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Nothing Could Be Worse Than Self-Denial

Chapter Text

‘Mom.’

Elizabeth looked up at her son with bleary eyes, red-rimmed. He wondered if she saw him at all. ‘What?’

‘I-I got a permission slip at school today,’ Freddie said, speaking slowly, clearly and concisely, as he’d learned to when talking to her. ‘A man wants me to play chess in Russia.’

Elizabeth stared at the lanky teenager. Then she let out a hoarse, scratchy bark of a laugh. ‘Russia? Stupid boy. They won’t let you in there.’

‘They want me to meet with a grandmaster,’ Freddie said, unable to stop the excitement creeping into his voice. ‘They think I have potential in chess-’

‘Chess, chess, chess,’ his mother snapped, taking a swig from the bottle in her hand. ‘This is the real world, Freddie. Now your father’s gone-’

‘-don’t bring him into this-’

‘-you need to be working a third job, and chess is never gonna make you a cent.’ She laughed again.

Freddie sighed resignedly, handing her the crumpled sheet of paper and a pen.

‘I can’t read this,’ she slurred.

‘You don’t have to,’ Freddie said. ‘Just sign on the dotted line.’

 

Freddie had loved chess all his life. He’d played against himself since he was a toddler (he never asked his parents, just in case they said no). When he discovered his school had a chess club at age fourteen, he didn’t think twice about joining (although in private – after all, he had a reputation to protect, and at an all-boys school, playing chess was clearly queer). He was sixteen now, and his chess club had been visited by two men in suits who had watched them play. Freddie had almost been too distracted to play to his best ability, but he’d still beaten his opponent. The men had nodded approvingly and Freddie caught the glance between them.

When they told him he was invited to play in Russia, chess capital, of all places, he’d nearly passed out.

Forty boys from America had been chosen to go to Leningrad to participate in a chess tournament. Another forty boys had been chosen from Russia. The boys would play against each other in seven three-hour sessions lasting a week. The two victors – one from Russia and one from America – would then be trained for another week before the final round: the two greatest chess-playing youths in the world.

Two days after he’d spoken to his mother, he was on a flight to Leningrad. The whole thing was practically paid for, and what wasn’t, he’d been able to fish out of his mother’s purse while she was in bed with some new guy.

She wouldn’t even notice he was gone.

Two weeks. That was all he had to make an impression. One week for the tournament, and one week for his training. And he knew he’d win; he was the best in his club, and he hadn’t lost a game in years.

Once at the airport, the first thing that struck Freddie was the cold. It was spring, but he still had to pull his old, scruffy jacket tighter around him. The other boys chattered to each other incessantly, but Freddie, who had never been one for conversation, kept his mouth shut.

From the airport, they caught a bus to a campus with two large sandstone buildings. One, they were told, was for the American boys, and the other was for the Russians. Freddie looked around, expecting to see a group of Russian boys also standing around awkwardly, but they were nowhere to be seen.

The Americans lined up single-file and were each sorted into a room with four other boys. Freddie, when told his room number, lifted his disappointingly light luggage and carried it to his room. His roommates were already waiting.

‘Great,’ the tallest one drawled. ‘We got the pretty boy.’ The others laughed.

Freddie froze. Pretty boy. His father used to call him that. No, don’t think of him-

Ten years old. His father slammed his son’s head against the desk. Angry, pained tears began to spill from Freddie’s eyes. His father took Freddie’s forefinger and bent it excruciatingly far back. ‘My son is not a fucking pretty boy!’

Snap.

Freddie involuntarily glanced at his crooked finger before meeting the eye of the boy who had spoken. The boy was smirking, clearly hoping for a reaction.

Freddie knew that smirk all too well. Not in his father – in himself. And he knew how to cope. I know how to cope, he promised himself.

‘Freddie Trumper,’ he said quietly, nodding to the rest of the boys. He flung his luggage on the only free bed.

The other boys didn’t give him their names.

Sighing, Freddie checked the clock on the wall. It was only eight. The sun was still in the sky, but Freddie felt like he could sleep for a year. He threw off his jacket and flung himself down onto the bed.

He heard the other boys muttering about him, but tried to ignore it. He was used to people muttering about him.

Before he knew it, he was asleep.

 

He awoke the next morning to a supervisor with a brutally loud voice shouting for them to wake up. Head pounding, Freddie grudgingly clambered out of bed, as did the other boys. He was still in the clothes he was wearing yesterday.

Breakfast was served in a small area between the two buildings, and for the first time, they saw the Russians, who were already awake and collecting their food (something that vaguely resembled gruel, Freddie guessed). Most of them looked even more intimidating than the boys Freddie was bunked with. However, one or two seemed to look just as scared as Freddie felt. One of the Russians in the line, a tall but scrawny boy with brown curls and a long nose, caught Freddie’s eye. Freddie, who was completely unprepared for such an attack, looked away quickly.

After finishing his (disgusting) breakfast without speaking or looking at anyone, Freddie returned to his room before the others to take a shower. He placed a white shirt and jeans – his only good clothes – on his bed, undressed, and stepped into the shower. After three minutes of violent shivering, he realised there was no hot water. With another deep sigh, he wrapped a towel around his waist and stepped into his room.

His four roommates were back, and his clothes were nowhere to be seen.

Jesus, are they really this fucking immature?

‘Give me back my clothes,’ Freddie said, hoping the waver in his voice wasn’t noticeable.

‘Why?’ the tallest one sneered. ‘I thought you were a pretty boy and a fag-’

He didn’t finish the slur before Freddie’s fist collided with his face.

‘I’m not a fucking queer,’ Freddie snarled as the boy clutched at his bleeding nose.

Don’t think of him-

Twelve years old. His father, glancing at him one last time. ‘I can’t believe my son is a goddamn queer.’ Freddie had only heard the word a couple of times before, and it had never been used in a respectable sense. Freddie wouldn’t miss him.

One of the other boys rushed to the bleeding one’s side. ‘Are you okay? Is it broken?’

‘Of course it’s fucking broken!’ the taller one snapped. ‘We got roomed with a fucking psychopath!

One of the boys reached under his bed and withdrew Freddie’s clothes, throwing them at him with wide eyes. Freddie wondered if they were afraid of him now.

Good, said his father’s voice.

After he’d dressed, the other boys ran to a bored-looking supervisor, who, to Freddie’s relief, let him off with a warning (‘That’s it?!’ the boy he’d punched shouted angrily. ‘A warning? He broke my goddamn nose!’).

It was nine in the morning at that point, and they were leaving for the tournament at ten. Desperate for some fresh air, he’d decided to explore the campus. He found a bench behind the building and sat down, closing his eyes. He was still freezing, but at least he could only just hear the hyperactive, shouting boys in the building.

He sat there for a few moments before he felt suspiciously like he was being watched. Ready to break another kid’s nose if it came to that, he opened his eyes wide.

Standing a few feet away and staring at him with large brown eyes was the Russian boy who had made eye contact with Freddie in the breakfast line. Freddie suddenly felt vulnerable. The Russian looked harmless, but he had an unnerving gaze.

‘Uh… hi.’

The Russian just stared at him inquisitively.

‘Do you speak English?’ Freddie asked. ‘English?’

The Russian shook his head and said something in his own language. Freddie snorted. He’d never liked Russians (or anyone who wasn’t American, but especially communists), and for a moment he contemplated breaking this freak’s nose too, just for the hell of it. But the boy gestured to the space beside Freddie, and before he knew it, Freddie was making room for the boy to sit down.

‘Freddie Trumper,’ Freddie said, pointing to himself.

‘Fred-die… Trum-per?’

Freddie laughed and shrugged. ‘Good enough.’

The boy then said something that sounded like gibberish. Freddie looked at him. ‘What?’

‘A-na-to-ly,’ the boy said. ‘Ser-gi-ev-sky.’

‘Antoly Sergeffsky?’

Now it was the Russian’s turn to laugh. He repeated his name, and he and Freddie went back and forth before finally, it seemed Freddie had pronounced it correctly.

