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The way that people look at Beth is starting to change.

She’s gotten used to the expressions of players she’s beaten, the range from pure hatred to scooped-out misery, the envy and admiration of spectators and competitors alike. She doesn’t care much about it, but she knows the way people react to her appearance too, the slightly different forms of envy and admiration there, sometimes a flat lust or a flatter fury, all of it easy enough to wash over her. More and more often nowadays she gets the flicker of recognition in ordinary people’s eyes, those who’ve seen her in newspapers or on television. It’s been long enough overall that she can ignore all of it, so much background noise.

Then a women’s magazine prints an article ostensibly about successful ladies. Beth doesn’t find out about it until a few months after publication when Harry mentions it in passing. She’s trying hard to stay on something resembling the straight and narrow, to lean into life and not into oblivion, and some of that involves acknowledging past sins and trying to amend them. She nods to Harry when she visits the supermarket, makes a little small talk as she firmly avoids the liquor aisle, and then every few weeks they go sit somewhere and drink sodas and talk like people do, or something close enough that it nearly looks like it. Harry’s got graduation coming up, a girl somewhere that Beth suspects that she will never be allowed to meet, and they’re trying for a friendship. They might fall a little short, but, hell, the effort is almost enough.

“June showed it to me,” Harry explains, eyes on his coke bottle, “and we agreed it was all shit, they just want to needle you because you’re the best and some people aren’t ready for that.”

“Sure,” Beth agrees, and as soon as she gets home she calls up Jolene.

“Wasn’t worth your time,” Jolene explains when she turns up later, flings a creased magazine into Beth’s lap. Beth sees herself staring up from the page in sharp bright black and white, one of myriad pictures taken over the last couple years, with the article title splashed across beneath her: The Cost of Success?

“It’s all some puritan fucking bullshit,” Jolene opines, and it is, but Beth still reads every word anyway. The majority of the article isn’t about her and the parts that are don’t focus on her talents or achievements: the writer seems more concerned that she is still unmarried. Entirely unattached, travelling the world alone and going to tournaments surrounded by almost entirely male audiences. It’s all phrased with false concern, like something fundamental in Beth will shrivel and die if she doesn’t get herself into a kitchen to bring cold beer and TV dinners to a man of some kind, but she recognises the bitchiness under the words, the viciousness of the slightest implications.

Beth is too old to be a prodigy now, too successful to be written off, and the world has always had its knives out for those it cannot contain.

“There was no point in telling you,” Townes says apologetically on the phone the next day. “I’m sorry, but it’s what the media does, you know it’s as much an enemy as a friend.”

She knows that, and she hates it, and she also wonders just how many people in her life decided to cocoon her from this; what else they’re not sharing.

-

Jolene hasn’t finished law school yet so she can’t act on Beth’s behalf, but she has a whole lot of advice and Beth takes most of it. It turns out that she can be anchored to her life instead of drifting, dipping in and out of a bank account and hoping her home doesn’t fall down around her ears. Now she has a savings account as well as her regular one, a lawyer with an idea of what Beth specifically needs and wants from her representation, and an agent to help her actually control her career, keep all the strings of her fate in her own hands.

There was a time, shortly after her triumphant post-Russia press tour, when Beth thought she might never play chess again: that she’d peaked, that there was nothing left to conquer, that she’d strained her hopes and her fears and her talents until all that remained was a sour soup that was better viewed through the bottom of glass, that she couldn’t afford to view through the bottom of a glass. She signed autographs and smiled with all of her teeth and was whirled through a succession of celebrations and parties, new dresses, new shoes, handshakes and amateurs lining up to be checked in three moves on her part. She was tired and relieved and exhilarated and when she finally got back to Kentucky and it was all over she slept for days, waking up to periodic glasses of water and disorienting phone calls, rolling back into slumber again afterwards.

Jolene let her stew for a little over a week and then turned up, ripped open all the drapes and took Beth to play squash. They still play pretty regularly; Jolene is getting better, Beth oddly worse, but it’s fun and it’s nice to be doing something with her whole body that isn’t sitting taut waiting for an opponent to make a miniscule movement. Beth talked about piling all her books and magazines into boxes, to closing up the sets and leaving them be, and Jolene didn’t tell her she was being dramatic or to get over it, but did ask what was going to stop Beth from digging herself back into a pit again. When Beth admitted that she didn’t know, they spent a night drinking three pots of coffee and making lists of options, of desires, of entertaining impossibilities. Those lists became concrete assistance, a crisp new phone book with a whole bunch of numbers neatly inked in, the foundations of a real future.

It’s close to year since Beth returned from Russia, one that’s passed both in a blink and in an endless grind of dragging months. Tethering herself to something like reality leaves Beth feeling impossibly heavy and there are nights when she still can’t sleep, counting sheep that turn to pawns that twirl across the dark ceiling, not a game, just a shifting of patterns too fast to distinguish but which Beth still instinctively knows as she knows the bones beneath her skin. There are still days when she wants to drink wine until she’s blind with it, wants to take a handful of pills and drop the needle on a record and spin in her living room until her knees are grazed with carpet burn and hours have vanished into the blur. Weighing the cost is enough at the moment, though something in Beth dreads the time that it finally isn’t.

“You worked hard to get to the top,” Townes pointed out over dinner, a nice restaurant, Beth’s hair curled coyly and a deep purple sheath dress. “Are you going to let these upcoming little pissants take it from you?”

Beth took the Chess Review from him and looked at the pictures from the US Open. There were more women competitors than before, something Beth had never intended to spearhead but didn’t mind either, and a selection of the usual suspects kicking at each other and scrambling for places. There were plenty of photographs of Benny reaching the final, grinning with shark’s teeth, his hair a little longer, his moustache no better, no worse. He lost in the end, and Beth folded over the possibility of calling him in her mind, like she was marking the page.

“Look how many moves it took, and he got finally got Watts with a fucking triangulation,” Townes shook his head. “The chess world needs you back, Harmon.”

That night, Beth opened a set, laid out the pieces, Benny’s Black and his opponent’s White, and played through the game. The thing was kind of an embarrassing mess for a US Open final, not a banner one on either side, and she decided against calling him. If she’d just played this game and lost, she wouldn’t want to hear from anyone either. Still, there was something soothing in working it over, in deciding which moves she’d play instead, in spotting errors – so many errors – and figuring out a better endgame strategy.

When her phone rang a week later, Beth had made some actual choices, and was more pleased to hear Benny’s weary sigh than she’d ever admit. “Alright, Beth,” he said, like it hadn’t been months since they’d last talked, “let me have it.”

She could have replied in any number of ways, any number of easy lies, but instead she reached for the already close-at-hand pad with its pages of diligent notes. “You sure you can take it?”

His laugh was almost a groan, or maybe it was the other way around. “Probably not,” Benny replied, “but do it anyway.”

-

The television contract comes with a terrifying amount of small print and stipulations but a truly incredible amount of money. Beth gets not only her agent and her lawyer to look over the paperwork but Jolene and Townes too, the whole thing so overwhelming she kind of needs reassurance that it’s real.

Shit,” is Jolene’s initial reaction, and she waves at the waiter and orders a martini. She catches the look on Beth’s face and shrugs. “You can’t drink, but I can. Look at this.”

“Yeah,” Beth agrees, and presses her face into her hands for a moment. “I know.”

It’s a regular slot on a primetime variety show, an opportunity to demonstrate an interesting or showy move – and, of course, her own impeccable knowledge – before playing any member of the studio audience who thinks that they can beat her. They won’t, of course, and all the decent players in the chess world know this, but there are plenty of arrogant members of the public who think that being a man and having played a little chess in high school will render them capable of taking her down on national television. Beth’s role will be to take them down in as few moves as possible, sleek expertise and lots of applause. It sounds a little cheap, but mostly it sounds fun, and it’s not something that’s been offered to any of the numerous men gaining success and notoriety. Just to her. Beth could think about being offended, or she could make a lot of money and wear a variety of beautiful dresses she won’t have to buy herself.

“If you don’t take this opportunity, I will,” Jolene tells her, draining her glass and pushing it away to the other side of the table. Beth feels a twinge, but more one of habit than of real emotion.

“You can’t play chess,” Beth points out. Jolene has never let her teach her, never read the book she stole all those years ago.

“For this much money, I would learn,” Jolene replies, slipping the contract back into its folder, sliding it back over the table to Beth.

Townes says something similar to Jolene, without the martini addition, and once her lawyer has checked there are no hidden surprises in the clauses, she signs all the papers, gets her hair done, and lets them fly her out to the studio.

-

The serious chess magazines don’t go in for gossip and report on Beth’s games, past and present, as they always have. Every other form of press is kind of a fucking mess.

It’s not as though Beth is painted explicitly as some kind of slut, they can’t do that, but she’s bored of her single status being worked into every reference to her. She almost misses when she was a schoolgirl, bored of everyone talking constantly about her age and her gender, but it turns out that she’s at the ripe age for people to speculate on her romantic prospects.

She got some post after Russia, mostly straightforward fanmail, but now she has a specific agent who can forward her letters she gets a whole lot more. Beth and Jolene set aside a Sunday and a stack of LPs to sort through them, dividing them into piles by theme. There are letters of congratulation; letters telling her she’s an inspiration; letters containing chess problems the writer has either gotten stuck on or has made up to try and trick her; letters from abroad that could contain anything because Beth’s grasp of foreign languages never did get as broad as she would have liked. There are, however, two more categories of letters: the marriage proposals, and the Disapproving Older Ladies.

“White bitches with nothing better to do,” Jolene opines, after reading one aloud. “‘You seem like such a nice young woman on the television, I hate to think that your life is so unfulfilled’. What state does this woman live in, we can make a roadtrip to kick her ass.”

Beth feels the moue twist her mouth. “Does this one want me to marry her conveniently single son too?”

“No,” Jolene replies, dropping the letter onto the growing Disapproving Older Ladies pile.

“Pity,” Beth says, keeping her voice light, “they all sound like such catches.” She waves the one she’s been skimming, neatly typewritten on letterheaded paper and everything. “This one’s going to pray for my soul, to keep me safe in the den of iniquity that a television studio is.”

“She does know you’re not a virgin, right?” Jolene says, reaching to grab the letter from Beth’s hand.

“Keeping my legs crossed and just thinking about pawn patterns,” Beth offers, fluttering her eyelashes. “Most of these women write like chess tournaments are wild bacchanalian orgies.” She tips her head, putting aside another chess problem letter that she may or may not look at later. “I mean, there were several that would’ve been way more fun if they had been.”

Jolene screws up her face. “I’ve seen most of those guys you compete against,” she points out, “nobody wants to see them once their knitwear comes off.”

They both laugh, easy and maybe too hard, and Beth tells herself that she doesn’t mind all the busybodies, all the men who seem to think that she’s just dying for a husband to drag her into some sort of line.

-

It’s actually Townes who suggests that Beth is ready to start competing again; he spots the restlessness in her before she really does, still caught up in learning the rhythm of her TV work, the dressing room, the camera-ready make-up, the bright studio lights and beats to remember to hit. It’s all shine and noise and then she’s back in Kentucky again, her quiet house, every room empty, empty, empty.

“Dip a toe,” he recommends, sprawled eternally casually handsome on her couch. “I’m not saying jump back in against the Russians, but go to something more local. Remember what winning feels like.”

Something in Beth is relieved to hear this, but she can feel her shoulders hunching defensive. “I know what winning feels like, I win games all the time.”

She’d thought it would pall quickly, showily collapsing the game of an arrogant nobody in front of a whooping studio audience, but it turns out there are few things as satisfying as giving a deserving man’s ego a good, solid kick. It’s cathartic.

Townes waves a hand. “That’s not a real win and you know it. I’m talking about an actual challenge, not something you achieve in six moves. You’re a huntress, Beth, and you miss it. I know that you do.”

They agree that she’ll go to Cincinnati in a few weeks, actually accept one of the invitations that drop through the door instead of guiltily piling them up until Jolene loses her patience and throws them away. Nothing too big, not too much pressure, but a reminder that she’s not forgotten her roots. As to who she’s reminding, well, that’s possibly the real question. Townes is kind enough not to ask it; Beth doesn’t know if she’s ready to put it to herself just yet.

-

The Cincinnati tournament organisers announce that Beth Harmon will be present at her first competition since her historic win in Russia, and there’s a flurry of press interest that she thinks that she might have been trying to avoid. The phone rings semi-constantly for a few days but it’s mostly chess publications and more local papers, and she finds she isn’t lying when she says that she’s excited to be going. She doesn’t mention the patchy insomnia, sprawled in her bed staring at the ceiling, terrified that she’ll see impossible chess pieces grating across it, more terrified that she won’t.

Beth reads a few of the more recent issues of Chess Review, cross-referencing some of the latest reported matches with players she might meet. She’s plenty confident, this is pretty small-time in the scheme of things, but she also doesn’t want any surprises either. It’s good to get her mind back into the rhythm of moves and countermoves; she’s not rusty, could never be rusty, but there’s a particular strand of competitive thinking that she hasn’t done in a while and she hadn’t even realised how much she’d missed it.

Five days before the competition, Beth is flicking through a fashion magazine after painting her toenails in the hope of finding something to do with the early afternoon purgatory when her doorbell goes. She’s not expecting anyone; her friends have day jobs with set hours, and she’s not the kind of famous where the press line up on your porch. She’s half-expecting an Avon lady or maybe Girl Scouts but there, afternoon sunlight golden in the tips of his hair, is Benny Watts.

“I’m starving,” he says without preamble, “where’re you taking me?”

Beth blinks twice, and offers: “it’s customary to call first.”

“Sure,” Benny agrees, “but I was in the neighbourhood.”

“I guess seven hundred miles can be a neighbourhood,” Beth says dryly but Benny hasn’t altered his stance, hip cocked expectantly, and the part of her that wants to close the door in his face isn’t as big as the part of her that’s suddenly, brilliantly pleased, and it’s easy to slip her feet into flats, grab a coat and a handbag, and follow Benny to his car. The passenger footwell is full of empty coke bottles, candy wrappers and cigarette packets; she winds down the window to let some air in as Benny tosses his hat into the backseat and ruffles already ruffled hair.

“Have you driven straight through?” Beth asks, like she can’t tell from the dark circles under Benny’s eyes, the hint of stubble skimming his jaw. She knows the drive is the best part of the day, that he’d have had to set off some time in the darkness hours to be here by now.

“I slept in a truck stop parking lot at some point,” Benny offers, scowling a little. “Seriously, Beth, I’m starving, where are we going?”

They end up at a diner that hasn’t changed the entire time Beth has lived here; she might have fond teenage memories of coming here after school, splitting shakes with girlfriends or potential boyfriends and bickering over the jukebox, if she’d ever been that kind of girl. They’re given a booth and before they’re even seated Benny orders two cheeseburgers, coffee and coke and an extra side of fries.

“You didn’t ask what I wanted,” Beth tells him.

“Oh, kid, none of that’s for you,” Benny replies, flashing a charming smile at the waitress that he’s never given Beth. She orders coffee and cheesecake and resists the urge to kick him under the table.

They’re attracting an amount of attention, but most of that’s Benny’s appearance – even when he’s taken off the leather duster and the hat, he’s still an ostentatious mixture of silver jewellery and charisma, too many buttons open on his crumpled black shirt. The other part is simple local nosiness: people watching Beth and wondering about her companion more because they’ve watched her grow up than because they’ve seen her on television. It used to chafe on Beth but she likes it more now, there’s something oddly reassuring in the weight of their eyes.

In truth, the last time Beth spent any amount of actual time with Benny was those five hectic weeks in his shitty apartment. Before Paris, before what came after Paris, before Russia. It’s a time that she thinks back to more than she wants to, sometimes with the haze of nostalgia, sometimes with the wince of poking an old bruise. Beth was a different person then, and she learned more about herself over that month than she’ll ever honestly credit Benny with. More about her mind than she knew before, and definitely more about her body; Benny was all business over the chess board, no distractions, but when they’d exhausted the day’s plays and strategies he’d take her apart in his bed with the same dedication and thoroughness. He kissed her goodbye in the car outside the airport as she left for Paris, but she never did go back to New York.

Benny leans back in his seat, calmly insouciant even with the exhaustion in his eyes, and watches Beth like he’s waiting for her to punch his clock. It shouldn’t feel as comfortably familiar as it does, that look, but she knows where she stands with it. She thought she’d be more wrongfooted when she next saw Benny, their only contact in the last year or so a brief grateful handshake in a crowded room before the press whisked her away, and somehow she never could get the words together to pick up the phone.

“I take it you’re en route to Cincinnati,” Beth says, neutral ground.

A twitch of a smirk tells her what Benny thinks of her opening gambit, but he drums easy fingertips on the formica tabletop and offers: “sure, I figured I’d drop in. The calibre of player’s gone up a lot since everyone heard a certain champion was deigning to make an appearance.”

There’s an edge in his words, but not a particularly sharp one, and Beth lets it glance off her. The waitress brings their coffee and Benny’s coke, and Beth takes refuge in adding cream, stirring in the sugar.

“Don’t be like that, Beth,” Benny says, same tone as before. “You dropped off the face of the planet, I figured you’d crawled back into a bottle again. Beltik said you were doing fine, though.”

Beth stills. “You were checking up on me?”

“I had titles to win back,” Benny shrugs, ignoring the glass of ice at his elbow to drink his coke straight from the bottle.

“Well, that didn’t work out so well for you, did it?” Beth keeps her tone light too, and is rewarded with a sharp crack of Benny’s laughter.

“A fucking triangulation.” He shakes his head, rueful, and takes another sip of soda like he wishes it was something stronger.

“So you’re in Cincinnati to prove a point?” Beth asks.

“Something like that,” Benny agrees.

Their food arrives not long after, and Benny smacks Beth’s hand away from his extra fries with a swiftness she recognises from countless rounds of speed chess: “if you wanted some, you should’ve ordered them.”

Benny eats like he’s not eaten for days, as skinny as he’s ever been but comfortably capable of putting away both cheeseburgers, the fries Beth doesn’t successfully snatch, half her cheesecake, three cups of coffee, the coke, and a chocolate shake. They discuss mutual acquaintances, matches Beth read about that he was there for, re-tread old arguments about classic moves that they’ll never agree on. It’s easy in a way that it shouldn’t be. Benny gets up, steals ketchup bottles and sugar bowls from other tables, and between them they corral half a set on the table, bicker about passed pawns and the best way to fork a bishop. By the time they’re pointedly brought the check, it’s gotten dark outside.

Beth glances at Benny and pays, and his mouth works a moment but he lets her.

“There a motel somewhere around here?” he asks, tilting his hat easily back onto his messy hair.

She thinks about it, shifts some pieces in her head, and offers: “you can sleep in my living room.”

Benny laughs. “Place that size, you’ve gotta have a spare room.”

“At least it’s not an air mattress,” Beth responds, and watches the easy spread of his grin.

She’s expecting it to be awkward when she leads Benny into her home, his duffel bag slung over his shoulder, flicking on lights as she goes. He hangs up his hat and coat like he’s done it before, looks at the half-played game she’s left on the coffee table and bends to shift a rook.

“I’ll get you, uh, bedding, I guess,” Beth offers, and he nods, waves a hand with his gaze on the pawns. She bites into her lip for a moment then goes upstairs to rummage in a closet, find pillows and a quilt, unsure how she feels about today’s development. She breathes a few times before she heads back downstairs.

Benny is sprawled fully-dressed across her couch, dead to the world. Beth hesitates, considering, and then gently places what she’s brought on the vacant armchair. Benny doesn’t stir, and she looks at his still-booted feet, his hair falling across his too-boyish face, and then shakes her head and turns out the light.

-

When Beth wakes up she freezes at the sound of someone moving around downstairs before yesterday rushes back into her head in technicolour glory, and she rolls over to press her face into a pillow and groan. It’s easy, muscle memory maybe, to be around Benny, used to their back and forth, their dynamic. It’s only when she’s alone that Beth can clearly look at this situation and wonder what the hell is actually happening here. It takes a few long minutes for her to steel herself to wash and dress, applying a careful slick of eyeliner before she ventures down to the kitchen.

“I made coffee,” Benny offers, sat comfortably at her kitchen table flicking through the latest Chess Review. “And someone named Jolene called to check in but you didn’t wake up, I said you’d ring her back later.”

Beth stares at him. He’s wearing another ridiculous floral silk robe, his hair shower-wet and falling in his eyes, mug of coffee gently steaming on the table in front of him.

“You made yourself at home, huh?” she says, sharp.

He shrugs, spreads his hands. “Must be some of that famous Kentucky hospitality.”

She rolls her eyes, and goes to help herself to coffee. “Did you enjoy snooping?”

“Who says I snooped?” Benny turns a page, refuses to look up. “Your bathroom cabinets are suspiciously empty, did you know?”

Beth slams her coffee down on the table hard enough for some of it to slop over the sides. “I didn’t snoop when I stayed at your place!”

“Sure you did,” Benny replies easily. “I just didn’t have anything good for you to find. Don’t think I didn’t see you trying. And anyway, I was just looking for shampoo.”

“Uh huh.” Beth levels a glare at him. “It’s generally expected that guests will bring their own toiletries.”

“I was in kind of a hurry,” Benny replies. “And hey, at least I didn’t need to use your toothbrush.”

Beth can’t suppress the shudder that ripples through her and he laughs. She takes a sip of coffee and reconsiders his words. “Why did you leave New York in a hurry in the middle of the night?”

“Maybe I thought I’d take the scenic route to the tournament,” Benny offers. “Is there breakfast?”

It’s a bad distraction and Beth doesn’t want to let him get away with it but she knows from experience that the more she presses, the more he’ll just clam up. She’ll save the interrogation for later, when he isn’t expecting it.

“Your snooping didn’t extend to the fridge?” she says.

“Your privacy is very important,” Benny replies drily, and flutters his eyelashes at her until she kicks his ankle and goes to see what she’s got to eat.

She calls Jolene back when she’s sent Benny out to get more smokes with a vague set of directions she kind of hopes will get him lost and keep him out of the house longer.

“What the fuck are you doing?” Jolene asks, a thread of amusement woven through her voice. “Are you two shacked up again?”

“We weren’t shacked up before,” Beth protests. “And anyway, he’s on the couch.”

Jolene’s answering hum is disbelieving, doubtful. “Right.”

“He is!” Beth explains briefly about Benny’s sudden, random appearance. “What was I supposed to do?”

“Send his ass to a motel,” Jolene says, like she can’t believe she has to explain this. “He’s not a lost puppy, Beth, he’s an overgrown child prodigy who thinks he’s a cowboy with the shitty facial hair to match. And an actual fucking knife. Why haven’t you kicked him out yet?”

Because I’m fairly sure he’ll just sleep in his car if I do, Beth realises, but she doesn’t say it aloud, some odd protective instinct in her not wanting to admit that she suspects Benny can’t pay for a motel. It took her a long time to read between the lines of his fluctuations, to figure out that his hustles over a chess board for quick cash and penchant for all night poker games that he wouldn’t invite her to weren’t just an affectation or a way to broadcast his arrogance.

Jolene must read something into Beth’s lingering silence, because she just sighs, and offers: “well, don’t let him answer your phone anymore, anyway. Your agent will have a shitfit.”

“Oh,” Beth says, “shit.”

She actually hadn’t thought that hard about the lifestyle clauses in her contract; there aren’t that many of them and in her head the whole ‘clean living’ part mostly meant that she wouldn’t be drunk or stoned in public anymore, and since that was what she was aiming for anyway it didn’t seem like it would be a problem. Beth turns the situation over a couple of times in her head and decides that maybe the studio would not be happy if anyone found out that she had Benny staying in her home, even in a different room, and the excuse we’re not sleeping together anymore probably wouldn’t improve it any.

“I’m not gonna tell you what to do,” Jolene says, “but for fuck’s sake be careful, that asshole can bring the whole damn house of cards down around you.”

“Wrong game,” Beth says, to hide the way her lips have gone numb.

-

The day before they’re due to leave for the tournament, Beth walks into the kitchen for morning coffee to find Benny smoking and frowning at a piece of paper. He flicks a glance at her and then looks back at the page again, taking a slow, angry drag. She assumes it’s some of the notes he’s been making on recent games – way more copious and detailed than the ones Beth has been, but he’s the one with a fresh humiliating defeat – until he turns his annoyed attention to her.

“Do you get a lot of letters like this one?”

Beth feels her stomach drop, irritation and humiliation and something weirdly like panic ripping through her. “You started opening my mail?”

“You weren’t opening it,” Benny replies, waving the cigarette dismissively. “And answer the fucking question, Jesus, Beth.”

She swallows, tells herself to remain calm. “I don’t know, Benny, because I haven’t seen the letter, you’re the one reading my private correspondence.”

He all but throws the paper at her, disgust in his expression. Beth is a little apprehensive as she starts to read but it’s actually not too bad, another bored housewife lashing out at Beth because she isn’t tied to the kitchen by her apron strings and hiding the vitriol poorly under the guise of concern. She shrugs, drops it half-read on the table and reaches for one of the cigarettes, noticing as she does so that there are multiple letters spread around Benny’s coffee cup and ashtray. She needs to yell at him about this, she thinks, make sure that he knows this is unacceptable behaviour, but there’s something oddly like shame sitting on her tongue.

“Any viable marriage proposals?” she asks at last, when she can trust herself to speak. She doesn’t mind when Jolene sees all these messages, actually feels better about it all when they’re sifting through them together, but something about Benny reading them makes her feel like the kid she was when they first met, awkward angles and shy and apparently entirely unmemorable.

“Sure,” Benny replies, brittle, “if you like smug assholes and their meddling mothers.”

Beth’s hands are shaking and she thinks for a split second about tranquilisers and sour red wine, the cigarette between her fingers nowhere near enough. “Are any of them rich?”

“Fuck.” Benny slams his hands on the table and it takes all of Beth’s will not to jump. “The way these strangers think they can talk to you-”

“Stop,” Beth snarls. “You turn up out of nowhere looking like twenty kinds of shit and think you can just worm your way into my life and start passing judgements?”

“This is bullshit,” Benny snaps, waving another piece of paper at Beth.

“I know,” she says, heart thudding in her chest and her throat and her temples. “But it’s none of your goddamn business, Benny Watts. Or do you want to tell me why you had to run from New York in such a hurry in a car covered in unpaid parking tickets?”

Beth wonders, briefly, if Benny is going to slap her; she sees in his expression that he’s wondering it too, something sharp and hard and dark in his eyes before he sighs and stubs out his cigarette. He won’t look at her, and Beth shoves the letters into a pile in the middle of the table and drinks her cooling coffee and practices breathing and curling her toes, Benny pushing hands through his hair in her peripheral vision.

“You deserve better than this,” he grits out at last.

“Yes,” Beth agrees. “That’s why I don’t open my mail.”

Benny nods, twice, like he’s confirming something with her and something with himself, and gets up to make more coffee. Beth studies her nails, and makes sure her voice is quiet when she says: “do you need money?”

His shoulders tense, take a long long moment to relax again. “Not yet,” he replies, tight but not angry, and Beth exhales the smoke and the strain and the worst of her bitterness.

“Okay.” The word feels good in her mouth, the sweet relief of an unexpected but hoped-for adjournment, and the sudden cessation of fury in the kitchen leaves her feeling almost dizzy. She says it again, just for good measure: “okay.”

-

“You never did show me around,” Benny remarks when they’re driving out of town.

Beth slips on her sunglasses and leans back in her seat to watch the houses skim past. “I never said that I would.”

“You could’ve done some kind of Beth Harmon retrospective,” he says, and he’s needling her a little but it’s just his regular brand of quiet antagonism, he can’t function without it. “A tour of the gymnasiums and rec rooms you won games in, the porches you let all those fumbling teenage boys kiss you on…”

“Sure,” Beth says, brittle. “I could’ve taken you to the drugstore where I got my mother’s tranquilisers that then became my tranquilisers and where I stole chess magazines that I couldn’t afford. Ooh, and at least three liquor stores, you’ll love those.”

Benny says nothing, and Beth lets them sit for a while in a silence that’s not entirely uncomfortable, breeze from the open window ruffling his hair in her peripheral vision.

“I’m not saying high school was a picnic for me, either,” Benny says at last.

“What, the great Benny Watts wasn’t valedictorian prom king?” Beth asks dryly.

“Ha.” Benny taps his fingers on the steering wheel, eyes on the road. “I’m sure you remember, everyone loves skinny chess nerds who haven’t had their growth spurt yet, they’re real popular.”

Beth smiles a little, remembers the cold armour she built around herself so she didn’t mind the distance between her and her peers so much, looks at Benny’s shitty attitude and it’s still shitty, yeah, but she can see some of why he might have chosen to build it in the first place.

She reaches for the radio, fiddles with the dial until a burst of static gives way to the low dark hum of a familiar baseline. Benny makes a soft noise, and Beth remembers his terrible collection of pretentious records, not one Beatles album among them.

“They kept playing this half the way down,” Benny says. “So the British guys have discovered drugs, haven’t we all.”

Beth slants a look at him but he doesn’t look at her, and she suspects that even if she explicitly asked he wouldn’t tell her. There’s got to be a reason why Benny barely drinks alcohol, one that has nothing to do with Beth’s own problems and his opinions of them, but she couldn’t work it out of him back when they were as close as they’ll ever be and she knows he won’t give her anything now. He’s not big on handing things out if they haven’t been earned. Instead, she taps the beat of Come Together on her knee, hums a little, enjoying the irritation in Benny’s posture out of the corner of her eye.

When the song switches Benny groans but leans over to turn up the radio anyway, because some things are inevitable, and there are some songs you can’t not sing along to.

We’re caught in a trap, I can’t walk out, because I love you too much baby…

It’s a popular song, Beth’s heard it on the radio and in stores lately, learning the words almost by osmosis. It’s easy to belt it out with Benny, the little car full of winter sunlight and a little too much breeze, both of them hamming up their Elvis impressions. Beth’s pretty sure she’d be mortified if anyone else caught them, crooning along a little too expertly to this song, but she doesn’t mind as much when it’s Benny. They’ve humiliated each other enough times over the years that this doesn’t count as anything at all.

We can’t go on together with suspicious minds,” they bawl, catch each other’s eyes and burst out laughing.

Beth thinks vaguely that she probably shouldn’t be enjoying this so much.

A couple of hours and a near-argument later, Benny leaves Beth and her suitcase enough blocks from the hotel that she can justify catching a cab. The driver makes cheerful conversation about how many people he’s driven to this chess convention and Beth smiles and nods, adds bland replies, and tries not to think about the nerves creeping in the closer that she actually gets. She’s not been to a Cincinnati meet in years, the city doesn’t look all that familiar through the car’s windows, and for a few minutes she feels impossibly small and lost, thirteen and stumbling all over again.

The Gibson doesn’t seem to have changed all that much in the last six years, although it looks a lot smaller than it first did, and Beth’s room looks a little cluttered and tired. She thinks of Alma, settling herself on the end of a bed and talking about a pleasant room and she has to fall back against the door, closing her eyes against hot tears and a sharpness in her throat. That’s the problem, sometimes, with retracing your steps.

-

Every head turns as Beth makes her way to sign in for the competition; she gets some smiles and nods, a few offers of welcome back from people she knows and people she doesn’t, and is aware of the low buzz of conversation surrounding her. The men at the desk stand up to shake her hand and tell her how pleased they are that she’s come, and Beth feels herself flush as she admits how pleased she is to be there. Her hand trembles a little as she fills out her form but she thinks that she might be the only one who notices.

She wanders through the lobby, exchanges greetings with a few people she recognises, lets herself enjoy the wince on some men’s faces as they realise they stand a good chance of being grindingly defeated. It feels right to be back among real chess players again; Beth spent her adolescence in places like this, the smell of dust and nervous sweat and hair oil, so insulated and isolated in her own determination and desperation that she didn’t realise that she’d carved out a little niche of her own in this environment, or that it had carved out a niche in her in return. There are a few women scattered about, some clutching notebooks or strategy manuals in nervous hands, some looking far more composed than Beth can ever remember being. They exchange awkward nods with her, politely distant but acknowledging camaraderie nonetheless, a start of something.

