Never has he had to work so hard for fourth place, strangling his terror until he could reach the finish line.
His hands were shaking too badly to manage the hotel room key and he missed the lock twice. Swearing under his breath, Niki braced himself against the doorframe of his hotel door, his fingers curled around the splintered wood. He fought the urge to rest his forehead against the door and simply breathed in, willing his body to stop trembling. Willing the adrenaline to fade.
Fourth place? Fourth? Hah. It felt like a podium. Felt like a goddamned win.
"You're not with your admirers," James said from behind him, and Niki turned, startled, almost dropping the room key.
He had been expecting Marlene. Or - no, he has told Marlene that he wanted some time alone, and she had simply nodded. He had assumed she would ignore him and come up anyway, wrapping herself around him in the night. But -
"What are you doing here?" he demanded, aware of how weak his voice sounded. He was so tired he could barely keep his eyes open, but he had so many things he needed to do before he could go to bed.
Maybe he shouldn't have sent Marlene away. Maybe -
James was looking at him quietly. He had come fresh from the race, still dressed in his race suit and stinking of sweat and vomit and his ruined engine. "I came to check if you were in one piece or if you had left bits behind on the track, like a leper."
He stepped forward until he was an arm's length away, that same familiar grin lurking; tentative, now, and gentle.
Niki felt the snarl come easily to his lips. "If anyone has left anything on the track it is you. Or was that not the remains of your engine I passed on my way in?" His shoulders relaxed marginally at the familiar cadence of their insults. This, at least, had not changed. This, if nothing else.
After a moment, James smiled. "Same old rat, bristly as ever. Marlene said you were back to your old self; warning me away I think, rather than sharing good news." He reached out and touched a finger to the neck of Niki's racesuit, tracing the soaked fabric. "Shall we get you cleaned up, then?"
All the tension came flooding back. Marlene had sent him. Marlene. Despite Niki saying - "I can do it myself," he snapped, and took a step backwards. "I don't need your help."
"Oh, Niki, I'm not here to help," James said, and raised an eyebrow, grin still wide and free.
Niki paused. "Oh?"
James plucked the room key from his unresisting fingers and opened the door, shouldering his way in. "I'm here to mock you when you're down, of course." He sat himself down uninvited in the chair opposite the bed, legs spread wide; king of the entire room. He gestured at Niki vaguely. "I plan on starting in on that paunch you're developing, next. Or was hospital food really that appealing?"
"Asshole," Niki said, and felt his lips quirk into a smile. He stepped in and closed the door. The practicalities of it - not something at the forefront of his mind when he'd chased Marlene away - came back to him. The reality was that he could not easily get out of his race suit himself, not in his current condition. And while it was tempting to send James on his way... Well, what did it matter what he thought, after all? He was only James. "All right. You may assist."
"That's so gracious of you," James said, and rolled his eyes. "Let me get out of my race suit and I'll help with yours."
He stripped off in short order down to just his underwear, tossing his race suit and underthings to a corner of the room, then stood back and gestured at Niki. "Well?"
"I thought you were supposed to be helping," Niki groused, but started in on unzipping himself and easing his arms free.
It shouldn't have been that painful. It was, after all, only his hands and face that had been affected by the fire, but that of course ignored the reality of the crash, ricocheting one - two - like a pinball machine. And afterwards, his entire body trying to heal, pouring all of its energies into keeping him alive. The physiotherapy that followed; the lung vacuums; the massages; the liquid food for weeks on end. And then, at the end of it, getting back in the car, and letting the G forces pummel him from side to side, every muscle screaming at him to stop; louder, even, than the screams of the tifosi.
No, getting undressed was never going to be a simple thing.
Niki allowed James to ease him free of the suit, one arm at a time, sliding it carefully down. He unzipped Niki's boots and pulled them off carefully, mindful of Niki's grimace when his feet immediately tried to cramp. James's hands fit perfectly around the arch of Niki's feet, keeping pressure there until the cramps eased. "Better?" he asked, and waited for Niki's nod before disposing of the boots and of the soaked socks. Finally, he carefully peeled off Niki's underthings - just the bottoms - and hesitated, his hands on the hem of Niki'sT-shirt.
"How do you want this off?" he asked. "I can try to ease it free over your head, or I can just cut it off."
There really wasn't any point to retaining the fucking thing, it was soaked with sour sweat and spotted with blood. "Just cut it off," Niki said shortly, and waited impatiently while James fetched the scissors from the medical kit open on the bed.
The metal of the scissors was cold against Niki's skin and he shivered.
"Fine. Just get on with it," he snapped.
