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Bound to Be A Better Ride (Than What You've Got Planned)

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The first breath screams its way out of Alexei. It sears through him like a grappling hook to the chest as he jolts back to consciousness.

He gasps, and scrambles for purchase on the ground as though he’s falling, trying to get the lay of the land around him. He’s alone, and it’s dark, the kind of pitch dark that suggests late night. Alexei squints through smudgy glasses that want to slip off his face; he thinks he’s still in the fairgrounds, although not where he was when the agent shot him. Dimly, he remembers Murray moving him into an alley, somewhere he wasn’t likely to be found—but maybe the Russians just didn’t think him valuable enough to look too hard for his body once he was dealt with. At any rate, he must be out of the way enough that no one working for the carnival stumbled on him.

Through the darkness, he can see the hulking, still shapes of amusement park rides and funhouses. All their lights are off, and they lie dormant like barely breathing monsters.

For a few moments, he just sits there, slumped over and trying not to hyperventilate from the pain radiating through his body. He squeezes his eyes shut and recites mathematical equations in his head, repeating sequences of numbers as high as he can recall them before he gets distracted. As many digits of pi as he can remember; prime numbers, Fibonacci numbers, multiplication tables, whatever will center his mind and keep him grounded. Then he opens his eyes, and tries to formulate a plan for what to do.

Their team has several outposts scattered all around greater Hawkins, in addition to the main bases at Starcourt and the steelworks—hideaways where they keep supplies and communication backups so that if their location is compromised, all their necessaries aren’t kept in one place. The more secure facilities have guards, but some are just storage units, commandeered from abandoned basements or warehouses and disguised to look completely vacant. There’s one about a mile from here; Alexei can get into it, easy.

He starts to get up, but his legs are unsteady; it’s hard to get his feet under him. Something falls from his lap when he struggles up to his knees. Alexei grabs at it, holds it up in the moonlight to try and see what it is: Murray’s shirt, bloodstained now and wrinkled beyond decency. Still, Alexei balls it up in his hands and, for a brief moment, brings a clean-ish section of the fabric up to his face to inhale what remains of Murray’s scent. It’s not a particularly attractive smell, but it’s familiar, and he clings to it. It might be the last sensory contact with Murray he’ll ever get.

(There was something there between them, he knows it like he knows his own name. They’d been heading towards a revelation that night, and he is sure that what he was feeling then is not unreciprocated. Murray does not entertain bullshit; he doesn’t believe in denying the truth of what he feels, and his abrasive personality is not as much of a mask as people seem to think it is. He never seemed to be trying to get rid of Alexei. That alone is a testament to the fact that there is something between them, even if his instincts are wrong and it turns out to be platonic.)

He can’t take the shirt with him, though. There’s no point in carrying around a useless piece of bloody fabric, much as discarding it feels like heartbreak.

On a normal day, it would take Alexei maybe half an hour to walk a mile; but in the dark, in pain and weak, with legs that keep threatening to give out on him and only about a 50% certainty that he’s going in the right direction, he doesn’t arrive at the bunker until almost an hour later. The walk is completely silent but for the sounds of his own breath and the calls of nocturnal animals in the woods. The only other interruption comes when he looks up at the sky and sees a fleet of helicopters, half a dozen of them or more, speeding in the general direction of Hawkins. He thinks of the monsters that portal could have unlocked, the destruction the Russians were capable of inflicting, and wonders what kind of disaster has unfolded tonight.

The outpost is little more than a shack in the woods, but it is secured by an electronic code system, the passcode for which has thankfully not been changed. Alexei hopes his using it doesn’t set off an alarm at some monitoring station. The last thing he needs is for someone to come investigating an unauthorized entry before he has managed to make a break for it.

Alexei turns on the slightly flickering overhead light and sags to the floor, beginning the slow process of removing his shirt. It’s damp with perspiration and sticking to his body where the blood has adhered it to his skin. When he tries to peel it off, it pulls at the wound, and he bites back a cry of pain. Finally it’s off, and after lifting the bottom of his undershirt, he gets a damp cloth and scrubs away some of the blood so he can finally get a good look at the injury.

