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Let your balalaika sing

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They arrive in Moscow early in the morning. Well, morning might be the wrong word, according to Dan. 4:30 am shouldn’t be considered morning, it’s practically the middle of the night. But the sky outside of the plane’s small window is lit up by the rising sun, and the city they are descending on is beginning to wake up, with cars that look like small toys driving across tiny ribbons of roads.

Dan considers waking Phil up so he can see the view from the airplane as they are arriving. He looks to his side and finds Phil sound asleep, his head tilted back, mouth open and a tiny bit of saliva trailing down his chin. Dan smiles softly and decides to let him sleep. It’s been a long night and they have a big day ahead of them, and he knows that Phil gets really grumpy when he is sleep deprived.

Just as the plane lands Phil jerks awake, with a confused look on his face.

“Where… we there?” he mumbles, rubbing his eyes and feeling for his glasses that are in the seat pocket in front of him.

Dan doesn’t answer. The morning feels thick and heavy, and the air outside seems grey. He can barely make out what the pilot is saying because of his heavy accent, but he is assuming that it’s the standard “welcome and thank you for flying with us” message.

They get out of the plane and walk through the sleepy airport, their bags in hand, towards the passport control stands. Dan leads the way as Phil still looks as though he hasn’t woken up properly yet, and he also tends to get lost even when he is at his sharpest. He knows that Marianne and the rest of the crew are somewhere behind them, but he is too tired to look back and wait for them.

They join a small queue of people standing in front of a passport booth labeled “all visitors”. Everyone around them seems subdued and sleepy. There is a big family standing in the neighboring line, with a crying toddler sitting on a large plastic checkered bag, while the mother is looking through her purse and a person he assumes is the grandmother is speaking very fast on the phone to someone.

It takes them about twenty minutes to get to the border agent, a tired looking young woman, who asks them the goal of their visit in a sleepy voice.

“We are doing a show here” answers Dan, but for some reason it comes out as a question. The woman in the booth flips and stamps their passports with a bored look on her face and hands them back to Dan.

It takes them another 30 minutes to get all of their luggage and reunite with their crew. All Dan can think of is coffee, and he can see that Phil is practically falling asleep on his feet.

Their entire party walks through the green corridor into the arrivals zone, where a small group of people are gathered around, waiting for other people. Marianne leads the whole group to a tall bald man holding a sheet of paper with Marianne’s last name on it.

“I’m Konstanstin. You can call me Kostya. Welcome to Moscow!” the man introduces himself. He has an accent and his voice is a bit croaky, but his eyes are twinkling and his hand feels warm and strong when Dan shakes it.

“You ready? Let’s go” says Kostya, leading them out of the airport to a road where dozens of taxis are waiting around, with drivers shouting “Taxi! Taxi!” at them.

Kostya has arranged a couple cars to come pick them up. He helps them arrange their luggage, and then gets behind the wheel of one of them. Marianne joins him in the front, while Dan and Phil slide into the back.

They drive out of the airport and onto a highway. Kostya looks around the car a little nervously, perhaps debating whether or not he should start a conversation. But Marianne is already deep in her phone and Phil has fallen asleep, leaning against the window, so instead Kostya turns on the radio and continues driving.

The drive is a long one. There are barely any cars on the road as it’s so early, and Dan spends his time watching the landscape pass out of the window. The radio is playing some kind of pop music in Russian and he doesn’t understand a word they are saying. Dan feels like he is on another planet.

When they decided they wanted to go to Russia for the tour, it was more of a hypothetical idea. They saw multiple people telling them to “come to Russia” on twitter and younow, and they always answered with “we would love to”. Now that they are here, Dan can’t help feel like it might have been a mistake. Perhaps it’s the sleep deprivation, or the leaflet he was given at the embassy back in the UK that recommended them to stay away and wipe all their phones, he feels oddly nervous. Logically, Dan knows that he and Phil were totally safe. They have a guide and everything is arranged for them, they heard multiple people assuring them that everything will be fine, and just in case, they had hired a second bodyguard. But it still feels as though they are entering a world where the rules are different, where they are vulnerable and exposed.

By the time they get to the hotel Dan feels a bit nauseous, and he desperately needs to pee. He pokes Phil to wake him up and they all pile into the lobby of the hotel, dragging their suitcases behind them.

The lobby is posh and dimly lit, with classical music playing quietly in the background. Marianne and Konstantin walk over to check them in, while the rest of the crew sits on the plush couches near the hotel bar.

In a couple of minutes Marianne walks over to them and passes out hotel keys. She also passes Dan an envelope of Russian money she exchanged for them and two sim cards.

“Your plans won’t work here, Kostya got you temporary mobile numbers. You have your spare phones, right?” she asks.

“Yeah, they’re in my bag” Dan answers, while Phil takes the hotel keys from her and starts walking towards the lift.

Their hotel room is on the 9th floor. It has two beds and a walk-in shower, and a great view of the city.

“Is that the Kremlin?” Phil asks, gesturing to a pointy building that could be seen in the distance, towering over all the other structures.

