Chapter 1: when the passion starts
Hoo boy. This fic has been a long time coming and there is a long way to go. I'm excited.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
August, 1972. American ground troops pull out of Vietnam, with thousands more soldiers to follow. A communications hotline reopens between Seoul and Pyongyang for the first time since the Korean War. The Washington Post publishes the first article on what will become known as the Watergate scandal. And Florence Vassy and Freddie Trumper meet at the Marshall Chess Club in New York City.
As long as he lives, it will never occur to Freddie to feel silly for thinking their meeting as epic and historic as the world-changing forces at work that month. Because they changed the world too, didn’t they?
Florence might not think of it the same, but when she remembers that muggy summer it’s Freddie she sees, not headlines or news breaking across grainy television screens. Freddie Trumper hunched over a chess board in the corner of a quiet, carpeted room lined with bookshelves and mostly empty of people. Young and awfully skinny. Looking out of place in jeans and a black t-shirt, dark hair shaggy and falling over his eyes; looking like he doesn’t even notice everyone else but Florence is in a suit, and like he wouldn’t give a damn if he did.
Florence has been a member for years, but the boy must be new because she doesn’t recognize him or know his name. No one has to tell her what he is, though. It’s not hard to recognize genius from across a little room like this one.
He doesn’t glance up when she sits down across from him. All he says is “go away,” and he says it under his breath, quiet so he doesn’t break the focused silence around him.
She doesn’t move. She examines the board instead, watches the way he plays himself with slow, ruthless precision. Watches him sink down into such deep concentration she thinks maybe he’s forgotten she’s there at all, forgotten that anyone or anything exists except the game in front of him.
He moves his white bishop to C4. “If you’re not going to play me,” the boy says, looking up at last, “then go away .” His eyes are a dark brown-green, from what Florence can see through his flopped-down hair.
She turns her gaze down to the array on the board again, and after a moment moves a black knight from E4 to C3. The corner of his mouth twitches towards a tiny smile, and she knows she’s surprised him.
He pushes his second bishop to C5, next to the first, gunning for her queen.
Florence moves a rook to F8. “Check,” she says softly.
He doesn’t even blink, just moves his king to safety in F1. Her queen is still under attack, and for a few minutes she focuses on that, trying to work it out, until she decides to look elsewhere.
After a few minutes more, she moves her bishop from G4 to E6.
The boy looks up, and the most wonderful grin spreads across his face. He moves one of his bishops to take her sacrificed queen, but she can tell from his face that he knows she has him beat.
The fact that it makes him happy makes her like him very much.
An hour later, she moves her surviving rook to C2, and looks at him expectantly.
“Checkmate,” the boy says, and gently knocks his own king to its side. When he meets her eyes it’s with a look close to awe. Florence feels her breath catch in her throat, and she doesn’t even mind. “Can I take you to dinner?” he asks.
As soon as he says it she notices she’s famished. “Yes.”
They both stand and stretch muscles sore from sitting in tense focus for so long. “Oh,” she says as he leans to one side, then the other, with his hands on his hips. “I’m Florence Vassy.”
He gives her another grin as he shakes her extended hand. “Freddie Trumper.”
U.S. Chess Champion at age 13 Freddie Trumper. Disappeared mysteriously the next year and came back at 19 sharper than ever Freddie Trumper. Hasn’t lost any major match since 1968 Freddie Trumper. Controversial, temperamental, bound-for-glory Grandmaster Frederick Trumper.
And Florence just beat him.
He’s watching her reaction and looks awfully smug about it.
“Well,” she says, shaking herself out of a haze she simply will not think of as starstruck. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Freddie.”
Turns out being treated to dinner by Freddie Trumper means walking through Washington Square Park with hot dogs from a street stand.
“You’re not from New York,” he comments as they pass the arch.
“I’m from Amherst.” Florence isn’t one for hot dogs, but this one is awfully good. She must have been even hungrier than she thought.
“What’s your accent, then?” Freddie demands. She can tell from his tone that he’s not trying to be rude.
“Hungarian and English,” she answers after a moment. “I was born in Hungary and lived there until I was seven. My — my parents are from Greenwich, but they brought me to Amherst.”
“Greenwich to Greenwich,” he says, gesturing to the Village around them. He looks tickled by the coincidence, and doesn’t seem to have noticed her stumbling over calling her foster parents just her parents. “I’m from Brooklyn,” he tells her proudly. “Born and raised.” He takes a bite of his hot dog. “What’s Hungary like?” he asks through a mouthful.
“I don’t really remember,” she says honestly.
“That’s probably a good thing,” Freddie says with confidence. “It’s all commies over there, no place to raise a child.”
Florence refuses to think about that. “You don’t look like you know a thing about raising children,” she laughs instead, and he looks at her in surprise again but smiles. “Anyway, where did you learn to play chess like that?”
He smirks. “Taught myself. You?”
She can tell he’s watching her closely despite the offhand way he’d asked. After all, she just beat him. She’s surprised he’s waited this long to try to figure out exactly how.
“Well, my father taught me when I was younger,” she says. “But I didn’t play for a while after coming to the States.” Because he didn’t come with me. Because he got carted away by the Communists you so famously hate. “I got back into it in college,” she continues. “There was a chess club there with some awfully good players, and I learned a lot from them.”
“Anyone I’ve played?” he asks. It should irk her that he assumes she’s paid close enough attention to his career that she’d know the answer, except he’s right.
“Yes, actually. Alfred Harvey, you beat him a few years ago.”
“Harvey.” Freddie wrinkles his nose. “He was no good.”
“We thought he was pretty good at Harvard,” she says dryly. “But I beat him too, nine times out of ten. He wasn’t very nice about it. I learned from playing him, though.”
“And what do they think of women chess players at Harvard?” Freddie asks.
“Not much.” She hopes he feels otherwise — thinks he probably does, given that smile when she beat him, but she’s not certain.
“Most of them are no good,” he says with a shrug. “They don’t have the mind for it, doesn’t come natural to them. You’re different,” he adds, as if bestowing a great honor upon her. “I can tell.”
“Hmm.” She finishes her hot dog. “Anyway, I moved here after graduating, and I became a member at the club in ‘68. Kept playing, got better. I’ve never seen you there before.” And she’s looked.
“I don’t like to go during the day,” Freddie says, waving his hot dog in a dismissive gesture. “They let me stay past closing, that’s what I like. It’s quiet.”
He does need his games to be very quiet, she remembers reading that somewhere.
“Don’t you ever go to practice against anyone but yourself?” she asks.
“If I hear anyone’s any good I’ll invite them to play me,” Freddie says. He eyes her. “I’ve never heard of you.”
Florence raises an eyebrow. “Like I said, people don’t think much of women chess players. I’m not surprised no one talks about how well I play. I’m sure they say other things.” She’s not going to tell him about the insults and propositions she’s gotten from male players over the years, even fellow members at the club, but she’s sure he gets the idea.
“They’re idiots,” he says, and tosses his half-eaten hot dog at a trash can as they pass it by. It falls short and a little terrier tugs at its leash trying to get at the food, yowling a protest when its scolding owner yanks it away.
“I’m glad you think so,” Florence tells him.
“I want to play you again,” he says, wiping his fingers on his dark-wash jeans. “You free tomorrow?”
She bites her lip. “I have work.”
Freddie stares at her like she’s grown a second head. “Skip.”
Florence laughs. “I can’t skip work as if it’s a class I don’t like,” she tells him. “I like my job, I don’t want to lose it. But how about the next day?”
“What day is that?” he asks with a frown.
“Saturday.” Does he not keep track of the days of the week?
“Okay,” he says. “Come by the club at eight.”
She does. He’s sharper when it’s quiet and he’s not been caught by surprise, of course, and although she puts up a good defense he beats her decisively. Florence is worried he might try to make a different kind of move on her after the game — it’s late, they’re alone — but he doesn’t. Just looks pleased with himself and asks her to play him again next Saturday.
They go on like this for a few weeks, then start playing on Wednesdays too, earlier in the evening so Florence won’t be exhausted at work the next day. They’re evenly matched at first, but as he learns from her he starts winning more and more. She still catches him in mistakes, though, and one night he makes one so shockingly obvious she can’t help but point it out to him.
Freddie stares at the board with his mouth slightly open, then looks up at her. “I want you to be my trainer,” he says.
Florence sits back in her chair. They’re alone in the main room and it’s quiet except for the muffled clinks and murmurs of a few men eating in the dining area.
“And what would that entail?” she asks, wanting to say yes already but cautious all the same.
“I don’t know, just train me,” he says impatiently. “Point out my mistakes like that instead of trying to beat me. Help me learn about other Grandmasters and their strategies. Research all the old great matches and go through them with me play by play. Come with me to matches. That kind of thing.”
Florence likes the idea. The challenge, the thrill of a new project, of digging deep into something and learning everything about it. “It” being chess, but maybe Freddie a little bit too. She wasn’t lying when she told Freddie she likes her job, but translating scholarly articles for Columbia doesn’t allow for much creativity. She’s been longing for variation for a while now, and here it is.
“I’d need you to pay me a stipend,” she tells him.
“Done,” he says happily, slapping the table. He names a rate and it’s reasonable — even generous. Florence is surprised that he’s not making her negotiate until she realizes he simply doesn’t want to waste his time bothering with all that. Better to be fast and fair. Well, she won’t argue with that. Especially not when he looks absolutely thrilled when she agrees.
They stand to shake on it, and impulsively he pulls her into a hug instead. “This is gonna be really good, Florence,” he tells her excitedly after stepping back. His eyes are as bright as she’s ever seen them. “We’re gonna crush ‘em all.”
She’s smiling too until she turns to get her bag and sees that one of the men having dinner is standing in the doorway. He raises an eyebrow at her and she knows he’d seen them hug, knows exactly what he thinks it meant. Florence gives him a frown, a tiny shake of her head; he spreads his hands in an “I don’t know” sort of gesture and heads back into the dining room.
Florence resolves not to care about the rumors he’s about to start. They’re ridiculous, anyway. She’s known Freddie for a while now and not once has he looked at her like that. In fact, she doesn’t think she’s ever seen him look at any woman like that, let alone express interest; she’s pretty sure he doesn’t think about sex at all. She certainly doesn’t think about sex with him.
Maybe that’s why it takes her so long to realize she loves him.