A few more seconds, James carefully maneuvering the scissors around the delicate skin of Niki's neck, and the T-shirt opened at the front. "OK, just let me -" and James helped him push it off, Niki's own arms refusing to bend far enough to allow him to manage it.
"Not bad," Niki said after a moment, once he had his breath back. He fought the urge to fold his arms over his bare chest. "You are quite the Florence Nightingale, Hunt. Perhaps you have missed your true calling, and you should change from racing to wiping sick men's bottoms."
"Like I may have to wipe yours, you mean?" James didn't even look at him, rifling through the medical kit. "Can you talk me through changing the bandages, or shall I call Marlene back?"
Niki felt a stab of something sour and resentful at the thought of Marlene having to do this for him, like he was an old man or a child instead of her husband. This, when all she wanted was for him to not be in that car. "They don't need changing," he said instead, and his arms did fold then, hugging his tender ribs.
James gave him a look. "They're filthy; even I know that isn't good. Can you talk me through it or not, Niki?"
They probably were. He hadn't checked after he'd pulled the helmet off, but it had felt sticky and oddly reluctant to be removed, which wasn't a good sign. Niki gritted his teeth. "Just - ease them free - don't pull, you'll take skin and I can't afford to lose any more - and wet them down if they won't come free. Then the disinfectant in the bottle over there, and then the new bandages, following the same pattern as these ones. Not too tight. Can you follow that or will you fetch me a chair and a mirror?"
James rolled his eyes. "Yes, oh mighty educator, I can follow simple instructions. Sit on the bed and try not to bleed all over the comforter. " He placed the medical kit on the side of the bed and went to the bathroom.
After a moment, Niki heard the water running, followed by a lot of swearing. "Did you stub your toe?" He inquired solicitously, parking himself gingerly on the edge of the bed.
"This hot water is actually straight from the foul pits of hell, so don't try sticking your hands under the hot tap," James said, emerging from the bathroom with a small bowl of hot water and hands the colour of boiled lobsters.
Niki eyed his reddened hands doubtfully. "Well, at least now we match," he said after a moment. "Although you may have passed the critical point if you planned to retain the use of them."
"Now, ratty, be gentle, I've wounded myself in my attempt not to give you blood poisoning." He touched the edge of the bandage on Niki's head, easing the edge free. "Doesn't that deserve a reward?"
Niki inhaled sharply at the sudden flare of agony along his temple, and James immediately stopped. "What sort of reward," he asked, trying to catch his breath.
James wet one of the spare bandages carefully, using the wadded up thing to gently press moisture into the bandage that had more or less fused itself into Niki's scalp, coaxing the fabric free. "Well," he said, as if he were discussing the weather, "a couple of tenths would always be appreciated."
Niki breathed hard through gritted teeth as the bandage slowly came free. The pain was -
It was -
"Tenths won't help you if you keep blowing up your car," he said. "You are - reckless." He swallowed back down the wave of bile rising in his throat, only dimly aware of his hands clenching in his lap.
James glanced down. "Says the man back in the car when he should be in hospital," he said drily. "Put your hands on my hips," he instructed.
Niki blinked up at him. "Was?"
"Your hands - you're going to sprain something if you continue to clench like that. Hold on to me and straighten your spine if you value your recovery."
"You're a very unappealing nurse," Niki told him resentfully, as he braced his hands on James's hips and straightened his back.
"Now, now, rat, no need to be jealous of my classic good looks. I'm sure you have a lovely personality," James said absently as he worked, carefully easing the bandages free from the sore flesh beneath. "Er, somewhere deep down, anyway. Nearly done, now, last one to go."
Easy for you to say, Niki thought resentfully, trying to brace himself for it as best he could. "Are you here to help, or to yap, Hunt? I knew you loved the sound of your own voice, but -" the final trailing part of the bandage came free, and with it a trickle of blood. Niki's breath hissed out of him and he squeezed his eyes shut, his hands tight on James's hips.
"There, now. All done. All done, Niki, come on," James said, and the bastard patted Niki on the back.
He was gonna absolutely murder the condescending asshole. "Trust you to do a job half-way and consider it done," Niki said, when he could trust his voice not to tremble. He let go of James's hips, blinking at where he saw the echo of his fingertips standing out in sharp relief against Hunt's skin. Oh, he thought surprised. I had not meant to hold on so tight.
"I'll get the disinfectant," James said, but he did not move away, his hands still hovering awkwardly around Niki's shoulders.
Niki looked up, discomforted. "What?"
