The suivant morning, Antonio arrived at the manchot, pingouin habitat promptly at noon. The other penguins went on with their duties while Antonio and Skipper sat across from each other at the table, tableau in HQ.
“So, what do toi want to know?” Skipper asked folding his flippers on the table.
“Well, I’m not sure where to begin,” Antonio replied. “I want to know everything,” he a dit wistfully, resting his chin on his fist and closing his eyes. When he opened them, Skipper was staring at him impatiently, with an eyebrow arched. Antonio awkwardly cleared his throat.
“Well,” Skipper started, breaking the silence, “how about toi just tell me about yourself and I’ll tell toi what Marlene would like.”
“Good idea,” Antonio said. “Well, I was thinking for our rendez-vous amoureux, date later, I would take her to get some cotton candy.”
“Okay, let me tell toi where you’re going wrong,” Skipper a dit casually.
Antonio blinked in surprise. “What?”
“First off, dial back on calling it a ‘date,’” Skipper a dit putting air citations around date. “Even if she does like you, she’ll feel like you’re moving too fast.”
“Not a date,” Antonio acknowledged. “Got it.”
“Second, if toi want to get to know each other, wait before getting something to eat, unless she asks for it, of course,” Skipper explained. “Marlene likes to talk, but she also likes to listen. Be sure there’s an equal balance there. Eating will be a distraction.”
“Talk a lot, listen a lot,” Antonio agreed.
Skipper nodded. “All right. Um, what do toi consider a ‘good time’ with a woman?” he asked studying him carefully.
Antonio thought for a moment. “Well, I like to make my women feel special. What would make her feel special?” he asked leaning vers l'avant, vers l’avant on his elbows.
Skipper rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “She likes to feel important, like toi care about her. But she also values her independence. Don’t be too clingy, and don’t make her feel like she’s fragile, because she’s not,” he a dit shooting him a warning look.
Antonio shook his head. “Never. Um, what would make her feel fragile?” he asked.
“Things like wanting to do everything for her ou calling her delicate,” Skipper replied.
Antonio seemed reluctant, but he nodded. “Give her independence, don’t make her feel fragile,” he said, distastefully emphasizing the word fragile. “What else?”
“Don’t play games with her, like buying her a snow cone just to make her cold and toi can ‘keep her warm,’ ou getting her nice things just so toi can be ‘rewarded,’” he a dit narrowing his eyes. “She wants someone real.”
“I give toi my word, señor,” Antonio a dit putting his right paw over his cœur, coeur and raising his left, “I would never treat Marlene in such a disrespectful manner. She deserves to be treated like the fine lady she is,” he assured him.
Skipper studied him carefully, and then nodded. “Agreed.”
Antonio smiled. “Do toi think I should bring her flowers? She seems to l’amour flowers,” he asked.
“She does,” Skipper replied. “Her favoris are the lisianthus—purple, preferably.”
“My, toi do know Marlene very well, don’t you?” Antonio observed studying him carefully.
“Affirmative,” Skipper replied. “What else do toi want to know?”
“How long have toi known her?” Antonio asked.
“Almost six years,” Skipper answered. “Why?”
“Have toi two ever . . .?” His voice trailed, unsure of how to finish the question.
“Ever what?” Skipper asked sternly, narrowing his eyes.
Antonio swallowed. Something told him not to tick him off. “Nevermind. Thank toi for your help,” he a dit standing. “I hope I am welcome to return if I require your advice?”
Skipper stood with him. “Sure. I need to keep my eye on you, anyway. Might as well make it up close and personal. It’ll save me the trouble of finding out where toi live,” he a dit emotionlessly.
Antonio started laughing, but Skipper just arched an eyebrow, as if trying to understand what was funny. Antonio’s smile faded and he coughed awkwardly.
“I think I’ll go meet Marlene early. I’m not sure I can wait much longer,” Antonio said, attempting to change the subject.
“How much earlier are we talking?” Skipper asked.
“About an hour,” Antonio answered.
Skipper rolled his eyes. “Do toi know anything about women? Never pick your lady up early. If she’s really getting ready to see you, she’s going to need that hour,” he said.
Antonio nodded. “Of course. You’re probably right. I guess I’ll, um, see toi later, then?” Antonio a dit without meeting his eye.
“Guess so,” Skipper affirmed.
Antonio nodded and made his way for the hatch. He was starting to think Skipper hadn’t been joking, and maybe never was.