“Isn’t the Kremlin supposed to be red?” replies Dan. “It also isn’t that tall, right? It’s really old. Maybe it’s one of those 7 skyscrapers Andrew was telling us about”. He walks into the bathroom, finally peeing in the toilet, then shedding his wrinkled clothes and stepping into the shower. The hot water makes him feel a little more alive and after shaving and brushing his teeth, he almost feels human. He walks into the room, wrapped in a plush white hotel robe, and signals to Phil that the bathroom is free.

While Phil showers, Dan puts the sim cards into two old iPhones they bought for this specific trip. The pamphlet they got from the UK ministry told them to avoid using their phones as a precaution against hackers and to protect their personal information. It also told them to stay away from crowded places, not make eye contact on public transport, avoid showing expensive technology and to not be affectionate to each other in public.

It’s not that Dan and Phil didn’t follow the exact same recommendations when they were in London. They tend to avoid large crowds, partly because of social anxiety, and partly because of the very high risk of being recognized by fans. They also do their best to never engage with anyone while taking the tube or bus, because a tired angry Londoner traveling home from work in an overcrowded train car isn’t someone you really want to be all close up and personal with. They try to not wave their brand new iphone Xs around in crowded spaces, as both are aware that pickpockets are common in London. And they also don’t show affection in front of strangers. For obvious reasons of fearing their audience seeing it, but also because none of them have the energy to deal with people’s reaction to it.

But for some reason, the fact that those things were written out in an official document issued by their government makes Dan really uneasy. It fills him with a nervous energy, the type that makes you tremble and jitter, and makes breathing seem like almost an impossible task.

“Do you want to take a nap?” asks Phil, as he walks out of the shower. His skin is pink from the hot water, and his hair messy and wet, hanging across his face. Dan suddenly has the strongest urge to be as close as possible to him. Perhaps it’s nerves. Or maybe it’s a feeling of doing something illegal. Or just the fact that they haven’t had sex in three days.

Dan walks over to Phil and pulls him into a hug, resting his cheek on Phil’s shoulder.

“Yes,” he mumbles, snuggling deeper into Phil’s neck. “Marianne was thinking of going out to breakfast, but we have a couple hours before that”.

“Just let me put some pajamas on,” murmurs Phil, pulling out of Dan’s embrace. Dan instantly feels cold and jittery again.

They both put on some boxers and settle into one of the soft plush hotel beds.

“Why do hotels always have so many pillows,” grumbles Dan, as he pushes three decorative pillows out of the way and onto the floor in order to reach the four big fluffy white ones.

After a bit of adjusting, they end up spooning with Dan wrapping his arms and one leg around Phil’s body. It’s soothing to feel Phil’s gentle breaths and steady heartbeat, to inhale his familiar scent, just a bit tainted by the smell of the hotel body wash. In about three minutes, Dan is fast asleep.

***
They end up going out for brunch. Konstantin meets them in the lobby, all smiles and cheery greetings, and leads them out into the city. He asks them what would they like to have and unanimously everyone answers coffee.

Kostya leads them to a Starbucks, where they get some lattes and pastries and sit down on a sofa near the window.

For some reason Dan finds it surprising that he is in a Starbucks. He feels stupid to be surprised, as he has never yet been to a city that didn’t have one, but it still feels weird. He points it out to Phil, who chuckles and tells him: “yeah, it’s almost like the people here are just the same as anywhere, and also like overpriced American coffee”.

They finish eating and Kostya takes them to the metro. The city is busy and loud around them, there are people hurrying in every direction, and all of it looks so similar to London.

Kostya helps them pay for metro tickets and leads them through the gates and to the escalator. He is telling them something about how the Moscow Metro is the deepest one and how it was used as a bomb shelter, but Dan is only half listening. Instead he is watching the people passing him on the escalator, some of them grumpy looking and looking down, some talking with their friends in loud voices, some listening to music. No one pays them any attention.

The escalator is really really long. Kostya wasn’t joking when he was talking about how deep they are underground. It takes them a full two or three minutes to get all the way down, and when they do, Dan is immediately struck by the sheer grandeur of the station they are on.

“This is a tube station? It looks like a freaking castle!” Phil exclaims, and silently Dan agrees with him. The whole station is covered in marble and fancy molding, the ceilings are as high as in a cathedral, and the walls between massive arches are covered by mosaics, showing battle scenes, with soldiers brandishing red flags. The station is illuminated by lights that hang from brass chandeliers. If it weren’t for the people running all around them and the signs pointing to different lines, Dan would easily mistake this for a grand hall of some sort.
Konstantin leads them through the crowd and towards an arriving train.

After some Russian words Dan can’t understand, he hears the announcer say “the next station is Smolenskaya” in English and the train plunges into the darkness of the tunnel.

It takes them about ten minutes to get to their destination. The train makes several stops and every time Dan is amazed by the architecture of the stations. They all seem different and over the top grand. The people around him seem to care very little about the beauty of the stations, they go on and off the train, some of them carrying coffee cups, others looking at their phones or reading books. They look so very normal, but everyone's advice about being careful keeps him on his toes, and he feels the anxious and uncomfortable feeling returning.

