Chapter 4: Midnight Minus 11 Hourswritten by fallingwthstyle - illustrated by Hausinge and Sifl-senpai
The next afternoon was much colder and sunny with calm seas. After an enormous lunch, five of them gathered outside on deck in their usual place. Cartman was still in the casino trying to win back some of the almost $2,000 he'd lost since the beginning of the cruise, and Wendy was in her and Tweek's cabin taking a nap.
"If this wasn't the last day of the cruise," Stan said. "I'd be tempted to take a nap too. I might go a lap or three around the ship with you, Tweek, just to wake up."
Tweek grinned. "I'm not moving until I've had time to digest some of that lunch." He belched, loudly enough for other people nearby to hear. Stan couldn't help noticing again the wonders this cruise had worked on Tweek; his usual tics and jitteriness were virtually gone.
As if reading Stan's mind, Kenny asked: "How're you doing Tweek? Okay?"
Tweek nodded. If one of them had asked that the first day of the cruise, Tweek thought he might have jumped off the ship. Now, he simply appreciated their concern. "I'm okay. I, uh...if nothing else, at least I won't be homeless when we get back to South Park."
"That's right you won't!" Butters said. "If it comes to that, you can stay with us as long as you need to. And it won't come to that! You know what they say absence makes the heart do."
He nodded again. "Thanks, man." He pushed his sunglasses onto the top of his head, remembering Butters' experience of a few days ago. He looked over Kyle's shoulder and saw ten year old 'RES', his Missile Command game rival, standing a short distance away, watching them and trying to be inconspicuous. Tweek wondered why he was there and what he was up to.
Ten year old Robin Shelby had been hoping for an excuse to go over and talk to one of this interesting-looking group of men for two days now. Seeing 'TNT', his missile command friend, standing with them during church yesterday, obviously part of their group, had given him the perfect excuse to walk over and start a conversation. Hopefully it would give him the opportunity to speak to the dark haired one alone. He realized that TNT had just spotted him and that the time had come. Robin mustered up his courage and walked up to Tweek. "Hey, you're TNT, on the Missile Command game, aren't you?" His heart was slamming in his chest, hoping this group would accept him.
Tweek grinned, delighted to be face to face with his opponent at last. "And you're RES." He shook Robin's hand. "I'm Tweek. That's been a fun game!"
"What's the R and the S stand for?" Stan asked.
"Robin Shelby, sir," he said with a friendly grin, shaking Stan's hand next.
"I'm Stan Marsh. This is Kyle..." They shook.
"Kenny McCormick," Kenny said, shaking his hand next. "We'll make a deal with you. Don't call us 'sir'...and we won't call you 'kid', okay?"
Robin looked puzzled for a moment, unsure if he was being made fun of. The smile on Kenny's face told him he was joking. "It's a deal, sir—uh, Kenny!"
They laughed, and Butters shook his hand last. "Hi. I'm Butters."
"I saw you yesterday," Kenny said, sounding admonishing. "Going up to the bridge during that storm. I'm not sure you were supposed to be walking around outside then."
"Yeah." Robin's bright eyes darkened for a moment with anger. "I got in a lot of trouble with my mom and dad for that, too. They grounded me from going back to the engine room—"
Kenny and Butters both laughed. At Robin's confused look, Kenny said: "Sorry, man. We're not laughing at you...uh, it's a private joke." He grinned at Butters. "Right?"
"At least I'm not the only one who ever got grounded!" Butters laughed.
Their casual banter with him had made Robin feel at ease, but the difficult part was still ahead. He waited for a moment when Kyle was distracted by something Kenny was saying, then nudged Stan. "Hey!" he whispered. "Can I ask you something?" He tipped his head toward the doors, indicating that he wanted to do this in private.
Stan cocked his eyebrow. "Sure, Robin, give me a second." Stan waited until Kyle was finished talking to Kenny and said, "Hey, I'm going inside for chips and sodas. Robin, you're elected to help carry." Robin nodded and they went inside the ship together.
"There, that was easy enough," Stan said as they walked down the corridor deeper into the ship. Robin seemed introspective as they walked past their four cabins and entered the brightly lit glass-walled room together. Stan dug out his wallet and stood in front of the soda machine, feeding dollar bills into it. "So, Robin...what's up?"
