For Deirdre, in the 2005 Don We Now Our Gay Apparel secret santa. Many thanks to silveryscrape for awesome beta action.

Aspera
by Lesa Soja
 

Tereza in the grocery shook her head sadly when Chris asked about laundry soap, so all he bought was cheese and bread and potatoes, not much, but still a fair weight to store in the carrier bags of his bicycle. The sun was mostly set already, and the streetlights that had working bulbs came on as he crossed the New Bridge. The bridge itself had been cleared, but there was a patch of ice on the pavement just where he had to turn into his own street, keeping his eye on the edges of the slick spot and leaning to counterbalance the bags, and that was how he missed seeing the man in front of him until both of them were sprawling on the ground.

"Shit," Chris said. "I'm sorry! I am so, so sorry."

"It's all right," the man said, bracing himself up on his hands. His voice was deeper than Chris might have expected from such an unlined face. "Are you hurt?"

"No," Chris said, "but you -" He stretched a hand out just short of touching the bloodied cut on his victim's cheek. "Look, I live just up the street here. Come up and let me give you a bandage, or something. I'm Chris."

"Lance," the man said. He got stiffly to his feet, and Chris propped the bicycle against a post and began gathering up the books that had spilled from Lance's gray rucksack. Thick, heavy ones - textbooks. "You don't have to do that," Lance said, turning his ankle this way and that.

"Come on," Chris said. "I'll make some tea."
 

The curtain in the door to Mrs. Petrovna's flat twitched as they went by. Chris didn't pause, just kept going up the stairs to his own room.

"Sit down," he said, waving his hand, and went to plug in the hot plate. Lance looked around the room and then sat in Chris's desk chair. "I'm not normally that violent, you understand," Chris said, and he got out some gauze and began cutting a bandage long enough to cover Lance's cut. "But with the way you provoked me, you must admit I had some cause."

Lance's eyebrows flew up, and then he gave a dry bark of laughter. "I let myself get too heated," he answered. "Everyone's always telling me I need to rein in my temper."

"Yes, well, see to that," Chris said. "May I?" He held up the washcloth. Lance studied him for a second before nodding. His breath blew gently against Chris's wrist as Chris worked.

Just as Chris was taping down the bandage, there was a knock on the door. "Hey," Nick said when Chris opened it. "JC isn't home yet, can I wait for him in here?"

"Sure," Chris said, opening the door wider. "I was just making some tea." Nick came in and sat down in a sprawl on Chris's bed.

"Hi," he said to Lance.

"Hello," Lance said. He started flexing his ankle again gingerly.

The kettle whistled, and Chris busied himself about the tea, half-listening to Nick asking Lance questions about his program.

They were partway through their mugs when the next rush of feet came up the stairs. There was a perfunctory knock, and then JC stuck his head in the door. "Chris?" he said. "Is Nick - oh, there you are." Nick grinned at him. JC flung himself down on the bed, wrapping an arm around Nick's waist. "Sorry I'm so late. Were you waiting long?"

"Nah," Nick said. "Just meeting Chris's friend Lance, here."

"Oh, hi," JC said. Chris glanced warily at Lance, whose face had gone blank.

"He's working on his dissertation at the Polytechnic Institute," Nick added.

"Yes. But it's late, I'm afraid it's time I was going," Lance said.

"Oh, no," JC said. "We're the ones who should go - come on, Nick. We'll leave you to - uh." But Lance was shaking his head.

"I have to get back to the dormitory. Thank you for the tea, Chris."

"Come back sometime and let me know you're all right," Chris said. Lance bobbed his head noncommittally.

"Chris," JC said after Lance was gone.

"I knocked him down on my bicycle," Chris said. "I could hardly let him walk back with the blood pouring down his face."

JC frowned a little but stood up, tugging Nick up by the hand as well. "I just hope you know what you're doing," he said. Chris shrugged.

"Good night," Nick said before they closed the door.

"Good night," Chris answered.
 

The next day at school, Chris gazed out gravely at his roomful of white shirts and blue ties. "Well," he said, "I'll give credit where credit is due. You sound better than a herd of giraffes fighting off a hippopotamus attack."

A few snickers answered him from the back of the room. He winked at earnest-eyed Ekaterina in the front row, and her whole face broke into delight.

"Still, even at this pinnacle of perfection, there's always something to strive for. So, one more time please, from the chorus."

Forty reedy voices obediently launched into "So comrades, come rally, and the last fight let us face..." Chris marked the time mechanically with his hands. After a minute his gaze went slightly slack.
 

He was at home on Sunday afternoon, going through some old sheet music to see what could still be used, when the doorbell buzzed three times. He let the stacks slide to the floor and went downstairs, and it was Lance at the door.