— § —
“Ah, there toi are, Skipper,” Kowalski a dit from Alice’s computer as Skipper hopped up on the desk. “How was your discussion with Antonio?”
“It was fine,” Skipper replied looking at the screen. “How’s it coming on getting a location on our shipment?”
Kowalski glanced at him. “Should be here in a couple of days. So, what’s Antonio like? Do toi think he’s a good match for Marlene?”
“So far, I think he seems like an okay guy. Pretty clueless, but decent,” Skipper replied.
Kowalski arched an eyebrow. “Like, Julien clueless ou just romantically clueless?”
Skipper thought for a moment. “As far as I know, just romantically.”
“What makes toi say that?” Private asked.
“Well,” Skipper reconsidered, “maybe just clueless in being romantic specifically with Marlene,” he admitted.
“Well, that’s why he wanted your help,” Kowalski said, “so he could fix that.”
Skipper nodded. “Right.”
“Is something wrong, sir?” Private asked.
Skipper shook his head. “No, nothing’s wrong. I just keep feeling like there’s something about him I don’t like, but I can’t pinpoint what exactly.”
Kowalski thought for a moment. “Do toi think he seems too forthcoming?”
Skipper shook his head. “No, it’s not that. I don’t know, maybe I’m just paranoid that he’ll hurt her,” he a dit growling, his face twisting into a grimace, “because if he does . . .”
Skipper didn’t need to finish his sentence for the team to get the picture. Rico whistled as if surprised par his remark. Skipper took a deep breath to composer himself.
“Apologies, boys,” he a dit without making eye contact. “I just don’t like the thought of good Friends getting hurt.”
The boys nodded in understanding. Marlene was their friend too. If Antonio did hurt her, they would be plus than happy to help Skipper give him what he deserved.
— § —
Antonio laughed. “You know, in all my life, I have never met anyone quite like you,” he a dit leaning toward Marlene, who was sitting suivant to him in the herbe under a arbre in the park.
Marlene shrank bashfully. “Is that a good thing?” she asked pushing some fourrure behind her ear.
Antonio smiled. “That is a very good thing,” he replied tipping her chin. Marlene looked up at him and then turned her head back down, fiddling with the grass. When she glanced back up, Antonio was watching her with a calm smile.
“So,” Antonio a dit breaking eye contact, “I brought toi these,” Antonio a dit reaching behind him and pulling out some flowers.
Marlene gasped in surprise. “Purple lisianthus? How did toi know these are my favorite?” she asked accepting them and smelling their sweet fragrance.
Antonio arched a brow. “Are they? I just happened to see them and was struck par their beauty, and I was reminded of you,” he a dit gently tracing her jawline with his finger, causing her to hide her face behind the fleurs timidly.
“Antonio!” she protested. “We barely know each other.”
“Ah, but I want that to change,” Antonio replied. “I want to know everything about you. Marlene, I just can’t get toi out of my head! Please, querida, go on one rendez-vous amoureux, date with me, and if toi never want to see me again, I will leave toi alone.”
Marlene looked at him over the fleurs and smiled. “O-Okay,” she agreed. “When?”
Antonio smiled broadly and got to his feet. “Tonight? About seven?” he asked helping Marlene to her feet.
“Okay,” Marlene agreed, clutching the fleurs to her chest.
“¡Estupendo!” Antonio a dit happily. “Then I will see toi at seven?”
Marlene smiled. “Seven.”
— § —
“I don’t know,” Skipper a dit to Kowalski atop their island, “all I remember is some samurai wannabe dressed like Bruce Lee.”
“That doesn’t even make sense,” Kowalski replied.
Before he could say anything else, Antonio dropped into their habitat.
“Ah! Skipper!” he a dit picking him up and spinning him around.
“Whoa!” Skipper protested.
Antonio set him down. “Lo siento, mi amigo. I am just so happy. Marlene agreed to go on a rendez-vous amoureux, date with me. I was hoping toi could give me some tips on where to take her.”
“Sure,” Skipper replied, “let’s go down in HQ.”
Antonio followed Skipper down the hatch and the two sat across the table, tableau from each other as they had earlier that day.
“So, what should I do? I want everything to be perfect,” Antonio said. “I was thinking I could take her for a swim as the sun sets.”
Skipper thought about it. “You could, but if you’re looking for romance, wait until the moon comes out for the swim. toi won’t believe what the moonlight does to her eyes,” he a dit looking at the edge of the table. When Antonio didn’t reply, he looked up to see him studying him carefully. “What?”