‘Anatoly Sergievsky?’ Freddie said uncertainly.

Anatoly nodded and smiled, and Freddie gradually felt all reproach seep away. Maybe this Russian was alright. He seemed better than his roommates, anyway.

‘Yes!’ Anatoly said, and Freddie blinked.

‘You do speak English?’

‘Yes,’ Anatoly said again.

‘Do you know any words other than yes?’

‘Yes.’

‘Like what?’

‘Sorry.’

‘Is that it?'

‘Yes.’

Freddie laughed. ‘That’s what I thought.’

At that moment, a bell rang. The two boys looked around and saw the others were filing together. Anatoly, realising he had to leave, waved Freddie goodbye. Freddie, despite himself, waved back before joining the other American boys.

And he realised he was smiling.

I’m not a fucking queer.

 

To Freddie’s surprise, the Russians and Americans were both placed on the same buses this time around. Anatoly and Freddie ended up on the same bus, and they caught each other’s eyes again. Of course, they didn’t sit with each other – and American and a Russian sitting together would certainly be a source of torment for them both – but when Freddie’s roommate, now with a bloody, crooked nose walked onto the bus and glared daggers at Freddie, with an ‘I’ll get you for this, you son of a bitch’, Anatoly glanced at Freddie, and then at the boy’s nose, clearly with a questioning look.

Freddie nodded embarrassedly, and Anatoly gave a mischievous smile. He suddenly stood and shouted something in Russian for the whole bus to hear, pointing at the boy with the broken nose. One of the supervisors scolded him and he sat back down, but the Russian boys all began to laugh. Freddie and the Americans looked around, confused.

The Russian boys who didn’t have an occupied seat next to them began to hoist their legs up or stretch out so as to take up both seats. The boy with the broken nose looked around desperately for somewhere to sit. All the other boys now had seats except him.

‘Sorry,’ Freddie heard the blond boy in front of Anatoly say to the boy in Russian-accented English with a sly smile. ‘Looks like all the seats are taken.’

The boy glared at him and opened his mouth to say something, but at that moment, the bus jolted to a start and the boy fell backwards, just at the same time as Anatoly stuck his leg out into the aisle. The boy tripped and fell on his back, and the boys from both nations began to laugh. Anatoly, with a smug smile, looked down at his victim. ‘Sorry.’

The supervisors, only just noticing the disruption, yelled for quiet and helped the boy up, finding him a seat. Freddie, once he’d stopped laughing, looked at Anatoly, who smiled back. He had a nice smile, Freddie thought, not vindictive or cruel. It was kind, and it surprised Freddie. He wasn’t used to people smiling at him genuinely.

I’m not a fucking queer.

 

Once they arrived at the building where the tournament was to take place, a hush fell momentarily over the boys as they gazed up at the brilliant architecture. Intricate designs were carved on every wall and every step leading up to the even more intricately carved double doors. They were sorted back into their nationalities and ushered in single file into the building.

The interior was almost just as impressive. The windows were tall, glass arches, and the ceiling was supported by marble pillars. Perhaps the most enthralling to Freddie, however, was the seemingly endless rows of tables, each with a chess set and chess clock atop it. Freddie’s eyes gleamed, not at the prospect of chess, but at the prospect of victory.

Before they could begin, there was a short explanation of how the rotations would work: after each game, the victors would approach the front desk and give his name, and his win would be recorded. After the last game of the three hours, the game would end. The next day, the top twenty Americans with the most wins would play against the top twenty Russians. The day after that, the top ten. The day after that, the top five. The day after that, the top two (if two victors were of the same nationality, they would play against each other). Then, the two remaining players – one American, one Russian – would be trained for a week by various grandmasters before they would battle it out in the final round.

Freddie knew he could win. He knew he would.

They were each given badges with their names and then seated at a table. Freddie noticed Anatoly was just a couple of rows away from him.

The first round began. Freddie was playing the blond boy who had sat in front of Anatoly on the bus, whose nametag read Leonid Viigand. Viigand was good – brilliant, in fact, Freddie realised – but still not good enough. Freddie couldn’t help grinning as he delivered the fatal move and uttered ‘Checkmate’. Viigand scowled and Freddie told the woman at the desk his name. There was something remarkably satisfying about seeing her draw a stroke next to his name.

The next few games passed easily. No one he had played against had come close to beating him. Soon, his opponents became a blur. The strokes next to his name in black ink continued to increase. He didn’t see the faces of those he was playing anymore; it was only him and the chess board and his hand slamming against the clock.

That was, until round eight.

He looked up, ready to win, when his eyes caught glittering brown.

‘Anatoly,’ he said, unable to help smiling.

Anatoly nodded, also smiling shyly. He held up seven fingers, and Freddie assumed he was telling him how many wins he had so far. All of them.

Freddie did the same. They were tied.

The game began, and almost immediately, Freddie felt a difference. He felt the red flush creeping up his neck and into his cheeks. He felt the beads of sweat begin to form on his forehead. Sergievsky was good. Better than Viigand. Better than you, his father’s voice said.

Freddie realised too late he was being backed into a corner. He also realised he was shaking so violently his hand nearly knocked over his king. Pull yourself together, Trumper.

I’m not a fucking queer.

‘Sorry!’ Anatoly said suddenly, and Freddie stared at the board incredulously.

‘No, Anatoly,’ he said, and he realised he wasn’t even angry. ‘The word’s “checkmate”.’

 

Chapter Text

At the end of the day’s session, Freddie had eleven wins; Anatoly had twelve.

They boarded their buses just as the sun was beginning to set. Anatoly didn’t speak to Freddie, but he did smile at him once during dinner before they left for their separate dorm rooms.

Anatoly hoped Freddie wasn’t angry at him. One of them had to win, didn’t they? He was so anxious about the match that he was barely aware of anything around him, and that included the critical glare Leonid Viigand was giving him when he entered his dorm.

‘Hey!’ Viigand snapped when Anatoly didn’t respond to his look. ‘What were you doing today with that American boy?’

Anatoly’s eyes widened. He glanced up innocently at the taller boy, mouthing the words American boy to himself as though in an attempt to remember.

‘The one in the white shirt,’ Viigand said.

‘Oh! You mean Trumper?’

Viigand’s glare grew colder. He stepped toward Anatoly, who took an involuntary step backwards and felt a stab of fear.

‘I-I-I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ Anatoly stuttered. Curse Viigand, and curse Alexander Molokov for giving him a godforsaken watchdog to make sure he didn’t step out of line.

Viigand sighed. ‘Listen, Anatoly – your stunt today on the bus was amusing, but you can’t afford to be distracted by American boys. Or any boys. You know if you try anything, I will have to report you?’

‘Yes.’

‘You realise you are extremely privileged to be here?’

‘Yes, comrade.’

‘You realise you are on the verge of being arrested?’

Yes, comrade.’

‘Remember your place, Anatoly. Remember to keep your head down.’

 

Anatoly had always known he’d liked boys. He was clever; he knew not to say anything to anyone. But he couldn’t help it. Not even his mother knew, and he was closer to his mother than anyone in the world.

Anatoly had also always known he’d hated the Soviets.

A year ago, Anatoly had been found burning a Soviet flag in the empty plot of land behind his house. He’d never felt more terrified than he had with his hands cuffed, being pushed into a car.

And then Alexander Molokov had appeared.

Molokov was young for a KGB agent at the time, but he was on a high authority level, or so it seemed to Anatoly. He’d happened to be there during the arrest, and had recognised Anatoly from newspapers as one of the best young problem-solving minds in the country. He’d spoken to Anatoly, brought him to a large building that Anatoly did not know, and saved him from execution and even arrest at all.

On the condition he would study chess.

He only spent three days a week at school. The other days, including weekends, were meetings with Alexander or occasionally some other agent to train him. At the time, Anatoly had no idea what they were doing and was merely relieved to have been spared. But now, he knew, and he despised them for it.