Lance smiled hesitantly. "I just came by to, uh. To let you know I'm all right."

He wasn't wearing a bandage anymore, and the cut had started to scab over. "That's good," Chris said. "A murder charge would have put a real damper on my medical ambitions."

"Your career might advance faster if you take patients other than those you've wounded yourself."

"Possibly," Chris admitted, "but at least I'll know my diagnoses are always right." Lance laughed. "So, would you like to come up?"

Lance shifted his feet and tucked a wave of light brown hair behind his ear. "It's such a mild day," he said. "How about walking down to the river?"

"Sure," Chris said.
 

The warm spell ended a couple of weeks later, and on the fourth or fifth walk they stopped short of the river and turned back, shivering. When they reached Chris's building again, Chris hesitated on the doorstep and glanced back. Lance's cheeks were bright pink above his blue wool scarf.

"What?" Lance said.

"Come have some tea to warm up before you go home," Chris said. Lance was silent. "If I send you back now," Chris went on lightly, "there'll be a murder charge after all. And nobody wants that."

"That would be a pity," Lance said. He pressed his lips together and then looked back up. "All right."

He wandered around the room while Chris got the kettle going, never pausing in any one spot for long. "It's starting to snow again," he reported from the window.

"That'll be decorative for the roads," Chris answered. Lance snorted and walked over to leaf through the scores on Chris's desk.

When the tea was ready, Chris handed Lance a mug and then took his own over to sit on the bed. Lance blew on his tea and carried it back to the window without drinking any. Chris moved back so he could lean against the wall and sipped slowly.

"Your neighbor was looking through her curtains when we came up," Lance said.

"She's nosy, that's all. She's never said anything to JC about Nick. Or anything to me."

"All right," Lance said. "It's just, you know, someone like that can - Well, they can make doors close, later on."

Chris lifted his shoulders in a half-shrug. "That can happen anyway," he said. "You have to know what you want, that's all."

Lance set his tea down on the windowsill and walked across the room to the bed. He climbed onto it, kneeling next to Chris, bit his lip, and said, "Chris, it's not that I don't - you're so incredible, but with the institute, I just don't know how things are going to be, next year, and the year after... But I look at you, and I can't help wanting -"

Chris leaned forward and kissed him.

Lance's mouth was lax and nearly still, but soft, opening under Chris's lips. "Oh," he said when Chris let him go. He touched his thumb to the corner of his own mouth and broke into a small smile.

Chris leaned over to set his mug on the floor and then turned back to Lance, stroking a hand over his cheek. Lance's chin came up, and Chris kissed him again, warmer this time, Lance's lips beginning to move in response at last. Lance's hand settled on Chris's shoulder, and then shifted until Lance could tuck his thumb inside Chris's collar to rub over the base of his throat. Chris broke the kiss to let out a choked-off breath.

"Come here," Chris said. Lance's hands were trembling a little, but there was a triumphant glint in his eyes. Chris wrapped both arms around him, and Lance let Chris ease them both down to lie full-length on the bed.

Lance ran his fingers up into Chris's hair and pressed forward to bring their mouths together again. Chris tightened his arm and shifted his hips against the rapidly hardening shape of Lance's cock.

Lance's head fell back when Chris got his pants open, which made it easy for Chris to kiss Lance's neck while wrapping his hand around Lance's dick. "Chris," Lance said in his lowest tone. Chris tugged his own shirt and sweater off and slid down till he could take Lance's cock in his mouth, slide the head between his lips, lick up and down the sides of it, squeeze the base in his hand, suck hard and lick and suck again, until Lance groaned in an impossibly lower voice and came.

"You're unbelievable," he said after lying still for a minute.

Chris ducked his head and rubbed his face against Lance's belly. "Nah," he said, "just implausible."

Lance grinned. Then his face went serious again and he sat up. "Let me -" he said. So Chris got out of his pants, carefully, wrapped a blanket around his own shoulders, and shifted back so Lance could lean over him. He felt Lance breathe out once, twice, and then incredible heat as Lance's mouth closed over his cock. Lance couldn't take him down very far yet, but it was more than enough to make Chris buck his hips up and gasp.

A little later Lance pulled off and used his hands instead, licking his palms before circling and squeezing and jerking in just the right rhythm, and that was all it took. Chris hunched his shoulders up uncontrollably and came in rapid spurts between Lance's fingers.

He opened his eyes again after Lance had been quiet a minute or two. Lance still had one hand curled loosely over Chris's dick, and his mouth had slipped into a rather self-satisfied grin.

"Well?" Chris said, raising one eyebrow.

"Well," Lance said placidly. "That was quite something."
 