He doesn’t know if the bullet went all the way through, or if it’s still in him somewhere; there’s no mirror, and if he tries to reach behind himself to feel, he’s fairly certain he’ll pass out again. There’s a definite dampness against the fabric on his back, but then again, he’s pouring sweat, from the midsummer heat and the pain both. The bullet hole in his gut is still trickling blood a little, although not heavily. Touching it brings searing pain, and every time he prods at it his vision goes a little fuzzy.

He is very suddenly, and very palpably, afraid.

The memory comes to him suddenly, unbidden, of something that had happened earlier that day. He walks back into Murray’s hideout after handing the car keys back to the cop, sits back down on the couch, and takes another slightly resentful bite of his semi-crushed food. He could have run, he thinks. He could have been far away by now, and in a nice car to boot. But something makes him suspect he’s probably better off here.

Murray is looking at him, as if trying to dissect him with his intense gaze. “Are you afraid of me?” he abruptly asks in Russian.

Alexei shrugs. He’s not, really—Murray, for all his bluster and aloofness, is harmless. Alexei doesn’t think he’s capable of actual malevolence. He’s seen enough evil men to know.

“Of her, then?” Murray says with a broad grin. He gestures with his head to the woman arguing strenuously with the policeman in the corner.

Alexei snorts. “Not of him, obviously.” The big man is hostile, but Alexei strongly suspects he’s too dumb to be any kind of a real threat.

Murray is still staring at him. “Then why did you come back?” The words sound strangely vulnerable coming out of the American’s mouth, and Alexei thinks maybe it’s just a fluke, an error in expressiveness from someone speaking a language other than their native tongue. But something in Murray’s eyes says that it’s not.

“Why does it matter?” he asks, to distract from the sudden intimacy of the situation—although his gaze hasn’t once left Murray’s, and the eye contact is becoming intense.

Murray grins again. All his smiles are wolfish, too-large and sharp-edged in a way that Alexei suspects is meant to keep people at arm’s length. “Hopper said you wouldn’t leave because you’d be too scared of the Russians to go back,” he says. “I’d hate to have to admit he was right about something.” He gives a short laugh, and Alexei smiles along with him despite himself. The joke feels like a secret shared between them, or a strange peace offering.

“You know why,” Alexei says, after a beat. “You know why they took me.” He flicks his eyes back to the other two Americans again.

“They needed a scientist,” Murray says with a frown. “You were just there, the easiest one to get, the first one they found.”

“No,” Alexei corrects, his voice gently firm. “They took me because I am—” He cast about for the right word. “Expendable. It does not matter if I am abducted, because if I go back they will kill me anyway. So I might as well… cooperate.”

Alexei cannot be afraid of Murray and his two strange friends, because he has seen men choked to death for incompetence and insufficient performance; because he has witnessed the horror of what the Russian military is cultivating in that underground lab; because he knows that if he returns, disgraced from having been overpowered by foreign agents and potentially having compromised the secrecy of the mission, he will be murdered on sight. The Americans are a motley crew of frenetic, high-strung civilians who appear to have seen a truly improbable amount of suspicious activity, but they are not dangerous. They are—protective. If he can help, he has nothing to fear from them.

And to be honest, he sort of likes them. Especially the man sitting next to him right now.

He is not afraid.

Now, his blood sluggishly soaking through his clothes and with help coming from no possible source, Alexei feels the cold rush of fear that maybe he should have felt all along.

He wraps the wound as best he can, replacing the bloodied shirt with another fresh one from the lockers here at the base. It’s not a uniform shirt, thankfully; he doesn’t know if he can wear something that uncomfortable right now, to say nothing of the disgust he feels at potentially having to put on the insignia of his former employers. There’s not much in the way of medical supplies around, but he does get some gauze on top of the entry wound and then wraps his torso in as much of the sparse bandaging as he can find, tight as his tired hands will allow so that it will keep pressure on the gash. He spends a long time scouring the place for painkillers or even antibiotics as a precaution, but apparently they don’t keep medication within easy reach on the premises. At this point, all Alexei wants is the strongest form of pain relief he can get his hands on. His skin feels clammy and he needs water. There are some jugs of water in the stockpile, luckily, and he gulps some down and packs another in a bag, along with some maps and basic necessities, before closing everything behind him and making sure he’s left no trace, bloody clothes thrown into the garbage for (he hopes) no one to find.

