Feb. 24th, 2017

pronker: (Default)
Title:  Absence

Author: pronker

Era: Far, far in the future, we hope.  Or maybe never.  

Disclaimer:  I make no profit from this fanfiction set in Dreamworks' Penguins of Madagascar franchise, using its characters and settings.

Summary:  The four times Skipper listened and the one time he didn't.

Warning:  Not a happy story.

IOIOIOIOIO

KERPOW!  

thud

"Noooooooo!"

pistolwhip

"Ski--- p-p- uhhhhhhhh ---- "

IOIOIOIOIO

IOIOIOIOIO

"I want to discuss options with you, Private."  Kowalski's eyes were red-rimmed but his voice held steady.  

Rico turned away from his remaining teammates to give privacy.  He settled near the TV beloved by all of them, turned the sound down low and watched this morning's Lunacorns' Episode 86 of Season Three: Feelings, Whoa Whoa No Feelings.  That had been an artsy episode, filled with stylized scene fades and sparkling effects when Queen Pleaseandthankyou ceded leadership of all the Lunacorns to Princess Self-Respectra.  The transition of power shifted royal court dynamics as smoothly as Rico had ever seen.  He could not help but wonder if humans could take a leaf from the episode's Big Pastel Picture Book Of Politeness.

Private spared no glance for his favorite TV program.  "I don't care where I end up, K'walski."  He shrugged.  "Assign me any old place."

"Skipper would not wish you to drown in the Slough of Despond."  Kowalski cast a look at the unfinished Sloop John B at the empty place near the head of the table.  After one week, no one had had the heart to either discard the ship in a bottle or finish the project.

Private followed Kowalski's line of sight.  "Too late!"  He swallowed hard.  "Everythin's all wrong in my heart, somehow."  He studied his clasped flippers.  "My head says it wasn't my fault because I warned Skippa, I did, that the gun Hans aimed looked like a Webley Mk VI and not a harmless freeze ray but Skippa claimed Hans would never use anythin' but a Danish Madsen ranged weapon oh why didn't he listen to me before rushin' out from cover --- "

" --- and so your heart tells you that it was your fault he was killed, but Private, we all know our Skipper.  Sometimes he just didn't listen to any animal."  Kowalski's face grew as long as Private's.  "And so he's p-paid the price."  He swiped a flipper over his face.  "Ahem.  HQ Skyped this morning while you were sleeping and put me in charge of this unit.  We're going after Hans, Private, and I want you along on the mission.  What do you say?"

Rico tired of simpering Lunacorns; he clicked the TV off and a glum brooding silence shrouded the team's lair as it had for many days on end.  He waddled to the all-purpose table to fetch the deck of cards and returned to plotz once more by the TV without taking notice of anything or anyone else.  Kowalski shared a puzzled look with Private.  Rico could have regurgitated the deck where he sat, but the explosives expert had produced nothing but burps from his gut in a week.

Kowalski began another tack as he indicated the healing bump on the younger penguin's temple.  Rose pink replaced purple as it protruded twenty per cent less than yesterday from glossy black feathers.  "Rico stays with the Central Park Zoo team because he insisted and has seniority, so The Big Boss agreed.  I wanted to give you options, though, because you can choose reassignment to HQ for trauma treatment and select another team to join for more training.  Our team might hold unpl- er, I mean, guilty, oh drat, overwhelming memories."  He made himself continue.  "This may influence you to leave.  It's my job to present all options, even those I h-hate."  The lieutenant-turned-commander faced his subordinate squarely.  "You might even quit commando life altogether.  Rico and I would understand."

That got a rise from a confused and grief-stricken heart.  "Wot?  No!  Skippa kept me under his wing since forever and I'll dive headfirst into bein' a commando if it kills me.  This" --- he poked his bump savagely and then winced --- "is nothin'."  He slumped again.  "He tried to teach me everythin' but wot he taught me most, whether he meant to or not, was that I needed him."

The depth of Private's tragic loss in harrowing circumstances hit Kowalski for perhaps the first time.  He leaned forward earnestly.  "When you're in a hole, you oughta stop diggin'."

"That didn't sound like you, K'walski."

"Er, it was Dr. Phil.  I quote him a lot.  You may have noticed."

"Righto."  Rico's shuffling of the deck of cards supplied background noise as Kowalski swam through his own sorrowing sludge to supply guidance from a tiring brain.  Finally, he took a deep breath.

