to stick some of this in the oven to warm it up," Colleen said from the kitchen. "Or do you think the microwave would be better?"

"You're asking us?" Ward said.

"Point," she murmured. "Oh, wow, you brought angel food cake too."

"I couldn't exactly figure out the difference. I mean, it's fluffy cake, right?"

"And - is this a pound cake?"

"Look, assume I bought every vaguely appropriate-looking cake and let's leave it at that," Ward said. "Why do this many kinds of cakes even exist? It's all cake, isn't it?"

"I'll have a piece of all of them," Danny said, possibly out of loyalty.

"I know you will," Colleen remarked. "I'm starting to think we might not have enough strawberries. Okay with you if I take the leftovers to the center tomorrow, Ward?"

"Yeah, sure," Ward said, having honestly not given a single thought to what was going to happen to the leftovers.

"Okay, I have to warn you," Colleen said, coming out of the kitchen with a plate carefully balanced in each hand. "If we eat all of this, we may die."

It was actually surprisingly photogenic-looking given its chaotic origins. She had heaped pieces of yellow and white cake on each plate and poured strawberries over the top, piled with whipped cream, with a single strawberry placed on top of each whipped-cream mound.

"But we'll die happy," Danny said, and stabbed his fork into the middle of the heaping pile of shortcake that had just landed in front of him, looking like a kid on Christmas morning.

*

They did actually manage to demolish a surprising amount of it. Ward had intended to leave afterwards, but found himself flopped on the couch while Danny sprawled on the floor with Colleen taking a nap on his legs. Nobody felt like moving any farther than table to couch. Theoretically, Danny and Ward were playing Sorry!, from Danny and Colleen's collection of ragged-around-the-edges board games with missing pieces that had mostly come from the center, but neither of them was really paying much attention to whose turn it was.

"So is it as good as strawberries stolen from a monastery garden?" asked Ward, stirring enough to prop his head up on his hand.

"I don't know, Master Li's strawberries were pretty good." Danny drew a card but moved his piece without bothering to read it.

Ward reached down to push it back into place. "There are rules."

"Says the grand master of cheating at board games."

"We could both just move all our pieces home, but where's the challenge in that?"

"Sometimes it's nice to just go home without having to earn it," Danny said sleepily, into the crook of his arm.

"You used to be terrifyingly competitive, and now you're feeling sorry for Sorry pieces?" Ward said, but he leaned down and quietly, one by one, pushed all of Danny's pieces to the home square.