Stargirl

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Chapter 6: Friends

The flat was quiet when they returned. That was a good thing, TM reflected, the expected way of things. Ziggy took a few hesitant steps over to the sofa and sank down into it, elbows on knees. It was actually a decent sort of sofa, a moving-in present from TM’s parents and therefore one of the only things in the place that wasn’t second-hand, third-hand or rubbish-dump-hand.

She was still sitting in the same place when they got back from changing their clothes, having nipped quickly into their bedroom and replaced their formal inventor’s wear for T-shirts and jeans (in TM’s case; Veggie wore pyjama bottoms). Suits didn’t suit them. Not that Veggie couldn’t somehow make literally anything work, TM thought. He’d worn triple denim and a purple scarf once, and rocked it.

‘Veg,’ TM said, nudging his partner, ‘I don’t think she’s alright.’

Veggie glanced over at Ziggy, slumped on the sofa, and stuck his bottom lip out in what TM assumed was supposed to be a thoughtful expression. ‘Sometimes people aren’t,’ he pointed out. ‘We can’t all be alright all the time.’

’That doesn’t mean people want to be not okay,’ TM said. ‘Shouldn’t we try to… cheer her up?’

Veggie considered the proposition. ‘I would go buy her pick and mix, but the shops are probably closing by now.’

‘Pick and mix does always help.’

Veggie’s eyes widened, a gasp of disbelief escaping his lips. ‘Dude,’ he said, as if it were the most important thing of all time, ‘I just realised she’s probably never had pick and mix before.’

‘That’s a pretty horrific state of existence,’ TM concurred.

The soft sound of weight shifting on furnishings creaked through the room as Ziggy leaned slowly over, lowering herself onto her side. A few strands of purple hair draped themselves over the top cushion of the sofa as the rest of her head descended out of visibility. Michel Furcoat emerged from somewhere and sat on top of the sofa, pawing down at her as if trying to catch a fish in a fabric river.

‘We’ve got to do something,’ TM implored.

‘I know,’ Veggie said with a sigh. ‘She’s really bumming me out.’

TM gave himself a few gentle slaps in the face, which sometimes helped with thinking. How exactly did one go about cheering up an apparently depressed person? Never mind the fact that it was one that they barely knew, not to mention that she was literally an astronomical entity and therefore potentially a little more… emotionally complex.

‘Got it,’ Veggie said.

‘What’s the –’

Veggie punched TM in the stomach.

‘Oof,’ TM said in confusion. Ziggy’s head poked out over the top of the sofa, watching the action. ‘What was that for?’

Veggie swung his fist again; TM grabbed his arm, zipped behind him and yanked, wrenching Veggie’s shoulder up in a painful hold. Ziggy giggled.

‘There’s a smile,’ said Veggie encouragingly. TM released him.

‘Did you really just make me fight you for Z’s entertainment?’

‘Natch.’

Ziggy rested her chin on the top cushion, peering at the two of them like a very comfortable owl eyeing up a juggling vole. ‘Again,’ she demanded.

‘Really?’ TM muttered – though he couldn’t help a small smile of relief at hearing her speak for the first time since the TVs – but Veggie was already taking another shot. TM ducked under his arm, grabbed him around the waist from behind and heaved, letting himself fall backwards. Veggie landed with a thud on his shoulders, TM still holding him tightly in a reverse bear hug.

‘You German suplexed me?’ Veggie wheezed, sounding impressed.

‘Not on purpose,’ TM apologised. ‘You try to hit me, it’s all instinct. I can’t be responsible if my uncontrollable badassery gets you hurt, man.’

‘How come you can fight and whatnot?’ Ziggy asked with interest. Her head tilted to the side.

‘TM watches a lot of wrestling, plays a lot of fighting games, that sort of thing,’ Veggie explained, hopping to his feet.

‘That doesn’t actually explain it,’ Ziggy observed.

‘I guess if you pretend to train at something long enough, eventually you actually get good at it,’ reasoned Veggie. Ziggy looked unconvinced.

‘Anyway,’ TM said. ‘How about we –’

There was a knock at the door. Ziggy eyed it warily, retreating to the furthest corner of the sofa. Michel Furcoat slinked over and plonked himself on her feet.

‘It’s okay,’ Veggie said, bounding over to open it. ‘It’s a friend.’

He pulled the door open.

’Oh, right, friends,’ he corrected. ‘Forgot you were all coming together.’

