Disclaimer: All usual disclaimers apply, I don't own the rights, I don't get money, and this is for entertainment only. Please excuse any errors; they are entirely mine.
Thanks as always to the Usual Suspects: Pony, Kreek, Eli and Wuemsel. *grin* I couldn't -and wouldn't- do it without you.
This one is for Krissy. It was terrific meeting you at Cabrillo Con 2009!
"On ne voit bien qu'avec le cœur. L'essentiel est invisible pour les yeux." - Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
by Starsky's Strut
Shifting around on a plastic five-gallon bucket, David Starsky shivered minutely and adjusted the coat collar up on his neck. He pulled at his thick, woolen knit cap, trying to cover the one-inch gap between his heavy jacket and the hat, silently fuming when the collar couldn't be tugged any higher, nor the hat any lower, leaving that single—and annoying—gap to freeze.
The chill air nipped at the rest of his body, despite his heavy clothes. He took another look at his surroundings. The frozen lake was clear of the knee-deep snow that blanketed the surrounding land. Starsky couldn't think of a sadder looking place. It appeared to be dead. The snow was a cold, white death shroud covering a land long devoid of warmth. The trees lining the shore looked like rigor mortis-stiffened arms reaching out from under that casing. Not another soul was around. The whole place brought to mind myriad depressing thoughts, which Starsky quickly snuffed out.
Mentally grumbling at his morbid turn of thought, he put his hands to his face and blew hot breath onto his mittened fingers. A thick, white mist rose in a miniature cloud from his mouth. The warmth was far too short-lived. He wiggled his covered fingers to try to warm them a little. Finally giving up on the impossible task, he crossed his arms and tucked them into his armpits—all the while wondering why he was sitting in the middle of nowhere on a pail on a frozen lake in Minnesota.
He looked over at Hutchinson and remembered.
They had met at the academy a short while ago. Their budding friendship had only begun after a very rocky beginning. Rocky? Heck, the Rocky Mountains had nothing on their first meetings. Putting it bluntly, they had hated each other. Hate at first sight….
Slowly, the negative feelings had turned into a grudging respect and then progressed to a few shared laughs at the expense of a couple of instructors they'd determined desperately deserved to be brought down a peg or three. Starsky and his new partner in crime, Hutchinson, had managed to do just that.
He smiled at the memory.
Their dislike for each other had eased one night when Starsky had jimmied the lock on a car belonging to the self-defense instructor, a man he'd come to seriously dislike due to his being so overzealousness during training that he was willing to injure his students to prove his superior skill and for his sarcastic and condescending manner. Starsky was about to empty a plastic baggie of fresh canine crap under the front seat, when he heard the sound of someone padding quietly up behind him. He stiffened guiltily.
"What do you think you're doing?" The tone was quiet and reproachful.
He knew that voice. It belonged to the Minnesota Golden Boy, Kenneth Hutchinson. Starsky knew he was going to be in big trouble—just as soon as Hutchinson narked on him.
"Nothin'," he snapped defensively, he leaned into the open car door and shook out the contents of the baggie under the driver's seat. There wasn't any point in trying to hide what he was doing from the interloper.
Well, in for a penny, in for a pound. He shrugged, his task accomplished, and started to close the door.
Starsky turned and looked up at the slightly taller man, fully expecting Mr. Holier Than Thou to ream him out, or turn him in, or both.
"I-I've got a deposit to make too." With that, Hutchinson held out and shook a dog-doo-filled baggie of his own.
After the taller man made his deposit, they shared a wicked smile—and a good laugh—as they made their way back to their quarters that night.
They still had rough patches to smooth out. Starsky was beginning to think it could be the start of an interesting relationship, his first since 'Nam. Sure, he still kept tabs on people from before: people he had grown up with and the ones he'd hung out with, even the ones he'd gone to war with. Oh, correction: "Civil action," not war. He mentally gritted his teeth and pushed the dark thoughts away.
