Into the Woods

by Chris J

Lance threw the curtains open and stared out at Russia.

A pine grew outside the window, far taller than the townhouse he was staying in, but he could still see past it to the road, and past that to a sprawling meadow bordered by a fairy tale forest. It was a familiar view by now, but still strange. He could look out the window of any hotel room in America -- and most of the rest of the world -- and feel like he was somewhere he'd been before. Here, he was in a whole new world.

"I'm going out for a walk."

"What, now?" said Freddy. "You can't go out now. We barely have time to eat before you have to go back to work as it is."

"Yeah, now," said Lance, pulling the curtains shut and heading for the door. "I won't be long."


He stopped and took Freddy's face between his hands and kissed him firmly. "I need to get out of here," he said. "I need to get some air. I'll be back."

It wasn't like Lance hadn't been under pressure before, but now it was different. There were a hundred more things competing for his attention, and for the first time since the earliest days of the group he was hit with the full effects of culture shock. Another person it might've sent running for home, but not Lance. He didn't consider himself stronger, just too damn stubborn to quit.

Freddy grabbed for his hand and held him there for a few more moments. "After today you're going to be gone for a week," he said. "I just want you while I can have you."

Lance had heard that before, the day he'd first told Freddy he was going to Russia. It was a big part of how he'd ended up bringing Freddy with him, in the end.

"It's just a walk," he said. "And I'm only going to Houston. I won't even be going home, not really. It'll be just like here, only American. Don't do this, Freddy..."

"What? What am I doing?"

"Not right now." Lance shook his head at him. "It's been a long day, and I just need to clear my head." He pulled on his shoes and was out the door before Freddy talked him out of it. Because Freddy could talk him out of it, and that was part of the problem.

He took a deep gulp of the fresh air, and maybe that really was a part of what he needed after all. Maybe that wasn't just an expression. Room to breathe, room to move, a place to really be alone, even for a few minutes. Between training and Freddy and rare spans of filming, he'd only had a handful of moments to himself.

Lance crossed the road quickly, and wondered if Freddy was watching him from that same window, trying to figure out what he'd done to make Lance take off like that. Lance didn't want him to feel guilty about it, but it wasn't as though he could really do anything now. Freddy would think what Freddy would think, and that was the way it was always going to be between them.

He'd been training here long enough to be used to the place now, and if not comfortable then at least capable of coping, but this was the first time he'd really ventured outside his cozy little routine of train, train, fight with someone on the phone, fight with someone else on the phone, train, train, maybe have sex then train some more. His few days off were spent partying in Moscow, releasing all the built up stress, not staying back and prowling the grounds.

Star City wasn't really a city in the sense that Lance knew them, so it shouldn't have surprised him as much as it did that the woods turned out to be wide and dense, and when he finished crossing the meadow and peered past the trees at the edge, he really couldn't see far. It seemed like the kind of place he could get lost in, which was scary and appealing all at once.

When he returned from Houston, he knew he'd be back.


They danced until they hurt, had another drink, and danced some more. Because any moment now they would have to head back to Star City, stopping only at the Marriott Royal to pick up Freddy's things, and they wanted to make every minute count.

Lance had never been more glad that Sunday was gay night at Propaganda, that it always had a mixed crowd allowing him plausible deniability. The best of both worlds. Even though it was pretty common knowledge that Freddy wasn't actually his 'personal security', he tried not to throw it in anyone's face. It may not have been the military, but 'don't ask, don't tell' was clearly the unofficial policy.

"You aren't tired yet, are you?" Freddy shouted in his ear, grinding up against his hip. Lance didn't care if he was or he wasn't -- he was going to keep going while he still could. "Good," said Freddy as Lance shook his head at him. "Cause we're celebrating!"

It was his first chance to really process the fact that he'd been approved as part of the crew. That it was official now. That everything was coming together -- not that there weren't still a ton of left to work out. But being approved by the partners was a huge step in the right direction. One small step for the space program, one giant leap for Lance's dreams.

It was good to be back, even though it meant leaving American soil for this strange, new country, and having some fun with Freddy at his side. He knew that the other cosmonauts were probably already back in Star City in their beds. Had probably been there since before Freddy and Lance had even gotten to the club. Lance would be tired in the morning, but it was worth it. Work hard, play hard. He was young.

He let Freddy get him another drink and he finally found a seat and sat down until he finished it. Even when he wasn't dancing, it was nice to watch other people, to see bodies pressed up against one another on the dance floor, hot and slinky.

"You are tired," Freddy accused him when he didn't get up again after his drink.

"Just jet lag..." he said. "We... I'm sorry, we've got to be heading back soon. I need to be up early." It sounded lame even to his own ears, and so when Freddy demanded at least one more dance, he went without too much coaxing.

And so it was an hour later before they poured themselves into a car and started the long ride back, a ride which Lance spend much of with Freddy leaning against his shoulder, snoring softly in his ear.

He only woke him when they arrived back at the townhouse, and let him tumble inside with his bags, dropping them on a square of carpet and kicking off his shoes. Home sweet home, and it really was as much of one as they had.

"Do you mind if we don't...?" mumbled Freddy and ran a clumsy hand down Lance's side as soon as he'd stripped his smoky shirt off. Lance brushed his hand away, but he gave him a smile and Freddy didn't seem to mind much. "I'm exhausted."

