starwatcher_fic ([personal profile] starwatcher_fic) wrote2009-09-28 08:58 pm

#39 - Quacks Like a Duck


Title: Quacks Like a Duck
Summary: Blair and animals -- always more complicated than expected.
Style: Gen
Size: 4,015 words, about 10 pages
Warnings: None
Notes: I dashed off this bit of fluff, March 21-24, 2008.
Feedback: Not necessary, but I certainly do like to get it!
Email: If you prefer not to post a comment that everybody can see, you can reach me at starwatcher -at-

Quacks Like a Duck

by StarWatcher

"It's on the table, Chief! Get your ass out here before it gets cold."

"Hey, thanks, man." Blair kicked his overstuffed backpack under the table as he slid into his chair; just last week, Jim had threatened to burn it -- and its contents -- if he found it lying in the middle of the loft's traffic patterns one more time. Blair spread jelly on his toast, used it to scoop up a hefty portion of scrambled eggs, and took an enthusiastic bite.

He was experienced at the procedure; one piece of toast accounted for half the eggs on his plate, and he reached for another. Midway through spreading the jelly, he paused, examining toast, jelly, and eggs. "Jim, you've corrupted me, and I never even noticed!"

Jim shook his head as he reached for his coffee. "Well, you should have known better than to fall for it; it's a well-known fact that scrambled eggs will bring about the downfall of Western civilization. Or is it the jelly-toast that has your shorts in a twist?"

"Both of them. They're so... so... plebian! Do you realize I haven't had an algae shake in four days?"

"And my nose is grateful."

"But my arteries are hardening."

"Tastes good, doesn't it?"

"Yeah, that's why it's so insidious."

"Sandburg, even you should realize that man cannot live by algae shakes alone; do you really want to down one of those while you watch me eating this culinary delight? Besides, you're a growing boy; eat up, it'll give you enough energy to get through your day."

"But --"

"Besides, didn't Naomi teach you not to waste food?"

"But --"

"And didn't you tell me that it's customary to eat the local diet and learn to enjoy it?"

"But that's diff--"

"However, if it offends you so much, I'll cook my own breakfast tomorrow, and leave you to your algae shake. I'm planning buttermilk waffles with fresh blueberries, but far be it from me to force you to eat food that offends you."

"Hey, I didn't say I was offended, just..." Blair paused. "Wait a minute. What are we arguing about? And I thought I was supposed to be the fast-talker in this relationship."

"Got'cha!" Jim's smile was broad and unrestrained as he slid the miniature tape recorder onto the table and pushed the 'off' button. "I had a bet with Brown that I could talk you to a standstill just once. So I've been planning, and I admit I set it up, but there's a twenty in it if you don't contest the verdict."

Blair snorted. "And of course you couldn't pass up the chance for a little macho posturing. Okay, but you owe me, man. Today's my short day, and I'll be in at twelve-thirty. I expect you to use your winnings to buy me lunch at Soup 'r' Salad."

"It's a date -- always assuming we're not knee-deep in handling some madman's latest attempts to take over the world."

"Not the world," Blair objected, "just Cascade -- or maybe the western seaboard, if they're really ambitious."

"It's only a matter of time, Chief; bound to happen sooner or later. With our luck, it'll be sooner."

"In that case, you can save your ill-gotten gains for next week, or the week after. Not even Cascade's criminal element can keep up the world-takeover bid twenty-four-seven; there'll be a break eventually."

"In the short term, you're right. But in the long run -- I suspect they're working on their plans even as we speak."

"No doubt." Blair shifted stance and vocal tone, and became a caricature of a late-night announcer. "But Sentinel-man and his mighty super-senses, with trusty Guide-boy at his side, sees all, hears all, smells all. Together, they will protect the Mighty City as its denizens go about their day, unaware of their good fortune."

Jim chuckled as he carried his dishes to the sink. "Yeah, well, trusty Guide-boy better stop talking and finish eating, or he'll be late to his job; he needs to maintain his alternate identity as Super-Teacher-Guy."

Blair rolled his eyes. "You need to work on your titles; they're a little flat." But he took Jim's advice and, ten minutes later, he shouldered his backpack and was out the door, as a "See ya for lunch," lingered in the air behind him.