They wanted him to be their perfect little puppet. They knew he could win, and they knew as he grew older he had the potential to be a world champion. But he was still a potential threat. And soon, it became clear, Anatoly did have an interest in other boys. Of course, no one spoke to him about it (they couldn’t risk taking his mind off the game), but it seemed he was more of a danger than ever.

And that was how he’d ended up with Viigand looming over him at every possible chance.

‘Maybe you should focus on your own game,’ Anatoly retorted, looking Viigand in the eye and suddenly regaining his confidence. ‘I heard you lost to five American boys today.’

Viigand scowled. ‘Maybe it’s because I’ve got you to worry about as well as my game.’

Anatoly laughed and threw himself down on his bed. He felt Viigand’s gaze move away.

When he closed his eyes, all Anatoly saw was Freddie’s face. He was an enemy, in the eyes of the Soviets. But to Anatoly, he was an ally.

A friend.

Anatoly knew he should forget him. It was dangerous, in these times, for a Russian boy to love an American boy.

But Anatoly had never been able to help himself.

 

The next day, the list of the top twenty Americans and Russians was read out. There were various groans and disappointed mutterings, but there were also many cheers and whoops. Of course, Anatoly was on the list, as was Freddie. They caught each other’s eyes and Anatoly half-smiled. Freddie did not.

Viigand also narrowly gained a spot on the list, as did the boy with the broken nose. After the names had been read out, the remaining challengers all prepared to board the bus again to the hall, while the other excluded boys returned to their dorms.

At the hall, Anatoly played just as brilliantly as he ever had. Some might have said his training was an unfair advantage, but Anatoly knew he could win even without his training. His cold, calculating eyes barely swept his opponent and instead remained on the board. His hand moved quickly over the pieces surely and certainly. It was the only place he was certain of anything. In his world, he could be dead by tomorrow morning.

When he looked up for his sixth round, he was met once again with the face of Fredrick Trumper.

‘Hello,’ Anatoly said softly in Russian. Freddie tried to repeat him and failed.

At least Anatoly knew one new word. Checkmate.

Freddie seemed better this time around. Anatoly had never played against anyone like him. Yesterday, he’d seemed flushed and distracted, but today he was as focused as ever. Anatoly found himself watching Freddie’s face more than the board itself. Freddie’s jaw was set and his blue eyes – so American, Anatoly thought – grazed each piece as though it were the most important thing in the world.

Freddie saw chess as a family. Anatoly saw chess as a battleground.

‘Check,’ Freddie said, and an almost cruel smile found its way onto his lips. Anatoly felt unnerved. Something seemed to have changed about Freddie since yesterday.

Anatoly realised he was trapped. He struggled to move his king as best he could but knew they were nearing a stalemate. Then his queen was taken, and it was all over.

‘Checkmate.’

Anatoly threw up his hands in defeat. The group of Americans that had formed around Freddie congratulated him and patted him on the back.

‘You show them fucking communists,’ Anatoly heard one say. He didn’t understand what the words meant, but the tone and the look of disgust sent Anatoly’s way made the meaning clear. Anatoly shrank into himself. He hadn’t lost a game in three years.

Then the next American sat before him, and Anatoly returned to the game.

At the end of the day, Freddie had nine wins, and Anatoly had eight. Only nine games had been played that day, as the matches had been longer. Anatoly, feeling defeated, boarded the bus and cast one last hopeful glance at Freddie, but he was preoccupied talking with the other American boys.

When the bus returned them to their campus, and the crowd of boys were returning to their dorms, Anatoly immediately went for Freddie. Viigand, noticing, took him by the arm and pulled him back forcefully.

‘Don’t,’ Viigand warned.

Anatoly stopped and looked up at the boy towering over him. He thought about where he was. He thought of Alexander Molokov, and what he could do to him if he stepped out of line. He thought of his mother, how scared she’d looked when she’d found he’d been arrested and how relieved when he was freed. He thought of how he’d spent his life as a pawn in someone else’s country-sized game.

He thought of Freddie Trumper, and how he’d looked at Anatoly these past two days.

‘Get off me,’ he snarled.

He tugged away from Viigand, who just caught him by the hand. His grip tightened around Anatoly’s fingers. Anatoly stopped and winced at the pain. Viigand took his forefinger and bent it back, and Anatoly cried out. A few of the boys around them turned. Freddie was one of them.

Don’t think of him, don’t think of him, don’t think of him…

‘Anatoly!’ Freddie shouted suddenly, and all the boys turned to him.

‘Ignore him,’ Viigand hissed in Anatoly’s ear. ‘If you try anything, I swear I’ll break it.’

Anatoly felt his heart pounding against his ribs. The rest of the boys seemed in shock. The supervisors (who had been warned about Anatoly) seemed unsure how to react. And then the face of Alexander Molokov appeared once more in Anatoly’s mind, and he was filled with a newfound spite. What was a broken finger?

‘Freddie!’ Anatoly called back and made a final desperate lunge out of Viigand’s grip.

Viigand bent his finger back. Anatoly felt it snap.

Freddie also snapped.

‘You son of a bitch!’ He ran for Viigand and knocked him to the ground, despite Viigand being much larger than him. He began throwing punches wherever he could. The world seemed to fade out of existence. There was only his fist and Viigand’s face. The boys surrounding them began to cheer him on, whooping and laughing.

Anatoly cast a terrified glance at his broken finger. It was gradually turning a horrific shade of purple and was bent at such an awkward angle he had to look away again as hot tears of pain and indignation welled up behind his eyes.

But there was something else, beyond the pain and the anger. There was Freddie wrestling with Viigand on the ground, while supervisors struggled to pull them apart. There was Freddie.

Freddie cared.

And then they both ended up sitting opposite the head supervisor in a dark office, avoiding each other’s gaze.

Anatoly’s finger had been bandaged by first-aid. Freddie still had an obscene number of bruises. So far, they hadn’t said a word to each other. It was night outside. The supervisor – a middle-aged American woman, her hair in a short bob and her mouth in a thin line – was glaring at them both.

‘What were you thinking?!’ she hollered in English.

Freddie hung his head. Anatoly could guess she was angry.

‘You,’ she spewed in Russian, pointing a finger at Anatoly, ‘you knew you were hanging by a thread! You were this close to being arrested. And then you pull a stunt like this!’

‘I didn’t do anything!’ Anatoly insisted. ‘Viigand was the one who broke my finger!’

But the woman didn’t pay him the slightest attention and instead returned to Freddie. ‘And you – you thought it’d be a good idea to intervene, did you? Thought you were being a hero? Well, let me tell you something – in real life, there are no heroes.’

Freddie and Anatoly exchanged a glance. This woman was insane.

‘I’ve spoken to my superiors,’ the woman said, gathering herself and alternating between English and Russian. ‘We’re deciding on your consequences now. I can guarantee you will not be able to participate in this tournament. You may even never be on the circuit again. Let’s just hope we don’t have to send you home earl-’

She was interrupted by the telephone on her desk ringing. She jumped, gave the boys a warning look, and then answered it.

‘Hello?’

Freddie reached a hand over to Anatoly and gently lifted his right arm. He examined the broken finger. He tried to touch it and Anatoly flinched.

‘Sorry,’ Freddie blurted out. He held out his own crooked forefinger, attempting a smile.

Anatoly laughed quietly. ‘Now we match,’ he said in Russian.

There was a decidedly grim feel about the supervisor’s office. The air was heavy – although Anatoly supposed that was more due to the terrible news they’d just received.

A life without chess. The thought of it terrified him. Chess had been his life. This tournament had been his life. And now…

Well, he’d rather be home with his mother and brothers than with Leonid Viigand.

Freddie felt like crying (although one of his personal philosophies was to never cry, least of all in public). This tournament had been the one thing keeping him going. Being sent home in disgrace, back to his alcoholic mother and her endless string boyfriends, terrified him.

But worst of all, even worse than the possibility of never playing competitive chess again, was the thought of never seeing Anatoly again.