James hesitated. "I know - I know some parts are painful. But these areas - you didn't flinch at all when I removed the bandages. Do they - I mean, does it hurt?" He reached out a curious finger towards Niki's injured face, hovering a scant few millimetres from what remained of Niki's ear.
Niki swallowed and did not flinch. "No," he said shortly. "The fire burned those nerves away. I have no feeling left."
James's smile was lopsided. "Some might say that's always been the case. But we know better, don't we?" He brought up his other hand and he did touch Niki then, tracing the shell of his good ear. "You feel this."
Niki closed his eyes and willed himself not to shiver. That, he did feel. Of course he did. He felt the touch on his over-sensitised skin all the way down to his toes, his whole body trying to shudder at the over-stimulation after the pain he had just endured. At just James's fingertips touching his ear, for fuck's sake. "Please don't touch me," he managed.
Immediately the touch stopped.
"I'm sorry," James said, and he sounded genuinely regretful. "I didn't mean to pry." There was no trace of pity in his voice, for which Niki was grateful. He wasn't sure how he could stand it if there had been. "I'll get the disinfectant."
He stepped away.
Numbly, Niki stared at the floor and breathed, trying to pull himself together.
After a few minutes he realised that James had not returned, but was instead fiddling with the medical kit, his back to Niki. Giving him, Niki realised, a modicum of privacy.
"Are you going to just stand there or help," Niki eventually managed.
James turned and gave him one of his dazzling smiles, his whole face brightening. "You caught me napping," he said, and came back with the disinfectant and some wipes, seating himself on the floor in front of Niki. "Don't kick me in the balls," he warned, and brought up the wipe.
"Couldn't find them even if I was looking," Niki sniped, and braced himself. Instead of the pain of the alcohol, he felt James's warm breath on his face, and he realised that James had moved up to kneel between Niki's spread knees. His bare arms bracketed Niki's torso as he leaned in.
"There," James said, "Now they're an easier target and I shall have to trust you." He reached up and cupped the back of Niki's neck, supporting his neck and giving him something to push against.
"You're lucky I'm in a forgiving mood." Niki stared at James's mouth, inches from his own. They had never stood this close before.
James quirked a smile. "That's what I've always loved about you, Niki. Your world-renowned sense of fair play and Christian charity." He dabbed gently at the exposed flesh, waiting through the hiss of pain before carrying on.
Niki breathed hard through gritted teeth. The stinging was even more painful than the tearing agony of before; like pouring salt on the wound. "Not my race pace?" he said, breathless. His hands had landed around James's waist again, fingers digging in as he fought to keep his back straight and his sore muscles unclenched.
James reached out and touched the edge of Niki's jaw, tracing the outline thoughtfully. "Well," he said, "I guess we'll see at the next race, won't we?"
Niki felt something odd in the pit of his stomach. He smiled, albeit unsteadily. "Hey, asshole, we both know the next race is mine," he said, as confidently as he could. "I beat you from my sickbed, you think I can't do it when I am recovered?"
James grinned. "That's my ratty," he said. He unwound the clean new bandage and held it up for inspection. "Now close your eyes, Niki, and this won't hurt a bit."
Niki glared, and complied, bracing himself against James again. His hands fit easily to James's sides, now, as if they had found a place they were comfortable and did not wish to leave.
The echo of James's fingertips ghosted over Niki's lips and he shivered. "That's my rat," James said again, fondly, and reached up.
Their mouths fit together neatly, easily, Niki shivering in James's grip, the clean new bandages caught between them.
"Is this ok?" James murmured, pulling back slightly, his hands still on Niki.
Niki took a deep breath, feeling every inch of his body complain. Fourth place, from his sickbed. And James's hands on him, James's mouth over his. Fourth place, and the championship still his to fight for.
"Niki," James said quietly, and he traced the edge of Niki's good ear with a fingertip, watching Niki shiver. Watching Niki want him. "Niki, is this ok?"
James had the new bandages twisted up in his hands, Niki realised. Niki's scalp felt tender and raw, and he felt oddly naked. He hadn't even noticed his state of undress, but his head -
"I'm just going to assume you're overwhelmed by my kissing technique," James said eventually, and Niki realised he hadn't answered.
"Stunned into silence through sheer horror," he said, and reached up a hand to cup James's jaw. "I suppose I shall have to demonstrate this as well."
"By all means, lead the way. You know I'm such a stickler for strong leadership," James said. He leaned in and kissed Niki again, that same gentle, careful kiss, perfectly aligned.
Niki closed his eyes and let himself be kissed. He did not mind, he realised. All of James's care, his solicitousness, and the gentleness of his kiss - he did not mind it.
Because when James had put his mouth on Niki, the bandages had been off.