The problem now is where to go. If he is going to die, he doesn’t want to die here anymore than he did at the fairgrounds. He briefly thinks of trying to make his way to Hawkins, where at least he knows a couple of people—if he can locate a police station, he might be able to track down the big dumb policeman, who could help him find somewhere safe. But then he remembers the flood of emergency helicopters heading towards the town, and the fact that all the people who want to kill Alexei are currently there. Going to Hawkins would be just as likely to land him in a trap as it would to bring him safety.

That only leaves one place he can think to go, but he doesn’t know how he could possibly get there on foot. Illinois is almost three hours away, if he remembers correctly from the ride with the Americans; that would be probably more than a day on foot, and Alexei can barely stand already. Dying next to the highway while trying to cross state lines doesn’t sound like a better option than the ones he’s already thought of. But if he could find a car, he just might make it.

Or he might lose consciousness and run himself off the road. But it’s worth a try.

This supply base isn’t exactly a vehicle depot, but he walks a circle around the perimeter anyway, searching for a getaway car or some other means of transportation he could possibly commandeer. And in a stroke of luck—one of the only ones he’s had tonight, all things considered—he sees a little lean-to on the corner of the property and opens it on a hunch. There it is: a car, old from the looks of it, probably meant as a backup in case they needed a way to get around that didn’t look suspicious. If that was its purpose, there would be a set of keys on the ground under the car, next to the front driver’s side tire, he knows. Bending down to check is agony, but he falls to his knees next to the car, clutching his side against the pain with one hand as he goes down, and with the other feels around the dirt-spattered rubber.

His fingers touch metal.

There’s no time to waste: Alexei tucks the key into the palm of his hand, wrenches open the car’s door, and scrambles inside. He’s not entirely sure where he’s going, but a quick study of the map gives him the names and route numbers of major highways leading to Chicago, and he’s pretty sure he can figure out the rest from there. (The two Americans had been somewhat less than intimidating captors, but their abduction of Alexei had still technically been kidnapping; he’d taken careful note of road names and landmarks so he could find his way back to safety if things took a turn for the worse, and if he focuses with all his might now he can still recall them.) With a deep breath he starts the engine of the vehicle, glances to make sure there’s a full tank of gas, turns the air conditioning up as high as it will go to balance out his almost feverish body temperature, and pulls out onto the dirt road leading away from the compound. With any luck, in a few hours he’ll be home safe with his friend.

-

It’s almost 5:00 in the morning when he finally makes it through the gates and onto Murray’s property, turning off his headlights as he approaches so he’s less conspicuous. There are no lights on in the place—not that Alexei really expects there to be, at this time of the night and with Murray as cautious as he is—but as he stumbles out of the car and tries to reorient himself to standing, fighting back a wave of dizziness, it occurs to him that he doesn’t actually have any reason to believe Murray will be here at all. Whatever the three Americans had encountered when they got to the shopping mall may not even be over yet. Even if it is, Murray may not have had time to drive all the way back to Chicago. Or they could be kidnapped by Russian agents. They might not even be alive.

But the door to the bunker is flung open before he can even raise his hand to knock. (Dimly, it occurs to Alexei that Murray had probably seen him approaching on the security feed—that he has, in fact, probably been watching the cameras obsessively after what happened that night. The man is paranoid on the best of days, he senses; on the night after an actual attack, though, he has good reason for vigilance.) From the outside, the compound had looked dark, but there’s at least one single lamp on in the living room, shielded from view by heavy blackout curtains. Murray himself looks freshly showered, and too wired to have been asleep, but his eyes are exhausted beyond belief. He’s put even less care into his appearance than usual, and through the gaps in the ill-fitting clothing Alexei can see the outlines of bruises, new and dark and mottling. Whatever happened that night did not leave either of them unscathed.

The expression on the man’s face suggests that the sight of Alexei is more than his brain can handle at the end of this very long night. His eyes are wide, and for a split second he stands so still it’s like he’s turned into a statue. Then he stammers, “Holy shit.”

Alexei attempts to take his hands off his throbbing side for long enough to hold them up in a sarcastic ta-da gesture. “Surprise,” he manages weakly.