Townes is meant to be here somewhere – he’s apparently taking her for dinner tonight – and Beth lets her feet carry her up the stairs. She skims her fingertips up the handrail, the smooth polished wood cool under her touch, and thinks to herself all pawns and no hope. Benny claims insistently and constantly that he doesn’t remember meeting her when she was the most awkward of schoolgirls, but Beth has never forgotten. She doesn’t forget much; it’s one of the reasons drinking is always so appealing. Caught up in nostalgia thick enough to choke on, Beth makes it all the way up the stairs before she realises the arrogant voice holding court isn’t a part of her memories but is really Benny, taking up far more of a chair than his slight frame can really justify and telling an anecdote about the Pirc Defence that Beth has heard before. The Pirc is too much of a risk for tournaments, but get your timing right and there’s a quiet satisfaction to it.

Beth pauses on the edge of the little group, unsure if she should linger and offer the observation that a solid Austrian Attack can shatter the Pirc like candy, as Benny well knows, or if she should leave him to his ego exhibition. They’ve only been apart a few hours, there’s no need to speak again so soon, but she’s still a little discombobulated from being alone amongst the present and the past. She’s still pondering when Benny glances up. He impossibly manages to slouch lower in his chair, tipping his hat back, playing a gunslinger when their nemesis walks into the bar; he’s never admitted to practicing all this in a mirror but Beth is sure that he did, at least to begin with.

“The queen graces us with her presence,” he says drily, a little mocking but not cruel, lacing his fingers over his stomach as he considers her. “And just when did you arrive at this Heartbreak Hotel, Miss Harmon?”

Beth is aware of the attention on her, on both of them, people in other parts of the room catching her name and turning to look; she scrapes together a smile. “Benny Watts. And there was me thinking you were all shook up after your Open loss.”

Something competitive glitters in Benny’s eyes. “Don’t be cruel, Beth.”

Some part of Beth is desperate not to appear overfamiliar in front of all these people, half of whom are murmuring about her already, and some other part is thinking that she’ll definitely lose if she straight-up calls Benny a hound dog. “Maybe you should just surrender,” she offers mildly.

Benny indicates the chess board beside him, demonstrative pieces scattered across it. “Want in? It’s now or never,” he tells her.

“That’s all right,” Beth replies, and spins on her heel before Benny can come up with a rejoinder and she has to refer to him as the devil in disguise. She’s aware of gaining more attention as she keeps walking, relieved that she can still garner it among serious players, whatever the Federation has to say about her, wishing just a little that she was still a slip of a girl who could pass mostly unnoticed.

The twins find her, apparently by following the trail of gossip, and envelop her in almost matching embraces before bearing her off to the hotel bar for too-sweet sodas and people watching. They help her pick out some of the newer faces in the crowd, matching up names she’s read on game reports but not faced in person, dropping in any facts they’ve gleaned alongside a range of rumours. In some ways, it reminds Beth of listening to the high school girls lined up in front of the bathroom mirrors, pointedly ignoring Beth while they tossed social currency back and forth.

“Are you playing?” she asks at last, when most of the people sitting around them have stopped staring and the flow of new arrivals has slowed.

“God, no,” Matt says on an easy laugh. “Mike’s threatening to do Kentucky, though.”

They’ve stayed closer to chess than Harry has, keeping a foot in the door of the world rather than letting it bang closed behind them. Beth’s glad; they were the first friends she made for herself after losing Jolene, and it’s good to be able to talk about chess with them and have them understand what she’s really saying. She’s done this on and off over the years, sat in numerous hotels and halls safely bracketed by the twins and their easy conversation.

“Go on, tell her,” Matt says, and Mike’s cheeks pink a little.

Beth twists to face him. “Tell me what?”

“I’m engaged,” Mike announces, looking embarrassed but pleased.

“Oh, Mike!” Beth gives him an impulsive hug. “Tell me about her.”

It takes a little more prodding but soon Mike is telling Beth about the girl he met at work, their plans for a spring wedding, while Matt teasingly interjects from time to time.

“Susan even plays chess!” Mike finishes.

“She’s better than he is,” Matt remarks, which makes Mike smile ruefully and nod.

“I’d like to meet her,” Beth says.

“She’d love to meet you,” Mike replies. “She always watches you on television, I don’t think she really believes I know you.”

“We’ll have to fix that,” Beth smiles. Her stomach flutters a little at the first reference to the show; she knows that Townes and Jolene are pleased for her, and that Benny hasn’t explicitly said that he disapproves but he definitely does, and she’s been a little nervous about reaching out to ask anyone else.

“When we’re back home,” Mike says, and they clink glasses, drink to it.

-

Benny wins Cincinnati.

It comes down to the two of them like pretty much everyone knew it was going to, other competitors grudgingly or gratefully or resignedly accepting defeat through the rounds as E. Harmon and B. Watts climb the boards. In the evenings Beth replays the games with herself or with Townes, occasionally sits with the twins and watches Benny cheerfully hustling the cocky or the unwary with rounds of knife-sharp speed chess. He doesn’t offer a round to her and she doesn’t ask for one; she’s not sure which of them would come off worse in the end.

There’s no clear victor for most of the game, the two of them stepping in and out of each other’s traps with clean precision. Beth watches Benny’s hands and the board and doesn’t look at the audience, even as she senses their growing admiration, doesn’t look at Benny’s face because she knows all the different expressions he can wear over a game and none of them will tell her his next move. There are two or three moments when she notes an official shifting, clearly hoping that they’re about to call it a draw, but then she or Benny nimbly kicks the other’s net apart and the game carries on, tension slowly creeping up Beth’s spine the longer the clocks tick.

It hurts more than it should when Benny finally pins her king and Beth tips the piece over, listens to it clatter against the board in the silence before the applause begins. Benny holds out a hand and for a brief second Beth wants to refuse, to behave like a brat and shove the board at him, but she takes his warm sure grip and when he squeezes, she squeezes back.

There are flashbulbs and photographs; Beth catches Townes’ conciliatory smile from behind his camera amid the reporters. She wants a drink, wants to blur the bitterness of the defeat on her tongue, wants to lie on the anonymous hotel room bed and stare at nothing at all on the ceiling while her brain drowns itself. She doesn’t want to smile and admit to her first public loss since Russia, doesn’t want to say something polite and neutral about Benny, doesn’t want to play the dignified loser. She wants to hurl Benny’s stupid hat across the room and scream until there’s no one here but her and the relief of silence.

“Good,” Benny says under his toothy grin, letting their shoulders graze for a moment.

“What?” Beth asks. Just another minute, maybe two, and she can escape to her room and a burst of angry tears.

“You want my head on a fucking spike,” Benny replies, low enough for only her to hear, lips barely moving. “You should. Anything less would be a disservice to us both.”

Beth flees the scene with grace before they can talk anymore; a furious cry in the shower, a clean dress and a fresh coat of lipstick set her up for the evening, dinner with Townes and the twins. All of them stick to water all night, and Beth wants to spitefully demand a Gibson or a glass of wine, just to see what any of them do. In the end she behaves herself, glad to have people around her even with the loss today a physical, thumping ache behind her breastbone. When she blinks, she can see the final click of Benny setting down the Black rook, inexorable.

Back at the hotel, the twins waved off – they’re driving back early in the morning, earlier than Beth’s willing to surface to say goodbye – Townes considers her in the dim light of the lobby.

“Do you want me to stay tonight?” he asks quietly.

Beth swallows a lump in her throat formed of a half-dozen emotions and says: “I apparently signed a contract that promised I wouldn’t have unchaperoned men in my hotel room.”

Townes grimaces, but offers: “I’ve had to get very good at discretion, Harmon.”

“I know.” Beth looks down at the floor for a moment, her slip-on heels, his shiny brogues, and feels a wave of something like exhaustion run through her. “I’ll be all right. Thank you.”

The halls feel too long as she trudges back to her room, late enough that it’s mostly quiet in the hotel, the occasional burst of voices or static from the television as she passes each closed door. She’ll have to set the game up and play through it when she gets back to her room even though she doesn’t want to, doesn’t want to poke at a wound so open and so fresh. The need to do it is greater than self-preservation, the way she laid out her games against Borgov again and again, watched herself lose over and over and over.

Conversation in the corridor has her ducking back into the stairwell, not wanting to be seen right now, not feeling like this. She’s too far away to make out much, a man and a woman, voices overlapping, rising and falling. Beth digs her nails into the palms of her hands, forces breaths into her aching chest, tells herself that in another moment she can be back in her room where the rest of the world can be held at bay with closed drapes and a locked door. No one hangs out in hotel hallways at night, whoever it is will go away soon enough.

The woman laughs, high and a little breathy, and the conversation stops for a long, heavy second. Beth doesn’t have time to get hopeful when there’s another giggle, a hiss of Benny! that carries right the way down the hall, then a low laugh that’s too blurry for Beth to tell if it’s actually Benny’s or not. A door slams, and Beth stands in the silence and counts to ten before she ventures into the empty corridor, scurrying to her room with her heartbeat thudding in her ears.

It’s a gruelling game to play through, their moves so densely knitted it’s hard to pick them apart and suggest which one was better for most of the middle game, hard to find an alternative move that would snip through the threads and give one of them an upper hand. Beth debates putting on the television just for background noise, debates calling to see what room service have handy at this time of night when you want an easy oblivion. Ennui hits her in the end and she goes to lie on her bed, listlessly staring at the light fittings, pawns moving in front of her eyes and always, always that damn final rook.

Finally, Beth gives up, puts a cardigan on over her crumpled dinner dress, slips her shoes back on and goes downstairs. The lobby is empty; the concierge glances at her but Beth doesn’t engage and he turns his attention back to the book spread open on his desk. The chairs are all empty, spectators long gone, and the rooms they played in are all locked up. Beth wanders, restless, and finds the closed bar. It’s merely roped off, and no one is watching when Beth slips around the barrier and walks into the dark.

There’s a click of pieces against a board and for a second her heart leaps into her throat. Then her eyes adjust and she sees someone sitting at one of the tables by the window, chess board lit by the bright winter moonlight streaming in. A childish part of Beth thinks about ghosts, but she knows that posture by now and walks over.

Benny’s face is streaked with silver in the moonlight, all his jewellery shining, and he startles when he looks up and sees Beth, maybe a little ghostly herself in her pale dress. He considers her for a long moment, eyes too dark to read, body utterly still.

“It’s coming down to luck,” he says at last, and Beth drops her gaze to their game laid out on the table in front of him. The Black pieces are barely visible, the White ones almost glowing.

“Luck’s a loser’s word,” Beth replies as she sits down opposite him; he’s never said this to her, but she’s heard him say it to others, usually after he’s soundly beaten them.

“So tell me you did a better job prying this one apart.” Benny spreads his hands. “This is my third time through and it could just as easily have been you.”

“But it wasn’t.” The words are sour, and Beth grits her teeth. Benny dips his head to look at the board again and she studies him a moment, his messy hair, a dark smudge on his cheek that in better lighting would almost definitely be lipstick. “Shouldn’t you be… sleeping?” she asks at last, shrinking back from her original question because what does it really matter, anyway.

Benny shrugs, shifts a knight. Beth remembers that move: it was one of hers. “Shouldn’t you be?” he asks. “Or was this meant to be a relapse?”

Hotels do not leave their liquor lying around for their guests to acquire; Beth knows this of old, from longer nights than this one.

“I don’t know,” she admits, and replies to the knight by pushing a Black pawn, Benny’s next move. The whole game seems carved into her skin, painful and irrevocable. She hadn’t even known how badly she needed the win until she was halfway through the match and saw the possibility of winning halving, then halving again.

Benny shifts the hanging White bishop instead of replying. Beth pushes the Black pawn again, the best of the available moves, and Benny moves a White pawn to meet it, to strand them gridlocked in the centre of the board.

“Was this what you needed?” Beth asks a while later, when they’ve gone through the next few moves and Benny’s silently tried shifting a White rook instead of the knight that Beth originally moved and then carefully moved it back after staring at the board a while longer.

“The win or the money?” he responds, not looking up as he places the knight down.

“Either,” Beth says. “Both.”

“Yes,” he says, and reaches to shift the Black knight when Beth doesn’t.

She wants him to apologise and she doesn’t want him to, and she wants it to have been someone, anyone other than him that she lost to, and she’s glad that it was only him who could beat her. Beth thinks about shoving the board at Benny, sending pieces scattering, pawns lost under the chairs until morning.

“Can you go back to New York now?” she asks at last, still looking at where she castled hours ago and wondering if she shouldn’t have after all. The rook protects the king, sure, but then the rook is more pinned than she usually likes.

“I leave in the morning,” Benny says, moving the White queen to take a Black bishop. Beth remembers how it felt to do that the first time, but it didn’t mean anything in the end. He lifts his head. “Are you okay getting back home?”

“Townes is driving me back tomorrow,” Beth explains.

“Sure he is,” Benny says, nodding, and Beth isn’t sure what his tone means; she opens her mouth and closes it again, unsure what she wants to actually say. She doesn’t know what Benny knows or thinks or has extrapolated, and regardless she’s not going to reveal a secret that isn’t hers in the first place.

Instead of replying, she pushes a Black pawn, forks a White knight and a White pawn, and gets up from the table.

“‘Night, Beth,” Benny calls when she’s most of the way across the room; she freezes a second, but doesn’t look back.

-

After Cincinnati, Beth throws herself into preparing for the Kentucky State Championship. She lost her title after Paris, the one she’d proudly held since she was fifteen. At the time she told herself it was too small to matter, but she wants it back now.

“There’s my crazy girl,” Jolene says when she comes over for dinner one night, finds six chess boards scattered across the living room in various states of play. They eat pizza and Beth scrambles for conversation that isn’t about chess players alive and dead and what they thought the best opening moves were. Jolene doesn’t mind, full of stories from school, from the law office, from the various lives she lives while Beth just lives this one and can barely keep her grip on it.

“I’ll come watch,” Jolene offers.

“You’ll be bored,” Beth replies, though she’d like to have Jolene there; she’s missed having family spectating, even if said family doesn’t understand what the hell is going on.

“I won’t be if you make a stuffy white boy cry,” Jolene tells her, grinning with all her teeth. “Maybe two, remind them what a shark bitch you can be.”

Beth laughs, really laughs, and feels a little better about the grim tone of the serious chess reviews that praise the skill of the match between her and Benny but worry that Elizabeth Harmon has lost her edge, about the sly tone of the magazine that printed photographs of her in the hotel bar with Matt and Mike, in a restaurant with Townes, looking briefly at Benny as he grinned through his win. The magazine mildly suggested that Beth needed more practice and less of a social life, but the darker implications were painfully clear. Her agent hasn’t said anything explicit, but he was the one to post her the magazine in the first place.

It’s a different high school this year but the atmosphere is the same as it always is, the waxed floor and vague old sweat in the air of the gym, the jaded expressions of the masters and the anxious ones of the amateurs proud to scrape this far. The press is local, Townes turning up without his camera but promising a column that talks a lot about her talent and absolutely nothing else. Jolene comes with candy and a leather jacket that Beth immediately covets, while Matt’s there rolling his eyes as his brother signs up and then shyly introduces Beth to Susan, a sweet blonde who keeps proudly glancing at the engagement ring with its diamond chips like it’s five times bigger than it is. She immediately asks Beth a question about the French Defence and has intelligent follow-up questions too; “maybe you’re the one who should be playing instead,” Beth says.

Susan giggles but throws a look at Mike and says: “maybe next year” in a contemplative tone.

Most of the matches Beth plays are pretty simple, players she can checkmate in less than two dozen moves, but it’s still enjoyable to run through her favourite tactics with flesh and blood humans, even the ones that leave afterward looking frustrated and just a little disgusted. One of the men she beats in the second round mutters something derogatory about her TV appearances; Beth misses all the words that aren’t bitch, but the gist is pretty clear. Later, Jolene tells her that she went out to the parking lot to kick him in the balls but found the guy crying in his car instead, and presses a proud kiss to Beth’s cheek.

For the final, Harry and an awkward brunette he identifies as June – who definitely doesn’t know about the ugly youthful history between Harry and Beth, thank heaven for small mercies – show up to watch too. Jolene raises her eyebrows but refrains from saying anything, and when Beth looks up in the middle of a match that’s a little taxing but nothing she can’t handle, she sees Wexler has arrived from somewhere, whispering something into Matt’s ear that makes him grin.

Beth reclaims her title, the first one she ever wrapped her determined fingers around, to whoops and cheers from her little support group. They whisk her off to dinner, all of them: Townes and Jolene, Matt and Mike and Susan, Harry and June, Wexler. It shouldn’t work, Beth is sure that it won’t, but everyone is cheerful and proud and in the mood to enjoy themselves, and somehow they all manage to sit around a table and make a ludicrous amount of noise.

“What’re you even doing here, Wexler?” Beth manages to ask halfway through dinner. At one end of the table, Matt and Susan are attempting to explain what looks like a smothered checkmate to June, with the aid of a salt cellar and three wine glasses, while Harry and Townes are animatedly discussing a television show Beth has never heard of.

“Catching up with some old friends,” Wexler shrugs. “Mike told me you were competing and I thought I’d stop in on the way, watch you crush some unworthy opponents. Levertov was supposed to come too, the whole trip was his idea, but Benny dragged him into one of his fucking all-night poker games and they were still at it when it was time to go, so I left him behind.”

“How is the cowboy prince?” Jolene asks, which makes Wexler choke on his beer and laugh.

“Ah, he’s Benny Watts,” he says, on an eyeroll that’s part fondness and part frustration.

Beth says nothing, not sure what Jolene is doing, not sure what she herself is thinking or feeling. She sips her coke and watches as Jolene finds a clean serviette, prints a few words on it in ballpoint before passing it to Wexler.

“Get that skinny white boy to mail one of these to Beth,” she orders, and shrugs at Beth’s glare and Wexler’s bemused expression. “You try getting radical Black poetry collections out here, then get back to me.”

Despite her best attempts to derail it, the table’s conversation eventually drifts to media coverage of Beth. All of her friends have seen patronising articles, turns of phrase that can be read more than one way. Beth has never liked the way journalists talk about her gender and almost nothing else, but it’s definitely getting worse and she hates that it’s getting so stupidly noticeable.

“What you need,” Susan says thoughtfully, “is a husband.”

Beth narrowly avoids swallowing her drink the wrong way. “What?” she demands.

“I don’t mean a real husband,” Susan explains quickly. “A husband like movie stars have, you know, to carry your purse and light your cigarettes and look at you silently but adoringly.”

There’s a long moment of silence. “…it’s a shitty idea but it’s not a bad one,” Jolene says at last.

“No,” Beth says. “That’s… I can’t just give in to this.”

Her friends are all exchanging glances. None of them look comfortable, but all of them seem to be considering it like getting herself a random dummy husband is a viable option. It isn’t. Beth will not let it be. If she has to win every fucking tournament in the world to make people look at her and see her as more than a delicate young woman, then that is what she will do.

“No,” she repeats, making sure to meet as many pairs of eyes as will meet hers. “Never. Okay?”

-

Ten days later there’s a small package in Beth’s mailbox alongside six marriage proposals, five chess puzzles, three letters of congratulation and two people who think she’s setting a bad example to young women and that she had the devil with her in Cincinnati.

“Like he doesn’t have better things to do,” Beth mutters to no one.

Inside the package is a slim book of poems, The First Cities by Audre Lorde. The one Jolene demanded in the restaurant; Beth had forgotten. She carefully lays the volume to one side but there’s nothing else, just the brown paper wrapping. She skims the pages of the book and there’s nothing there either.

Beth isn’t disappointed, because there is nothing to be disappointed about.

-

Life carries on. Beth trains for several hours a day, reads books she’s read before and forces her way through the footnotes, takes out subscriptions to several international chess magazines and reads about rising European stars, plays through games against phantom competitors she has yet to meet. When that doesn’t work she takes long aimless walks, nods awkwardly to her neighbours and shifts pawns between the clouds with her hands curled in the pockets of her coat. She listens to the radio and learns the words to all the new hits regardless of whether she likes them or not, thinking about the teenage girls gathered around the television singing along like their lives depended on it, the wall of glass Beth felt between them and her. She does handstands against the living room wall and recites strings of strategy squares or Russian phrases while the blood rushes into her head and her wrists start to tremble.

The truth about staying sober is that it’s boring. There were endless days and nights before, but they drifted shiftlessly past when she’d taken pills or drunk enough wine to make everything blindingly clear, hours gone while she played games across the ceiling or the inside of her eyelids, listened to records until the needle slipped into an empty groove. Now Beth is determined to stay afloat, whatever the cost, she finds she has more time than she knows what to do with and not enough to fill it with. There are her television appearances of course, but they slip by almost too fast, as though the hours she spends under the bright lights with every eye on her are siphoned away and pumped into the rest of the week.

She’s not alone, of course. She and Jolene are carefully twining their lives back together, phonecalls and dinners and trips to the movies. Townes calls or drops by when he can, takes her out to restaurants where they both dress in their finest and catch people’s eyes for their mutual beauty more than Beth’s fame. And she still exchanges her periodic careful pleasantries with Harry, spends an afternoon with Mike and Susan and three different chess boards, starts the slow but not dissatisfying practice of postal chess with a Russian woman who writes her moves in thick black marker on postcards. Beth’s life has plenty of people in it, she isn’t lonely.

The twins invite her on a roadtrip with them and Susan to a tournament in Washington, and Beth barely hesitates before she agrees, packs new pamphlets and an old board in her suitcase. She and Susan sit in back, sing along to the radio and flick through Chess Review back issues while Matt and Mike take turns behind the wheel and good-naturedly argue about the best route and which way up the map should go.

“Is Borgov as handsome in person?” Susan asks, studying a photograph.

Beth blinks twice; in all those years of him looming over her, a sword of Damocles, he became something more than human. Now she’s beaten him and they’ve settled into something like mutual respect, she’s still kind of working out how to recategorize him. But she looks at what Susan is looking at, the neat hair, the sharp suit, and considers.

“He’s a gentleman,” she decides at last.

“He looks it,” Susan agrees, tapping the page. “When chess is played seriously, I think the competitors should look dapper. Not like that Watts guy.” She raises her voice. “Honey, didn’t you say that Watts was coming to this meet?”

“He is?” Beth asks, her mind rifling through a selection of thoughts and emotions too quick to define any of them and settling at last on a ridiculous wish that she’d packed a different shade of lipstick.

“I said he might be there,” Mike says, craning around in his seat to look at them. “I mean, who really knows the ways of The Great Benny Watts?”

Beth laughs because it’s the easiest of all the available options.

-

The rooms are a little poky but the hotel itself is nice enough, high-ceilinged conference rooms with big windows and comfy chairs in the lobby and bar. There’s a buzz when Beth walks in that spreads quickly and changes key into something slightly relieved when she confirms that she’s just there to watch. She studies the competitor lists for names she knows and finds a few, none of them Benny. This doesn’t mean anything; he’s always liked to make an entrance.

They all eat dinner in the hotel restaurant; Matt manages to round up Wexler and Levertov, and Weiss comes over to say hello and ends up staying for coffee. The place is busy, the happy hum of people looking forward to a good weekend, and Beth decides she’s glad she came. Wexler pulls out a set and he, Mike and Susan start working through a set of problems; Susan’s slow but she’s methodical and right more often than not. Levertov talks about the New York chess scene and Beth doesn’t ask and doesn’t ask and doesn’t ask.

The next day, Benny’s name is neatly printed on the list, his first match lined up. Most people are going to watch him, Beth catches his name again and again from passers-by, but she tells the others to go without her: “I’ve seen him take enough poor suckers down to last a lifetime”. Instead, she drifts around the lower ranked games; there’s nothing ground-breaking and a lot of awkward mistakes and clumsiness, but in a few places she spots sparks of potential, makes a mental note or two that she’ll try and pass on later.

After the day’s games have closed, Benny has his usual crowd of admirers around him. Beth ponders going over, knows that he’d make space for her, but she realises that she honestly doesn’t know what to say. She eats dinner alone in her room and falls asleep faster than she expected, waking up still-clothed on top of the covers in the early hours of the morning with the lights blazing, lies still for several moments wondering where she is.

The second afternoon, with Mike and Susan off for some sightseeing or shopping or something, Matt accompanies Weiss to play an adjournment and Beth volunteers to meet Levertov downstairs to help replay the game that knocked him out. She’s waylaid by two young women who ask her to sign copies of Sports Illustrated and want to talk about their high school’s chess club; they’re eager and sweet and Beth doesn’t mind giving them her time, waving them off a little bemused but pleased nonetheless. She makes her way to the lobby and is stopped again on the landing by a man who steps into her path.

“Miss Harmon,” he says, and Beth takes the hand he holds out. “I’m Albert Stone.”

“Nice to meet you.” His grip is firm, just a little too warm, and he doesn’t immediately let go.

“I’ve written to you,” he says.

He’s taller than Beth, very neat dark hair, largely nondescript features, a slightly faded argyle sweater. She takes all this in before her gaze drops down to where his hand is still wrapped around hers.

“Thank you,” Beth says carefully. “I, um, I get a lot of letters.”

“I’ve written to you eight times,” Stone tells her, and even though his tone is quiet and mild something in it makes the hairs on the back of Beth’s neck stand up. She swallows and forces herself to meet his gaze. He’s staring at her, unblinking. “I’ve asked you to marry me.”

“That’s very flattering,” Beth says quickly, trying to pull her hand out of his grip, but he tightens it. “I’m not looking to get married right now, thanks.” When he still doesn’t let go, she drags up an awkward smile. “Sorry, I’m meeting a friend, I need to go.”

“One of your boyfriends?” Stone steps a little closer and he’s by no means a giant but there’s an air of menace to him. Beth reminds herself that they’re in public, there are plenty of people around, nothing will happen, but her hand is slowly being crushed and her stomach is churning. “Everyone knows about them,” he continues, low voice turning a little uneven. “Everyone knows what you are.”

Beth wrenches her hand back, biting the inside of her lower lip against the pain, and turns and walks away as fast as she can without drawing attention to herself, aware of Stone’s gaze between her shoulder blades.

Benny’s sat opposite Levertov at a corner table, lecturing: “your diagonals are a fucking mess, that’s your problem” and waving a White bishop that Beth remembers was lost pretty early in the match. Beth makes a beeline for the chair between them, aware the room is shivering around her and just wanting to sit down before something in her collapses.

“Nice of you to show,” Benny drawls from beneath his hat, putting the bishop to one side with a damning click as Beth drops into the chair like her legs have been cut out from beneath her.

“I was thinking about your knights,” she tells Levertov, but the words come out too quick, jumbling together. She reaches for the White knight that he should have deployed earlier but her hand is shaking so badly that she knocks most of the pieces over, pawns rolling off the board all over the table.

“Beth?”

“I’m fine,” she says, but her vision has tunnelled and there’s a weird ringing in her ears. She starts trying to pick the pieces back up again but they slip between her fingers. Benny reaches out and she snatches her hands back. “Don’t touch me!”

“Is she-” Levertov begins, sounding helpless.

“I don’t think so.” Benny’s voice is soft, and Beth wants to snap at him but she’s terrified that if she does she’ll burst into tears instead. She looks down at her fingers, knotted tightly together in her lap. Her right hand is flushed red, the wrist purpling.

“I’ll get you some water,” Levertov says, pushes away from the table, and Beth feels small and stupid and ashamed.

“Beth.” Benny’s voice is barely above a whisper but she can’t look at him. His hand settles between her shoulders and she flinches, but he doesn’t move it. “Breathe,” he instructs, and she tries, dragging air raggedly into her lungs. She wants a drink, wants three green pills, after which none of this will matter. Benny’s hand is still on her back, touch firm but light, and she thinks everyone knows what you are. It’s stupid to be so shaken over something so small, people have said far worse about her and she hasn’t cared, she shouldn’t be sitting here feeling like she could shatter into small pieces at the slightest provocation.

“Tell me the Danish Gambit,” Benny says, and Beth takes another raw breath.

“White to e4,” she manages, “Black to e5.” Benny makes an acknowledging sound and she continues: “White to d4. Black takes. White to c3.”

By the time she’s talked through the opening, has the White bishop in position and none of the Black pieces developed, her head is thudding a little less and Levertov has returned with a glass of ice water. Beth drinks it gratefully, focusing on each sip and not on the two men exchanging worried glances.

“What happened?” Benny asks at last.

Beth takes in a breath through her nose, lets it back out again, squares her shoulders. “What happened is that Levertov’s diagonals are a fucking mess, and you need to keep your hands to yourself before some gossip rag announces that we’re sleeping together.”

Benny sits back in his chair, expression still too thoughtful for Beth’s liking, but he doesn’t push. “Gossip rags are already announcing that we’re sleeping together,” he says neutrally.

“That doesn’t make you special,” Levertov replies, setting chess pieces back on the board. “She’s supposedly also dating Townes, Wexler, and both the twins.”

Beth’s chest is still too tight but she manages to smile. “What can I say, I like to keep my options open.”

“Mike’s girl says Beth needs to find herself a fake husband,” Levertov says cheerfully, glancing down at the page of notes next to the board and moving the initial pawns into place.

“I’m not having a fake husband,” Beth says impatiently, putting her emptied glass on the table and leaning forward to study the game. All she wants right now is to get herself lost in discussing strategies and moving pieces, a world that’s much better and more important than the real one, where all the rules are hers alone.

-

A grandmaster from Pittsburgh knocks out Benny early on the final day in a quick exchange of barely thirty moves; Benny sighs but concedes with grace and a rueful smile.

“At least your diagonals were strong,” Levertov tells him later, smacking his shoulder while Benny groans and drinks a carefully solitary beer. He could order more, it’s not like it matters to Beth, but he drags it out, sipping and picking at the edges of the label until Beth wants to snatch it off him and finish it herself just so it will be gone. It doesn’t chase any of the stiffness out of his shoulders, but he grins for everyone who comes up to commiserate, shake his hand or offer unsolicited advice.

Beth didn’t sleep well last night, but she took time over her hair and make-up and selected a cardigan that hides a slightly bruised wrist without anyone asking questions, and after the first hour of the day passed and no one tried to accost her beyond a couple of autograph hunters, she’s relaxed again. She can remember the sharp fear of yesterday, the crawling discomfort that interfered with her breathing, but it seems a long way away now. It’s not like she doesn’t get letters like that all the time, of course it was bound to spill into her life sooner or later. It doesn’t have to mean anything, it’s just unfortunate that she reacted so badly; at least there were no cameras around.

Everyone is gathering in the main hall to watch the final; their group starts dispersing to find good places, and Beth scoops up her purse to go with Susan and Mike, not above using her notoriety to get a decent view.

“Can I borrow you a minute, Beth?” Benny calls.

Beth looks over her shoulder but he’s still slumped at one end of the fake-velvet couch he commandeered in the hotel bar, hat and finally emptied beer bottle on the table in front of him. She tells Susan she’ll catch her up and goes to sit down at the other end of the couch, a decent distance between them, presses her knees primly together. Benny doesn’t say anything, and they watch as the majority of the patrons finish their drinks and head out. The silence between them is expectant, but Benny started this and Beth can’t think of a reason for her to finish it.

“You gonna tell me who it was?” Benny asks at last, rolling his head on the back of the couch to look at her. When Beth frowns at him, he drops his gaze to where her cardigan sleeve has slid up enough to reveal a distinctive-looking bruise. She thinks about telling Benny she had an accident in the shower or with the hotel room door, but neither of them would believe it.

“It was a misunderstanding,” she says instead. “You may have the attitude and the fucking knife but you’re not an actual cowboy, Benny.”

His mouth tightens. “If you need help-”

“I don’t,” Beth cuts him off, and he huffs out an annoyed sigh that she remembers hearing multiple times on the end of a phoneline.

