Annika Settergren was more than accustomed to life requiring a certain amount of spontaneity.
After all, she had grown up next to the Villa Villekulla, where there was a horse on the veranda and a monkey on the banister, where Spring Cleaning was a much-heralded event, and you never set foot on the floor if it was Thursday. She had traveled to islands in the South Seas, dove into the depths of the ocean to emerge with pearls the size of her palms, and once purchased a grand piano with a handful of gold coins from the Spanish Main. She was, as a matter of fact, one of Pippi Longstocking’s very best friends, and with that came a certain amount of irregularity.
But, in the end, Annika was still Annika, the often-quick voice of dissent to cut through the ever-mounting aspirations of Pippi and Tommy, the one who noticed the sun setting and made them go home for dinner, the one who reminded them all that, however remote, there was a possibility that what they were doing could hurt them.
She had it down to an art form, at this point: a lift of the eyebrows, a tip of the head, a hard blink in Pippi’s direction. Always Pippi, never Tommy. Always Pippi who noticed it, always Pippi who stopped and grinned at her, rakish and almost amused at being chastened. It was Pippi who had to call it off, and she usually did. Tommy complained, and sometimes Annika did, too, out of habit and to keep the peace between the three of them, but she always threw a grateful smile to Pippi, and Pippi always caught it with a sparkle in her eyes.
Pippi understood her. Beyond the adventure, beyond the magic, there was the fact that she and Pippi rarely had to speak in order to hear each other, the fact that it was always Pippi who looked at her and saw her. Annika was younger than Tommy by two years, and while her parents had always tried to treat them equally, she was well aware of the fact that her very nature made her easy to overlook. Before Pippi came, she had always followed Tommy; although she followed Pippi, now, she was never made to feel like a follower.
She had always known, in a way that Pippi – and Tommy – had never seemed to consider, that it couldn’t last the way it was forever.
They were children, and children grew up. Tommy grew up, got almost impossibly tall, lost his voice and found it several keys on the piano lower, lost all the roundness in his face to a chiseled jaw. He was still Tommy, still smiled and laughed with the carefree abandon their improbable lives had given them, but he was changing, had changed, and Annika, watching as carefully as ever, saw the knowledge of it in his eyes, his hands. He fidgeted, talked oddly sometimes about “the future”, framing as a concept for the first time in so many years. He thought about serious things, like careers and colleges, and he looked at Pippi sometimes like he’d never seen her before in his life, like it was that first night all over again and they were kids on the dusty floorboards, Annika beside him blurting out, “You’re not a ghost!”
Because if Tommy had grown up well, Pippi, in imitable Pippi fashion, did it better.
Always tall, she had simply gotten taller, and in the process lost her almost awkward, long-limbed, ship-born agility to a mesmerizing fluidity and self-awareness. Her figure gained shape, slowly and not to the same extent as Annika’s, enough to catch eyes but not so much as to cause her to lose her almost otherworldly litheness. She still ran like Pippi, still climbed and jumped and threw herself from impossible heights like Pippi, she still laughed and clapped and carried her horse around the house like Pippi, but when she smiled it was different. When she smiled, now, Annika’s chest tightened and she sometimes almost gasped, and she knew it wasn’t just her. It was strangers, it was boys at school – it was Tommy.
And, for the first time in her life, Annika found herself resenting her brother, well and truly, down to the very depths of her soul. Because Tommy had always been the brave one, of the two of them, a role which Annika had always been willing to let him play. It was costing her, now, costing her in a way she didn’t even quite understand. She only knew it by feeling, by the way her stomach had wrenched and her heart had stopped and her skin had broken out in chills. By the way she wanted, more than anything, to look away, to run back home and pretend she had never seen it.
Tommy, the brave one, kissed Pippi, and the swift stab of betrayal hit Annika harder than anything, ever.
Hand coming up to stifle the choked sob that fought to escape, Annika squeezed her eyes shut and turned, stumbled blindly back through the gap in the bushes. She ran through the house, past the startled, concerned questioning of her mother, and into her room, locking the door and throwing herself down on the bed. She shoved her face into her pillow and let the tears come, her screams muffled in the down. She cried until her entire body ached with it, until she felt heavy and her head pounded and she could scarcely see. She didn’t go down when her mother called for dinner, was only peripherally aware of the dimming light as afternoon gave way to evening. All she saw, over and over in her mind like a scratched record playing the same two seconds of trombone music, was the kiss, Tommy’s hand against the blue patchwork of Pippi’s waist, his too-long hair – Dad kept telling him he had to cut it, he looked like a lowlife – falling to touch the freckled expanse of Pippi’s cheekbones before his lips made contact. Over and over, leaving her numb and sick, tired.
