Chapter 23

Logically speaking, there had to be a part of Alice that didn’t hurt. She comprehended that in a rational, understanding-of-biology sort of way. Unfortunately, all that knowledge couldn’t convince her body to find a position that didn’t provoke spasms of soreness coursing through her nerves. Never in her life did she suspect she would ever look back on her one-on-one sessions with her personal trainer as such a light, peaceful workout. Yet here she was.

“Here”, in this case, was sprawled out on the sofa in the communal area, watching TV and trying desperately to get comfortable. She would have much preferred to be in her own room, or even in just the girls’ lobby, but returning home had led to the discovery that the cable had only been hooked up to the common room so far. The other rooms only had access to basic channels, and subpar entertainment wasn’t going to do much to take her mind off of what today’s workout had done to her.

Unfortunately, the others seemed to have had the same idea, as they were slumped over and groaning in the chairs and loveseats scattered throughout the room. Everyone was there except Hershel, who had excused himself a few minutes ago to change. Alice couldn’t really imagine he owned more comfortable clothing than the sweat pants and Star Wars t-shirt he had been wearing, but she supposed anything was possible. The rest of them were watching a sitcom, shifting occasionally and presumably trying not to think about how they had an entire week of this starting on Monday. Even Mary’s presence didn’t take the top spot of worry in Alice’s mind for the moment. The only that telepath was going to pick up from her was: “Ow. Ouch. Ugh. Why did I sign up for this?”

Alice’s forced focus on the flat-screen was interrupted by a bottle of water bumping gently against her head.

“What the hell!” Alice exclaimed. She relaxed as she noticed the bottle was not alone. It seemed to have come with an assortment of friends who were hovering a few inches from the faces of Vince and Nick. Mary was already sipping on hers. Alice may have been weary, but she wasn’t so tired she couldn’t put this simple puzzle together.

“Oh. Thank you for the water, Mary,” Alice said as she took the bottle and twisted off the cap.

“No trouble,” Mary replied honestly. It wasn’t as though the bottles were heavy or hard to maneuver. The four weary would-be warriors sat in suffering silence after that, the only punctuation aside from groans and television banter being the occasional sip from a bottle of water.

“Well, well, you ladies sure can’t handle your exercise,” said a deep voice from the side of the room. Standing in the doorway to the boys’ side, wearing a different shirt and jeans but sporting the same cowboy hat, stood the man from the karaoke platform last night. For a moment, Alice thought she had certainly slipped off to sleep in her fugue of pain and gladly welcomed the dream that was beginning. That delusion was quickly shattered by Vince.

“Who are you and how did you get in here?” Vince cried, pulling himself halfway from his chair. It would have been a grander gesture if he had made it all the way out, but given his current physical condition it was still somewhat impressive.

“Now come on, Vince, is that anyway to talk to the man whose mess you cleaned up this morning?” the tall man asked, waltzing over to the chair Hershel had been sitting in and plopping down forcefully. Alice had no idea what he was talking about, but now that she knew it wasn’t a dream she was beginning to feel concern gnaw at her. She had been privy to the designs of this place. There should be no way he could have come in through the boys’ side. The only entrance was the front one. So how had this cowboy broken into their home?

“Roy?” Vince asked skeptically.

“Sure as shit in an outhouse,” Roy replied. “Pleasure to finally meet you in the flesh.” Roy leaned over from his chair and grasped Vince’s hand, giving it a hearty shake.

“Hey, that’s cool that you guys know each other,” Nick said. “Maybe now you explain why there’s a stranger sitting in our home. Who else thinks that would be awesome? Just me? Come on, show of hands, people.” Nick threw up his own hand and Mary followed suit.

“Um,” Vince began awkwardly. “This is Roy. He’s Hershel... kind of.”

“How can he be Hershel?” Alice asked incredulously.