This is the moment to leave: there’s still a little time before the match starts, but Beth doesn’t move.

After a couple more crawling minutes, Benny adjusts his posture so he’s actually sitting instead of sprawling, and says: “we should get married.”

Beth turns her head so fast she hears something in her neck crunch. “I’m sorry, what?”

Benny shrugs. “I have everything you need in a fake husband,” he tells her. “One, I won’t make you quit chess. I won’t let you quit chess. Two, I’ll always be at your tournaments to support you because I’ll be there anyway.” He’s ticking them off on his fingers like this a real list, a real consideration. “Three, you won’t need to find a trainer. Four, you’ll get the Federation back on your side because we’ll make chess look sexy and romantic to whoever it is they think they want to appeal to. Five, the country’s two greatest players getting married? You can’t buy that kind of publicity.”

Beth stares at him for a long time but he doesn’t blink or crack or back down. “Fuck off, Benny,” she says.

“They’ll keep writing about your personal life and not your chess playing unless you make chess playing your personal life,” Benny tells her. “Once you’re married the press won’t care what you’re doing outside of tournaments or television. Go where you want, do what you want, fuck who you want, no one will write a damn thing about it.”

“I am not marrying you,” Beth snaps. She can’t believe that this is something she has to actually say; she can’t believe that this is something Benny is actually offering.

Benny’s expression doesn’t change. “We know that we can live together,” he adds. “We managed five weeks, which I think is a record. Cleo tried to kill me with my own knife after ten days.”

The thought of that unlocks a whole train of emotions in Beth that she forces herself not to focus on now; she settles for simply saying: “no.”

“Don’t think of it as marriage,” Benny tells her. “Think of it as castling.”

Beth raises an eyebrow. “Am I the king or the rook in this analogy?”

Benny’s mouth twists a little as he considers this. “I always thought of myself as a knight, frankly.”

“Yes, that’s patently obvious.” Beth has had enough of this conversation, knows that she and Benny could bat it back and forth into a stalemate for the rest of the afternoon. She brushes her hands off on her skirt, gets to her feet.

Benny grins up at her, something sparked in his eyes. “You’ll think about it,” he says.

“I won’t,” Beth says, and walks away.

She does, though.

-

For months and months and months when Beth was seventeen, she thought about Benny Watts.

It was an impossible compulsion; whenever she heard US Open Co-Champion her mind snapped straight to him with a hot flush of shame. She’d be studying or sitting in class or walking to the store and suddenly she’d see him sitting across from her, dark eyes and placid expression and fucking Caro-Kann Defence that forced her to concede. She’d hear you shouldn’t have castled and turn her head to find no one there, just her mind tormenting her over again. She’d be practicing new moves and all she could see was her position crumbling, nowhere left to run.

A lot of things happened that year and looking back her memories of stewing over Benny are kind of mixed up with walking away from Townes, with wine and music and losing her virginity, and in the end it took Borgov and Alma’s death to put Benny Watts from her mind altogether.

Things are different now, but sometimes Beth is uncomfortably reminded of those months, of reading every chess magazine and scanning the game lists for Benny’s name, playing out his matches and crowing every time she spotted a mistake or he drew or he lost. A feverish obsession that at the time she told herself was based in humiliation and anger and nothing else. Inevitably when Beth thinks about Benny now there are far more emotions and far more factors to consider but the way she keeps involuntarily drifting back to Washington is awkwardly familiar. No matter what she’s doing, multiple times a day, Beth blinks and there Benny is, saying we should get married like it’s the most obvious thing in the world.

Beth could talk to Jolene about this, and Townes probably has some good advice about the wide difference you can have between public and private relationships, but she can’t bring herself to want to discuss this aloud. This was all Susan’s idea, and she could probably offer to spend an evening tutoring Mike’s fiancée in some next level openings, then ask her what she really meant by suggesting that Beth find herself someone to act as her husband, but the idea of doing so makes her press her face into her hands at the sheer awkwardness.

It’s possible that she and Benny are friends, that that might be the simplest term to sieve out of the wide range of options and slap on a label. There was a time when Beth wanted nothing more than to break his nose, to tear him apart on the board with all the fierce vigour of a teenage girl suffering her first heartbreak, angrily kicking magazines with his face on the cover underneath her bed where she could hide from his knowing eyes. And there was a time when she could see and feel his magnetism, drawn inevitably to him and half-hating herself for it. And then there were the five weeks they spent in his apartment, playing chess like Beth had never played it until her veins were full of pawns and bishops, her mind like lightning and flames all the time, and she lived for the moments when she could see the admiration on his face and he wasn’t trying to hide it. That time is matched up with a similar but also different version of Benny, who kissed with a ruthlessness that she recognised from the board, who learned her body and taught it back to her with the same dedication that he taught her Borgov’s favourite opening stratagems. It wasn’t romantic, and he was frustratingly focused on her upcoming tournament, but it sure as hell was something.

Beth fucked all of that up by fleeing from it along with everything else about her life that year, and she’s still not sure which parts were deliberate and which ones were not.

Some mornings she wakes up furious, suddenly indignant that Benny thinks he could offer her anything when her life is coming together so well and she’s no longer the lost little girl who crossed his paths at tournaments. Other times she’s making dinner and remembers the way her heart felt too big for her chest when she picked up the phone in Moscow and heard his voice, tinny from the distance and more beautiful than anything she’d ever heard in her life. She drags her trash to the kerb and exchanges awkward half-smiles with the neighbours who still don’t approve of her and thinks, well, who the fuck proposes and then doesn’t even call?

Finally, Beth loses her temper and dials New York, ready to tell Benny that he’s an asshole, that he’s arrogant and smug and her talents outstripped his years ago. But the phone rings and rings and rings and no one picks up and she slams the handset back into the cradle, thwarted. She leans her back against the wall and closes her eyes and there’s another memory, sharp enough to make her breath hitch: Benny grinning up from between her thighs, golden hair caught in Beth’s fingers as he made her twitch and squirm, the bite mark he left on her hip that she could feel all the next day as she read pamphlets and played the same moves three times over.

They’re older now, though, and all that is definitely behind them, blazed out of their systems.

The next two times Beth tries calling Benny she gets no answer. It’s possible he’s avoiding her, that he realised it was a stupid mistake too, but he can’t know that it’s her calling. Annoyed, she sets her alarm clock and calls him at three in the morning, determined to get him out to bed just to talk to her, but she sits there listening to the ring miles away and he doesn’t pick up. Beth considers checking with Wexler or Levertov, see if one of them can put her in touch with Benny, but if something was really wrong she’s sure the news would have made its way to her one way or another, and she’s not desperate. Increasingly annoyed and periodically a little distracted, but there’s no actual need for them to speak to each other.

Sorting her mail into stacks on the living room carpet based on the tone of the first line of each letter, Beth is not thinking about her agent pointedly suggesting that there are several brands who would love to sponsor her and use her for advertising campaigns, but that said brands would feel more comfortable if she were settled down, married, a safe bet as he calls it. Beth is angry about this in the way that she’s been angry since the first time she read a newspaper article about herself and all it wanted to talk about was her gender and not her Sicilian Defence, but she’s tired as well. Tired of the seemingly endless ways that her life is made difficult just because she didn’t have a high school sweetheart to marry and procreate with the moment she graduated, just because she dared to want more.

When she next calls up Benny, not even sure what she’s going to say, the number has been disconnected.

Beth recalls Cleo tried to kill me with my own knife after ten days, and conjures herself a grim smile. “I bet she did,” she tells her empty kitchen.

Benny finally calls her nearly two weeks later, voice brisk and bright like he’s not been successfully driving Beth insane by doing nothing at all a very long distance away. “Are you ready to admit that I’m right yet?”

“I see you got your phone reconnected,” Beth replies, cool, lights herself a cigarette to remind herself not to lose her temper and by extension the upper hand.

“Some very minor bill misunderstandings,” Benny says, like Beth didn’t live with him long enough to watch him stack up the unopened official envelopes with the angry red stamps on them. “That’s not what I rang to talk about, and I bet it’s not what you were calling me about.”

“Betting’s your whole problem, isn’t it, Benny?” Beth remarks, and in that moment hears the click of a perfect check. “That’s what this is all about.”

“Don’t be a brat, Beth,” Benny says, a warning note in his tone.

“You need my money,” Beth tells him, hoping she sounds calm, steady. “You never could stay on the right side of broke. You came up with a whole list of misdirection but you’re not offering to do me a favour, you need to marry me before your gambling debts come back to bite you.”

“I don’t want your fucking money,” Benny spits. Beth’s never heard his voice so sharp, so coldly furious, not even when he was telling her never to contact him again. “Get one of your showbiz lawyers to draw you up something binding, you can keep all of it.”

“They cut off your telephone because you couldn’t pay for it,” Beth tells him tightly, unsure if she’s incredulous or stung.

“So you’d take care of the finances and I’d take care of the liquor cabinet.” Benny’s voice is still angry, a fist to the sternum that has Beth opening her mouth defensively before she realises that she has nothing to say. There’s a long minute of silence, just crackling and breathing on the telephone line, and Beth finally understands just what Benny is offering and why.

“Fine,” she says at last.

Chapter Text

Beth was never one of those little girls who daydreamed of handsome princes or sparkling white wedding gowns.

There was her hazily enclosed life with her mother and then the austereness of Methuen, and then there was chess. Playing through games in her mind was always preferable to imagining ridiculous romantic scenarios; even once adolescence kicked in and she began noticing boys, she didn’t spend hours building castles in the air involving them. Her experiences with men have proven as awkward and complicated as she deep-down suspected they always would be, and marriage was never an endgame she was desperately striving for.

This is all just as well, because laying down plans to marry Benny Watts is more an exercise in frustration than anything else.

Shit, bitch, no,” Jolene says, when Beth tells her the decision she’s made.

“You said I should get a fake husband!” Beth protests.

“I meant that you should find yourself a boring white boy who can dress okay and knows how to keep his mouth shut that you could drag around behind you for a few years,” Jolene tells her. “There’s a bunch in the mailroom at work, you can take your pick.”

“Do any of them play chess?” Beth asks.

“People can learn chess,” Jolene says. “You want a mannequin you can boss around and who’ll stand back when the reporters arrive.”

Beth knows what Benny is like around reporters: she’s seen it often enough. And Jolene isn’t saying anything that Beth hasn’t considered for herself since Benny said fine back and they found themselves engaged. It would be easy – sensible, even – to call Benny and say she’s thought about it again and this is the most terrible idea anyone has ever had, they can’t possibly go through with it. Instead, she watches Jolene flipping critically through an old issue of Sports Illustrated, tutting to herself alternately at the photographs of Benny and at quotations from his interview.

“There is no way that this boy is doing anything in bed that’s worth all this,” she says, holding up a full-page photo of Benny scowling up at the camera, a black king and a white queen tucked between his fingers. “Let me just buy you one of those personal massagers and stick your number by the office coffee pot.”

“We’re not… it’s not that kind of marriage,” Beth says swiftly, because it’s not like they’ve discussed it but she’s pretty sure that sex is back off the table they briefly put it on. There’s no way that that could end anywhere good.

Christ.” Jolene makes a face and throws the magazine dismissively to the carpet. “Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t lock you up until this madness passes.”

Beth twists her mouth and wishes for wine, but Jolene is maybe the only person she can confess this to, and maybe if she says it now she’ll never have to say it again. “I trust him,” she admits.

Jolene just stares at her incredulously.

“He’s an asshole,” Beth says, “but so am I. He’s frustrating and arrogant and I’ll probably want him dead after a few months, but I know the way he thinks because I think that way too.”

“Fine,” Jolene sighs, walks over to sit beside Beth on the couch and squeeze her knee. “But I’m making sure you’ve got an airtight prenup.”

“I want one,” Beth assures her.

“I guess in a few years you can be a glamorous divorcee,” Jolene muses. “You can get a cigarette holder and some of those enormous rich bitch hats.”

“That is the plan,” Beth agrees solemnly, and Jolene laughs, pulls her into a hug.

-

“We need a backstory,” Benny says.

It is Thursday evening, rain sheeting down the windowpanes, and Beth is trying to give herself a manicure with the telephone tucked under her ear. She’s already gotten a tiny drop of polish on the carpet, but she thinks it’s small enough to get away with.

“I thought the whole point of already knowing each other was that we didn’t need a backstory,” Beth says, frustrated. They’ve been on the phone for forty-five minutes already, discussing an apparently endless list of wedding details, and Beth is starting to get cold and grouchy. “We met over a chess set, our rivalry spilled over into mutual respect, then love. It’s very romantic.”

“You might want to work on your delivery of that,” Benny responds, dry. “You could sound a bit less like I’m holding a gun to your head. Just a suggestion.”

“I’ll practice,” Beth snips back. “Anyway, there’s our backstory, it’s what everyone expects.”

“And just when did our mutual respect turn to love?” Benny presses.

Beth looks up to the shadowed ceiling, leaning back against the wall. “Something about you mentoring me?”

There’s the slightest of hesitations before Benny responds. “Too long ago,” he says, crisp, “they’ll all think we’ve been living in sin.”

“I already burned my bridges with the Jesus people,” Beth points out, “and we’re not having a church wedding, I’m pretty sure we don’t have to pretend blushing virginity.”

“I don’t have to pretend anything,” Benny says baldly, “but it’s your reputation we’re scrambling to preserve here.”

Beth huffs, because he’s not wrong. “Fine,” she says. “I’ll pick a date and let you know.”

“Great.” There’s a brief pause, and then Benny says: “pet names.”

“No.”

“We’re trying to sell a fake relationship here,” he reminds her.

“I’m not a pet names person,” Beth tells him.

“Alright, but it’s not me you’re trying to convince,” Benny says. “Where are we going to live?”

“Do you have a fucking list?” Beth bursts out.

“Yes,” Benny says. “And before you say anything I’m not moving to the middle of fucking nowhere.”

Beth tells herself to take a deep breath and count to five, and does so before she says: “well, I’m not living in a goddamn basement that was last cleaned in the late fifties.”

There’s a silence, and she pictures Benny fidgeting with his signet ring. “…I can’t believe I’m sitting here saying this to you all over again, but do you want to come to New York?”

Beth’s not exactly surprised to find that she’s already considered this on some subconscious level, feels confident saying: “…okay.”

“Oh.” Benny clears his throat. “Okay, well, that was easier than I expected.”

“I’m not living in your shitty basement,” Beth repeats, firm, because if she thinks about anything else she’ll remember a dozen other phone calls, Benny demanding her presence, something in Beth unravelling and refusing to go.

“I can afford the rent for it,” Benny counters.

“Well, I can afford the rent for somewhere else,” Beth tells him. “Somewhere above street level with real flooring and an actual couch and a shower that isn’t in the living room. Write that on your list.”

There’s enough of a pause that Beth thinks he might actually be writing it down, and she pictures him sat at his table in a pool of dim lamplight, one of the notebooks he usually uses for chess notations now filled with the headache of marital bureaucracy. The thought makes her smile a little, unable to pinpoint exactly why.

-

This time of year Chicago is brutally cold.

The airport is a flurry of activity, everyone bundled in thick coats and scarves, and Beth is glad she second-guessed herself and packed that extra sweater. She gets a few second glances, a couple of brief smiles that might be recognition or flirtation, but she’s largely anonymous among all these people and it’s relaxing. This trip isn’t a secret, not exactly, but Beth can’t remember the last time she travelled and it wasn’t for her chess career. No one has sent a car, her name isn’t already printed on competition lists or call sheets, there’s no weight of expectation.

Despite the knot of dread in her stomach that led her to drink three bottles of coke on the short flight, Beth feels surprisingly light.

It’s possible this could all have been achieved in one day but Beth has a hotel room anyway, a flight tomorrow morning just in case. It’s a small room, just the basics: she isn’t planning on being here very long. She shrugs on the extra sweater, checks her lipstick and her hair, and goes to ask the front desk to call her a cab to the county clerk’s office.

There’s still snow on the streets. Beth sits still in the backseat, ordering herself not to fidget, answering the driver’s easy questions with the first lie that comes to mind each time. She’s constructed an elaborate false narrative by the time they arrive, telling the driver to keep the change and taking a deep breath of freezing air as she gets out. It’s not cold like Moscow was cold, but she’s glad her scarf is big enough to snuggle her face into as she walks down the gritty sidewalk.

Benny is easy to spot from a distance, his coat rendering him a slim dark streak as he paces by a streetlight. He breathes out plumes of cigarette smoke, still wearing his ridiculous hat even in this weather. Beth suppresses a smile, tells herself she could still walk away, and instead digs her hands into her coat pockets and goes to meet him.

“Beth.” Benny nods, tosses his cigarette butt into the road.

“Benny.” Beth considers a hug, a handshake, a European cheek kiss. Instead, she stands awkwardly for a moment. “You look underdressed.”

He rolls his eyes at her, reaches out to put a hand in the small of Beth’s back as they walk inside. They have an appointment, Benny called and made it once they’d finished sorting through their options, but certain things have to be done in person and this is one of them. They sit on stiffly uncomfortable chairs in a waiting room, not even trying to make conversation. Benny taps an impatient foot on the cracked linoleum floor, and Beth practices her favourite openings on the greying ceiling tiles. A couple of other people join them, one of them immersed in a falling-apart book, the other staring at information posters tacked to the walls. Benny abruptly reaches over and takes Beth’s hand; she doesn’t know if it’s for show or reassurance but she doesn’t pull away. Benny’s fingers are cold, his ring an icy metal lump against her skin.

The actual appointment is more straightforward than Beth was expecting: there are no trick questions, she and Benny hand over identifying documents and fill out forms, swear an oath that there’s no reason they can’t be married, and are told where to go for their blood tests. Obviously, neither of them live in Illinois, which pushes up the cost and the waiting time, but their calculations should be correct.

“You’ll need to pick up the license a week before the ceremony,” the clerk tells them.

“Not a problem, we’ll be here for the Greater Chicago Chess Open,” Benny replies.

The clerk briefly glances over them, says: “do you play?”

There’s amusement in the look Benny throws at her; Beth swallows a smile and says: “we dabble.”

Back on the cold street, Benny gives Beth a thoughtful look. “Lunch?”

It would have been easiest to go to Vegas, of course; there’s a reason why so many people get married there. It was Beth’s first idea. Benny shot it down, pointed out that Beth wanted a marriage that didn’t look spur-of-the-moment, that was respectable and legitimate from all possible angles. So they sat up one night with their respective issues of Chess Life and looked at the important dates for the year. The point of all this is the marriage, not a long engagement or an enormous flashy wedding. They’ll get married at the end of the Chicago tournament: the press will be there anyway and so will most of the people either of them would want to attend. It keeps things professional, another way for Beth to keep her personal life and her chess career paired in people’s minds.

“And then the honeymoon.” They’re sat in the corner of a small restaurant, Benny tipping his chair back because he never did learn to sit properly.

“We’re not having a honeymoon,” Beth says. Real couples have honeymoons, but there’s no reason for them to. “What’s the point?”

“People have honeymoons,” Benny says. “We’re having two weeks in Paris.”

Something clenches in Beth’s stomach, dropping hollow. Despite various hopes and plans she’s only ever been to Paris once, and now even the word takes her back to that aching, painful humiliation, sweating pastis out of her pores while Borgov quietly dismantled her with nothing on his face but disappointment. She’s played back those few days over and over in her head: the way the city felt when she first arrived, tugging at her to drop everything and explore; the night with Cleo that is still more blanks than memories; the shame she felt as the taxi took her to the airport, everything she had loved before now ashy and bitter and judgemental. Beth cannot go back there. Paris has seen her stripped back to the bone, knows all the dark little parts inside of her that Beth tries very hard to hide. It has seen her fail and fail and fail, and Beth will not give it more of herself.

“No,” she manages through numbing lips.

Benny tilts his head as he considers her for a moment. Beth doesn’t know what expression she’s wearing, hopes it’s not as nakedly awful as she feels.

“You need to go back,” Benny says, and while his tone is uncompromising, his voice is softer now. “You need to go to Paris and see that it’s noisy and dirty and full of assholes and traffic, just like every other city in the world, and then it won’t haunt you anymore. It’s just a city. That’s all.”

“Then we can go to a different city,” Beth counters.

“I like Paris,” Benny shrugs. “They have decent tournaments, and it’s a good base to open up your European chess career from. Jump on a train, you can go to Berlin. Jump on a boat, you can go to London. But if you don’t go back, all you or anyone else will ever remember is a hungover resignation after a shitty game that fell apart two moves in.”

Beth wants to snap something cruel back at him but her throat is oddly full and she’s not sure what would come out. She swallows, twice.

“Yeah, yeah,” Benny says, eyes intently on her expression, “I’m a dick, but you’re not a coward. Two weeks, Paris. Talk to someone, customise the trip with whatever you want. But it’s not negotiable.”

“Are you going to be this shitty when we’re married?” Beth grumbles. Her chest is still too tight, and all she can think about is cramming her dress, her shoes, her underwear into the garbage, everything that was with her during that godawful game, never wanting any of it to touch her ever again.

“I’m gonna be worse,” Benny replies, unrepentant, and holds up his water glass until Beth sighs and clinks hers against it.

It’s cold enough to justify catching a cab but Beth lets Benny walk her back to her hotel. Their faces both end up flushed from the wind but by the third block Beth doesn’t mind so much; it gives her time for the remnants of nausea from thinking about Paris to fade away, to push all of those feelings back into the box she’s been keeping them in. As she relaxes she sees some of the tension in Benny’s shoulders fade, his eyes glittering in the late winter afternoon. He’s got his cocksure grin back, and it’s more reassuring than any number of words could be.

They stand outside the hotel; it’s gotten dark, and there’s golden light spilling out of the lobby onto the street. Benny’s face is shadowy under his stupid hat, cheeks windburned and lips a little chapped, and they applied for a goddamn fucking marriage license today. It’s surreal, and part of what is surreal is that it doesn’t feel more weird.

“So,” Beth says awkwardly, “this has got… very real.”

“You’re gonna tell your agent and your lawyer?” Benny asks. “Maybe I won’t answer the phone for a few days, your sister threatening to castrate me was enough.”

Beth didn’t know that Jolene had done that, but it figures.

“I probably should tell them,” she agrees awkwardly. “Jolene’s insisting I get you to sign a lot of paperwork.” A thought occurs to her. “Do you need to-”

“I have nothing that you need,” Benny cuts her off. “If and when we get divorced, I’ve got nothing worth taking.”

It’s basically true, and no part of arranging this marriage so far has been anything other than pragmatic, but it still strikes an uncomfortable chord in Beth and she looks away. “Right. Of course.”

Benny sighs, his breath bright white in the chilly air. “Beth. If you don’t want-”

“I do.” Beth looks back at him, hears what she’s just said and chokes a laugh. “I do, Benny.”

He’s smiling too, something a little sharp and wry, and reaches to tidy a lock of Beth’s hair where the wind’s blown it across her face. Beth thinks, abruptly, of that last car journey to the airport, Beth’s flight for Paris leaving soon, the press of Benny’s mouth against hers. It’s been so long that she almost can’t remember what his kiss feels like; she wonders whether it’s changed. Whether she has changed. Her hotel room is upstairs, warm and quiet, and only one person in the world knows where she is right now. They could be anybody.

“I should go,” Benny says, hand dropping and stepping back. “It’s a long way back to New York.”

“Sure,” Beth says, hoping she doesn’t sound breathless. “Drive safe, don’t make me have to ask Wexler to be my next fake fiancé.”

“At least ask Levertov,” Benny replies, dips his head and walks away, hands crammed into his pockets. He doesn’t look back before he turns the corner at the end of the street, but Beth watches him all the way anyway, bottom lip caught between her teeth.

-

Beth’s lawyer wants to get started on the prenuptial paperwork immediately, and Beth’s agent just wants assuring that she’s definitely not pregnant. After that it’s more about organising how the wedding will be announced, how the publicity will be handled; Beth insists that it’s not too overblown, she’s never wanted a hysterical bridal frenzy. She remembers to send in her acceptance to participate in the Greater Chicago Chess Open, spends an afternoon with a travel agent organising the Parisian honeymoon. The more she organises the details, the less she has to think about what she’s really doing.

Telling Townes ends up being the most difficult part. Beth can’t pretend that she doesn’t know why; some part of her has been longing for him since she was fifteen years old, still looks at his handsome face and feels something twinge in her. For the most part those feelings are platonic now and Beth has made her peace with it. Any remnants of something else, well. Beth’s crushed down enough desires for impossibilities over the years.

He studies Beth’s face for a long time after she tells him that she and Benny are getting married in the spring, and she resists the urge to babble excuses, just sits quiet and lets him look at her. They’ve always been drawn to each other, ever since that first competition, but Beth is drawn in one way and Townes is drawn in another way and the two ways are similar but not similar enough. They nearly overlapped, once, for a minute or two in a hotel room miles and miles away, but they didn’t. Beth carried the pain of that for years, but enough time has passed that she can be glad about it.

“If you wanted a husband-” Townes begins at last.

“No,” Beth cuts him off. “No, I would never ask you to do that.”

“We’d look magnificent in all the photographs,” Townes remarks. His smile is a little crooked.

“That’s true,” Beth agrees mildly. “But. You deserve more than an awkward sham marriage to a little girl who beat the pants off you back in Sixty-Three.”

Townes tips his head in acknowledgement. “So you’re having a sham marriage to the cowboy who dismantled you in Sixty-Six instead.”

“Well, that was the last time I ever let him do that,” Beth says. “He hasn’t got a taste for it or anything.”

“I guess there have been worse starts to a marriage,” Townes muses. He pins Beth with a look, and she lets him. “Are you sure that this is what you have to do?”

Beth would scoff at him, remind him that he’s a man and he doesn’t know what any of this is like, but she also knows that Townes quietly carries more secrets than she ever will, that he can never have the things that Beth can, that his romantic life will always be complicated and more difficult than it needs to be through no fault of his own. He probably knows more about the choice that Beth is making than Beth herself does.

“I can always get a divorce,” she tells him, and watches him laugh.

“And Watts?” Townes asks. “He’s sure about this too?”

Beth frowns. “He likes chess and money and the legend of Benny Watts,” she says. “This feeds into all three of those things.”

“True,” Townes agrees, though he still looks faintly troubled.

“I’d like you to come,” Beth says. “You can have an exclusive for the paper, if you like.”

“You don’t have to bribe me,” Townes tells her.

“I know.” Beth shrugs. “But this may as well benefit as many people as possible.”

Townes reaches across to take Beth’s hand between both of his, squeezes it. His smile is a little sad, but Beth suspects that hers is too, and it’s okay.

-

The phone rings at four in the morning, and Beth rolls over in bed and groans and puts the pillow over her head but it just keeps going. She staggers to answer it, narrowly avoids falling down the stairs, and snatches it up.

“Hello?” she demands.

“Beth.” Benny sounds irritatingly bright for this time of the morning.

“Fucking what?” Beth demands. “Do you have any idea what time it is?”

“You’re the one who answered the phone,” Benny replies, like this is a reasonable response.

“Yeah,” Beth says, “I was hoping it was someone ringing with bad news about you and telling me I’d become a tragic widow.”

“You have to get married before you can be a widow,” Benny responds, still cheerful, and Beth sighs and sits down on the carpet.

“Are you drunk?” she asks.

“…a bit,” Benny admits. “But I had an important thought and it couldn’t wait.”

“Is it that I should play the Sicilian?” Beth asks, acidic, but Benny either doesn’t get what she’s talking about or doesn’t hear.

“We’re about to go public,” he continues.

“Yes,” Beth says, “there is no point to this marriage if we don’t. Also, I think you start fading away if you go more than three days without speaking to a reporter.”

“It’s you speaking to reporters that I’m worried about,” Benny replies, not rising to her bait.

“What do you mean?” Beth asks.

Benny huffs, and says: “okay, look, don’t hang up. But did Harry Beltik ever make you come?”

Beth sucks a breath in through her teeth, and strongly considers slamming the phone down, to hell with what Benny just said. The anger, the embarrassment, the shame are quick and jumbled and edge her close to nausea.

“You piece of shit,” she hisses into the phone, to see if it will help vent any of the feelings. It doesn’t.

“I have a point to this,” Benny says. He doesn’t sound very drunk, not the blurred voice or mangled words that Beth associates with being blitzed, but the knowledge that he is makes her teeth grit, knuckles white around the handset. “So. Beth. Did Harry Beltik ever make you come?”

Beth wants to hang up the phone. She should hang up the phone, Benny can call back at a decent hour, hungover and apologetic, and then he’ll be the one on the back foot.

“No,” she lets out between her teeth, barely audible. “No, he did not.”

“No,” Benny agrees. “And he knows that he didn’t, and I know that he didn’t, and I’m pretty sure your twins know that he didn’t, and anyone else who’s really looked at your face when you hear his name knows that he didn’t.”

“Harry Beltik is a much better person than you are,” Beth hisses, her skin feeling itchy, too tight.

“Sure,” Benny agrees, “he’s a nice guy and what you did to him was a damn shame, but that’s not the point I’m making here.”

“Then make it before I call this fucking farce off,” Beth snaps. She feels on the edge of tears, not wanting to admit exactly why.

“Got to do part two of the question,” Benny replies, and there’s the briefest of pauses before he says: “I made you come, though, didn’t I?”

“If you’re calling about plans for our wedding night, they involve you being on the other side of a locked door,” Beth tells him tightly.

“I agree,” Benny says mildly. “For once, this isn’t actually about my ego.”

“That’s a first,” Beth snips, but maybe the sooner she navigates the endless traps in this conversation she can go back to bed and pretend that none of this happened. “Yes. On occasion, you were not terrible in bed.”

Benny laughs, raw, and Beth shuts her eyes against a dozen vulnerabilities and a flash of something in her stomach. “That’ll do,” he says. He huffs a breath, there’s rustling on the line and Beth pictures him raking his hand back through his stupid hair. “I’m not telling you to look at me like you’ve seen one too many Disney movies, no one will believe that, but you also need not to look at me like I’ve played a middle game you can collapse in four moves.”

Beth processes what he’s just said and tries to work out if she’s stung or not. “I don’t look at you like that.”

“You look at everyone like that,” Benny replies. “It’s fine, I even kind of like it, but no one’s going to believe you’re not dragging yourself to the altar if you look like that every time we’re together.”

“This was not worth waking me up at four for,” Beth tells him, scowling, curling her knees up to her chest.

“You wouldn’t talk to me about this with the lights on,” Benny says, like that’s a valid reason for this shitshow of a conversation. “You can’t look at me like you’re in love but if you can look at me like I’m helping you find God three times a night we might just get away with it.”

Beth considers saying three times a night seems excessive or possibly just you fucking wish, but instead says: “and how will you be looking at me, Benny?”

“I’ve seen enough of your admirers,” Benny replies, dry, “I’ll manage something.”

For a minute, neither of them says anything. Beth sits in the dark and keeps her eyes shut and breathes, listening to Benny breathing in New York.

“I see your point,” she allows quietly, hoping she sounds dignified and not verging on distraught, “but I have a couple of points to make.”

“Go ahead.”

“You will not call me when you’re drunk again,” Beth tells him. “And the next time you bring up Harry around me, I will punch you in the face, and you will deserve it. Is that clear?”

“Clear,” Benny agrees.

“Now, stop being an asshole and go to bed,” she orders. “And maybe don’t call me for a few days.”

Benny hangs up without saying goodbye; Beth puts the phone down and sits still in the dark for a minute before she goes back upstairs.

-

Levertov and Wexler are the ones who find the apartment.

“Watts has no idea what makes a valid home,” Wexler explains on the phone, “he’s been living in that basement for four years and hasn’t worked out why everyone complains when they visit.”

“Benny just needs somewhere to sleep and play chess,” Levertov adds; Beth pictures the two of them passing the telephone between them. “We thought you at least deserved a real bathroom.”

“That was on my list of criteria,” Beth agrees.

“He was going to pick somewhere terrible, so we took over,” Levertov explains.