Murray pulls him in through the door by the arm and shuts it behind them. There’s no sign of either of their two friends from earlier now; the bunker is blessedly and utterly quiet. “You were—you got—I thought you were dead,” he says, looking Alexei up and down frantically.

Maybe it’s the shock and stress of the day, or the euphoria of making it back here to the man he has grown to care about, but Alexei tries again for humor. “Did you miss me?” he jokes, and then he can’t think of something clever to say next, because Murray is kissing him.

It’s a lot more intense than any first kiss Alexei’s ever had, that much is for sure. Murray kisses him with enough force that he feels swept off his feet. It’s passion bordering on desperation, and no monster attack on this earth could stop Alexei from returning it with equal fervor. He moves his lips into the kiss, lets his tongue join in with a filthy curl, and Murray moans and grabs at his hips. A sudden lightning-strike of desire floods through Alexei. His blood feels hot, nerve endings lighting up at the promise of new and pleasant sensations; in the lower half of his body, things stir and start to take an interest as well. Alexei moves one hand to the small of Murray’s back, stroking to guide him forward, and his back is against the wall before he can blink. They’re both making sounds, little amazing turned-on noises that Alexei is shocked to hear coming from his own mouth, but which he wants to hear Murray make forever.

Then Murray crowds in as close as he can, a movement that puts sudden pressure on the wound where Alexei’s torso was ripped open—and the flash of pain that follows washes all arousal and pleasure from his body. He clamps his lips together just in time to stifle the agonized howl that pulls its way up his throat. It’s not a pretty sound; it would have been a scream if he’d let it out. Alexei flinches into a defensive ball, suddenly feeling as though his whole body is on fire in a very different way. Adrenaline and shock had pushed the injury into the periphery of his awareness, but now it jolts back to the forefront of his mind again. The pain is unbelievable.

“Alexei, shit—” Murray is saying, and then he is reaching to tear open the front of Alexei’s shirt, to look at the damage for himself. Another vehement curse, in English this time, leaves his lips. “You did a terrible job with this,” he says weakly, and Alexei knows it’s meant to be a wry quip to lighten the mood, but the fear in Murray’s voice drains any levity from his words.

Alexei tries to look down, although his vision is still a little fuzzy from the tidal wave of pain. He can see that the entry wound is aggravated; it’s bleeding slightly again, and the skin around it is red, but it’s hard to tell whether it’s getting infected or whether that’s just irritation from how insufficiently he’s protected it. His mouth works, and no coherent words come out—just a worried sound that has Murray’s hands on him in an instant. He soothes a gentle thumb over Alexei’s temple and turns his face away from the sight of his own blood.

“We have to get you to a hospital,” Murray murmurs. Alexei starts to panic again, starts to mutter no, no, it’s dangerous, but the other man shushes him before he can get more than a couple syllables out. “Believe me, a town like this, it won’t be the strangest thing they’ve seen. Trust me, sweetheart.”

Alexei shudders. He wants to throw up, to pass out, to cry, to kiss Murray again. It’s his body going into overdrive, he knows, but he’s starting to feel like he’s maybe not in control of himself anymore, and it’s terrifying. He nods at Murray, starts to straighten up and move forward, and feels his knees buckle and give out from beneath him. Murray catches him as he stumbles.

“Jesus,” he mutters, in English. A string of other words follow, unintelligible to Alexei’s ears, but he doesn’t mind. If Murray wanted him to know what he was saying, he would have used their common language. It’s grounding enough just to hear the man’s voice.

With Murray supporting as much of his weight as possible on his own body, he hustles Alexei off to the car. Alexei tries to buckle his own seatbelt, but his hands are shaking, he realizes when he looks at them dumbly. He hadn’t felt the trembling, but they’re clumsy and aimless now, refusing to grasp what he wants them to. He fumbles until Murray slides into the driver’s seat. “Stop that,” the other man scolds, and bats Alexei’s hands aside to reach over and tug the seatbelt into place.

Alexei slides back in the fabric-covered seat. He feels dizzy and far away, and he tries to focus on Murray’s face, with great effort and very little success. “I don’t think I will be able to stay awake until we get to the hospital,” he admits apologetically, words slurring already. He knows in the movies, people are always supposed to stay awake, stay with me, but his grip on the world is slipping.

