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Middlegame

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The time was here, the whirlwind calmed to something solid and real. Florence was taking Anatoly home. She hadn’t known what to expect after what they’d been through at the consulate before even being allowed into the country, but she should have known the further drone of the wheels of bureaucracy would be inevitable. They’d been separated at the airport, each one ‘invited’ to speak with the ministry. Florence had been able to drive her own car there, then was kept only briefly. But Anatoly had disappeared into the colorless government building—presumably to be questioned by a series of men in suits with ever increasingly long job titles. Then, after hours of her waiting with no word, he was finally released to his new country with nary a word of welcome. In fact, it’d been dumb luck that Florence was there to meet him at all. She’d just happened to choose the right bench in front of the right anonymous door to rest upon.

Their reunion had been sweet. The feel of his arms around her and the way he brought his face down to her shoulder and breathed in deeply, as though the mere scent of her was something he’d craved, reminded Florence why she’d started down this insane road in the first place. True, it lacked the electricity of their Italian assignations, as though something had been drained from Anatoly, but then could they hope to match emotions so powerful all of the time? They held hands and walked in silence to where Florence had parked. It wasn’t until they reached her car that he remarked that the process for entering a free country was almost worse than the bureaucracy back home. Florence, nearly as tired as Anatoly, settled on murmurs of polite sympathy as the right response and started the car for the short but exhausting ride through London traffic. Now, she could feel him sitting next to her in the car. Not a physical touch, but the weight of his presence, just beyond reach, as they made their way to her flat.

With Anatoly beside her, there was a surreal quality to the simplest of things. Even the key seemed awkward in her hand and she fumbled with it in opening the door. Somehow, this dream had become her new reality as the door opened and she followed her lover into her sitting room. She watched as he took in what should have been her personal space and was instead the spare look given by modern furniture and a life spent mostly living out of a suitcase. Then she walked past him, briskly removing her coat and placing it on the angular coat tree. “Here,” she said in a voice that seemed too bright, even in her ears. “Let me take your jacket.”

He relinquished the garment, then continued to look around the room. Eventually, he was drawn, as Florence had known he would be, to the chess board in the middle of the coffee table. Like the rest of the room, it was modern and angular. Unlike the rich browns of the leather and wood, its oversized pieces were carved from unyielding black and white stone that stood starkly against the warmer tones of the room making it a singular focus even if Anatoly were not Grandmaster and the current world champion.

“This game,” he said finally. “It is a composition from Freddie.”

He hadn’t asked, he’d known. Florence squared her shoulders slightly. “Yes, well, sometimes he’ll leave me with problems to solve. It was practice for us both.” She looked down at the carefully arranged pieces, then back at Anatoly. “You recognize this board?”

Anatoly shrugged. “He was trying to force me into a similar position in game four.”

Florence stepped closer. She saw the truth of his statement only in retrospect, but then she had been rather distracted from the play by then. “So you know how to get out of this trap, then?”

“Yes,” Anatoly stated flatly. “But not because of Merano. I’m too good to be trapped like this in the first place.”

Florence’s slowly brought her gaze from the board to Anatoly. “I wasn’t trapped,” she said mildly. “You said it yourself, it’s a composition. I haven’t even made my first move.”

Anatoly gestured towards the board, “Then by all means, don’t let me interfere.”

Florence smiled slightly and took a step towards him. “Now? Even if we weren’t exhausted I’d say it’s not the time for that, we’re finally home. Anyway, by now we’ve gone far beyond simply interfering.”

Anatoly looked up from the board, his brow slightly furrowed. “With this composition? I haven’t told you a thing about it, let alone how to negate this trap.”

She shook her head, and took his hand. “No,” Florence said. “With Freddie, with chess. Haven’t we moved on past his games at this point?”

Anatoly squeezed her hand lightly in return, running his thumb across the back of her fingers. “Some things are not simply games,” he said in a tired voice.

Florence reached up with her free hand to brush a stray lock of hair from his face. “Most things are not games at all. Chess gives you a particular way of viewing the world, but really it’s not all moves that can be analyzed and known in advance.”

“Isn’t it, though?” Anatoly replied. “You don’t think we could have been predicted or directed, you and I?”

“Maybe,” Florence conceded with a nod. “But nobody thought ahead to the next move or you wouldn’t have been able to defect.”

He grasped her hand firmly in response. “We were lucky, that’s all. They always assumed I’d defect—with or without you. Molokov’s too good at his job not to be prepared for that, he just lost control of his gambit.”

“And here we are.”

“Yes, here we are,” Anatoly said quietly. He leaned in towards Florence, wrapping his free arm around her in a tight hug.

Florence placed her head on his shoulder, feeling his solid warmth and a closeness that enveloped her in contrast to the airy openness of the room or the distance had been part of her relationship with Freddie, even when they were together.

She sighed deeply, “Isn’t it time to start fresh?” She lifted her head and looked Anatoly in the eye. “We’ve already cleared more hurdles than most relationships see in a lifetime. Let’s not get sidetracked by pieces of the past that happen to litter our way.”

“Perhaps,” Anatoly said, smiling slightly. “You’re right.” He let go of Florence and released her hand so he could step closer to the table. Reaching forward, he picked up the white queen, taking her out of her place in the composition, and placing her back at her starting square. After a moment, Florence joined him and between the two of them, the board was soon freshly set.

Florence smiled, a wide and genuine smile. “Come on,” she said. “There’s more to my home than this.”

Anatoly reached down and took her hand again, gently squeezing it. “Then by all means,” he said. “Let’s move on.”