"No, I'm tired too," Lance said, gently pushing him toward the bed. "There'll be other nights."

Freddy crawled into bed and Lance was right behind him, trying to forget that most other nights were just like this one, dropping into bed after an exhausting day, and opportunities to be together were few and far between. He was too tired to give it much thought anyway.


The sky was just beginning to turn a pinkish-grey when Lance woke up. Not even really enough to illuminate the room, just enough for him to know that it was time to get out of bed. He slipped out from under Freddy's arm and stretched and looked out the window.

Freddy slept through him getting ready, no morning kiss or morning blowjob, but at least Lance had the consolation that he didn't snore as he slept. He almost wanted to be gone before Freddy got up anyway. Wanted to spend a day not worrying about what Freddy was doing or thinking or saying. Not preoccupying himself with whether or not he was getting on okay here while Lance was always gone.

The shower didn't wake Freddy up, and neither did banging the dresser drawers as Lance got dressed. A cup of instant coffee was his only breakfast, but it was all he wanted so early in the day.

And then, with a fling and bang of the door, he was gone. Without the distraction of Freddy he was earlier than he planned, and so he didn't start down the road right away. Instead he crossed it, and found the fledgling trail he'd made the day before he'd left for Houston.

Lance wondered idly if anyone else ever really came here, ever strayed from the beaten path and explored what was around them. Maybe everyone else was already used to the place, or more interested in getting to work than wandering by a few trees. Or maybe once he was indoors working, everyone came bubbling out of their homes, spouses and children playing in the grass, sitting under the trees, picnicing in the meadow. But Lance didn't think so.

There was a new bounce in his step as he walked, a spark of elation inside him that he'd passed one milestone, now. He wasn't a sure thing, but he was getting there, and every step mattered. He began to imagine what it would be like, up there, and hardly even noticed as he ambled in beyond the outer fringes of the woods

"What are you doing here?"

Lance jumped, and almost stumbled over an exposed tree root. "It's okay, I'm supposed to be here!" he said. Gone was fairy tale Russia, and images of the Soviet Russia from his childhood sprang to mind. He almost raised his hands.

"I haven't seen you before."

Slowly Lance started turning to see who was speaking to him, and to his relief it wasn't some kind of security agent with a gun to his head.

"I'm training. For the mission," he said. "I'm supposed to be here."

The man was tall and broad, and dressed like he belonged in the woods. His brow furrowed at Lance's words, like he wasn't sure what he meant at first, then he nodded. "I keep the grounds here," he said finally. "I haven't seen you here before."

"Oh!" said Lance. "Oh, oh, no, I was just... looking. Around."

"Just looking around," he repeated, nodding his head again and just standing there. What else did he want Lance to say?

"And actually," Lance went on, "I should probably be going. I'll be late." He took a step back and almost crushed a sapling beneath his boot.

The groundkeeper just stood there patiently, so Lance nodded at him this time, and turned around and headed back through the meadow. The guy was just like a caretaker Lance's school'd had in second grade, all gruff and quiet and big. Lance had been a little bit afraid of him.

But Lance wasn't afraid of anything, anymore.


It didn't matter to Lance that this would maybe turn out to be the hardest thing he'd ever done, cramming years of learning into a few short months. It was worth it.

It was worth it even when he dragged himself home after dark, body and mind both exhausted, and had to face yet another conference call with his stateside backers, talking about the minutiae of allocating funds and convincing investors and negotiating payment schedules. But he would do it because that's what it took.

"How did it go?" It was like coming home to a lonely housewife; Freddy sounded excited and solicitous and full of questions Lance was too tired to want to answer. "You look like hell, Lance."

Just hearing that forced an automatic smile onto Lance's face. Never be caught looking like hell.

"They worked us hard today. I'm just gonna take a shower and -- " He spotted his cell phone, lying expectantly on the kitchen table. "I'm just gonna make some calls, then shower, then..."

"Then bed," finished Freddy, sighing at him. "I shouldn't be surprised. Remember when you used to be fun?"

"You did not just say that," said Lance with less force than he would have liked. He did remember when he used to have fun with Freddy. He was a fun guy. But more than that, he was a driven guy, and Freddy had known that getting into this.

"Sorry." Freddy put his hand on Lance's shoulder and squeezed and somehow that was supposed to mean that the apology was sincere. "You need to give yourself a break."

Lance snorted. "Where were you when I was seventeen?"

"Obviously not where I needed to be," he said. "If I had been, you wouldn't have worked yourself into the ground like I know you did."

"Yes, you would have. You would have because everyone around you would have been saying it was for the best, and you wouldn't have known any better, just like me."

"Well, I guess we'll never know," Freddy said placatingly. "How about you go and take that shower and I make those calls for you? And then after I can give you a back rub before something gets so tight it snaps."

Lance really, really wanted to say yes. "You can't make the calls," he told him, though. "I need to do it. I need to take care of this."

"You need to let people help you sometimes. I started my own business when I was barely out of my teens, Lance. Maybe I wasn't quite as precocious as you, but I do know something about negotiating terms. And how well are you gonna do it anyway, if you're as exhausted as you look? You'd agree to anything."