Suffice it to say, despite his casual and often playful demeanor, Starsky took true friendship very seriously. He had lots of people he hung out with but no one that he could, or would, call a friend. In Vietnam, he'd learned about real friendship and loyalty. His best friend, Jake, had died in his arms, and as the war had progressed, many others had been killed in action. After so many losses, he refused to get that close to anyone again. It was simply too painful when they died.
Starsky shook his head at the memories and wondered all over again why he was here. Hutchinson wasn't a bad sort, really, once you got past all that cool aloofness. The guy had a dry, often wicked, sense of humor, something sorely lacking in Starsky's own life since Vietnam. For such a hot and humid place, it had left him cold, right down to his soul.
He'd never forget the scene that had greeted him and the others as they exited the gate of the army base after being honorably discharged.
There were chants and shouts, but the sounds weren't welcoming or inviting. Starsky clutched his duffle and pushed to the front of the apprehensive group. Opening the door, he stepped outside. A crowd was there to greet him, people dressed in colorful, loose clothing, with long, unkempt hair. Many of the men sported ratty beards.
War protesters. He swallowed hard. This is not the happy homecoming they had expected.
The motley crew slowly turned to face him, and Starsky's elation at being discharged evaporated when something wet and smelly hit him in the face. Hateful words began to pelt him, as well as more refuse.
"Go back where you came from! We don't want you here!"
"Make love, not war!"
More rotten fruit hit him. Fixing a stony expression on his face, Starsky scanned the area for his aunt and uncle, certain they'd be nearby. And, in his heart of hearts, he hoped Ma and Nicky had somehow made it too.
But they weren't there. No one he knew was waiting for him at the gate, just a throng of hate-filled faces, along with some reporters with cameras, whose presence served to whip the mob into a frenzy.
A knot formed in the pit of his stomach, and it grew cold as he realized his family wasn't coming. He pushed his way through the angry crowd and walked a few blocks before flagging down a cab. Once inside, he gave the driver the address of his uncle's house.
When he arrived, some small part of him still hoped for something good to happen on this rotten day—maybe some balloons, a cake, anything along that line. Instead, Starsky was greeted with a hug from his aunt Rosie, a firm handshake from his uncle, and nothing else.
"What-?" He bit off the question as he swept his hand to encompass a room devoid of the anticipated welcome party. "Where-?" Starsky again cut the rest off, not wanting to show just how much seeing the empty room hurt.
Uncle Al blushed and cleared his throat. "We didn't think you'd want a fuss. As for your mom-" He started, stopped and started again. "Well Nicky's been- They couldn't come..." He trailed off lamely as he shook his head and wiped a hand down his weathered face. He cleared his throat uncomfortably. "Your old room is ready, if you want to take a nap or freshen up?"
"You didn't come." Starsky let the bitterness infuse his words and show on his face.
"We…on the news…. I didn't want to subject your aunt to the protesters. There's been violence taking place at some of them." Uncle Al dropped his gaze. "How bad was it?"
Starsky's shoulders drooped as he pointedly wiped at a still-damp stain on his shirt. "Doesn't matter. I'm goin' ta bed."
He turned on his heel and went to his room. Slamming the door, threw himself down on the bed and slung an arm over his stinging eyes. The knot that had formed earlier began to twist in on itself. It grew in size, until it collapsed from its own weight, becoming a black hole—a void from which nothing escaped, not even emotions.
Shifting on the pail once more, Starsky remembered he'd done his best over there, given it his all, and simply done what had been drummed into him since he was a child at his father's knee. He had served his country—done his patriotic duty—but when he'd come back, everyone seemed to hate him and the others for their efforts and sacrifices.
People he'd thought of as his friends—those who had not gone to Vietnam—had turned their collective backs on him. Even his own family hadn't braved the hostile crowds to pick him up. Starsky hadn't expected a hero's welcome, but what he did receive had left him cold. He didn't have any friends who had survived 'Nam.
So, what was the point of having friends? They either turned their backs on you or just died anyway, usually in some stupid, random way. Unwanted, the past intruded again on the present.