“And we’ve found it!” Wexler has clearly grabbed the handset back, excitement in his voice. “Fourth floor, two bedrooms, a bathtub, enough space in the living room for at least seven grandmasters. The kitchen’s shit but it’s New York, they all are.”

Beth blinks, absorbing all this. “I don’t cook anyway.”

“Neither does Benny,” Levertov says. “We’re considering betting the twins that you both die of scurvy within the first year.”

Beth laughs. “What’s the rent, anyway?”

They tell her; it seems ridiculously high and also less than Beth was expecting. She keeps a notepad by the telephone these days, the edges thick with doodles, the pages full of notes like when she’s supposed to call back Chess Life and the address of their hotel in Paris and a shoe designer she wanted to check out. She sort of misses when she just used to write down potential manoeuvres. She jots down the price and calculates the quarterly and yearly cost while Levertov carries on telling her about the apartment, that it’s fully furnished and ready for occupancy by the time they get back from their honeymoon.

“We made Benny go and look at it and he didn’t hate it, but he didn’t hate any of the six places he looked at before we took over and one of them didn’t have any windows,” Wexler says. “He says he’ll go to the estate agent, but you’ll probably have to provide proof you can pay for it, you know what Benny’s like, he’ll probably just try and wave a copy of Deutsche Schachzeitung with him on the cover and claim that’s proof of equity or something.”

Beth writes down all the relevant details, the numbers she’ll have to call and the dates things need to be organised by, and wonders why it is that the more concrete things become, the less and less real this all feels.

-

The cab driver gives Beth a dubious look when he pulls up, but she simply smiles and waits for him to turn at the corner of the street before descending the metal stairs. They’re as dimly-lit and weirdly slippery as they ever were but Beth has the knack, knows how fast you can walk and what angle to cock your hips at so you don’t risk breaking an ankle. Someone in one of the upper apartments is playing Led Zeppelin way too loud, the sound spilling out into the night, and there’s a loud argument in a language Beth doesn’t speak happening in one of the buildings two doors down. The narrow walkway is still packed with garbage sacks, still smells like weed and tobacco, and Beth smiles wryly to herself instead of recoiling in disgust.

Beth knocks on the front door and, while she waits, reflects that the studio were perfectly happy to pay for a hotel room. She’d be above street level, probably with a decent view over the Manhattan skyline, in a space lightly perfumed with something floral. She could have a hot shower with decent water pressure, and one phone call would have coffee and sandwiches brought to her room and she could eat them in her double bed, sprawled against perfectly starched pillows. Instead, she stands in the cold concrete stairwell and squints at the paint peeling off the door in the flickering light of a bulb that needs replacing.

Benny looks harassed when he pulls the door open, but scrapes something like a smile together when he sees her. “You’re early.”

Beth shrugs. “Traffic was good.”

Benny steps back to let her in; his apartment isn’t a whole lot warmer than the February air outside and she reconsiders immediately taking off her coat.

“Sorry,” he says, “I’m caught up in this stupid phone call, do you mind if…?”

“Go ahead,” Beth says, pushing the door closed.

Benny grimaces at her but darts back across the room to where he’s left the handset on the table, snatching it back up again. “Regresé. ¿En qué estábamos?”

Beth’s grasp of Spanish never did develop a lot past por favor and cerveza, and she hasn’t much wanted to go to any of the South American tournaments since losing Alma, although she knows she’ll have to one day. She doesn’t mind that Benny’s distracted; it’s actually easier to get her bearings without his scrutiny. To a backdrop of his cracked and angry-sounding Spanish, she puts down her case and looks around.

The truly disconcerting thing is that almost nothing has changed since the last time she was here, two years and change ago. None of the furniture has moved, the walls are still exposed brick and peeling fake wood wallpaper, the floor still bare concrete in need of sweeping. Some of the book piles are taller and she thinks there are a couple more boxes stacked among his chess sets, a handful more records, but fundamentally it’s all still the same. Beth doesn’t need to go into the bathroom to know that the broken mirror hasn’t been replaced and the tap is dripping. Benny’s home has always been a place only to sleep and eat and play chess, and everything he needs is right here.

Above Benny’s crowded desk is a wall of newspaper clippings; Beth had Alma and Mr Shaibel keeping track of her, but she’s never felt the need to do it for herself and Benny’s casual vanity always makes her roll her eyes. This, at least, has been updated in the last couple of years: Beth runs her eye over the new cuttings, gaze catching on a photo from Cincinnati, she and Benny shoulder to shoulder in front of their finished game and glaring at one another in a way that could mean any number of things.

“No,” Benny snaps somewhere behind her, “necesito que arregles todo, pelotudo.”

Beth tears her gaze away from the picture, from an expression she’s not sure she’s ever seen on her face before, and looks at the scattering of pamphlets and notes on Benny’s desk. They’re mostly chess related, a jotting of pawn successions underlined twice, but there’s also a notebook with a list in Benny’s cramped handwriting: license, blood test, venue, announcement???, cohabitation. Backstory. Prenup. The word ring is circled, underlined three times, the third time hard enough for the pen to bite through the paper.

“Morite, che,” Benny snaps and slams the phone down.

“That sounded friendly,” Beth offers into the sudden silence, leaning back against Benny’s desk and folding her arms over her chest.

Benny makes a rueful face at her. “That was one of the organisers of the Argentinian tournament.”

“Oh,” Beth says. “Are they going to… rescind your invitation?”

“Maybe.” Benny runs a hand through his already mussed hair. “Still, you should always know how to personally insult someone in their own language, that’s the first rule of international chess competitions.”

“And I assured my agent you weren’t a loose cannon and you could be trusted not to say anything stupid tomorrow,” Beth says, laughing.

“I don’t know why you would promise that,” Benny says dryly. “You’re marrying me because I’m not boring.”

“I’m marrying you because if I don’t I’ll lose half my sponsorship because men in authority interpret not being married as being an unstable slut,” Beth reminds him, the same way she reminds herself every time she looks at the upcoming months and thinks what the fuck am I doing?

“That too,” Benny agrees.

He rises fluidly from his chair and walks over to her; Beth awkwardly straightens up and isn’t ready for Benny pulling her into an embrace but lets him do it. He smells like cigarettes and coffee and his disproportionately expensive cologne, his skinny frame warm and more reassuring than it should be, all things considered. They shouldn’t do this here, not in this apartment where time doesn’t pass and where they blurred every line that was ever between them. It would be easy, too easy, for Beth to tilt her head, to find Benny’s mouth and draw it to hers. She still knows by heart the shift of muscles under the skin of his back, the places where his bedframe creaks, the familiarity in the way his hands cup her hips like that’s what they were made for. Her heart pounds in her ears.

“About what I said,” Benny mumbles into her hair.

Beth could pretend not to know, could ask, but things have been tight between them since that drunken phone call. They’ve discussed a few more details, even arranged that Beth would stay with him when she came to New York for their Late Show appearance, but it was all done in a crisply impersonal way that felt more like they were secretaries swapping itineraries than friends who were about to tie the knot.

Benny pulls back a little and Beth lets him go; his hands come to rest on her shoulders and he’s staring at her intently, like he’s looking for something. Beth doesn’t know what he’s seeing, hoping she isn’t as flushed as she feels. Benny’s mouth twists a little and her gaze is drawn to it, to lazy greedy kisses that used to be hers for the taking.

“I need to teach you how to throw a punch,” Benny says at last. “I’ll bet no one showed you and you’ll end up breaking your hand and where will your international chess recognition be then, huh?”

He draws away, and Beth thinks pull him back with a sharp dark clarity that makes her stomach drop. She curls her fingers into her palms until the urge passes.

“I only need one hand to play chess,” she replies, walking over to take a seat at his table. There’s a half-played game laid out; Black is losing, but she leans over and nudges the remaining Black knight to an open file, just in case.

“We’ll err on the side of caution,” Benny says over his shoulder. “Coffee?”

“Sure.”

It’s late and they have a busy day where they have to be presentable in public tomorrow, but Beth doesn’t mind sitting in the lamplight with her legs tucked beneath her, sipping her coffee and watching Benny manipulate the chess board, brow furrowed in thought. It reminds her of being a different girl, of how it felt to be that version of Beth who was so sure she was invincible or damn close to it, who could spend five weeks without drinking and barely mind, who could flirt with Benny Watts and not feel some kind of sting of regret or guilt beneath it all. Beth’s won so many new things, has learned a lot and grown more, but that doesn’t mean that she doesn’t miss that girl from time to time.

Benny looks at her when the board reaches a stalemate, and she wonders if he misses that girl too.

“Do you still have that air mattress?” Beth asks, before she can say something stupid.

“Of course,” Benny shrugs. “Is that what you want to do?”

“Well, I’m not sleeping in your bathtub,” Beth points out. The shower curtain needed replacing two years ago; she’s not really looking forward to washing tomorrow.

“I have a bed,” Benny says, his tone of voice careful.

Beth thinks a half-dozen things, but says: “it’s not much more comfortable than the inflatable. And you steal the covers.”

“Maybe I was offering to take the airbed like a gentleman,” Benny counters.

“I have no idea why you play so much poker when you’re such a bad liar,” Beth replies, incredulous. “No wonder you never have any money.”

“I can lie when it counts,” Benny replies. “You sure you’re okay with the air bed?”

“It’s an old friend,” Beth tells him. “I’m gonna get nostalgic, one last time. Because it won’t be coming to the new apartment.”

Benny raises his eyebrows. “Is that so?”

“You can bring your chess stuff,” Beth says firmly, “and absolutely nothing else.”

“Fine.” Benny shrugs, gives her a sly smile. “Most of it was here when I moved in.”

“Of course it was,” Beth says, but she’s smiling back anyway.

-

“I don’t think it’s really possible to know someone until you’ve played a game of chess with them,” Beth tells Johnny Carson. “I know it sounds like a cliché, but really, you can learn a lot about how they think, what they’re like under pressure, whether they’re a poor winner or a sore loser.”

“I, of course, am both,” Benny interjects, and the audience laughs.

“I’ve sat down with people who were great players but had no manners whatsoever,” Beth continues. “And I know I went to Moscow to beat the Soviets, and I did, but they were some of the kindest men I’ve ever competed with; they had warmth and grace even in defeat. It’s something I want to remember to implement in my own life.”

“Probably good advice for us all,” Carson agrees, turning his attention to Benny. “You’ve often been called the enfant terrible of the US chess world; I’m not sure anyone would have expected you to be announcing that you’re settling down, let alone with another chess player.”

“I didn’t expect it myself,” Benny says, and Beth watches the slightest of smiles flit across his mouth. “But we all have to grow up sometime, and I think Beth’s taken us all by surprise these past couple of years.”

This isn’t Beth’s first time on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson; when she first returned from Russia everyone wanted a piece of her, and the Federation steered her around the various channels where she repeated the same handful of anecdotes, still barely able to comprehend her win no matter how many times she vocalised it. Now, she’s here to talk about Moscow, to bring up the year’s tournaments and by extension the might of US chess players and, of course, to publicly discuss her upcoming marriage to Benny. Beth’s agent organised all this, but Beth knows the Federation will be watching, and she hopes this will raise their estimations of her a little; despite everything, she’d prefer to have them onside.

She blinks, realises that Benny has been talking and she’s not exactly been listening, hopes that it’s not obvious.

“It sounds like you have a full year coming up,” Carson is saying.

“We do,” Beth agrees quickly. “I took a little time off after playing in Russia to evaluate what I wanted to do with my life, but I missed the chess world too much. I’d like to be World Champion before I turn twenty-five, so there’s no point wasting time.”

“The white picket fence might need to wait a while then?” Carson addresses his question to Benny, which makes Beth’s toes curl in her shoes.

“We’re both young and at the top of our game,” Benny shrugs. “I’ve never played better in my life, and I know Beth feels the same way. In a best-case scenario, we’ll be fighting each other for World Champion.”

There’s a mixture of laughter and murmuring in the audience; Beth bites the inside of her lower lip where no one can see.

“We make each other better players,” she says. “When we got engaged we discussed it and there’s no reason why either of us would want to retire.”

Benny reaches over and takes Beth’s hand; she doesn’t know if he’s planned the gesture or if it’s on impulse but she’s glad to have something to hold onto.

“Our kids will be our many, many tournament titles,” he says blithely and Beth grins at him, she can’t help it.

“Then I hope you have at least a dozen,” Carson says, and they cut to commercials.

There’s a table set up for them, a clock and a chess set laid out on it. They have a short demonstration after the break, before they cut to the band. Beth drinks half a glass of water and hopes her cheeks aren’t too flushed.

“You okay?” Benny asks.

“Sure,” Beth replies, because what else is there to say?

Benny was never going to be allowed to wear his knife into the studio and the hat and leather coat stayed in his apartment; his jeans look like they might be actually clean, and while there are too many buttons undone on his shirt, it’s actually been pressed. The handful of silver chains around his neck are bright under the studio lights. It’s his version of respectable, and it makes Beth feel confusingly fond. He leans in close so the microphones won’t pick up his voice. “Fuck every single person out there who thinks I should have you barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen the minute we get hitched.”

Something fierce and grateful squirms in Beth; she pushes it down. “You’re only saying that because you know I can’t cook.”

He smirks. “In my experience, you’re a very fast learner.”

Beth digs her elbow into his side and lets the Tonight Show team tell them where to go, sits down at the board to play Black to Benny’s White. When they get back from the commercials, Carson tells the audience that he couldn’t have the country’s greatest chess players on without a demonstration, and there’s a round of applause. Beth looks to the camera she’s been told to hit to explain: “this isn’t much good in tournaments, but it’s a great training exercise.” She looks to Benny, who winks.

Before they went on air, Beth told him: “you can’t hustle me for money on live television.”

“We’ll add it up afterwards,” he told her, and got swept off to make-up.

Speed chess seemed like the most logical thing to do: no regular television audience wants to watch two people glaring at each other over a board while shifting the pieces in increments that are only impressive if you know the rules. Make it all faster, and it’s impressive even to the uninitiated: the clicking of the pieces and the clock, the swift captures, the reflexes to spot moves and keep the game going. Beth can feel the buzz from the people watching; even if they’re not completely sure what’s happening, they know that Beth and Benny know and are analysing every move to keep pace at lightning-fast speeds. Beth gets more captures but Benny beats her in the end with a nicely-placed rook; the audience’s applause is loud and genuine.

“Again?” Beth offers, like she’s basically scripted to do, and does not think about the number of times she and Benny have said that to each other, the meaning changing every time.

They set the pieces back into place with practiced quick precision; Beth takes a breath and then hits Benny’s clock. Then she can’t think about anything but the game, snapping the pieces back and forth, picking her moves faster than conscious thought can name them. This time she gets Benny, exchanging queens and pinning his king in the space of a handful of heartbeats.

Part of her wants to go for a third, but that’s not what they’ve been contracted for; they both stand and shake hands across the board while there are claps and even a few cheers in the audience. Benny is grinning and Beth suspects she might be too: no matter what else is happening, very few things energise her the way playing against Benny does.

It’s there, under the bright studio lights with the crowd watching them in person and who knows how many on television, that Benny cups her cheek, leans in and kisses her.

It’s a television kiss: closed-mouth, gentle. Beth’s eyes flutter shut anyway. Benny’s lips are warm and his moustache tickles her face and his hand is splayed against her skin, and Beth can’t believe that she forgot what this felt like.

Benny pulls away and Beth blinks against the suddenly blinding studio lights, and if anything the audience is clapping and cheering louder. She thinks she’s blushing but that’s probably natural and of course, Benny is a natural showman. It’s a good ending to their segment; it’s a good ending to pretty much any game they’ve ever played against each other.

Beth slams into her dressing room and presses her hands to her hot cheeks and tells herself that she isn’t trembling. She barely has time to take a few deep breaths before the door is opening, Benny letting himself in. He has his own dressing room, and Beth is about to tell him this when she sees that his expression is as wretched as hers must be. He closes the door and then stands there; if he had something that he was going to say, it’s gone now. He’s snapping his fingers in that way he does when he’s not sure what to do next. This is about half a step away from fidgeting compulsively with his ring; Beth knows all of his tells by now.

“Married people kiss each other,” Beth says into the silence, when it seems like Benny has nothing to offer.

“Yeah,” he says, “I know.” His voice is a touch deeper, the way it is when he’s annoyed about something. “I just. I forgot. I forgot what kissing you is like.”

Fuck, thinks Beth. All this effort, and they’ll have to call off the wedding because she and Benny are incapable of acting like mature adults. It’s all the chess, she thinks, the unstable childhoods and the adult opponents when they were still children. It’s left them incapable of doing the sensible thing.

“I forgot too,” she admits, anything to get that look off Benny’s face. “It’s. It’s fine. We can-”

She’s got no idea what she’s about to say so it’s a relief when Benny grabs her and kisses her. This kiss isn’t for an audience, isn’t for television; Beth’s lips open against his and she swallows his groan as she sinks her hands into her hair. Benny pushes her and Beth bumps back into her dressing table; she hears several things fall over and doesn’t care, all her focus on where Benny is biting her bottom lip with impatient teeth, his tongue sliding into her mouth like they’ve been doing this ever since Sixty-Seven, not dancing around it pretending it never happened in the first place. Beth makes a soft sound that gets crushed into the kiss, Benny pressing her harder into the table, one of her hands fisting in his hair like that can get him closer.

The door opens again; someone makes a surprised noise, and they snap apart to find an embarrassed-looking assistant apologising hastily. “I was just wondering if I could get you something, but-”

“Coffee would be great, thank you,” Beth says in a voice that doesn’t sound like hers.

“Sure,” he says, and vanishes into the hallway.

Beth takes several deep breaths before she dares look at Benny. He looks… well, debauched is the first thing that comes to mind, mouth kiss-swollen and smeared with Beth’s lipstick, hair a wreck from her hands. He also looks vaguely stricken; Beth suspects her expression matches.

“Okay,” he says, slowly, his voice cracking on the word. “Well. I guess we always knew we were attracted to each other, that… hasn’t changed.”

Part of Beth wants to run out of the dressing room; part of her wants to jam a chair underneath the door handle and pull Benny close again. She shuts her eyes and breathes slowly and lets the only part of her still thinking logically take over.

“It’s the tension,” she says, and it almost comes out believable. “We’re doing something weird and stressful and entirely out of our normal lives, and we’re not used to each other yet. We will be. That’s… that’s all it is.”

Benny’s eyes are bright and dark and Beth wishes she could see what he’s thinking and is glad that she can’t. “Yeah,” he says, and he sounds steadier now, “it’s been a long time. That’s all it is.”

Beth nods, and he gives her a weak smile. Maybe when he’s washed his face and combed his hair he might be able to sell that line better; maybe then Beth will be able to believe it herself. It’s not like they have much choice: it’s way, way too late to back out now.

-

Fucking was, frankly, what fucked it up for them the first time around.

It took much longer than most of Beth’s post-game analyses, but she did finally sort through the wreckage of her whatever-that-was with Benny Watts, an amount of it after he told her not to contact him again and she was sitting on hold for hours at a time. The bitterness of all but begging for money from organisations who couldn’t care less what she wanted was making her desperate for a drink or three anyway, reflecting on the frustrated coolness in Benny’s voice before he hung up on her didn’t make it any worse. They always had the potential for volatility, Harry wasn’t wrong when he called all chess players prima donnas; both of them are very good, and a lot of the time Beth is better. You put two minds accustomed to being the sharpest in the room together – of course there was a volatility there. Adding sex to the equation, even startlingly good sex that forced Beth to reconsider her previous assumptions that the whole thing was basically overrated, was never going to end well. Once you start having sex with someone you open the door to other desires, to assumptions and jealousies and resentments and cruelties. There were a number of reasons that Beth never went back to New York, many of them tenuous and stupid now that she isn’t viewing them through a haze of pharmaceuticals, but one of them was simply that she didn’t know how to go back to Benny.

They sit up all night in Benny’s apartment, sharing a packet of cigarettes and a chess board. Beth was supposed to be getting a late night flight but she moved it to tomorrow; much as she wants to flee, put this behind them as an aberration, there’s a wedding mostly planned in their imminent future.

Beth plays the Budapest Gambit; Benny responds with the Kieninger Trap. It’s so late that the street outside has fallen quiet, no cars or drunken neighbours staggering past the windows. There’s the faintest rise and fall of the ongoing argument between the residents two doors down and two floors up. Beth had forgotten about that; the nights she spent trying to get comfortable on the airbed, watching the spill of dim light from Benny’s room where he was still awake dappling the ceiling, listening to the vague but constant fury between his neighbours.

“Did you ever figure out what language that is?” she asks. It’s the first time either of them has spoken in at least an hour; her voice feels rusty, and she wonders if she can face another cup of coffee.

The corner of Benny’s mouth quirks. “Well, it’s not Czech, we crossed that one off. Hilton swears it’s Hungarian, but it’s not like we can prove it.”

“You could always go ask,” Beth muses. “You’re leaving anyway.”

“Yeah,” Benny replies, “I’m sure that won’t get me a broken nose as a parting gift.”

Beth shrugs a shoulder, pushes a pawn. “I’m sure that could only add to your mystique,” she tells him. “You walk around like you’re in a spaghetti western, now you’ll have the face to match.”

“It would ruin the wedding photos,” Benny responds, takes her pawn with his free knight.

Beth’s heart thuds and her stomach drops; for a moment there, she forgot why she was here. It’s always been too easy to fall into a rhythm with Benny, whether they’re playing chess or keeping up with each other’s conversation.

“We’re still doing that,” she says. It’s not a question, but it lacks the certainty of a statement.

Benny studies her for a moment, caught in the glare of his surprisingly bright ceiling light. A stream of smoke spills from between his lips, drifts past those sharp bottomless eyes, and Beth wonders briefly if this was what he meant when he said that she looks at people like she’s about to collapse their middle game; if this is what he sees too often on her face.

“I can do it if you can do it,” he says at last.

For a moment, Beth isn’t sure that she can do it; but she’s never quailed at a challenge, never managed to say no to Benny when he looks at her the way he’s looking at her now, and she holds out a hand. He takes it, solemn, and they shake on it, more binding than any of the oaths or paperwork that will be witnessed officially.

“Oh,” Benny adds when he lets go, “also: check.”

Beth looks back down at the board to see that he’s right; the laughter bubbles up out of her, some of it relief, some of it panic, some of it unbearably, inescapably fond.

-

Jolene drives Beth to Chicago two days before the tournament is due to begin. Beth offered to fly them both, even told Jolene she could arrive later so she’s not there for the whole thing, but Jolene insisted: I want you to have the option to turn the damn car around whenever you want. It could also be that Jolene just wants to spend the time together; Beth is grateful for it, the hours they spend singing along to the radio and talking about everything and nothing, something Beth didn’t have in the years between leaving Methuen and Jolene finding her again. She didn’t know how much she’d missed it until she had it back again.

The car is surprisingly full. There’s Beth’s usual little case of things for the tournament, neat blouses and flat shoes and scarves to keep her hair out of her eyes; Jolene’s case, which is half-full of textbooks (“I’m not spending an entire week watching you push bits of wood around”); then there’s Beth’s wedding outfit, carefully encased in a garment bag, and a much bigger case taking up most of the trunk with everything she could think to take on a sexless honeymoon in a city she swore she’d never return to. Her books are considerably lighter than Jolene’s law ones, but she’s also packed several. When they change lanes, everything rattles.

Back in Lexington, Beth’s house is packed up for the foreseeable future. She’s cancelled the papers, moved the address for her magazine subscription, found one of the neighbourhood kids to mow the lawn twice a month. Most of her stuff is staying put, but there are boxes of books and clothes and a handful of trophies that she’s won and Benny hasn’t, taped up and labelled and waiting to be shipped to the new apartment in New York. In truth, Beth’s book collection probably overlaps with Benny’s for the most part and they don’t need two sets of everything – but Benny’s books and magazines have his notes and annotations and bookmarks, and Beth’s have hers, and she doesn’t want to be without them. Townes and Jolene have copies of the house keys to let the movers in and to keep an eye on the place when Beth’s away. It might be more sensible to sell the place, invest in some real estate in a big city somewhere, but it’s her home and while she can afford to own it and rent elsewhere, she will.

The hotel is enormous and Beth is grateful for the bellboy who leaps to their assistance, helping them drag their book-filled cases to a luggage trolley. The lobby is pretty full of competitors and spectators already checking in, and heads turn as Beth walks through.

“Huh,” Jolene says speculatively, “I’m not paying for a drink this whole week.”

“Probably,” Beth smiles, nodding to a couple of people she recognises.

Jolene left all the plans with Beth, stipulating only that she wanted a comfortable bed and access to plenty of room service, and it wouldn’t have been hard to secure a suite but Beth booked them a twin room. Some of it’s nostalgia for travelling with Alma, some of it’s a reminder of sleeping side by side in the Methuen dormitory, and some of it’s a desire not to be alone this week. There’s plenty of space of them both, anyway, and Jolene kicks off her boots and flops onto a bed with a girlish laugh while Beth uses her nervous energy to unpack, hanging up the garment bag in the darkest corner of the closet where she can hide it behind her regular clothes.

“You’re gonna win this whole thing, right?” Jolene asks, as Beth places her chessboard, notebook and childhood copy of Modern Chess Openings on the desk, making sure to leave space for Jolene’s books.

“I think so,” Beth replies, giving up on flitting around the room and sinking into a chair by the window. “There are some European players I’ve not faced before, I’ve read some of their games but I won’t know until I play them.”

Jolene nods, looking thoughtful. “Okay,” she says. “Fix your hair and we’ll go sit in the bar and let people send you free cocktails that I will drink for you and you can look regal and terrifying so they all piss themselves at the thought of facing you.”

“Maybe I don’t know how to look ‘regal and terrifying’,” Beth offers, but she’s already sitting down at the dressing table.

“Uh-huh,” Jolene says dryly. “You just go on thinking that.”

Beth has told a selection of reporters lately that the reason she doesn’t have an engagement ring is because she doesn’t enjoy playing chess with anything on her fingers. It sounds like the thinnest of lies, but is actually the truth: the watch Alma gave her is the only thing she can bear to wear on her arm, she’s never liked the shifting or flash of jewellery when she reaches to make a move. Benny might not be able to buy her a ring, but Beth could easily have bought her own, as modest or flashy as she wanted. She’s still not sure how long it will take to get used to wearing a wedding ring; she spent a long time with a jeweller finding one simple and lightweight enough that she didn’t want to pull it off immediately. But even with her preferences publicly stated, Beth is aware of people’s gazes dropping to her naked left hand.

“I don’t think they think I’m going to go through with it,” Beth tells Jolene.

Jolene, sipping a Screwdriver sent over by a young man Beth soundly thrashed in what she thinks was San Francisco, screws up her mouth. “I’m still not sure you’re going through with it,” she says. “You just say the word, and I’ll come to Paris with you until the heat dies down.”

“Don’t tempt me,” Beth sighs, and Jolene toasts her.

-

Things progress as they usually do: the early rounds pass by easily enough, Beth neatly defeating her opponents – none of whom looks particularly pleased to face her – and talking to the press that are already here this early in the week. Jolene comes for a few of the matches but spends more time in their room or the bar, working on a paper with a stack of textbooks in front of her, turning away both Open attendees and the press when they try to get gossip on Beth’s strategies or her wedding. Beth joins her between games for sodas and conversation, both usually interrupted by fans with questions, but Jolene seems to find the whole thing quietly amusing so Beth isn’t too embarrassed.

In the evenings, they go to dinner and once the movies, and then Beth swims laps of the hotel’s pool alone – “this hair does not get wet,” Jolene informs her – and replays any matches from earlier that she hasn’t already worked on, checking for weaknesses or laziness, scrutinising her opponents for moments of unexpected genius in case they end up coming across one another later on. They get coffee and candy delivered from room service, watch the old movies Alma loved so much, and when Beth struggles to sleep she listens to Jolene breathing in the bed across from hers until it lulls her into something like calm.

Townes arrives in the middle of the competition, bringing his camera and dictaphone, and whisks the two of them off to a restaurant on the other side of the city that looks like nothing from the outside but is warm and friendly inside and has the most gorgeous food. Townes and Jolene have met before but never spent much time together, and Beth spends most of the meal watching them charm each other. Townes is well-read in a way Beth has never tried to be, and he and Jolene avidly discuss Maya Angelou and Christopher Isherwood, Sylvia Plath and James Baldwin. Beth doesn’t even try to participate in the conversation but enjoys the sound of it flowing over her, pleased to see people she cares about getting on so well. She and Townes discuss the tournament in the cab back, Jolene interjecting with her largely unfavourable opinions of the players Beth has faced, and it’s such a fun evening that Beth almost forgets the knot of nerves that took up residence in her stomach the minute they left Kentucky.

Beth is making her way to the restaurant for some lunch between games when she hears a familiar drawl and stops short; Benny was due sometime today, but she assumed that she’d be told when he arrived. Feeling ridiculous, she hides behind a decorative pillar and peers down into the lobby where Benny has taken up residence on a couch, hat and coat and easy performative grin. Jesus, Beth thinks vaguely, I’m marrying that.

“I don’t understand your question,” Benny is saying to a reporter, Beth thinks he’s the guy from Chess Life. “I don’t think there’s anything emasculating about marrying Beth Harmon.”

Beth lets out a startled noise, manages to suck most of it back in at the last minute, and sincerely hopes that no one spots her eavesdropping on her fiancé.

The interviewer tries to cut in, but Beth recognises the stubborn expression Benny has transitioned to. “No,” he says, “Beth is a genius. She always pushes to be better, and that makes me a better player, keeping up with her. The only emasculating thing would be if I was too afraid to meet that challenge.”

Beth’s heart is thumping in a way that it wasn’t earlier, exchanging queens with a talented grandmaster from Poland, and she finds that there’s something a little tight in her throat. She reflects that she should probably stop hiding from Benny and possibly rescue the interviewer from the annoyed set of Benny’s jaw, and hurries to the stairs so she can look like she’s just arrived, graceful and serendipitous. Benny looks up at the movement in his eyeline and grins.

“Darling,” he calls, loud enough for most of the lobby to turn around and stare.

“Benny,” she responds as he gets up and walks toward her, interviewer summarily abandoned. They meet at the foot of the stairs; Benny kisses her cheek, a brief warm brush against her skin, and Beth finds herself glad that he’s here after all.

“You chose a pet name then,” she says softly.

“Not necessarily,” he replies, “I’ve got plenty of time to try them all out.” Throwing an arm around her shoulders, he raises his voice to say: “now, let me take you to lunch and you can tell me about all the misogynists you’ve made cry lately.”

It’s laughably unsubtle, but Beth finds herself grinning at him and saying: “I’d love to.”

-

Matt arrives in time for an after-dinner drink, crumpled and yawning from spending most of the day on a greyhound. Beth’s pleased to see him, and not just because he’s a wedding guest: she’s been sat alone for the best part of half an hour since Jolene cornered Benny and took him off to a table too far away for Beth to eavesdrop.

“Is she threatening him?” Matt asks, putting a fresh coke in front of Beth and sitting down with his beer. She looks at it longingly almost as a reflex; she doesn’t want a beer right now, but she does crave the peacefulness that four of them would bring. She can’t remember the last time she slept through the night.

“I thought she was,” Beth replies, “but the violent hand gestures stopped a while back.”

“Jolene is as terrifying as you are,” Matt tells her, “I’m sure she can threaten Benny without needing hand gestures.”

Beth tries to feign offence and not laugh but she can’t help smiling when Matt meets her gaze and winks. He takes a sip of beer, and fails to hide a jaw-cracking yawn.

“Couldn’t you have driven up with Mike?” Beth asks.

Matt shrugs. “He and Susan are driving up with Harry and June, fifth wheel did not appeal.”

Beth nods sympathetically and then, because it’s just them in a half-quiet hotel bar, says: “…do you think it’s weird, me inviting June to the wedding?”