She didn’t know, really, that women could love men they didn’t want to sleep with. She hardly even believed that women and men could even just be good friends until she met Freddie. But that’s what they are: they spend hours and hours together every week, playing chess but doing other things too. Saturdays become Freddie days for her, Florence days for him. They’ll get a late breakfast together and he’ll demand every time that she order for him, won’t even look at the menu, and it’s sort of annoying but mostly just silly and sweet.
Which is Freddie in a nutshell, actually. He can be a pain, especially when he’s tired or hungry, but he’s easy to please, almost like he’s never had a real friend before and looks at each little kindness from her with wonder.
And he’s eager to please her, too. Between rent, travel, and the way he orders or eats out but never cooks, Freddie hasn’t much spare income despite winning the pot at every match he plays, but he pays for her meals more often than not — and on her 27th birthday he utterly shocks her with a first edition of Joyce’s Ulysses.
“Freddie,” she gasps, lifting the book reverently from its brown paper wrapping. This must have cost a fortune. “Where did you get this?”
“Book dealer,” he says with a smirk and a shrug, as if it’s no big deal except he totally knows it is and he’s very proud of himself. “You said it was one of your favorites when you dragged me to that bookstore you like, what’s-it-called, Argo?”
“Argosy.” She turns the book over in her hands, brushing her fingers down its binding. Joyce’s publisher only printed a thousand copies of the first edition. She puts it down gently, scared to touch it any more than she already has. Argosy, she thinks. That must have been five months ago. He’s been saving up all the time, hunting it down. Must have had to hound the dealer and the seller relentlessly to get them to give it up. All for her.
“Freddie…” She wipes quickly at her eyes. “ Thank you, darling.”
He glows at her words, so damn happy to see her happy, and that’s when she realizes she loves him.
Even if they’d been in public instead of her little living room she wouldn’t have hesitated: she sets the book carefully aside and embraces him.
So he overspends, yes, but he does it so kindly (except for the way he never tips waiters or cabbies, and she has to do it behind his back). So he snaps at her sometimes, he can be a brat, but he’s far from spoiled and although he doesn’t seem to be able to form the words “I’m sorry” he always makes it up to her. So he’s brash, a jerk to his competitors; so he courts the cameras a little too much; but he’s brilliant and funny and sweet. So when he’s in a bad mood he brings her down with his brooding, but when he’s happy it’s impossible to not be happy around him too.
All that talk of mean, angry Freddie Trumper is just talk, she decides.
One Wednesday they decide to play against each other like they used to, as competitors, without her making suggestions or pointing out traps or mistakes. “No mercy,” she warns him, wagging her finger, and Freddie gives her a good-natured scoff.
He wins the first round, but she wins the second so thoroughly he applauds her. “You know, I think I love you,” Freddie grins as he claps, and Florence is so happy about it she laughs out loud.
Years later it’ll happen again: I love you, the lonely man will say, and to his surprise and hers he will turn out to be right, and for a long time it’ll be oh so good, and then it will end, sudden and terrible and inevitable. Florence doesn’t know, of course, on this muggy August day, that not once but twice will she be ruined in this particular way. That the boy in front of her now will lead her to the man she’ll leave him for. That that man will lead her to her still-living, quickly dying father before abandoning her forever.
There’s a lot Florence doesn’t know yet. That’s why she’s so happy.
This fic is based on the timeline of the Kennedy Center production, which sets Merano in 1979. Based on Florence’s line about how she’s “taken shit for seven years,” that means they met in ‘72. I chose August because that’s when the Fischer-Spassky “Match of the Century” ended in reality. The game Florence and Freddie play is pulled move-for-move from the famous brilliancy match Fischer won against Grandmaster Donald Byrne when he was 13. Florence, like Fischer, is playing black and wins.
Also for reference: I wanted Florence and Freddie to be younger than in the KC version. I have her turning 26 in this chapter, making her 10 when she fled Budapest and 33 in Merano. Freddie is a year younger.
ok now let me know what you think :}
Chapter 2: a model of decorum and tranquility
I’m back!! cw for (unintentional) disordered eating in this chapter.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
February - April, 1973
Freddie used to think he knew what it felt like to be in love. Other people would talk about love, and he really thought he knew what they meant.
All thoughts stray back to the beloved: check.
Hunger, exhaustion, the petty inconveniences of life all forgotten when one is with the beloved: check.
Awe and adoration paired with an obsessive desire to learn everything about the beloved, to know the beloved more deeply than the beloved has ever been known, more deeply than one has ever known anything: check.
It never occurred to him that he might be wrong just because his beloved was a board game rather than a person.
On the contrary, he suspected he loved chess more than most of the men he knew loved their wives.
He’s probably still right about that latter part, Freddie thinks, but the rest of it?
Florence Vassy has proved him wrong, and he loves her all the more for it.
He can’t get enough of her. He suspects she knows that he always has one eye on her when they’re in the same room, one ear perked for her footstep or her voice when she’s out of sight. He doesn’t mind if she does notice, because she smiles whenever she catches him at it. After a certain point he gives up on being subtle.
How can he help it? She fascinates him. She knows everything. She’s read every book he’s ever heard of and a thousand he hasn’t. She went to Harvard. She spends the entirety of her Sunday afternoons reading every page of the Times front to back. She speaks English, Hungarian, French, Russian, and German. Even her name is sophisticated, elegant, cosmopolitan. He loves to say it: Florence, Florence. She hums off-key when she cuts his hair for him. She’s damn good at chess. She’s patient with him, calls him darling, smiles when he calls her baby. She laughs at his jokes, she likes it when he acts like a brat just to entertain her.
Inexplicably, wonderfully, impossibly, she loves him back. She even tells him so.
For a little while he toys with the idea of proposing to her, except they should probably kiss first, and more, and he doesn’t want to do that. He doesn’t know why he doesn’t want to; she’s beautiful.
(He does know why. But he won’t let himself think about it.)
Point is, he never wants her to leave. His days are so much better now that she’s part of every one of them.
This is how Freddie’s average day used to go: wake up at ten on a good day, but often closer to noon or one or even later. Lay in bed for an hour or so until the nervous energy in him builds strong enough to force him into movement. If he’s hungry, he’ll eat whatever’s lying around: not-too-stale bread and cheese, maybe some fruit, cornflakes with milk if it’s not expired. Carrots and ranch dressing. Never any meat because he gets nervous about cooking it too rare and poisoning himself. If he’s not hungry, he’ll skip that part and go straight to the chessboard. He’ll spend hours there, stay until it starts to get dark, and then he walks to the club and plays there til he’s exhausted. Then a cab home, or he’ll sleep in a room at the club.
He’ll go days without speaking more than two words aloud to another person. Sometimes he forgets to eat. But he takes his pills, he keeps his apartment clean enough that that there are no roaches or rats, only a few unavoidable mice in the winter. He wins every match. So he figures he’s doing pretty well.
Once Florence comes along, Freddie realizes just how bad he was at taking care of himself on his own. So in February, when her lease is up, he asks her to move in.
To his utter surprise, she says yes. She keeps real food in the fridge, meat and fish and vegetables and fresh milk and everything. She actually likes to cook, and he finds that when he eats regular, healthy meals he has much more energy. It’s good for his game — he can focus longer, see clearer — and for his mood. He rediscovers his love for the ritual of laundry and the dependable satisfaction of washing the dishes by hand. He makes his bed every morning like his mother taught him (neat corners, fluffed pillows). He even toys with the idea of getting a job.
The routines soothe him further, and Freddie is grateful because he wants to be good for Florence. He’d been worried, when she agreed to move in, that he’d scare her away. But she seems to still be delighted by him, even when he suspects he’s being a pest.
He starts waking up early so he can lounge on the foot of her bed and watch her get ready for work. Her routine soothes him too: dressed in an elegant, wide-collared dress, she brushes out her long, long hair til it shimmers, then pins it up. Next she does her makeup, and he teases her about how her mouth always falls open as she applies her mascara. Last comes the jewelry, simple but elegant like everything about her, Freddie thinks. She favors silver and he considers buying her sterling earrings for her next birthday, or just because.
He hides his pills from her. And his sickness.
Freddie feels guilty about this, though he can’t put his finger on why. He’s protecting her by concealing it, isn’t he? He’s certainly protecting himself. He knows Florence can see he’s a little… off, a little not like anyone else, but she seems to have chalked that up to the eccentricity of a genius ( because I am a genius, he thinks) and he needs to keep it that way.
By the time April rolls around and she still doesn’t know, Freddie figures he can keep this act up forever. He’ll be a model of tranquility. He’ll keep winning matches, and doing laundry and washing dishes and eating three meals a day. He’ll keep buying her gifts and sharing his cigarettes. He’ll keep getting up early and going outside every day; he’ll keep charming her. He’ll keep her. She’ll let him. They’ll be happy.
Shoutout to valancysnaith and Rís for helping me get back in the Chess mindset. The chapters should come a lot quicker from now on!
Chapter 3: look, here’s a piece some idiot’s written on you
This chapter is specifically inspired by the Kennedy Center’s version of “Commie Newspapers,” which contains the following exchange --
Florence: Why do you always have to attack [Anatoly] for being a communist? It makes you look like an asshole.
Freddie: Because I am an asshole. It’s my pop culture signature.
The first time Freddie’s name appears in the New York Times since 1961, it’s tucked away in the back page of the Sunday sports section. The “article” is really just a blurb, but Florence reads it aloud with delighted surprise:
THIS WEEK IN CHESS
Former U.S. Champion Frederick Trumper, who withdrew from public life at age 14 after his famous 1960 triumph, is back on the chess circuit and on the rise. Yesterday, Mr. Trumper defeated English FIDE Master Horace Crawford, who was favored to win. Expert analyst Rolf Altherr states that the reclusive Mr. Trumper, known as a hothead in the chess world, is “a player to watch.”
Mr. Trumper’s next match is in October, when he will compete with Russian Grandmaster Mikhail Koblents. The game, much anticipated by chess enthusiasts and political analysts, will take place in London.
“Known as a hothead in the chess world?!” Freddie repeats around a mouthful of toast. “That’s not fair.”
Florence lowers the paper to give him a sardonic look. “It’s practically your pop culture signature, darling.” She considers this. “Actually, maybe that’s not so bad.” She folds the paper neatly and places it on the table.
Freddie is incredulous, then gleeful. “You think me being a hothead is good?”
