The Great Penguin Caper
a Tennis RPF fanfic
Notes: Set during the Australian Open 2011. With apologies to Oliver Jeffers.
Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction.
"Are you alone?" Rafa whispered, as he opened his hotel suite door. "Did anyone see you?"
"No one saw me," Roger said, bemused. The text from Rafa had been very cryptic. "What's the emergency?"
Rafa peered furtively down the corridor, before dragging Roger inside and bolting the door. He limped towards the bathroom. "Over here."
"How's the leg?" Roger said, following.
"Just a hamstring tear," Rafa said. As though crashing out in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open was nothing. Roger wondered what on earth could be occupying his attention instead.
He halted at the bathroom door.
"Rafa. Why is there a penguin in your bathtub?"
"I didn't have anywhere else to put him."
It was a plump bird, black and white all over, with an orange bill, orange feet, and a white patch on its head. Roger stared at it. It stared back at him.
"He is a gentoo penguin," Rafa said. "Like the ones at Melbourne Aquarium."
"I guess it's kind of cute," Roger said. A dreadful suspicion stole over him. "Rafa, where did you get this penguin from?" Silence. "You didn't take it from the aquarium, did you?"
"He followed me home," Rafa admitted.
"He just showed up! I had to let him in."
"If you really wanted a penguin," Roger said cautiously, "I'm sure I could look into it for you." He didn't know why he was offering; Rafa had enough funds himself to buy an entire zoo.
"I don't want a penguin," Rafa said. "But this one needs my help. I think he wants to go home."
"Then take him back."
Rafa shook his head. "Not the aquarium. The South Pole."
A hundred responses flooded through Roger's head. The one that burst out was, "We're in the middle of a grand slam!"
Rafa smiled wistfully. "Not me. Not anymore. Anyway, some things are more important than tennis, no?"
"But why come to me?" Roger said helplessly.
"You have a private jet."
Roger took a moment to absorb this. "You want me to fly to Antarctica and take this penguin home. I'm sorry, Rafa, but that's impossible. It's hundreds of miles away, we don't even know where to go, and besides--"
"--there is a semifinal tomorrow. I know."
"Listen, Rafa. Ring the aquarium. They'll know what to do. I'm just a tennis player."
"But you are Roger Federer," Rafa said, almost sadly, as he showed Roger out.
Roger stood staring at the closed door for several moments. It was ridiculous, utterly ridiculous. And yet he wondered why he felt like the lowest scum on earth.
* * * * *
Novak was on fire this tournament, and he wanted the title bad. Roger had to focus on winning this match, but it was hard when the memory of Rafa's sad face kept drifting through his mind. And as though to drive the point home, all these damn feathers were floating about the court, even though there were normally no birds in Rod Laver Arena.
His distraction had cost Roger the first set, but after he managed to get one of the ball boys to clear a feather from the net, his mood improved. He won four games in a row, and soon after, he was up 5-3, serving for the set. Back on track. Roger lifted his racquet. And froze.
A penguin stood in the middle of the court, staring at him in accusation.
Roger blinked, but it was still there. How had it made its way here from Rafa's hotel room? Why hadn't security stopped it from invading the court? But as Roger swept his gaze around the stadium, he realised that no one else was staring at the penguin. They were all staring at him.
Waiting for him to serve.
"Is there a problem, Mr Federer?" the chair umpire said.
I'm hallucinating penguins, Roger thought.
"No problem," Roger said. He took a deep breath and tossed the ball into the air.
The penguin honked.
His serve went into the net.
* * * * *
The presser was a nightmare. Everyone wanted to know how Roger Federer had tanked in straight sets, and he would sooner eat his racquet than tell them. Instead, he made up some bullshit story about not playing well enough on the big points, and congratulated Novak on a great match. At least he didn't have to pretend he wasn't royally pissed off about it.
* * * * *
"Where is it?" Roger demanded, as soon as Rafa opened the door. "I'm going to strangle that little beast."
He stormed to the bathroom and yanked aside the shower curtain. The penguin sat in the bathtub, an innocent look in its beady eyes.
"No, Roger, you can't!" Rafa held him back. "You love animals!"
"That's not an animal, it's a monster. Do you know what it did?" He glared at Rafa, who clung to him, one foot wobbling. His rage died, replaced by apprehension. "Wait. How did you get that hamstring injury again?"
Rafa looked abashed. "On court. My fault. I was surprised--"
"My god. It got you too." Roger ran a hand through his hair. "Rafa, it's evil. An evil killer penguin."
Rafa shook his head. "Listen to yourself, Roger. That sounds crazy."
"I'm not the one with a penguin in my bathtub!"
Rafa deflated. "I know why you're upset," he said quietly. "I'm sorry."
He looked so dejected, Roger had to say, "It's not your fault."
"Yes, it is. You came here to play tennis. To defend your title. I messed that up for you."
Damn. Roger put his hands on Rafa's shoulders and looked him in the eye. "It's not your fault. You're being haunted by this penguin too. We have to get it out of both our lives."