‘Yes, sir,’ the woman was saying on the phone. ‘I- well, sir, he was being problematic… I understand that, sir, but… yes, sir.’

She held out the receiver to Anatoly, who took it gingerly in surprise.

‘It’s for you,’ she drawled in Russian, and then in English, ‘I’m getting myself some whiskey. Stay here.’

Freddie was reminded uncannily of his mother as she left the room.

‘Hello?’ Anatoly said quietly through the receiver. He’d only held a phone once before in his life.

‘Anatoly!’ said the unmistakable voice of Alexander Molokov.

Anatoly immediately stiffened. He despised that voice, but he knew he ought to remain respectful. ‘Yes, sir.’

‘My boy, you know you can’t be pulling stunts like this,’ Molokov said sincerely, and Freddie watched Anatoly quietly seething. ‘You want to stay in the chess circuit, don’t you?’

What do you know about chess? Anatoly wanted to say, but he didn’t. ‘Of course, Mr Molokov. I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.’

Because that’s what he’d been trained to say. Like a dog, he thought bitterly.

‘Very good,’ Molokov said, as though it was all just a game. My life isn’t a game! ‘Now, if the circumstances were different, you know you’d be facing severe punishments. However, I’ve always had a soft spot for you…’

Oh, I know, Anatoly thought sarcastically, but he bit his lip.

‘…so you will be permitted to rejoin the tournament.’

The rush of relief Anatoly felt was quickly replaced by anger. He was an asset, and nothing else.

But if Anatoly knew how to do one thing, it was how to play games.

‘No.’

‘I’m sorry?’

Molokov began to laugh, which only fuelled the flames.

‘I refuse. I have conditions, and unless those are met, I will not rejoin your game.’

Molokov paused, but when he spoke, Anatoly could hear the smile in his voice. ‘And what would these, er… conditions of yours be?’

Anatoly steeled himself. Molokov was only a little less intimidating over the phone. ‘If I continue the tournament, so will the American Fredrick Trumper.’

There was silence on the other line. Freddie, hearing his name, turned to Anatoly with wide eyes. Anatoly raised a finger to his lips.

‘The American boy who attacked Leonid?’ Molokov asked. ‘Anatoly, he’s clearly unstable-’

‘He’s my friend,’ Anatoly said firmly. ‘If he leaves, I leave.’

Molokov paused. ‘Fine.’

Anatoly took the phone away from his ear. ‘Yes!’ he cried ecstatically in English. He beamed at Freddie, who looked between him and the phone eagerly.

‘What? What happened?’

Anatoly had no idea how to phrase it in English, so he instead patted Freddie on the back before returning to Molokov.

‘Thank you,’ he said, and was about to put the phone back.

‘Anatoly,’ Molokov said suddenly, and the severity of his tone made Anatoly’s blood run cold.

‘Yes?’

‘Don’t go getting too attached. Remember your place.’

Remember your place.

Anatoly shivered.

 

 

Chapter Text

‘Alexander.’

Molokov, who had been half asleep in his chair, jolted up quickly.

‘Ah, Dmitri. How can I help you?’

Dmitri was a tall, thin man, with black hair and a pale, angular face. He strode into Molokov’s office uninvited, and Molokov’s eyes followed him carefully. ‘I’ve come to discuss the Sergievsky situation. May I?’ Without waiting for a response, he took a seat opposite Molokov and leaned his elbows on the desk.

‘I can assure you, I have it under control-’

‘You’ve given the boy enough chances, Alexander,’ Dmitri interrupted. ‘He should have been arrested when he burned that flag last year. And besides, it’s obvious he’s-’ He dropped his voice to a whisper. ‘-it’s obvious he’s taken a liking to other boys. And now he’s developed an attachment to the American boy. He’s dangerous.’

Molokov tried to laugh. ‘Dmitri, he’s just a boy.’

‘Boys grow into men. Novices grow into champions. You want him to be an asset? Make sure he doesn’t do anything stupid.’

‘You don’t understand,’ Molokov snapped. ‘His game skill is overwhelming. If we can just- if we can just get him to think the right things, get him on our side completely, he could become the most powerful piece on the board.’

Dmitri raised an eyebrow and leaned back in his chair. ‘What are you saying?’

Molokov, seeing he had the other man’s attention, began to talk quickly. ‘Think about it. There’s a war going on. In a few years, with the right training, he could become the best chess player in the world – God knows he’s talented enough. Make him an icon. Make him the face of Russia. Pit him against an American champion and when he beats him, the whole country will benefit. Power. Triumph. Don’t you see? We have a brilliant opportunity here in this boy. To dispose of him would be a potential blow to us all.’

Dmitri sat and stared at Molokov for a long time. ‘What about Viigand? He is not a liability at all.’

‘And he is also not nearly as talented as Sergievsky,’ Molokov said impatiently. ‘The only reason I trained him at all is to keep an eye on Anatoly, as you insisted.’

‘And thank heavens we did,’ Dmitri said coolly. ‘Well, Alexander, you certainly seem to have this whole plan very figured out. And I must admit you are right. As long as the boy keeps his head down and doesn’t stir up any more trouble, I will allow you to do as you please.’

Molokov sighed in relief. ‘Thank you.’

‘You realise it will be difficult to force Anatoly to change his beliefs? He is a headstrong boy.’

‘I have my ways.’

Dmitri chuckled in a way that unsettled even Molokov. They shook hands and Dmitri left.

As soon as he did, Molokov collapsed back in his chair, sighing deeply. He poured himself a shot of vodka, wiping a bead of sweat from his brow. Living up to Dmitri’s expectations would be an ordeal.

 

Freddie was more than relieved when he worked out he would be allowed to continue in the tournament. The next day’s game - ten Russians against ten Americans – continued without incident. Freddie and Anatoly were caught in another stalemate, and they both finished with seven out of eight wins.

When Anatoly returned to his room, he noticed the other boys were crowded around Viigand. He inched closer. ‘What is it?’

‘Leonid was sent a parcel today,’ one of the shorter blond boys – Viktor, he recalled, one of the ones who hadn’t made it past the first round – informed him, grinning in a way that said he knew something Anatoly didn’t.

‘Do you like it, Anatoly?’ Viigand asked with a smirk, holding up a glossy silver and black camera. ‘Sent for me today from Alexander Molokov.’

Anatoly felt chills once again at the sound of Molokov’s name. ‘I…’

‘But what is it for, Leonid?’ Viktor asked.

‘I suppose to make sure no one is doing anything they shouldn’t be,’ Viigand said, casting an irritating pointed glance at Anatoly. He grinned viciously. ‘And if they are, I’ll have proof.’

Anatoly felt like crying for what felt like the hundredth time since he arrived in Leningrad. He flung himself onto the bed, scrunching his eyes shut tight.

The camera was more than just Viigand’s shiny new toy. It was a threat, deliberately directed at Anatoly.

Remember your place.

He wouldn’t see Freddie again. That was the only way. He would follow the rules, he would do everything expected of him, he would be Molokov’s perfect pet if he had to. He couldn’t risk anything else.

But then he saw Freddie in his mind’s eye, his cocky smile, his stupid white outfit, his scruffy hair, his eyes that looked older than he was. And Anatoly knew he was lying to himself all over again.

 

After dinner, Freddie pursued Anatoly. It seemed to him he was being purposely avoided. He caught Anatoly by the arm. The Russian made a strange hissing noise and pushed him away.

‘There are people around!’ Anatoly whispered, but Freddie didn’t understand.

Anatoly sighed as he caught Freddie’s blue eyes, ringed with purple from the brawl with Viigand, and the sense of betrayal at their core. He sighed and took him by the arm, dragging him away to the place where they’d first met – the little bench behind the buildings, away from the others.

They sat down beside each other, their hands in their laps, not meeting each other’s eyes.

‘Sorry,’ Anatoly said in English.

‘It’s okay,’ Freddie replied, realising as he did so that Anatoly wouldn’t have a clue what he said.