“I think you having a higher profile is good,” she corrects him. “Any serious chess player knows who you are, Freddie, but the man on the street couldn’t put a name to your face if you paid him.”
“Thanks,” he says flatly.
“I’m only saying what’s true,” Florence insists. “Listen, the more famous you are, the more matches you’ll get. And the money will be better too.” She’s not ashamed to point that out: they both know they could use more cash. Especially because the temp positions Freddie manages to finagle are few and far between.
Freddie perks up at her statement. “How do you mean?”
“You could get invited to speak at events, that type of thing,” she explains.
“You think people would want me to come to events?” His brow furrows with doubt.
Florence cocks her head. “Didn’t they when you were younger?”
“Yeah, but I was a prodigy back then. Now I’m just a genius.”
She gives him a playful swat with the newspaper. “Well, a genius with a big personality gets interviews and invitations.”
A grin unfurls slowly across his face. “I like the sound of that.”
“Not too big of a personality, though,” she warns. “Hothead is a bit much. Let’s take it down a notch to… I don’t know, eccentric. Maybe opinionated. ”
“How about rebel?” Freddie suggests innocently.
“And what are you rebelling against, going to bed at a decent hour?”
“Ha ha. I’m rebelling against the governments that treat chess players like fucking pawns for their own games, Florence.” He’s starting to rile himself up. “Against our idiot criminal so-called president who’s been spying on us all, that paranoid son-of-a-bitch, he —”
“Yes, alright, I get it,” Florence says hurriedly. She’s heard more than enough of his Nixon rants — or rather, his Nixon rant, the same one over and over — since the Watergate hearings began in May. “But eccentric is a better reputation, Freddie. We don’t want you to be so controversial that your personality overshadows your skill at the game.”
“That’s true,” he concedes. “But what about you?”
She blinks. “What about me?”
He polishes off his toast, then licks his finger and picks up the crumbs with it. “What’s your reputation gonna be?” he asks.
Florence makes a face. “I don’t know that I want to be in the papers. I certainly don’t need to be.”
Freddie deposits the crumbs into his mouth, then examines his fingernail thoughtfully. “You’re afraid people will think we’re sleeping together.”
She’s shocked to realize he’s right. “Well… yes, I suppose. I don’t want to be known as someone’s mistress.”
“I’m not married.”
“Well, someone’s girlfriend then.”
He flashes a charming smile. “Not even mine?”
Florence shifts in her chair. This is the first time they’ve ever come close to discussing, let alone defining, their rather unconventional relationship. She’s not sure she wants to have the conversation.
“I don’t think either of us wants that,” she hedges.
To her relief, Freddie simply gives a careless shrug and swipes up some more crumbs. “Well, we’ll call you my second, then. Instead of just trainer or assistant.”
Florence feels a rush of warmth for him. “I like the sound of that very much,” she nods. “Anyway.” She gets up, fetches a pair of scissors, and begins to carefully cut the little article from the Times. “We should frame this.”
They end up just sticking it to the fridge. Florence keeps meaning to pick up a frame small enough, but never quite has the time to get around to it. So it stays there, pinned by one magnet at first and then four, one on each corner, as it ages and curls.
Chapter 4: I don’t quit, and I don’t lose
Chapter title is from a line Freddie says before “Press Conference” in the KC version.
Whenever Freddie gets upset, Florence takes him out for something sugary.
He really is like a little boy sometimes. She feels like his mother, packing candy bars whenever they travel so she can feed him if he goes all grouchy — which he inevitably does, when his routines gets thrown off — but at least it works.
Florence is packing a little extra today, because this time they’re traveling to the Olympia in London so Freddie can play Mikhail Koblents, who he’s already lost to twice. He’ll never admit it, but he’s scared. Which puts him in a foul mood. Which she doesn’t want to deal with ever, but especially not when she’s going to be in England for the first time since she was twelve and she’s not sure how to feel about it.
So: extra candy bars. Maybe a few for herself, too.
Freddie loses to Koblents again, and as Florence watches him try valiantly not to crumple before the press she’s pretty sure a sugar rush isn’t going to fix this one.
“Mr. Trumper, what does it mean for American chess that the former U.S. champion can’t beat Russia’s best player?” a BBC reporter asks, pen poised and camera rolling.
“It means I’m not a goddamn Soviet machine,” Freddie snaps. He gives a nasty sidelong look to Koblents, whose serene smile doesn’t even twitch. “But machines break down, it’s only a matter of time.”
“So you intend to play Mr. Koblents again, then?” follows up the BBC man.
“Yes, and next time I’m going to win. You can bet your precious pound on that.” Anyone can see it’s a hollow boast.
Freddie only looks more upset when the reporters turn their focus to Koblents, the real star of the show. His leg bounces, his fingers drum, he’s as restless and nervy now as he was still and focused at the board. The press conference ends before he deteriorates to the point of verbally demanding attention, but he does his best to make a dramatic exit by positively flouncing off the dais with not so much as a cursory glance at Koblents, let alone a handshake.
“I’m never going to beat him,” Freddie tells Florence as soon as she meets him by the exit. She’s surprised to hear despair in his voice rather than anger. “He’s too good.”
“Yes, you will,” she reassures him, though she’s not sure it’s true. “It’s only a matter of time, like you said. Time and practice. You did better against him this time than you ever have before.”
This doesn’t mollify him. “But he’s still the better player. And we trained for this for months, Florence. What am I good for if I can’t win?”
She presses a candy bar into his hand and he looks at it in disgust. “I’m sick of these.”
“You have to eat.”
“I’m not hungry. You can’t just make me feel better by giving me candy.”
Florence restrains herself from wounding his pride by pointing out that the strategy has worked to great effect plenty of times before.
“Let’s go for a walk, then,” she suggests.
Freddie’s shoulders slump. “I just want to go home,” he whispers, and his voice is so quiet and lost it goes straight the heart of her.
She rubs his shoulder. “Freddie, darling, you’re good for much more than chess.”
He shrugs her hand off. “So what? Nothing is as important as chess, so it doesn’t matter.”
She raises an eyebrow. “That’s insulting.”
“I didn’t mean you, ” Freddie protests. He makes to rub his eyes before realizing he’s still clutching the candy bar. “Ugh,” he mutters, and shoves it back into her purse. When he lowers his hands from his face, his eyes are bloodshot. Florence goes from annoyed to sympathetic at the sight of it.
“A walk will be good for you,” she insists gently. “Come on, darling.”
Freddie shakes his head, a little frantic. “It’s too crowded out there, it’s too loud. I can’t.”
His breath is starting to come too fast, Florence notices with alarm. “Freddie.”
“I want to go home, Florence, please — or to the hotel — I just —” He takes a deep breath with obvious effort.
He never says please. This is bad.
“Alright,” she soothes. “Alright. Let’s go out the back way; there won’t be any press there. We can get a cab.”
Freddie’s breaths slow. “Okay.”
It’s a short drive back to the Holland Court Hotel, but within the span of those minutes he descends from panicky to exhausted. Even so, he asks her to stay in his room for a bit: “I won’t be able to fall asleep otherwise. It’s just jetlag,” he adds hastily when she’s too slow to conceal her worry.
Jetlag. That's all. Of course. No wonder he’s off his game.
“I’d be happy to, darling,” Florence agrees. And, once he’s cocooned in thick blankets: “Do you want to get room service? You’re always hungry after a match, and this was a long one.” Six hours and thirteen minutes, to be exact. A long game, the longest he’s lasted against Koblents by far.
Freddie’s mouth turns down on one side. He’s embarrassed about something. “Ice cream?” he suggests tentatively.
She laughs, and he glares at her. “So you did want sugar, then.”
“I didn’t, ” he insists. “But I do now. ”
“Sure, Freddie,” Florence grins. She plucks up the phone from the little desk across from his bed, and settles into its squeaky chair. They probably shouldn’t be splurging on luxuries like room service when he didn’t win the pot, but he could use it. She could too, she’ll admit (at least to herself).
“I want chocolate,” he instructs her, as if he didn’t want chocolate every time. She requests coffee for herself, and they eat in companionable silence. He manages not to spill even a drop on the bed, and visibly restrains himself from licking the bowl. Florence crawls onto the bed when they finish, leaving the bowls stacked and balanced on the desk. She stays above the covers but cozies up next to him, and for the first time all day he smiles. A small smile, but still.
“You really will beat him next time,” she tells Freddie, feeling more certain of it than before.
He cuddles into her side. “Hmm” is all he says, but his smile is a little wider now. Wide enough that she can forget how small and scared he’d sounded earlier, back in that long empty hallway. How close to some edge she couldn’t see.
The press has lost interest by the next day, and the handful of reporters Florence caught lurking in the hotel lobby last night are gone. She decides to take advantage of the fact that it’s not tourist season and go for a walk through the not-too-crowded city. It’s a pleasant surprise when Freddie agrees to tag along instead of nursing his wounds in bed.
They take the Underground to Greenwich, where Florence used to live. Freddie’s not jumpy or burnt out like yesterday, so they wind their way through the Sunday market. He buys himself a crepe while Florence browses through a stand selling silk wares.
“Shoo,” she scolds Freddie when he munches on his chocolate crepe while standing dangerously close to a champagne-colored scarf. He pulls a face but steps away, content to people-watch with only a mildly brooding expression clouding his face.
Florence decides against buying anything, and Freddie falls into step beside her as they continue their stroll.
“Show me your old place,” he requests. “Where you lived with your parents.”
“Foster parents,” she corrects him.
“Right, foster parents.” Freddie polishes off the crepe and licks the chocolate off his fingers. “Or don’t you want to see it?”
“It’s not there anymore,” she answers truthfully. “They were professors, they rented from the university. The building got knocked down a few years ago. I think they built new student flats there.”
Florence’s foster mother had relayed this bit of news during a rare phone call shortly after it happened. Such a pity, she’d said sadly. It was a beautiful old house. That was about as emotional as Florence ever heard her get.
“Do you miss it?” Freddie asks, gesturing vaguely around them.
Florence takes in the bustling market: the stands in neat rows; the Londoners — parents, grandparents, couples, children, young teens — browsing and eating; a little folk band covering some new Elton John song. She can smell chocolate from the crepe vendor, and fresh bread and tea. It’s quaint. Cheery. Lovely. Familiar, even. But it’s not home. Never was.