“I think it’d be awkward, you not inviting your friend’s girl,” Matt replies, carefully diplomatic.

Beth could leave it there, but on the other side of the room Benny says something that makes Jolene laugh, and there’s a strange calm to tonight that won’t last.

“That’s not what I meant,” she says, but considers it a moment. “I guess it depends on what June knows.”

“Don’t look at me,” Matt replies. “Although if she finds out, she should thank you: Harry’s teeth really needed fixing.”

Beth swallows a guilty laugh; Matt smirks genially at her and takes a long swig of beer. She notices that he’s careful to put the bottle back on the table as far away from her as possible, an intended kindness which smarts a little anyway. Beth looks at him and thinks about Benny’s tone whenever he talks about Harry; she’ll never ask him, but she can ask Matt.

“How did you find out?” she says quietly. “About me and Harry, I mean.”

“You should know better than anyone that the chess world is full of rumour and gossip,” Matt reminds her. He takes another sip of beer, picks at the label with his thumb while he considers his answer. “Harry crashed out of chess like the floor had gone out from under him. We were still seeing him at meets, at clubs, you know? And then nothing.” Matt shoots Beth a look, like he’s not sure if he should continue; Beth tries to keep her expression neutral, her hands from fidgeting in her lap. “Well, Mike and I took over a bunch of beers, sat in his apartment and made him talk to us.” Matt smiles, a little sadly. “He didn’t talk much, but it was about what he didn’t say, you know?”

Beth nods. She’d love to go back to fix a lot of the mistakes she made that year; a lot of it was grief, but some of it wasn’t. She didn’t know her own strength back then, honestly didn’t know what she was doing – but then she left Paris without even speaking to Cleo, dragged Benny along on the phone until he couldn’t take it anymore, and maybe Beth still hasn’t learned better.

“Alright,” she says slowly, “but then how did Benny find out?”

Matt laughs, and when Beth turns to look at him shrugs and says: “Benny Watts knows everything about everyone, you know that.” He grins. “When you get married, legally, half his gossip becomes yours.”

“Damn,” Beth says, “I hadn’t even thought about that.”

“Use your secrets wisely,” Matt advises, draining his beer. “And obviously, pass on anything good.” He puts the bottle on the table, tilts his head at it. “Mind if I have another?”

“Go ahead,” Beth says, and he heads off to the bar. Benny and Jolene are still talking intently; she tells herself that she’s definitely not uneasy.

Matt isn’t back from the bar when Townes appears, threading through the half-empty tables to join Beth. “I’ve been doing my job,” he says in response to her questioning look, “interviewing a few of your upcoming victims. I’ve been very professional, definitely not undermining their confidence.”

“Of course not,” Beth agrees. She tips her head towards Benny and Jolene. “You didn’t overhear what they were talking about, did you?”

“I think it was poetry,” Townes says, adding: “yes, I know, Benny’s only interest is chess, but he’s part of that New York intellectual set, you learn it by osmosis. I’m fully expecting it to become part of you too.”

“I’m sure it started out with Jolene threatening him,” Beth says mildly.

“It probably did,” Townes says. He reaches over to take Beth’s hand. “You’ve got a lot of people on your side, you know.”

Beth squeezes his hand, smiles. “I know.”

-

Beth wakes from an unsettled sleep on her wedding day to find Jolene is already up, smoking a cigarette and calling for coffee and toast from room service.

“Morning,” Jolene says, “get out of bed, you’ve got a guy’s ego to mercilessly crush. Oh, and that chess game, I guess.”

Beth laughs and it nearly feels natural; she washes her face and styles her hair, slips on the skirt and sweater she selected for the Tournament final today and eats her breakfast while Jolene reads her an article from the Chicago Tribune that’s meant to be about the competition and is frankly more about the wedding. They do at least mention several of the games Beth and Benny have played against each other and have printed the game that got Beth to the final, so she counts it as an overall improvement.

The conference hall where they’ve been playing has been set up for the final, a couple of rows of chairs for spectators and then standing room only, the enormous representation of the board stood ready. Everyone Beth passes in the halls wants to stop her to talk about chess or the wedding or both, and in the end Jolene takes over as bodyguard so she won’t be late, herding Beth through the crowds and delivering her to the raised dais they’ll be playing on. The press take up most of the front row of chairs, their cameras and notebooks at the ready, but Benny is also sitting dead centre, the best seat in the house, leaning over the back of his chair to say something to Mike in the row behind. The chair next to Benny has his hat casually thrown on it; Jolene hugs Beth and then walks over to take it, unceremoniously plunking Benny’s hat back on his head, making him look at her with something that’s a cross between a smile and a glare. June and Susan are sitting side by side in the second row and wave the minute Beth spots them; Harry’s there too, while Wexler, Levertov and Matt are in the third row. Beth thinks briefly of the high school football games that she never attended, of the cheerleaders and supporters in the stands.

Benny comes over to Beth, puts his hands on her shoulders. “You ready?”

“I am,” Beth says. “Sterling is a strong player, but he always tries to play Italian. I’ve got this.”

Benny grins, leans in to brush his mouth over hers, lingering just a moment longer than necessary. There’s a buzz in the audience; some laughter, a few claps. “For luck,” Benny says softly.

“Luck is a loser’s word,” Beth reminds him, but she’s smiling anyway.

“Oh, the luck’s not for you,” Benny replies, “it’s for Sterling, the poor bastard. Slaughter him, Beth.”

He saunters back to his seat, all swagger and smirk. Beth catches Townes’ eye where he’s sitting among the journalists; he winks.

Sterling is perhaps a decade older than Beth, smart in a suit and combed-flat blonde hair. He’s the Illinois state champion and placed third in Munich last month; Beth has been watching him with care all week, reasonably sure that his trajectory was leading here. She thinks she’s found most of his flaws, a few weaknesses to exploit, but it’s entirely possible they’re heading for a draw here. She’d prefer to avoid that, hates the anti-climax of a mutual win, a mutual loss, but that’s where a lot of grandmaster games end and she’s slowly starting to accept it.

They shake hands, sit down as the room quiets. Sterling is playing White to Beth’s Black, and leads with his king pawn as she was expecting, developing his bishop in the Italian style; Beth considers before playing the Two Knights Defence that she planned last night, working through a few last variations while Jolene called from the bathroom that she wanted lights out in ten minutes, get your ass into bed. Part of her worried that she would be distracted by everything else that’s happening, but she isn’t. The moment she slips into the world of the board, of her little kingdom, she doesn’t think about anything else. Not her friends watching, not her appointment at city hall, not what she’s supposed to do after this with a ridiculous frustrating handsome husband in name only.

Beth was fully prepared for this game to take hours, it’s partly why the match was arranged for early in the day, but it takes less than half an hour, barely two dozen moves for her to net Stirling’s king, and he holds out a hand with a wry grin. The rest of world slowly returns in a roar of noise, flashbulbs and applause and some probably inappropriately loud cheering from Beth’s section of the audience. She lets Stirling’s hand go, stands to bow a little awkwardly, her success singing sweet and swift through her veins.

They pose for photographs with the board, reporters already asking questions, overlapping each other.

“What’s the best part of today: the Open final or your wedding?”

“I don’t know,” Beth says, “ask me again tonight. Although marriage didn’t come with a trophy, last I checked.”

There’s easy laughter, and Beth looks toward Benny, half-expecting him to sweep over and maybe kiss her and become part of this. He stays seated, tips his hat to her, and Beth laughs.

“How does it feel to play your last game as Elizabeth Harmon?” asks the Chess Life man that Benny has been passively terrorising at every opportunity he can while Beth pretends not to notice.

“Oh, I’ll be keeping my name for competitions,” she corrects him lightly. “No one needs to get confused about which Watts is which, particularly if we’re playing against each other.”

A few more minutes of questions and then Beth tells them she has to go; she has a wedding to prepare for after all. Applause rings through the hall as she leaves, Jolene hurrying to accompany her, and Beth wishes that she could capture this feeling, cup it whole in her hands.

“In the shower with you,” Jolene orders once they get back to their room, and Beth obeys, turning up the water as hot as it will go and letting it pound down on her. Her heart thuds and hums and she can feel her victory high washing down the drain with the soap suds. Fuck, she wants a drink, she wants a pill or two, she wants the world to stop and let her get off at a time when she doesn’t have to be responsible for herself, doesn’t have to make her own decisions and live with their consequences.

Jolene turns off the water, wraps Beth in a bathrobe, and sits with her on the bathroom floor while Beth sobs big, painful sobs. She puts a solid reassuring hand on the back of Beth’s neck, and says “I know, honey” from time to time, and doesn’t push her to stop or pull herself together until Beth’s started hiccupping.

“What do you need?” she asks quietly.

Beth sniffs, swipes at her face with the palms of her hands. “Adults,” she says. “I should have fucking grown-ups here today, not whatever the fuck I am.”

Jolene reaches to grab a towel, gently wraps it around Beth’s head and starts squeezing the water out of Beth’s sodden hair. “What would your mama say, if she was here?”

Beth swallows a couple of times. “Probably that marriage is a trap and men are all the same. But she’d have embroidered my wedding dress for me, she was good at that.”

Jolene hums, carries on drying her hair. “And your other mama?”

“Alma?” Beth smiles against the sting, chokes a half-laugh. “Oh, she’d probably remind me of all the times I called Benny a fucking pirate. But she’d be happy too. We’d have gotten her a new hat, she’d look lovely.”

They sit in silence for a long moment, the bathroom floor tiles cold against Beth’s bare legs, and then Jolene drops a gentle kiss to Beth’s forehead. “C’mon, let’s get you pretty.”

It takes a couple of tries to stand, Beth is trembling so hard, but she makes it back into the main room, sits down at the dressing table to look at her puffy, wan face, her ratty wet hair. Somewhere behind her, Jolene calls room service, asks for sweet tea and sandwiches to be sent up, and a thought occurs to Beth.

“I need to speak to Townes,” she tells Jolene when she’s hung up. “It’s important.”

Jolene raises her eyebrows. “You finally realised that he’d make a much better fake husband?”

“I worked that out a long time ago,” Beth says, as Jolene picks the phone up again, asks reception to put her through to D.L. Townes’ room. She holds out the receiver and Beth takes it.

“Beth?”

“I need you to go to Benny,” she explains quickly, “I need you to make sure that he doesn’t get married in that fucking hat. Promise me, Townes.”

-

By mid-afternoon, Beth is something like composed again, the blind panic and unexpected grief at least far enough below the surface that she can function now. Jolene does her hair and most of her make-up for her, Beth’s hands are shaking too bad, and she stands back to look thoughtfully at her work.

“You might just do,” she says.

Beth stands up and walks to look at herself in the room’s full-length mirror. She and Jolene looked at a number of wedding dresses, from the ultra-modern to long lace numbers that were impossible to move in, but none of them felt right. Instead, Beth is getting married in a crisp white pantsuit, the slacks sharply pleated, the double-breasted jacket fitted close. With her white shirt, she has an enormous black silk bowtie, the shape more feminine than the classic dicky bow. She has white silk heels – not too high, partly because she doesn’t want to turn an ankle, and partly because she’s pretty sure Benny doesn’t want her to be taller than him in all their wedding photos. She’s left her make-up simple: bold black eyeliner, of course, and warm soft red lipstick that was Alma’s favourite shade.

There’s a quiet knock at the door; Jolene grins and hurries to open it. There’s a bellboy outside, holding two small boxes. Jolene thanks him, tips, and comes over to put the boxes on the desk. She opens one to reveal a simple bouquet of daisies, tied with white and black ribbons; in the other box is a matching spray for Beth’s lapel.

“Oh,” Beth breathes softly, as Jolene carries them over. “Jolene, you didn’t have to-”

“I’m looking forward to you throwing your bouquet at all those chess nerds,” Jolene tells her, carefully pinning the flowers to Beth’s jacket. “Don’t aim for me, I’m very happy with my freedom for a few more years.”

Jolene’s suit is black to Beth’s white, but her jacket has bigger lapels and she’s forgone a tie altogether. She looks amazing, and Beth makes sure to tell her.

“Yeah, us Methuen girls don’t clean up too bad,” Jolene agrees, throwing an arm around Beth’s shoulders as they look at themselves in the mirror. “Of course, I look at you and I still see that ugly little white trash cracker bitch stuffing her face with green vitamins.”

Beth laughs, tells herself she’s done enough crying for one day. “I’m glad someone does,” she says.

The last task is to carefully angle and pin the little white pillbox hat with its small netting veil on Beth’s carefully curled hair. She wasn’t going to have anything, but Jolene was insistent that she needed something, and the saleswomen persuaded Beth into trying on hats. It’s not the most fashionable choice but Alma would have liked it, and that settled Beth.

“All right,” Jolene says, handing Beth her bouquet, “let’s do this.”

They haven’t invited anyone to the ceremony, since it’s going to be as short and necessary as it needs to be, but a surprisingly large number of people have gathered in the lobby. There are a few photographers, cameras clicking away, but mostly it’s Beth’s friends, her fellow chess-players, who applaud and whistle as she walks through. She waves a little awkwardly, hopes that she isn’t blushing.

“Just say the word and I’ll drive until we run out of gas,” Jolene says, as Beth carefully settles herself and her flowers in the passenger seat, but they actually just drive to the courthouse. There isn’t too much traffic, and on the radio Aretha Franklin sings about how the only boy who could ever reach her was the son of a preacher man. Jolene turns it up, and they sing along as they drive through the streets.

There are some more journalists and photographers waiting outside; Beth smiles for them but heads straight inside to find Benny. He’s waiting with Townes – when Beth asked if there was anyone Benny wanted, as his best man or his second or whoever, he just smiled wryly and shook his head, so Beth chose their witnesses – and looking a little nauseous, but he pulls together a smile for Beth.

“I did my best,” Townes offers, and Beth can see that. Benny’s wearing jeans, but they’re a clean black pair that look relatively new, and he’s actually wearing a neatly buttoned shirt with a pressed collar. No tie, but he does have a black suit jacket with a white daisy buttonhole to match Beth’s. Beth would assume that the jacket was a loan from one of his more respectable friends, but it actually looks tailored, fits properly on Benny’s narrow shoulders.

“I expected worse,” she offers, just for the way it makes Benny’s eyes crinkle.

He holds out a hand. “Well, shall we do this?”

Beth takes it without hesitation. “Let’s do this.”

The ceremony is short, mostly involving everyone signing a lot of paperwork. If Beth’s hands shake a little as she slips on Benny’s wedding ring, well, his are definitely shaking when he slides on hers. They sign the wedding certificate, and are told that they’re married. It seems so simple for something that’s been so enormous in Beth’s mind lately; it feels more unreal than ever. But there they are, man and wife, and Benny whispers “oh, what the hell” before he leans in to kiss her. Beth can hear Townes’ camera clicking; he brought a smaller one with him, saying that the pictures here would be for them, not for the press. Benny pulls away after a moment, and Beth pulls him back in, kisses him again, because they’re married, because the world hasn’t ended, because she saw the way his eyes widened and his mouth worked when he first saw her in her wedding finery, because she just fucking wants to.

They get an array of photographs taken outside of city hall, easy poses that make them both laugh while Jolene rolls her eyes over a cigarette at them. She drives the four of them back to the hotel for the reception, which has been left pretty informal. They walk into the hotel’s lobby to be showered with handfuls of confetti from their laughing friends; Beth considers telling Benny how much is caught in his hair and then decides not to.

Their flight leaves for Paris tonight, deliberately arranged this way so there was no reason to throw an enormous and probably expensive party. Still, June and Susan have baked a cake, three carefully stacked layers, with a white king and queen crafted out of sugar on the top.

“We considered a chequerboard effect,” June says, as Beth hugs them both gratefully, “but who’d want to eat black frosting?”

“It’s perfect,” Beth assures them, more moved than she thinks she can admit.

Later, Beth throws her bouquet over her shoulder to the waiting crowd; there aren’t a lot of women here and she isn’t sure what she’s going to do if, say, June catches it, but it actually ends up in the startled arms of a seventeen-year-old from Cleveland at his first out-of-state tournament. He flushes a deep red and his mother looks scandalised while his father just laughs, and Beth kisses his cheek while the flashbulbs pop.

They’re almost late for their flight but make it just in time, both of them in comfortable jeans and sweaters for the journey. Benny still has confetti in his hair and Beth is fairly sure her make-up has bled halfway across her face by now, but they slide into their seats laughing as the passengers they’ve held up glare in their direction.

“I think we got through that okay,” Benny says, and Beth looks down at the new gold ring on her finger and says: “…I think we did.”

Someone has clearly told the stewardesses about them, because they’re brought flutes of complementary champagne. After a brief discussion, Benny drinks them both and falls asleep not all that long after take-off; Beth digs out the copy of The Sicilian Flank Game (Najdorf Version) that she packed in her hand luggage, her mind and body fizzing more than the champagne and hours away from resting. She could call the stewardess back; there’s nothing to stop her ordering a cocktail, Benny wouldn’t ever have to know, but instead she cracks the book open to give herself something to concentrate on. Eventually, Benny shifts in his sleep and his head winds up on her shoulder; Beth smiles to herself, rests her cheek against his hair, and carries on reading.

-

Chapter Text

By the time they land at Orly airport, Beth has been awake for long enough that she’s seeing bright waves of colour every time she blinks. Benny, who slept through most of the trip, is crumpled-looking but cheerful courtesy of three cups of in-flight coffee and a cigarette; Beth lets him organise their luggage and pour her into a taxi. Everything feels too shiny, too noisy, too much. She winds down the car window and lets everything rush past her, roads and cars and streets and people; they’re nowhere familiar to her and yet Paris is familiar, Paris is Paris, and she’s walked through it a hundred times in her mind since she crashed out of the Remy-Vallon Invitational. She dreams of it, still; eighteen years old and so sure of herself and then the boulevards drop from beneath her feet and she’s drowning while over her head the black and white pieces grind on and on and on.

A blink, a crackle of noise on the radio, and it’s now, Benny silently watching her from his side of the cab. Beth doesn’t know what’s on her face and is way too tired to try to assemble a normal expression. Maybe this is why you don’t give children tranquillisers to keep them quiet and then leave them to spend the rest of their lives trying to work out how to sleep.

The hotel lobby has an enormous chandelier and the light is distracting, blinding; Beth tunes in and out of Benny checking them in, trying not to look as insomnia-drunk as she feels, Paris has seen her humiliate herself enough, no one is looking at her but it feels like everyone is staring, muttering, like somehow everyone was in the room back in Sixty-Seven and watched her fall to pieces like an amateur. Benny takes her arm and she lets him, leaning gratefully against the elevator wall and not looking at any of the mirrored surfaces, sure she must look as bad as she feels.

They have the penthouse at the top of the hotel; probably needlessly extravagant, but Beth can afford it, and she needed some kind of incentive to come back here. The travel agent didn’t even blink when Beth stipulated that she wanted two bedrooms for her honeymoon, so maybe it’s more regular than she thinks: couples who want to sleep apart or maybe just like a little variety. They have their own living room area and Beth collapses into an impossibly soft couch, swallowed up by it.

“What do we do now?” she asks with a mouth that doesn’t feel like hers. She can’t remember the last time she spoke; it might have been around the time Benny asked the stewardess not to bring Beth a fifth cup of coffee.

“It’s your honeymoon,” Benny replies, “you can do whatever you like.”

There’s a knock at the door and he goes to collect their luggage; Beth listens to the brisk flurry of French like it’s happening behind a wall of glass. Benny comes back, his expression thoughtful, maybe tentative. He crouches down, places a steady hand on each of Beth’s knees.

“What do you need?” he asks softly.

Beth thinks of every green cross she saw as they drove here, the promise in every pharmacie sign above a crowded glass window. If she asked now, strung-out on lack of sleep, Benny might cave. She could get some rest and later Paris wouldn’t seem so bad, so judgemental, so knowing, and this whole sham of a marriage wouldn’t matter at all. She could just spend her time in this beautiful room with Benny, playing chess and beating him every single time, the pieces dancing to her tune and her tune alone. It might kill some part of Benny to get the pills for her and she doesn’t know what it would mean for her in the long run, but right now it’s almost worth it.

“I want to sleep for about three days,” Beth manages at last.

Benny nods. “Okay.” He pushes himself upright, walks away, and for a moment Beth wonders if he’s read her mind, is off to find someone in Paris willing to give him tranquillisers. Instead, there’s the sound of zippers and rummaging. By the time Beth pushes herself upright to try and work out what Benny is doing he’s walking back to her, carrying a pair of her pyjamas and her washbag. “Bathroom,” he says, handing them to her.

The bathroom is beautiful, glossy and mirrored and containing an enormous bathtub with which Beth is looking forward to getting acquainted. She suspects she might drown if she did right now though; she manages to change into her pyjamas without falling over, to pee and brush her teeth and wash her face, all of it happening with shaking hands that feel a long way away. She comes back into the living room feeling oddly childlike in her bare feet and pale green check pyjamas, cheeks smudged with cold cream and the curl fallen from her hair, but there’s no sign of Benny. There’s an open door, and Beth walks toward it.

Benny has closed the drapes, plunging the bedroom into darkness, and there’s a dim lamp casting a narrow pool of light over one side of the double bed. He’s put a glass of water on the nightstand and turned back the covers, clean white and inviting. Beth thinks vaguely of wedding nights and swallows a grim smile, stumbling over to crawl between the sheets. They’re soft and cool, enveloping her immediately, but she’s not sure it’s enough.

“There,” Benny says quietly, leaning to turn out the light, leaving them in the almost-dark but for the daylight still spilling through the open door. He reaches out and then seems to think better of it, straightening up and pulling his hand back. Beth catches it, not sure what she’s asking for, just her head is swimming and the room is too light and too dark and while her thoughts are sluggish they’re still moving too fast to rest.

“Okay,” Benny murmurs, “hold on,” and pulls easily out of her grasp.

Beth lies in the half-dark and waits, the sound of Benny moving around next door lost in the tired roaring in her ears. He reappears after a while, tugging his sweater over his head and discarding it somewhere, closing the door behind him. He swears softly when he bumps into the bed but then the light on the other nightstand snaps on and Benny settles himself on top the covers, t-shirt and jeans and bare feet, back to the headboard. He looks untidy, still a touch jetlagged; when Beth breathes in she can smell the stale air of the plane, coffee, cigarettes, a slight sweat and something that is only Benny. He shifts to get himself comfortable and opens Beth’s battered old copy of Modern Chess Openings.

“Close your eyes,” he orders, and Beth obeys, rolls over away from the light. There’s the sound of pages turning, and then he starts: “‘The Dragon Variation – including the Accelerated Dragon. The Dragon Variation is Black’s most direct attacking (or counterattacking) scheme in the Sicilian. The fianchettoed bishop on g7 exerts a powerful influence on the long diagonal, bearing down on the centre and queenside. The opening is named for the serpentlike pawn formation of Black’s kingside. The name is also appropriate for the aggressive, dangerous character of the defence. Black can generate crushing attacks when things go his way, or his position can go up in flames itself.’”

Beth knows these words, has read them maybe hundreds of times. She remembers the long, long nights in her Methuen bed, taking what the book said and playing through it with the chess pieces in her mind, twirling high above her head while around her little girls breathed and snored and twitched in slumber. Benny keeps reading through the introduction and into the strings of positions; at first, Beth follows along, moving pieces behind her closed eyelids to match, but then the pieces start sliding away from her and the specifics of Benny’s reading turn into the quiet rise and fall of his voice, a thread to follow downwards until that’s gone too.

-

Beth really does sleep through most of the first two days of their trip; she wakes up at random hours to stagger to the bathroom or wander into the main room in search of one of the endless platters of delicate pastries that always seem to appear when she’s hungry. Sometimes Benny is there too, curled up on one of the couches or at the desk with a work from a Russian grandmaster and a hefty Cyrillic dictionary. When it’s daytime, the sunlight filters gold through his hair and he always looks entirely comfortable and at home, shirtsleeves rolled up, cigarette dangling from his quirked lips or an idle hand. Sometimes Benny is in his own room and their living room is dark, drapes pulled back to let the Parisian streetlights shine in. Beth calls for coffee and cake, sits up at midnight eating millefeuille with the lights out, bare toes curled in the carpet, feeling decadent and ridiculous and like she’s really on vacation, nowhere to be in the morning, no expectations from anyone tomorrow. She leaves the dishes across the coffee table, remembers to brush her teeth before she goes back to bed.

Finally, Beth snaps awake and doesn’t immediately want to stick her head back under the pillow. Her case is in her room, some of her clothes hopelessly crumpled from where Benny rummaged through when they first arrived, and Beth pulls out clean underwear and a sundress, takes a long shower and carefully dries her hair, applies her make-up looking at the spark that’s back in her eyes. She can’t remember the last time she felt this well-rested, and it probably shows.

“Well,” Benny says, “you look a little more coherent. Fancy venturing outside?”

“Sure,” Beth replies, even as her stomach clenches. “Where are we going?”

“Just walking,” Benny replies, “get some sunshine, stretch our legs, eat something somewhere other than our hotel room. That kind of thing.”

Beth goes to fetch her purse, slip on a light cardigan and a pair of pale lace-ups that complement the dress. On a whim, she adds an oversized sunhat she bought with no real intention of ever wearing it, unsure if she’d even need it. Benny is waiting for her, back in his regular cowboy get-up, and Beth rolls her eyes.

“I thought the love of a good woman was going to help you mend your ways.”

“Oh, we’ve not been married nearly long enough for you to start trying to change me,” Benny replies. “It takes time for a man to settle down, you know.”

Beth shakes her head because she’s almost entirely certain that part of the reason they’re married now is that Benny never intends to settle down, but she can’t really blame him because she doesn’t either.

They get a few knowing looks from the concierge as they walk through the lobby, and Beth supposes that newly-married couples probably don’t emerge from their hotel rooms for the first few days. They may not be busy industriously sleeping in separate rooms but Beth can’t complain about it.

The streets are full of spring sunshine and Parisians strolling through it. Benny turns a few heads because he always does, but Beth realises after a while that she’s garnering her own share of attention, and feels a touch less like an aspirational little girl staring hopelessly at the impossibly chic women of this city. Benny catches her looking in all the boutique windows, and smirks.

“I will not be playing the dutiful husband, trailing you from store to store,” he warns. “You can do that part without me.”

“I always intended to,” Beth replies, already resolved to return here in the next few days.

She’s happy to amble, but it becomes apparent that Benny seems to actually know where they’re going; on Beth’s last visit she mostly got in and out of cabs, tried to find her own way with a hopelessly creased tourist map and never did get comfortable with it.

“I lived here for six months,” Benny replies easily, when she brings it up. “Won a bunch of European competitions, played a lot of Trente et Quarante, made at least three highly-ranked French players cry. This would have been… Sixty-Four, I guess.”

Beth thinks back to how she spent Sixty-Four; mostly daydreaming through her classes, periodically faking something contagious so she and Alma could fly to domestic tournaments, their ruses usually ruined by the amount of print media Beth appeared in that never did want to quote anything she actually said.

“I wanted to move to Paris when I first came here,” she admits, trying not to think of that drunken little girl telling her plans to Cleo in a hotel bar still thinking that she was untouchable.

“You still can,” Benny replies, like it’s that easy, like it could be that easy.

They stroll in a comfortable silence for a while until Beth finally thinks to ask where they’re actually going.

“Beautiful day like this?” Benny shrugs. “It’s a waste if you don’t go to a park.”

“The Jardins du Luxembourg?” Beth asks.

There’s a slight but perceptible hesitation before Benny says: “not today, no. The matches in the Northwest, they get pretty heated. We’ll take a picnic, make a day of you ruining those poor Frenchmen’s lives.”

Beth laughs because she knows that she’s supposed to, isn’t supposed to be thinking about how Cleo talked about meeting Benny there, drawn inexorably to him and his obsession that wasn’t with her. She’s never managed to sort her feelings about Cleo into anything coherent, and she doesn’t want to think about her now, doesn’t want to wonder if Benny is thinking about her too and what that even means.

“We’re going to the Tuileries,” Benny adds after a moment. “The gravel will fuck up your shoes, but I think you’ll like it anyway.”

The Jardin des Tuileries feels more like a garden than a park, with wide pale walkways and narrower strips of grass and trees. It’s not crowded but there are people everywhere enjoying the mild spring day, walking alone, in groups, in pairs, hands linked. They stop at a small café for cold glass bottles of coke and Benny spreads his leather coat on the grass for them to sit on. Beth tips her head back, lets the sun warm her face, feeling her lips curling into a smile almost of their own accord.

Eventually, Benny produces a miniature travel chess set from one of his coat pockets and they attempt a game of speed chess before realising that it’s much harder to successfully slot the pieces into their little holes quickly and ending up with a mess of rolling pawns. Beth kicks off her shoes and scrunches her toes into the grass and watches as Benny puts together his Dragon Sicilian Defence; she wins anyway, but it’s a close thing, and the next game ends in a draw. It feels like the most casual way that she’s played for years; no clock, no audience, no stakes, no printed pamphlet she’s trying to copy, no mistakes she’s trying to iron out.

As the afternoon drags on, they pack up and amble until they find a suitable café; they sit outside and watch people walk past and eat enormous croque monsieurs and drink bottles of Perrier. They get a few second glances, but no one stops or tries to approach them and it’s nice to sit mostly anonymous in a foreign city and watch the day saunter by.

“You know,” Beth remarks to Benny, “marriage might not be so terrible after all.”

He leans over, clinks his Perrier bottle to hers. “I’ll drink to that.”

-

The bathroom is a study in art deco monochrome, crisp black and white tiled walls and dark woods around the fixtures and fittings. The floor at least isn’t a chequerboard – that might be a touch too on the nose – covered in white and grey marble, cold against Beth’s bare feet. The mirrors are arched with thick black frames, reflecting a selection of Beths back at her. They spent the day wandering Montmartre, the narrower streets, the buildings with their peeling paint and wooden shutters, the creatives still flocking to the squares and bars and cafes. Some of the graffiti was artistic, some less so, but there was something about the cigarette butts in the gutters and the uneven cobbles on the roads and sidewalks that appealed to Beth, that suited Benny’s pretentious schtick. No one looked twice at them, they could walk and look at the posters pasted to the walls and the artists trying to sell their street scenes to tourists and be anonymous, two people who could be friends or lovers or colleagues or newlyweds, it didn’t matter.

Beth took one of the side tables from the main room, displacing a decorative vase, and brought it in here. Benny’s sprawled across the couch trying to decipher an issue of Schach magazine even though his German is almost non-existent and he’s almost definitely going to fail without Wexler’s usual assistance. Beth unrolls her portable chess set, lays out the board as she starts running the bath, plenty of soap bubbles and hot water. There are stacks of thick white towels piled in a sort of open bureau beneath the over-large sink, the lights glowing in polished silver sconces.

For the first few minutes Beth just basks in the water; the tub is large enough to envelop her, allowing her to stretch her legs out almost full-length. Steam drifts past her face, curls the ends of her hair, and she soaks out the day, the walking, the cobbles beneath the soles of her shoes. There’s no sound but the occasional slosh from the water if she shifts, opening her eyes at last to the fogged-up mirrors and the hint of condensation on the white ceiling. Foam clings to her skin, parts in places to reveal hints of her knees when she bends her legs, and when the last of the tension slides out of her spine she finally sits up, reaches for one of the towels to dry her hands and forearms.

Beth starts without much of an aim in mind, shifting pieces across the board, pawn taking pawn and lining up each capture neatly on each side. The rim of the bathtub is narrow and curved over, leaving her without a flat surface to lean on properly or to put pieces on, but she doesn’t mind. The board isn’t hard so there’s no click as she makes a move, just the warm fuggy silence in the bathroom. When she checkmates with White, she puts all the pieces back, thinks about what she wants to work through next. She ends up drifting back to the final from the Chicago Open – less than a week ago, but it seems like another life. In a way, it actually was. Beth bites her lip a moment, then leans to start White’s Italian opening. She’s familiar with a lot of the Black defences against the Italian, made sure she practiced several when it became clear that she’d be facing Stirling in the final, but she’s sure there’s a way for White to wriggle back out again of even her most aggressive defences.

