"This isn't really how I imagined seeing you again," Freddie said.
"You look awful," Florence answered, and immediately wished she hadn't. It was true, he'd lost weight and there were dark circles under his eyes and he could do with a shower and a haircut and some new clothes, but just because it was true didn't mean it wasn't cruel.
He just shrugged, like it didn't matter. "You look great."
She brushed down the front of her dress self-consciously, unsure how to take that. Was he saying she was overdressed? Or trying to get on her good side?
Or was it just a compliment?
Freddie ignored her flustered reaction and said, "So. Miss Vassy. Your first world championship as a grand master. How do you think it's gonna go?"
"I'm going to play my best, of course, but there's really no way to predict — "
He snorted loudly, rudely, and she cut herself off. "This isn't an interview, Florence, the cameras aren't on. Do you think you can beat him or not?"
"Yes," she said, louder than she'd meant to, but she was annoyed now. "I think I can beat him. I wouldn't be here if I didn't think I could win. For God's sake, Freddie — "
"It was just a question."
"It was a stupid question," she snapped, and he smiled.
"Well," he said, "You did learn from the best."
She was too irritated to come up with a response to that, aside from the obvious — and even more cruel — one, and she wasn't quite irritated enough for that.
But then he said, "When you beat him — "
Not if, but when.
" — You'll be the first female world chess champion."
Florence took a deep breath. "Yes, I know." She'd been trying not to think about it. That was a lot of pressure. Even though she'd turned down the chance to compete in the women's world championship, because for her it was all or nothing — even so, now that she was here, she was trying to forget why.
"I couldn't imagine anyone better for the role."
That sounded startlingly sincere, and she stared at him, caught off guard and at a loss for a response.
He looked away. "I better get inside. I'm supposed to go talk to my producers."
"Yeah," Florence said, still dumbfounded by his unprecedented candor. "And I've got a big day tomorrow."
"Good luck with that." Freddie cleared his throat and the cocky mask went back up; he smirked at her, slid on his sunglasses, and headed back into the hotel.
Florence stayed where she was.
She needed a moment.
The thing was, she hadn't really imagined meeting Freddie like this, either.
Oh, sure, after she first ranked as an international master, she'd had daydreams of sitting across a board from him and reaching checkmate in a record-breaking number of moves, but those were idle fantasies and she'd long since moved past them.
She hadn't imagined coming to the world championship again, but this time as a competitor.
She hadn't imagined that Freddie would still be the resident chess commentator for Global TV, assigned to report on his former second's shot at glory, the first woman to challenge the reigning champion.
No, she hadn't imagined this.
Florence's opponent, the current world champion, was named Pyotr and he was Russian.
Aside from the accent, he didn't really seem to have anything at all in common with Anatoly Sergievsky, which was a relief. Florence didn't need any more distractions from the game.
She didn't even need the distraction that was already present, but Fredrick Trumper persisted in existing. He came to one of her practice sessions with her second, claiming that he and his camera crew needed to shoot some b-roll footage for the segment.
Florence didn't understand why Freddie needed to be present for that, but she wasn't going to push him about it. Not now and not here.
This whole competition was stirring up too many memories. Not just Merano and Bangkok, but all the years beforehand, every game, every time she and Freddie had sat down together and played or watched someone else play or just talked.
The first time they'd met, she'd been a college student majoring in English literature, and he'd been playing in the park against anyone who wanted to try their hand.
She was the only one who'd gotten more than ten minutes out of a game with him, and after he beat her he invited her out for coffee.
Life had been so much simpler back then. Now everything always had to be so complicated.
Freddie didn't say anything to her that wasn't about what they were filming, and she didn't know if she was relieved or disappointed.
She won the first two matches, lost the third; the fourth ended in a draw.
The media coverage was intense. She was the first female challenger to the title, and there was still the East vs. West angle, and she'd been a significant part of the well-known Trumper v. Sergievsky showdown, even if her significance was only really known to the chess diehards. Global Television wasn't the only news and sports outlet covering the tournament.
But when Florence went back to her room each evening, Global was the station she inevitably turned on to see how they were spinning the day's events.
There was something inexplicably reassuring about hearing Freddie discuss her chess playing.