It was a really, really good offer. Really. And just the mention of the word 'exhausted' brought a throb to his skull and a weakness to his body. "Well... just this once," he said, thinking longingly about that backrub. "Just this once, maybe. The number, it's on the table. I just need a status report. I just need to know where things are at."

"You just need to take a long hot shower and relax for a night," said Freddy. "And then maybe we can spend a little time together. For once."

Lance tried not to let that remark sting as he slipped into the bathroom and let Freddy take care of things. Just this once.


It was just past midnight when Lance suddenly woke up, sat straight upright in bed and tried to catch his breath. He couldn't even be sure what had woken him, had no memory of it, but from the cold sweat and the racing pulse and the breathlessness he had to guess it was a nightmare. Maybe a nasty one.

There was no way he was getting any more sleep until he calmed down a little, that much he was sure of, so he slipped out of bed and tucked the covers back in around Freddy and padded into the kitchen for something to drink. Some milk, or now, maybe some Jack.

The whole house felt hot, stifling, and Lance didn't remember it being that warm when he'd gone to bed but he was so tired he might just not have noticed. Once he got his drink -- not Jack, but vodka, to honour his adopted home -- he wandered to the front window and opened the curtains and tugged it open a crack to get some air.

There was a night breeze, which wasn't unexpected, and Lance closed his eyes and basked in it for a moment. It wasn't until the sweat started to cool on his skin that he opened them again. The crescent moon was bright, bright enough that Lance could see as far as the trees that marked the edge of the woods.

He got a queasy feeling in his stomach as he looked, sweat beading up on the back of his neck, and he didn't think it was the vodka. More like some sense memory of the dream he'd had, an abstract fear that had no images to associate with it, triggered by the dark line of trees in the distance. Maybe it was the dark. Maybe Lance had just been more traumatized by his second grade caretaker than he'd previously thought.

Chuckling at the thought, if a little nervously, Lance closed the windows and closed the curtains and headed back to the kitchen to leave his empty glass in the sink. A few deep breaths later, he finally felt ready to go back to bed.


"I'm bored," said Freddy, and reached out to rest one hand on Lance's waist as he held his morning mug of coffee in the other. "Do you have to go right away?"

Lance twisted out of this arms; it wasn't even something he really thought about, he just did it. He had too much to do and nothing, no one, was going to slow him down. Hold him back.

"I just need to eat something," he said. "We have medical testing this morning, they need to know how well my body's holding up to the training."

Freddy chuckled and reached for his waist again. "All they need to do is ask me," he said. "I can tell them just how well your body is holding up..."

Lance twisted out of his grip again. "I told you it might be boring," he said. "I told you I would be busy a lot." But that hadn't stopped him from encouraging Freddy to come, because at least it was better than the loneliness.

Freddy sighed at him but he backed off. "My brother sent me some new DVDs while I was in Moscow. I guess I can watch them or something."

"Look, I'm sorry," said Lance, giving in a little. "Only a few more days until I have another day off. We'll go out and have fun, okay? I promise." He'd been planning to use the day to study instead of heading into Moscow again, but maybe a day off -- a real day off, together -- would do them both some good.

"I'm counting the minutes," said Freddy, and the rough thing was, he probably was. There was only so much time he could spend hanging with Lance's camera crew, nevermind on his own, and he appeared to have already reached his limit.

"And I won't be late," Lance added. "I know these tests. A couple hours, tops. I'll even be able to come back for lunch." He hesitated to call the place they were staying "home", a longstanding habit of his, so he didn't get too attached to any place. But he'd started to in spite of himself.

"I'll be here," said Freddy, and he would be. He always was.

Lance grabbed nothing but a piece of bread for his breakfast, and headed for the door. "I promise, Freddy. Not late." Freddy nodded, more resignation than approval, but Lance took it at face value and pulled on his boots and headed out the front door.

Walking wasn't a waste of time, no matter how Freddy reacted to it. Lance wasn't really used to a lot of privacy -- wasn't really getting any more now than he ever did -- and he cherished the moments he did get. The moments he stole.

He walked just along the edge of the woods this time, thankfully with no remnants of his dream from the night before. The grass and the leaves were still green, but he knew that the seasons changed more quickly in this part of the world, and he wondered how much summer he had left.

As though to answer him, a single leaf fell from the tree in front of him, and he caught it before it hit the ground. It was a yellowish green and felt soft in his hand. He closed his fist around it and it crumpled but didn't snap or tear. Staring at it for a moment as it tried to unfold itself, he finally let it slip from his fingers and fall to the ground.

When he looked up again, he wasn't alone. Or he was, but a short distance into the woods he saw that man again, the groundskeeper. He didn't seem to see Lance, and in fact, Lance wasn't sure what he was doing -- he was just standing there, hands on his hips, staring up at the trees. And though he couldn't hear anything, Lance got the distinct impression that he was talking.

A moment later a flock of birds burst up from the trees and flew off together into the sky, and the groundskeeper started walking, further and further into the woods. Lance watched until he vanished from sight, then turned and started off again.

The walk between his home and the training facilities was long enough that it always afforded him time to think about his progress -- or lack thereof -- and just what the day had in store for him. In other words, time to tense up and worry and all but psyche himself out.