"Private, bad things in life take it out of us and we get stuck in a hole with a hole in our heart.  I know.  But" --- he jerked his head in Rico's direction, who was laying the foundation for yet another house of cards --- "life gives to us, too.  You'll find life makes a way to fill up the holes and little by little, other events, and and interests, and well, just living day to day smooths out the, the holes until you're on level ice again."  

The dull look on Private's face showed that Kowalski had not reached him and the fledgling commander sailed onward.  He luffed the canvas of his argument to prolong the tack into a friendlier port.  "Promise me you'll sleep on your decision tonight and we'll revisit this tomorrow morning.  Redier's ringlets, not too early, we still need extra rest to process ... everything that's happened.  And Private," he forced a smile, "take Rico as a good example, okay?"

Private swiveled his head in the direction of the TV.  "Wotever for?  He's done nothin' but build a house of cards every braapin' day since we laid Skippa to rest in the park."  A petulant frown creased a white brow and Private squirmed where he sat.  "Useless, if you ask me."  He tapped both flippers on the table as if barely able to sit still as his shoulders hunched in agitation.

The smile vanished.  "Rico grieves in his own way.  His decision to stay with the team was the right one --- "

"Says you!"  Private jumped onto the table and dropped to his haunches for an expert sweep kick at the ship in the bottle project.  The Sloop John B shattered on an unyielding cement floor.

"Private!"

From out of nowhere, four flippers held the tantrum under concerned control.  Private heaved to rise to no avail on the table as his face worked to stem tears.  "Crikey, let me up.  I'm good to go anywhere.  I'll leave right now, in fact."

Rico tightened his grip.  "'Rivatedown," he said firmly.

"No, Rico, let loose.  He needs to work through this --- "

Rico stood by his judgment as he had on the soothing nature of constructing a house of cards with no help from his amazing gut each day only to deconstruct it each night.  "Down!"

He was proven correct at Private's next words bitten out through a trembling beak.  "K'walski, you say other events and livin' day to day fill in holes and you were meanin' to add other friends at some point in future, am I right?"  Private stopped struggling at Kowalski's helpless nod.  He pretended to be fascinated by something on the ceiling.  "Wot if there are no other friends?  I've got no one else to lose."  He went limp and Rico eased up.  Kowalski loosened his hold, too, and circled the table to approach Rico's side.  At one step short of goal, he made a grab to block Rico's lightning fast strike.

Rico slapped as hard as Skipper ever did.  "Wubboutus?"  

Kowalski seized Rico, who wrestled out of the grip as Private rolled with the blow to land on nimble feet on the opposite side of the table from his teammates.  The three took a beat to gather themselves before Kowalski produced another option in desperation.  "Nigel!  Talk to Nigel!"

Kowalski could tell that Private was thinking at least a little because he tapped his flippertips together.  "Yeah, right, Uncle Nigel said I could stay with him awhile to get sorted.  I dunno wot to do, K'walski.  Life is all gobsmacked."

He turned away from them both as he headed to his bunk and rolled over to face the blank inside wall.  He kicked his Princess Self-Respectra doll to the floor.

"Lights out, Rico."

Rico did a double take.  "Zmornin!"

"You heard me.  Lockdown, computer."  Kowalski had nothing left to give to this day.  

"QUERY:  ERROR?"

"Rowan's message, not you, too!  I said lockdown!"

The lights dimmed to night setting and the only inorganic sounds in the lair were the slamming shut of the topside hatch and whssshpt of porthole coverings activating.  Heavy organic sighs continued for some minutes.  Private's trophy fish that at one time was organic gaped as uncaringly as ever.

IOIOIOIOIO

Twenty-two hours later, Private stretched languidly.  Rattling snores drifted to his earholes from above and below his bunk and he smiled.  He'd awakened first.  He felt rested.  He'd dash to the latrine, prep for the day and show how ready he was for duty to Sk-

Oh.

He'd held off memories for a tad shorter this time.  That was good, wasn't it?  That showed progress?  He was adjusting better?

No.  The new reality was unthinkable to adjust to.  Leave the team after returning to HQ for treatment of his puny injury?  He stuck up one flipper to represent that decision.  Talk to Uncle Nigel first?  He raised the other.  He zipped looking from one flipper to the other faster and faster, like the one time he had played Pong with Skipper in a bar featuring retro arcade games made into cocktail tables.  Of course, Skipper had won before hustling Private away from sitches bad for young penguins, his favorite term for anything from the zoo's St. Valentine's Day Serenading Sleepovers to drinking beer, even root beer.  

Private stirred the air in his bunk faster and faster with both flippers because options were the first thing on his mind, well, after that horrible wave of memory receded.  His whole body hurt and not just his bump.  He slammed his flippers down.  What was this pain?

