Actions

Work Header

stuck in my sheets (make me believe)

Work Text:

It’s her entire job to know a lost cause when she sees one, and everything about Nellie’s tears and posture and how visibly her hands were trembling screams nah, and that’s why Theo doesn’t feel bad about her little storm-out.

(If Nellie can’t handle stupid touristy shit right now, then Theo can support local businesses by dropping $100 at the corner liquor store.)

When she and Mr. Jack Daniels get back to the apartment, Nellie hasn’t moved a muscle, and still doesn’t until Theo knocks the empty pizza box off the dresser and sets the bottle down with a loud thunk. Nellie’s entire body flinches.

“I’m sorry,” she croaks through a wall of white-knuckle fingers.

Theo closes the door. “I know. Sit.”

Nellie sniffs, wipes her nose with the back of her palm, then takes a step toward the bed, but Theo stops her.

“Your side,” she instructs.

A fresh wave of tears coats Nellie’s cheeks and Theo almost wants to dump twelve pitchers of water down her sister’s throat, but fuck it; tonight’s for effective methods, not responsible ones. She watches Nellie sink into the mattress like she’s fully expecting it to swallow her whole, then takes a long swig from the bottle and makes herself at home on Arthur’s side.

(Child psychologists identify the red flags, explore their roots, and work with the patient to determine how best to move forward.)

“So.” Theo takes another sip and holds out the bottle. “You ready to talk about it?”

Nellie’s lungs heave and sputter, and the hand that doesn’t reach for the drink clutches a corner of blanket in a death-grip. “What if I—what if I c-can’t?” she manages, her question nearly drowning in the sloppy sip she takes. (Theo has to bite back a smile at the single dribble of whiskey that escapes out of the corner of Nellie’s mouth.) “What if I literally fucking can’t.”

(Older siblings buy booze, give advice, and do whatever it takes to make the problem go away.)

Theo arranges herself to be cross-legged, facing Nellie. “First, you take another drink,” she says, and waits for her sister to obey. “Then…” Deep breath. “...You take my hands.” She pulls off her gloves finger by finger, vaguely enjoying how the action seems to mesmerize Nellie, then holds out her hands in front of her.

“No, I—” Nellie chokes out, shaking her head. “What I did—I-I shouldn’t have…”

“You’re right,” Theo agrees matter-of-factly, “that was fucked up. Don’t ever touch me without my permission again.” Now she uses her fingertips to brush a few locks of hair behind Nellie’s ears, carefully avoiding direct skin contact, then ghosts a path from Nellie’s shoulders to her elbows, then lays her hands flat on Nellie’s clothed knees. “I’ve got your back, Nell. And I want you to show me everything.”

Nellie’s eyes are glassy as she takes another drink. “You know that whatever you—You know that you can’t take it back.”

“I know.” Theo flips her hands palms-up. “Put down the goddamn booze and let me in.”

The bottle gets wedged between the pillows, and Nellie might as well be freezing cold with how badly her hands are shaking; they hover over Theo’s without touching and stall out long enough for Theo to take another deep breath.

She presses their palms together, laces their fingers, and squeezes.

(The weight is instant, violent, and all-encompassing, coils around her spine and each of her ribs and the microscopic spaces between her joints, takes her breath away like a snuffed-out pilot light in the basement of an otherwise frigid house, and she thinks that if someone sliced her open right now they might find concrete instead of blood.

Theo wonders how this heaviness isn’t enough to steady Nellie’s tremors.)

She squeezes harder, breathing like she’s coaching someone through labor or maybe like she’s in labor but mostly like her little sister’s grief, guilt, and despair are a goddamn blood pressure cuff around her entire body. Theo cracks one eye open; Nellie’s face is alarmingly blank, except for the tear tracks racing toward her jaw like invisible cell bars.

When Theo lets go of Nellie’s hands it’s only to swipe at the moisture, and she’s not quite expecting her to lean into the contact but she catches Nellie’s head anyway and lets it crash gently against hers like a boat tethering to a dock.

“I’m sorry,” Nellie whispers, waves of whiskey breath and tear-salted shame rocking them up and down, back and forth, in every direction.

“For what, Nell?” Theo’s thumb outlines her sister’s bottom lip and she definitely doesn’t like the unsteady rhythm of the breaths she feels.

Nellie opens her mouth for a gulp of oxygen, or maybe a silent scream, and bites down on Theo’s thumb. Theo isn’t quite expecting that, either, and the abrupt pinch reverberates from her head to her toes.