‘Maybe you should try learning English,’ he mumbled.

Anatoly looked up at him. Freddie wanted to say something meaningful, but the only thing he could think was Why is it always so fucking cold in this country?

‘Freddie…’ Anatoly began, but unless his next sentence involved ‘yes’, ‘sorry’ or ‘checkmate’, he really didn’t see how he could elaborately explain that he was being threatened and couldn’t continue meeting Freddie.

He wondered if they were being watched at that very moment.

The sun had set and the sky was dark. Anatoly was wearing a thick coat – his brother’s, and a little too big, but warm nonetheless – while Freddie simply had his flimsy jacket. Anatoly noticed with a tug on his heartstring that Freddie was shivering. With a heavy sigh at his own decency, Anatoly slid the coat off his own shoulders and around Freddie’s.

The American stared. ‘Thank you.’

And then, without any forewarning whatsoever, Freddie leaned forward and kissed Anatoly.

Anatoly desperately wanted to push him away. Are you insane? What if they find us? He placed a hand on Freddie’s chest, but it seemed as if all his strength had been taken from him and instead forced into the kiss.

He leaned in instead.

Freddie had never really kissed anyone. He’d kissed a girl once in fourth grade, but he was pretty sure that didn’t count. He’d seen his mother’s soap operas, however (even though all of those had been men kissing women) and decided they would be his guide. He opened his mouth, but that didn’t feel right, so he bit Anatoly’s lip gently, and that felt a little better. He put one hand on Anatoly’s back and gripped his curly hair tightly with the other. He briefly wondered if perhaps the reason it felt wrong was that boys didn’t kiss boys.

I’m not a fucking queer.

That version of himself, that one from just a few days ago, seemed so foolish, so new and stupid. The old Fredrick Trumper didn’t know anything. He was Freddie Trumper, chess player, and a fucking queer. And he loved Anatoly Sergievsky.

Anatoly’s experience was so different he could have been kissing someone else entirely.

The first emotion he felt was fear. For all he knew, Viigand could be snapping pictures of them right at that moment, ready to send off to Molokov first thing in the morning. He’d kissed one girl multiple times, a girl from his childhood, a family friend, a girl he was – by all social laws – engaged to be engaged to. But Freddie was nothing like her. She was soft and gentle, and Freddie was rough and scratchy and tasted like bad memories, but in a good way, Anatoly thought. He tried to block all thoughts of the girl from his mind. This wasn’t Svetlana soon-to-be Sergievskaya. This was Freddie, Freddie Trumper.

I love him. Everything else seemed irrelevant.  

Neither of them were cold anymore.

 

The next game was the top five Russians against the top five Americans. Neither Freddie nor Anatoly were surprised they’d made it that far. They knew they were good. They knew they were the best.

But they did dread the endgame.

Among the others still in the game were Viigand and the boy with the broken nose. Freddie and Anatoly avoided each other’s gaze on the bus. The drive seemed to take forever.

When they finally reached the hall, there was a tension in the air – not just between Freddie and Anatoly, but between all of the players. Now the competition was arising. Only one of them could be victorious in the end, and every one of them was determined to make it himself.

Unlike in every other session, this time both Anatoly and Freddie were anxious and distracted. Freddie, when playing Viigand, was repeatedly caught off guard by the boy’s black eye and murderous glares, and occasionally the glances from Anatoly (or at least the ones he imagined). However, he still scraped a win.

Anatoly was also distracted during the game. He wanted to focus on his pieces, but he kept catching Freddie’s piercing blue eyes and eventually making some stupid mistake. But with his incredible talent, he managed to emerge victorious from every battle.

It was in the last round that he and Freddie were placed against each other. When they took their places opposite one another, they immediately turned pink. Freddie, playing as white, made his first move. The game proceeded excruciatingly slowly, as was everything else that day. The other boys finished their games and then crowded around Anatoly and Freddie, examining their moves and occasionally opening their mouths to offer advice before hastily closing them again. They all knew they had no hope of making it to the final round. They were kindergarteners compared to the skills of the American and the Russian. Even the supervisors began to watch with interest.

‘That Trumper boy? I bet you he’ll be champion someday.’

‘Oh, without a doubt. Although that Russian kid’s good. Five bucks says he’ll also make it out there one day.’

‘Done.’

Finally, Anatoly’s keen eyes spotted a seamless path to victory and began to move his way toward Freddie’s king. Freddie realised what he was doing and tried to combat it, but in the end, Anatoly whispered, ‘Checkmate’ and the game was over.

That evening, after the boys had returned to the campus, an assembly was called. As usual, the Russians sat on one side and the Americans on the other. One of the older supervisors began to ramble about sportsmanship and international co-operation, until finally, he cleared his throat and announced the two finalists.

‘From the United States of America: Fredrick Trumper!’

Cheers exploded from the Americans and Freddie stood embarrassedly and moved to stand in front of the crowd.

‘And from the Soviet Union: Anatoly Sergievsky!’

Anatoly also stood as the Russians cheered and walked to stand before them, bowing slightly. The supervisor took both of them by the wrists and held their arms up high. Anatoly and Freddie exchanged a glance before turning back to the crowd.

Anatoly wanted to go home.

Freddie wanted to win.

 

In his office at sunset, the orange light of the sky lighting the pale blue wall opposite the window, Alexander Molokov held his head in his hands as he examined the photographs Leonid Viigand had sent him.

There was no way around this evidence. That was unmistakeably Anatoly, his lips locked with the American boy.

‘Oh, Anatoly,’ Molokov sighed, clicking his tongue. ‘I thought I taught you better than this.’

If Dmitri found out, it would be all over for Anatoly. Molokov would probably never receive that raise he’d been hoping for, and it would go to Dmitri instead.

Dmitri never did shit for anyone.

Frowning deeply, Molokov cast one last glance over the photographs before tossing them into the fire. He watched the faces of the two lovers melt and turn to ash.

Anatoly would win that tournament. He had to get out there. Molokov would watch him every hour of every day if he had to. This was politics. This was business.

‘This is a game,’ he remarked out loud, before turning away from the fire.

 

Chapter Text

When Freddie was driven to a different hall to meet various champions, he thought he might burst with excitement.

As much as he cared for Anatoly, all thoughts of him vanished as he thought of shaking hands with the men he’d idolised since he learned what a pawn was.

The car he was in was fancier than anything he’d seen in America (which wasn’t saying much); when he stepped inside, he felt like a king. And then, when he arrived…

His heart pounded in his chest as he saw his first glimpse of the faces he’d only seen in badly-processed black and white photographs.

Mikhail Botvinnik. Tigran Petrosian. Mikhail Tal. Vasily Smislov.

There they were, staring at him politely, curiously, like he was a game they had yet to win.

He repeated their names in his head like a mantra.

Mikhail Botvinnik. Tigran Petrosian. Mikhail Tal. Vasily Smislov.

Anatoly was to arrive that afternoon, at which point Freddie would leave. They’d repeat that until the end of the week, where they would play their final match.

Freddie tried not to think about that.

 

The week passed too quickly for Freddie and Anatoly. The four champions were more than gracious, but they were good teachers and completely impartial (except for Petrosian, who once remarked out of earshot of the boys that ‘as much as I hate to say it, I think the American boy is going to win’).

And then, all too soon, it was the last session. Freddie, in particular, hated to part with his idols, but they assured him they’d be at the match and they told him how talented he was, and Freddie was fairly certain he’d never felt happier in his life.

And then it was an early Saturday morning, and Freddie and Anatoly were roused at an ungodly hour for preparation.

They weren’t to meet until the game, so their supervisors took them to separate buildings.

‘Where are we going?’ Anatoly asked the man rushing him through corridors.

‘Makeup,’ the man said gruffly. ‘The people from the TV are coming to clean you up.’

‘TV?!’ Anatoly repeated. ‘No one told me the game was going to be televised.’

The supervisor didn’t answer.

 

When Freddie, on the other hand, found out he would be on TV, he was outraged.