The scratch at her window startled her, enough that she turned to look despite the pain in her head, and in spite of herself, her lips quirked upwards at the sight of Pippi’s grin, almost too big for her face, beaming at her through the windowpane. It flickered, fell a bit when Annika finally made eye contact, and Pippi tapped again, more firmly, her eyes losing their sparkle and gaining an insistent demand.
Knowing that Pippi was likely to simply break in if she had to, Annika forced herself upright and over to the window, rubbing at her eyes with one hand and fumbling with the latch with the other. Once the window ground up a few centimeters, Pippi slid her fingers into the gap and helped pull it up, hanging on to the bottom of it and resting her head on one outstretched arm. Her toes were poised on the minute edge of the sill as easily as Annika could stand on flat ground.
“Hiya, pal,” Pippi greeted, her smile still in place but her eyebrows drawn together in concern. Annika leaned her shoulder against one side of the window frame and Pippi adjusted effortlessly, swinging her heels around and crouching, half-in and half-out of the window. “’Hiya, Pippi?’” she suggested, ducking her head down, trying to look Annika full in the face.
Annika thwarted her, turned and shuffled back to her bed. “’Hiya, Pippi,’” she repeated tonelessly, dropping down on top of the rumpled quilt and shoving her face back into the damp pillow.
Almost soundless, leather boots tapped down onto the floorboards and crossed the room, carrying a long-limbed red-head with them. A puff of air blew against Annika’s neck as Pippi sighed. The way the bed dipped and the awareness of body heat near her leg told her that the girl was perched on the edge. “What’s wrong?” she asked, voice gentled, genuinely concerned. Annika didn’t respond, inhaling the scent of fabric softener and tasting the salt of her own tears. “You gonna talk to me at all about it?”
“No,” Annika replied, into the pillow, pressing even further down as though she could sink through it and escape down into the sitting room, where her mother was crocheting something and her father was fussing with the radio, her eyes stinging.
A warm hand, calluses catching on the fabric of her blouse, landed on her shoulder, palmed the socket briefly before shoving, firmly, towards the wall. Annika squeaked as the rest of her body followed suit, landing on her back, staring up at Pippi, startled, with tears in her eyes she’d had no time to hide. She didn’t know what expression she had on her face, but watched as Pippi sucked in a breath, so quickly her lower lip moved with it. She dug into her pockets and came up with a handkerchief that Annika recognized, cut from the fabric of one of her dresses, long outgrown. She offered it to her and, when Annika made no move to take it, leaned forward and wiped at her cheeks with the surprising tenderness Annika had learned to expect from her ostensibly rough friend. The handkerchief passed over her eyes, slowly, so carefully that there was never any need for fear. Annika blinked away the last of the tears, comforted by the gesture, the familiarity of Pippi’s physical solution to emotional concerns.
“Now,” Pippi said, tucking the cloth back where she found it and wrapping her hand around Annika’s arm. “What is it?”
Annika had never been a good liar, and she was a worse one when it came to Pippi, so that staring into mesmerizing brown eyes, with the almost blistering heat of her hand against her skin, she could muster no defense, and turned, with a sound that was half sob, half groan, back into the pillow. “He always goes first,” she muttered, tensing as Pippi’s hand traveled back to her shoulder, her other moving to grip the opposite forearm, turning and lifting so there was no way of escape. “He always goes first,” she repeated, unshed tears making her sound sullen and tired. “He always goes first and he gets everything, everything that I…” She trailed off, shaking her head, unwilling to voice it, even with apparently nothing to lose, now that she had already lost.
Pippi understood, though. Pippi always understood, and Annika felt it when she did, both hands tightening their grips convulsively, too hard. Annika gasped in pain and Pippi dropped her immediately. “You saw,” she said, flatly, and Annika nodded miserably, unable to even look in Pippi’s direction. “Then did you see me push him away?”
She turned at that, lifted a hand to brush her hair away from her eyes, squinting for a hint of expression in the semi-darkness. “What?” she asked, voice emerging in a cracked whisper, catching on her raw throat, laced with the slightest tendril of budding hope.
“I pushed him away,” Pippi repeated, more strongly, the cocksure, strident quality returning to her voice. Annika could barely see the hint of a smile, the flash of white teeth.