They were walking back from lunch, taking advantage of the warm, sunny April day, when Jim paused, hand half-lifted to stop Blair. He stared at a short row of low evergreen shrubs that filled a brick planter in front of the Dollar Store, two doors down from the PD.

"What?" Blair whispered.

"There's something moving in there, Chief."

Blair considered the closely-spaced shrubbery. "Man, you are too much a cop! There's no way a grown man could hide in there -- not if he expected to move quickly enough to get out in time to rob or threaten or whatever. Use your senses to tell you what's in there -- I bet it's just a squirrel or something."

The angle was wrong to see through the dense cover, even with sentinel vision, and hearing gave him only anonymous rustlings. But the scent was familiar from countless fishing trips. Jim smiled. "Close, Chief, but no cigar. Let's see if we can get a look."

He glided toward the end of the planter and cautiously pulled some of the branches away from the wall behind the shrubbery. A quick look confirmed his identification, and he motioned Blair forward, raising a hand to his lips to ensure silence.

Blair squeezed between Jim and the wall, looking into the gap his friend had created. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the shadows, but then he saw it clearly -- a large duck, mottled brown with an orange bill, crouched on the wood chips that acted as a mulch under the bushes. Blair thought she was aware of his presence -- she was looking right at him, and panting slightly with her bill half-opened -- but apparently he had not crossed the 'danger line' that would persuade her to leave her nest.

Blair backed out, a huge grin splitting his face. "Wow! How cool is that? Do you know what breed it is?"

"It's a mallard, Chief; the hens aren't as colorful as the drakes. The question is, why is she nesting so far from water? The closest is the pond in Maple Park, and that's three blocks away."

"Well, she can fly." Blair's voice combined amusement with sarcasm. "It'll take her, what, two minutes to get there?"

"Long trip when the ducklings hatch, though. But I suppose she'll manage." Jim filed the duck under 'mildly interesting, unimportant', and continued walking toward the PD. "You ready to go to work? I want to check out the Latelli warehouse again."

"Manage? Manage what?" Blair trotted to catch up with his partner's longer strides, and then they were in the truck and heading out, and the question got lost in the minutiae of ferreting out the information Jim needed to solve his latest case.

"I made some notes," Blair announced, wandering from his bedroom with a couple of pages in hand.

Jim glanced up from watching the evening news. "On?"

Blair sat down on the other end of the couch. "The life cycle of the Mallard duck. I figured one parent would keep the eggs warm while the other went to eat, but it turns out the male doesn't help with the incubating; she's on her own until the eggs hatch."

"The species has continued for thousands of years, Chief; I'm sure she knows how to deal with the whole situation."

"Yeah, the information I found says she lines the nest with down from her belly, and pulls it over the eggs to hide them and help keep them warm when she has to leave."

"Like I said; she knows how to manage." Jim clicked off the news and carried his empty beer bottle into the kitchen.

"Right, right. But now that we know she's there..." Blair shrugged sheepishly. "Well, I thought I might bring her some water and food, so she wouldn't have to make so many trips away from the nest."

Jim was now making his final check of windows and doors. "So, you're going to be pouncing on bugs to present to her, like some kind of ducky boyfriend?" He chuckled softly. "You're just trying to give the gang something else to tease you about, aren't you?"

"Nah, mallards eat mostly grain; I can probably get some kind of wild-bird mix at a feedstore. As for teasing..." Blair opened his eyes wider and let his shoulders relax, looking impossibly earnest and geeky, and softened his voice. "Aw, guys, you expect me to leave her all alone in the middle of the city? If she gets hurt or killed, what do you think will happen to her babies? Cats, cars -- they wouldn't last out the day. Do you really think I should just ignore her? Could you just walk away from helpless little ducklings? I mean--"

Jim was leaning against the kitchen island, laughing heartily. "Of course, the fact that you actually feel that way is beside the point, isn't it?"

"Of course it is," Blair said, matching his grin. "So I give her a bowl of water and another of grain every day; the eggs will hatch in four weeks -- less if she's been incubating them a while. No big deal, you know?"

