The next morning, Antonio arrived at the penguin habitat promptly at noon. The other penguins went on with their duties while Antonio and Skipper sat across from each other at the table in HQ.
“So, what do you 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 said 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 you just tell me about yourself and I’ll tell you what Marlene would like.”
“Good idea,” Antonio said. “Well, I was thinking for our date later, I would take her to get some cotton candy.”
“Okay, let me tell you where you’re going wrong,” Skipper said casually.
Antonio blinked in surprise. “What?”
“First off, dial back on calling it a ‘date,’” Skipper said putting air quotes 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 you 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 you 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 forward on his elbows.
Skipper rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “She likes to feel important, like you 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 said 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 or 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 you can ‘keep her warm,’ or getting her nice things just so you can be ‘rewarded,’” he said narrowing his eyes. “She wants someone real.”
“I give you my word, señor,” Antonio said putting his right paw over his heart 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 you think I should bring her flowers? She seems to love flowers,” he asked.
“She does,” Skipper replied. “Her favorites are the lisianthus—purple, preferably.”
“My, you do know Marlene very well, don’t you?” Antonio observed studying him carefully.
“Affirmative,” Skipper replied. “What else do you want to know?”
“How long have you known her?” Antonio asked.
“Almost six years,” Skipper answered. “Why?”
“Have you 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 you for your help,” he said 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 you live,” he said 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 you 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 you later, then?” Antonio said 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 you are, Skipper,” Kowalski said 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 you 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 or just romantically clueless?”
Skipper thought for a moment. “As far as I know, just romantically.”
“What makes you 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 you 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 said 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 by his remark. Skipper took a deep breath to compose himself.
“Apologies, boys,” he said 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 more 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 said leaning toward Marlene, who was sitting next to him in the grass under a tree in the park.
Marlene shrank bashfully. “Is that a good thing?” she asked pushing some fur 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 said breaking eye contact, “I brought you these,” Antonio said reaching behind him and pulling out some flowers.
Marlene gasped in surprise. “Purple lisianthus? How did you 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 by their beauty, and I was reminded of you,” he said gently tracing her jawline with his finger, causing her to hide her face behind the flowers 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 you out of my head! Please, querida, go on one date with me, and if you never want to see me again, I will leave you alone.”
Marlene looked at him over the flowers 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 flowers to her chest.
“¡Estupendo!” Antonio said happily. “Then I will see you at seven?”
Marlene smiled. “Seven.”
— § —
“I don’t know,” Skipper said 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 said 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 date with me. I was hoping you 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 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. You won’t believe what the moonlight does to her eyes,” he said 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 said 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 you have in mind?”
“Anything,” Antonio said thoughtfully.
“Almost,” Skipper warned.
Antonio held up his paws innocently. “I know, I know,” he said defensively. “You are muy protective of her, aren’t you?”
Skipper met his eye. “I told you; she’s one of my closest friends. You bet your salmon 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 you 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 said 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 said shaking the confusion out of his head. “Um, what do you 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 you some from our food storage,” Skipper offered.
Antonio smiled. “¡Gracias! You are a true friend, señor,” he said 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 or 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 said feeling the texture of the table.
Antonio grinned. “Even better,” he said with excitement. “I must prepare a song for her before I meet her tonight,” he said 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 date with Marlene at seven,” he said 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 said impassively.
Skipper looked at him. “I don’t really understand it. He hasn’t done anything to render suspicion,” he said 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 you feel it too?” Skipper challenged. “That wrenching feeling in your gut whenever you 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 you 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 you need to do,” Kowalski replied. “I never question your gut. If you 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 you later