He'd never fooled himself that he would be well liked, for doing what he was doing. But he'd always been the kind of guy who could really get along with anyone if he tried. And this was despite the amount of resentment he'd come up against over the last few years.

But here it was different. He may have had to go through the same training as everyone else, but there was no denying the fact that he'd bought his way in. He didn't have an advanced degree in astrophysics, he'd never been a military test pilot, he hadn't paid his dues in the space program. He'd paid them somewhere else, but once he got to Star City that didn't count for anything anymore.

As he spent hours hunched over panel simulations, memorizing the emergency sequence of buttons he was to press, levers he was to pull, and puzzling through the Russian labeling on the instruments, he could still see it in their eyes when they glanced over at him and his comparatively slow progress. Poser, charlatan, usurper. It wasn't like he didn't know that there were a dozen qualified cosmonauts waiting in the wings.

But he could do something they couldn't, even if they didn't realise it yet or didn't think it was important. He could bring space travel to the interest of the world again. By fulfilling his own dream, he could spark thousands of others. And that was really something.

With that kind of interest from the private sector, the Russian government wouldn't be counting so much on his twenty-two-odd million anymore. An amount that had yet to be paid, he knew, in part or in full.

And that was something else he saw now, in the eyes of the people around him. Before, there had been a grudging acceptance of his presence because of the funds he was injecting into a struggling program. Now they looked like they were questioning his right to even be there in the first place -- now more of a burden than a blessing -- though they were never less than professional.

They had no idea what a nightmare it was making all the arrangements when it was more complicated than just cutting them a check. When you involved many companies with many agendas it was a draining and tedious process. Mostly his backers wanted accountability, they wanted to know what they were getting for their money, and the Russians weren't willing to make any promises. And that was where things stood, day after day after day.

All Lance could do was keep going, keep learning, keep being, and ignore the looks he got. And not stress himself out about it enough that something that could end his chances would suddenly show up on his physical exam. Somehow, things would work out in the end.


Lance never even made it into the building. He was about to start up the concrete steps when the doors opened and his camera crew -- who he'd known would be coming out from Moscow for the day to get some shots of him working with some of the flashier apparatus -- stepped out and started right towards him.

"Hey guys," he said, giving them a bright smile. "Where are you headed?"

"Back to Moscow," one of them grunted as he lugged his equipment down the stairs. "You should have given us a call, Lance, so we would have known not to make the trip."

"What are you talking about?" said Lance. "Aren't we filming today? I know they still have the tests you wanted to see scheduled for this afternoon..."

"But what's the point if you aren't going to be in them?" he said. "You guys got your own way back to Moscow or do you need to hitch a lift with us?"

"Wait, what?" said Lance, staring at them. "What the hell are you talking about?"

One of the men nudged the other -- Lance always got their names confused -- and they murmured to one another for a moment, looks of understanding finally dawning. Lance hoped they would bring him into the loop soon.

"Oh god. You don't even know, do you."

"Know what? This is getting really old, guys, and I'm going to be late if--"

"No, you're not," he interrupted. "You're not going to be late for anything. They're sending you home, Lance. They just told us and booted us out."

"What?" laughed Lance. "No, no way, there must be some wires crossed somewhere. I just got approved by the partners, didn't you hear? The whole thing's just about a done deal now." He started to step past them toward the building and was, to his surprise, held back.

"Not so done as you think, I guess. You should probably go pack."

"No," said Lance. "No. I'm going to go sort this out, is what I'm going to do. They would have told me if there was a change of plans." And he started to push past them again. There would be no holding him back this time. There would be no stopping him, especially not by them.

"Maybe they told that, uh, friend of yours. So yeah, well, we'll see you back in Moscow then." He said it like he was the one that knew what was going on and Lance was just kidding himself. Like they would tell the camera crew -- or even Freddy -- before Lance himself. It just wouldn't happen like that, there was no way.

"You'll just have to come back again," Lance warned them.

"Sure, whatever," he said dismissively. "Suit yourself, kid. I won't be too surprised if you're back in the city meeting us for dinner, though."

Lance ignored him as he marched up the steps and into the building to find someone in charge.


It was a chilly Wednesday morning in Moscow and Lance was barely awake, munching on a piece of toast with grape jelly and holding the phone to his ear with sticky fingers.

"They've withdrawn your name, Lance. There's nothing more we can do."

"We can get them to put it back on," he insisted. "It's not too late. It's not too late until that shuttle goes up and I'm not on it."


"No," he said, getting louder. "No, I won't let them do this, I've worked too hard. There has to be a way, there has to be someone else I can talk to."

"Everyone is all talked out. There's nothing more to be said. This isn't going to work out."

"Yes it is," he said, "yes it is, if I have to march into some office and just write a damn check. I'm going back."

"Well, it's pretty much come to that, Lance. But even with that check, you're not going up with this flight. They have to save face, and to save face they need to stick to their word on this one. You aren't going up."

"Whose side are you on, anyway?" But he already knew the answer -- the people he was working with wanted to be on the winning side, and he wasn't it, not anymore. He'd been doing this long enough to recognise when someone was beat. He wasn't beat, but his partners were.

"There aren't any sides here..."