It was the same pain as yesterday morning and the morning before that and the morning before that; in fact, every morning since he had surfaced to a throbbing head and shattered heart.  He couldn't remember how he'd returned to the lair from the dock.  Only one memory seemed more than hallucination: Rico plodding slowly beside Kowalski, Skipper's body slung over one brawny shoulder.  Private must have been carted in similar fashion by Kowalski at Rico's side, only he could open his eyes enough to see Skipper's beak trailing nervelessly down his soldier's back.  He gave a small cry at the recollection of glimpsing white feathers blown away from his commander's throat.  Face it, Private, he thought: you're bollocksed.  

He groaned and pressed his pillow over his face.  Serenity swam away from him as fast as a tarpon could flash through the briny mid-deep.  He had to do something or go mad.  He listened to the snores a moment more and acted.  The lab.  Yes, the lab provided solitude for the option that he had in mind.

With a stealth that came hard-learned, he dove from his bunk, landed in a roll and then waddled in circles while firming his resolve.  At last he straightened and eased open the heavy door.  Inside, the large space was black as Hans' heart.  He knew exactly where the light switch was, of course, but navigating in the dark provided one more way to avoid thinking about his loss.

No device glowed or hummed; Kowalski used his lab to putter aimlessly these days, neither completing nor beginning a project.  Private began his final morning workout in total darkness.
 
With a muted hi-yaaaah!, he became a ball of furious energy, concentrating on keeping all his movements inside a proscribed area.  He leaped high, he crouched low, he karate chopped and hip-flipped his invisible foe.  He stood on his head and bicycled his feet to distract Hans from aiming the kill shot.  Fast as the cheetah that the zoo was promised but who never arrived, he spun, kickboxed and capoeiraed the imaginary deadly puffin into submission.  In the dark, it was easy to imagine Hans' gasping, hateful face ground into the wooden dock.  Private allowed himself the joy of victory.  It was only fair to the situation in general since the team had thwarted Hans' scheme.  

The agony of defeat returned.  True, Hans hadn't succeeded in his attempt to hijack their submarine as he and Skipper set off to visit Atlantis.  If he had, then he would have learned the coordinates to that fabled continent, broken into their armory of superior weapons and returned to blow away more righteous citizens along with Skipper.  As things stood, Skipper's death was a reasonable price to pay for securing Atlantis' privacy as well as the peace of the other seven continents.  Skipper would have called the outcome a win-win-lose and not a true defeat at all;  Private knew himself unable to be so lighthearted with such a cost.

The sound of his labored breathing filled every square centimeter in the lab, Private figured.  A tale told of three princes who would receive their old king's crown if one could fill a room completely.  The first had shoveled sand into the room floor to ceiling; the king demonstrated how one more grain could be forced in.  The second son filled the room with feathers; the king compressed the feathers to add more.  The third son placed a candle in the middle of the room and lit it.  "Now it is filled with light," he said, and the king agreed.

Private's unanchored thoughts in the dark drifted from fairy tale to recent history.  It was supposed to have been partly a pleasure trip for them both, partly a training exercise for Private to separate the wannabes from the bees, according to Skipper.  When Kowalski challenged the skewed analogy, he'd been laughed off as Skipper ruffled Private's head feathers.  "C'mon, go with it, man!  I'll come back with an Atlantis turbo sea sled for you to reverse engineer.  Maybe even a sample of their permeable whatsis that they use to keep water out of their houses, how about it?"

Kowalski had persevered.  "Make the analogy separate the worker bees from the queen and I'll be happy."

"Queen?  Aw, have it your own way, sure.  Let's be gone, hey, Private?"

The memory of that day bit deep.  Rico and Kowalski waved them off in farewell, they sped to the docks via oblivious buses and made to retrieve their sub from Dock 25's underbelly.  That was when everything went pear-shaped.  Hans had been lying in ambush, the coward.

Private had trouble catching his breath.  He steadied himself with a flipper on the precise quadrant of work table where lay his desire.  More memories bloomed.  Skipper had listened to Rico's advice just before departing.  Rico had exploded the commander's notion to go off the grid and communicate only at their return with their sub's phased array.  He'd pressed a walkie-talkie into his leader's grip with a goofy grin and powerful clasp.  Skipper had rolled his eyes but accepted the device.

Private closed his own eyes to sharpen his senses for what he was about to do.

"Yeah, Ringtail, that's a good idea you've got there.  Mark my words because I'm not likely to ever say them ever again.  Ever."