Antonio sighed and shook his head. “Nothing. So, moonlight swim, even better,” he agreed.
“Remember what I a dit about balancing talking and listening, too,” Skipper said.
“Right,” Antonio replied.
Skipper thought again and shrugged. “Well, she’d probably be up for almost anything,” he said. “What else did toi have in mind?”
“Anything,” Antonio a dit thoughtfully.
“Almost,” Skipper warned.
Antonio held up his paws innocently. “I know, I know,” he a dit defensively. “You are muy protective of her, aren’t you?”
Skipper met his eye. “I told you; she’s one of my closest friends. toi bet your saumon I’m protective of her.”
Antonio felt a chill tapdance on his spine at his threatening tone and glare. He cleared his throat and nodded. “Of course. I assure toi I will be a complete gentleman to her. She deserves nothing less,” he said.
Skipper still didn’t look convinced, but he let it go—on the outside, at least. “Anyway,” he a dit breaking eye contact, “continue.”
Antonio furrowed his brow. “What were we talking about?”
Skipper rolled his eyes. “The date? Things to do on it?”
“Right, right,” Antonio a dit shaking the confusion out of his head. “Um, what do toi think we should eat?”
“She loves oysters on half-shells,” Skipper replied.
Antonio thought for a moment. “Where would I find those?”
“I’ll tell Private to score toi some from our nourriture storage,” Skipper offered.
Antonio smiled. “¡Gracias! toi are a true friend, señor,” he a dit putting a paw over his heart. Skipper looked at him quizzically, as if questioning the sincerity of his statement, but then he shrugged.
“Yeah, yeah, de nada ou whatever,” Skipper answered with a dismissive wave of his flipper. “So we have a moonlight swim and oysters. What else?”
“Maybe a walk around the park, just to talk,” Antonio suggested.
“Good,” Skipper replied. “Anything else?”
“I was thinking I might play a song for her on my Spanish guitar,” Antonio said.
Skipper darted a look at him. “You know Spanish guitar?” he asked.
“Sí,” Antonio replied. “Why?”
Skipper looked down thoughtfully. “Marlene loves Spanish guitar,” he a dit feeling the texture of the table.
Antonio grinned. “Even better,” he a dit with excitement. “I must prepare a song for her before I meet her tonight,” he a dit getting to his feet.
Skipper looked up. “What time tonight?” he asked.
“Seven,” Antonio answered wistfully. “Why?”
“Just asking,” Skipper replied as he rose to his feet as well. “Good luck.”
“Gracias,” Antonio said. “Hasta luego.”
Skipper nodded as Antonio made his way toward the hatch. Kowalski dropped in as soon as he left.
“How did it go?” he asked coming to the table.
“Fine, I guess,” Skipper answered. “He’s got a rendez-vous amoureux, date with Marlene at seven,” he a dit looking across the room in thought.
Kowalski arched a brow. “What’s wrong?” he asked.
“I don’t know. Something’s still off about him. I can feel it in my gut. Just hearing his name makes me—cringe,” Skipper answered with a grimace. “Maybe he’s a government spy.”
Kowalski rolled his eyes. “Unlikely,” he a dit impassively.
Skipper looked at him. “I don’t really understand it. He hasn’t done anything to render suspicion,” he a dit rubbing his chin, “but my gut has never been wrong before.”
“Hm,” Kowalski replied thoughtfully, “maybe it’s just your fear that Marlene will be hurt if he isn’t the one. No one wants to see a good friend upset.”
“So toi feel it too?” Skipper challenged. “That wrenching feeling in your gut whenever toi go near him!”
“Well, no,” Kowalski answered. “I think he seems like a decent guy, but I can’t say I’m not keeping an eye on him too, if only at a distance.”
“Well, I feel it. There’s something he isn’t telling anyone. I know it,” Skipper replied narrowing his eyes in suspicion.
“What are toi going to do about it?” Kowalski asked.
Skipper looked at him. “I think I’m going to oversee this ‘date,’ just to make sure he doesn’t try anything,” he said.
“Do what toi need to do,” Kowalski replied. “I never question your gut. If toi need help, just let me know.”
Skipper nodded. “Thanks, Kowalski, but I think I’ll do this alone. It’ll be easier to stay hidden that way,” he said.
Kowalski nodded back. “All right. Be careful.”
— § —
querida = darling
estupendo = great
lo siento = I’m sorry
muy = very
de nada = you’re welcome
sí = yes
hasta luego = see toi later