Chapter 1: An Honorary Penguin
Skipper sits in his bunk, reading through an old mission file. He sighs as he lifts the sheet to continue reading. His flipper softly drifts down the page and stops on the photo of a young woman. It stays there for a while as he silently thinks with a fond, distant smile.
“Skipper?” Private waddles over to him. “What are you doing?”
Skipper drops the page and clears his throat. “Just looking over an old mission file.” He shrugs. He hops down from his bunk. “Why don’t you see if Rico needs any help topside?” he says as he waddles over to the elevator and descends to his own personal level for some privacy.
Private is left there, puzzled, but soon shrugs it off and goes to do what his commanding officer told him. He does glance a bit concerned after his leader, though.
Meanwhile, Skipper sits down in his swivel chair at his desk and reopens the file. “And I never did come back, did I?” he murmurs to himself as he looks at the picture again. “So fiery, ambitious...I wonder if she ever did get that promotion.” He smiles and reaches for his tin coffee mug on his left. He takes a long, slow sip as he thinks and then flips the page again.
The picture gets unclipped from the sheet and slips onto his desk, face-down. Skipper frowns and gets it, looking at the scrawled writing on the back of the photo in sky-blue crayon. He squints at it and attempts to decipher the squiggles onto another sheet, more clearly. “Johnson’s writing?” He rubs his chin, but then shakes his head. “No. No, this is Manfredi’s...Was Manfredi’s.” He frowns some and looks at the code. “But what does it mean? Why would he have written on a picture of her? My picture of her!”
Skipper’s frown deepens and he picks up his phone and dials Kowalski. “Kowalski, get down here now. Bring Manfredi’s file with you.” He then hangs up and leans back into the chair, turning the photo over and looking at the woman again.
Her head feathers were long and wavy, half of it up in a ponytail. Her blue-green eyes glimmered with a mischievous glint. Her smile was cordial, but secretive, as though she was bragging that she knew something that he didn’t. Her salute was held mockingly.
Skipper gently traces the outline of her curves and lets out a deep sigh of regret and longing before he softly lays the photo back on his desk and shakes his head. “She could be dead by now…” he murmurs to himself and takes a sip from his coffee. His eyes then fall upon a picture of Marlene on his desk and he is stuck staring at it for a long moment. His heart sharply stings as he gets the picture sadly in his flippers.
The flat-headed penguin swallows a little and shakes his head and lays the picture face-down in a drawer. His wipes his eyes one quick time each with the back of his flipper. He then gets up and waddles a little away to another picture, one from the otter’s habitat which he had gotten after the incident. An edge of the photo is burned, one corner is gone completely. Her happy grin and her fun beachball contrast his mood immensely as he also puts it in the desk drawer.
“Another broken promise…” He sniffs a little and takes another sip of coffee in an attempt to settle himself. But his thoughts drift back to the fire at the petting-zoo a few weeks back. He remembers how Marlene had been moved there for what was supposed to be a couple of weeks as a short term exhibit and then would have returned to her normal habitat...Only she never got to. Skipper closes his eyes as he can nearly hear the screaming of the fire-engines again and the crying and whimpering of the petting-zoo animals. He can see Marlene running back into the fire after a baby bunny that had gotten stuck; he hadn’t been quick enough to go in after it instead as he and his men were helping the sheep get free. He can see the flaming branch falling from the tree, once again crushing the bunny habitat in his mind’s eye.
Skipper then opens his eyes again and with a trembling flipper gets his cup and just holds it in both of his flippers. He looks ununderstanding at his own reflection in his half-cup of coffee. “Why didn’t I go in?” He whispers. “It should have been me…”720Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡVxckXJMkDZ
Private waddles into Kowalski’s lab and watches as the scientist blows off an old file and glance through it. “Um, Kowalski?” he asks.
Kowalski glances up from the file. “Yes?”
“I’m worried about Skipper,” he says simply and climbs up into a seat. “He’s been acting weird since Marlene’s...You know.” The boy looks at him. “He was reading through some old file, too, and he wouldn’t let me see!”