Private snapped his head to the corner of the lab that was darker than dark.  "Wot?  Who is it?"

It couldn't be who it sounded like.  

Private touched his bump gingerly.  Kowalski said that the concussion was improving; had he been lying to comfort an aching soul?  
"Skippa?"  

Okay, now that was just wishful thinking, or was he still asleep?  He pinched himself.  "Ow!"

The dark corner spoke again.  "Marlene, for a mammal, you've got a good head on your shoulders and I'm proud to high-uh-four you.  Men, follow the otter's tactics and off we go!  Hurry up, Private, hustle that muscle!"

Right, then.  He'd gone nutter.  Actually, this event made his decision even more wise and true.  Private reached up on the worktable for the weapon that none of them had gotten around to disposing.  When Skipper's terse "Backup!  Dock 25!" produced Rico and Kowalski in record time, Hans proved inept at evading Rico's furious chainsaw attack at the quay deserted by humans; he lost half a wing and he'd never fly again.  As he raced away, the Webley Mark Vi dropped and Rico retrieved it before Kowalski signaled him to help with their fallen warriors.  They were only able to help one of them.

"Soon, sir."  By touch alone, Private hefted the weapon and checked the chambers.  The empty one he jacked around to be certain that it would not be in play when he next used the weapon.  He ran a double check, congratulating himself on his thoroughness.  

Private's throat ached with holding back tears and his head ached and pain raced through him like sheet lightning on the prairies of Nebraska.  Crikey, what was it?  Why wouldn't this pain go away?  No animal could survive it.   He knew he was going to die of it because it ripped his being to shreds every day.  He gave himself options: he could reverse the decision he'd made this morning, or he could push through the pain and make the decision real.  All the suffering would be over --- his breath caught in his throat --- and maybe he'd see Skipper again!  In a few minutes!  

Whyever not?  he counseled himself.  With that happy prospect before him, how could he not go through with it?  Who would deny him such a joyful reunion?  He knew exactly where on his chest to place the barrel, how to use the Webley Mark Vi neatly and sweetly to fix his problem.  It would be simple.  He'd better do it now before anyone woke up.  For a moment, he was complete.  His team and his uncle would grieve and then move on, like Kowalski said regular folks do.  He'd be put in a hole, where regular folks go.  

"Comin', Skippa."  

Private pulled the trigger.  

There was a white light and then nothing.

IOIOIOIOIO

Kowalski flicked the switch and his lab blazed to life.  "He's got to be in here, Rico."

"Yah."

"I'm worried about him --- Leonidas's loincloth!"  Kowalski knelt by his youngest soldier.  He opened a slack eyelid, slapped a feathery cheek and sighed.  "What was he doing?  He likes science about as much as you do, so what was he doing in my lab?"

Rico took in the scene with the gun on the floor within Private's reach.  He cocked his head in thought as he replaced the weapon on the work table.  He looked down at Kowalski's bowed back while the erstwhile lieutenant laid his earhole against the softly rising and falling chest.  "Kwoskii."  He upchucked a sphygmomanometer.

Kowalski grabbed the instrument without a second look.  He listened and palpated and declared Private fit to be moved to his own bunk.  Rico did the honors and Kowalski slid the blanket up to Private's pure white throat before tucking it in tightly about him.

It was a half hour before Private awakened.  He stretched without opening his eyes, a smile on his beak.  "Skippa?"

Rico gestured to Kowalski, who spoke a few hurried words into his Skype before clicking it off.  He'd heard Private's first utterance and shared a concerned look with Rico.  "Private, it's just us."

Private's blue eyes opened wide.  "Skippa's not with me?"  He got to his feet, wobble-legged.  He tottered forward into bracing flippers.  "Where is he?  And why are you lot here --- oh.  Oh, no.  Nothin's changed?  Nothin's better?"

It must have been this feeling that bent but never broke Skipper.  Kowalski could do no less in service to his bequeathed team.  "Private, Skipper is dead.  He'll never be with us ag--- "

Private's eyes watered.  "Don't."  

"I've got to."

The young penguin stumbled across the room and a laugh bubbled up.  "I had the answer to everythin'!  I had it!"

Rico pulled Kowalski aside and whispered into his earhole.  Kowalski's eyes dilated to nearly black.  "What?  Private, Skipper would not want you to do such a thing and I will not let you!"