That wasn't what they'd been saying a few weeks ago, at the height of negotiations. It had been us versus them, and they were gung ho that the us was going to win it. He stayed quiet for long enough for the person on the other end of the phone to start making awkward, impatient noises.

"Whatever you choose to do," Lance said finally, carefully, "I'm still going for this. I haven't come this far to stop now. So maybe I won't be on this flight; there are always more. There will always be more. I'm going to make this work."

"Well, I hope you do. I'll be faxing you some papers tonight. We just need you to sign to dissolve the agreement." Lance would sign, but he would keep them long enough to make his partners worry. It was the least he could do, for what they had put him through with the games and the talks that went nowhere and the trampling on something that was this important to him.

"You do that," he said, and disconnected the call.


Freddy was on the phone, locked in the bedroom and arguing loudly with someone about something. Lance didn't even know if it was someone from the Russian side or one of his own supposed backers -- he just hoped it got somewhere because this time things really did seem serious. They'd been holed up in a Moscow hotel for almost a week now, and still no progress. He's gotten the dissolution papers days ago, but he wasn't signing anything until every possibility had been exhausted.

So while Freddy did that, Lance did the next best thing to ordering himself a big ol' helping of comfort food -- he got another line out and called his best friend. "Joey?" he said when the call was -- mercifully -- picked up and didn't go to voicemail. "Joey. Hey."

"Oh, Lance," said Joey, and already he sounded sympathetic, even though Lance hadn't said anything. "I was wondering when you'd call, man."

"I'm that predictable?"

"You used to be, anyway," said Joey. There was a faint crying in the background, and hushed voices, and he heard Joey move into another part of his apartment.

"Oh hell, Joe, did I wake her?"

"No, no, not your fault," Joey assured him. "She's just cranky. Kelly's taking care of it. How are you holding up, there?"

"It's okay," said Lance, when it really wasn't at all. "I'm still here. We're in Moscow, we've been here a few days. We're trying to-- what've you heard?"

"Just that you're out," said Joey. "I've only heard from the news so far. I was hoping you'd call. You think you're going back again soon?"

"I don't know. I hope so. Yes," said Lance. It was important to stay optimistic about it; it was all he really had. "I don't even really know what's going on. No one's talking each other right."

"Yeah, that's really what it looks like," agreed Joey. "Everyone's saying something different and everyone's sure that they're right."

"Well, it's just... negotiations," said Lance, running his fingers restlessly through his hair. And listening for Freddy's voice from the bedroom. "Only it's like dealing with a brick wall. This goes way beyond a language barrier."

"Well yeah, it does," Joey agreed with him, almost too readily. Like he'd spent as much time as Lance had trying to make sense of it. "Because... okay, I've been thinking about this. And it's like the Russians, right? They're playing chess with you, making all these really subtle long-term moves and planning everything out. But you guys, you're playing like you're playing poker -- you're trying to bluff them and trick them into giving more away and have it all come together with one swift punch at the end. So it's no wonder you guys aren't understanding each other's moves."

"Huh," said Lance, and sat down and thought about that. Joey's analagies were always a little... different. But that didn't make the wrong. "That's... yeah. I think I'm gonna use that next time I talk to Freddy. See if it makes sense to him, like that's what he's dealing with."

"What he's dealing with?"

"Yeah, he's... I just... there was too much, Joey. Freddy, he's been talking to people for me. So I can train right. Because I couldn't risk screwing that up."

"Wow," murmured Joey, and was quiet for way too long. Like maybe he thought Lance had done just that -- screwed it all up.

"What, Joey?" he prompted him. "This call's on my dime, you know."

"Don't JC me, Lance, I was just thinking," he said. "And... it's great to finally hear you say you're letting someone help you out when you're overworked. Never thought I'd see the day. But since you're in Moscow and all and... on hiatus, not out in the Black Sea or something, maybe you should think about taking over from him again."

"He's doing fine," said Lance automatically, at the same time the reality of his situation really hit him. "Oh."

"Just talk to some people," said Joey calmly. And that was part of why Lance had called him in the first place -- that calm. Once you've gone to the emergency room at four in the morning because your baby's got a fever that's burning her up, every other problem pales in comparison. "I think you'll feel better about the whole thing if you get involved again."

He wished Joey'd said that to him a week ago. He wished he'd given him that chance. Because when he thought about it, Freddy's own company was run better by its managers than he ever could himself -- his strength was in resource management. Not anything that required finesse. And maybe Lance would have been better off if he'd remembered that before now. Or maybe not, maybe his own half-assed, exhausted negotiation techniques would have gotten them to the same place. But at least he'd know then that he tried.

"Your dime, Bass," Joey teased him, reminding Lance he was still there.

"Sorry, I was just... " He rubbed his eyes and yawned. "It's rough. But you're right... it's time to take my final shot at it, win or lose." And Lance had never been one to give up before the bitter end.

"Good luck, man," said Joey. "And hey, keep me up to date, yeah?"

"Yeah," said Lance. "Yeah, thanks, Joe. I'll talk to you soon." And as he hung up the phone he was already up and heading to the bedroom to see what he could do.


The interview was done by phone, like nearly all of them since he'd left American soil. The best part of that was that they couldn't see his face as he answered the questions. The worst was that he couldn't see their faces as they asked them.