‘What?!’ he snarled. ‘You lied to me! I didn’t know!’

He hated cameras. They distracted him, made him feel exposed. Suddenly, his confidence began to fail him.

Keep it together, Trumper.

 

By nine o’clock, the boys had been tidied up for their television appearances and escorted individually to the game hall. Anatoly was sitting in his seat in the left wing behind the stage that they would be playing on. He suddenly felt more like an actor than a chess player.

Freddie was also sitting backstage, watching the clock. Every so often, he’d peer out into the hall. Hundreds of people had gathered to watch them play. Freddie felt a stab of pride.

He jumped when someone tapped him on the shoulder. It was a man (supervisor?). He handed Freddie a letter and walked off without saying a word.

Freddie, bemused, tore open the envelope, unfolded the paper, and read the neat handwriting. The letter was written in both Russian and English.

 

Dear Mr Trumper,

Congratulations on making it to the final tournament. Your mother must be very pleased.

I am writing to inform you that your relationship with Mr Sergievsky is no secret to me. Don’t be concerned – as long as you follow my instructions carefully, we will have no discrepancies and no one will need to know.

First of all, you must lose the match. Do NOT forfeit – you must play and allow Anatoly to win. Secondly, once this tournament is concluded, you must return to America and cease all communication with Mr Sergievsky.

If these demands are not met, your relationship with Mr Sergievsky will be revealed and he will be arrested and possibly executed.

Best of luck!

Alexander Molokov

 

Freddie’s eyes had gradually grown wider throughout reading the letter. He realised his legs and lips were shaking. After everything he’d fought for, and now…

If he won, Anatoly would die.

There was no way around it. He either left with broken dignity or the boy he loved dead.

Resentment built up in his chest and his eyes stung with tears. He’d gone too far. He’d just wanted to play chess, and now there was a life on the line.

Freddie would lose because he had to. But either way, he’d never forgive himself.

 

Anatoly knew Molokov and the rest of them wanted him to win. They knew he was a pawn in their game. He, too, knew this.

He also knew Molokov, and had for some time. He knew that, if he did lose, he would be met with severe consequences. It had happened before. It started with Anatoly talking back and being met with a strike across the face, and after time, when his training began, escalated into violent nights of torture where Anatoly would beg to die.

But he never died. And he never learned.

He would break their system. He would lose. There was more on the line than chess. Whatever they had planned for him, he would cope, and he would do it in Freddie’s name.

Anatoly loved Freddie, and knew Freddie felt the same way about chess. He smiled sadly to himself. Freddie could still win, and Anatoly would destroy Molokov’s plan. He wouldn’t behave. He wouldn’t be a puppet. He wouldn’t be a pawn.

He was the king of this game.

 

At eleven o’clock, the two young champions were marched out and met with loud cheers. They bowed to the audience like they’d been instructed and plastered fake smiles on their faces.

‘Champions, shake hands.’

The two boys turned to one another and their smiles faded away into grimaces. Brown eyes met blue and they shook hands, and many words transcending language passed between them.

‘Take your seats.’

Freddie was white; Anatoly was black.

‘You may begin.’

White moved first.

 

Chapter Text

It wasn’t until Anatoly made his first move that he saw his mother.

She was sitting not too far away, a front row seat, on the side of the hall. Their brown eyes met and suddenly, it seemed to Anatoly that nothing mattered so much as her, and his two younger sisters seated on either side of her. Then he looked again at Freddie and found himself conflicted once more.

His mother did not care whether he won. She cared that he was safe, and she knew as well as he did that he was in a far more dangerous game than chess.

His eyes caught his elder sister’s. Elena was fifteen, and she, unlike Anatoly, had inherited her father’s features – cold blue eyes (that now reminded him only of Freddie), round and piercing, and blonde hair, which she had tied in a neat tail. She nodded to Anatoly but did not smile.

Lise, who was eleven, had their mother’s dark hair, but the same eyes as her sister, and the same round face as their father. She beamed at Anatoly and waved until her mother hushed her. Anatoly couldn’t help but smile before returning his attention to the game.

Three seconds later, he remembered he was supposed to be losing.

 

Freddie Trumper loathed attention.

Correction – Freddie Trumper loathed unwanted attention. He was more than happy to start a scene when he felt like it, but having three clicking television cameras glaring at him was making him uneasy.

The hall was entirely silent, except for the clicking of the cameras. Freddie’s jaw twitched.

Click click click.

This was the first game to be played with an arbiter. Freddie tried to pay the man as little attention as possible, but with an additional critical gaze upon him – not to mention the audience surrounding them – he felt beads of sweat begin to trickle down his forehead.

Three seconds later, he remembered he was supposed to be losing.

But the cameras kept clicking.

 

The game proceeded normally at first, until Freddie realised that he was nearing check against Anatoly. Panicked, he immediately moved his queen into the open.

Anatoly, seeing what he’d done, hesitated a moment in shock. That move was the most un-Fredrick Trumper move he’d ever seen. He arched an eyebrow and had to remind himself he was trying to lose, which meant making an equally stupid move.

Three moves later, it became blindingly obvious to both players that the other was trying to lose.

One glance passed between them, and though neither knew why the other was trying to lose, they both knew the only result would be a brutal stalemate. Freddie felt the frustration grow even more. There was no way to communicate with Anatoly, least of all under the watchful eye of the cameras. Didn’t he understand? Didn’t he see that if he lost, he could die?

Click click click.

And suddenly Freddie’s eyes saw only Anatoly’s broken finger, and he remembered punching Viigand, and he remembered breaking his roommate’s nose, and he remembered his father beating him, his mother, and wondered how he’d managed to forget all the pain his family had caused him. And somehow, the board became irrelevant. All Freddie could think of was how he despised his parents and how he despised those godawful fucking cameras.

Click click click.

And then there were tears welling in his eyes and fury building in his chest and the next thing he knew, he was standing and his hands were on the board and then the board was upturned on the ground and the arbiter was shouting at him and the audience was in an uproar and the cameras were still clicking…

And then there was Anatoly, who just sat in his chair, staring at Freddie with those glittering brown eyes, and for the first time, Freddie saw that Anatoly was afraid of him.

 

‘What the fuck were you thinking?’

Freddie was sat backstage again all alone, with only the supervisor – the same woman who had punished him for what had happened with Viigand.

‘I’m sorry,’ was all Freddie could say. ‘I just… The cameras. They were so loud that I… lost control.’

‘Oh, you lost control. Right. Great. Fine. I’m glad that’s settled,’ the woman chattered hysterically, her blonde hair frizzed in front of her face. ‘Do you realise that you are representing the entire country? Do you understand what that means? Do you know how many people are watching? Do you know how lucky you are to be in communist Russia, to play chess of all things? Do you know how hard it was to arrange this whole thing?’

‘It’s not like I’m world champion,’ Freddie muttered sulkily, not meeting her eye.

She took a gulp of air and glared at him. ‘You know, you could have been.’

Freddie didn’t even notice her storming out. Her words rattled around in his brain and blocked out all other thought.

The next time he looked up, Anatoly was standing in front of him, with a blonde girl who looked a little younger clutching his hand. Freddie, ignoring the girl, stood up uncomfortably, scratching the back of his head. ‘Listen, I’m sorry-’

He was interrupted by the girl, who turned to Anatoly and said something in Russian. Anatoly said something back to her, and the girl turned to Freddie.

‘My name is Elena. My brother asked me to translate for you.’

Freddie could have kissed them both. ‘Oh, my God, you don’t know how glad I am to hear that. No, no, don’t translate that. Tell him… tell him I didn’t mean to flip the board.’

Elena turned back to her brother, who in return said something.

‘He wants to know why you are trying to lose.’

Freddie abruptly reached into his pocket and withdrew the letter from Molokov, written in both English and Russian, handing it to Anatoly.

Anatoly unfolded the letter and his eyes quickly darted across the words, his face growing more furious with each word. After finishing the letter, he threw it to the ground in disgust.