They went on even longer rambles around the city, into the center of downtown between the grand, soot-stained facades, out past the train station and the depot, and up and down both banks of the river. There was still no more laundry soap to be had, so Lance brought over some of his and helped Chris rinse out the already threadbare sheets after every fuck. Once Lance took Chris up to his dormitory, just so Chris could see what it looked like. Two of Lance's five roommates were there studying on their beds; they barely glanced up when Lance introduced Chris as his friend. Chris's forty brats sang three very chilly songs in the square in front of the school on New Year's Day, and Lance came to hear them and laugh heartily afterwards at Chris's dreadfully emphatic baton-waving.
 

One night JC came up the stairs just as Lance was leaving. "Hi, JC," Lance said, and gave him a little wave.

"Goodnight," JC said, lifting troubled eyes to Chris's face.

"He's fine," Chris said quietly as Lance's footsteps disappeared down the stairwell. "He's gotten over being afraid."

"I know," JC answered. "That's not what I'm worried about. Look, Chris, he may be coming around a lot right now, but -"

"Yeah, he is," Chris interrupted. "And where's Nick tonight?"

JC narrowed his eyes. "He had to look after his brother and sisters this week. His mother's gone again."

"Ah, right," Chris said. JC shook his head and turned down the short hallway to his own room.
 

Lance knocked briskly, and when Chris opened the door, he saw Lance's eyes were shining. Chris kept quiet while he cut a few slices off a heel of bread, but when he heard Lance still fidgeting he turned around and set the knife down. "So is all this energy for me, or do you have a secret new lover hidden on the landing?"

Lance laughed. "I talked to my dissertation advisor today," he said. "There's - news. Good news. At least, there may be. But I can't say anything till it's for sure."

"I see," Chris said. "Well, in that case perhaps I'd better find a way to keep you from blurting anything out."

"That's very thoughtful of you," Lance said. He kissed Chris's cheek, grinning, and then dropped down easily to his knees under the gentle weight of Chris's hand on his shoulder.

Chris closed his eyes. Later he wrapped up the bread in waxed paper for Lance to take back and eat on the walk home.
 

Chris waited for Lance to say more the next day, the day after, and the next week. But nothing happened, and so he was taken by surprise six weeks later when Lance skipped in and sat in the desk chair and then immediately bounced back up, squeezing his hands together.

"I got it, Chris!" he said. "I got the notice today. I'm in!"

"That's wonderful!" Chris said. "What are you talking about?"

Lance hesitated, and his eyes shuttered a bit. "I've been offered a, um. An opportunity."

"To do what?" Chris said. His fingers closed around the handle of the tea kettle.

"To go to Moscow. There's a - project, a really amazing project, and I've been given a chance to help work on it. It starts next month."

"In Moscow."

Lance nodded. "At first, yeah. We might go on to another site from there. I can't even tell you how big this is. I can hardly believe it myself."

'"Well, congratulations. It sounds like a big honor," Chris said. "How long will you be there?"

Lance's forehead creased up. "I don't know yet," he said. "Maybe six months to start with, but it really depends on how the project goes. I mean, my part is pretty small, but if it works," and his eyes went unfocused, gazing somewhere beyond Chris's shoulder, "if it works, it could be the beginning of everything for me."

"Then this is an exciting time indeed," Chris said. Lance turned back.

"Chris," he said. "I thought you'd be happy for me."

"Oh, I'm ecstatic," Chris said. "I hope you reach the highest heights of renown."

Lance stooped down and picked up his rucksack. "I'm going to go now," he said. "We should talk more about this later."

"Bye!" Chris said.
 

When Lance came back the next day, they looked at each other blankly for what felt like a long time before Chris sighed and shook his head. "Go," he said, "you won't be happy without it."

Lance's face crumpled up. "I'm going to miss you," he said. Chris grimaced and pulled him close, kissing his face and his damp eyes.

A little later Chris tugged Lance down on top of him on the bed, opening his legs for Lance to press in against him. Lance slid two fingers into Chris's ass while his mouth wrapped swift and sure over Chris's dick, and Chris let the gasps roll freely out of his throat. Lance pulled off before Chris could come, though. He lifted Chris's legs to his shoulders and lined himself up to press in, but then leaned down first to kiss Chris's downturned mouth. Chris shifted his hips quickly to make Lance start thrusting.
 

JC and Nick came over to Chris's room the first night after Lance left. Nick had some of a bottle of vodka left, and JC divided it carefully into the tea mugs. After Chris had taken his first swallow, he looked up to find JC's eyes fixed on him.

"What?" he said halfheartedly. But JC just gave him a pained smile and reached over to stroke Chris's cheek with his long fingers. Chris rolled his eyes and took another drink.
 