There’s been a lot of literature and debate on how to defend against the Two Knights Defence; Beth once watched two players nearly come to blows discussing it in a hotel bar in a city she can’t even name now. It’s not for the meek, it encourages a vicious game of losses and captures that not all players want to step into, but Beth’s always preferred a solid attack to a solid defence. To attack requires a confidence and boldness she was surprised to find that most men didn’t seem to possess, even when faced with an unrated adolescent with an angelic schoolgirl’s face. Half the time they seemed to wince more at her aggression than at their actual loss. Beth has refined herself, learned a wider variation of responses, but her favourite is still to hit and hit hard, no matter the collateral damage. Benny, she’s learned, prefers a slow circling, a quiet set-up and a brutal trap at the end. It’s neat and sometimes gloriously messy – and it hurt like hell when he successfully pulled it off against her – but Beth doesn’t have the patience for it, for carefully adjusting a convoluted strategy if your opponent snatches a key piece.

Stirling tried the Max Lange attack against Beth’s Two Knights but she took it down anyway. She studies the Max Lange as the water starts to cool, condensation beginning to roll in streaks down the mirrors and tiles, shifting variants that give White a better chance to stand up for itself. She’s read so much analysis on the different versions of the Max Lange and has never been convinced into liking it; in the end she abandons the strategy altogether and looks at other options. Beth doesn’t much like playing Italian style, the reliance on the bishop as a hinge across in the board in the middle game, too much lost if it can be captured. Looking to strengthen that position, she moves the White bishop earlier and then develops the White knight; next, she’s supposed to start pushing pawns but she develops the queen instead, moving it into the second rank. She reaches to develop the Black bishop, her original move, but she can already see that despite the strong central position it’s weaker now than it was before. When both sides continue developing, the middle game is already more balanced.

“Benny!” she calls, because something this good needs to be shared. She and Benny have always enjoyed analysing play, their own or other people’s, and he’ll either appreciate this alternative opening or rip a hole in it that she didn’t spot. Sure, she’d prefer him to be impressed, but either way she wants his opinion.

After a long pause, there’s a soft knock on the door. “Beth…? You okay?”

“I cracked Two Knights without Max Lange,” Beth responds loudly, and the door opens immediately like she suspected that it would.

There’s a sudden rush of cool air into Beth’s warm steamy domain and Benny blinks twice but Beth points at the board and says: “Look!”

Benny pushes the door almost closed behind him so that there’s no more drafts and takes a step or two closer to look at Beth’s board.

“That’s your game against Stirling,” he observes.

His eyes flick to meet Beth’s, back to the board, back to slide over her damp curling hair and flushed cheeks.

“I don’t think he could have beaten me,” Beth explains, “but there should be something decent to counter the Two Knights, you never know.”

There’s the most subtle of shifts in Benny’s expression; Beth knows his business face, and reaches out to start slowly playing through the sequence she’s figured out.

Benny studies the board, eventually kneeling down on the damp tiles so that he’s on eye level with it. He puts the pieces back to their starting positions and plays through again; Beth moves the Black pieces while he moves the White in her new sequence. It’s not the most thrilling of openings, no early sacrifices or captures, but it also leaves the board more openly matched, no brutal immediate power imbalance. Beth watches Benny’s face, his eyes narrowed with concentration. In public he enjoys making everything look easy, as though every single move anyone has ever played is piled up in neat encyclopaedic files in his head and if you’re very polite he’ll deign to talk to you about them. In private, Beth knows how hard he studies, how many gruelling hours he’s put in over the decades. She’s never cared about impressing the showman side of Benny, perpetually smug and more than a touch condescending; the real prize is watching the corner of his mouth tug upwards, slow, and something spark in his eyes.

“That is good,” he says slowly.

“Yeah?” Beth doesn’t need anyone else’s validation, she never has, but it doesn’t mean she isn’t as susceptible to praise as the next person. She knows how sharp Benny’s mind is; it feels good to blow it from time to time.

Benny shakes his head a little, like he knows Beth is asking him to play into her vanity, but his smile is growing. “Yeah.”

His hair is falling into his eyes, the damp in the air flattening it, and in his fading blue jeans and black t-shirt he looks like anyone, any young man sitting on a bathroom floor all lanky pale limbs and a gentle admiration for his brand-new wife.

Beth shifts in the water and with the splashing there’s a sudden reminder to them both that she’s leaning against the cooling enamel side of the bathtub. Benny’s eyes widen, the soft private expression on his face turning into something neutral, a quick defence mechanism. Beth becomes acutely aware of her bare shoulders and arms, the soap bubbles smeared on her skin, the water dripping from the ends of her hair down her spine. None of it is something Benny hasn’t seen before, hasn’t touched, kissed, coaxed into pleasure – but they don’t do that anymore, they’re better than that and beyond that now.

“I should leave you to finish your bath,” Benny says, pushing himself to his feet.

There’s still more than enough foam left to needlessly protect Beth’s modesty, and she tells herself not to fold defensive arms across herself; there’s nothing for Benny to see, and it wouldn’t matter if there was. She’s not a child, not afraid of herself or how others look at her.

“Can you take the board?” she asks instead.

Benny nods, picks up the table and carries it out, not a single chess piece falling. He knocks the door with a hip as he leaves, and Beth shifts back, slides beneath the water. Eyes shut, warmth spread around her, she lies with her head on the bottom of the tub until her breath runs out, until she’s not shifting pawns and the look on Benny’s face against the inside of her eyelids.

-

Cohabiting in relative peace was never a problem for them – even when they were both living in Benny’s grungy apartment and driving each other mad playing hours of gruelling chess, they got along reasonably well. Now, in a beautifully decorated penthouse far larger than Benny’s basement and with far better plumbing, it’s easy to get along, to slip in and out of each other’s days. Beth continues to take long baths with her chess board and issues of L’Officiel, Marie Clare and Vogue; her French may not be good enough to read all of the articles but the photos more than speak for themselves. She’s careful only to play casually recreational games, and doesn’t call Benny in again. They read through Europe Échecs, picking out highly-ranked European players and working through the latest winning game reports. Sometimes they take the board and magazine out to cafes, sit for hours in the corner discussing better endgame strategy and which tournaments they might attend later this year, early next.

“Open up your European file, really kick the Russians,” Benny suggests, while Beth rolls her eyes at his ridiculous use of metaphor.

Beth loses hours shopping, wandering the many floors of Galeries Lafayette, where her reasonable French and the assistants’ periodic English helps her find what she’s looking for, picking out new items to shape her wardrobe to what she’s seen in magazines, on the Parisian streets. Sometimes Benny comes to meet her, although he refuses to help her carry her purchases back to the hotel; sometimes they’ve arranged to meet in a restaurant or a bar when Beth is done. Benny’s usually alone, tucked into a corner or at the bar, squinting down at the battered copy of L’Etranger that fits easily into his coat pocket until he looks up and sees Beth and something in his face clears. Occasionally he’s gathered a crowd around him, grandstanding in French as comfortably as he does in English; Beth teases him later that he dies without constant fawning attention, but privately she thinks that maybe she knows better than anyone the weird magnetic affect Benny Watts has on people.

One night Benny leads Beth through the métro, refusing to tell her where they’re going, and takes Beth past the line outside a fairly nondescript building in an arrondissement several away from any Beth has spent time in so far. Beth is reasonably sure that Benny is not going to get them inside unless he’s got a bribe bigger than the amount of cash he normally carries but stands and watches him talking to the doorman in rapid French she can’t follow anyway. Benny’s told her his grasp of Spanish doesn’t extend much beyond demands and personal insults, and his Russian’s okay but nowhere as good as Beth’s is; his French, however, is comfortable and natural with a lilt that Beth is slowly starting to recognise as Parisian. It’s more attractive than is really fair, frankly.

Benny reaches to grab Beth’s hand and pull her closer, brightly introducing her as ma femme, Beth in a way that she still isn’t entirely used to. The doorman smiles, pulls her in to give her kisses on both cheeks, and waves her and Benny through.

“What dirt do you have on him?” Beth asks, bemused, as they walk down a long hallway.

“Serge lived next door to me and Levertov,” Benny replies. “I keep in touch, he always knows somewhere good to go.”

Despite not looking like much from the street, the club is much larger than Beth expected, a deep underground cavern with coloured ceiling lights cutting the space into strips, a sea of noise and constantly-moving humanity. The music is loud, loud enough to thrum in Beth’s chest and vibrate through her feet, a brand-new heartbeat of its own. Beth’s never been anywhere like this, never sure where to go, too much danger and temptation lurking in the corners. She looks to Benny, who smiles, gently pushes her. “Go on,” he says into her ear, barely audible above the beat, “I’ll find you.”

Beth loses herself in the crowd, in the music and the noise and the people. It’s different to dancing alone in her living room, or in a hotel room with the TV turned up to burn off energy between matches, or in Benny’s apartment with his shitty record collection when he was out getting groceries or smokes. Everyone else is dancing too and Beth moves with them, dances alone, dances with whoever is close to her. The music flows through her, every inch of her, loud and intimate, and when she looks up all she can see are the streaks of colour across the ceiling, flickering and changing with every song. Her mind is full and also empty in a way she’s been trying to reach for years.

It could have been minutes or hours or years when the girls Beth was dancing with swirl away and Benny appears, pressing a half-full lukewarm bottle of water into Beth’s hands. Beth gulps greedily, suddenly aware of how thirsty she is, how hot she is, her thin dress sticking to her with sweat. Some of the people around them are drinking alcohol, there’s a sticky-sweet scent on the air, but Beth doesn’t want any right now; she doesn’t need this experience to be more intense and she doesn’t want to dull it either, wants to feel every drum beat, every curl of a singer’s voice. Benny takes the bottle away when she’s done, threads off the dancefloor, but is back before Beth can miss him. His narrow hips fit her hands obscenely perfectly when she pulls him in, encouraging him to sway along with her. She’s not expecting much, based on Benny’s terrible taste in music and his preference for secreting himself in dark corners with packs of cards, but when he peels her hands from his body, curls an arm around her back and reels her in again, Beth is surprised enough to stumble, loses the beat for several long seconds before she puts her hands on his shoulders, his hot skin bleeding into her touch.

“You didn’t tell me you could dance,” she shouts accusingly into his ear several songs later, her voice raw.

“There’s a lot of things I haven’t told you about me,” he responds, gives her one of the flirtatious grins he stopped giving her once they’d actually fallen into bed, or maybe he stopped because Beth walked away and didn’t walk back again. Either way, it makes Beth smile, drop her head and look away.

By the time they collapse into a cab back to the hotel, the first hints of dawn are starting to streak the sky. Beth aches all over, a solid good soreness she’ll enjoy soaking in the bathtub later, and she catches enough of a glimpse of herself in the cab’s rear-view mirror to see her mascara running freely down her cheeks, her hair soaked flat. She watches Paris skim past the windows, the mostly-empty streets and still-lit streetlights, a different city but one she trusts more now.

Her ears are ringing and her throat is sore from shouting and singing along; her skin smells of sweat and smoke and other people’s booze, but Beth feels like she’s floating by the time they’re back in their penthouse, warm and homely by now and so, so quiet. She kicks off her shoes by the door, spins unsteadily across the carpet on tender feet because she can. Somewhere behind her, Benny laughs softly.

“I didn’t think that was your scene,” Beth tells him, a thought that’s been vaguely present all night but wasn’t worth voicing until now.

“It often isn’t,” Benny replies easily, on a casual shrug. “But I knew it would be yours.”

They left the drapes open when they left and the room is full of pre-dawn greyish light, all soft edges and shadows. Benny left the coat and hat and knife behind tonight but his numerous necklaces gleam against his dark shirt, the metal warm against Beth’s fingers when she reaches out to touch.

“Thank you,” she says, quiet, because she’s not had a night that felt that good in a long time, didn’t even know it was possible to feel that good, that full, that bright without resorting to narcotics.

“You’re welcome,” Benny tells her, and it sounds genuine, no hidden traps or slyness behind the words.

There’s a tautness in the air that Beth knows how to read now, and the smart thing to do would be to take herself to bed, spread her leaden limbs across the soft cool sheets and sleep until she can’t still hear music in her ears somewhere under the tinnitus. Instead, she traces her fingers up to where she can feel Benny’s heart thudding through his chest.

“Sober as a judge,” she says, perhaps less boastful, more marvelling.

“Sober as a judge,” Benny agrees, sounding wry, and Beth isn’t sure who kisses who first.

This isn’t like the clumsy, stricken kiss in her dressing room months ago; Benny kisses Beth with absolute certainty and she kisses back just as fiercely. They danced in sync for hours earlier, a perfect prelude to Benny’s arms around her now, his tongue against hers. She clenches her fists in the damp fabric of his shirt and he’s the one to cup her hips now, hands warm through her thin dress. Beth makes a soft sound into the kiss, one she hopes he can interpret because she’s not ready to form words yet, to make demands or pleas.

Beth falls into the plush couch and drags Benny with her, an untidy heap of limbs and breathless laughter. He pulls away from her mouth, kisses her jaw and her throat, while Beth claws frantically at his back, her dress sliding higher up her thighs every time they shift. He’s hard against her hip and Beth wants that, wants him, fuck tomorrow’s consequences, fuck the day after’s too.

“Benny,” she gasps, breathless; one of his legs slips between hers as he braces himself against the couch and she twists, helpless, frantic to be touched. The hand Benny doesn’t have pressed into the pillows by Beth’s head cups one of her breasts and she pushes into it; with her dress and bra in the way there’s not enough contact, the pressure’s all wrong, Beth wants more of it. There’s a zipper somewhere in this dress but she can’t remember where anymore and it doesn’t matter; nothing matters right now as long as Benny doesn’t stop.

He kisses back to her mouth and Beth groans into it, one hand curled in his belt as she tries to pull him closer, the other fisted in his hair, their harsh breathing the only thing she can hear through her muddled ears. She shifts against him, there’s a whisper of friction but it isn’t enough, and Benny murmurs fuck, buries his face in her neck. Beth laughs, bursts of colour behind her eyelids every time she blinks.

“You should have come to Paris with me,” she breathes, giddy on body heat and desire. “Last time, you should have come.”

It takes her a moment to realise that Benny is trying to get away from her, not closer to her, disentangling their limbs and almost falling as he clambers off the couch, off her. She can’t see his face, it’s too dark, and she sits up on her elbows. “Benny?”

“Go to bed, Beth.” His voice is low and rough, cold as she’s ever heard it.

And then he just walks away, the door to his room slamming behind him.

Beth stays lying on the couch for a moment longer, struggling to compute the abrupt change. Her breath is still catching in her chest, she can still feel how wet her panties are, but now she’s alone in the darkness and she has no idea why.

No. Fuck that.

Benny startles when Beth bangs into his room; the bedside lamp is on and he’s already pulled his shirt off. She can see how peaked his nipples are, whether from her or the chill, how his hair is a mess from her hands.

“What the fuck,” Beth snaps.

He doesn’t look at her, tosses the shirt to one side. “You know I hate maybes,” he says shortly. “No should’ves, no could’ves.”

“Seriously?” Beth demands. “That’s what this is about? I say that it would have been good to have you in Paris with me before and you have a hissy fit?”

Benny sighs, grabs the packet of smokes from his nightstand, taps out two. He tucks them into his mouth to light them and offers one to Beth. She’s seething but she takes one and he sits down on the edge of his bed.

“I didn’t offer to come to Paris with you because you didn’t want me there,” he says, simple.

“I never said that,” Beth replies.

“You didn’t have to,” Benny replies. “It was your Invitational, your competition; all I did was train you up and send you off. I did my job.”

Something about his hard, level tone riles Beth. “I was lonely,” she says. “I loved the city but I was alone and tonight… tonight you made me think that maybe it would have felt different if you’d been here.”

“There’s that ‘maybe’ again,” Benny says, his mouth quirking humourlessly. “Well, I have a maybe for you: maybe if I’d come to Paris with you, you wouldn’t have pissed away your match against Borgov for a bottle of pastis and the possibility of a fuck with a French model that you don’t even remember.”

Beth hears herself inhale sharply; she feels cut, like maybe Benny actually hit her, and for a moment she wants to go at him mindlessly, all fists and teeth.

“How long have you been waiting to throw that at me?” she demands. She’s furious, but her voice comes out as cold and steady as Benny’s. “Have you been holding it since that first phone call?”

“I am not your babysitter, Beth,” Benny tells her. “You can’t take back a move once you’ve made it and you can’t recolour the past to make it sit better. The fact is that you wanted to be in Paris with someone, but whoever it was, it wasn’t me.”

Beth thinks of sitting in that hotel bar with Cleo; thinks of dropping the name Townes like a schoolgirl with a crush. She wonders if that part of the night made it back to Benny too, and if it even matters.

“No,” she agrees, “it wasn’t.”

Benny hangs his head, his hair falling in his eyes. His bare shoulders look too narrow in the lamplight, skinny and vulnerable.

“Own your fuck-ups, Beth,” he says quietly, and he sounds so, so tired. “I signed a lot of paperwork before we got married; I can’t lay a finger on anything that belongs to you. You keep your mistakes to yourself and I’ll keep mine.”

“Well,” Beth says, and she doesn’t know if the ringing in her ears is from the nightclub or the anger, “mistakes were the only thing you had plenty of.”

She slams his bedroom door behind her, and he doesn’t say a thing.

-

Beth wakes up at some stage in the afternoon to find her body attempting to become one with the mattress; she groans and stretches out her limbs across the cool sheets, trying to chase away the stiffness in her muscles. It takes her a long while for the night to trickle back into her consciousness and when it does she resists the urge to put her head under the pillow and hope that it all goes away. Instead, she takes a long hot shower, repeatedly telling herself that she will not catastrophise until she’s had coffee. A lot of coffee.

There’s no sign of Benny when she ventures into the main room, damp hair dripping into the collar of her blouse. She calls for something like breakfast and wonders if Benny’s around; if he’s asleep or hiding in his room or out or… she spins round, a little panicked, and spots Benny’s chess set still on the desk, the Russian book and dictionary open beside it. Okay. Well. Whatever else has happened, Benny wouldn’t leave any of those things behind.

Beth smiles awkwardly at the bellboy who brings her coffee and pastries, thanks him in her careful textbook French, and watches him place the tray down on the coffee table. After a moment’s hesitation, she sits down on the couch, reaches out to pour herself a cup. Outside, rain is lashing the windows, casting the whole room in cool grey light; Beth isn’t cold, but shivers a little as she wraps her hands around the coffee, steam tickling her face. She has options; she has more options than she knows what to do with.

Room service could bring her wine, could bring her so damn much wine, and Beth thinks about it, listening to the rain fall on a city that isn’t her home. She’d still be mad, still be hurt, but somehow alcohol has always managed to blunt the edges of that, smooth it into something almost bearable. Beth’s been clean for over a year; some days were easier than others, some felt more like she was hanging on by her fingernails, torn skin and shreds, but she did it. If she cracked now, gave in to the half-constant craving, nullified all that hard work; who would she be spiting, really?

Beth reaches for a pastry she doesn’t particularly want to eat, and finally notices that the stack of magazines they’ve been building up on the coffee table is taller than it was, the top issue of Paris Match not the one she flicked through last time. She picks it up; the top edge of the cover has dried crinkled, and the issue of Plexus underneath is similarly damaged. Apparently Benny has been outside today; Beth glances toward his closed bedroom door and decides she’s not ready to risk any of that yet.

Sitting back, Beth flicks through the magazine as she eats, scattering liberal amounts of pastry flakes everywhere. She can decipher the celebrity news better than she can the political news but she’s mostly here for the photographs, as fond of looking at models and actresses in beautiful outfits as she ever was as a teenager. It’s not as potent, but it’s its own kind of escapism.

Beth’s not expecting it, and something kicks first in her chest and then her stomach when she registers that the candid snaps of a couple in a park in Paris are of her and Benny. They have their own heading – Les Jeunes Mariés Américains – and multiple photographs of the two of them playing chess in the Tuileries. Beth doesn’t remember seeing anyone with a camera, and she’s fairly sure that she’d have found out one way or another if this was pre-arranged; this really does seem to be a serendipitous photoshoot. They look relaxed and happy: Beth with her shoes kicked off and head tipped back as she laughs, Benny lying in the grass at her side, propped up one elbow as he says whatever is putting that expression on Beth’s face. If they’d known they were being photographed, Beth suspects they would have tried to touch more, tried to look more romantic perhaps. But she looks at the page until the pictures feel seared onto her eyelids, and they look entirely natural. Caught up only in each other.

It’s late enough that Beth could call Jolene; she’s probably at work or in class right now, but she might not be. But then what could Beth say – that her fake honeymoon could have been romantic but it isn’t? That there’s a quiet, sharp anger between her and Benny about things they’ve refused to discuss until now? She could get on a plane, go home and think of an excuse when she’s safe in Lexington, but then she’d be admitting to a marriage she couldn’t string on beyond a week, and Beth has never liked failures.

She goes to knock on Benny’s door and risks peeking inside when he doesn’t reply. His bed’s been slept in, the covers screwed into a mess on one side, but he’s not there. His case is, spilling jeans and shirtsleeves, and Beth takes that to mean that at least he intends to return at some point.

Beth turns on the television for background noise and skims the rest of Paris Match, then picks out another of the chess books she brought and slowly starts working through the first chapter, board propped carefully against the sofa cushions as she tries out pawn variations. It occurs to her that Benny knows Paris in a way that she doesn’t, that he could be gone for days if he wanted, and pushes the thought away because it opens up a whole chasm beneath her feet. She puts the lights on as it steadily darkens outside, the rain not letting up, and forces herself to finish the whole chapter before she tosses the book aside.

The hotel has an indoor pool and eventually Beth trails down there. She has the space almost to herself and swims laps until it burns off the worst of the nervous energy, the still-softly-furious energy. Finally, she rolls onto her back and floats with her eyes closed, lets the warm water gently bob her around.

She’s probably rich enough to be considered eccentric and doesn’t really care either way as she takes the elevator back to her room in her robe, barefoot on the cool faux-marble floor, the ends of her hair damp where water seeped beneath her swimming cap. It’s late, but she doesn’t know how late, although she feels a lot less jittery than she did before.

Benny is back, sitting in jeans and a turtleneck near the window, battered copy of Alekhine in the original French cracked open on his thigh. His hair is wetter than hers, slicked from the rain outside.

“I thought you’d be halfway back to the states by now,” he says.

“I thought you’d be playing baccarat in a basement somewhere,” Beth counters, no heat in it. She lays her damp towel over the back of a chair, walks over to sit opposite Benny.

“I nearly did,” Benny replies, lips quirking into something that isn’t a smile. “Stood outside for way longer than was really necessary, but in the end… I came back here instead.”

Beth carefully closes her robe over her bare thighs, screws her toes into the carpet. “You thought you’d find me halfway down my second bottle of wine.”

Benny’s head snaps up. “I told you, Beth, I’m not here to stop you doing anything. Your choices are yours.”

“I know.” Beth watches Benny fidgeting with his rings; first the signet, his usual habit, and then the new wedding ring. She should have taken hers off to go into the pool, but she didn’t. “I thought about it,” she admits.

“I thought about it too,” Benny tells her, mouth definitely twisting wry now. “They could just have kept bringing us wine, we could surface in a couple of days surrounded by bottles, having fucked up the expensive carpet.”

“You don’t like drinking,” Beth reminds him.

Benny shrugs. “It doesn’t mean I can’t be good at it.” He catches Beth’s eye. “If you want an annulment, it shouldn’t be hard to get. You can say what you want, as long as it doesn’t get me arrested, I won’t contest anything.”

It’s not like Beth’s not been thinking about it; she knows Jolene would help, has probably already got a contingency plan in place. “You’re not a coward, Benny,” she tells him, “and neither am I.”

Beth has refused to take a draw in games when she really should have; she accepted a long time ago that her sense of self-preservation is skewed on and off a chess board.

“I can’t apologise,” Benny says. “I shouldn’t have said most of that to you, it was never supposed to come out, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t mean it.”

“I know.” Beth chews her lip a moment. “I don’t think I realised that you were still so angry about Paris.”

Benny spreads his hands. “I guess I’m mad that you wasted five weeks of gruelling preparation,” he says. “I don’t let just anybody beat my ego to a bloody pulp on a daily basis, you know.”

“I know,” Beth says quietly.

“The rest of it… isn’t my business,” Benny adds. “If you’d come straight back to New York, well, maybe then it would’ve been, but you didn’t. I really shouldn’t have said anything, Beth, and that I am sorry about.”

Beth has never breathed a word about what might or might not have happened in a Parisian hotel room years ago, not to Jolene, not even to Townes. She doesn’t know what happened between leaving the bar and jolting to consciousness in a bathtub, has never managed to reassemble those fragments. In the end, it doesn’t really matter; what matters is what happened afterwards.

“No wonder most of the chess community think you have some kind of deal with the devil in exchange for gossip,” Beth tells him, because it’s easier than confronting half of what Benny is saying.

Benny smiles, looks rueful. “Cleo told me,” he says. “About a year later. I don’t know if she was boasting or confessing and I don’t think she knew either.”

Something shifts and squirms inside Beth; she hasn’t seen Cleo since an awkward goodbye before Beth fled Paris, too lost and furious to deal with half of the consequences of her actions. She can’t pretend that a small part of her isn’t glad that it’s too late now to even try. It hadn’t occurred to her that Cleo and Benny might still see each other from time to time; she doesn’t know what to do with that piece of information.

“I guess it wasn’t really about me, then,” she says softly.

“Oh, Beth,” Benny says, shaking his head. “It is always, always about you, you should know that by now.”

Beth knots her fingers together in her lap and doesn’t look directly at him; it’s easier to look at the still-damp knees of his jeans, the light flickering on his rings, his bracelet. She thinks, I can do this if you can, shaking hands over Benny’s kitchen table. Beth has never liked being forced to concede anything.

“We should get dinner,” she decides abruptly. “Can you call while I get changed?”

Benny looks at her for a moment, and finally nods. “Sure. Okay.”

Beth concludes that a line has been drawn under something, and goes to fix her hair.

-

With their two weeks disappearing faster than Beth would have expected, they play at being tourists. Benny insists that they go to the Louvre, and Beth protesting that she went last time she visited doesn’t work. They end up wandering for hours, looking at artwork that Beth vaguely remembers from school textbooks, paintings she recognises from bad prints in hotel rooms on the other side of the Atlantic. Alma was the one who liked art, classical music; Beth has always leaned more logical, which is probably just a nice way of saying that chess has always taken priority over everything else. When they were planning that first trip to Paris, years ago now, Alma wanted to spend her days in the Louvre: she rapturously listed all the works she wanted to see, and promised absinthe and gateaux in the evenings. Then she got sick and they couldn’t go, and there was never another chance. The first time she came here Beth was distracted by the tournament, wouldn’t let herself think about that trip that never happened. It’s very different now.

Benny takes her hand and leads her around the various crowds of tourists chattering in languages Beth understands and languages she doesn’t until they find an empty gallery full of vaguely ugly wooden sculptures from early Medieval Europe. Beth sits on a bench with her knees and ankles together, palms flat on her thighs, and breathes until her eyes clear and she feels less like she could drown; Benny ambles around the displays at a careful distance, a familiar presence in the corner of her eye.

“Come see this one,” he calls eventually, when Beth is starting to feel more herself again. “It’s hideous.”

This would not have been what a trip to the Louvre with Alma would have been like; nevertheless, Beth manages to smile as she walks over to see what Benny’s found.

They spend most of a day in the Jardins du Luxembourg, sitting on cool metal chairs and playing chess. The weather stays pleasant, if not especially warm, but that’s the only real difference between this and the days Beth spent in the park in Russia. When they arrive mid-morning it’s mostly the domain of old men who eye Benny suspiciously and Beth doubly so. Benny drops into an empty chair with his usual attitude of a gunslinger entering an unfamiliar bar, tipping up the brim of his hat a little, and Beth takes the seat opposite him with an eyeroll. Some of the men watching her recognise her, she can tell, but that doesn’t mean that she’s automatically won them over.

They lay out the pieces quickly, Benny taking Black and leaving Beth the White.

“Five minutes?” he suggests. They don’t have a clock with them, but Alma’s watch never leaves Beth’s wrist.

“Three,” she counters.

Benny grins, and for a second Beth expects him to name stakes, but all he does is tap his knuckles to the table. “Your move.”

It takes just under two minutes for Beth to hit him with a bishop-rook checkmate, and while she can tell Benny isn’t even trying to play his best, it’s enough for a murmur to break out among the men watching. He exits his chair with a flourish and is immediately replaced by an older man with a permanent cigarette stuck in the corner of his mouth who glowers at Beth throughout their relatively short game but shakes hands politely when she’s won. After him come a swift succession of others; they’re not bad, well-practiced and sharp, and there are even a handful of moves Beth hasn’t seen before and makes a mental note to try out back at the hotel later. Benny sits and watches, feet kicked up on a spare chair; Beth spots a couple of people suggest a game to him but he waves them away.

Later in the afternoon the younger crowd start appearing. By now they’ve had a break for lunch and Beth is playing a simultaneous with two of the best of the park’s regular players, playing White on one board, Black on the other. She’ll win both in the end, but it’s a comfortable challenge and both of her opponents seem happily entertained by it all. The younger players arriving are mostly men but there are a handful of women with them, and Benny seems to know most of them, greeting people with hugs and cheek kisses and bursts of rapid French that nearly distract Beth from her games. When she finally wins there’s a round of applause, and Benny introduces Beth to the two most recent winners of the French Chess Championship. They both definitely know who Beth is and are eager to play her; in the end she beats one and draws with the other, and the two games are drawn out long enough for their growing audience to cheer when each one ends.

Beth plays with one of the women next; she doesn’t get to play against women very often. Certain publications have implied that that is some kind of internalised misogyny or that Beth is simply a straight-up bitch, but the fact is that Beth wants the kind of recognition and success – and, initially, money – that only playing against men can get her. The fact they still segregate tournaments by gender frustrates her and she mentions it publicly when she can: women are clearly just as clever and able as men are at chess. She could always enter one of the women-only competitions, but that feels too much like conceding and Beth thinks she’s done more than enough of that lately.

Fundamentally, there’s not much difference between a match against a woman and a match against a man – it’s the skill of the player that determines it. Beth analyses her opponent’s play style, but she’s played entire games where she’s barely noticed the actual person opposite her, not met their eye until the whole thing was over. Benny says that he watches his rival, learns tics and tells like he does at poker games, but Beth has no interest in that. Still, she hadn’t thought about how often she has to play against a wall of masculine frustration until it’s completely absent.

It’s the longest game of the afternoon, and when Beth finally wins she really feels like she’s achieved something. They shake hands and the woman introduces herself as Claudette, steps to one side to kiss each of Beth’s cheeks with an open friendliness that initially disconcerts Beth and then warms her. Claudette offers her a cigarette which Beth accepts, and they turn their attention to the other games around them. Benny is playing the more recent French champion, saying something softly to him that Beth can’t decipher but which rips startled laughs from their little audience and makes the guy grin at him like he’s hoping to draw blood. They’re apparently still playing for honour and not cash, but there’s a jagged energy to the game that Beth notes has been absent from all the ones she’s played today.

“Ton mari?” Claudette asks as Benny neatly traps and takes a White rook, and Beth nods. Claudette’s mouth twists as she exhales smoke with an innate elegance Beth aches to copy, and rocks her hand from side to side in the universal signal for “not bad”. Beth giggles, and Benny’s eyes momentarily snap from the board to her.

It’s getting dark by the time they leave the park, the temperature dropping enough to feel chilly against Beth’s bare ankles, heading for the welcoming lights of a nearby bistro.

“I’m not sure I’ve ever played there and not left richer,” Benny remarks.