Robin looked nervous. Stan almost expected him to start knocking his fists together like Butters would. "Well, sir...I don't know; it's kind of embarrassing."
Stan folded his arms across his chest. "Well. Okay...look at it this way, Robin. I'm not going to judge, and if it's something really embarrassing and you don't think you can face me afterwards, there's fifteen hundred people on this ship, and you can easily disappear in them until the end of the cruise. And once we dock tomorrow, we'll probably never see each other again."
Robin nodded, thinking how much sense that made. He would never get another chance like this, so he roused his courage and blurted out: "Stan, I saw you and Kyle holding hands two days ago. And...I saw you kiss him. And..." he trailed off.
Stan's eyebrows shot up. He was sure Robin hadn't asked to talk to him in private just to bash him or preach religion to him; and a moment before Robin said anything else, he figured out on his own why Robin had asked him here.
"That's so cool," Robin said, looking at the floor. He took a deep breath. "I guess you're the first person I ever came out to, Stan." He looked up again. "Should I go disappear now?"
"Huh." Stan cocked his head. "You better not." He couldn't help but smile at the relief that flooded into Robin's face.
"Oh, good," Robin whispered, perhaps not meaning Stan to hear. He continued, louder: "I haven't been able to tell anyone before. None of my friends, definitely not my sister or parents..." He trailed off.
Stan sighed. "God, I know exactly how hard that is too, dude. I'm glad you came to talk to me."
"I am too, sir." He sounded humble.
"Do you have a best friend back home, Robin?" Robin's eyes brightened as if he had been hoping to talk about him.
"Oh, you bet I do! Pete McCafferty." Robin said happily. "He moved to my neighborhood a year ago. He's one year older than me, but he got held back a grade in school, so we're in the same class. But he's real smart, Stan! He plays the guitar...and he tries to sing." Robin trailed off, then reached into his pocket and pulled out his cell phone. "He's not very good, but he tries hard. Look—"
Robin brought up a picture on his phone and handed it to Stan. It was a class photo of a smiling boy with dark brown hair and bright, friendly eyes. Stan thought he looked a little like Clyde Donovan had when he was about twelve. Robin reached over Stan's hand to push a button on his phone, and another picture came up: Pete, sitting cross-legged on a floor, leaning against a bed and holding a guitar in his lap. "That was in my room," he said, pushing the button again, bringing up a picture of Pete and Robin in a swimming pool, both clinging to an inner tube and smiling up at whoever took the picture, wet hair plastered to their foreheads.
"Ah," Stan said, touched by what Robin had shared with him. "He's a nice looking kid."
"He's my best friend," Robin replied, as if it was obvious. He took his phone back from Stan and gazed at the picture for a long moment before putting his phone away.
"Yeah. Kyle was my best friend when we were around your age, too. You're what, Robin? About ten?"
"I'll be eleven next month," Robin said proudly. "And Pete turns twelve one week later."
Stan nodded. "You...love him, don't you?"
"Oh God, yes!" Robin looked like he'd been dying to say this to someone. "I'm in love with him. I knew you would understand! It—it feels really good to talk to somebody about this."
"I know it does, Robin. It's not easy at your age," Stan said. He leaned against the corner of the vending machine as if preparing to have a long talk with him. "Seriously, Robin: Once we're finished here, come talk to my friends again. They're going to love you, man." Robin was beaming happily. "Those four guys back there? We've all been friends since we were like eight years old. And...my Kyle? I've known him since we were in preschool, dude."
Robin's eyes grew wide. "Wow...you've been together your whole lives then."
"Well," Stan replied, chuckling. "We've been friends for our whole lives, but we didn't figure out the whole being in love with each other part until we were seventeen. But we compared notes afterward, and it turns out we were both in love with each other since we were ten, and we were both too scared to say anything to each other about it."
"Oh, gosh," Robin said, thinking of his own situation.
Stan continued: "And Kenny and Butters?" Stan removed their sodas from the vending machine, handing three to Robin and keeping three. "Those two were friends since they were eight...and they fell in love with each other five days after me and Kyle finally got together." Stan smiled. "That was quite a week."
"How did they...?" Robin started to ask, and then rephrased his question. "Why did it take them so long?"