"Roger, please don't--"
"We're going to the South Pole. We'll take the damn bird home."
* * * * *
"It's not too late to swap," Rafa said anxiously, as he and Roger strode through the passenger terminal at Melbourne Airport. People stopped to stare at them, the top two tennis players in the world, walking side by side and conversing in low voices.
Roger drew his coat closer around himself. It was too heavy for the weather, and only the airconditioning made it bearable. "No, it should be me. No one will believe you would wear this in summer."
Roger let his gaze drift around the terminal, as though perfectly relaxed, trying to ignore the weight of the penguin hidden inside his coat. He was sweating, and not only from the heat.
Stealing protected animals: it had to be a felony. Roger had the impression that the Australian government took a dim view of wildlife smuggling. He would be banned from entering the country. He would never play the Australian Open again. And all the titles would go to Novak or Andy or, oh god, Soderling--
"Are you all right?" Rafa said, forehead creasing. "You don't look so good."
"I'm fine," Roger said, trying not to hyperventilate. "I'm just peachy."
The security gate loomed before them like the mouth of hell. Roger placed his RF monogrammed sports bag on the conveyor belt, smiling casually as it passed through the x-ray monitors.
Rafa walked through the metal detector arch first, with no problem. Roger took a breath and stepped through. The arch beeped.
Roger smiled nonchalantly, despite his pulse racing like at break point. He stepped through the arch a second time. It beeped again.
"I'm sorry, Mr Federer," said the security officer, "could you come this way?"
Rafa was staring at him in horror, but Roger met his eyes calmly. He stepped to one side and lifted his arms, as the security officer ran the hand scanner up and down his body. It beeped at his waist. Roger tried to think of an answer to Why are you wearing a penguin in your coat? Maybe he could pass it off as a new sponsorship gift from Nike. He should have had it monogrammed.
"It's your belt buckle," the security officer said apologetically. "May I--?"
Solemnly, Roger removed it and handed it over. He stepped through the arch a third time. All clear.
He replaced his belt on the other side, and collected his sports bag, to join a relieved Rafa. They started for the boarding gate.
Roger turned, heart pounding. "Yes?"
"Better luck next year."
"Thanks," Roger said.
* * * * *
The plane touched down in Antarctica in the long afternoon, when the rays of the sinking sun transformed the landscape into a wonderland. All about them was a vast expanse of snow, pure and cold, but the light gave it a hundred shades of gold and pink and orange. Rafa pressed his hands to the window, entranced, and even Roger had to admit that it more than rivalled the snows of home.
The penguin seemed to understand that it had arrived at its own home. It waddled down the steps of the plane, turned back to them, and honked in excitement.
"Goodbye," Rafa said, eyes misting.
"Goodbye," Roger said, feeling slightly foolish at talking to a bird.
But the penguin just stood there.
"Go on," Roger said. "Go home!"
It waddled a few more steps, then stopped and waited.
"Maybe he changed his mind?" Rafa said uncertainly.
The idea of taking the demon penguin back with them did not appeal to Roger. "I think it wants us to follow it. Come on, let's get this over with."
He started walking. The penguin honked with enthusiasm and rushed away across the ice.
Roger flipped open his phone. "Mike," he said to the pilot, "if we're not back in an hour, you'd better come look for us."
* * * * *
Keeping up with the penguin was harder than Roger had expected. Despite its little legs, it was quite speedy, and when it flopped onto its belly and tobogganed across the ice, it could easily outpace them.
It was a long trek, and after a while, Roger stopped appreciating the grand vistas, and just wanted to be home.
He blinked. Between one moment and the next, the penguin had disappeared. He glanced sideways at Rafa, in case he had missed something. But then a furious honking came from ahead.
They edged towards the spot where the penguin had vanished, and stopped just in time, at the brink of an icy crevasse almost hidden by snow. And at the bottom of the crevasse were dozens of penguins, their black and white shapes roaming in circles.
"What are they doing?" Rafa said.
"They're trapped," Roger said, feeling sick. "There's no way out."
It looked like the ice sheet had collapsed beneath them. The walls of the crevasse were steep and slick. The penguins would starve to death if no help came.
"We have to save them," Rafa said. He pulled out his phone.
Roger was already dialling his own. The signal wasn't so good here, and he prayed it would connect. Rafa began pacing back and forth, in hope of better reception.
"Careful--" Roger said, but it was too late. The bank of snow collapsed beneath Rafa, and he slid towards the crevasse, panic on his face.
"No!" Roger lunged for him--touched his hand--then fell into a flurry of white that tumbled him into darkness.
* * * * *
Roger blinked awake to Rafa hovering over him. "Roger! Are you okay?"
"I think so." He was cold and wet and sore, but nothing seemed broken. "What about you--your leg--"
"It's fine. We have a bigger problem."
Roger sat up, sending a dozen penguins scuttling away from him.
"They were worried too," Rafa added.
"They were probably wondering if I was food." Roger looked around. His heart sank. They were at the bottom of the crevasse. It was no more than ten metres deep, but that was still too far for human or penguin to climb.