He had ignored the light knocks at his bedroom door. For two days, he stayed at his uncle's house; then, he gathered his meager belongs and left. The whole scene left him cold and numb, and that suited him just fine. An overwhelming feeling of disconnection settled in. He no longer fit with anything or anyone, nor did he want to. Directionless and emotionally numb, he drifted from job to job and even drove a cab for a while.
After he had spent a year or so doing menial, dead-end jobs, his uncle pushed a flyer for the police academy at him. Sick of having no real direction in life and without a better plan, Starsky signed up….
Now, it was after graduation, and Starsky had a free week before starting his new career as a police officer. Out of the blue, Hutchinson had asked if he'd like to go fishing at his grandfather's cabin. Having nothing better to do, Starsky had said, "Sure," but what Hutchinson had failed to mention was the Minnesota part, the cold part and the ice part.
So, he currently found himself sitting on an upside-down plastic pail in the middle of a small, frozen lake, freezing his backside off. He shivered again. Maybe he should have said no to this fishing trip, but he hadn't wanted to hurt the guy's feelings by turning him down.
Besides, Starsky kind of liked fishing. However, having just tried it, he knew now that he loathed ice fishing. He was from New York and knew damn well how cold it got in the northern states in winter. He had only himself to blame for not factoring that into his decision to come here. He really didn't want to complain to Hutchinson about it, at least not yet. He didn't want the man to think he was a whiner.
Starsky flipped up his coat sleeve and dragged down the top of his mitten for a second to check the time, all the while wondering how much longer he could sit there before he'd have to throw in the towel and head back to the cabin. Still feeling chilled, he shifted around once more before sneaking a look at his companion.
Hutchinson sat coolly on his five-gallon bucket, silently staring at the small, round hole in the ice and seemingly unaffected by the bitter chill in the air. Without looking up, he quietly hissed, "Please don't move around so much; you'll scare the fish."
Starsky blinked and gaped at the man before retorting hotly, "Scare the fish? Scare the fish! Those fish, if they ain't already frozen to death, are under at least a foot of ice and couldn't possibly have heard me." He stomped his cold feet on the ice to make his point.
Hutchinson's head jerked up. "Well, they sure as hell heard that! Just sit still, or we aren't going to have any fish for supper," he hissed.
"Look! Either way we're having fish. We've got a nice big box of fish sticks back at the cabin, and those are all breaded and everything. We just gotta heat 'em up." Starsky worked to keep his tone pleasant. He was a guest, after all.
The taller man took a fortifying breath and slowly exhaled before speaking with great disdain, "Starsky, those are frozen –"
"Well, that's great because so am I!" Starsky carped, not liking Hutchinson's superior tone.
Hutchinson put up his hands in a placating way, clearly not wanting to argue. "Those fish are frozen and have been dead for weeks, months even."
"I heard you the first time. And so what? I don't wanna eat a live fish, and who cares if they're frozen? So, am I, since all I've been doing all morning is sittin' on this plastic pail freezin' my tail off an' watchin' you stare at a hole in the ice. I'm turning into a pelican, here." He deliberately threw in the wrong word, knowing how much it would bother the blond perfectionist.
Hutchinson had a thing about always being right and correcting him. It was one of the things that had started them off on the wrong foot back at the academy. Starsky really didn't care for people who thought they knew everything and, as such, figured they were better than others. He simply couldn't resist needling the other man about it.
Light blue eyes snapped up to meet stormy, dark blue ones. "Mister Starsky, I think you mean penguin, not pelican. You know, sometimes I don't know why…. Hey, I've got a bite!"
"Mister Hutchinson, I've got a bite too, only mine's frostbite," Starsky groused, upset by the reversion to the use of "Mister" before his name. They had used that word after their first dreadful meeting, calling each other "Mister Starsky" or "Mister Hutchinson" like other people would use swear words.
It irritated him that Hutchinson would resort to using it on him again, conveniently forgetting that he stubbornly refused to shorten Hutchinson's name to the more familiar "Hutch." After their difficult start, Starsky didn't quite feel comfortable enough to do that, nor had he been invited to yet. He remembered what Hutchinson had once told him: "My friends call me Hutch." Starsky figured he wasn't a friend to the man. Hell, he couldn't even bring himself to think of the Minnesota native as anything but Hutchinson.