“You could have bet on my games,” Beth points out. “You knew I’d win.”

“I don’t need the spending money,” he shrugs. “Afternoons there were how I used to make my rent.”

Beth considers him for a moment in the twilight. “I never know whether you’re serious when you say things like that.”

“Good,” Benny replies. “That means I’m still doing something right.”

-
Beth absolutely insisted that the Eiffel Tower was way too touristy, she’s seen it in the distance and that will do, but is somehow not particularly surprised when they find themselves at the Champ de Mars on their last morning. Benny refuses to let them take the elevator to the second floor and by the time they’ve climbed the metal stairs all the way up Beth is about ready to find something to push him off. Luckily they have to take an elevator up to the top; Beth doesn’t think about the fact the elevator is the original Victorian one, still in service after eighty years, and instead works on glaring at Benny all of the way up. He remains remarkably cheerful and Beth wonders if maybe they’ve glared at each other so many times over the years it no longer has an effect anymore.

It’s a beautifully clear day, Paris laid out shining beneath them in the sunlight, even the largest buildings looking tiny. The wind at the top is fierce, everyone gasping and laughing as their clothes and hair fly around, and Beth blinks tears out of her eyes to appreciate the view.

“Happy now?” she asks Benny.

He tips his head. “I’ll let you know.”

Beth looks out over the city, picking out places she can recognise while clinging to the rail. The city looks both larger and smaller than it feels on ground level, rolling out before her in endless rooftops all the way to the horizon.

“Is this what you wanted me to see?” she asks at last. “That Paris is just a city? That I can’t even pick out that hotel where I lost to Borgov once I’m up this high?”

“That is all true,” Benny replies, “but actually, I’ve never been up here either.”

Beth turns to look at him, his wind-ruffled hair and wry smirk. “You lived here for six months!”

“Yeah,” Benny agrees, “but I wasn’t a tourist. Of course I didn’t come up here. The view’s pretty good though, huh?”

“You’re ridiculous,” Beth tells him, but she’s laughing.

By the time they make it to the ground, Beth has decided that she is never climbing a flight of stairs in any direction ever again, her calves starting to loudly complain. They get sandwiches and coffee outside a nearby café and Beth is surprised to feel a tug in her chest at the thought that she won’t be doing this, this time tomorrow. This is the first true vacation that Beth can remember taking, and she wasn’t sure how she would feel about it; she’s been keeping herself busy to help with the sobriety and was not convinced that she would idle well. There were a lot of variables for this trip; they both knew that it wouldn’t be easy, and of course some of it wasn’t, but more of it worked than she thinks either of them were expecting.

Benny holds up his coffee cup: “To making it through the honeymoon.”

Beth carefully clinks her cup to his, sips her café au lait to their somewhat surprising success.

There is a certain apprehension about their return to America, of course. For all that this marriage is supposed to help Beth corral her life, it has also completely changed it. This time in Paris has allowed her and Benny to at least try and get used to each other, but now they have an apartment to turn into a home, a busy year of tournaments to prepare for, and a united front to keep up for the press. Beth hasn’t been afraid of the future for a long time and she isn’t now, but there’s no harm in acknowledging that she’s a little daunted. She thinks that Benny might be too; he’s uncharacteristically quiet in the cab on the way to the airport, the slight crease between his eyebrows that forms when he’s thinking deepening as they drive.

It’s late when they finally take off, Beth waving off the stewardess’ offer of a drink and trying to smother a yawn behind her hand. Her legs are still sore from earlier, and as she settles herself in her seat Beth realises that she’s actually exhausted.

“Did you make us walk up and down the damn Eiffel Tower so that we’d sleep on the plane?” she asks, unsure if she’s annoyed or impressed.

Benny turns bleary eyes to her, and his usual smirk is a little crooked at the corners. “It worked, didn’t it?” he says.

Beth thinks about complaining some more but her eyelids are drooping and she thinks she can afford to let him have this one.

-

Sitting in a bright yellow taxi watching the lights of New York pass by the windows reminds Beth a little of the first time she came to this city; Benny had her fate in his hands then too. The thought of that time doesn’t twinge as much as it used to, but she hopes there’s more than an air mattress in a chilly stale basement waiting for her. She tells herself that while she doesn’t necessarily trust Benny’s taste in apartments, Wexler and Levertov seem more like functional human beings capable of picking out somewhere people might actually want to live, and if the worst comes to the worst, her lawyer can probably get her out of the lease once she’s found somewhere better.

They pull up outside a tall dark brick building, criss-crossed with dull metal fire escapes. It’s after midnight by now and most of the windows are dark, but the lobby spills warm golden light onto the street as they get out. Beth doesn’t even have time to reach for her case before the door opens and a jacketed doorman hurries down the short flight of steps.

“Pete!” Benny says, coming to bright life as he does with any flicker of an outside audience.

“Mr Watts, welcome back.” Pete is about a head shorter than Benny, with stocky shoulders and a thick New York accent. They shake hands, and then Benny turns to introduce Beth. She’s still not used to hearing my wife, Beth, and suspects that she’ll possibly never get used to it.

“Mrs Watts, welcome to your new home,” Pete says, shaking her hand firmly before he grabs for their cases.

Beth hasn’t made a concrete decision about what to do with her last name, assuming that she wouldn’t really have to; she’ll remain Elizabeth Harmon in her professional life, and while she technically is Elizabeth Watts now, she hasn’t actually heard it said aloud yet. They follow Pete inside, and when Beth looks to Benny he looks as startled as she feels. Of course, they’ve been married for two weeks already, but those two weeks were on vacation and in another country. It’s only now, back in America, that Beth feels the ice-cold water of reality crashing back in. She’s married Benny Watts. She’s Mrs Benny Watts.

“Beth, please,” she corrects belatedly, once they’re in the clean, pleasantly-sized lobby. This is definitely an improvement on her first arrival in New York, when part of her wondered if this was an elaborate ruse on Benny’s part to murder her and never have to lose a chess title again.

“Beth.” Pete smiles and nods. “Your German friends came over earlier with groceries for you,” he adds, “and I had them take your post up too. You’ve been getting a lot.”

“It’s all for her,” Benny says cheerfully. “She’s the famous one.”

“A lot of it was for you both,” Pete corrects him with a smile.

Beth swallows down a laugh at Benny’s sudden hunted expression and instead thanks Pete.

“Need anything, I’m here for you, just let me know.” Pete puts their bags in the elevator for them, and wishes them goodnight.

“Well, he’s an improvement over an air mattress and a broken sink,” Beth remarks once the doors close behind them.

“You’re never going to let that go, are you?” Benny asks.

“Probably not, no,” Beth agrees.

Their apartment is full of boxes, way more boxes than Beth remembers packing up in Lexington and way more boxes than she can imagine Benny needing to pack up his meagre belongings. They leave their cases in the hall and squeeze around the piles to get into the living room. It has warm olive-green walls and a thick brown and white carpet that Beth assesses for a moment before deciding she doesn’t hate it, and two large windows that don’t have much of a view but that also don’t overlook an alley full of garbage. Beth is tempted to sink into the comfy-looking darker olive couch, maybe kick off her shoes and prop her feet on the pale-painted coffee table, but she’s got a new home to explore.

The kitchen is shoebox-sized and very orange with a tan fridge and dark countertops, but Beth recognises Benny’s coffee machine already unpacked and plugged in for them, and a knight-shaped magnet is holding an Enjoy! note to the fridge. Their friends have brought coffee, sugar and cream; orange juice, bread, eggs, crackers, butter and several packets of M&Ms. Beth would roll her eyes, but this is about the level of nutrition available at any given time in her home or Benny’s; they might want to work on that sometime.

She leaves Benny making coffee and goes to look at the rest of their apartment. The bathroom is decorated in teal, the tiles and the paintwork the exact same shade, but the tub is an enormous white cast iron affair that Beth can’t wait to try out, and the large oval mirror above the sink reflects Beth’s flushed cheeks and messy hair back to her. Both bedrooms are roughly the same size with a queen-sized bed and closet in each; one has wallpaper in various shades of lilac that turns out to be decorated with hundreds of tiny flowers when Beth gets closer, and the other has geometric wallpaper in shades of green and brown.

“I guess I’m getting the floral one,” Beth says, when Benny appears with a mug of coffee for her; she recognises the mug as one of the ones from his old apartment and decides she needs to get on with unpacking her stuff as soon as possible.

Benny shrugs. “I won’t notice it after a while,” he says, and Beth believes him.

They go back to the living room, and this time Beth spots a literal sack of mail that she didn’t notice earlier next to a comfy-looking armchair. They should probably both try and get their beds ready, try to sleep and get themselves used to American time again, but after sleeping most of the way home Beth feels way too awake to even attempt to rest. Instead, she and Benny spend their first night in their apartment sitting on their living room floor sorting through piles of envelopes. Any addressed solely to Beth go to one side for dealing with later, but a lot of them are addressed to them both; in the end they split the pile into stacks and start opening.

Most of the envelopes turn out to contain cards congratulating them on their wedding. Benny’s social circle might be wider than Beth’s, but she’s pretty sure he owes money to most of it, and there’s no way that even between them they know this many people.

“Is this that guy you made cry in Pittsburgh?” Benny asks, waving a card at Beth. She squints at the name inside, scrawled in slightly smudged ballpoint, and can’t conjure up a face to go with it. Not that it really matters.

“I thought you made that guy cry in Pittsburgh,” she replies at last, dropping the card onto the growing pile in front of them. The cards themselves are pretty interchangeable: pastels, flowers, generic illustrations of couples that don’t look like either of them. The messages inside are equally generic and only about three names have sounded familiar so far; Beth is beginning to suspect that half of these are from the people who harassed her into getting married in the first place, which strikes a sour note. She sips her cold coffee and tears into another envelope.

“God, we sound nearly respectable,” Benny mourns a while later. “Who the hell are ‘Benjamin and Elizabeth’?”

“They sound terrible,” Beth agrees.

“I’d say I need to engineer some kind of scandal,” Benny says, “but I’m pretty sure one of the billion pieces of paper your lawyer made me sign promised that I wouldn’t do that.”

“That’s what you get for inviting yourself into my life,” Beth responds primly, swiftly chucking aside a card that expresses a wish for them to know the joy of children as soon as possible.

“I’ve always had a fondness for loopholes,” Benny muses. “We’ll work something out.”

-

Over the next few days, in between a lot of weirdly-timed naps to combat the jetlag, Beth tackles the boxes. The three containing clothing, shoes and accessories are easy to deal with: she spends a morning transferring things into her new closet and bureau, unpacking fresh towels and bedlinen. She’s happy to live with the décor already existing in the apartment – it’s neither old-fashioned nor obnoxious – and hasn’t brought anything with her. It’s a home, but it’s not a home yet, and maybe it never will be. She sets a photograph of Alma in a neat silver frame on top of the bureau beside a small jewellery box, and tells herself that she’ll get used to the wallpaper in time.

The boxes Benny’s responsible for are much more battered and badly-taped than Beth’s, and she assumes he’s dealing with them in some way because periodically there are less of them. His record player appears in the living room and the kitchen cabinets start filling up with a meagre selection of implements, all of which probably need replacing. Sipping coffee out of another chipped mug, Beth thinks she finally realises why proper married couples get bought presents to set up their homes. She has no desire for fancy table linen or the kind of wedding china that neither of them will ever take out of the cupboards until it inevitably gets smashed, but they could probably use a few normal things.

The telephone gets connected and starts almost immediately ringing off the hook: people call for both of them and it takes a little bit of getting used to, remembering that she’s not the sole resident. The Chess Federation calls to talk to Benny, but they apparently have no interest in talking to her. Beth grits her teeth because it’s always been an uphill struggle with them, but she is trying, dammit. She tells Jolene about Paris and listens to a dozen micro-aggressions from law school, being able to call her friends a relief from when she occasionally remembers she knows all of about five people in New York on a good day. Benny avoids answering the phone most of the time, and Beth gets very good at no hablo español when she picks up to a presumably pissed-off Argentinian.

Downward spiral of a year notwithstanding, Beth generally runs on early nights and earlier mornings. Admittedly, some of those early nights were achieved with the aid of medication, but it’s easier to sleep when she’s been busy, and there never seems to be time for idleness. Separately and together, Beth and Benny explore their new neighbourhood, finding bars and coffee shops, a tiny second-hand book store crammed almost floor to ceiling with paperbacks, restaurants with delicious smells that spill onto the sidewalks, furniture stores Beth resolutely won’t go into because they don’t need anything, shop windows full of an eclectic range of clothes, half of which Beth immediately covets. Benny finds a bodega where they can get cigarettes and groceries, chats to the owner in his semi-accurate Spanish. There’s a park a few blocks away with swings for children and plenty of benches, and tables where at the weekend people sit and play cards and dice and chess too.

The main problem turns out to be their library. Between the two of them, Beth and Benny have a deeply comprehensive collection of chess books, magazines and pamphlets in a variety of languages, several of which neither of them actually understand. They have double copies of about half of the books, what with Beth having brought everything from Kentucky, but neither of them are going to give away or sell the extra editions. They fill the bookcases immediately, and shortly after that every flat surface in the apartment starts gaining stacks of reading material. Beth puts the newer books she hasn’t read yet on her nightstand until the pile threatens to get unwieldy and fall on her while she sleeps, walks into the living room one morning to find a heap of tournament pamphlets six inches thick on top of the television, Benny’s back issues of Shakhmatny Bulletin underneath the coffee table. She considers moving them, and then realises she has nowhere to move them to.

Pete the doorman proves invaluable, helping Beth keep track of the weird amount of post she still receives – just how did everyone get her new address, she wonders – and always able to recommend a store or a place to try as they attempt to pull the apartment together. Sometimes Benny is out and sometimes he isn’t, but it’s nice to walk into the lobby and see a friendly face; Beth had forgotten what that was like, living without Alma in their house in Lexington. Pete helps Beth carry groceries and one time an enormous rug for Benny’s room up to their apartment, and is always happy to answer her questions about the area, about New York in general.

Beth had time off from the show for the wedding and her honeymoon, but soon she’s back to filming – it turns out it’s all a lot easier now that she actually lives in the same city as the recording studio. There’s a bouquet of flowers and a bottle of champagne in her dressing room; Beth picks it up when she’s alone, cradles the cool glass and imagines popping the cork, filling her mouth with the sharp fizz. She could record the show with no problems, she might even play better, bold and risky, bright-eyed, sparkling like the alcohol. But she’d go home to this fragile new life that they’re building and Benny’s mouth would thin and tomorrow she’d just want more and the day after that more again, an aching void that’s never enough no matter how much you pour into it. She puts the bottle down, makes conversation with the hair and make-up women about where to go for her next trim, grins dazzlingly when the audience applaud and cheer to congratulate her on her recent wedding.

The camera focuses on her hands, beautifully manicured as always, and Beth looks down and sees the light glance off the new gold band, nearly fumbles a capture but manages to steady herself. It’s just that she’s not used to playing with jewellery; she always knew that it would be an issue. Of course it’s disconcerting, but she’ll get used to it. She has to.

Beth gets home late and gives the champagne to Pete, carries the flowers upstairs to discover that they don’t own anything like a vase anywhere in the apartment. She and Benny rummage around and eventually unearth a pitcher that neither of them remembers owning and that nearly tips over when they fill it with the expensive bouquet; they put it on the coffee table on top of Benny’s German dictionary with its peeling cover, and the whole thing is easily the most adult part of their new home.

If Beth hadn’t seen Benny asleep on a couple of occasions she’d be becoming increasingly suspicious; he stays up later than she does, far more fond of the early hours of the morning than Beth has ever been, the light in his bedroom staying on long after Beth had retired to the airbed. He’s also almost always awake when Beth wakes up, the two of them taking it in turns to get into the shower first, though at least hot water here isn’t an issue like it was in his basement apartment. He doesn’t disappear off to all-night card games the way that he did when Beth was living with him years ago, apparently staying on the straight and narrow as long as Beth does, the other marriage vow they’ve never really spoken about. Still, Benny flits in and out of their apartment, his presence sometimes announced only by the trail of empty coffee cups and yet more chess books appearing in growing piles on their living room floor, and Beth starts contemplating demanding: just when do you fucking sleep, Benny? because it’s turning into a bit of a weird conundrum.

The trophies end up being a sticking point. Beth left most of hers at home in Lexington but she brought a few with her, admittedly mostly to annoy Benny, and he has two boxes full of his. They lack a fancy cabinet to display them in and everything is already covered in their chess library; Beth puts a couple of the smaller ones on top of her bureau and Benny uses some of his as bookends, but they clearly need to put up some shelves or something.

“I won this one before you were even born,” Benny remarks cheerfully, holding up a cup that, if Beth’s math is correct, he won at the age of seven.

Beth responds by bringing out her first place trophy for winning in Russia, something Benny hasn’t won before or after her, and putting it on top of the television.

When she gets up the next morning, Benny has put every single one of his trophies on the coffee table, piling books to create a pyramid base to display them on. He has more of them than Beth does, simply because he’s been playing for nearly twenty-three years to her six. She glowers at them, reading the events and the years engraved on them; lingers on the 1966 co-champion trophy for a moment. Its counterpart is in Lexington, hidden among other wins that don’t still taste sour when she thinks back on them.

Beth may not have as many trophies as Benny, but she’s still got a reasonable amount with her, enough to scatter them obnoxiously around the apartment. She adds some of them to Benny’s coffee table extravaganza, displacing some of his bigger cups to replace them with hers, uses his enormous Russian dictionary to put her Russian trophy topmost. Benny catches her just after she’s finished this, face screwing up like he’s annoyed but still trying not to laugh.

“Truce?” he suggests.

“You’re only saying that because you don’t have the Russian first place trophy,” Beth responds. Benny has a third place one, which is perfectly respectable and the best any American players had done lately until Beth swept along, but it’s an easy spot to needle.

“I don’t yet,” he corrects her, falling easily into their couch. Most of Benny’s pillows didn’t come with him, or at least Beth hasn’t seen them if they did, but the black and white one that looks like a chess board has; he leans against it as he looks at Beth. “I do have last year’s Cincinnati trophy though.”

Beth makes a face at him even though there’s no sting to it now, sits down beside him to look at the mess of shiny cups and statuettes and shields haphazardly piled up on books, and, yeah, they’ll probably need to do something about this.

“Did you ever drink champagne out of any of yours?” Benny asks. Beth looks askance at him to see if there’s some kind of trap in his words but it seems to be a genuine question.

“No,” she admits. “I threw up in one once, though.”

Nice.” Benny winces.

Beth thinks about the question, the tone in his voice. “Did you ever drink champagne out of yours?”

“I did.” Benny closes one eye, squints at the selection in front of them. “I won, and ended up drinking a magnum of champagne out of…. that one.”

Beth follows his pointing finger, leans to pick up the cup he’s pointing to. It’s a decent size, and there’s a weird residue inside it that could once have been champagne. Then she looks at the date.

“It says here you were twelve.”

“I was,” Benny agrees.

Beth eyes him. “An entire magnum?”

“I was sick as a dog,” Benny says ruefully. “Although not into my trophy, so I win that one.”

It hadn’t occurred to Beth that Benny was ever someone who didn’t stop after one beer, or two at the most; she’s never really asked what his childhood was like, outside of the occasional discussion about old games. He was very young in a world full of adults for a long time, after all.

She opens her mouth but despite the wry nostalgia on Benny’s face she can see he’s not in the right mood to answer questions; she files it away as something to work on later.

They’re not ready for a real housewarming party, but Levertov and Wexler come over with pizzas and soda when the last of the boxes have been unpacked.

“Wow,” Wexler says dryly, looking around, “you’ve taken that nice apartment we found you and turned it back into Benny’s crazy basement.”

“At least I vacuum occasionally,” Beth offers, and goes to find glasses while the boys shift the coffee table and its current tableau to one side, to make enough room to lay out chess boards on the rug.

“We could play Twister,” Levertov suggests idly. “I bet you still have that board somewhere, Benny.”

“You cannot play Twister if you’re sober and you don’t intend to sleep with anyone you’re playing with,” Benny replies firmly.

Levertov tips his head in acknowledgement while Wexler just smirks. “Have I mentioned recently how much I appreciate your deeply weird marriage?”

They end up playing bughouse. Since you need four players it’s not something Beth has much experience with, but she catches on quickly; they play two games simultaneously with the normal chess rules, but any pieces captured on one board are put into play on the other. They set up the clocks with five minutes on each and keep swapping teams between games. Everything quickly descends into chaos, the clicking of clocks and pieces a frenetic rhythm, teammates demanding the extra pieces that they want – at one point Wexler does a ludicrous queen sacrifice in order to provide Beth with an extra queen on her board, while Benny does his best to clog up the other board with pawn captures. Beth and Levertov prove to be the best pairing, able to work in a way that’s almost coordinated, but they don’t keep real score and by the time the boys go home Beth aches from laughter, sitting on the carpet with Benny separating the two sets into their original boxes.

Getting ready for bed, Beth drops her toothbrush into the holder and looks at Benny’s toothbrush beside it, at his razors next to her face cream in the mirror cabinet, and for the first time it doesn’t feel strange.

-

They head out before it’s fully light, stumbling around the apartment drinking bad coffee and shrugging into sweaters and jeans, neither of them fully capable of speech yet. Beth turns the car radio right up in the hope it’ll stop Benny nodding off and driving them off the road, though the New York streets are pretty crowded even at this unholy time. It would probably have been easier to fly to Kentucky, but they need the car once they’re there and Beth’s not yet reached the point of wanting to keep an unused car with her unused house in case she drops in on a whim and doesn’t want to keep calling for cabs. Benny offered to drive while Beth flew, but something stubborn flared in her and so here they are, exchanging yawns on a trip that’ll take the day.

In fairness, Beth and Benny are good travelling partners – she’d realised that from their first journey together. Familiarity has only made their silences more comfortable, and by the time the sun has fully risen and they’ve both coalesced into actual sentences Beth’s enjoying herself, winding down the window to fill the little car with spring breeze. Simon and Garfunkel beg Cecelia not to leave and Benny is even moved to tap the song’s beat on the steering wheel as they sing along. He owns way too many jazz records for someone who Beth has to actually live with, but at least he lets her pick the radio stations for roadtrips.

Later, Beth opens the latest Shakhmatny Bulletin – fortuitously arrived in time for this trip – and while her spoken Russian is far better than her grasp of Cyrillic, she’s more than capable of reading the game reports aloud. Benny listens attentively, occasionally interjecting his opinions on certain moves, and after one particular match report they play the game through again, tweaking most of the moves that end up giving White a slicker, more definitive win than the original players did. They eat lunch by the side of the road, lukewarm sodas and sandwiches. Beth gets out to stretch her legs and ends up dancing to The Ides Of March on the radio, the horn section of Vehicle proving impossible to resist, even crackling through a speaker in need of repair by the side of Route 48 on the fringes of West Virginia. The occasional car passes by and Beth wonders what they see, the slender figure dancing by the faded Beetle while her black-clad companion refuses to join in but smiles anyway.

When fatigue starts to set in over the course of the long afternoon, Benny teaches Beth how to swear at someone in every South American country he’s ever visited: “Sure, you can just call someone an asshole in Spanish, but I think it’s a nice touch to know the local insults, really get under their skin”.

“Is this why the Argentinians have stopped calling you?” Beth asks.

“I might turn up anyway,” Benny replies. “Really give the fuckers something to cry about.”

Whether he’s referring to the Argentinian Chess Federation, some specific players, or just the entirety of Argentina is unclear, and Beth doesn’t ask; knowing Benny, it’s all of the above.

They arrive about seven in the evening, and Beth looks at her house and remembers the last time they were here together, six months and what feels like a lifetime ago. Benny was an unknown quantity then and in many ways still is; it feels more real, bringing him back here as her husband, than any amount of cohabitation in New York could.

Jolene said she drove over a couple of days ago and plugged the fridge back in, checked the lights and phone were working, and left the dust to be Beth’s problem. The house looks the same as it always does, her home, a fortress and a prison in perhaps equal measure though Beth doesn’t know how to fully articulate the thought and doesn’t try.

Benny hangs up his hat and coat as he walks in with the same casual ease that he always has, toes off his shoes and follows Beth up the stairs.

“I see I had to marry you to warrant the spare room,” he says, amused, and Beth warns: “I can still make you sleep on the couch.”

The spare room is a deliberately neutral space, stripped of its pink tartan and gauzy bed hangings; the furniture is much the same, the white paint freshened up, while Beth decorated it in shade of soft blue. It felt like removing so much of her adolescence, but she couldn’t have left it as it was, a memorial to a truncated childhood that was never hers to keep. She’s especially glad she redecorated as she watches Benny throw himself across the bed, all stretching lanky limbs; for a moment she nearly sits beside him, chooses to perch on the desk chair instead.

“This was yours, wasn’t it?” he says after a moment.

“It was,” Beth agrees carefully.

“All your carefully plotted victories and your teenage dreams,” Benny muses. He has a smile ticking his mouth but Beth can’t tell if he’s teasing her or not. “All the things this room has seen.”

“I thought a lot about murdering you in here,” Beth tells him.

As she suspected it would, Benny’s face lights up. “Tell me everything,” he orders, pushing himself up onto his elbows. “This was after Vegas, right?”

“It was,” Beth confirms. “Well, my favourite one involved you losing spectacularly to me, you playing absolutely shambolically.”

“Of course,” Benny agrees.

“You’d still be reeling from your awful loss when I cut your throat with your own knife,” Beth continues. “You bled to death all over the chessboard that was still laid out with my victory.”

It made perfect sense to her at seventeen; saying it aloud now, it comes across pretty brutal. Benny looks delighted.

Dark,” he says cheerfully. “I like it, that’s exactly the kind of enmity I try to inspire.” He lies back down again, looking up at the blank ceiling where Beth watched chess pieces glide for years. “That explains a lot about the Ohio Open.”

“I didn’t want to kill you so much by then,” Beth replies. “Well. It depends on how obnoxious you’re being at any given time.”

Benny grins with all of his teeth, wolfish and yet in its own way oddly charming. “If you could tell that kid what you know now, huh?”

Beth wouldn’t know how to explain to her teenaged self half of the things that have happened over the last couple of years; this doesn’t even feel like the worst of it.

-

The usher directs Beth and Benny to the groom’s side of the church without even asking; Beth doesn’t know if this is because he recognises her or if one look at Benny’s glittering chains and open-collared shirt is enough to say he doesn’t belong to Susan’s friends. Mike’s half of the congregation is full of a certain type of man; Beth has beaten at least half of them at local competitions, she realises, though at least most of them smile at her when they realise who she is. The small church is decorated with bouquets of white and pink spring flowers, and at the front Beth can see Matt with his hands on his brother’s shoulders, speaking intently. The twins both look handsome in their smart suits with matching white flower buttonholes, and a pang of something fond and maybe a little nostalgic runs through Beth.

Susan’s visibly proud father walks her down the aisle as they all rise clumsily to their feet. She looks radiant, golden hair pinned up with a soft lace veil falling around her shoulders, in a short embroidered dress and a bouquet of daisies twice the size that Beth’s was. Her three bridesmaids, two of them little girls who are clearly relatives, are in pale pink silk. Throughout their vows, Mike and Susan only have eyes for each other, unable to stop smiling even at the serious parts, while in the front Mike’s mother and Susan’s mother weep through the whole thing. Even from halfway back in the church, Beth can see Matt swallowing hard as he hands over the rings. It’s a lovely ceremony: simple and affectionate.

The reception is in Susan’s parents’ backyard, decorated with more flowers and paper lanterns. It’s a perfect spring afternoon, warm sunshine and small fluffy clouds: you couldn’t ask for better weather. There are buffet tables; half the women in the family disappear into the kitchen and reappear with platters of sandwiches, bowls of salads, and Beth briefly wonders if she should have brought something before remembering that the best she’d be able to provide would be store-bought cookies. Instead, she places the carefully-wrapped set of cocktail glasses with the rest of the wedding presents and goes to find a glass of apple juice instead of the sparkling cider everyone else is drinking.

When Mike and Susan have fed each other pieces of cake and laughed for dozens of photographs, there are speeches: Matt’s best man speech is half-teasing, half-fond, but he’s clearly uncomplicatedly happy for his brother. Susan’s father gives a short, sweet speech and when he finishes has to dab at his eyes, affectionately hugging his daughter. It’s like a wedding on television, Beth thinks, an immaculate textbook example.

Later, she finds Harry looking a touch uncomfortable in his suit, and June, pink-cheeked and smiling in powder blue. They chat and it’s nearly easy; Beth answers some of June’s questions about Paris, Harry talks about work, they discuss how nice the day has been. In a weird flash of clarity, Beth wonders if she’s the only person left who’s still awkward about this, who can still see Harry’s devastated face before he walked out when she blinks. She lets Harry take June off to dance when there’s a break in conversation and drifts away, wandering alone through this party full of happy people.

There’s a pretty good band playing most of the classics and a few newer songs; the singer looks a little like Buddy Holly if you tilt your head and squint. Benny is sat in a lawn chair somewhere with a handful of the other chess players, good-naturedly arguing over problems and the calibre of players at the next Mexican Open. Beth could join in, but she still hasn’t worked out how to slot herself in when Benny is holding court the way that he does; he’d make room for her, but she doesn’t know what to do with it once she has it. Instead, she kicks off her shoes and lets Matt take her onto the improvised dancefloor for I’m A Believer and Twist and Shout.

“Is your mom pressuring you to be next?” she asks, when the music switches to something crooning originally by Sinatra and they’re watching Mike and Susan sway, eyes only for each other.

“Of course,” he shrugs. “But I’m happy as a bachelor for the foreseeable future.” He eyes Beth thoughtfully. “How’s a month of married life treated you?”

“It’s very much like my life before, except now there’s a line for the shower in the morning,” Beth replies, to make him smile.

Part of Beth would like Benny to join her, to dance with her to Louie, Louie in the growing twilight with that ease he hides under all his angles and edges, but she remembers how that ended, tries not to remember how that ended. Their marriage is a piece of paper and two slender rings, not whatever makes Mike’s eyes track Susan whenever she walks away, like he can’t believe how lucky he is, a dreaming man who hopes he never wakes up. Instead, she dances with several of her previous chess opponents, dances with Susan’s friends – a friendly mass of interchangeable pastel dresses and identical mascara – enjoys the music and spring evening.

The band strikes up a familiar beat and something within Beth snaps; she walks off the dancefloor, stumbling a little as she pushes her feet back into her shoes, goes into the house in search of the bathroom. It’s a small room with overwhelming sepia floral wallpaper, and Beth locks herself in and sinks down to the linoleum. Even from inside the house she can hear the party continuing, the chatter of the guests, and the song thrumming over everything.

You give me fever when you kiss me, fever when you hold me tight.

When Beth breathes she can remember turning up the radio deliberately until the music tickled her spine, dancing because she wanted to, dancing because she wanted Harry to watch her do it. She wasn’t sure yet what she wanted from him, but when he was around she didn’t have to think about Alma being gone, about how the house seemed enormous, terrifyingly empty; didn’t have to think about anything but the way Harry looked at her, half-scared, half-wanting. It made Beth feel good, that look, lit her up inside, gave her something to think about that wasn’t raging grief. She felt like more than just an overgrown schoolgirl, beaten by arrogant assholes like Benny Watts and implacable Russians like Borgov. He was something she could have, something attainable, and while she didn’t know if she wanted him or what she was really supposed to do with him she so desperately wanted to have something.

It was cruel, in its own way; Beth knew what Harry wanted from her and knew that she could never give it to him, would never give it to him. It was probable that she didn’t even have what he wanted in the first place, but she managed to keep him from realising this for long enough to strip the smile from his eyes; a long, drawn-out game that he didn’t realise he’d lost until every last part of Beth’s trap surrounded him, toppled his king and his ego and his heart. She knew what she was doing, but couldn’t seem to stop herself, because if Harry left then she’d be alone in the house again, just her and Alma’s immaculate patterned wallpaper to talk to.