Murray nods, lips pressed tight, and starts the car. “It’s okay,” he says. “I’ve got you.” He sighs heavily, like he’s gathering himself. “I’ve got you,” he repeats quietly, and Alexei wonders if he was even meant to hear.

The car lurches into motion, and Alexei closes his eyes wearily, overcome by exhaustion and dizziness and the faint nausea of sudden movement. He can feel his heartbeat in his bones, racing faster than he thinks it should. He breathes in as deep as he can, shocked by the rasping sound clinging to the end of it. It doesn’t feel like enough air.

“Alexei—” he hears Murray say, urgent and soothing at once, and it’s the last thing he hears before his senses fade out.

---

Hours later, Alexei blinks his eyes open again. He feels warm, but clean, and comfortable—the pain has dimmed to a dull ache now that someone has dosed him with medication; he has the light out-of-body feeling that suggests morphine. There is a strange feeling of heaviness across his abdomen. Lifting his head with unusually great effort, Alexei strains to look. The sight makes his throat tighten and his eyes go soft.

Murray is crammed into the bed next to him, taking up as much space as he can even though he’s restricted to the very edge, between Alexei’s body and the bedrail that keeps them contained inside. He’s fast asleep, and his arm is flung across Alexei’s stomach. It’s such a comforting weight that the Russian feels tears pricking at his eyes. He is grounded here, safe. Murray won’t let him go.

He is still tired; he is starting to feel like he cannot remember what it was like not to be tired. But if Murray is here, then the danger must be far enough away not to concern him. There is plenty of time to rest, and no better company with which to do so.

And maybe later, Alexei can start to make good on the promise of that kiss he and Murray had shared earlier.

---

In actuality, Alexei spends the entire day in too much pain to do anything.

They’re still giving him the good drugs, but either the dosage is decreasing or his body is already getting used to them, because everything hurts. He tries to sleep it off as much as he can, but any rest is fitful and interrupted as he jolts awake anytime the aching in his stomach throbs too sharply. He knows he must be making sounds of pain in his sleep: more often than not, when he floats back to consciousness, Murray’s hand is smoothing back his hair, his voice murmuring soothing nonsense into his ear.

He remembers only an indistinguishable blur of moments from the rest of the night before: the flashing lights of the emergency bay as Murray and a team of medics lifted him out of the car; the stabbing pain the first time doctors touched the wound in his gut; a nurse wiping a cool cloth across his face to clean away the sweat. Murray fills him in on the rest. He’s had surgery, mostly to close the wound rather than to repair any serious internal damage—he’s lucky that the bullet didn’t go very deep into him, and stayed lodged close to the surface without irreparably harming any crucial organs. (“The woodpecker saved you,” Murray murmurs, and Alexei laughs even though he wants to cry.) His blood loss was a concern, but the doctors had been able to do a transfusion and administer fluids, and he was closely monitored until his heart stopped racing and his blood pressure stabilized. He is lucky that most of his bleeding occurred at the moment he was shot: because the blood loss slowed on its own, having miraculously avoided hitting anything central that could cause hemorrhaging, he’d been at a low risk of bleeding out.

When the nurses or doctors come in, Murray doesn’t bother to translate back and forth between them. He does all the talking for Alexei, makes the decisions and asks all the questions, and then afterward he reports back to Alexei what was said. Alexei doesn’t mind. He’s out of his element here, overwhelmed by the new stimuli and the unfamiliar language and culture as well as his weakened physical state, and he doesn’t much want to interact with anyone other than his friend. He knows if he objects to anything Murray decides, Murray will go and tell the doctors to change it—and if he says he wants to be the one who talks to them himself, Murray will interpret for them. But right now, he just wants to rest.

The only time he feels any better is at the end of the day. By dinnertime, he’s feeling the first stirrings of hunger he’s had since he woke up at the fairgrounds; his stomach rolled at the idea of food before that, and he’d had to choke down even the smallest bit of his first two meals, curling up in a ball afterward and fighting the urge to bring it all up again. Murray turns on the television, satisfied that Alexei has rested enough that he can use a little distraction now, and after his evening dose of medication the nurses leave them alone for a while, finished with all their follow-up tests and willing to just check up on him every so often.