"Kenny found Butters being abused by his dad, and pretty much rescued him from that. They've been together ever since that night. Kenny's one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet."
"What about Tweek?" Robin would always think of him as TNT, his rival on Missile Command. He glanced at the game and saw that Tweek had taken back the high score again, and remembered he only had about a day to reclaim it before the cruise ended. "I...hope he has somebody too?"
"Ah." Stan was about to put a dollar into the next machine to buy pretzels. Robin's comment made him pause. "He does...but that's kind of a sore subject with him. They're having problems. It might be best not to say anything to him about that."
Robin nodded sadly. "Okay...I'm sorry to hear that. He seems nice."
"Tweek's a great guy," Stan said. "He's really, really high strung though. He's been that way his whole life...but he's devoted, you know?" Stan tried to find the right word to describe what Craig was to Tweek, and went with one Butters would use. "His fella, Craig...he's got a drinking problem. It makes him mean sometimes, and he takes his anger out on Tweek a lot."
"That sounds like my parents." Robin looked at the floor. "They've been fighting for months. I think they were hoping this cruise would fix things, but they just fight here, too. My sister thinks they might be getting a divorce."
Stan shook his head. "Ah, man. I'm sorry to hear that, Robin."
"I just wish people would get along, you know? If I had someone to love, I'd never fight with them, or be mean to them." He looked at Stan gravely. "I can't wait to see Pete again."
"I bet." Stan pulled bags of pretzels and chips from the vending machine. "You ready to come and really meet my friends?"
Robin nodded. "But...would you tell them? That was..."
"Kind of exhausting?" Stan said, smiling. "Sure I will." Robin looked at him and smiled gratefully. They made their way back down the hall and outside. Kyle looked up at them curiously.
"Guys," Stan said as he and Robin passed out snacks and sodas. "Robin had a reason for coming to talk to us: It seems we all, ah, play for the same team."
"Oh, cool," Butters said quietly.
"That's not easy at your age, is it Robin?" Kenny asked, echoing what Stan had said, and Robin was grateful for the gravity with which he asked. These people really did understand.
"No sir. It's not." He didn't say anything about the ache he felt when he was with Pete, how much he wanted to hold him and kiss him and—tell him how he felt. He had an idea these four men already knew what that was like.
"Show them those pictures you showed me, Robin," Stan said, and they ducked into the hallway to get out of the sun. Tweek put his sunglasses in his shirt pocket as Robin proudly showed them his pictures of Pete, and told them about their classes together, and how they were together outside of school every minute that they could be.
"I wish I could talk to him like I'm talking to you guys," Robin finally said. "I just don't know if I can wait until I'm seventeen."
"Aw, man," Kenny replied. "You know, the best thing to do is just enjoy every bit of your time together. If it's meant to happen, then it'll happen. That's how it was with us." He patted Robin on the shoulder affectionately. "You'll be okay, trust me."
Robin nodded. "Thank you, Kenny."
After they'd talked a few more minutes, Robin noticed that Tweek had a wistful, faraway look, staring out toward the ocean. Robin nudged him. "Hey! You want to go play Missile Command?"
Tweek looked at him and brightened immediately. "Sure!"
"It was great meeting you guys!" Robin said sincerely, looking around at each one of them. "I'll see you again before the cruise is over, right?"
"You bet, Robin," Stan replied. "We need to trade email addresses or Facebook pages or something. Our cabins are right across from those vending machines, so stop by in the morning before we dock. Kyle and I are in room 81C. I'd like us to stay in touch."
Robin nodded happily. "I'd like that, too." He followed Tweek inside the ship.
"Wow," Kyle said, once they'd left. "That was great."
"It's hard to believe we were once that young," Kenny said, putting his arm around Butters' waist. "Poor kid; I hope everything works out for him."
Stan replied, "You should have seen the look on his face when he told me, and I didn't, you know, reject him. I think he's feeling a lot better, just finally having someone to talk to for a while. He's really in love with his friend, and since he can't tell him that, he told me instead. I think that meant the world to him." He nudged Kyle. "Hey, I think that was my perfect oh holy shit moment."
"Well, good for you Stan," Kyle said, grinning. "Mine's still coming...you'll see."