Without thinking, one hand crept down to brush against Pippi’s callused knuckles, long fingers immediately moving to tangle with her own. Annika looked down her arm at their joined hands, and spoke, hesitantly. “You didn’t want him to kiss you?”
Pippi snorted, letting go of her hand and, lightning fast, she scrambled over Annika’s prone form to land in the narrow empty space next to the wall. She propped her head on her palm and grinned when Annika half-turned to look up at her face. “Of course not, silly. Why would I want that?”
“Because… he’s…” Annika trailed off, unable to speak, listing the reasons in her head, knowing Pippi could see them in her face. Because he’s a guy, because he’s blond and blue-eyed and strong-chinned and muscular and beautiful and I’m just…
Pippi touched a fingertip to her lips, the touch light and nearly nonexistent. Annika wouldn’t have noticed it if her heart hadn’t lurched and beat triple-speed, her face heating up in a furious, inadvertent blush. Pippi, still smiling but with a different light in her eyes, took her finger back and swung her eyes to the ceiling, waiting.
Once Annika finally had control of herself again, she tried again. “Because he’s your best friend?” she ventured, hating the thin, whiny quality of her own voice.
Pippi snorted again, almost laughing. “Silly bean. Tommy isn’t my best friend. You are.” She twisted suddenly, from her back to her stomach, peering down into Annika’s face earnestly. “You want me to tell you why?”
Mouth dry, Annika nodded. “Tommy’s always wanted to be just like me.” Pippi reached, with the hand not supporting her weight, to touch the tips of Annika’s hair, an alien hesitation in her posture, her face. “You… all you ever wanted was just to be with me.” Her eyes, which had been following her fingertip, darted up to meet Annika’s eyes before moving away again. It took Annika a long moment to realize that her famously brazen friend was blushing all the way to the roots of her hair.
Annika wasn’t brave. Pippi made her brave, cajoled and smiled until Annika’s worries went away, enough to go along with it, enough to believe in the power of Pippi’s own belief. Annika was the weight, the anchor scraping the bottom of the sea, the chain around the ankle of an escaping prisoner. Annika wasn’t the brave one, never had been. It was something they were both aware of, accustomed to. So it was difficult to say who was more startled when it was Annika who moved first, Annika who shook off the paralysis of Pippi’s quiet declaration and reached, cupping Pippi’s chin and pulling her face up so she could peer into her eyes.
Caught, both of them, in the thread of raw, unguarded eye contact, only inches apart and aware of every one of them, it was Annika who spoke. “Pippi?” she managed, and barely, the word forced out of lungs that she realized weren’t taking in any air.
“Annika,” Pippi replied, quietly, head tipping slowly to one side, her hand travelling across to land on the bed above Annika’s shoulder, her weight shifting up onto palms and toes, hovering just shy of actual physical contact with an effortless display of strength.
“What are you doing?” Annika asked, even though she was already shifting in anticipation of Pippi’s weight against her, her heart already beating hard enough that she knew the red-head could hear it.
Pippi grinned, like the flash of a camera, before forming a more serious expression. “Well,” she drawled, dropping one knee to the quilt between Annika’s legs so she could reach with one hand to fuss at brunette bangs, “I have this feeling that I might be getting kissed pretty soon.”
“Oh?” Annika queried, lips twitching in amusement. She reached up to tug at one of Pippi’s braids, caught in the playful light of her best friend’s eyes.
Pippi’s grin escaped again, obviously pleased that Annika had decided to play along. “Uh-huh. And, you know, I think I might like it this time. So I wanna be sure I can’t push you away.”
Annika released the braid and let her hand touch Pippi’s cheek, heedless of the fine trembles she knew the other girl would be able to feel. “Think that’ll be a problem?” Her shoulders were lifting without her mind’s permission, bringing them slowly, inexorably closer.
Pippi dipped down, almost but not quite closing the distance in a startling display of control. She pushed her forehead against Annika’s, her breath dusting across her slightly open mouth. “Nuh-huh,” she replied, shaking their heads from side to side. “You won’t let me.”
“That’s true,” Annika smiled, hand sliding back to tangle her fingers in Pippi’s hairline, thumb rubbing gently in the hollow behind her ear. “But how do you know that?”
“Because,” Pippi said, reaching down to touch Annika’s waist, as though gauging the position before she carefully settled their bodies together, hips pressed together, bellies touching as they both sucked in air at the contact. “You always know what’s best for me.”
Annika hummed her agreement and shifted her head to the side, tipping her chin upwards to close the last bit of distance between them.
(art by http://magpizza.tumblr.com/)