Or maybe it wasn't inexplicable at all.
"You're letting him get to you," Freddie said after she lost the fifth match. They were tied now, two to two with one stalemate. "He's not playing any better than you, but he's getting under your skin and you're making dumb mistakes. You're better than that. What is it, are you thinking of Sergievsky?"
She had hoped they could get through this without bringing up Anatoly. "No," she said. "I could beat Anatoly with one eye closed, anyway."
"If you need more than one eye you're not playing well enough. If it's not the accent then what is it?"
"I don't know," she said, except that she did. But she couldn't tell Freddie that what was throwing off her concentration was him.
"Well, get it together," he said. "Do you need more practice? We could play a few games."
"I think that's a conflict of interest for you, isn't it?"
He shrugged. "It's not like there's anyone who hasn't guessed who I'm rooting for here. Toporov doesn't need this championship. You deserve it."
She smiled, almost without meaning to, and said, "I'd like to play a few games with you, if you've got the time. It might help me focus."
"I'm all yours, Florence."
She won the next two games. Then another draw. Another win. Another loss.
The score stood at five to three with two stalemates.
If she won one more game, she'd be the world champion.
But no pressure.
Before games she did everything she could to avoid thinking about it. She went out for meals, wandered through the city buying touristy junk, wrote letters to friends and letters that she knew she'd never send. After games she met up with Freddie and they discussed what she'd done wrong, what Toporov had done wrong, how to tighten her defense and take the offense more strongly.
And, more and more frequently, they talked about things that weren't chess. He told her stories about his time with Global. She talked about her new place in Boston, and about moving away from New York. They reminisced about people they used to know and places they used to go.
Another draw. A loss. Another draw. Another loss. Five-five, four stalemates. First to six won; it all came down to this next game. Unless it happened to be another draw.
Florence was pretty sure she couldn't cope with the stress of another draw.
The morning before the probably-deciding game, she called Freddie and invited him to breakfast. He sounded dazed and slightly confused and she guessed that her call had woken him up, but he agreed to meet her at a nearby restaurant.
He was there and waiting when she arrived.
Without talking about it, they got a table in the back and ordered loads of pancakes and bacon and strong coffee, and Florence couldn't stop thinking about all the times they'd done exactly this, back when she was in college and Freddie was just the cute, clever guy she'd met in the park.
They chatted lightly, casually, over the meal, the conversation not touching on the looming game. Florence was reading a novel she thought Freddie might like; Freddie had recently seen a movie that he strongly recommended she not bother with; the local prices for everything were absurdly high and neither of them was sure if it was due to the chess match bringing in tourists or if that was just how things were priced here. They didn't talk about anything that really mattered.
It was nice.
It was like old times.
The match lasted three hours before Toporov shrugged, gave her a wry smile, and tipped his king over gently, conceding defeat.
She was the new world champion.
For a moment it didn't feel real.
Then she was shaking hands with Toporov for the cameras and the various media outlets came rushing in to all put their individual slant on the story, and it was real. World champion Florence Vassy, first woman to hold the title.
She was having a little trouble breathing, but that was fine, it was normal. She'd worked so hard for this, and now it was real.
She only saw Freddie briefly in the crush of reporters, but he winked at her, gave her a thumbs up, and — she discovered later — took the opportunity to slip a note to her second, who gave it to her once the initial press had all been dealt with.
It said I knew you'd do it. Good game, you deserve this. See you later?
She started smiling all over again.
She was waiting for him outside his hotel when he finished wrapping up his segment and said farewell to his filming crew.
He smiled when he saw her, and then stopped, like he wasn't sure a smile was appropriate. "Hey, you."
"Hey," she said, and smiled back to let him know it was okay.
"Congratulations on the win."
"Do you have some time?"
"Plenty," he said. "My flight's not til tomorrow and I'm all done with work for now."
She held up the little magnetic travel chess set she'd bought on the way over. "Fancy a game?"
"You want to?" He grinned. "You're world champion now. You might even last fifteen minutes against me."
"Oh, you're going to regret those words."
They sat on the steps outside the hotel and played best-of-three, which turned into best-of-five, which turned into best-of-nine, and on and on, and when Freddie leaned against her shoulder she pressed her head against his.
It was real.