"Ri-i-i-ight." Jim headed up the stairs. "And tomorrow, all the criminals in Cascade will lay down their guns and voluntarily surrender to the police. See you in the morning, Chief."

"Yeah, goodnight, Jim," Blair called as he headed toward his own room. It was inevitable that Jim would be the first and foremost teaser, he reflected as he changed into the old thermal shirt he used for sleepwear and moved a stack of books off his bed so that he could climb under the covers. But really, what better way to score karmic points with the universe? And what could be simpler?

It was as easy as Blair had expected. He bought a fifty-pound sack of Gamebird Scratch -- a mixture of wheat, barley, oats, and corn -- and a large metal trashcan to pour it in to avoid attracting mice. He installed it in Jim's storage area in the basement, which meant he had to make a trip down each morning to fill the plastic container now labeled 'duck food', but it was a small effort. Then, whatever time he got to the PD, Blair stopped to check on the duck. She was always there, looking settled and content as she kept her eggs warm; with his visits a daily occurrence, she had learned to ignore his peering in at her. He'd fill her feed bowl with grain, and her water bowl from his thermos, then go up and meet Jim for whatever he had scheduled.

The routine continued for three weeks and four days. Blair was getting impatient; the research he'd done had indicated an incubation period of twenty-eight days. Could the time needed be as variable as a woman giving birth? Or was the duck vainly trying to hatch unfertilized eggs? Did ducks even lay unfertilized eggs? As thoroughly as Blair searched, he couldn't find the answer to that one.

Jim printed out his report, signed it with a quick scrawl, and shut down his computer. "You ready to blow this pop-stand, Sandburg?"

Blair looked up from the blue-book he was grading. "Yeah, I'm ready. But I want to take a look at the duck again."

"You ever heard the one about a watched pot, Chief? I think watched duck-eggs obey the same natural laws." Jim's voice was amused as he tossed Blair's jacket to him, and slipped into his own.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah. It's been..." Blair glanced at the clock, "...four and a half hours; a lot can change in that time."

Jim punched the 'down' button for the elevator. "So, do you have the names picked out, yet?"

"Like I could sneak a pet duck into the loft. Besides, I'm holding out for a bunny."

"Not unless you want hasenpfeffer the next day."

Blair pushed through the main doors and headed toward the Dollar Store. "Sure, sure, animals and kids run screaming from you in terror -- not!"

Jim cocked his head. "Got any cigars to pass out, Chief? Sounds like you're an uncle."

"Really? Cool!" Blair hurried forward and pulled the foliage away from the wall, and saw two small bundles of damp feathers lying on the mulch, peeping softly. He pulled back and turned a beaming face to Jim. "All right! Perfect timing!"

"What? Unhatched ducklings would have interfered with a hot date?"

"Tomorrow's Saturday; I won't have to call in any favors to cover my classes while I'm on duck patrol."

Jim strove mightily to hide the quirk of his lips. "I'm afraid to ask."

"You said it yourself; the closest water is three blocks away. The book says she'll lead the ducklings to water as soon as they're all dry. Since the sun's already going down, she'll probably wait till morning -- and last week I arranged to borrow a vest from Jessie in traffic patrol. Think about it, Jim -- three streets to cross; way too easy for drivers to miss seeing them, and then -- splat!" Blair's voice rose, and his hands waved wildly as he illustrated the danger. "But not if I'm there to stop traffic while they cross," he finished with satisfaction.

"She's a wild duck," Jim pointed out. "To be sure not to miss her, you'll have to get up with the sunrise. But you'll do it alone; I'm not giving up my sleep to drag your sorry ass out of bed. This time of the year, sunrise is just a little after five; think you can do it?"

"Love you, too, man," Blair retorted. "And for something this important -- just watch me." He turned abruptly and headed toward the parking garage. "Come on; I'll need to make an early night of it."

Blair slapped off the alarm, slipped out of bed as quietly as possible, and pulled on the clothes he had laid out the night before. Jim had undoubtedly heard the alarm but, knowing Blair's plans, he'd be able to ignore it and go back to sleep. Blair tiptoed into the kitchen and poured the fresh-brewed coffee -- courtesy of the automatic timer -- into his thermos. He grabbed his coat, shoved a couple of apples into its pockets, and was out the door. Realistically, he knew the duck probably wouldn't start the journey toward the pond until the day was more advanced -- and warmer -- but he didn't want to take any chances on being late. He could munch the apples and drink the coffee while he waited.