They spend the morning walking around the city center. They visit the Kremlin and Red Square, go to the GUM and some museums. They meet many subscribers, they buy some ice cream, drink some more coffee. The whole day feels so… so un-unusual compared to their other tour stops. Sure, it’s a new city in a new country, but for some reason Dan expected it to be much more different. He keeps noticing similarities to other places he’s visited. The streets are filled with the same stores with the same brands of clothing, fast food restaurants on every block, and Dan has counted that they passed five McDonalds and three Burger Kings just in the morning alone. Perhaps the only difference is that most people speak a different language, but then again just a couple of days ago in Amsterdam they had the same experience.

Throughout the day Dan starts to relax a little. Konstantin leads them around, talking animatedly about the history and architecture and telling silly stories from his life. They go into souvenir shops where Phil annoys the salesperson by asking them to show him the biggest and the most ridiculously expensive matryoshka doll and then buying a super cheap one. They notice that all the souvenir shops sell t-shirts with Putin’s face on them and Marianne jokes that Dan should buy one ironically. Dan laughs and threatens to fire her, but in the end buys a fluffy hat with ears with “Moscow” embroidered on it because why not.

They walk past the Kremlin, talking animatedly to each other and start walking on a wide stone bridge across the Moscow river.

“What’s that?” Phil asks Konstantin, pointing at a heap of flowers lying on the side of the bridge, surrounded by lit candles.

“Oh, that’s where Boris Nemtsov was shot. It’s his memorial,” answers Konstantin without a pause. He continues to talk about how the memorial keeps getting vandalized and how people continue to restore it and bring flowers every day, and then about how in the winter it’s hard to keep the sidewalks clean from snow and moves on to explain that there is an ice rink constructed on the Red Square every winter.

There is a cold feeling in Dan’s chest. He remembers reading about this story in the news, about how a politician who opposed the government was shot in the back right in front of the Kremlin a couple of years ago. He remembers reading about it, but until now he couldn’t picture it. That it happened in the heart of this city. Right where he and his crew are walking around taking pictures. 100 feet away from where he took a selfie with some excited and out of breath fans. Less than 5 minute walk from a Starbucks.

***

They eat dinner at a traditional Russian restaurant and of course Dan spills bright red beet soup all over himself. The food is good, but the jitters are back and he feels exposed and out of place. He sees Phil looking at him every now and then with a concerned expression, but doesn’t say anything.

Later that night, in the hotel, Dan finds himself wide awake even though he is exhausted. Phil is lying next to him, playing some app on his old iphone. He wants to ask Phil if he feels the same way, but can’t find the words. Instead he snuggles into his chest and asks him what they should talk about tomorrow in the intro to the show.

He thinks Phil understands the unspoken question though, because he puts down the phone and combs through Dan’s curls, softly telling him that they should talk about the souvenir shop.

They end up making love, both being quiet and overwhelmed a bit, but overcome with affection and gratitude for each other. It’s the kind of sex that Dan calls “stress sex” in his mind. The type which has the main goal of reminding them that they are here, and that they are together, and that they can overcome anything. He falls asleep with Phil’s dick still inside him, feeling ridiculously small and fragile in Phil’s arms.

***

The next day is busy with setting up the show, sound checking, and then suddenly the meet and greet has started, and they are hugging people and taking photos and smiling. Dan is grateful for all of that, because he knows how to do this. This is his job, it’s what he’s best at. So he smiles and hugs people and takes selfies.

Some of the fans they meet speak very poor English, but they do their best to understand what they have to tell them. For some reason their stories feel particularly important to Dan. Perhaps it’s because every once in a while someone tells them that they have no one to talk to other than the people they’ve met through the phandom. Some tell them that watching their videos made them speak English better. A shy 16 year old mumbles how they inspired her to come out to her parents, and how she is here with her girlfriend. One fan asks them to sign a pride flag and something clenches in Dan’s chest when he does it. He catches Phil’s eye and he sees the same tension that is grasping his heart right now.

The show is as always a success. They laugh and have a blast, and Dan is drenched with sweat by the end of it. The audience gives them a standing ovation and they leave the stage exhausted and worn out, but excited and pumped with adrenaline.

They end up ordering room service to their room. Dan decides to mess up the second bed just in case, to make it seem like someone slept there, but his effort is screwed up by Phil yelling “Dan, babe, could you bring me my contact lense solution please?” from the bathroom at the exact moment as the hotel employee is carting in their dinner. To Dan’s relief, the man doesn’t flinch even a little bit, but politely smiles and tells Dan to enjoy their dinner, shutting the door behind him.

They fall asleep in each other’s arms again. Phil falls asleep first and Dan listens to his steady breathing. For some reason he can’t shake an image from his mind. The grey stone barrier of a bridge, covered in flowers, some dried up, some new, with candles lit all around and a framed photo of a smiling man with a black ribbon wrapped around it.