‘He says to let him lose. He says he will not be harmed.’

‘You can’t be serious!’ Freddie shouted, louder than he meant to. ‘Anatoly, they’ll kill you.’

Elena was beginning to look worried, but she’d known her family was in danger from the moment Anatoly had been arrested, and so she didn’t hesitate in translating.

‘He says they have threatened to kill him before. And he is telling the truth.’ Elena gave him a pointed look. ‘Trust him, please. He wants to… to break them. He wants to not do what they want.’

Freddie gripped Anatoly’s shoulders. ‘You matter more than their game.’ Everything seemed to be crumbling around him. Two weeks ago, he’d been nobody. Then he’d been the happiest kid alive. And now suddenly everything was about appearance and rules and breaking them and not dying.

‘Fredrick,’ Elena said, and she sounded so commanding that Freddie momentarily lost his train of thought. ‘Trust him. He’s been trained by the KGB for a year. He knows about them.’

‘He’s what?

‘Win the game. It matters to you, he says. Then win.

Freddie turned to Anatoly, his mouth opening and closing with unfounded arguments. ‘But…’

Anatoly smiled at Freddie. ‘Sorry.’

He turned back to his sister and spoke in Russian. ‘Elena, don’t tell anyone about this.’

Then his lips were on Freddie’s.

It seemed to Anatoly it was only fair that they both got a chance to take the other by surprise. He knew Elena would never tell a soul, and if he did die, he wanted Freddie to remember him. And so Anatoly poured all he couldn’t say in English into the kiss and hoped that Freddie would understand.

Freddie, upon breaking away from the Russian, realised that he had broken his own rules and was crying, right there, in front of a girl he’d just met and the boy he loved.

They stared at each other for a while – Elena was giggling quietly – until they were interrupted by another girl’s voice.

‘Anatoly!’

Anatoly whipped around and nearly choked. ‘Sveta?’

‘I arrived late,’ the blonde girl said, walking toward him. ‘What’s going on? I couldn’t understand what happened.’

‘The American boy flipped the board,’ Elena supplied, as Anatoly seemed incapable of any speech. ‘How much did you see?’

‘Enough,’ Svetlana retorted.

‘Sorry, who are you?’ Freddie interrupted in English.

‘She’s Anatoly’s betrothed,’ Elena said, nudging Anatoly, who’d turned red.

‘I’m sorry, his what?’

‘This could not possibly get any worse,’ Anatoly sighed, sinking into a chair, head in hands.

‘Well, it’s no surprise,’ Svetlana said archly. ‘We all knew you were… well. But for God’s sake, an American? The American? You had to choose your opponent, didn’t you?’

‘You don’t understand!’ Anatoly spat, before lowering his voice. ‘Go find my mother. Tell her… tell her I’m sorry.’

Svetlana sighed and made to walk off, but she stopped. ‘Be careful, Anatoly. You do know what you’re doing, don’t you?’

‘Yes!’ Anatoly snapped, angry at the lie. ‘Please.’

Svetlana left and was immediately replaced with one of the staff. ‘Mr Trumper, Mr Sergievsky.... The game is set up to continue. The audience is waiting. If you could follow me…’

‘I’ll be in the audience,’ Elena told her brother, before turning to Freddie. ‘Good luck.’

 

Freddie and Anatoly returned quietly to the game. The board had been righted and the pieces set up as they were before. The cameras resumed clicking and the players resumed playing.

The cameras didn’t seem to bother Freddie as he played, the game coming as naturally to him as it ever had, especially with Anatoly deliberately placing himself in danger more than once. But Freddie’s heart was pounding. This decision could potentially cost Anatoly his life, and it would be Freddie’s fault. But he knew Anatoly would never let him lose, either.

It was only five minutes before Freddie uttered a broken ‘checkmate’ and the American side cheered and he was swept up into a sea of congratulations. He began to panic the moment he lost sight of Anatoly.

And then, as suddenly as the whole thing had happened, he was back in his dorm room, packing his things, and ready to never see Anatoly again.

 

Molokov sat in his office, waiting for the visit from Dmitri he knew was bound to happen.

Sure enough, just after dark, Dmitri arrived. ‘Well?’

‘The boy lost deliberately, I’m sure of it,’ Molokov said hastily. ‘He will be punished accordingly.’

‘What makes you think it was his choice?’

‘I know him. He is a rebel. We haven’t… broken him enough. He still wants to destroy us.’

Dmitri smiled condescendingly. ‘But we won’t let him do that, will we, Alexander?’

Alexander glared back at him. ‘No, Dmitri, we won’t.’

 

Anatoly received many pats on the back and sad smiles, but none of them made up for the fear of never seeing Freddie again. He packed his few belongings that night and went to wait outside the campus in the cold air. His uncle was to drive him home with his mother and sisters.

Instead, a black limousine slid up to the curb, and Anatoly recognised it.

When Molokov stepped out, Anatoly’s first reaction was to run, but his eyes immediately caught sight of the pistol half-concealed in Molokov’s gloved hand. The man was grinning in that sick, malicious way and Anatoly lost all hope of trying to look confident.

‘You disappointed us all, Anatoly,’ Molokov said, tutting. ‘You see what Americans do? They ruin lives.’

There was a silence between them. Anatoly’s throat was dry, and his eyes flickered between the gun and Molokov’s Cheshire Cat smile, glittering in the dark. He’d never had a gun pointed at him before.

‘Would you come with me?’ Molokov said, gesturing towards the car door. ‘And I would advise you not to try anything. You’re a smart boy. I’m sure you know what to do.’

Anatoly slowly moved with his bag towards the car, legs shaking.

‘You won’t need your luggage,’ Molokov said.

Anatoly dropped it in place and left it there on the side of the road, pushing past Molokov and stepping into the car, slamming the door behind him.

 

Freddie had no idea how he came to be standing outside his house, but there he was, and then he was in the living room, his mother passed out on the sofa, and everything was the same, and it was as though nothing had changed.

On Monday, Freddie went back to school. The moment he entered the gates, he realised something was amiss. People were staring. People were talking.

Freddie Trumper loathed attention.

Correction – Freddie Trumper loathed unwanted attention.

And this was anything but unwanted.

Suddenly, being a chess player didn’t make him a queer (he supposed being a queer made a person a queer, which, he thought, didn’t change anything about himself). Suddenly, he was being patted on the back by people he didn’t know. Suddenly, even his teachers seemed to treat him with a newfound respect. Suddenly, the girls sat at his table and flirted and chatted about nothing that interested him. Suddenly, the cute Hungarian new girl was challenging him to a game.

Suddenly, a month had passed, and Freddie had almost forgotten about Anatoly entirely.

Then, one Wednesday afternoon after a particularly good match as he checked the mail and sifted past the overdue fees notices, he caught sight of familiar handwriting on an envelope addressed directly to him. He tore open the paper violently, desperate for any news of Anatoly, and feeling guilty for not being more concerned.

 

Dear Mr Trumper,

I am sorry to inform you that Mr Sergievsky has been killed. My condolences.

Alexander Molokov

 

And the world seemed to spin and Freddie somehow passed out.

 

Passing out, along with crying in public, was one of Freddie’s favourite things not to do. He woke up lying on the sofa, with one of his mother’s boyfriend’s pressing a damp cloth to his head.

‘Hey, you okay, buddy?’ the guy asked, looking only mildly concerned.

‘Fine,’ Freddie muttered, pushing him away. The memories of what he’d just read came flooding back, along with the realisation that his head was pounding.

Anatoly Sergievsky was dead.

The reality of the fact seemed so incomprehensible. How could Anatoly Sergievsky, the sweet Russian boy who only spoke three words of English but played chess like a master, possibly be dead? But it was true, it had to be, and suddenly everything seemed meaningless.

Anatoly Sergievsky was dead.

 

Anatoly Sergievsky was not dead. He was, in fact, living at home with his family. He spent every weekday afternoon with Alexander Molokov, training.

