До самой смерти частей нас

He heard the strange melody of the doorbell ring and thought of how ironic it felt to be ringing his own doorbell. I suppose this is what it feels like to leave your wife for a year and spend that year with another woman, he mused. It was strange that the guilt should settle in now, right as he stood on the doorstep. Hell, Svetlana had every right to slam the door in his face.

But he would be allowed inside, apparently – his little Alyosha almost leapt into his arms. As she flung the big oak door open, Anatoly could see the smaller of his two girls, Natasha, smiling in the foyer. The guilt pulled on his conscience even more as he realized that he was an outsider now, not even part of his own family. He had no idea what to say to the girls – little children change so much in a year… Would he even remember them, their mannerisms, their routines?

"Пaпa, you're back!" Alyosha cried happily. "Maмa said you were going to stay in England for a while, but Natasha and me knew you'd come back," she stated with all the precociousness of an eight year old girl.

All inklings of divorce left his mind in a rush as he heard his daughter. Even if Sveta wants me gone, I can't leave these girls again. I won't leave them again.

He gripped Alyosha tighter, hoisting the little girl up onto his hip before reaching for timid Natasha, who eagerly hugged him back. "I missed you girls," he murmured, finally realizing the statement as truth. Although, how much had he actually thought about anyone in Russia when he was in England – in Florence's embrace?

Clicks of high-heeled shoes betrayed his wife's presence, and he looked up from Alyosha's soft blond hair to see Svetlana's cold visage. His shoulders tensed and Natasha moved her head off of his chest, confused at his sudden change before she saw her Maмa.

"Maмa, look, Пaпa is back," she said with a smile.

Svetlana's smile didn't quite reach her eyes. "He is, isn't he, Пeшка?" Icy eyes bored into Anatoly's. "And Пaпa and I need to talk for a minute. Why don't you and Alyosha go and play for a bit in your room? We'll be there soon."

After hugging Anatoly and extracting promises from him to stay, the girls ran off down the hall.

"Don't run in the house!" Svetlana called wearily after them.

Anatoly rose slowly, meeting her frigid gaze.

"So you're the чемпион again," she said, a hint of biting sarcasm laced through her words.

He winced at her appellation of champion, but nodded. "It can all be different now, Sveta. We can start over," he added, trying to smooth over their inevitable confrontation. In the back of his mind, he realized that his attempt at placating his wife sounded remarkably like something Freddie had said to Florence before the first game. But what does one say to his wife after a yearlong absence?

"No, Anatoly. No, as much as I want to forget the past year, you spent it with another woman! And I just can't find any way to explain it to myself without recognizing that you left me." She sighed and ran a hand through her blond locks, so similar to their children's. "Проклятие, Tolya, what about the girls? If it weren't for them, I'm not sure we would still have a marriage, but they're ours, and I just can't do that to them! You know them, they adore their Пaпa, and to have you disappear for so long – a whole year, Tolya, a whole year!" Her voice broke and Anatoly reached for her comfortingly.

She shrugged his hands off.

"No. We aren't doing this again. We are married, Tolya, do you remember what that means? 'Til death do us part.' 'До самой смерти частей нас'. If it weren't for that rotten game, we'd have a family still. Natasha and Alyosha wouldn't constantly ask me, 'when is Пaпa coming home?'"

"Sveta, I swear that you all are the most important part of my life," he said quietly, trying to placate her. A calm wife was much easier to talk to, Anatoly decided.

"Don't give me that crap, Tolya," she spat. Anatoly winced as he recognized the line he had yelled at Molokov back in Merano. Will chess never leave me be? "We didn't matter to you at all when you were in England with her. What were you thinking?" She threw her hands into the air, at her wit's end.

"Can I explain?" He asked, an annoyed hint coming involuntarily to his voice. Well done, Anatoly.

Svetlana lifted one hand and pointed a finger at his chest – he felt like one of the girls getting reprimanded. "Do not take that tone with me, or you will be out of this house so quickly…"

Anatoly abandoned that attempt, trying another angle. It sounded false even to his ears. "It was for us, Sveta – I had to play chess. For us, to show the world that Russia isn't this trap of repression that they make it out to be—"

"Oh, I see." She stepped back, the threatening posture never leaving her frame. "And I suppose that that's the reason why, after showing the world that Russia is a wonderful place to live, you decided to leave it for a year. Congratulations, that makes perfect sense," she retorted.

"You don't understand," Anatoly pressed beseechingly.

"No, I most certainly do not," Svetlana replied stiffly. She sighed exasperatedly. "Because I think that to you, chess is the only thing that really matters. You know how I feel about that? How it feels to be a wife who comes second to a board game?"

Anatoly raised his hands defensively but refused to back up closer to the door. "I know now that I was a cold, unfeeling bastard to a lot of people, alright? I'm still getting over it myself. Is it too much to ask that I have the chance to start again with my family?"

When Svetlana finally responded, her voice was measured and quiet. "Da, Anatoly. You can have your second chance." He relaxed visibly, so she added stiffly, "But I expect you to be completely devoted to this family and our well-being. Completely. No chess. Just us, for once. Can you do that?"

He nodded. "Да. Я вас люблю," he offered feebly.

Her blue eyes appraised him coldly. "I'd like it if you would do something to make me believe it for once."

"I can, Sveta. We can forget this ever happened."

"No, Tolya. I for one refuse to forget that. So until you make some changes around here, I expect you to behave like a visitor to this family." She pointed down the hallway down which their daughters had disappeared. "I will start: Good evening, Mister Sergievsky. Our guest bedroom is down this hall, the second door on your left."

Sensing he would get no further say, he picked up his suitcase wordlessly and left his wife standing in the foyer, her hand raised. As he pulled open the guest room door, he saw the familiar decorations: pale blues and whites, as Svetlana had declared them welcoming colors to any kind of person. Quite frankly, Anatoly found that the light, reflective colors gave him a headache. Florence's flat in London was much more welcoming—no, I will cap that thought right there. I am in Russia now, in my own house, even if it is the spare room, and Florence is nothing more to me than an old acquaintance.

He sank down onto the bed, feeling the mattress give beneath his weight, and sighed. Things would get better – after all, there was only one way to go from rock bottom: up.