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Therapeutic Touch

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Jimmy kept his arm around Byers' shoulders even once they were off the prison grounds, walking away from the sodden grey building and towards the relative warmth and comfort of the van.

The spatter of rain against the umbrella was a soothing white noise, and their footsteps, offset by Jimmy's slightly longer legs, turned into a pattern to concentrate on. They would match up for three or four perfect steps before drifting apart again, but never for too long. 

After the first block the streets were empty. It made sense—the prison was far from central to the town, and nobody but protestors and celebrants would be anywhere near it on the day of an execution. The empty cars sitting few and far between along the edge of the sidewalk, windshields streaked with rain, made the quiet seem hollow and eerie.

Jimmy's hand slipped off Byers' shoulder and rubbed over his upper arm. He hadn't realized how much the chill air had leeched into his skin until Jimmy started warming him up again.

"You okay?" Jimmy muttered, quiet enough that Byers could pretend he hadn't heard.

"Why wouldn't I be?"

Jimmy's hand stilled and tightened for a moment, a makeshift hug. "I dunno. You got beat up a lot while all this was happening, then it turned out really crummy, and now you're all quiet... like, not normal quiet."

Byers hummed. "I wasn't badly hurt, really... I didn't even need stitches."

"You needed those little tape strip things. And that doesn't even matter, getting hit is getting hit." Jimmy paused and his hand stopped moving again, coming to rest back on Byers' shoulder. "Especially in the face. That's, like... personal."

The painful prickling sensation left behind by a hand's impact was still crawling across Byers' face, familiar and sickening. His skin would probably still have a pinkish smear across it when they got back to HQ, a reminder of the pain he'd caused that hurt so much more deeply than a slap ever could. Evidence of his failure.

They turned a corner and the van was waiting for them right where they parked it, the rain plunking against the roof and falling in thin rivets down the windshield. It didn't look like a creepy shell, like the other vehicles—it was as familiar as his own room, comfortable and calming. Not always functional, but even when it struggled there was always the plush front seat, worn and soft and easy to sink into. They didn't make seats anything like it anymore, and being able to have that simple comfort even when things went completely sideways made the terrible gas mileage and the weird ways it broke down seem trivial.

Byers realized somewhat belatedly that they had stopped walking. Jimmy's hand was rubbing at his arm again, slower than before, coming all the way up to bump against Byers' neck before trailing back down to his elbow.

Jimmy stepped forward and pivoted, standing squarely between Byers and the van, careful to keep the umbrella over both of them. His lips were drawn together and his eyebrows were stern, but not tight with anger. He looked resolute, like he'd made a decision and decided he would stick to it. 

"You didn't deserve that, you know? You're a good person, and brave. You'd go to the top of the world for someone if they asked."

Before Byers could deflect or downplay or otherwise dodge the subject, Jimmy stepped forward again and smothered Byers in a surprisingly calm hug, considering his usual enthusiasm for them. His arms reached easily around Byers' shoulders, and he was the perfect height to rest his cheek against Byers' hair, breath ticklish against his ear. The umbrella still shielded Byers, but the rain started to patter faintly against Jimmy's back.

Byers froze. It was a lot to process all of a sudden and all at once—the closeness, the warmth, the strength that Byers knew could easily overpower him turned into such a soft embrace.

"I'm sorry you got hurt," Jimmy said, his voice much less firm than it was just moments ago. "I'm sorry I let it happen."

Byers relaxed a little, sighing. He rested one hand on Jimmy's waist. "Jimmy..."

Jimmy's arms tightened. "I wish everyone was as gentle as you."

That startled him. It wasn't something he would ever have expected to hear from the gentlest person he'd ever known. Jimmy had so much bulk to throw around, so many reasons to be angry or frustrated, and yet he was unfailingly kind, and his touch was always so careful and warm—

Byers gave in and melted into the hug. He closed his eyes and buried his face in Jimmy's shoulder, wrapping his arms around the solid bulk of Jimmy's chest and balling his hands into fists around handfuls of Jimmy's rain-slicked jacket. If his hands weren't already aching from the cloying wet cold he would have been content to stand there forever. 

Jimmy was the first to let his grip fall slack, but even as he held the umbrella upright again he left one arm over Byers' shoulders. Byers was quietly relieved—he left his arms wrapped around Jimmy's waist.

"It's getting pretty nasty out here," Jimmy said, peeking around the edge of the umbrella to look at the greying sky. When he looked back at Byers his concern faded, replaced with a warm smile. "Should we get going?"

Byers' nod was reluctant. Before Jimmy rounded the van to the driver's side door he pulled Byers in for another quick squeeze. "Thanks for letting me do this," he said. "I know you're not big on hugs..."

Byers squeezed him back. "Thank you," he countered. "I didn't realize how badly I needed one."

As they finally parted, Jimmy's smile broke into a grin. "If you need another, just ask."

Jimmy left Byers with the umbrella and hurried around the van, eager to get the doors unlocked. The few unguarded moments of cold rain picking at Byers' skin as he folded the umbrella made him shiver, but it didn't sink into his bones the way it had at the prison just minutes ago. When he finally sat down Jimmy's hand was resting in the middle of the bench seat, a little too far away from his body to be casual.

Bravery seized him and he extended his own hand, laying it down with his pinky finger against Jimmy's. Jimmy jerked his hand away and Byers' entire body felt like it had dropped a floor, but once the key was in the ignition Jimmy reached out and grabbed onto Byers' now retreating hand again, fumbling around until their fingers were laced together. Byers took a deep breath, because he'd just gone through every single stage of grief within about two seconds, then inched closer to the middle of the seat so neither of them had to stretch. He didn't realize how badly he wanted to hold hands until he thought for an instant that he'd gotten the wrong message.

As the van rattled into motion, Byers let his eyes close and his aching back relax and slump against the faded upholstery. He didn't want to leave Jimmy driving with one hand for very long, and he found himself already yearning to get home so he could ask for another hug—it had been a long time since a simple comfort felt so sweet.