At least, ‘training’ was what Molokov called it. It felt to Anatoly more like a daily beating, but Alexander said it was training, so Anatoly believed him.

Two days after he had been taken by Molokov, he was told Freddie was dead. Killed himself after the match. Anatoly remembered screaming that day, screaming until his voice became hoarse. He remembered being returned to his family and being told he had to see Molokov every afternoon after school.

He would ask Anatoly questions, like ‘who is Fredrick Trumper?’ and ‘what country are you loyal to?’ and ‘what do you serve?’, and Anatoly would answer each one truthfully.

After one month, his answers were very different to his original ones.

‘I do not know Fredrick Trumper.’

‘I am loyal to Russia.’

‘I serve communism.’

The sessions continued into the next year. A month after his eighteenth birthday, with an excessive amount of prompting from his mother, he proposed to Svetlana. She knew he’d forgotten everything that had happened during the match, and so she accepted.

They married just after their graduation.

Anatoly had never considered doing anything other than chess with his life. And when he finished school, Molokov told him they were ready to play chess again.

 

‘So?’

Molokov sat in his new office (considerably larger than the last) and blew a puff of smoke from his cigarette in Dmitri’s direction. ‘Anatoly has forgotten everything. He is true to us. I think, given a couple of years’ extra training, he may be ready to enter the world championship.’

‘He’s not a boy anymore. He is married.’

‘Everything he does is controlled, planned, and watched. He is safe, Dmitri. ' Molokov laughed. 'Don't worry. You’ll get your promotion too.’

 

 

Chapter Text

Anatoly, unhappily married with two children whom he knew received less attention than they deserved, had been preparing for the world chess championships for a decade or more, with, to his annoyance, Molokov’s help.

Molokov had become such a frequent presence in his and his family’s lives that they barely noticed him. They’d meet twice a week – with Leonid Viigand playing as his second – to discuss strategy together.

One evening in mid-1978, Anatoly and his family crowded around their small and low-quality television screen to watch the announcement of the year’s chess challenger – the one who would go head-to-head with world champion Boris Spassky. As was tradition, the announcement of the challenger's identity was entirely hushed up until he arrived at the location (in this case, Reykjavik, Iceland).

His eldest daughter, Olga, seven years old, was yawning, eyes blinking tiredly. The four-year-old, Anna, was already asleep.

Svetlana slung her arm around her husband, and knew as she did he was not aware of her being there at all. His eyes were glued to the screen, fascinated by the crowds he saw cheering for Spassky. She knew he saw himself there. She knew him better than he thought she did.

‘That could be you,’ she whispered monotonously, just another empty piece of encouragement.

‘Shh,’ he hissed. ‘They’re about to announce the new champion.’

‘I don’t understand why it’s so important-’

Ladies and gentlemen, your chess champion, Boris Spassky!’ the announcer read in English, with Russian subtitles in highlighted yellow at the bottom of the screen.

Anatoly clapped along with the crowd on the TV, as Spassky appeared on the screen, waving and smiling confidently. One of the most charismatic champions ever seen, the papers said, and Anatoly knew they were right.

And now, your 1987 challenger…’

There was a pause and a drumroll.

American Fredrick Trumper!’

 

Anatoly.

ANATOLY.

His fingernails were digging into his palms. His face had drained of all its colour. There was only the sound of his blood rushing past his ears.

I remember him.

A young man in a white suit waved to the crown on stage, beaming as though he couldn’t be happier surrounded by cameras.

He carried himself differently, but it was unmistakeably Freddie Trumper.

Anatoly would never be able to describe the number of emotions that ran through him in those few moments. He was astonished, and then relieved, and then excited, and then –

And then he was furious.

They told me he was dead.

‘Sveta, don’t you remember?!’ he shrieked.

Svetlana, dignified coolness as always, placed a hand on his shoulder. ‘Who is he, Anatoly?’

‘Freddie,’ Anatoly gasped out, feeling cold tears stinging the corners of his eyes. ‘When we were children- at the tournament-’

She nodded, realising. ‘I see.’ Her lips creased into a thin line that made her look older than she was. ‘You need to call Molokov.’

 

‘Ah, Anatoly! I was expecting a call from you.’

Anatoly gritted his teeth. ‘You bastard. You told me he was dead!’

There was a deep chuckle on the other end and Anatoly’s blood boiled. ‘Come now, Anatoly. You know I couldn’t have told you he was alive. If I had, you’d never be as focused on the game as you are now. You should be thanking me.’

‘Chess. Isn’t. Life.’

‘Keep telling yourself that, Anatoly. People come and go. Chess is a constant in your life.’

There was a long silence.

‘I’m not a child anymore,’ Anatoly said quietly.

‘See you tomorrow, Anatoly.’

The line went dead.

 

Freddie had taken a moment to process the move he saw before him, but he didn’t doubt himself.

‘Checkmate.’

The crowd was in uproar. He’d won.

He was chess world champion.

I’m chess champion!’ he screamed over the noise in the auditorium. Florence flung her arms around him, Spassky shook his hand, and his heart raced in his chest.

I’m chess champion.

 

It felt a lot less than a year when his title was at stake again. He and Florence were flown to some quaint little town in Italy and had just landed when they were ushered into a car and driven to the hall where the match would take place, ready for the big reveal of the 1979 challenger for the title of world champion.

Freddie thought back to when he had been the faceless and practically unheard of challenger.

Now look where I am.

He had been informed his opponent was a Soviet, and that made him all the more eager to win. Freddie despised Soviets. And it was almost entirely thanks to what they did to –

Don’t think of him, don’t think of him…

‘Freddie, we’re here,’ Florence said gently, and they stepped out into the chilly evening air.

‘God, I’m freezing,’ Freddie complained.

‘I told you to wear a coat,’ his second tutted.

Freddie rolled his eyes. ‘This place is colder than our last venue. And that was Iceland.

They were guided backstage, where he met the arbiter for the match. Behind the curtain, he heard the crowd chattering excitedly. Then the arbiter made his way on stage, the crowd hushed as he gave a small speech about sportsmanship and international co-operation and other things Freddie didn’t care about.

‘Now, may I present current chess champion Fredrick Trumper and his second Florence Vassy!’

Florence gave his hand a squeeze before they made their way on stage together, and the crowd roared. Freddie gave his trademark glinting smile and waved to the crowd.

‘And now, the Russian challenger…’

Freddie’s heart pounded against his chest as a hush fell over the crowd. A lot could be told about a man’s game skill from a first impression. Don’t think of losing…

‘…Anatoly Sergievsky!’

A million thoughts raced through Freddie’s head at once, and they all seemed to string together in a flurry of emotions and memories.

Anatolynotdeadhowwhytheyliedtheyliedchessdeaththeysaidhewasdeadhowishenotdead…

And then the Russian himself stepped onto the stage, and Freddie’s breath caught in his throat. One thought became very clearly distinguished in his mind.

My god, he’s even sexier than before.

Anatoly was no longer scrawny. He looked healthier than he had all those years ago, but all his best features remained the same. His brown curls were slightly longer, his nose didn’t look so out of place, and his brown eyes still glittered just as they had before.

Freddie realised his legs were shaking. Stop that, he reminded himself in a voice that sounded suspiciously like his father’s.

He’d been lied to.

Anatoly Sergievsky was alive and well, and he was standing right before him.

‘Gentlemen, shake hands.’

Anatoly turned to Freddie and their smiles evaporated at the same time. Freddie’s mouth was dry.

Anatoly felt like crying from joy. He could feel Molokov watching him like a hawk, but the excitement at finally seeing Freddie, alive, for the first time in fifteen years, overwhelmed any logic.

‘You’re not dead,’ Freddie choked out so just the two of them could hear, allowing himself an emotion for the first time since he’d won his title.

‘And I speak English now, too,’ Anatoly added with a sad smile.

As they shook hands for a longer time than would usually be expected, it occurred to both at the exact same time that one of them had to win.

They couldn’t risk everything all over again.