In the evening, Murray uses the room phone to call Joyce—the woman who had helped kidnap Alexei, although he hardly thinks of it as kidnapping anymore—and tell her what is going on. Joyce makes him teach her how to say “Feel better soon” in Russian; her clumsy, broken attempt makes Alexei laugh until he winces in pain. But he does feel better, warm with the idea that someone cares. “Thank you. I needed that,” he manages to say after he’s done laughing and breathing through the aching in his side. Murray starts to translate for him, but Joyce interrupts before he can finish.

“I know what he said,” she says in her soft motherly voice. “I know, honey.”

He lies there with the faint sounds of cartoons on the TV in one ear and Murray’s strident voice chatting away on the phone in the other, the two comforting sounds mingling together and feeling more like home than anything Alexei has felt in over a year. And then, as he looks at the wall and lets his mind drift, he feels the tips of Murray’s fingers slip between his own. It’s the smallest of gestures, just the brushing of a hand against his skin, but it’s the strongest sensation he’s felt aside from pain in the last eighteen hours. He twitches his own fingers over the other man’s in return, as a silent acknowledgment of the affection.

Eventually, Murray hangs up the phone, leans forward in his awkward hospital chair, and lays his head down on the bed tiredly. “She sounded sad,” Alexei comments. They both know why. Murray has told him everything that happened the night before, in the hours between the attack at the fairgrounds and his arrival at the bunker.

Murray lifts his head slightly. He still looks weary, worn-thin, and Alexei knows it’s not just because the man was worried about him. The night before, he heard stories of a monster so horrifying it would haunt anyone’s dreams for weeks; multiple children were put in mortal danger that they only narrowly escaped; at least two innocent lives were lost, and a third—Alexei—had, until now, been presumed dead. Alexei fiercely wishes he were not in the hospital right now. Murray deserves to be at home, in his own bed, recovering from the stress and trauma of what he’s been through.

“She has her son back,” Murray says after a moment. “Both of her sons. I don’t think she’s really let herself think about the rest of it yet.”

You need to stop thinking about it,” Alexei chides, but his voice is soothing. “It’s over now.” Murray scoffs and takes a breath, ready to launch into a tirade about how little they can really be sure of that, and Alexei cuts him off. “No, no no no—do not start this with me. It’s done.”

Murray has been resting all day too—or, more accurately, he’s supposed to be resting. By the time Alexei had been situated in a hospital bed with stable vital signs, the other man had been under so much physical and mental stress that he had a piercing migraine. He turned out, in addition to exhaustion and shock, to be critically dehydrated. So the nurses had fussed over him as well. (It was part of the reason, he has learned, that Murray was allowed to lie down in bed with him while he was asleep.) At least one of them has taken to asking, “So how you holding up, handsome?” and winking at Murray whenever she enters the room. Alexei doesn’t understand what she is saying, but he knows it must be something embarrassing from the look on Murray’s face, and that alone brings him a satisfying sense of glee.

The only interruptions to their solitude come when dinner arrives—a bland mixture of pale vegetables, applesauce, and other foods that are low in flavor and easy on the stomach—and when the nurse pokes her head in one final time to make sure Alexei is comfortable and to check that he’s not experiencing a worsening of any symptoms. (She also helps him to the bathroom one more time, a task he has not yet been willing to sacrifice his dignity enough to ask Murray to do.) Alexei knows, even without the aid of any translation services, that she advises Murray to go home for the night; he can tell what she’s suggested just from Murray’s irritated reaction. Alexei has tried to convince him of this too, but Murray has barely left his side long enough to get food or coffee for himself, much less to exit the hospital grounds entirely and leave him alone without company or assistance.

He does report back, after she’s left, that the hospital thinks Alexei will be discharged within the next few days, if he takes it easy and continues to heal without complications or side effects. The surgery was fairly minor, and after a couple days of monitoring, he should be able to recover the rest of the way at home. Alexei thinks of that whenever he feels restless, or bored, or when the pain bothers him to the point of frustration. He and Murray both have come such a long way in the past few days. Just a little longer, he thinks. A little while longer, and everything will be all right.