"I lost my phone," Rafa said.
Roger patted his own pockets urgently, before remembering that he had been holding his phone. It could be anywhere. And the daylight was dying.
"Mike will come looking for us," Roger said. But would he even know where to look? Not to mention that the crevasse was near impossible to spot from above. "We'd better let him know where we are."
After an hour of searching through the snowdrifts, Rafa said, in a strange voice, "Roger. I found your phone."
He held out his hands. The phone lay broken in half along the spine.
* * * * *
They sat side by side in the darkness, the mournful calls of the penguins echoing around them. One had actually tried to take a bite out of Roger's ankle, but he had been too disheartened to do more than bat it away.
They were going to freeze to death, Roger guessed, well before they could starve to death. He wasn't sure whether that was a mercy or not. Neither was a pleasant prospect.
He thought about all the people he wished he could see again: his family, his friends, his team. Next to that, what did some tournament matter? No wonder that penguin had been so persistent.
Rafa seemed caught up in similar thoughts. "Roger," he said, and there was a long hesitation. "If we don't--there is something I always want to say--"
"Don't talk like that," Roger said. "We'll make it out of here. You can tell me then, okay?"
A brief silence. "You promise?"
"I promise," Roger said, as though he could pull miracles out of his pocket. He drew Rafa close. "Come here."
"We have to stay warm." He could feel the other man shivering even through the heavy parkas they wore, but it eased as Rafa nestled against his side. It was a small and perhaps futile gesture against the deep cold, but it was better than nothing. Their breath mingled in the frosty air.
"What's that?" Rafa said suddenly, pointing at the sky. "The light--"
For a moment, Roger thought it was rescue, and his heart leapt. Then he realised what it was.
"Aurora Australis," he said. "The Southern Lights."
Great curtains of light billowed across the heavens, the shimmer of colours rippling across the midnight sky. It was like something out of another world, like something out of a dream. A lump rose in Roger's throat. That the world held such wonders was a miracle in itself.
"Roger," Rafa began, "I--ow!"
A penguin had bumped up against his foot. Roger swatted it away. "Shoo! You can't eat him!" He glanced up to see the entire mass of penguins descending upon them. "Argh!"
"Wait, Roger!" Rafa put out a hand to stop him from launching into unarmed combat with the penguin horde. "They are not attacking."
The penguins were pressing up against them, filling the air with the smell of feathers and the sound of honking. They were forming a huddle, Roger realised, to keep the cold at bay.
"Maybe they think we're penguins too?" Rafa said.
Roger couldn't help but laugh.
The penguins settled around them, making contented noises. Together, they watched the lights dancing across the sky.
* * * * *
Roger dreamed he had turned into a penguin. He could hardly waddle fast enough around the court, and his racquet kept sliding out of his flippers. Novak only laughed and lobbed balls over his head. Roger was ready to cry in frustration.
He woke with relief, even though it was to a penguin pecking at his foot. "You eat fish," he told it sternly. When he tried to chase it off, it took a few steps away, then waited.
"Oh, it's you again," Roger said. He might as well follow it one last time. He glanced back at Rafa, still sleeping, buried in a pile of penguins. If Roger's phone wasn't in pieces, that photo would definitely be on its way around the internet.
The penguin led him to a snowdrift, where an orange light blinked. Roger bent down and brushed the snow aside.
A minute later, he was shaking Rafa awake. "Come on, we're getting out of here," Roger said. "We're all getting out of here."
* * * * *
TENNIS STARS SAVE PENGUIN COLONY
ONE MILLION DOLLARS DONATED TO WILDLIFE RESCUE FUND
"I LOVE ANIMALS" SAYS FEDERER
"You are a hero, Roger," Rafa said, tapping the newspaper with one finger.
Roger shook his head, sipping his espresso. They sat in the cafe of Melbourne Aquarium, watching the local gentoo penguins frolicking in their enclosure. "It was all because of you," Roger said. "You were the one who pushed me to do it."
Rafa flushed. "Because I know you are the only one who can do it." He leaned in, serious and intent. "I want to tell you, Roger. You are always my hero. I always believe in you."
Now it was Roger's turn to go red. "I'm no hero. I'm just a tennis player."
"The best tennis player in the world," Rafa said emphatically.
"We'll see," Roger said, an impossibly warm glow spreading inside him. "Anyway, now we can get back to what we do best. Playing tennis."
* * * * *
FOUR MONTHS LATER
Roger was up 5-2, serving for the first set. It was a good place to be. He was in the final of the French Open, facing Rafa across the net, and maybe this would be it, the day he finally beat his greatest opponent here.
He bounced the ball once, twice, three times, then tossed it high. As he brought his racquet to meet it, movement flashed in the corner of his eye, movement on the court where there should be none. For a moment, he thought it was an errant ball boy, and as his shot flew wild, a curse rose to his lips. And died.
A polar bear trundled across the court, red clay smudging its white paws. It sat down in front of the net, and looked at him imploringly.
Roger raised his face to the sky. "You have got to be kidding me!"
- fin -