To help ease my nerves some, I made myself another cup of samaki coffee. I'd drank about half of it before I realized that it wasn't working. I still felt that lump in the pit of my stomach growing with each passing second. It was really bothering me. My gut has never been wrong before, even when Ringtail was actually innocent even when all of the evidence pointed toward his guilt. I took another long sip, but my stomach argued with a dissatisfied growl and I had to set my mug aside.
"You alright, Skipper?" Private asked while the Lunacorns were on a commercial break.
"Oh, yeah, I'm fine," I answered.
"You're still thinking about what happened earlier, aren't you?" Kowalski asked pulling a card from the deck in the center of the meza, jedwali in the midst of his game with Rico.
I hesitated with my answer, but luckily Marlene saved me kwa entering our HQ.
"Hey, guys! What's up?" She asked in her usual bright and cheery voice. It was obvious that she'd just finished a swim—her fur, manyoya was still slightly damp, making it look slick to the touch.
"Hi, Marlene!" Private called. Kowalski and Rico just nodded to her, too concentrated on their card game to give a proper welcome. I kinda wanted to slap them, but I held my ground.
"Oh, the usual, Marlene," I told her as I closed the distance between us to a mere foot.
"Oh, so wewe mean I just interrupted a top-secret meeting?" Marlene alisema with a playful sideways smile that I couldn't help but return.
"Okay, wewe got me there," I alisema chuckling, "we're just taking advantage of the problem-free morning." The words escaping my beak caused my stomach to lurch, as if it was scolding me for saying them.
Marlene smiled radiantly. "I wonder why it's so problem-free," she alisema winking at me. I felt the heat rush into my cheeks and I found myself grateful for the feathers hiding my skin.
"Just doing our job, Marlene," I alisema smugly.
Marlene laughed slightly. I wished it'd lasted longer. "Hey," Marlene piped up, "did that doctor give wewe guys any shots? I got one today, and I wasn't due for another check up for seven months."
The image of the doctor sticking a needle in Marlene caused a burning anger to begin bubbling up inside me and I had to force myself to choke it down. "We've already investigated the situation, Marlene. They're distributing a vaccination to each animal in the zoo. Haven't gotten to us yet, though. Did he hurt you? Because wewe know I'd be zaidi than happy to go knock his lights out," I told her clenching my fist in the palm of the opposite flipper.
Marlene laughed again and I relaxed my muscles. It took my mind a moment to process the fact that she'd thought I was kidding about knocking the doctor's lights out. Marlene's face fell slightly when she realized I wasn't laughing. "You were joking, right?"
I piped up with a smile. "Gotcha!" I alisema with laugh, feeling a little embarrassed. I hope it didn't onyesha that I was faking it; I normally wasn't good a hiding the fact that I was ready for action.
"You sounded so serious!" Marlene alisema through a laugh. "I mean, I appreciate the thought, but it was just a shot."
"Right, right, I was only joking," I lied. "Care to jiunge me in a game of chess?"
"I'd upendo to, but I really need to get back to my habitat. I didn't get too much sleep last night and I'm beat. Sorry," Marlene explained.
I shook my head. "It's alright. I'll see wewe later," I told her with a smile. She returned the smile and started to walk away, but tripped through her first step and stumbled into me. Luckily I was able to obtain a grip on her shoulders, and she obtained one on my chest feathers. It kind of hurt, but I still wished the moment would have lasted. I helped her regain her balance and retained my hold on her shoulders. Her face was barely an inch from mind and I couldn't help but notice the way her eyes sparkled in the fluorescent light of the HQ. "Are wewe okay?" I asked finally, coming back to reality.
"Yeah, sorry, I just tripped on something," Marlene answered. We both looked down and one of Private's Lunacorn dolls caught our attention.
"Private, what did I tell wewe about putting away your moonhorses after you're done with them?" I asked sternly over my shoulder.
"Sorry, Skipper! I thought I'd gotten them all," came Private's reply. A sekunde later he was at my side removing the toy from the floor and leaving to put it up.
I turned back to Marlene and realized that I still had a firm grip on her shoulders and let go. "Oh, sorry," I alisema trying to sound casual. But the zaidi I tried to sound casual, the zaidi like an idiot I seemed to be.
"It's alright. I didn't hurt you, did I? When I grabbed your feathers?" Marlene asked placing the palm of her paw on my chest and smoothing out the feathers she'd ruffled.
"No, Marlene, I'm fine. It was only your natural instinct to try to stop yourself from falling kwa grabbing whatever was closest by. No harm done," I alisema calmly. Marlene removed her paw and shrugged one shoulder.