A shiver forced its way down his spine, turning Starsky's thoughts from his companion to himself. He realized that if he had to sit there much longer, he was going to shatter from the cold. He rapidly rubbed his hands up and down his arms, trying to warm up.
Watching as Hutchinson showed more movement than he had since arriving at the ice-covered lake hours ago, Starsky gritted his teeth to keep them from clacking in the bitterly cold air. "I'm tempted just to walk back to your grandfather's cabin without ya," he groused quietly.
Hutchinson kept his eyes down and hunched his shoulders, the only sign he had given that the intense chill might be affecting him. He gave the ice hole a look of intense concentration that the small circle didn't seem to warrant.
Starsky hoped Hutchinson would think that he was just bickering because he was obstinate. It was the truth…well, part of it. The fact was he was also quite cold. And bored. Let's not forget bored. He kept that thought to himself, though.
Hutchinson dropped his gaze for a moment and ran a hand over his lower jaw before raising his eyes. "Look, let me just land this fish, and we'll go, all right? We can fry this puppy up and maybe play some Monopoly or something, oaky?" His tone was conciliatory.
Relieved, Starsky could feel his grumpy expression fade, as a rare smile worked its way across his face. "I like Monopoly."
Hutchinson smiled back at him, and the fishing line jiggled harder. The blond concentrated on bringing his catch to the surface. After several minutes of battling the stubborn fish, he finally got it to the hole and pulled it up. The fish was so big, it almost didn't make it through the opening. After a few anxious moments, the large fish was pulled up and out of the water.
"Look at it! It's a beaut!" Pride filled Hutchinson's voice.
"Sure is! It's gonna taste great, and we might even have enough left over for tomorrow." Starsky bounced excitedly. Food had that effect on him. It didn't hurt to know that very soon they'd be heading back to a nice, warm cabin, with a crackling fire and a generator to supply power for a few lights and a 13-inch black-and-white TV. Too bad they had to heat water by using the fireplace; there was nothing like taking a hot shower after getting cold.
The fish—a type Starsky wasn't familiar with—was huge and powerful, as evidenced by the effort Hutchinson was exerting to hold onto the line. His arms quivered with every flip of its powerful tail.
"Whoa! It's a fighter, all right. Get the pliers, and I'll get the hook out."
"Pliers, pliers," Starsky muttered, as he darted to the tackle box and flipped through it for the tool.
"I'm comin'." He moved back to his companion's side, feet sliding a bit on the water-slicked ice.
"Careful there," the other man cautioned over his shoulder.
Together, they quickly worked to remove the hook and deal with the slippery, struggling fish. Freed from the hook, the creature flipped its body and jerked out of Hutchinson's hands to flop wildly on the ice.
The two men scrambled for it at the same time and knocked heads. They fell backwards and landed on their butts. Stopping to rub the sore spot on his head, Starsky peered up to see the other man gingerly checking out the same place on his own noggin. First grinning, they snickered and then laughed. The earlier irritation Starsky had felt was forgotten in the shared amusement of the moment.
The humor fled the blond's face as he noticed the fish flopping back toward the opening in the ice. "It's gettin' away!" he yelped and scurried after it on all fours.
Starsky, feeling competitive, made like a penguin, scooting forward on his belly and using his hands and feet to push toward the fish to make a grab for it. His mitten-covered fingers closed around the flailing fish. Though he had never chased a greased pig, he quickly figured it had to be something like trying to hold onto a flopping, wet fish.
It wiggled out of his hands. He slid forward and grabbed for it once more as it slipped into the hole. Reaching down, he caught hold of the tail and hung on.
With a few hard gyrations, the fish dropped back into its wet home, pulling Starsky's arms with it. The freezing water cut through the sleeves of his coat and took his breath away. "Geez!" he hissed, releasing the fish and yanking his arms out of the hole.
