The Wall fell. Communism faltered and died. The Soviet Union was no more. Svetlana, his gaoler for so long, left him for a black-market 'businessman'.
And suddenly he was 'free'.
For the first time in what seemed like forever, his movements were unmonitored. The Powers That Be had far more to worry about these days than an ageing recovered defector who taught chess to local children.
Strange, how 'freedom' made so little difference to his life.
The knock on his door took him by surprise. With trepidation, for unexpected visitors were rarely welcome, he opened the door.
The man leaning on his door frame was both familiar and a stranger.
The hair was different, a gorgeous silver, swept back immaculately. The body was the same, though. Slim and elegant in the obviously expensive suit. The face had more lines than he remembered but the eyes held the same mocking vulnerability that he'd once had to harden his heart against.
'Are you going to let me in, then?'
The voice that had haunted his dreams brought him back to himself.
'What are you doing here?' He was mildly shocked at how weary he sounded.
'My station sent me over here to report on the changes since the end of Communism. Sort of a human interest thing. While I was here I thought 'Why not look up my old opponent?' I asked a few questions, greased a few palms, and got your address. So here I am. Now, are you going to let me in or are we going to have a cosy conversation in this oh-so-attractive corridor?
'P...please, come in.' Oh, he was stuttering now. Wonderful!
He watched as the American glided into his tiny, drab, apartment, making it seem even smaller and more dingy with his very presence.
'Are you going to offer me a drink?'
Damn, the man hadn't changed at all. Still the same arrogant bastard!
But then he raised his eyes, those wonderfully expressive eyes, and the uncertainty in their depths told another story.
'I have tea - not very good tea - and vodka,' he found himself saying.
'Is the vodka also not very good?' That infuriating, beautiful voice held a sudden hint of laughter.
'No, the vodka is good.'
'Then I'll have the vodka.'
It was surreal. Sitting in his dreadful apartment, drinking vodka with a man he had once defeated and whose lover he'd stolen. Someone he'd entertained erotic fantasies about for years. Ever since the moment he'd first seen that vicious, egotistic, hurting, lonely, brilliant child that lurked inside his American opponent.
He had wanted to...
But of course, that was impossible. So he'd seduced Florence, because she had the man he wanted to claim but was too cowardly to attempt. And he'd defeated the American, defected because Florence wanted him to, and betrayed everything he'd ever believed in. He'd immersed himself in chess, believing he could rid himself of the unwanted desires that had tormented him. He'd turned down the American's offer of a 'partnership' only because he couldn't bear to be near the man and not...
And then everything had gone to hell and he'd returned to Russia to live with a woman who despised him.
'Hello? Anyone there?'
He blinked, realising that he'd been staring at the American blankly, lost within his own regrets.
And he was. Sorry for so many things.
'Hey, you were right, this is good vodka. Say, did you hear about Florence? She married a British aristocrat, can you believe it? I didn't get an invite to the wedding. That woman can certainly hold a grudge! Met up with her a charity celebrity ball a while back. She walked right by me, nose in the air.'
This was sheer hell.
'Why are you here?'
'I told you...'
'Please, no more 'chit-chat'. The truth, I want the truth. Why are you here?'
The American sighed, body slumping, speaking to the ancient scarred table in front of him.
'I spent what seems like forever looking for you when Russia became more accessible. I called in so many favours, you wouldn't believe. I didn't even know if you were still alive. But you had to be. And the things I had to do to get to you. Practically sold my soul to get the station to agree to let me come here. Spent a small fortune on bribes. Gave away my favourite suit! But it was worth it. I'm here.'
'But why?' He winced at the naked pain in his own voice.
He watched as the American met his gaze, holding his breath at the message he thought he could read in their expressive depths.
'I couldn't forget you! I tried, God, how I tried! You've haunted my dreams, ruined any relationship I had. I tried to hate you, blame you for everything that happened to me...'
There was a silence as the American broke off, sobbing softly. Then he raised his head once again.
'But getting out of chess was one of the best things that happened to me. Loosing Florence was for the best. I'd been self-destructing, pulling her down with me. All I cared about was chess. I wasn't even human any more, just some chess-playing machine. What you did was my salvation. And I realised that I didn't hate you. Couldn't hate you. But I still thought of you. Took me a while to work out why. Took me even longer to accept it. Look, I know you think I'm a total shit, but I had to see you again. Had to let you know how I feel. Even if you throw me out, and I'm expecting you to throw me out pretty soon, I had to see you. I needed closure.'
'I don't think you're a total shit. I never really did.' Oh, please let him be reading this correctly.
'You could've fooled me.' The tone was shakily sarcastic.
'That was the general idea. If you thought I despised you, then you'd never know how much I wanted you.'
If the American's eyes had been expressive before, now they positively blazed. But there was still a hesitancy there.
'If you wanted me, how come you ran off with Florence?'
'Because she was yours. I never thought I could have you. The situation would have been impossible. I loved Florence, but mostly it was because she had been yours. Of the two of us, I think that *I* was the 'total shit'.'
'Yeah. And you're right. The situation was impossible. Both of us in denial, trying to convince ourselves that we despised each other.'
'I'm retiring next month. Getting out of the spotlight, sinking into welcome obscurity. I've bought a huge house in the middle of nowhere. It's way too big for one person, but I fell in love with it. There's plenty of room. You could... Well, I was thinking... They'd let you out of Russia, now. And you could come and live with me. No strings. Just...'
' 'Come live with me and be my love'?'
The silver head lowered.
'Yeah, something like that.' It was practically a whisper.
'And live 'happily ever after'?'
'That's my fondest wish.'
The American raised his head, eyes shining.
'We'll probably kill each other within a month,' he offered.
'It is a risk I believe I am prepared to take.'
'So... What do we do now?'
He knew what he wanted to do...
'We could play chess.'
The enchanting mouth curved upwards in a blinding smile.
'We could. How many moves do you think we will need to make before we're mated?'
'Why don't we find out...?'