"Oh, absolutely," he said, hearing himself talking rather than thinking about his words. "We're still working on things, it's definitely not over yet. I'm still here, I'm back in training first thing tomorrow, working hard. I think we'll be getting the good news soon."

"I'm sure all your fans will be happy to hear that." She had a pleasant speaking voice, with a mild, southern-but-unplaceable accent that made Lance feel homesick.

"I just really hope me doing this inspires other people to follow their dreams, no matter how big they are. It's a huge universe out there and it's full of opportunity."

He'd practised all his answers carefully, leaving as little room as possible for other people to put words in his mouth, making sure to sound as optimistic as he was able. Now that things were back in his own hands, now that, after two very long weeks, he was back in Star City, he felt like he could be again. He felt like there was still time.

"If the April mission falls through, what do you plan to do then?"

"Then I'll try for the next one," he insisted, "or the one after that. Outer space isn't going anywhere and neither am I."

"Thanks for your time, Lance," she said, a somewhat abrupt and awkward closing. "And good luck!" Her voice still sounded pleasant, and Lance was sure it was insincere.

"All done?" asked Freddy as Lance hung up the phone. "Was that the last one?"

"For now," he said, standing up and yawning. It was long past time he should've been in bed, he had a long day ahead of him, but he was still too wired to settle down

"Anything I can do to help?"

The question was tentative and maybe a little bitter, and Lance couldn't say he was surprised. "No, thank you," he said, and made sure to smile. "It's all under control. Things are looking up." Either Freddy didn't believe him, or he didn't think that was good news, and Lance wasn't sure which one upset him more. But he didn't let it show on his face.

"Well, okay," said Freddy, and turned to head for the bedroom, alone.

"No, wait," said Lance with a purely inward sigh. "Actually just... I don't want you to do anything but keep me company, Freddy. I just want to have someone around."

It seemed like the right answer, or a right answer, because Freddy looked back and smiled, and not for the first time Lance was surprised that Freddy was still there, sticking by him.

"I'm almost done," he said. "Only a couple more weeks of training."

"And then what?" asked Freddy. "What happens after that?"

"After that... I go up," said Lance simply. "Or I wait for the next one. Once I'm trained, they don't have any good reason to keep me on the ground."

"Except the money."

"The money will work out," said Lance. Whether he finally bullied some sponsors into attaching their names to the project, or whether he financed the thing himself -- giving his accountant a heart attack in the process, probably -- the money would be worked out. Maybe he should have just financed it himself in the first place; with a documentary project like this, he could make a pretty good return on the investment in the end, once the dust cleared. Sure, it would be harder to get off the ground in the first place without any name but his attached to it, but at least he would have control. At least he would have a project, and fulfil a dream.

"I'm sure it will," said Freddy, and it didn't matter to Lance that he didn't sound convinced. Freddy wasn't the one who had to be. "Come on, come to bed."

That might be just what the doctor ordered, to get Lance mind off what he'd just gone through, and what was yet to come. He reached out and caressed Freddy's forearm, then slid his fingers up under the hem of his shirt.

"You're kidding, right?"

"What? Why the hell would I be kidding?" asked Lance. "I've been waiting for this for hours."

"And a few hours ago, I might've still been up for it," said Freddy, yawning widely -- for effect, Lance was sure. "If you wanted it so bad, we should've done it before you started making those calls."

"Yeah," muttered Lance, snapping his hand back. "Yeah, we fuckin' should've. Dammit, Freddy."

"I'm tired," he said. "I'm not here just to be available when it suits you."

It was so stupid, it wasn't like it was a big deal. Freddy wasn't the one who'd been working his ass off. He had nothing to worry about at all, anymore. If anything, Lance should've been turning him down.

The frustration woke him up even more, so he pulled on his coat and headed outside. "Fine. I'll just get out of your way then."

He hadn't been outside after dark that often, not when the summer days had been so long, but fall had come to Star City and there was a nip in the air at night that suggested that winter wasn't that far behind it..

He found his usual path by the woods, completely unlit and meandering a little too close to the overhanging trees for comfort, just right then. It was so deserted it was eerie. In daylight, that made it pleasantly serene; in the dark it was more unsettling.

What seemed quiet during the day seemed full of sound at night. Maybe it was the fact that the wind was picking up; it felt like a storm was coming in. Maybe it was that the sounds of civilisation were muted at night, so the sounds of the world were heightened by comparison.

He'd walked far enough down his path that the only remaining light was from the moon, which peeked out between the clouds, when he first started to hear the noises. Noises like something very large was moving through the woods nearby. He stilled and listened more closely, but he couldn't tell whether it was getting closer or moving away.

Either way, it was probably time to start heading back - but the sky chose that moment to darken completely, blocking out the moonlight he'd been navigating by. Then the rain started, slow at first but picking up quickly, and the sound of the wind and the sounds in the woods were joined by a chorus of wolves howling in the distance.

There was nothing he could do and nowhere he could go, so Lance just sat down under a tree and covered his head and waited the storm out.


Everything was different when he came back. Not so much with what he was doing but with how it was being done. Gone was the urgency to get him trained and safe for the October flight. Gone was his accelerated language training. Gone was the always-fragile sense that he had any right to be there.