Thirty minutes later, everything was in order. After parking the car at the curb near the nest, he'd checked on the duck -- still there -- and put on his borrowed traffic patrol vest. Now, with the handheld STOP sign ready on the seat beside him, Blair poured a cup of coffee, munched on one of his apples and, keeping an eye on the bushes that hid the duck and her ducklings, settled in to wait.

Four hours into his self-imposed stakeout, Blair was fidgeting, realizing that he'd overlooked one very important point -- ingestion of coffee inevitably led to a need to, uh... drain the liquid. And with no one to keep an eye on things while he dashed into the men's room, it would be just his luck that the duck would start her long trek the moment he was out of sight.

He jumped as the passenger-side door opened, and Jim slipped into the seat beside him. "With your luck, I figured she'd sleep late after you got up early. And I figured you might like a little more sustenance right about now." He laid a bag from 'Dal Paso Donuts' on the dash, handed Blair a large cup of coffee, and opened the lid to drink from his own, hiding his grin at Blair's stunned expression.

"Oh, man, you are a lifesaver!" Blair proclaimed. "But first I gotta..." He gestured vaguely. "Keep an eye out; I'll be back in a few." With that, he hurried into the building.

When he returned, just as he had been afraid would happen, the mallard was ready to lead her brood to the pond. She was standing in front of the planter with -- Blair counted -- five ducklings around her, peeping loudly. As he watched, number six appeared at the edge of the planter and plopped down among its siblings.

Blair hurried toward the Corvair. Just as he reached it, Jim stepped out and handed him the STOP sign. "Here you go, Chief; showtime!"

Blair took the sign almost unconsciously. "Look at 'em, Jim! Aren't they the cutest things you've ever seen?" By now, numbers seven and eight had joined the group.

"Right up there with puppies and kitties," Jim agreed dryly. "You're just lucky they'll stick close to their mama; it'll be easier for you to protect them from traffic if they're all in a bunch."

"Yeah, well..." Blair glanced thoughtfully as the cars sped past, hurrying to a morning of shopping. "The drivers might not notice the ducklings, but a bright orange vest and a stop sign will get their attention; I think we'll be okay."

"I think so, too, Chief. But two are more visible than one; as long as I'm here, I might as well help out."

"Really? Oh, man, that is so cool! Thanks!"

"Don't get too bent out of shape; you'll owe me one."

"Hey, Blair!"

At the shout, Blair turned to see an attractive young woman with short brown hair hurrying toward him, also wearing a traffic patrol vest. "Jessie! What are you doing here?"

"Well, I had to make sure you treated my vest okay, and being here is the best way to do that. Besides, I wanted to get a good look at the babies." She grinned down at the fluffy balls of down in a medium brown color with yellow markings on their sides, and yellow faces with a dark brown stripe running across their eyes like a narrow mask. Now nine, they clustered around their mother, waiting for her direction. "Oh, they're so cute!

"Well, some of us think so," Blair said, casting a glance at Jim. "Whoops! They're on the move."

The duck was heading toward the street, her ducklings trailing behind. Just as she reached the curb, Blair stepped into the street, raising his sign to stop the flow of traffic. Jim took up a position a little beyond him, to prevent some bozo in the second lane thinking he might squeeze past. And Jessie stepped to the median, allowing traffic in the other direction to travel unrestricted for now, but prepared to stop the flow if the ducks moved faster than anticipated.

When the traffic in his lane was at a standstill, Blair turned his back on them to watch the little procession. The ducklings -- surprisingly well-developed for having hatched less than twenty-four hours ago -- waddled behind their mother with a workmanlike stride, peeping loudly as if to urge each other along.