“I miss Budapest,” she tells him. “And I miss New York.”
Freddie ducks his head and loops his arm through hers. “We’ll be back tomorrow.”
It’s a comfort to them both.
Chapter 5: one of these days (and it won’t be long) she’ll know more about me than she should
This chapter was masterminded by Rís!
Heads up: the content contains allusions to child sexual abuse.
Freddie can hear mice. Even though he’s under the covers, the light clicking sound of their awful little claws reaches his ears.
He burrows deeper. It doesn’t ease the strange pulsing buzz in his brain, or the numbness of his lips. Nothing does. He’s been trying for weeks and the feeling’s only worsened. Sometimes he gets dizzy, and his brain doesn’t work as fast as it should. He’s tired most of the time but can’t sleep more than a few hours at a stretch because the nightmares have started again.
It’s the pills. He knows it must be the pills, they’re not working anymore, he should go back to the doctor. But if the pills don’t work then the doctor who gave them to him must not be very good, Freddie thinks. And even if he is good, what could he possibly do? Over the past decade and change Freddie’s tried everything short of a lobotomy. Lithium was the only thing that really helped, and now it doesn’t, and there’s nothing to be done, and he’ll be found out and it’s no use.
He throws the covers off and gets out of bed, though he’s not sure yet where he’s going to go. He knows he’s too tired to go far.
The house is quiet when Florence gets home at seven. Which is strange: normally Freddie, who’s slow to rise in the mornings and often groggy in the early afternoon, is wide awake by now. Usually he’d be buzzing around their little kitchen or sitting completely still in front of one of the chess boards in their even smaller living room. He hasn’t been happy about much since the temp agency fired him last month, but even though he’s moody he’s always glad to see her. Or at least relieved.
He’s probably asleep, Florence figures, and she’s glad of it. He rarely gets eight uninterrupted hours; maybe that’s all he’s needed, and he’ll wake up in a better mood. So she tiptoes around the apartment, walking just loudly enough that the mice will keep themselves hidden. She makes herself just a sandwich for dinner rather than bother with pots and pans and washing up afterwards. After eating, she decides to check in on him.
Except he’s not in his room.
He wouldn’t have gone out without leaving a note, she thinks. One of his little chicken-scratch, poorly spelled notes that he leaves on the fridge for her. Florence feels silly for feeling nervous: he’s a grown man. He can go out at night on his own and be safer than she would be, a lone woman in the dark. He’s fine.
Still, it’s a great relief when she flicks on her bedroom light and sees a Freddie-shaped lump under the covers. He’s heaped her extra blanket over himself too, and all she can see of him from this angle is a little tuft of hair sticking up past the comforter. It makes her smile, and another wave of relief comes: he must be feeling better if he’s decided to make a pest of himself again. Florence is startled to realize that she’d missed him. Silly, pesky Freddie.
She feels playful suddenly, the way only Freddie can make her feel, and without thinking twice she bounces onto the bed. He doesn’t stir, even when she tugs back the covers a bit and laughs at his sweet, slack-jawed sleeping face. He looks so peaceful, she thinks with fond and wicked glee, all thoughts of him needing his rest having fled her mind since she’s decided he’s probably overslept anyway.
“Freddie,” she lilts in a sing-song voice, flopping to lie beside him. “Wake uuup, Freddie.”
He shifts slightly. Florence taps his nose, and his mouth twitches. An almost smile. “You faker,” she laughs, “I know you’re awake.” But he keeps his eyes shut, so she sits up and gives his cheek a gentle little slap.
“Frederick,” she says, mock-stern, and he jerks away before his eyes are even open. Jerks away so hard and sudden that she recoils too, snatching her hand back with an apology on her lips except he keeps going, stumbles out of bed and nearly falls when his leg tangles in her blanket, then catches his balance, and he’s moved fast but not fast enough to account for how his breath is coming so hard and quick. He’d been breathing so peacefully before.
“Freddie,” Florence says again, soft this time.
He’s got his back to the wall now and he’s staring at her with wide, blank eyes. She feels a lick of fear for him. “Freddie, it’s me,” she tells him, though she doesn’t know why she feels the need. Of course it’s her. He knows that.
Except he didn’t, not at first, because only now can she see recognition dawn in his eyes. She makes to move towards him but he holds up his hand. He opens his mouth too but he can’t seem to speak, he’s hunched over like he just barely outran something awful, and Florence for the life of her can’t figure out why.
“Freddie, darling, what’s wrong?” she asks, but before the question is even out of her mouth he makes a little choked sound from somewhere in his throat and stumbles from the room, still bent nearly in half.
She hesitates for a moment, hands fisted in the tangled comforter where she kneels on her bed. What happened to him? The bathroom door opens, then closes hard. Someone did something to him. The tap turns on, and under the noise of running water comes the distinct sound of retching. Something terrible, when he was young. She’s not sure how she knows this, but as soon as the thought comes to her she’s certain it’s true.
Florence goes to the kitchen and pours them each a glass of water. She sits at the table and waits for a minute, then two. By this time there’s no sound except the tap running, its steady stream interrupted by little splashes. He’s washing his face. Brushing back his hair too, probably. He’s going to try to come out fresh and clean and pretend like nothing happened.
She’s still trying to decide whether or not to play along when he emerges with neat, damp hair, red eyes, and a dry face. He takes the water when she offers him the glass, but he doesn’t meet her eyes.
“Are you alright?” Florence asks. Of course the answer is no, but whatever Freddie actually says will tell her what he needs.
“Fine,” he tells her. Or tells his glass, as that’s what he speaks into. “You just surprised me, that’s all. It’s fine.”
She wants to touch his arm, for him to cuddle into her the way that’s become normal for them, but he’s still so tense she knows he’d only twitch away. So she keeps her distance.
“Okay,” she says instead, keeping her voice soft. “I won’t do it again.”
His lip begins to tremble, and he sets down his glass quickly. “I’m going to bed,” he says, and before she can reply he’s down the hall and shutting his door.
Even burrowed under his covers, Freddie refuses to cry. I’m not a little boy. But it’s hard, because he’s going to be alone soon again, he’s sure of it. She knows him too well now, he showed her too much. And he’d been trying so hard not to, he’d been doing so good. He only wanted to be good for her.
I won’t do it again, she said, and he hates himself because now she’ll never lie next to him again, or wake him up just so they can talk. Now she’ll tip-toe and avoid him and pity him, and sooner or later she’ll find a reason to move out, and he can’t hold it against her even as he wishes bitterly it weren’t inevitable. Of course she’ll leave. Who would stay? Only someone as crazy as him, Freddie thinks, except there isn’t anyone else like him, not in the whole world.
He presses his face into his pillow and pushes a hot, shuddering breath against the fabric, then sucks the air back in through his mouth. Please don’t leave me, he prays to her, over and over. And then, since it’s already done: please come back. Come back to me, Florence, I love you.
He does, he really does. Fuck, he thinks. He’s known her less two a years. He survived long enough without her. She’s only a woman, she’s only — Freddie gives up on that train of thought. He’ll never be able to reduce Florence to something that won’t hurt to lose.
If only he hadn’t been dreaming when she came in. If only her voice hadn’t been so like his mother’s through the haze of sleep, the way Mother had sounded when she found him drunk or high in his bed where her boyfriend had left him. The way she’d instruct him to get up, Frederick, you’re going to be late for school, and for God’s sake put some clothes on, as if he’d poured his own drinks the night before, pulled down his own pants and left them off. As if she didn’t know.
But his mother knew, of course she knew, and now Florence knows — well, not everything. But too much. She knows there’s something wrong with him, and if she stays she’ll only see more of it.
I should get up, he thinks, and go out and tell her to go away, just get out. She’ll be relieved.
He can’t force himself to do it. He suspects it’s because he doesn’t really want to.
The next morning, Florence knocks lightly at his door. Freddie hesitates where he sits on the floor in front of his folding chess board, where he’s been sitting all night. She knocks again. He gets up and opens the door.
He sees with a pang that she’s all dressed and made up for work, long hair brushed and pinned back. He already misses lounging on her bed while she gets ready.
“I made you coffee,” Florence says.
He blinks at her.
“Decaf,” she continues, “because I know you’ve been up all night. You should get some sleep, darling, but set your alarm and come meet me for dinner at the club. There’s a man speaking there tonight who played Capablanca, and you ought to meet him. Six o’clock, so better set your alarm for four, alright?”
Freddie takes the coffee. “Okay,” he says.
Florence knows she got it right when he gives her a shy, uncertain smile. She kisses him on the cheek, gets her bag, and leaves for work. As she locks up her she’s confident they’re going to be alright after all.
Behind the door, Freddie hopes they might be.
Chapter 6: loverboy
Warning for a brief, non-explicit allusion to child sexual abuse.
They’re both drunk the night he tries to fuck her. Sleep with her, make love — whatever you wanna call it. (Afterwards, he won’t want to call it anything; he’ll want to forget it. He won’t be able to.)
They’re drunk, just got home from a nightclub an hour ago because it’s been a good few weeks for him. He’s been feeling so much better since he stopped taking his pills: no panics, no noises too loud, his mind works quickly again. So quick, he’s had so many good ideas — he’s devising a whole new opening transposition, one that can’t be beat, he feels unstoppable.
And when things are good like that he likes to go dancing. Whether things are good or bad he can’t stop moving, fidgeting, unless he’s at the board and then he’s perfectly still. But moving when things are good? It’s a rush almost as great as a good game of chess. Well, not almost: nothing can really compare to that. But it’s a rush, and he’s not a bad dancer. Not as good as Florence, but not bad.
So they’d stayed out past one and now they’re back, and they’re drinking a little more because it’s been a wonderful night and they don’t want it to end. They’re standing in the doorway between the living room and the kitchen, glasses in hand. Tanqueray for her, Jack Daniels for him. He’s got his shoulders leaned against the doorway between the living room and the kitchen and he’s gesturing wildly, no mind that he might be spilling a little, because he’s making her laugh with his impression of the nightclub singer, and as he does he realizes he was wrong: that’s the next best rush after chess, not dancing. Making her laugh.
And then he thinks, in an abstract sort of way, that she really is beautiful. Anyone could see it. And he knows he loves her. He should want to kiss her. It’s a good idea.
So he does, and when she kisses him back he drops his glass.