(A new wave of emotion; a bucket of ice water dumped on her head.)

Theo tangles her free fingers in the hair on the back of Nellie’s neck. “I know, sweetie. I know you miss him.”

A shaky sob fills the air between them. “It’s not fair.”

“You should’ve had so much more time together,” Theo agrees. “You should’ve had your whole lives.”

Nellie shakes her head the tiniest fraction. “It’s not fair that you always know exactly what I’m feeling. It’s not fair to either of us.”

Theo swallows hard. “It’s my job to know.” She pulls away just enough to kiss each individual teardrop, taking her time as she works from right to left and back again until her own lips are coated with salt; Theo licks them without thinking, and only semi-wishes she didn’t see Nellie’s eyes flicker toward the motion.

(A rush of heat; a wall of fire just behind her back.)

Nellie isn’t crying anymore, and Theo sort of isn’t breathing anymore, and they reach for the Jack in unison and—

(Flames licking at the deepest pit in her belly.)

“Ah, fuck it,” Theo mutters.

She barely moves an inch before Nellie’s head tilts up to meet hers and the way their lips meet is impossibly unsurprising, and there are so many questions in her throat but every single one of them is answered within their overlapping fingers. Each kiss tastes like whiskey and need and Theo kind of can’t believe how readily her own body is reacting to Nellie’s; it feels instinctual, the way her mouth drifts down to Nellie’s hammering pulse point, covering her neck with one promise after another as Nellie leans back, back, back, pulling Theo with her.

Being on top of her baby sister, covering this smaller body with her own, shielding her from the horrors of the outside world, is almost enough to bring tears to her eyes as Nellie clings to her and Theo clings right back. She’s spent so many years reluctantly accepting the pseudo-guardian role of middle-sister-dom, and spent most of that time hating herself for fucking it up so badly, but this right now is physical and concrete and maybe the easiest decision she’s ever made in her life.

Nellie needs her, and it’s the least Theo can do.

Her tongue drifts closer to Nell’s collarbone, telling her everything she needs to know about the tightness in Nell’s chest, and Theo wonders if it’s medically possible to fix heartache from the outside. She closes her eyes and listens to Nellie’s lungs heave.

(One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi.)

“Breathe, babygirl,” Theo whispers in Nellie’s ear.

Nellie nods, but her lungs don’t slow down, and Theo swears she hears her name in one of the exhales.

(One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi.)

She lifts Nell’s shirt up to her chest and makes eye contact until she gets a clear nod, then discards the sweater completely and splays her palm flat against the hot skin of her sister’s stomach. “Breathe with me, okay?”

More nodding and Nellie’s hand over Theo’s belly button, feeling each breath Theo pushes in and out and mirroring the rhythm with her own lungs. Nellie moves up and Theo moves down, and Nellie helps Theo shrug out of her top in the same moment that Theo’s fingertips slip into Nellie’s skirt.

Nell gasps, long and deep, and Theo smiles.

“Good girl.”

She keeps nodding and together they breathe out slowly, Theo’s strokes matching their steady pace over Nellie’s cotton underwear.

“In again,” she instructs softly, inhaling with Nellie and moving the material over before sliding into wet heat.

Nellie’s next breath comes out in a rush and her nails dig into Theo’s skin.

“Good girl.” She keeps moving, keeps guiding Nellie’s lungs, keeps pressing her lips to Nellie’s temple. “You’re doing so good, Nell.”

“Theo…”

Her name is bursting with electricity and heat and she curls her fingers in response. “I’m right here, Nellie. I’ve got your back.”

As if on cue Nell’s spine arches off the mattress, mouth hanging open, small sounds escaping her throat, and muscles rigid until a tight moan slowly releases the tension and Eleanor Crain all but melts into the contours of her sister’s body.

“Good girl,” Theo murmurs again, wiping her fingers on the sheet and shifting to let Nellie’s head nuzzle into her chest.

Nellie is still, breaths calm, worry lines smooth.

(One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi.)

Theo leans over to grab the blanket and Nell’s arm hooks across her hips, anchoring her in place.

“Please don’t leave,” Nellie mumbles against her skin.

She thinks about the weight, about blood pressure cuffs and concrete and utter despair, presses her forehead to Nellie’s again. “I won’t if you won’t.”

“Promise.”

“Good girl.”