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Stale-Mate

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You don't know the real monsters, Anna thought.

“You think I am a monster?” she said instead, not able to stop the question from spilling out.

Pained disbelief kept Anna lingering on the porch, one hand on the doorframe, the other one clasping Allan Kardec's tome to her chest.

It was the echo of his own words that shocked Yakov Platonovich back into the moment, for he could barely recall the distance travelled between the Police Precinct and the Mironov manor, nor the way his words had flown free as if a dam had finally given way to a wave of bubbling resentment. The first hot touch of shame crept up as inescapable as a blush; as mortifying to him, as if it had been written on his face.

Yet he was no longer a blushing youth, and while he viewed Anna Viktorovna as a woman, there had been something vulnerable and innocent in her question, something that made him realize she wasn't yet twenty.

It was a sobering feeling, and he felt every sense of reproach in her averted eyes. How carelessly he had wanted to antagonize her into honesty, stronghold her into a confession. Perhaps make her feel as small as he had felt, when barely half an hour ago, Pyotr Ivanovich off-handedly mentioned the chess book. The flash before the thunder; his new born belief gone up like smoke, short-lived and glaring. A spark that had immediately driven Yakov Platonovich from his office, made him hail a cab. During the short trip, he kept this new fire going, listing her offenses one for one, could recall the séance of that first case with distaste, all the while the wheels of the sled crushed the snow beneath him, the scenery around him a cold, colourless blur.

It had taken little effort to build her up as a monster, but now too the memory of the gunshot ran through his mind, and how she had trembled in his arms.

”A liar,” he amended, feeling the fight bleed out of him just as easily.

”I never lied to you,” Anna replied, still stung to the quick, still collected. There was pity in her look, which was the worst sort of insult. “I never lied to myself. Sooner call me a witch or a madwoman. I will not apologize for anything.”

”Anna Viktorovna,” he said, his tone barbed despite himself. "This wasn't the way I wanted to discuss yesterday."

”A monster,” she repeated, as if he hadn’t spoken, her face clouding over. “I hardly know what to say, in fear of you rating this as another performance.”

There had been something hypocritical in his continued leniency, as she had tested the boundaries, growing bolder, yet fearless from the start. He had tolerated it, charmed by this mix of candour and playfulness, trusted enough to leave himself blind spots, until he had inexplicably fallen victim to the madness, then stood surprised at all the mirrors and smoke.

Now Yakov wondered if he in good conscience could credit Anna Viktorovna such subterfuge, if she had the ability to puppeteer everyone around her to such a cold-blooded extent. For a moment, she had taken the shape of Nina Neginskaya, and he had despised them both. "Yet what am I to think?" he wondered, his pride bruised twice-over, "Your uncle-“

”-My uncle? What does he have to do with us?”

"Pyotr Ivanovich did me a kindness," Yakov replied.

"And this is how you repay it?"

"Perhaps I was harsh," he acknowledged, the lines in his face deepening, "Yet, for God's sake, what possessed you to come to the Precinct with that map?”

"Then this, I suppose, is what they call a stale-mate," Anna said coolly. “I can tell you it started with a prophetic nightmare, and you can either laugh at me or lose your temper again.”

“Anna Viktorovna,” Yakov said lowly. “You mock me now?”

“Mock you,” she replied. “Mock you! Yes, how strongly you feel it, indeed. You fear ridicule, you fear the uncertainty. My breath is wasted; you will not believe it until I haunt you from the grave myself.”

“You say that like it is not an actual fear,” Yakov said emphatically, for it struck him, how often it worried him more, when she was out of sight during a case, than when she was tangled up in one, close enough to touch. “You could have been shot.”

“Ferz was out for your blood.”

"Exactly!"

Anna frowned at him, and there was a slight flush to her cheeks. She was acutely aware, how close she had come to losing this stubborn man. It had made her kinder than she might otherwise have been, for the insult had been too close for comfort. A confirmation of her worst fears, her darkest thoughts. She could hardly explain her abilities to herself, let alone anyone else.

And Yakov Platonich hadn't ever been just anyone.

"This is my job," he returned, dryly, "it is nothing more than my duty."

"Then don't resent me for doing mine."

Yakov breathed out, one long suffering sigh, but he found that he had spend his anger, had thrown it to to the wind in one ill-advised gambit. "I have never been able stop your attempts before, now have I?"

"Is this your apology?"

"It's my concession," he replied, but it sounded wrong to his ears, yet the hurt was still too fresh and he still felt cheated out of something elusive. Ferz had never finished their chess game, there wasn't a victory in death, but loss had cast its shadow long. "This case was more than a case."

"I know," she replied, softly. "I always believed in your innocence."

For a moment, Yakov looked at her face intently, the sweet curve of her mouth, the stubborn lift of her chin. Anna how she had always been. "Then I might extend the same courtesy."

She returned his gaze, could drown in the sudden open expression of his blue eyes, and then with effort broke it off.

"Good afternoon, Yakov Platonovich," she replied, decisively, before turning inside, glancing back once as if in absolution.

Yakov remained standing outside a little longer, as regret mingled with frustration, annoyance with relief, before deciding that a walk to Zatonsk might clear his mind. To study the board, as it were, regain his detachment, for this wasn't a game, and there hadn't been any winners today.