"Well, I guess I'll be going, then," she said.
"G'bye, Marlene," I replied. She flashed me one zaidi smile and left, shutting the door behind her. I stared at the door for a moment longer, as if I could spontaneously develop X-ray vision and watch Marlene return to her habitat.
I took a deep breath to bring myself back together and turned on my heel, stopping abruptly when I noticed Kowalski and Rico staring at me strangely. Private had returned to watching the Lunacorns and wasn't paying attention.
"What?" I asked with my eyes flitting back and forth between Kowalski and Rico.
Kowalski turned back to his hand and placed a pair of Ace of Spades on the table. "Oh, nothing. I've just never seen wewe look at Marlene like that before," he alisema casually, causing Rico to smirk.
"Mmhm..." Rico cooed.
"Care to tell me what you're talking about, Kowalski?" I asked with my moyo pounding so hard I was afraid the whole zoo would think we're having an earthquake.
"Do wewe have any fours?" Kowalski asked Rico as if I'd alisema nothing.
"Fish!" Rico replied. Kowalski grabbed a card from the deck.
"Hello? Kowalski? I asked wewe a question!" I persisted.
Kowalski smiled. "I'm just saying, wewe just reminded me of myself for a dakika there."
"You? I don't recall any of my inventions exploding in my face. Mainly because I don't have any inventions," I replied.
Kowalski rolled his eyes for a moment. "I wasn't talking about that. I was talking about wewe reminded me of when I first laid eyes on Doris."
My moyo leaped a little and I tried to act natural. "Kowalski, I don't recall tripping over my feet and executing lame pick-up lines when Marlene walked in the HQ."
"No, but wewe have that same look in your eye," Kowalski alisema through a sing-song voice. "By the way, they weren't lame..." He finished under his breath.
I tried to avoid the topic about the look in my eye kwa focusing on the aforementioned lame pick-up lines Kowalski had used on Doris when he'd first met her. "Really? 'Hey baby, can wewe feel the boisterous electromagnetism between us?'" I shot back.
Kowalski sighed. "Okay, that's not the point here—"
"'Baby, every time I see you, my cardiovascular system gets all worked up?'" I added, hoping to annoy him into ending the conversation. Rico cracked up at that one.
"Alright! I get it! Okay!?" Kowalski exclaimed. "You don't have to pick on me to hide the fact that you're in upendo with Marlene," he muttered setting down another pair of cards on the table.
"Excuse me? I'm not in love with Marlene. She's a wonderful friend and I enjoy her company. Nothing more," I insisted, feeling zaidi nervous the longer this discussion carried out.
"Whatever wewe say," he muttered under his breath. "Any threes?" He asked Rico.
"Fish!" Rico responded.
I rolled my eyes and decided to drop the argument there. The zaidi I denied it, the zaidi they would know that I was lying. "Yeah, whatever. kwa the way, Rico does have a three," I told him. Rico laughed nervously as Kowalski crossed his flippers and gave him a 'Really?' look. I took my opportunity during their distraction to migrate to the other side of the room.
I remember when I first met Marlene. After spending a couple of years with a circus—long story, don't ask—my team and I decided that we missed the zoo life. After saying our goodbyes to the hippies, we headed back to the zoo and reclaimed our habitat.
The inayofuata morning she came in and welcomed us to the zoo.
I remember first laying eyes on her; I was in mixed emotions. I'd just met her, so I wasn't sure if she could be trusted. But there was something about the way she looked at me through those kind eyes and smiled that smile. It didn't take me as long to learn to trust her as it did for most people.
She stopped kwa frequently. At first, I was uncomfortable with it. I wasn't sure if she was just being neighborly au if she was some sort of spy. But, unexpectedly, I gradually became comfortable being around her. I found myself anticipating her visit each day. I loved the way she loved life. I loved her smile, her laugh.
Now, don't wewe go on thinking that just because I'm saying all of this, it means I've gone soft. I'm still the same leader of a quadrant of penguin, auk commandos that will slap wewe into shape if I see fit. Just because I have on a steel overcoat, doesn't mean I don't have a soft and warm inside. That's not really a side of me that I like to admit that I have, though.
The bottom line, there was something about Marlene that I couldn't quite describe. She'd changed a small part of me that could never be unchanged. She helped me see a part of life that I could really enjoy, despite how crazy and twisted the world really is. It wasn't until much later when I discovered exactly what was going on inside me. And that feeling exists to this day, and is stronger than it was in the beginning.
I'm in upendo with Marlene.