Starsky sat back up and smacked his drenched, mitten-covered hands down on the ice, splashing frigid water everywhere. "Dammit. I've just about had it." He peered over the edge and glared down at the dark water below. "I'm tempted to drop a line down there and try catching it again."
A hand dropped firmly onto his shoulder, and he looked up at Hutchinson.
"I don't think you should. You're soaked. We'd better head back to the cabin now; both of us need to get into some dry clothes." Hutchinson gave his shoulder a squeeze.
From the north shoreline came the rattle of tree branches, and seconds later a sharp, cold gust slammed into them.
Starsky shivered and pulled his drenched mittens off; they plopped onto the ice with a wet splat. He took his soaked coat off to get it away from his skin. "That was dumb!" he berated himself as he tugged at his equally drenched shirt sleeves.
A blast of bitterly cold wind whipped across the snow-covered ice, pelting him with drifting white stuff. He shuddered as he turned his back to the wind-driven flurry. When he crossed his arms to tuck his hands into his armpits, the sleeves crackled a little.
"What the hell?" He blinked in stunned amazement; the wet parts of his shirt were already crusting with ice. Startled, he looked at Hutchinson, and their eyes locked.
The blond blinked at the freezing apparel. "W-we'd better go. Now." The words were quiet and calmly spoken, but there was an underlying tinge of urgency to them, betrayed by the slight stutter. "An Alberta clipper is headed in. The weather report was off by hours. I was sure we'd have plenty of time to make a few catches and get back to the cabin before it arrived."
Another gust tugged sharply at their clothes and flipped the five-gallon pails over, sending them rolling in tight, awkward circles on the ice. Their handles hit the frozen ground with hollow thumps.
His back hunched against the freezing wind, Starsky bobbed his head rapidly in agreement and reached for his coat. A quick tug revealed it, too, was in the process of freezing solid.
Hutchinson stepped over and began to unzip his coat. "It's a flash-freeze! Let me help you. We gotta get back to the cabin. Hurry!"
"Hey! What're you doing?" Starsky stepped back, confused by the action.
His companion blinked. "Giving you my coat."
"I can see that. Put it back on before ya catch your death." He stubbornly tugged at his icing jacket.
"Starsky, your coat is soaked and it's in the process of freezing solid. I can't let you walk back to the cabin like that." He shook the proffered garment for emphasis.
"Yes, you can. It's only about a half a mile." Starsky tugged at his coat again, succeeding in pulling it off the ice.
"I know that, but you're only here because I asked you to come. You're my guest and soon to be a Popsicle if we don't get you warmed up. What kind of host would I be if I let that happen?"
Starsky was fighting to keep his teeth from clacking together. He gritted them as he waggled his eyebrows. "One with one less fishing buddy?"
Hutchinson's face fell, and he paled. "That's not even funny." He wrapped his coat around Starsky's shivering shoulders.
As Starsky moved to shrug it off, a gloved index finger was thrust in his face.
"No. Leave it on. L-let's go. The temperature's dropping rapidly; flesh will freeze in minutes in this kind of weather." Hutchinson glared and shook his finger once more.
Starsky batted the annoying digit away. "Dammit, no! And keep that thing outta my face before I break it."
The stubborn finger returned, closer than ever to his nose. "Starsk –" The voice had a stern note to it.
Starsky noticed Hutchinson had shifted around to block the cutting wind with his body, giving him a small measure of relief. It didn't really help, but the thoughtfulness warmed him mentally. It was a fluke. It had to be. Starsky shook his head to clear the notion. "What did you just call me?"
"Starsk," Hutchinson obligingly repeated, moving closer as the wind picked up.
Starsky crinkled his nose and beetled his brow. "I don't think I like that."
The other man rolled his eyes, reached around to put a hand in the middle of Starsky's back, and pushed him gently toward the distant cabin. "Fine. You can tell me how much you don't like it as long as you do it while you're walking."
Not one to be pushed around, Starsky didn't move as he shot a look over his shoulder. "Ya know somethin'? You're bossy."
"Moo," the other man made a cow-like sound. "Get going. It's freezing out here." Hutchinson dipped down and snagged the handle of his small tackle box.