“ Fuck, ” he swears, “wait, don’t move” — Florence is in her bare feet and there are shards all around them. After a moment of deliberation, he wraps his arms around her waist and picks her up. She shrieks out a laugh as he hobbles them into the dark living room, her feet only a few inches off the floor because he’s barely taller than her even when she’s not in heels. She laughs harder when he dumps her unceremoniously onto the couch, but when he lowers himself over her she quiets.
“Freddie,” she says, and her face is too serious. She cups his cheek in her palm. “Darling, are you quite sure you want — ?”
He kisses her again. Of course he wants this, how could he not? She’s beautiful, and he loves her, and this is what men do with beautiful women they love.
Florence sighs against his lips. A kind of sigh he’s never heard from her before: not exasperated or tired, not wistful. Pleased, and something more. A sexy sigh, he thinks somewhere in the back of his mind, except he doesn’t find it sexy. He doesn’t find it sexy either when she hooks her leg over his, pulling him closer until their crotches are rubbing against each other, and his tongue is heavy in her slick mouth, and she smells of sweat and liquor and perfume and it’s too much, he’s gonna be sick, shit, shit. He jerks away and then he’s on the other end of the couch, his knees against his chest. Panting.
Slowly, Florence sits up. She swings her feet to the floor, smooths out her skirt, straightens her blouse. Only then does she look at him.
“Freddie.” She pushes her hair from her face with the heel of her palm. His heart aches at the gesture, and he looks away.
“I — I’m sorry,” he mutters. “Fuck.” From where he’s sitting he can see the brightly lit kitchen floor where the broken glass still glints. “It’s like kissing your sister.”
She’s quiet, and for a long moment he thinks she’s going to stand up and leave. Then, before she even opens her mouth to speak, he realizes she’s only choosing her words very carefully. Never good when she has to do that.
“Have you ever been with a woman before?” she asks softly and he jerks his head around in shock to look at her.
“What the hell do you mean?” he splutters. “Of course I have!” It’s true. It’s not the whole truth, but she doesn’t know about how it was only twice and after the first time he had a panic attack and threw up, and after the second time he had a panic attack but didn’t throw up.
He hadn’t loved those women, though. It was supposed to be different when you loved the woman.
“And did you like it?” Her voice is too gentle.
“They were better than you , if that’s what you’re asking,” he snaps, and jumps to his feet. He doesn’t have to look at her to know she’s shut her eyes for a beat in order to gather her patience. He hates how fucking patient she can be.
“And have you ever been with a man?”
He clenches his fists, unclenches, clenches, lets his nails bite into his palm. Yes. Six of them. Seven, if you count my mother’s boyfriend and what he did even when I said no. “That’s disgusting.” He’d panicked and thrown up after his first real time with a man, too. But never again after that.
“They were better than me, weren’t they?” she asks. Her voice is less careful now, and more confident. “For you, I mean.”
Freddie doesn’t realize they’re an admission of guilt until the words are already out of his mouth: “Don’t be pathetic, Florence, you can’t be the best at every thing.”
And she laughs. He hates her for it, hates the sound of it, until he looks at her face and sees only relief, not mockery.
“Oh, Freddie,” she smiles. He shouldn’t find it charming, the way she’s a little unsteady when she gets to her feet, but he does. They’re both really fucking drunk. He’s dizzy. “I don’t mind.” She looks at him frankly, square-on like she always does. “It was a little like kissing your brother, anyway.”
He lets out a shaky laugh.
She pats him on the shoulder as she walks past him and towards the stairs. “Just be safe, darling. Can’t be too careful with your company. You know how men like that are.”
Then she’s disappeared into the dark.
His head is spinning from the whiskey and her words. He thinks he should go sweep up the glass so neither of them cuts their feet in the morning. Instead he falls back onto the couch.
As Freddie fights his way into sleep, he thinks about how it must have felt for her when she was laying here. A man’s weight. His hands. His lips. In the back of his muddled mind he manages to be surprised that Florence was so okay with him being… the way he is. It doesn’t occur to him that she was drunk, too. That her judgment wasn’t what it normally would be. She’s a happy drunk, game for almost anything, not like her conservative, straight-backed, clear-eyed sober self. And nights like these, sometimes words don’t sink in until dawn.
In the morning, she snaps at him for not cleaning up the glass. He tells her she should have done it and she points out it was his glass, that he dropped, and although he seethes at her as he sweeps it up, he’s relieved that they’re back to normal. Nothing has changed, and nothing needs to.
They don’t talk about the night before.
Chapter 7: his gentle companion
Another chapter, and it only took me a year and a half! This one and the next two are in honor of Rís, whose birthday is on Saturday. Happy birthday bruv!
No content warnings here, only fluff.
Freddie doesn’t like cats.
He doesn’t particularly like dogs, either — they’re blustering and slobbery and they enjoy interrupting him when he plays at Washington Square Park — but at least they’re obvious. Cats, though. Cats are sneaky, and quiet. They’ll get the jump on you, and Freddie is jumpy enough already.
Doesn’t help that his neighbor’s cat, when he’d been growing up, had hated him. It had been a skinny little calico with razor-sharp claws, and it liked to hiss at him from the steps of its own house whenever Freddie’s mother made him play in the front yard. “You need some fresh air,” she’d say, and push him out the door, gentle but merciless in her refusal to heed his protests. And then the cat would glare at him, emanating evil until he got to go back inside. It had yellow, baleful eyes.
He'd tried to make friends with it one day. Against his better judgment. Extended his hand in peace, and it scratched him — scratched him, right across his palm! Freddie sneers to remember it. He’d had to go to the doctor to make sure it wasn’t infected with some vile cat disease, and then he’d had to wear a bandage for ages, which made him clumsy with his chess pieces. Fucking cat.
Fuck cats. Freddie hates them.
Florence knows this, and she gets one anyway.
“What’s this?” Freddie demands when she clatters into their front hall from the hot outside. She’s a little sweaty and she’s lugging two great boxes, one with a handle and one tucked under her arm. He considers getting up to help her, but something seems suspicious, so he stays seated.
Florence carefully sets down the box with the handle. He notices that the front of it is a metal grate.
“I got us a cat,” she announces.
This gets him to his feet. “No.”
She lets out an exasperated sigh, as if he’s the unreasonable one. “Freddie, I told you: either you can catch the mice, or the cat can. You haven’t even tried.”
They do have a mouse problem, Freddie can’t deny that. Normally the little vermin only visit in the winter, but it’s mid-summer now and they’ve shown no intention of packing up and moving out. Still, there’s no need to go to such extremes about it.
“I did try,” he protests, eyeing the crate. He thinks he catches the glint of an eye, deep in the darkness. “I bought traps.”
“And they didn’t work, so I bought a cat.”
Freddie crosses his arms across his chest, and Florence sighs again.
“Listen, it’ll be fine,” she tells him. “I’ll take care of the litter box and she can sleep in my room. All you have to do is feed her when I’m at work, alright?”
He makes no promises, but somehow winds up responsible for the chore anyway. The food is wet and the sound it makes when it squelches from the can is repulsive. It smells disgusting too, and tastes even worse when he can’t resist the curiosity and scoops up a bit with his finger to eat. He spits it into the sink and ignores the cat’s curious gaze.
“Here,” he tells it, and sets the bowl on the floor. He watches it lap up the food in quick, neat bites. This part isn’t so bad, he figures, because at least during the cat’s lunchtime he’s certain of where it is. At other hours it wanders the apartment and he has no way of knowing if it’s asleep or awake, staring at him or in another room entirely. Sometimes at night he’ll glimpse its green, disembodied eyes just outside the ring of light cast by his lamp, its black fur hiding its body in the shadows. He always flinches when he catches it watching him like that.
It does kill the mice, and leaves their little bodies on his pillow. His pillow. Not Florence’s.
“That means she likes you,” Florence laughs when he brandishes the pillowcase at her. There’s a pin-sized drop of blood on it. “She’s giving you a present.”
Freddie can’t think up a response that conveys the contempt he has for this line of thinking, so he throws the pillowcase at her and storms out.
He doesn’t admit to either of them that he likes the apartment much better without the skittering noise of mice rummaging around at night.
He also doesn’t stop his little act of spiteful revenge on Florence when she’s out. Once a week she buys fresh flowers, and places them on the high hall table where the cat can’t reach; once a week Freddie lifts the cat onto the table so it can eat the petals anyway.
Of course, he has to earn the cat’s trust before he can lift her at all. This means sitting on the floor when he feeds her, and daring to extend his palm for her to sniff. It means allowing her to lick his fingers with her rough tongue, an odd but not unpleasant sensation. It means learning to scratch her head and neck gently enough that she isn’t spooked but hard enough that she purrs; and to avoid her stomach or else she’ll hiss and try to bite.
“Good cat,” he tells her when she nuzzles her head against his hand. And when she jumps into his lap while he’s sitting at the chessboard, he doesn’t mind too much because she stays still and quiet. If she wants to sleep there, well, it’s none of his business to stop her.
Especially not when she’s so cooperative about eating the flowers. Florence clicks her tongue, frowning as she inspects the petals. Freddie conceals a smirk but can’t help but glance at Cat. If he didn’t know better, he’d say she had the same look on her face as he does.
Chapter 8: what’d they say? what’d they say?
Chapter two of three in the “happy birthday Rís!!” suite! It's their headcanon that inspired this chapter.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“Freddie, I’ve been thinking.” Florence taps at the table with the tip of her finger until he makes a little hmm sound. “You ought to write an article about the new opening transposition you designed, the one where you took my queen three moves later. American Chess Quarterly pays well for articles, you know.”
He doesn’t even look up from the board. “Right, publish the sequence so anyone can steal it and use it against me? No way, baby.”
Florence rolls her eyes. “The moment you use it in a match people will start to pick it up,” she points out. “Write the article, publish it immediately after you use the sequence publicly, win-win.”
Freddie shoots her a look, then drops his gaze as he moves his bishop forward. “I don’t want to write an article.”
She sits down across from him and makes to move a rook into position to take one of his pawns.
“Stop it, I’m trying to figure something out,” he says, batting her hand away. “Leave me alone.”
“I think you ought to start publishing,” she persists. “It’ll help you build more of a name for yourself.” A name outside of “that upstart Freddie Trumper who uses his temper to hide that he peaked at 13,” but he doesn’t need to know that’s what people are saying about him these days.