The brats finished the last chorus, not quite all together but close enough, and Chris closed up his music folder. "All right," he said, "thanks, everyone. See you Thursday."

Ekaterina raised her hand. "But, Mr. Kirkpatrick, how did we do?" she asked.

Chris smiled at her. "Fine," he said. "You're all doing fine."

"But -"

"Come on, Katya, let's go," Sofia said, shouldering her out of the room. Chris closed his eyes for a second and then began packing up his bag.
 

JC came over to Chris's room with a jar of black market jam. The sun was setting and the window was flung wide open, but the room was still stifling hot. Chris cut some bread and they settled on the bed, and then Chris said, "Okay, JC, spit it out."

JC froze with his mouth full of bread. Chris rolled his eyes. "Not your dinner, idiot."

JC chewed and swallowed and drank a long draft of water. Then he said, "Okay, well. Here's the thing. Nick is moving."

"Oh yeah?"

"Yeah, back to his hometown. He's found a job on a fishing boat there. And a flat."

"Wow," Chris said. "Right away?"

"Pretty much," JC said. "And - when winter starts, I'm going to go join him."

Chris let out a huff of surprise and shook his head. "You two!" he said. "As if you weren't already cozier than turtledoves."

"We want you to come visit us," JC said, looking relieved. "Sometimes Nick'll have his brother staying there too, but we'll always have room for guests."

"Sure," Chris said. "If I can get away. Though really, it's not like there'll be much to tie me down here." JC nodded. Chris picked up his water glass and raised it in the air. "Well. Here's to a better life in the country!" he said.

"A better life," JC echoed, and they clinked glasses and drank.
 

Tereza still didn't have any laundry soap, but occasionally there were a few additional cartons of regular soap. So Chris bought some extras and used those to do his wash with. He'd stopped changing his sheets as often, so he didn't need as much soap as he used to, anyway.
 

One night near the end of August, Chris went for a late walk after dinner to take advantage of the cooling air. He lingered by the river for longer than he'd meant to, watching the flow of the current.

Coming back up to his room afterwards, he saw that there was someone sitting on the top flight of the staircase. And then he rounded the corner of the landing and saw that it was Lance.

"Hi," Lance said.

He was noticeably thinner, and his hair had been chopped painfully short. "Hello," Chris said. "What brings you here?"

Lance's mouth tensed. "I'm back," he said. "It's all over." Chris studied his face, the strained creases around his eyes. "Look," Lance said, "can I come in?"

"All right," Chris said. He unlocked his door and held it open. Lance went in and sat down on the edge of the bed. Chris dropped his keys on his desk and then sat down in the chair.

Lance had folded his hands together in his lap. "I'm sorry I couldn't write," he said. "We weren't allowed to send any mail home."

Chris turned one palm up in resignation. "So what happened?"

"The project failed. You know, I'm still not supposed to talk about it, but - fuck it! We built a rocket. We were going to try to get a new satellite into orbit."

"Into space?" Chris said. Lance nodded.

"But the first test had to be aborted, and in the second one -" Lance drew his hand across his forehead. "- there was a leak, from the valve that - well, it doesn't matter now. What happened was, the fuel tank exploded."

"Shit," Chris breathed.

"There weren't very many people on the launch pad, so there were only a few deaths." Lance bit his lip. "But after that they shut that part of the program down. Some people were reassigned, and the rest of us were - sent back."

Chris got up and went to sit next to Lance on the bed. He took Lance's hand and squeezed it between both his own. Lance turned his face away, lips pressed together, but his fingers curled tightly around Chris's.

"What are you going to do now?" Chris said after a while.

Lance let out a shuddery breath. "I don't know," he said. "I lost my place at the institute when I left. I don't think I can get it back. I - I need to start a job. I don't know what work I can get now. And I need to find a room - and -"

"I know where there's a room," Chris said. Lance turned to look at him. "JC's moving out in a couple of months, and Mrs. Petrovna doesn't have a new tenant yet. We'll talk to her and fix it up."

Lance's eyes had gone wide. "You mean, live next door to you?"

"Yeah."

Lance was silent. Chris took a breath and said, "I don't know of any good jobs right now, but we can talk to people, try to figure out where there might be a chance. You could probably start at the factory while you're looking. You'll - I'm sure you'll find something."

But Lance was shaking his head. "Chris," he said, and he lifted his free hand slowly to Chris's face and used it to hold Chris still while he kissed him.

Chris kissed back, clinging tightly to the hand he was holding. Eventually he let Lance push him back all the way onto the bed. They didn't stop kissing till the moon went down outside the window, leaving nothing in the sky but the stars.
 

[smile]