But Lance hadn't gotten as far as he had in life by always doing the things that were comfortable and always going places he felt welcome. He'd shelled out a lot of money out of his own pocket to be here now, and he was going to see it through, no matter what.

The upside, such as it was, was that he didn't spend so much time working alone, or with people who weren't in training.

"You are the American?"

Lance looked up, startled that someone was actually talking to him and not about him or around him. He didn't recognise the young man, but he was smiling and Lance would take it.

"I'm one of them, yes," he said patiently. "There are actually a few of us here. You're new?"

"I've been here before," he said, and took the seat next to Lance. Lance closed the book he'd been studying. "You are the American pop star, I mean?"

Lance sighed. "Yeah, that's me. Believe it or not, I'm still here."

"I see that," he said. "They told me you might be. You're my competition, you know."

"I'm not much competition right now," said Lance. "I'm not going up in October."

"Oh, I know," he said. "Everybody knows that. I meant in April." Great, that was just what Lance needed. But the Russian didn't look like he was trying to pay his way up, not unless he was a spoiled rich man's son, or a Russian celebrity Lance had never heard of, but neither of those felt right.

"Well, that's great," he said finally.

"I'm Sergei," he said, and after an awkward pause he stuck his hand out enthusiastically. "It is nice to meet you."

"Yeah, you too," said Lance, and shook his hand.

"I hope you do not mind it if I practice my English with you."

"Hey, at least I'm good for something," said Lance, and finally smiled back. "Sure, why not?" Why not do something to make it that much easier for this other man to get into space?

"What were you studying, when I interrupted you?"

Lance grinned and looked at his hands. "Russian," he admitted to him. "It's a beautiful language, but hard for me to learn."

"That I can understand," he said. "Though, I am not sure I would call English 'beautiful'." Lance had only been saying Russian was beautiful to be nice, anyway. "It has taken me many years. You have not been studying Russian so long, I think?"

"No, only six months," said Lance, though in that time he'd gotten good enough to qualify for a space mission. In that respect, anyway.

"At least you are here," he said. "It is easier to learn the language when you understand the culture."

"I'm not sure I do," said Lance, for once without carefully considering his words. It was nice to just be having a conversation with someone without it being a battle of wills. Until now he hadn't even been sure he remembered how to do that anymore. "I haven't really gotten to see much."

"No, I guess not," Sergei had to admit. "My family does not feel I know much of our culture either. But you get enough, I think, just from being here. Breathing the air. Seeing the land." Once thing Lance had never been accused of, at least, was not being familiar with his home culture. He was a part of it.

"It certainly is... different," agreed Lance. "I can't imagine you've lived here your whole life and don't know all about it."

"Well," said Sergei with a friendly laugh, "my grandmother has tried. Before I left the city, to come here, she reminded me of all the tales she used to tell me as a child. Of course, I already know them all by heart."

"Grandparents are like that," Lance agreed. His own were responsible for teaching him so many of his own family and culture's traditions and suddenly he felt another wave of homesickness. But he wanted to be here, this was his choice. "When I'm walking in the woods at night, I think about where I am a lot."

"You walk through the woods at night?"

"Well, not through them," said Lance. "More by them. Why? They told me it was safe, there weren't any bears or wolves nearby or anything."

"No, no, there are not," said Sergei, then laughed. "One of my grandmother's favourite tales is what could befall me in the woods. Have you ever heard the story of the leshii?"

"The what?"

Sergei nodded. "It is the kind of story that parents tell small children when they do not want them to stray far from home. The leshii is the master of the woods, a trickster. He likes to lead travellers astray."

"Really?" said Lance, grinning at him encouragingly. "What does he look like?"

"Hmm. It is hard to really say. He often appears as a peasant, one of the old times, but sometimes he is very large of very small. Sometimes he changes himself into an animal, or even something smaller when he does not want to be seen."

"That sounds like a fairy tale."

"Well, you're not in America anymore. These are the lands where fairy tales were created, and a good number of people still believe in them."

"I didn't mean to offend--"

"You didn't," Sergei interrupted him with a grin. "I'm not one of them. But my grandmother likes to tell me the stories. The leshii, the rusalka -- she loved to tell me about the wicked, beautiful rusalka that would seduce me and drown me if I was not wary. They stick in your head."

Lance didn't doubt it. This one was already sticking in his.


He was done by dinnertime -- real dinnertime and not just some point before he collapsed from exhaustion during which he was able to eat something. Freddy wouldn't be expecting him back so early, and even if he was, Lance wasn't ready to be there.

He didn't even really know what he was feeling right then -- hope, despair, frustration, anger, relief, maybe all those things and more. He itched to be doing more than he was, and though he was grateful for a respite from the constant drain the last few months had been, two weeks and moscow had been enough. He didn't need a respite that lasted the rest of his life.

He found himself almost at the woods before he consciously realized he was heading for them, his feet knowing better than his head where he needed to go. Sergei's tales were still bouncing around in his brain and he smiled at the trees, whose colours were finally beginning to change. But it was a tight smile, an angry smile, at a place that had betrayed him as much as he once hoped it would embrace him.