“I don’t need to write articles to make a name for myself, I just need to keep winning. Why don’t you write some if you think they’re so great.” He moves his bishop back to where it was before and glares at the board. Cat is purring in his lap, but he seems impervious to her contentment.
“I have been writing a bit, actually,” Florence says. “And I plan to publish, but Freddie, darling, it’s your transposition. You ought to write about it. Think of how —”
“I get it!” he snaps. “I get it, I get it, it would be so great for me to publish an article American Chess fucking Quarterly, I don’t care . Lay off , Florence.” He knocks over the bishop and storms off to his room, but only after gently lifting Cat from his lap into his arms, which someone ruins the effect.
Florence stares after him, bewildered. He hadn’t been in a bad mood today, not at all! What on earth...? Maybe he’s insecure about writing, she thinks. She can’t imagine he was a good student in school, not that she’d say so to his face; maybe he had a cruel teacher, or just a bad one. She knows from his grocery lists that his spelling is atrocious: bred, egs, ingredience … but his handwriting is beautiful, practically calligraphy, and anyway it’s not as if he’s illiterate.
Have I ever seen him read?
She thinks back. That charming-annoying way he always makes her order for him at restaurants, or bombards the waiter with questions — could it be because he can barely read a menu? She’s never seen him with a book; he only ever picks up a newspaper when there’s an article talking about him, and even then he’ll ask her to read it to him more often than not. She’d always chalked it all up to him wanting attention.
Which, she realizes now, is a misconception he’s cultivated with long groans and put-upon sighs and dramatic flops onto the couch whenever she tells him she’s busy and he ought to just read it himself.
He’s hidden it so well, but Florence still feels foolish: they’ve been friends for years, and she never noticed until now?
She drums her fingers on the table for a moment (lightly, so as not to rumble the chess board), then goes to Freddie’s room.
His door is shut and locked.
“Freddie?” she calls, knocking lightly at the door. “Let me in please.”
“I’m taking a nap,” comes his muffled voice. “Go away.”
She rolls her eyes. “Bullshit. Come on, open up.” It’s her no-nonsense voice, the kind that usually gets him to behave but sometimes sets him off into a resentful rage. It’s a risk using it, but Florence has the feeling he wants to be petted and comforted and won’t drive her away with shouting.
Freddie pushes Cat gently from his lap and clambers out of bed, grumps over to the door, and unlocks it before dropping into his armchair by the window. Florence opens the door and comes over to sit in the straight-backed chair across him. Cat eyes them both warily from the nest she’s made in the sheets.
Florence sighs. “Freddie, how well can you read and write?”
Of course she’d figure it out. It’s a miracle she didn’t sooner. He still hates her for it.
“Just fine,” he replies. His voice is thick with the effort of swallowing his shame. Nothing to be ashamed of. Who cares I never got around to learning to read? I was too busy becoming a chess genius. He ignores Florence’s steady gaze, and examines his fingernails instead. He knows she’ll see right through this casual affectation, but he’s got to at least try.
“Would you like me to teach you to do it better?” she asks kindly.
“No,” he retorts automatically, then hesitates. Maybe it would be a good idea. Maybe it would be nice, not having to fear being found out. “Well. Yes.”
“Good.” He sees Florence smile out of the corner of his eye. “It’ll be fun,” she tells him.
It is not fun.
It is very very not fucking fun, Freddie thinks a few days later, hunched over a large-print paperback edition of Peter Pan that Florence dug up from somewhere. She’s sitting next to him on the couch, making little encouraging comments as he sounds out the words.
It had started out fun, when it was Florence doing the reading. She’d run her finger along the page to show Freddie which letters were making the words she was saying, and he’d watch her manicured nail sail beneath the neatly printed little symbols he could only half-decipher, and he’d pay hardly any attention to the letters at all, and he’d listen to the sound of her voice, and the story.
“ Mrs. Darling loved to have everything just so, ” Florence read back when they started, “ and Mr. Darling had a passion for being exactly like his neighbours; so, of course, they had a nurse. ” She glanced down at Freddie, who was resting his head on her shoulder. “ Neighbors is tricky,” she said. “See, the gh is silent. It’s like that in the word eight, too, Freddie, E-I-G-H-T.”
“That’s stupid,” he commented with a yawn.
“I agree,” Florence said, then placed her finger back on the page. “ As the Darlings were poor, owing to the amount of milk the children drank, this nurse was a prim Newfoundland dog. ”
Freddie laughed. “A dog!” He lifted his head to look over at Cat, who was lying in a spot of sun across the room, and made a face at her as if to say isn’t that ridiculous, baby? Cat blinked slowly and lay back down.
“ A prim Newfoundland dog called Nana, ” Florence continued, “ who had belonged to no one in particular until the Darlings engaged her. ”
She looked down at Freddie again. “You’re not paying any attention at all to what the words look like, are you?”
He grinned. “Keep reading, I like it.”
She indulged him like that for a few days, but now she’s gone serious and has sat him down to make him do the work. Which is good, he guesses, because he really wasn’t learning the other way, and he does want to learn, but fuck. This is hard.
He scratches his neck and focuses on the book again. Chapter Three, it says at the top of the page (he knows because Florence said so), and then there are big letters underneath too that must be the chapter title. Easy words, short, and he knows he knows what they say but he can feel Florence’s eyes on him and he just can’t remember —
“Okay, let’s start easy,” she says. “Let’s just name the letters.” She points to the first one in the chapter title, a curl like someone was drawing a circle and stopped halfway through.
“C,” Freddie says. He knows that one. And then, before she can move her finger, all in a rush he gets out the rest: “C-O-M-E-A-W-A-Y-C-O-M-E-A-W-A-Y, it’s the same thing twice.” There, he got it, he got ahead, even.
“Great!” Florence says. He wishes her praise didn’t make him feel like a stupid child. “Now can you tell the words that those letters spell?”
Freddie squeezes his eyes shut and opens them again, his mind a perfect blank of anxiety. I know this, it’s obvious, of course I know this. “Co… come,” he tries, but it’s not right, because he’s saying the word for the brush he uses for his hair and he knows the chapter can’t be about a comb. Or maybe it can? This is a weird fucking book.
“Close,” Florence says. “It’s come. Like ‘come to dinner,’ or —”
“I know what the word means, ” Freddie snaps, “I just didn’t know how it was spelled.”
Florence purses her lips but doesn’t snap back. So damn patient when she wants to be.
“Come,” he repeats. “Come a…” A-W-A-Y. “Come away! It’s Come Away, Come Away, chapter three.”
“That’s right!” Florence congratulates him. “Great. Alright, now let’s start the chapter.”
He drops his gaze further down the page, where a thicket of letters awaits him. They’re big, Florence picked out a large-print book just for him, and he should be able to read them. Except suddenly they’re all a jumble, and he can’t focus on any one word because they’re all mixed up and there are too many. He can catch a few: “for,” “nice,” “one,” “and,” “out,” but he should be able to get all of them and he just can’t.
His eyes catch on “Darling.” That’s the name of the family, and what Florence calls him too. He never thought about how to spell it before but now he does, and he can read it. Alright. He forces himself to take a breath. Darling. Another breath, and this one is easier.
The jumble at the start resolves itself into separate words. He can see the spaces within them, and he can read the letters.
“For a moment after Mr. and Mrs. Darling left the… left the house, the…” Freddie squints down at the page. N-I-G-H-T. What had Florence said the other day about G and H? They’re silent sometimes. So it must be “nit.” Nit-lit? But that doesn’t make sense either. He glances sideways at Florence, who gives him a little smile.
“Sometimes if you don’t recognize a word right away, you can skip ahead in the sentence to see what’s after,” she suggests, “and that makes it easier to guess.”
He bites his lip. “Okay.” Skip nit-lit, he thinks, and then it’s something about beds… “Night-light!” he exclaims. “ The night-lights by the beds of the three children con — continued to burn clearly. ” He looks up at her triumphantly, and she grins.
“That was a hard one!” she says. “That was really good, Freddie.”
His heart swells in his chest for a moment, and then he turns back to the page and he’s lost his place.
He was only two sentences in but he can’t find the period that separates one from the other, and “night-light” appears twice and he doesn’t know which one is first because his eyes are jumping around again, and they jump off the page and onto the face of his watch and it’s been five minutes, five entire minutes and he’s read two fucking sentences, and a rush of shame comes over him so strong he feels sick.
“I don’t want to read any more,” he declares abruptly. “Let’s stop for the day.”
“Freddie, we’ve barely begun,” Florence protests. “Let’s at least get to the end of the page.”
Right, because so far I’ve gotten nowhere. “Nope,” he says carelessly, closing the book and tossing it onto the table. “I need to practice my Indian Defense.” He stands up and heads for the chess table.
“Your Indian Defense is perfect, and you know it,” Florence snaps. “Come on. You said you wanted to learn how to read, you can’t give up after two sentences.”
Freddie wheels on her. “I am not giving up, Florence, I just need to practice and this stupid book is distracting me!”
“You like this book,” she says evenly. “You liked it when I was reading it. You’ll like it even more once you can read it yourself, Freddie,” she continues, and now she’s wheedling him like he’s a fucking child.
Even a child could read better than me, he thinks.
“I’ll read it later.” He sits down at the board and immediately feels calm. Sixty-four squares, sixteen pieces on each side, perfectly lined up. Black and white like letters on a page, except this actually makes sense. Freddie flexes his hands and quickly arranges the pieces into the Sämisch variation of a King’s Indian Defense, then relaxes back into his chair and examines the board. His mind slips into a smooth, clear space; he can play out variations in his mind easy as anything and when he comes on a problem it’s exciting. Maybe if I try my rook… he thinks, and he’s about to test it out on the board when Florence comes over and interrupts him.
“I said I’ll read it later,” he tells her.
“No,” she says, “we set aside this hour for you to read, and you’re going to read. You’ll never get good at it otherwise. Come on.”
She taps his shoulder gently with the book, and without hardly thinking he spins in his chair, yanks it from her hand, and hurls it across the room. “Leave me alone, Florence,” and as soon as he says it he regrets it but it’s too late. Cat startles and bolts from the room.
“Fine,” Florence says curtly. “Good luck functioning as an illiterate.”
“I’ve gotten along fine this long,” he scoffs; “I don’t need to know any more.”
“You do fine pretending you do fine, Freddie,” Florence replies, “but I can’t imagine you like having to pretend.”