"You don't understand, it's nothin' to be afraid of, it's not it's not --- "

Kowalski's voice cracked.  "You must understand that Skipper no longer lives, he'll never lead us again, he'll never command the sub again or play with Eggy again.  Not even once."  Rico had remained staunchly at his new commander's side, his face wet, but now his knees buckled and he sank to the floor.  

Hoarseness could not keep Kowalski from securing his team's safety.  "Promise me you won't try this again."

More laughter erupted as Private remained torn between hysteria and pain so great it blinded him to the friends he had left.  "Why?  I heard Skippa speak to me, he was this far away" --- he placed his flippers two inches apart --- "and he, he commanded me to come --- "

Rico croaked a question.  "'Kippaaaahhanted?"

Science proved Kowalski's salvation from insanity once more.  "Haunting is not possible, Private.  As much as we'd all love to see him again, it's impossible.  Let him rest in peace, for Blavatsky's sake.  He earned it."

With every word, something in the deepest part of Private withered.  He nodded distantly as he stared at the floor.  Rest.  Gone.  Earned.  Peace.  The ache inside him swelled to blot out all else, and then it receded the teensiest bit.  He looked around him.  Rico contemplated six square inches of the same floor in front of his slumped body; Kowalski strained to make eye contact with his distraught junior soldier as he stood with flippers akimbo in an unconscious imitation of Skipper.

Private lifted his gaze as his exhausted mind discerned a puzzle to seize upon as a distraction.  "Hang on.  I pulled the trigger after I heard Skippa or thought I heard him.  Wot am I doin' still breathin'?"  He looked even more confused than before.  "Or am I?  Am I dead, K'walski?"

Now this was something that Kowalski could sink his analyzing beak into.  "I am firmly convinced that you are not and neither are Rico and I.  Let's examine the evidence."  He looked down at Rico, who still had a depressed air.  "Er, I'll go it alone."  New energy gained from twenty-two hours of restorative sleep strengthened his steps as he paced in front of his team.  "What did you do right before you took up the Webley?"

Private waxed poetic.  "I played handball with Hans' head, so to speak.  I smashed his bleedin' beak in, I gutted him like a shrimp for jambalaya after rippin' off his legs and I made him pay --- "  He didn't seem to notice the tears that finally fell.  He sighed.  "In my mind, anyway, but on the outside I finished quite the tough workout and had to stop to get my wind back.  That's when I heard Skippa."

Kowalski invaded Private's personal space by a factor of one third.  "Stand still."  He brushed away the tears before gently feeling the bump.  "We found you on the floor with the gun near.  It had not been fired."  He frowned as he ran a flippertip around the pink circumference.

"I remember pullin' the trigger, K'walski.  Am I bonkers?"

Kowalski's smile was sad.  "I think we're all a little nuts lately.  What did Skipper say?"

"Somethin', somethin' --- oh, it's hard to think --- he gave in and really listened to, to you, and Rico, and Marlene and even Julien.  It was like a mishmash of the times I heard him take advice.  It was so nice to hear, K'walski --- "  Private started to sob.

Kowalski wrapped Private in a hug and comforted as would any good commander.   "There, there, now, Dr. Phil would say winners deal with the truth and the truth is that your bump isn't fully healed.  All that exercise shot up your blood pressure and you fainted when you lifted the heavy gun.  The rest was not real and you imagined you heard what you needed to about Skipper taking advice."

Private turned woeful eyes up to his tall friend.  "You really think so?"

Kowalski nodded and patted the quivering back.  "I do.  HQ is dispatching your Uncle Nigel here to liaise with you, and them, and us, and uh, me.  You two will have a nice visit, especially since he's not doing that dippy daffy doofus impersonation as a cover anymore."

Private pulled away a trifle.  "Yeah, um, thanks for fetchin' him, K'walski.  One thing, though."

"Yes?"

"Wellll, I pinched myself to see if I was dreamin'.  And I wasn't."

Kowalski patted some more.  "Another hallucination that's entirely natural, Private."

Rico got to his feet and squeezed them both hard.  "Wuzthere," he said.

"So, Rico, you're sayin' Skippa knew I needed him one last time?  So he swam back from the Endless Iceberg through the Eternally Foggy Sea to help?"

Kowalski had the last word.  "Well, if any penguin could do it, he could."

IOIOIOIOIO

The End.

IOIOIOIOIO
 

Profile

pronker: (Default)
pronker

August 2017

S M T W T F S
  12345
6789 101112
131415 16171819
20212223242526
2728293031  

Most Popular Tags

Style Credit

Expand Cut Tags

No cut tags
Page generated Sep. 21st, 2017 12:26 pm
Powered by Dreamwidth Studios