‘When do we ever do anything as individuals?’ said the lanky, well-dressed young man on the other side. He had sharp eyes and a lean face, with a sweeping wave of blonde hair. He entered the flat, giving Veggie a quick hug on the way past. A young woman in a Columbo-style raincoat shuffled in after him, winking at Veggie with pale green eyes set in a face partly hidden behind a curtain of dark, straight hair. She was the sort of pretty that wouldn’t strike anyone across a room, but would become inescapably apparent at anything more than a glance. She was followed by a wild-haired barely-post-teen in a punk rock T-shirt, who walked as if he were plucking at the strings of a bass guitar with every step and constantly flipped his head back to clear the blue-tipped strands of mane from his face.

‘Hey, TM,’ said Punk Shirt, clapping him on the shoulder. ‘We got a new player?’

Ziggy looked at TM uncertainly, like a shy child dragged along to a Christmas party at an aunt’s with whom she had absolutely no interest in making conversation; the sort of aunt who only tends to talk about how much of a dick her latest husband is.

‘Everyone,’ said TM slowly, holding a hand out to Ziggy, ‘this is Ziggy. She’s our new business partner.’

‘Awesome,’ said Well-Dressed with an appreciative nod. TM watched Ziggy’s reaction carefully; she sat upright in the sofa and leaned in towards the group, apparently reassured.

‘Ziggy, this is everyone,’ Veggie said, spreading his arms wide. ‘Well, not everyone, obviously, this is three people. That’s Derrida –’ he pointed at Well-Dressed, who gave a thumbs-up and instantly looked as if he regretted doing such an obviously lame thing, ‘– this over here is Dominika –’ Dark-Haired Girl, who pushed a lock out of her face with a finger and smiled vaguely in Ziggy’s direction, ‘– and that over there is Marty.’ Punk Shirt gave a cheery wave. ‘They’re all nice, honest.’

Ziggy nodded, the tension leaving her. She climbed over the sofa and sat on top of it, waving shyly.

‘Jack Derrida,’ Derrida announced, striding over and holding out a hand for her to shake. She looked at it for a second, then took it between finger and thumb and wiggled it about a bit.

’He’s not the Jacques Derrida, obviously,’ Veggie confided to Ziggy. ‘That said – you ever heard of nominative determinism?’

‘Pff,’ said Jack, backing away with a smile on his lips and embarrassment everywhere else on his face.

Dominika slinked over next, perching on the sofa-top next to Ziggy. She stared straight into her eyes for slightly longer than was comfortable before nodding happily and wandering over to the table, where she sank into a chair.

‘She doesn’t speak much English,’ said Veggie. ‘We’re not sure she speaks any at all, come to think of it.’

‘How does that work?’ Ziggy asked.

‘You’ll see,’ he said.

‘And I’m Marty Rook,’ Marty introduced himself from across the room, making a fist with index and little fingers extended. ‘You might have heard of me.’

‘Hm,’ said Ziggy noncommittally.

‘Or my band?’ Marty suggested. ‘The Inciting Incident? We’re, uh… pretty big around here.’

‘We’ll bring her to see you play at some point,’ TM promised, and ushered Marty to a chair. He said, though not without a deflated whine.

‘What’s going on?’ Ziggy asked. She peered over from her seat atop the sofa, one arm holding the other elbow protectively as everyone took their seats at the table. Veggie shunted the assorted stationery-type debris onto the floor, removed the Bedsheet-Tablecloth-Whiteboard with great aplomb, and placed a pile of stacked paper and cards in the centre of the tabletop.

’It’s Hero’s Adventure night,’ explained TM. ‘We all get together, one or… several nights a week, and we play –’

‘The best tabletop role-playing game that ever there was,’ Veggie finished with gusto.

‘Did you guys invent it?’ Ziggy said. Veggie burst into laughter.

‘Hell, no,’ he said eventually, wiping a tear away. ’We’re not that good.’

‘Want to join?’ TM invited her, pulling out a chair. It was astonishing, really, how many people could fit around the tiny table in the tiny kitchenette of their tiny flat. TM put it down to good space management.

‘Er,’ said Ziggy.

‘We’ll help ya,’ Marty offered. ‘We’re playing together, not against each other. Unless we decide to.’

Dominika smirked.

‘We’re a band of brave adventurers, out doing our thing. Y’know, adventuring and whatnot,’ TM explained. ‘It’s hella fun, once you get into it.’

‘I’ll help her make a character,’ suggested Derrida, in response to which Veggie slapped him in the face.

‘No, you don’t,’ he reprimanded him. ‘TM?’

‘Yup, sure.’ TM took a sheet of paper covered in complicated-looking tables and charts and placed it in front of Ziggy, then rummaged around under the table and pulled out a thick book titled The Definitive Guide to Hero’s Adventure (sixteenth edition).