He laughs bitterly. “As if you’d understand.”
She raises an elegant eyebrow, and doesn’t speak.
“Oh, come on,” Freddie says. “You know ten different languages and you can read and write in all of them. It comes easy to you. Don’t act all understanding, you have no idea what it’s like.” His face is burning now because he’s as good as admitted that reading is hard, it’s really hard and he’s not good at it, and of course she already knew that but it’s — it’s just — admitting it is different, and he hates it. “You don’t get it,” he repeats.
Florence’s nostrils flare. “At least I’m trying to,” she says coldly.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing, just that you stopped trying to understand how to read two sentences in and I thought you had more determination than that,” she replies. “At least that’s what you always say. ‘I don’t quit, and I don’t lose,’” she drawls in a terrible impression of a Brooklyn accent — of Freddie — that would make him laugh if he weren’t so upset.
“I don’t quit,” he says. “I’ll read it later, I just — I’ll read it later, okay?” He may not be the most self-aware person in the world but at least he knows he’s too mad to tell one letter from another right now, not while she’s watching him.
He has a vision of himself with the book in his room, teaching himself to read by the light of the bedside lamp like he taught himself chess. He can’t do it while she’s watching but he can do it alone. He will. And then he’ll surprise her, he’ll read the whole book and he’ll be able to read whatever he wants after that and she’ll be impressed and he can do it, he can. Later. Alone.
Florence gives him a long look.
“Fine,” she says at last. “Later. Tell me when you’re ready to try again.”
And he means to. He really does. As soon as she leaves the room he grabs the book up off the floor, and he plans to use it to teach himself all the rest of the words. He means to learn and then one day pipe up with say, Florence, why don’t we try that book again, and then he’ll read fluidly, perfectly, and she’ll say Freddie, that was brilliant, how did you do that and he’ll explain he did it himself and she’ll kiss him on the cheek and he’ll stop making her read menus to him.
But he never quite gets around to it, and the book ends up stuffed in his bedside table drawer underneath his chess notations and his pills and his hand lotion, and he doesn’t try to read it again until Florence is long gone.
At that point, years from now, he’ll find it’s much harder to teach himself alone than he’d expected.
Chapter title cleverly taken from when Freddie demands that Florence read out loud to him in “Commie Newspapers.” He then immediately reads another quote out loud and is obviously perfectly literate, but just let me have this headcanon, okay?
Chapter 9: suffered for your art, but in the end a winner
I wrote the first 10% of this chapter two years ago and the remaining 90% in a frenzy of productivity on Thursday night. Hopefully it works! This is the third and final installment of the “happy birthday Rís!!” suite of chapters. <3
Content warning for stigma against mental illness, but not expressed in a malicious way if that helps.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“I’m ready for Koblents,” Freddie tells Florence. He’s leaning against the doorframe to her bedroom, watching her pack and not offering to help. “I really am, this time.” He taps at the wood with an erratic beat that Florence is pretty sure he doesn’t even notice.
“Fourth time’s the charm?” she asks dryly.
He glares at her.
“I’m only joking, Freddie,” she says, shaking out a green silk blouse so she can fold it. She’ll have to hang her clothes in the bathroom when she showers at the hotel to steam the wrinkles out. What a pain. “We’ve been training for this for ages.”
“I know, that’s why I said I’m ready,” Freddie snips. “He’s not gonna get me with that E-file trick again.” He starts to pace, but her room is so small he bumps into her when he turns.
“Freddie,” she snaps, “are you even packed?”
“Yes,” he pouts. “I packed this morning.”
She knows exactly what he’s packed, too; same thing as every match. Dark-wash jeans haphazardly folded, black shirts balled up and shoved in along with underwear, a dopp kit, that worn portable chess set he refuses to get rid of, and not much else. For someone who loves money so much he’s not very good at dressing nicely.
“Did you pack that suit for the press conference?” Florence asks. She’s trying to get him to deviate from his jeans-and-t-shirt “uniform,” but she’s starting to suspect it’s a lost cause. She gave up long ago on telling him to wear anything but that during his actual matches.
“Yes,” Freddie grumbles. “And the tie.”
She’ll have to steam that too, she’s sure.
“Good,” she replies. “Now get out of my hair.”
Freddie rolls his eyes but takes her words in good humor. “I’ll call and schedule a cab,” he says, and Florence relaxes slightly when he scoops Cat from her bed and leaves the room. He’s only going to get more antsy, she knows; he hates breaking his routine, hates most aspects of traveling, and the fact that he’s lost to Koblents three times in a row isn’t exactly going to help.
Florence just hopes he’ll keep his head. Koblents is well-liked by the rest of the chess world. He’s eccentric, yes, but overall a polite, pleasant man who seems uninterested in politics, or at the least finds the topic indelicate. Florence likes him well enough herself — he’s a welcome relief from the average arrogant, esoteric competitor — but she’ll never admit that to Freddie. Freddie, who doesn’t have the self-awareness to see that his hatred for Koblents comes from his own insecurity rather than anything wrong with the other man. Freddie, who is positively itching for a fight that had damn well better stay on the board and out of the press.
All hope of that flies out the window when the oh-so-eccentric Koblents decides to make a joke at Freddie’s expense.
The press conference at the Ring-Messehaus goes well enough. In his tan suit, Freddie manages to look both handsome and as if he’s wearing a costume. He only makes one snide little comment when a reporter asks him about competing in Leipzig, and even that isn’t too bad: “Sure , the weather in East Germany is fine, but I prefer New York and I think you know why.”
Florence is relieved when he doesn’t elaborate, and even more relieved when the conference ends without Freddie once acknowledging Koblents except by shaking his hand at the start. Alright, it’s rude of him to pretend the man isn’t there, but it’s better than bickering with him.
Koblents doesn’t seem to realize this. Florence happens to be watching him when the FIDE officials allow the fans to come forward for autographs, and she sees his face perk up with some idea when he gets the pen in his hand. Sees him scrawl his autograph on the proffered copy of the Shakhmatny Bulletin, and then something else.
The eager young man peers at the signatures, laughs, and holds up the Bulletin to the people behind him. They laugh too, and Freddie turns in his seat where he’s been happily signing autographs of his own.
Koblents catches Freddie’s eye and offers a friendly smile. “I have signed your name for you, too, Mr. Trumper,” he says into the microphone. “Why not? I’ve beaten you so often, that gives me the right to sign for you, yes?” He chuckles at his own joke.
“You what? ” Freddie asks with an unhinged little laugh. Florence steps forward from the throng to try to catch his eye, but of course he’s not looking at her.
Koblents’ smile fades slightly. “Only a joke,” he reassures Freddie.
Shit, he thinks he’s being friendly, Florence realizes, and she would laugh at him too except they’re in public and Freddie is about to do something very, very stupid.
“You think just because you beat me before means you can sign my name? ” Freddie demands. He stands up, the scrape of his chair loud beneath his voice. Florence thinks he’s about to start yelling, but instead he forces a grimace of a smile. Why is that so much worse?
“You know what?” he says. “I understand.” He leans over the FIDE moderator and claps Koblents on the back. Both men watch him warily. “I do,” Freddie continues. “ My autograph is going for twenty-five dollars, which is a hell of a lot more than yours, and would be even if the dollar weren’t a thousand times more valuable than your worthless rubles. It’s alright, comrade, you can ride on my name if your family is too hungry to wait in the bread line.”
Freddie turns to face the crowd of fans and reporters. “You see how the communists treat their own chess champions?” he calls out, spreading his arms. “They turn them into beggars.” He drops his hands and turns back to Koblents, all pretense of a smile gone. “Either that, or dirty liars who pretend to be polite when all they want to do is mock Americans , because they’re too scared to play fair !”
He’s yelling now as he points into Koblents’ shocked face, and it’s all Florence can do to not drag him bodily from the dais — but it turns out she doesn’t have to, because Freddie turns on his heel and storms back behind the curtain. She hesitates as the room erupts into chatter — should she take Freddie’s place and try to spin this? No, she decides, and hurries after him; better to get him to come back out and apologize as quickly as possible.
It’s an impossible task. He’s in such a rage that the green room, which had felt spacious enough before, seems the size of a closet now. Florence closes the door behind her all the same.
“That motherfucker,” Freddie snarls through his teeth. “That motherfucker, he thinks he can — my name — in front of everyone , he mocks me —”
He’s breathing hard through his mouth, can’t even finish a thought, and something is wrong with him. She’s never seen him so upset, not even that time she’d startled him out of a nightmare and he’d woken to panic so bad he had to hide in the bathroom.
“Freddie,” she tries.
“He’s not gonna beat me again. He’s not. He’s not. He won’t. He’s not. He —”
“Freddie, please, just breathe.”
“I’m gonna win. I should go out there right now and — and —”
He heads for the door and Florence moves to block him; she doesn’t know what he’ll do if he gets out there, and it’s obvious he doesn’t know either, and nothing good could come of that.
“Why are you acting like this?” she demands before he can tell her to get out of his way.
“I’m not acting like anything,” he says, and it’s almost funny how his contrary nature is so stubborn it gives him back the ability to speak in full sentences. “I’m mad.”
“I can tell,” she says dryly, her back against the door. “But I haven’t seen you mad this way before.” He looks suddenly guilty, and although she dreads knowing the answer, she asks: “Are you hiding something from me?”
“It’s nothing,” he claims. Then adds brusquely: “This isn’t the time. Let me out of here, I want to finish signing my autographs.”
“That’s all done,” she lies smoothly. “The press conference is over. You’ve already made your headline for today.”
“I’ll make a better one tomorrow, when I beat the commie.”
“You won’t beat him if you keep up this behavior.”
“Fuck off, Florence. Let me out.”
He still looks slightly deranged but she’s now officially too angry with him to argue, so Florence relents. “Fuck right off yourself, then,” she snaps, and opens the door for him.
To her horror, Freddie makes a beeline for the stage. When he sees the cameras and people are still there, he shoots her a look of such scorn and betrayal she’s speechless, and then he steps out into the light and all she can do is watch from behind the curtains.
When she cranes her neck, she can see that Koblents and the moderator are still there too, both looking distinctly nervous at Freddie’s sudden reappearance.
“I’ve come back to finish my autographs,” Freddie announces coldly.
