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 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 we'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 his 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 wall on its inside. 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 TBC From prompt "absence" in The NSWFF Prompt Thread - New prompt up 2/12!