"Really? Probably why they call it 'winter.'" Starsky grabbed the pails and trotted off toward the cabin. "Let's compromise, I'll wear this part of the way; you wear it the other part. We'll trade off, 'kay?"
"Dammit, you're cold already!" Starsky moved to shrug the coat off his shoulders.
"I'm f-fine. Let's just keep m-moving. We'll warm up some as we g-go." Hutchinson motioned in the direction of the cabin with the tackle box.
"Yeah, right," Starsky grumbled but kept moving. He remembered what someone had once said about wind this cold, something about it being so thin it could pass right through you. In England it might be called a "lazy wind," meaning it didn't want to take the time to go around and would pass directly through you to get to the other side. Either way, it was bone-chilling.
"We gotta g-get to the shore. With the tree line, there should be a little more p-protection from the w-wind."
Starsky nodded in agreement, and they hurried off the lake.
As they hastened through the drifting snow, Starsky could hear the stuff squeaking under the weight of his boots. The sound was a bit like new sneakers on a gymnasium floor. Of course, it was accompanied by the steady castanet clacking of his teeth and Hutchinson's. They both would need dental work when they got back to Bay City.
He also noticed they had identically turned their shoulders to the wind, each ducking his head in the slight shelter to help keep the slashing snow from pelting their knit hat-covered ears and faces. It didn't really help much.
When Starsky inhaled the bitter air, his nostrils stuck together in a most disconcerting fashion. He snuck a quick look toward the distant cabin and could see gusts of snow pushing upward, blowing horizontally from a generally northern direction. They were heading right into the teeth of the wind.
Dropping his head back down into its meager refuge, he could see the footprints they'd made on their way to the lake were filling quickly with the swirling white power. God, I hate the cold. The only reason I ever go back to New York is to visit Ma and Nicky. He'd vowed years ago he would never live there again—or anywhere else where it got that wintry. And, after this week, he'd never go ice fishing again either.
He remembered when his mother had told him that growing up in warm Bay City had spoiled him and he was no longer a "real" New Yorker, who could take the cold and shrug it off as a minor inconvenience. Yeah, he was happy to live where it didn't ever get this cold. Ma could give him all the ribbing she wanted if it meant he could stay away from this awful weather.
A furious blast of wind whipped the five-gallon pails and ripped them from his hands. His fingers, now numb, couldn't hold on. He let the buckets go, hearing them bump and bang across the frozen tundra as they were blown away. He stared dumbly after them, and they were quickly lost in the gale-driven flurry—lost in the swirling whiteness. There was no point in trying to go after them. He tucked his cold hands further up into his armpits.
For a brief moment, there was a lull in the wind, and Starsky tilted his head back. It was as if a giant had been blowing the forceful gusts and then stopped to inhale. Looking up and half-expecting to see that giant—despite the mass of driven snow—Starsky glimpsed an amazingly blue sky high above him. The sun was shinning, but the light seemed bitterly cold, as if all warmth had been sucked from it. The blustery weather picked up again, and the blue patch was covered once more by a shroud of white and gray.
After a while, his legs felt leaden and his muscles ached from pulling his feet out of the ever-deepening drifts. On a lighter note, his teeth had finally stopped clacking together. Through aching jaws, Starsky yelled over the sound of the wind, "S-shouldn't we b-be there by now?"
Not hearing a response, he looked back and couldn't see his companion. All he could see was a white wall of streaming snow. He stopped dead in his tracks as fear flashed through him, colder than the wind and snow that buffeted him. He spun a tight circle.
"Hutchinson!" The words were ripped from his lips and quickly drowned by the shrieking fury of the wind. Blinded and disoriented by the whiteout conditions, Starsky took a step first in one direction and then in another, unsure of which way to go.
He turned around and yelled again, "Yo, Hutchinson!"
Where was the guy? What if he'd fallen, gotten hurt, or simply collapsed from hypothermia? Where should he start to look, and which way was the cabin?Starsky's mind ran helter-skelter with possibilities, each more grim than the last.