"Why?" he asked, then felt stupid for saying it aloud and kicked over a circle of mushrooms that was in his path, flushing with frustration and embarrassment. The trees couldn't answer him. No one could.

A few moments later he started shivering, and hurried along the path, not venturing any futher into the trees than his path meandered. There was a subtle shift in the air, which he managed to convince himself was just night falling, chilling the air and making the dying leaves crackle in that unnerving way

As he began to cross the meadow back to his home, though, he couldn't shake the feeling that someone was behind him, watching.


"The guys can't wait to see you again," said Joey, his voice sounding distant enough to make Lance's heart ache a little. A little more than it already was. "Are you coming to New York right away? You've gotta see the show..."

"Of course I will, Joey," he said. "Of course I will. Just... I'll need a few days, I think, me and Freddy will want to get settled back in, and. Things aren't good, Joey."

"Yeah, I know," he said, sympathetic and not judgmental. Typical Joey. "You didn't seem to want to talk about it."

"Just been waiting for it to get better again," said Lance. "Maybe leaving Russia will help. I hope. Things will go back to normal again."

"Are you sure you want things to go back to the way they were?"

"Joey, that's--"

"--none of my business. I know," he said. "Just think about it. I want to see you happy again."

That was probably gonna take some time now. He'd said he would cry when he had to leave the program, and he almost had. He should have felt pride at finishing the training, but instead there was a gut despair that in spite of everything, a month from then the rocket was going to be blasting into space and he wasn't going to be on it. He was going to be on the ground, watching it go up with everyone else.

He wished he knew what went wrong.

"I will be," he said finally, and chewed on a hangnail. "You know us, Joey, we always bounce back."

It had started out so well, he'd done everything right. He was in the best shape of his life. He was smart, and quick. He could do the job. He could pay for it. And everything had fallen apart anyway.

"No matter what," Joey agreed. "You think you're gonna miss it there, Lance? Or are you just looking forward to begin home again?"

He didn't know what he was looking forward to anymore. "I think I'll miss it," he had to admit. "It's beautiful here. It's so... Old World. I look out one window and I see glass and chrome and lights, I look out another and I see this big forest."

"You never told me about that before," said Joey. Lance had hardly told any of them about anything. It was like while he was in Russia he was in a different world, cut off from almost everything and everyone he'd known before. He had a lot to tell them, when they got together. "I hope you had a chance to enjoy it."

"I did," said Lance, and at least he did have some good memories. "Whenever I had five minutes to myself I would go walking by the woods. They felt old. There was this guy..."

"A guy?" prompted Joey, when Lance fell silent. "Do you mean... a guy who wasn't Freddy? Like that"

Lance wasn't even thinking about Freddy anymore. Wasn't thinking about anything other than the man he'd met in the woods those weeks ago. And everything that had come after.

"No," he said slowly. "No, not like that. A guy in the woods." A guy who appeared out of nowhere, who he'd never heard anyone else talk about, who Lance had seen communicate with the animals, the trees. In a forest where Lance heard strange noises, saw strange things. "He kept the grounds. God. Joey, I don't think I'm coming back."

"No, don't say that," said Joey quickly. "Lance... Lance, what happened there?"

"I was led astray," said Lance softly.

For a long while Joey was silent, but even through his own suddenly crystal clear thoughts, Lance could at least hear him breathing. "There are always second chances," he said finally. "If you want something bad enough, you can make it happen. We've all learned that."

Second chances. Maybe. And in the spring would be a new beginning, that was the way the world worked. "Maybe we could all get together when I get back," Lance said finally. "Do you think?"

"Well, Justin's in London," Joey told him. "Doing promotion and all. But the rest of us, yeah, we could do that. I could track JC and Chris down. We'd like to do that."

"Good," said Lance, nodding his head to himself. "Good. Yes. I've gotta go, Joey... things here I need to do before I go... "

"Of course," said Joey easily. "I'll see you soon Lance."


It wasn't strange to see all his things packed into suitcases and piled in a corner of his hotel room. Lance had lived a good part of his life like that. But it still felt strange, after all this time, to be finally making that final trip back across the Atlantic. As exhausted as he was, he didn't feel ready yet.

Freddy was still asleep as Lance folded himself into a chair by the window and stared out into pre-dawn. They'd talked about renting a boat, heading out onto the water for a week or so after getting back. After meeting up with the guys, Lance had stressed, and Freddy had given in to that, at least. For a while, though, Lance hadn't been sure that he would.

They both had tickets for a flight out of Moscow at nine, stopping in Paris and then straight through to New York. And then on to... Lance didn't know. And he found he wasn't even looking forward to it.

If he wanted things to change, he was going to have to do something about it. He was going to have to make the tough choices in his life, the ones he'd been feeling were out of his hands for too long.

Before he could change his mind, he moved his bags to the door and grabbed the last of his things and made a quick call to the airport to change his flight. After all that, it was the easiest thing in the world to do.

He scrawled a short note to Freddy on hotel stationery and paperclipped it to his plane ticket, leaving it on the table next to the bed. He almost kissed him good-bye, but then just touched his hair and made sure the alarm was set and headed for the door.

By the time Freddy woke up, Lance would already be on a flight to London, and into a future he could be happy with again. Things were already looking up.

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