‘So first you need to make a character to join the adventure,’ TM explained. ‘We’ve all got a character that we play – well, except Veggie, he’s the Adventure Master.’

‘Whoaaaa,’ Ziggy breathed.

‘It’s both way cooler and way less cool than it sounds, depending who you ask,’ said Veggie.

‘Sooooo,’ Marty said to Veggie, as TM began helping Ziggy fill out her character sheet. It was a laborious process, since ‘Version Six-Point-Three-Open-Bracket-Alpha-Adventure-Hyphen-Platinum-Add-On-Close-Bracket’ – reference number V6APA, colloquially known as The One That Nerfed Paladins and Added Gay Marriage – demanded an awful lot of statistics to be determined before so much as coming up with a name. ‘What sort of quests are we expecting to embark upon today, O Wise And Often Vindictive Adventure Master?’

‘Who knows?’ Veggie answered. ‘We’ll simply have to see what lies awaiting in this strange and magical world, won’t we?’

Derrida snorted. ‘You know exactly what lies awaiting, because you wrote the campaign,’ he said.

‘You’re absolutely no fun sometimes,’ Veggie declared. ‘Just accept the magic of the adventure. Besides, just because I came up with the story doesn’t mean I know where it’s going to go. Hell, if I did, there wouldn’t be any point doing it.’

‘All I’m saying,’ said Derrida, hands raised in a placating gesture, ‘is that I like it when there’s a neat plot, a worthwhile conclusion, and some sort of meaningful point to it all.’

‘Why does it need one?’ Marty asked. ‘There isn’t always a point, that’s just how the universe is sometimes. Not everything ends up being didactic.’

‘I’ll find a point somewhere,’ Derrida said firmly.

‘I believe you,’ Marty told him with a grin, ’just don’t go writing the Of Grammatology equivalent of… some weird post-structuralist analysis of what is basically just a pointless fantasy game, okay?’

Derrida harrumphed.

‘So how do you all know each other, anyway?’ Ziggy asked, looking up at them all as TM jotted down a series of numbers on her character sheet.

The trio looked at each other, then at Veggie.

‘Derrida and Dominika are Veg’s exes,’ TM told her without looking up. ‘Marty isn’t. So far. But we like him, so we’ll see where it goes.’

Ziggy’s head bobbed from side to side, gazing from Derrida to Dominika to Veggie and back again. ‘You were… together?’ she said, sounding enthralled.

‘Not all at the same time,’ TM pointed out.

‘What was it like?’ she asked, leaning forwards eagerly.

Derrida scratched his nose. ‘It was good,’ he said with a shrug. Dominika, sat beside him, nodded sagely.

‘And… you’re all still friends?’

‘Hell yes,’ Veggie boomed.

‘There isn’t a man or woman Veggie’s loved that he hasn’t somehow stayed in touch with,’ TM told her, with an air of grudging impressment.

‘Except the Swede,’ Derrida said.

‘If I loved them,’ Veggie said, waving a pencil around and ignoring Derrida entirely, ‘why the fuck would I not want to stay friends with them?’

‘It didn’t end badly?’ asked Ziggy, her wide-eyed gaze travelling over them all.

‘Nah,’ said Veggie.

TM laughed, the movement shaking his arm so that he accidentally wrote a seven instead of a two in one of Ziggy’s stat boxes. He moved to erase it, but decided to just leave it. ’Veggie here is what’s known as a real people person,’ he said to Ziggy. All present nodded as one. ‘He just gets along with people. Loves them, leaves them, loves them again but in a mate way, and it’s never really been a problem for anyone.’

‘Except the Swede,’ Derrida said. Veggie threw a pencil at his head, then turned to Ziggy.

‘I don’t want you to think I’m some sort of cheap lover,’ he said seriously. ‘I care very deeply about a lot of people, and that’s just the way I am.’

‘He actually means that,’ TM clarified. ‘It’s kind of weird, given how he comes across, but the general consensus is that Veggie’s just a genuinely pretty decent guy.’

‘Huh,’ said Ziggy.

TM made one final entry on her sheet, then threw his pencil down triumphantly. ‘She’s good to go,’ he said, and the ensemble picked up their own sheets as one. Veggie straightened a stack of paper in front of him headed Hero’s Adventure Campaign of Excellentness, by Veggie.

‘Right,’ said Veggie. ‘Where were we?’ He reached down into the heap of miscellaneous stationery that had until recently adorned the ‘office’ half of the table, but which was now just a miserable pile on the floor, and pulled out a pair of wire-framed glasses, pushing them up his nose. Then he leaned over his campaign paperwork, and began to speak.

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