“Well, it might have been a classified one.” His teammate shrugs as he closes another file. “Either way, I am going down to him now. Don’t try to worry about him too much.” He ruffles the boy’s feathers. “You know how Skipper is...Just...I don’t know, go see if the Lunacorns is on or something.” He smiles softly at him and waddles from the lab. Kowalski sighs and rubs his face as he descends in the elevator to Skipper’s level. He knows his commanding officer still hasn’t fully recovered from Marlene’s death. None of them had. Unquestionably, Skipper had been hit the hardest of them all...Though it has been obvious that Skipper has been trying to hide it.
Kowalski steps out from the elevator and looks at Skipper who is sitting with his head on his flippers on the desk. The scientist clears his throat with a soft look. “Sir?”
Skipper sits up and looks over at Kowalski. “It’s about time…” he says, failing to sound as stern as he was attempting.
His ice blue eyes are red and a little watery, Kowalski notes as he looks at his short commander. “My apologies, Skipper, but it took some time to locate Manfredi’s file as you requested.” He hands the file to him with a small nod. He also notes the absences of the pictures of Marlene Skipper had had up.
“Good.” Skipper nods and clears his throat a bit as he gets the file and opens it.
“May I ask why you wanted his file, sir?” He takes a step closer to his friend.
Skipper nods a bit and nods his head towards his desk. “I was looking through the file on Guatemala and found something with his writing on it…”
Kowalski nods and picks up the picture with a certain glance at Skipper. “A little soon, don’t you think?”
Skipper makes no acknowledgment of his comment and instead continues to flick through the fat file on Manfredi.
The scientist sighs a little and shakes his head as he turns the picture over and looks at the crayon scribbles himself. “Looks like a code.”
“No really, Kowalski!” Skipper gasps with a snort closely following it.
“Excuse me for saying anything,” Kowalski murmurs and rolls his eyes as he looks at Skipper’s rewrite of it. He fixes a couple of the digits and nods some. “Could be really anything...I mean, he was team cryptographer after all.”
“Again you’re telling me just what I already know, Kowalski.” He sighs, unamused. “Tell me something new already.”
Kowalski rubs his head and thinks. “Ehm…”
Skipper looks at him. “You’re starting to slip, Kowalski.”
“Slip!” he gasps with a look at him. “I am not!” He looks at him. “You’re the one who still is moping around. The rest of us have moved on. I’m not accusing you, Skipper, nor rushing you, but you have no right to be saying that I am slipping.” He snorts.
His commanding officer turns away from him without a word. Kowalski then sighs and rubs his face. “Skipper…” he says more softly. “I understand you’re hurting.” He sighs. “You know we all are...And it is going to take time for things to feel normal again.” The scientist waddles over and softly lays his flipper on the shorter penguin’s shoulder. “If you want to talk about it, Skipper, Private I’m sure is there for you.”
Skipper now gives him a look. “As if I am going to talk about this kind of thing with a boy his age.” He replies. “He’s got his own emotions to deal with.”
“I was joking, Skipper.” Kowalski sighs some. “Trying to help lighten the mood. But seriously, Skipper, if you want to talk, all of us would be willing to listen and try to help you get through this.” He rubs his back some.
Kowalski still rubs his back with a soft smile.
“I said stop, Kowalski.” Skipper gives him a half-hearted shove away.
“You said please, so I didn’t take it as an order.”
Skipper just sighs and sits at his desk again, shaking his head. “It should have been me, Kowalski.” He turns and looks with his watery ice-blue eyes at his lieutenant. “She was a civilian.”
“No, Skipper. You and I both know she was just as much part of the team as any of us,” Kowalski says quietly and takes a deep breath. “She was an honorary penguin.”
“Yeah…” Skipper swallows some and takes a deep breath. He gets the picture of the penguin woman again in his flipper. “See if you can figure out Manfredi’s code...It may help us all if we have a change of subject...You know, a new mission.”
Kowalski nods and gets the image. “Aye, aye, Skipper.” Then with one last gentle look, Kowalski returns to the elevator and sighs. “I still think it is too soon for him to think of bringing her into this…” He looks at the picture. “There were reasons she never joined the team.”
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