“Well, you see, my beautiful blonde cohabitant, I’m the form the fatty turns into when he can’t take it anymore,” Roy explained. “Not only does he get stronger, faster, leaner, and all around sexier, but he also gets a pair of testicles and a shot of social sense.”

“So when Hershel said he was going to change earlier...” Alice let her thought die out as she put the pieces together.

“Tubbo was hurting, and he doesn’t cope so well with pain, especially from a workout obviously, so he went to his room and invited me to handle things. I don’t suffer from shit like pain or fatigue,” Roy said as he flashed a set of pearly-white teeth around the room.

“Stop calling him fat,” Vince said. “It isn’t nice. Hershel is our friend, and he’s just a little out of shape.”

“An action figure in the microwave is a little out of shape,” Roy said. “Hershel is a doughy chickenshit. Besides, I can talk all the trash I damn well please. I am Hershel, after all.”

“No, you aren’t,” Vince disagreed. “Hershel might be awkward but at least he has always been kind to everyone. You’re not.”

“It might not be a fun truth, but that doesn’t take make it not real. Just deal with it, Freak Hair, me and Husky are the same person,” Roy said.

“No, you’re not!” Vince said, his voice rising noticeably.

“Yes, I am,” Roy reinforced.

“Yes, he is,” Mary said softly. Both of the battling boys looked at her. She was sitting in her chair, petting No on his head and not meeting either of their eyes. There was something about her that seemed... sad. Just a few moments ago she had been the same old Mary with the wild hair and the unreadable eyes. But now, in the time that Roy had come in the room, it was like some of the light had left her somehow. It was impossible to put a finger on what was different, but it was equally impossible to ignore the change.

“Well,” Roy said after a pause. “If the telepath agrees with me, it must be true. I’ll see you girls later on.” Roy’s eyes stared right at Vince and Nick, making certain they knew he wasn’t just referring to the actual women.

“Where are you going?” Vince asked, an undisguised tint of suspicion in his voice.

“Whiskey Shallows,” Roy replied. “It’s a popular club around here. I told a few of the admirers I met last night that I’d stop by. You girls are welcome to come, if you think you can peel yourself out of your chairs.” With that, Roy tipped his hat to Mary and Alice, and then strode out the front door.

“Wasn’t he just a ray of sunshine?” Nick quipped. Alice chuckled politely, but Mary just stayed quiet while Vince seemed to be rolling something around in his head. Slowly, but forcefully, Vince uprooted himself from his sitting position and got on his feet.

“I’m going with him,” Vince said simply.

“The word ‘why’ comes to mind,” Nick said. “Are you in the mood for more narcissism and ego?”

“Not even remotely,” Vince replied. “But I was there this morning when Hershel had to try and explain himself out of the situation Roy had left him in. The worst part of it wasn’t watching him run, or panic, or take that girl’s insults and accusations in stride. It was how resolved he was to it. Like he had done this countless times before and expected to be doing it for a long time after.”

“What do you think you can do?” Alice asked.

“Not sure,” Vince replied. “Maybe I can at least keep tabs on Roy, and help Hershel with whatever mess he wakes up in.”

“I’m sure Hershel is used to dealing with these things alone,” Alice said, a trace of bitterness clinging to her words.

“I’m sure he is. But Hershel doesn’t have to be alone anymore. I want to go show him that,” Vince said.

“Very noble,” Nick said sarcastically. “I expect you’ll expect us to rally to your words and leap up to join the cause?”

“No. I expect you all to do what you need to do. I’m sure some of you need to rest. I need to do this,” Vince countered. “I’m changing clothes and leaving in twenty minutes. If you want to come, then come. If not, then I’ll see you in the morning.”

It was an idiotic idea. They were all sore and tired, and it was evident that Vince was on a fool’s errand. Roy was three ranks higher, so even if Vince wanted to, he wouldn’t be able to do anything to stop him. There was literally no point to anything that silver-haired moron was doing. So why did Alice... care?