To Florence’s surprise and chagrin, the fans immediately swarm his side of the dais, jostling for his attention as if having had a tantrum and flouncing away made him a rockstar and not a child. Well that just makes them children too, then, she thinks petulantly. Little boys, all of them. Something about Freddie’s demeanor earlier continues to nag at her — this wasn’t like his usual tantrums — but she hasn’t the patience to parse it out. She hasn’t any patience left at all, she finds, so she leaves Freddie to make his own way, and uses her best German accent to ask the cab driver to take her back to the hotel.
She parks herself at the bar with a gin and tonic and for several hours resolutely ignores every man who tries to speak to her until by their very presence they drain her of the last of her energy, and she pays her tab and returns to her room, feeling utterly defeated as if by an enemy she did not know she had.
Despite the exhaustion, despite the defeat, instinct prompts her to pause at the door adjoining her hotel room to Freddie’s. It’s silent on his end, though it’s only 8pm Berlin time. Florence considers knocking to wake him up, as he really ought to get a proper rest at the proper hours, but she’s tired too. So she shucks off her dress, sets her alarm clock for 5am, and embraces the jetlag.
A high, jangling noise from the other room prompts Freddie to open his eyes. Alarm clock. Florence’s room. Can’t turn it off. He closes his eyes again and sinks back into the meditative state he’d been in before, not asleep and not awake and perfectly, exquisitely prepared to grind Mikhail Koblents into dust beneath his heel.
He hasn’t slept all night. He’s needed sleep less and less, lately, and the jetlag has really cinched it. He’d slept too much on the plane, that was his problem, that was why he’d lost it at the press conference ( though Koblents had it coming, he thinks, smiling at the memory of the commie’s shocked face). But now he’s balanced it out by staying up all night. He feels peaceful. Today, he knows, is the day he’ll begin to take down his crown. Today Koblents; tomorrow, whoever they threw at him next.
He registers that someone — must be Florence — is knocking at his door now. Rude of her to disturb his meditation, especially after her nasty little lie yesterday about the press conference being over. What had she been thinking? It was the kind of lie a clumsy saboteur would tell, they’ve all gone, don’t go back, no point in trying to win back the press now, when no one had gone anywhere and he won them back easily. Well, won back the fans at least. Who knew what the press were saying.
Anyway, point is, he’s not answering the door. He doesn’t need her fussing around him, it’ll only disturb his calm. She’s such a pecking hen sometimes, such a woman . It’s maddening.
Eventually the knocking stops, but then he hears a key in the lock. He opens his eyes to see a nervous East German porter standing in the doorway, with Florence behind him managing to look both worried and enraged.
“What are you —” she begins, but he cuts her off with a careless wave of his hand.
“Meditating. Don’t speak to me. We don’t have to leave for” (he glances at the clock) “two more minutes.”
“You need to get dressed,” she hisses, edging around the porter, who is about six foot five and trying unsuccessfully to shrink.
“I am dressed.”
“You can’t wear pajamas to the match. They won’t let you into the room. There are rules, Freddie, and regulations.”
He stands up and strips off his striped cotton pants; when they reveal jeans underneath, her shock turns to bewilderment.
“I said don’t talk to me,” he reminds her, because every word is gouging into the smooth surface of his calm, making the board in his mind pitted and uneven, and he can’t have that.
She presses her lips together and glares at him loudly. Freddie tucks his black t-shirt into his jeans and walks out the door, not looking back to see if she follows because she always does, and always will.
The cameras hum and the lights are too hot for comfort, but with the board laid out in front of him, with his mind cool and clear, nothing can stop Freddie. Not this time. He barely even sees Koblents in the seat across from him, but he can feel him. He can sense the man shift in his seat an hour or so into the game, a tiny, silent, frightened movement that confirms to Freddie what he already knows:
I’m gonna crush him. I’m gonna win.
And he does. He finally, finally does, and when he stands up triumphant there’s roaring in his ears as if a crowd is cheering him on, and everything goes black as if the curtain has dropped, and when he opens his eyes he’s on his back on a couch with an old man shining a light in his eye.
“Am I dead?” he asks stupidly. “Did I really win?”
“Oh, am I allowed to speak to you now?” comes Florence’s snide voice from somewhere behind him. She doesn’t wait for an answer. “You’re not dead, and you did win.”
“Do I detect a note of pride in your voice there?” he crows.
He tries to sit up so he can look at her, because he’s pretty sure she’s fighting a smile, but the doctor (he’s figured out it’s a doctor by now) shakes his head and says nein.
“Speak English,” Freddie snaps at him. At least he’s turned off the light he was beaming into Freddie’s poor eye.
“He’s telling you to shut the fuck up and lay back down,” Florence translates helpfully.
“No he’s not.”
The doctor looks over at Florence and speaks again.
“He wants to know if you’ve eaten anything today.”
“Hmm. No,” Freddie answers.
“For the love of —”
The doctor must have caught her tone, because he shakes his head at Freddie again, solemn and disapproving. Then he and Florence strike up a keenly obnoxious back-and-forth bombardment of questions.
Something in German, then “have you had water?”, no, shake of head; something in German, “when was the last time you slept?”, on the plan, shake of head; something in German, “have you had any alcohol or drugs in the past 48 hours?”, no, approving nod (a welcome change of pace); something in German, “have you started or stopped any medications recently?”
“Uh,” Freddie says, and too late realizes that Florence can translate that as fluently as she can the German.
She finally comes into view. Standing behind the doctor, she’s looking at Freddie as if she’s caught him in a foolish lie. Which she hasn’t. It’s much worse than that.
“Well, have you?” she asks.
He practices the argument as well as he can in his (he’ll admit it) slightly addled brain. Been lying to you since 1972, sure, but for your own good, for my own good too, it never hurt anyone, none of your business anyway, between me and my shrink and I wouldn’t have won if I hadn’t stopped taking those fucking pills anyway, so I was right, and you’re not allowed to be upset with me.
What comes out is hedging: “I was on a medication for a while but I stopped back in April.”
Florence pauses, then translates for the doctor. He responds with another question.
“What medication, and what was it for?” Florence asks.
“None of your business,” he says, finally sounding like he has a backbone, he thinks.
“Freddie, be reasonable.”
“ You be reasonable. Get me some food so I can go out there and talk to the press so they treat me like a proper champion, I don’t want the headline to be about how I fucking fainted. Were the cameras still on when I fainted?”
“Yes,” she says coldly. “The press can wait.”
“They really can’t. Have you met a reporter?”
“What medication,” she repeats, “and what for?” The doctor says something in German to emphasize the importance of the question.
“It was in April that I stopped it,” he argues. “It can’t possibly have caused this. I just didn’t eat or sleep for long enough, that’s the only reason I fainted.”
But now Florence is looking as if she’s had a thought, and that can’t be good.
“You haven’t been sleeping or eating as much as you used to for a while,” she says in English, and then in German, or so he assumes, because the doctor again shakes his head. “Since April, I would bet. Spit it out, Freddie. Otherwise I’m going to start imagining possibilities that are far worse than whatever the truth is.”
“I doubt that,” he says, and kicks himself for being contrary all the way to his own doom.
“You’re dying of some mystery disease.”
“Nope. Not that I know of.”
“You have some kind of slow-acting rabies.”
“That’s not a real disease.”
“You’re a paranoid schizophrenic.”
It’s like she’s punched him in the chest; Freddie tries to gasp but can’t. He twists his neck to press his face into the couch so he doesn’t have to see the horror on her face, the fear, the revulsion. He hears Florence say something in German, and then she walks out the door. He manages to take in an awful, wracking breath, and his body shudders with it, his whole body, I look insane, he thinks, They’re gonna commit me again.
The footsteps return, and then there’s a steady hand on his shoulder. Florence’s. He doesn’t have to look up to know. He grips the cushions with all his strength but he can’t stop gasping and shaking, I can’t, I can’t, Florence, don’t leave.
“I’m not leaving,” she says, and he’s not sure if he’d spoken out loud without realizing it, or if she’s just read his mind. “Here. I have water for you, and a banana.”
The tremors begin to recede but he still speak or lift his face from the cushion. She’s not saying it all confident and certain like the time he had a panic attack and hid in the bathroom after a nightmare. She’d gotten him water then, too, and coffee the next morning. She hadn’t doubted he’d be alright, hadn’t known to. Now she knows more about me than she should.
The doctor asks another question.
“Did your psychiatrist tell you to stop taking — whatever you were taking for it?” Florence asks.
Freddie manages to shake his head without setting off another bout of full-body quakes.
Florence and the doctor confer, and then she tells him what he knew she would: “You have to take your pills, darling.”
But I wouldn’t have won if I was taking them. And then he properly remembers: I won! I beat Mikhail fucking Koblents!
He sits up. Florence looks wan and uncertain; the doctor looks disapproving. Freddie seizes the banana with one hand and the water with the other, then hands the water back so he can peel the banana, all the while talking: “Yes, I’ll take my pills from now on, I promise, but I need to talk to the press, how long has it been since I fainted? They haven’t gone, have they? Don’t lie to me this time, Florence, have they gone?”
“They haven’t gone,” Florence admits; “it’s only been about ten minutes.”
Well thank goodness for that. He washes the half-chewed banana down with the water, and already he’s feeling much better. I can take the pills most of the time and taper off before big matches so I have a clear head, and as long as I remember to eat and sleep it’ll be fine. I just need to be more careful. He thinks it quietly, in the back of his head, so Florence can’t read his mind again.
Out loud, Freddie says “I’m ready,” and when he stands up he’s not dizzy. He runs his hands quickly through his hair and then he really is ready. He’s been ready for years. This is his comeback, at last, at last. It’s time to work the cameras.
He exits the room without a backwards glance, and Florence follows. This time he does turn around, just for a moment, to press her hand in thanks. He still can’t quite look her in the eye, and has to wipe out the memory of the way she’d said paranoid schizophrenic as if it were the worst thing in the world, so bad it could only be a joke — there, gone. He won’t think about it again. He knows she knows that the touch of her hand meant thank you for not leaving me, and that’s truly all he has to say, from the bottom of his heart.
It’s a quick, quiet moment. Nearly too much for him to handle, and (he doesn’t know this, and Florence never finds a way to tell him) not nearly enough for her. She stands back and watches him return to the world stage, wondering for the first time whether he can handle it. Wondering, too, whether she can.
That autograph part at the beginning is real; Mikhail Tal pulled it with Bobby Fischer! Love some petty chess drama.