---

That night, Murray doesn’t try to sleep with him in the hospital bed. But Alexei does blink awake in the darkness of late night—2:30 in the morning, if he’s reading the clock right—to the feel of Murray’s lips grazing across his cheek. He makes a disoriented, confused sound; Murray strokes a finger over his mouth, tenderness silencing his impulse to question. The man is a dark, looming figure over his bedside, and Alexei can’t make out his expression or any specific features. But he knows what Murray wants, and what he wants as well.

When Murray leans forward to kiss him, he is ready.

Their lips collide clumsily in the dark, and Alexei inhales into the kiss as they orient themselves to each other. He strains upward to get closer, suddenly desperate for it. Naturally, the movement jars his injuries—they’ve given him a higher dose of painkillers to help him sleep better at night, but it’s not enough to dull the pain completely—and he whimpers as the burning soreness floods through him. But Murray has him safe and steady. He runs a gentle hand down Alexei’s side, calms the tension right out of his muscles, and guides him fully back down on the bed. And he doesn’t stop kissing him, not until they are short of breath and Alexei looks dazed for a reason other than the fact that his nerves are frayed with pain.

“I was scared,” Murray finally whispers, as though he could only feel safe saying the words in the darkness and cover of night. “When you passed out in the car. I thought you would be dead before we got to the hospital. I was so scared.”

Alexei strokes his thumb over Murray’s cheek. Then he says, sleepily but cheekily, “You were scared?”

Murray laughs despite himself; he sounds surprised at it. “Asshole,” he chuckles, and tugs on Alexei’s ear in retaliation.

“You need to sleep, Murray,” Alexei urges. “How many hours have you slept? Three? Four? You will give yourself another headache if you do not rest.” In recounting the events of the previous day, Alexei had learned that Murray had only just arrived home minutes before their reunion—he’d had time only for a shower and a drink before hearing the car pull into his driveway. In the time before that, he had been engaged in a high-stakes infiltration mission from which he’d barely escaped with his life, undergone intense physical and emotional strain, and afterwards, been interrogated for over an hour by government agents before being released after a cursory medical check for the three-hour late-night drive home. And then, before he’d gotten to even lie down in bed, Alexei had turned up and both of them had rushed to the emergency room. Those few hours of rest in the hospital bed, as well as some restless dozing in the waiting room during the surgery, were all the sleep he’d had in almost forty-eight hours.

“Joyce told me that too, on the phone,” Murray admits. “You’re both insufferable mother hens.”

“I knew I liked her,” Alexei says.

Murray sighs. “I just want to keep an eye on you,” he worries. “Make sure you’re all right.”

“I will be fine,” Alexei says. “You have good doctors here. I want you to rest. And you know what happens when I don’t get what I want.” He leans close enough for their noses to touch, and whispers, “I don’t cooperate.”

Murray’s gaze darts up to him. “You wouldn’t dare.”

Alexei doesn’t know if he would actually refuse to follow legitimate medical advice to convince Murray to do as he says, but at this stage, he’s not willing to rule it out as leverage, either. “Go out to the nurse’s desk,” he instructs. “Do not come back until they’ve given you a pillow and a blanket. You can sleep with me or in the chair, but I want you asleep in the next thirty minutes.”

Murray looks like he doesn’t know whether to be affronted, impressed, or compliant. Either way, he’s stunned into silence—a rare thing in itself. “You’re lucky you’re cute,” he finally says, and Alexei smiles sunnily at him, sleepy and triumphant and willing to let himself be easily flattered.

In the end, Murray refuses to sleep in the bed with Alexei. He mutters some bullshit excuse about how Alexei needs to not be disturbed and how he’s not even sure he’ll be able to sleep, but Alexei suspects the truth is that he’s worried about how it will look, the two of them sharing a bed like that. He makes a cocoon for himself in the chair instead, limbs curled into an awkward sprawl and his head poking cartoonishly out from his blanket burrow. Alexei can’t help but smile at it. “Comfortable?” he asks Murray’s shadowy profile, after he’s dimmed the lights again.

“Fuck you,” Murray grumbles back, and Alexei snorts out a laugh, helplessly charmed despite himself.

Exhausted as he is, he still fights back sleep until he hears Murray’s breathing even out into deep sleep-breaths, until he is sure that the other man is out for good and not likely to wake up. Then he closes his eyes and between one breath and the next, he is asleep himself.