But when they reached the median, forward progress was halted; the height of the curb towered over the ducklings' heads. But they were determined to follow their mother. As she sat in the grass and quacked softly, each one in turn pushed itself up the curb, digging into the concrete with tiny toenails and using the friction of chest against rough stone to keep from sliding back.

ducks crossing

By now, a couple of shoppers who had been walking by had stopped to watch the little drama. When all nine had conquered the obstacle, they broke into applause. Startled, the duck quacked and ruffled her feathers, but held her ground while the ducklings gathered around their mother, resting for the next leg of the journey.

"Man, that's harsh," Blair commented. "There'll be..." he paused, mentally counting. The next street also had a raised median, but the third, with only two lanes, didn't. "...uh, four more of those things to climb. And a long walk between streets, and from the last street across the park to the pond. They're going to be worn out."

"They'll make it," Jim assured him. "Mallards are tough little critters; as soon as they reach the pond, they'll be finding their own food."

"Yeah, but it'll be a lot easier if they're not so tired," Blair argued. "Maybe if we get a little closer to the mother, she'll move away from us and we can kind of angle her toward the wheelchair cut at the corner."

"You're in charge, Chief; have at it."

It worked. Somehow, Jessie took over using the STOP sign and, with Jim, held back the traffic while Blair persuaded the duck to move at an angle by walking carefully closer; he didn't want to spook her into leaving her babies. The little group walked up the incline of the wheelchair ramp without difficulty, and proceeded down the sidewalk.

More shoppers had come to see what was going on, and stayed to watch the impromptu parade. Several had cameras, and took the opportunity to take pictures; Blair figured one of them would be showing up in tomorrow's newspaper.

Slowly, the duck led her brood toward the pond, pausing occasionally -- at the grassy medians, and around a couple of trees planted in front of the larger stores -- to let the ducklings rest. As they traveled, more spectators joined the watchers, everyone taking the opportunity to enjoy a touch of wildlife in the middle of the city.

Three hours later, the crowd clapped and cheered as the mallard walked into the pond, her ducklings following without hesitation. She led them to an area of cattails, where they immediately began searching for bugs and tender plants, their little heads dipping under the surface of the water, and their little tails poking into the air.

"Look at that!" Blair breathed in awe. "No training or nothin'; they just know what to do."

"Yep; instinct's great, Chief. But instinct wouldn't have protected them from the traffic. It was your help and dedication that ensured they all got here; you can be proud."

Blair beamed. "I am, kinda. It just feels good, you know?"

The crowd was dispersing. Jessie walked over, grinning as broadly as Blair. "Well, that was the most satisfactory traffic patrol I've ever had; I never thought I'd be escorting ducklings to water. It'll be something to tell the grandkids."

"Don't you have to have kids, first?" Blair asked, unbuckling the vest and handing it to Jessie.

She glanced around ostentatiously and stepped closer, motioning Jim into their little circle. "Don't spread it around; Pete and I haven't told anyone yet. But the baby's due in November."

"Whoa! Congratulations!" Blair exclaimed.

After she'd left, Jim threw his arm across Blair's shoulders. "Your protégés seem to be enjoying lunch, Chief; how about you and I do the same?"

"Sounds like a plan," Blair agreed. "Those apples wore off a long time ago." They turned and headed back toward the PD to pick up their cars.

Blair sat down at the table as Jim set the plate of scrambled eggs in front of him. As he reached for the jelly and toast Blair remarked, "I still say you're trying to corrupt me."

"You wound me, Chief; it's not like I'm feeding you arsenic. And this is good stuff; you did all the shopping yourself at the organic market. It's whole-grain bread, natural jelly without preservatives and eggs from free-range chickens. You can't get any healthier than that and the bonus is, it really does taste better than the regular store brands; my palate thanks you."

"You have a point," Blair acknowledged. "But we're still having a nice healthy stir-fry for dinner tonight."

"Put some meat in there and you've got a deal."

"Oh yeah; God forbid you should go without your daily quota of meat." Blair just wouldn't tell him it was ostrich -- Jim would notice, but he'd eat it.

They split up the Sunday paper, each enjoying breakfast with his best friend. Blair's experiment in duck-care had reached a successful conclusion, they were looking forward to a warm, late Spring day, and the latest bad guy had yet to cross their path. Life didn't get much better than that.

The End

duck swimming

Author's Notes

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