And now it’s years later and outside Harry dances with a lovely girl who likes him for who he is and not just for the space that he fills, and he doesn’t look at Beth the way that he used to, and when she hears the soft snap of Fever Beth is seventeen again, wanting to try being like other girls, desperately scared of being alone.

Maybe Susan’s mother is highly-strung; she did cry through most of the wedding. Beth begins a methodical search of the bathroom cabinets, heart pounding in her ears. They’re tidy and organised, full of all the things you’d want, but nothing in the way of a prescription for relaxation. Beth keeps looking, frantic now, accidentally knocking a packet of Q-Tips into the sink, spilling talcum powder across a shelf. Leaving white fingerprints behind her, she rummages through packets of pills, but they’re just painkillers, regular aspirin. For a second she considers taking one or two anyway, and then wonders if maybe she’s looking in the wrong place. Everyone is outside, distracted; surely it wouldn’t take that long to check the bedroom, the nightstands, the dressing table. Not everyone keeps all their medicines in the bathroom.

There’s a knock at the door and Beth freezes, caught. “Occupied,” she calls quickly.

“Beth.” It’s Benny’s voice, low and steady.

Beth looks at the incriminating mess she’s made, wonders if she has time to try and-

“Open the door.”

Sometimes, it’s about knowing when to concede. Beth unlocks the door and lets Benny in. He looks at her, at the talc she’s somehow smeared across her peach dress, the Q-Tips scattered in the sink, the stack of abandoned medicine bottles on the countertop.

“I want to go home,” Beth says, before he can open his mouth.

Benny looks at the mess for another long moment and then nods. Beth starts trying to tidy and he reaches out to stop her: “they’ll just think it was the kids, come on.”

The drive home is about an hour, and they don’t talk; Beth hugs her knees to her chest and watches the houses pass by in the growing darkness, not sure what to do with the weight in her chest, the sore thudding edges of her feelings. It’s not an entirely unfamiliar emotion, but Beth had gotten used to pouring alcohol and pills on top of it until it stopped or at the very least backed off, chagrined. Now it feels bigger than her, suffocating and ugly, and Beth digs her nails into her legs to give herself something to cling to.

“Are you going to bed?” Benny asks when they get back and Beth heads straight upstairs.

“No,” she calls back, goes into her room to strip out of her dress, wash her face. Looking at herself in the bathroom mirror, she wonders if she’s still that lost seventeen-year-old, peering out from the same eyes.

Some kind of piano music starts up downstairs; Beth doesn’t recognise it, but presumably Benny has turned on the radio to fill up the silence. After considering it, she puts on a pair of dark blue pyjamas, adds an oversized cardigan on top, and goes to see what’s happening.

She’s not expecting to see Benny sitting at the piano, a crease flickering between his eyebrows as he plays. He’s not as good as Alma, but Beth can see that whatever piece he’s working through is complicated, something old and classical she’s never been interested enough to know about. She hesitates on the stairs for a moment and then comes to join him, leaning on the piano lid alongside a selection of her trophies and watching Benny’s fingers dance across the keys, rings shining in the light of the sole lamp he’s put on.

After a minute or so, Benny hits a wrong note; he screws up his face as he tries out a couple of keys until he finds the note he’s looking for and carries on, but not long after that he stops abruptly.

“You can keep going,” Beth offers.

“I can’t,” he replies, “I never learned any further.”

She hadn’t noticed the absence of sheet music, hadn’t realised he was playing from memory, but the expression on Benny’s face makes sense now; it’s the one he wears when he’s pulling up a set of memorised plays, when he’s visualising something that he already knows. Beth doesn’t want to sink into the cliché of I didn’t know that you played the piano because of course she didn’t; she tips her head expectantly and waits.

“Five years of lessons,” Benny explains. “My parents thought it might help their little prodigy keep his fingers strong and flexible.” He raises his hands, wiggles them. “I think they hoped I might turn out to be a musical genius and they’d have two talents for the price of one, but I hated it.”

There’s a touch of bitterness in his words, and Beth realises that that’s what his playing was missing: he had all the right notes in the right order, but there was no heart there, no feeling. Alma played everything because she loved it, the music flowing through her. Benny plays by rote, and that’s all it is.

He shifts over a little and Beth sits beside him on the piano stool. “Are you going to teach me to play Chopsticks?” she asks.

“No,” Benny replies, “we’re not having a Seven Year Itch moment.”

“That’s a shame,” Beth says, running a fingertip across the keys for a light discordant jangle. “Someone should be playing Grandmother June’s piano.”

“‘Grandmother June’?” Benny echoes.

Beth shrugs. “I guess she was Alma’s grandmother, which makes her my… something.” She never did ask for clarification on so many things; she always just assumed that there would be more time. And then there wasn’t.

Benny picks out the first line of a Beach Boys song with one finger in the sudden silence. Beth tries to find something to say and fails.

“Was that it?” Benny asks at last. “There were grandparents at the wedding today. And parents. And cousins. A whole church of well-wishers.”

Beth thinks about it, but even in her imagination she can’t people a congregation with a family she doesn’t have.

“No,” she says, voice barely audible.

“It was a lovely wedding,” Benny carries on, tone too neutral. “Damn near perfect, if that’s your kind of thing.”

Beth was a teenager in this house and even with the new décor and furnishings, for a moment she’s back again, too old and too young all at once, watching the gap between herself and her peers widen even when she makes vague attempts to bridge it. The things they want are alien to her and the more she examines herself, tries to make herself want them too, the worse it feels.

“I don’t want it,” she bursts out. “I didn’t want any of it.”

She’s not crying, not really, but her eyes are wet and her voice is cracking a little anyway.

“That doesn’t make you a monster,” Benny tells her. “Your mind doesn’t work like other people’s and you don’t have to want what they want.”

It was a beautiful wedding, a perfect day, and Beth didn’t know what to do with it. She can’t picture herself in Susan’s place, not even in the wildest of fantasies; her friends are happy, and Beth has never felt further away from them. She played house with Harry for weeks, flirting back and forth with what he wanted, what she told herself she was supposed to want, what she was too afraid to admit that she actually wanted. She couldn’t sustain that, couldn’t fake wanting it, and she still can’t. Apparently a loveless wedding rushed through in a courthouse to keep the press off her back was still better for Beth than something like today would have been, and she still doesn’t know how to think about that, to balance the person she is with the person she thinks she ought to be.

At some point while she was thinking Benny put his arms around her, and Beth keeps her face in his shoulder where it’s dark and quiet, more comforted than she should be considering how skinny he is, all bones and sinews.

“For what it’s worth, I didn’t want it either,” Benny says quietly, his voice a low rumble she can hear through his chest.

Beth sniffs. “That’s because you only like chess and antagonising people.”

“Touché,” Benny responds; she feels his huffed half-laugh against her hair. His hand is warm around her upper arm. “So you won’t get married to a nice guy with a steady job and dance in your ballgown in someone’s backyard while your father pretends he isn’t crying into his cake. You can’t make yourself want what you don’t want and you don’t have to beat yourself up about it. Be happy for them because they’re getting what they want, and one day you’ll have what you want and they’ll be happy for you.”

Beth considers this, face buried in Benny’s washed-soft shirt, breathing in his familiar cologne. She should probably have pulled away by now, but she can’t make herself move. “What if I don’t know what I want?” she mumbles, soft enough that she can pretend she didn’t say it.

“You want to be world champion by the time you’re twenty-five,” Benny replies immediately. “Everyone and everything comes second to that, but it’s not something you have to be upset about.”

Beth finally sits up, lets Benny’s touch fall away. It isn’t cold, but she feels it anyway. He’s mellow by lamplight, the careful, kind expression on his face that he hides in public.

“Maybe you’d be happier if you were less smart, but you’ll never know,” he tells her. “You aren’t normal, so don’t tell yourself that you want to settle for normality. It doesn’t suit you.”

Beth drags together a half-smile. “Is that what you told yourself?”

“We’re not like other people, Beth,” Benny shrugs. “It doesn’t make life easy but I’m not sad about it.”

He smiles, one of those tight, rueful ones he gives when he thinks he’s said more than he wanted to, and Beth wonders vaguely when she learned that about him, when his every facial expression became a language that she can read fluently. Her husband, who sits in her home and plays the piano she inherited better than most people ever will, and hates every note of it. Who doesn’t ask Beth to dilute herself so that he can keep up.

“No,” Benny says softly at whatever he sees in Beth’s expression. “I know I’m at the bottom of a long list of bad decisions you want to make tonight and regret tomorrow, but I’m cutting you off.”

He presses a gentle kiss to Beth’s temple before he gets up and disappears upstairs; the bathroom door bangs shut. Beth sits alone at Grandmother June’s piano, poking gently at the keys, a dozen wrong notes.

-

Jolene has been practicing her squash and Beth has not; by the time they finish playing Beth is multiple points behind and has bruised her left knee diving and failing to return the ball, but she feels better, like she might have exorcised something. She ignores the people waiting for the court and lies down on the cool wooden floor, letting out a slow groan.

“That’s what you get for prancing off around Europe and not practicing your rich white people games,” Jolene tells her, but offers Beth a hand to her feet anyway.

They shower and head out for a late lunch. They’ve had a bunch of phone calls over the last month but Beth is so relieved to see her in person, a real, solid bastion of sanity. Jolene looks a little tired from classes but she’s energised too, telling Beth about what she’s learned lately and what she plans to do with it. She speaks with a certainty that always startles Beth, who knows where she wants to go but seems to find herself on the most stumbling, winding path to getting there. It never occurred to her that while she was lying awake at Methuen shifting game pieces across the ceiling, Jolene was lying alongside her constructing a real plan.

“You talk to Benny yet?” Jolene asks while they’re considering dessert.

Beth doesn’t need to ask about what; in between rallies she breathlessly filled Jolene on the wedding reception, on being fine one minute and the next being completely lost.

“No,” Beth admits. She knows Benny was still awake when she finally went to bed because she could see the strip of light under his door; when Jolene came to pick her up Benny was lounging across the couch in one of his stupid floral robes with the radio loudly tuned to the local jazz station that Beth hates. He told her to have a good time and went back to frowning at the newer edition of Practical Chess Endings. Beth left him behind with slight misgivings, though she doesn’t know why; Benny’s been in her house before, she’s reasonably certain she’ll return to it in the condition it was when she left, and she knows better than anyone that even if he snoops there’s nothing for him to find. And yet she feels a sense of disquiet, knowing that he’s in her carefully constructed home without her.

“You had to leave your friend’s wedding reception because you were searching their new in-laws’ home for drugs,” Jolene tells her, gentle but unflinching.

“I know,” Beth says, looking at the bubbles in her soda water so she doesn’t have to look at Jolene. “I fucked up.”

“Actually, you only tried to fuck up,” Jolene corrects her. She props her chin on her hands and Beth can feel her waiting until she reluctantly raises her eyes to meet Jolene’s. “You know what your problem is?”

“An addictive personality?” Beth suggests, quick and facetious.

“Kind of,” Jolene says. “Most of your life, Beth, every time you felt something you didn’t like, you dumped booze or drugs on it, or you shut it in a box and thought about chess until it went away.” Beth opens her mouth to protest and Jolene just raises her eyebrows. “You know you did. Now you’ve come out of that shell and you’ve got all this new skin and every emotion hurts because you don’t know how to feel things a normal amount.”

“So you’re saying I should go back on the tranquillisers?” Beth says, because her heart is beating harder than she’d like and Jolene’s expression is kind but firm and difficult to look at.

“I’m saying, smart-ass, that it’ll get easier with practice.” Jolene lets a little teasing smirk run across her mouth. “Like squash.”

“That’s just mean,” Beth replies.

“You have to lose at things sometimes, it keeps you bearable,” Jolene tells her cheerfully.

Beth makes a face at her, then lets her head drop into her hands. “I don’t want to practice this,” she says quietly.

“Nobody does, honey,” Jolene says. “But you hang in there, and in the end, you turn around and you’ve made it and then it’s not so bad after all.”

“How did you do it?” Beth asks, because there’s something in Jolene’s expression.

Jolene smiles, wry. “Me? It’s a stereotype, but mostly anger. Anger made me want more, and made me fight for it, and kept me going when I thought I couldn’t. Anger keeps me working hard in my classes so I can beat every last smug white boy who wants to learn the law just so he can manipulate it to keep him and his friends rich. I don’t need it so much to survive anymore, but I know it’s still there if I do.”

Beth remembers being angry but these days she thinks she can only summon up some kind of exhausted frustration. Maybe that’s what Jolene means about practicing.

“I should get mad?”

Jolene shrugs. “You should get something. Your brain’s been trying to eat itself since we were kids, but you don’t have to make it easy for it.”

Beth thinks about this. “I think Benny was trying to tell me something similar.”

“He’s got a pretty sharp mind under that terrible personality he’s constructed for himself,” Jolene muses.

“That was nearly a compliment,” Beth says.

“Well, you’ve been married a month and you haven’t had to kill him yet,” Jolene replies. “He’s nearly worthy of one.”

Jolene orders them both coffee and pie before Beth can claim that she doesn’t want any, and changes the subject with comfortable ease while they eat. Some part of Beth is still feeling a little stung, a little blindsided but the pie is good and Jolene’s smile is gentle, strung with that simple faith that she has in Beth, has always had in Beth. Sometimes Beth still isn’t sure what she’s done to deserve it, but she’s grateful.

Eventually, Beth thinks to ask about Rick; Jolene tends to be circumspect when she talks about him, but she has a smile that she only wears when she talks about him. How Jolene manages part-time work, law school and a relationship is beyond Beth, who has only ever gotten the hang of being really good at chess and even that she nearly destroyed, but she’s glad to see Jolene so sure and so happy.

“How’s his divorce going?” Beth asks.

Jolene shrugs. “Fits and starts. But I don’t mind, I’m not looking to settle down anytime soon.” She arches an eyebrow at Beth. “I don’t have half the country’s bored white housewives demanding I get hitched, I’m not in a hurry.”

“Right.” Beth nods and concentrates on her pie.

“You don’t want to ask about what happens if he never gets divorced,” Jolene says bluntly, and Beth looks at her in surprise. “I know. I’m not stupid. And if that’s how it shakes out, that’s how it shakes out.”

“That’s… very pragmatic,” Beth says. She can hear how careful her tone is. “I thought you loved him?”

“There’s love and there’s love,” Jolene replies, and it’s one of those moments where Beth feels the distance and the years between them, when they formed into people miles apart. “One day, when you’ve been in love, you’ll know.”

“I’ve been in love!” Beth protests.

Jolene eyes her thoughtfully. “Oh, what the hell, we’ve already ripped off one emotional band-aid today. No, Beth, you haven’t. You carried around a schoolgirl crush for years – and I don’t blame you, Townes is perfect. He looks good, he smells good, he dresses good, he’s rich and smart and way too charming.”

Beth says nothing; something in her chest is stinging.

“Best of all,” Jolene carries on, quieter, “he was unavailable. You knew you couldn’t have him, and that made him safe. You keep longing for something that’ll never happen, and you never have to deal with the kind of man who could want you back. It’s smart.”

Beth bites the inside of her lower lip until she’s sure she’s not going to scream something she doesn’t mean or burst into tears in the middle of the restaurant.

“Two emotional band-aids,” she manages at last, “and you beat me at squash.”

Jolene reaches across the table to squeeze her hand. “I bought you pie, though.”

“You did,” Beth allows.

They shrug into their jackets, head out into the cooling late afternoon. “Let’s get you home to your cowboy before he burns your house down,” Jolene tells her, and Beth doesn’t want to but she manages to smile anyway.

-

After another early start, Beth ends up falling asleep for most of West Virginia. She’s still feeling a little unsettled after lunch with Jolene, a whole host of thoughts she doesn’t want to examine buzzing around her head. This is probably part of the problem Jolene was talking about, though realising this hasn’t made Beth feel any better, or any more equipped to handle her emotions. Losing a few hours of the journey to a blank slumber is better than any of the alternatives.

Beth wakes up slowly, unsure where she is for a couple of long minutes until her brain catches onto the radio, playing so softly it’s almost inaudible alongside the sound of the engine. Something plaintive with sharp harmonised female voices, and Beth stiffly untucks herself from where she’s been curled in the passenger seat. As she pushes herself upright she’s aware of something falling off her, and after a second realises that she’s been sleeping under Benny’s coat. She doesn’t remember tucking it around herself, but then she doesn’t remember much after they set off in the greyish dawn light.

“Oh good,” Benny says, glancing at her. “I was starting to get irrevocably bored.”

Beth reaches for the radio and turns up the volume to help clear the last of the sleep from her mind; it’s The Supremes, she realises, singing angrily: you don’t really love me, you just keep me hanging on.

“I-Spy?” Benny suggests dryly.

“You can’t be that bored,” Beth replies.

“I really can,” he says. “I’ve been playing chess with myself, but for some weird reason I keep winning.”

“Probably a fluke,” Beth tells him.

“Well, I started out playing against you, but there’s only so much a man’s ego can take before noon,” Benny replies easily.

“That’s not my fault,” Beth shrugs, prim.

Benny laughs. “Sometimes, you even slit my throat with my own knife after you’ve won.”

Beth turns to glare at him. “I knew I shouldn’t have told you that!”

“It’s my favourite thing you’ve ever said to me,” Benny tells her. “A compliment of the highest order.”

“Hey,” Beth protests, “I was nice about your hair once.”

Benny turns his head to give her a look. “And we both know how poorly that ended.”

Despite the fact that they’re married now, Beth’s not sure how she’s supposed to talk about those weeks in Benny’s apartment; maybe if she could work out how she felt about them, it might be easier.

“It could’ve been worse,” she offers at last.

Benny half-laughs. “Well, I did swear to myself I wouldn’t let you do to me what you did to Beltik.”

Beth doesn’t want to rise to the bait, but it does make something else occur to her. “How do you always know everything about everyone?” she asks. “Matt told me half your gossip is mine by law now, which means I get to know what your secret is.”

Benny’s silent for a minute, and when Beth looks at him he’s got that crease back between his eyebrows.

“I don’t have a secret,” he says at last. “I look, and I listen, and I extrapolate. You do it too, but you’re not as good at it as I am because you’ve not been doing it as long and you’re not interested in people.”

Beth frowns. “Maybe all your money disappears on a private detective.”

Please,” Benny says. “Anyone with half a brain knew Beltik was obsessed with you after you took his title, and then he blew his college money on fixing his teeth? Then he suddenly drops out of chess without a backward look, and you arrive in Ohio all studied up and ready to go. Two and two make four, Beth.”

Beth considers this. “You’re bluffing. That’s… that’s just guesswork.”

“Everything is guesswork,” Benny shrugs. “But hone your guesses enough and they end up looking like the truth.”

“You know that sounds like bullshit, right?”

“I’ll prove it to you.” Benny darts a look at her. “You won’t like it, so I’ll just remind you that it’s a long, long walk back to New York from here.”

Beth makes the face at him that she always makes when he’s deliberately being superior, and he reaches to turn off the radio.

“Okay,” he says. “Let’s say you want to retain your title at the US Open. You stand a good chance, but the person you need to beat is this girl who’s come out of goddamn nowhere in the last couple of years and just wiped the floor with everyone. She’s a tiger, she guides the noose around her opponent’s neck and then kicks their legs out from under them, no hope. It’s impressive, but you need her not to do it to you.”

Beth very carefully says nothing, shows nothing on her face, but her chest is filling with ice.

“She’s unhappy about something,” Benny carries on. “She’s hiding it well, but there’s a drop in her shoulders when she thinks no one’s looking and her victories aren’t hitting like they should. It’s in her face if you know where to look. Which is interesting, sure, but it’s not enough to throw off her game, and that’s what you need. So then you look to what you know about her. Which isn’t much, yet: she learned chess in her goddamn orphanage basement with the janitor – but that means a lot of it’s natural talent. They’re calling her an instinctive player, and she’s young, and she’s very very good, which means she doesn’t study as hard as she could. So then you think about when you met her in Cincinnati, this gawky schoolkid who knew she didn’t fit in but wanted to, wanted people to know that she knew just as much as them.”

“You said you didn’t remember meeting me in Cincinnati,” Beth says, quiet and sharp.

Benny ignores her. “You could probably draw with her, but a draw means that she wins and you lose. You need something definitive. What you need to do is make the girl angry, make her absolutely fixated on beating you, so focused on her attack that she won’t notice your defence until she crashes into it. And you need to make her think the whole thing is her idea, so she can’t claim that you tried to influence her. It’s her pride you need to wound, so you look back through her games, and you find a weakness. There’s always a weakness; very few people ever play a perfect game, especially not when they first start out. And she was so fresh to competitive chess when she beat Beltik, she probably hasn’t studied that game in any great depth. So you find it, the error, right where you thought it would be.

“You organise meeting her so it looks casual, and you make sure she believes you’ve forgotten meeting her before. Firstly, because that’s a little needle in anyone’s pride, and secondly, because then you definitely wouldn’t have remembered that she so sincerely wants to prove both her worth and her superiority. And you throw the error to her in the easy spirit of camaraderie. It’s a gamble, because maybe she knows about it; but then if she knew about it she would almost definitely not have let Life print it up as an example of her best work. So you pull the pin on the grenade and you hand it to her and you leave.”

There’s no sound in the car but the engine chewing up the miles. At some point, Beth realises that she folded her arms over her chest, defensive, and she can feel her nails digging into her upper arms. What was that Jolene said about anger? What she feels is so hot and spiky and overwhelming that it physically hurts.

“What you’re telling me is that you cheated,” she says.

“Did I?” Benny’s looking at the road, not at her. “I didn’t tell you to double my fucking pawns, I didn’t already upset you so bad that the next time some asshole took a swipe at your ego you overdid the revenge. What I did was tip the odds in my favour.”

“You bastard,” Beth hisses, because it’s that or burst into furious tears.

“Yeah,” Benny agrees. “I wound you up and I watched you go and then I swept in and took the spoils. But you know what? No one ever did that to you again. You learned.”

Beth scoffs. “Are you asking me to thank you for what you did?”

“What? No.” Benny makes a brief annoyed face at her. “What I did was make a teenage girl cry over a boardgame in front of a whole room of adult men. It was cruel and it was shitty, and yes, I would do it again.”

Benny’s right: it is a long, long walk back to New York from here. It’s a long drive, though, and Beth is seething with something raw and betrayed.

“In a perfect world,” he says, “chess would just be a meeting of two minds in an empty room with nothing but the board between them. But players are people, and people are messy. Sometimes people make mistakes because they aren’t good enough, but mostly people make mistakes because they didn’t sleep last night, or they’re going through a divorce, or they’re hungover, or their bank account has three dollars in it, or they’re in a new place with a whole lot of new faces in it and they’re just plain scared. You’re one of the best because you can play through most of that emotion, but you’re not a machine. You’ll probably be a better player once you really accept that.”

Beth stays looking out of the window so she doesn’t have to look at him. “You said once that we think alike, but you’re wrong. I would never-”

“There’s at least one Soviet teenager who proves that you would,” Benny interrupts. “Or did you fluster that poor kid into making a mistake for some other reason?”

There are a lot of reasons that Beth doesn’t like to think of Mexico very often; Alma is only one of them. She sinks her teeth into her lower lip.

“You read people through the board,” Benny tells her. “I read the board through people. That’s the only real difference between us. I gather information, and I read body language, and I sift through rumours for the grain of something plausible, and then I know which set of imperfections I’m playing against. After that, it’s just chess.”

Beth doesn’t want to be mollified, or to understand where Benny’s coming from: she can feel the sting of something burrowing into her, taking up long-term residence. “Is that how you play cards?” she asks eventually.

“No,” Benny says, “I cheat at cards.” Beth is startled into looking at him in spite of herself; he gives a little shrug. “I count cards. It’s not difficult.”

“Shouldn’t you win… more often?”

“Ah.” Benny twists his mouth ruefully. “Well, it’s an imperfect system, particularly once people realise that that’s what you’re doing.”

They drive on in silence for a while longer, until Beth gives in and turns the radio back on. She’s got a lot to think about, most of it against her will, and she hates the quiet unapologetic figure Benny makes, tapping fingers against the steering wheel in her peripheral vision. It was years ago, and Beth took the title from him the first chance she got, definitively and brutally, and she remembers their game in Ohio and she wasn’t driven by the slightest bit of revenge. Benny sat across from her with his hat and his coat and his knife and his mannerisms and she wasn’t thinking about him at all until they shook hands across the board after she’d won. She refuses to acknowledge that she learned a lesson or five in Vegas, or that anything Benny did because he’s fundamentally an asshole could have helped her at all.

It’s dark when they get back to New York, and even after sleeping for hours of the trip Beth feels exhausted. Benny kills the engine and they sit there for a moment. Beth can see the light on in the lobby, so close and yet so far.

“If I can forgive you, you can forgive me,” Benny says.

His face is cut into shadows; she can see the tight twist of his mouth but not his eyes.

“Forgive me for what?” she asks.

Benny laughs; there’s no humour in it. “Jesus, Beth.” He huffs a sigh. “I wanted to give you everything and instead you chose to take every bottle of liquor Kentucky could offer you.” He shakes his head. “I guess at least you proved I had a heart to break; I’d always wondered.”

Beth can’t breathe. All she has to do is reach for the door and stumble into the street and she doesn’t have to sit here, in this dark car, with Benny’s wry quiet voice slicing straight through her.

“Maybe you broke my heart too,” she blurts, desperate to shift focus. Thinking about reaching out to Benny and him hanging up on her, his voice so angry and, now that she thinks about it, hurt.

Benny reaches into the backseat, grabs his duffel.

“No,” he says, “I didn’t.”

The car door slams behind him.

-

Chapter Text

The busy hum of conversation stops as soon as Beth and Benny walk in.

Beth has gotten increasingly used to this over the years, though she’s never completely at ease with it. Benny just takes it as his due, striding into the space with his usual grin. A few men get up from the chess boards in front of them, leaning to shake his hand or casually embrace him, but Beth is aware that the rest of the room’s attention is still on her. She doesn’t have an entire public persona like Benny does, barely a slightly thicker skin she can pull on when faced with armies of the press, and she tries a smile. Benny told her he was taking her to his favourite chess club tonight and Beth agreed, partly out of genuine curiosity, partly because they’re trying slightly too hard to get along right now, oddly courteous toward each other in a way that they’ve never been. She’s not sure what she was expecting, but it wasn’t this little building tucked away between a hardware store and an Italian restaurant, white-painted brick walls and a record player in the corner burbling away.

After a minute, Benny turns back to Beth, eyes lit the way that they only ever are with an audience, and holds out his hand to her.

“And can I introduce my wife, Beth Harmon?”

Beth does her best to smile and catch names as most of the people in the room – the majority men, but more women than she was expecting – start introducing themselves, shaking her hand, a waterfall of sound she can’t hope to peel apart.

“All right, that’s enough.” A voice cuts over everything else, and the little group part to allow a tall woman to stand in front of Beth.

“Beth Harmon, Christine Tyler.” Benny does the introductions, and Beth shakes the firm hand offered to her. Christine has long greying hair, thick eyeliner and a loose deep yellow kaftan; she gives the air of being an aging hippie, but her pale blue eyes are eagle sharp, and in any case, Beth recognises the name.

“The US Women’s Champion from Sixty-One to Sixty-Five,” Beth says, adding: “it’s lovely to meet you.”

Christine smiles. “You prepped her well, Benny.”

Beth glances at Benny to see that he’s looking pleased with himself, or maybe the situation. “I didn’t even mention you, that’s all Beth.”

Christine is studying Beth, and Beth wishes she was more… something. She’s in simple black slacks and a dark red sweater, comfortable and ordinary, but she recognises the desire to seem more impressive from a dozen other rooms, gazes skimming over her, people thinking that a pretty face meant there was little underneath.

“Get your wife something to drink, Benny,” Christine orders. “Her coffee is on the house; yours is not.”

Benny scoffs but Christine is already putting a friendly arm around Beth’s shoulders, leading her over to a corner table with a board set up on it. The two tables nearest it are empty, and Beth is aware of the buzz of activity building back up behind her, people returning to their games, chatting as they do so. She assumed that all chess clubs were very serious, utter silence over matches unless people were debating the best way to play a move, but there’s a more relaxed atmosphere here.

“Welcome to my chess club,” Christine tells her once they’re seated, leaning back in her chair and watching Beth with those disconcerting eyes.

“This is yours?” Beth asks, looking around the space with new appreciation. It looks more like a coffee shop than a stuffy parlour or one of the more exclusive houses that she knows contain the long-established clubs. Benny’s a member of the Manhattan Chess Club and Beth knows she could join any in the city that she wanted; she has yet to work out exactly what she wants.

“I got tired of competitive chess,” Christine replies, her voice light and calm. Beth thinks that she must look shocked, because Christine laughs. “The extreme focus, the politics, the gender divide… in the end it just made me tired and I couldn’t enjoy myself anymore. But I never lost my love for the game, so I started this club instead.”

Beth thinks about the breaks she took from playing: the first, when she spent most days drunk and guilty and lost, and the second, when she fought for sobriety every day and tried to work out what she wanted from her life. Both times, she returned to competing, unable to resist the spotlight or the adrenaline or the way that victory feels – one of those, anyway.

“I see,” she says.

“No,” Christine says, smiling, “you don’t. But I never had your ruthlessness or your drive, and I made it as far as I think I could go.”

“You never wanted to see if you could be the overall champion?” Beth can’t help asking.

Christine’s smile turns a little wry. “I think I admire your ability to walk into those rooms full of men knowing how they’re looking at you and how they’re thinking about you more than I admire your playing,” she says. “The Federation – hell, the world – views women’s chess as lesser, weaker, but I’ve never thought of it that way. Maybe I could have beaten the men, and I play against them all the time now, but I still prefer a game refreshingly free of a man’s ego.”

Beth fails to bite down something like a grin. “I think I do too.”

“But you married me anyway,” Benny says, appearing with a cup of coffee, placing it at Beth’s elbow with a flourish. To Christine, he gives a cup of what appears to be some kind of herbal tea; the smell is strong and complicated.

“You and your ego have Boston to prepare for,” Christine tells Benny, shaking her head.

“Yes ma’am,” Benny responds with an ironic salute, and returns to the other tables, sliding into an empty chair opposite a skinny Black guy whose expression says that he knows Benny of old.

“I don’t know if I’m more impressed by your victory against Borgov or the fact you got Benjamin Watts to settle down,” Christine remarks lightly.

Beth nearly knocks her coffee over. “I think ‘settle down’ is a relative term,” she says quickly.

The corner of Christine’s mouth lifts. “I’ve known that boy for years,” she replies, “and he was practically feral when I first met him. You might make a man out of him yet, if you wanted to.”

Unsure what to do with any of that, Beth offers: “well, there’s a lot of raw material.”

They play a game, Beth taking White, Christine taking Black. It’s a casual game, no stakes, no tension, though they use a clock with twenty minutes on it for time control. Beth finds herself enjoying the gentle chatter of different voices around them, the constant clicking of pieces and clocks, the idle conversation between herself and Christine that starts and stops between various moves. She’s not really used to talking much while playing unless she and Benny are antagonising each other, but she finds she doesn’t mind as much in this cosy little club, doesn’t even mind the endless warbling of The Doors’ Light My Fire from the record player the way that she does when Benny is playing it for the fifth time in a row on any given afternoon.

Even like this, getting to know each other on a random May evening with nothing to gain and nothing to prove, Beth can appreciate how good a player Christine is. She’s read some of Christine’s games in the past – women’s chess is not reported as well as men’s is, but Beth has always been more interested in the game than in other people’s petty opinions of it – but they’re nothing compared to watching the woman work. Beth gets entirely caught up in the game, letting the noise around her filter through one ear and out of the other apart from the occasional sharp crack of Benny’s laughter, no louder than anything else in here but something she’s oddly attuned to nowadays. By the time their clocks run down, Christine has constructed a beautiful net around Beth’s king, and despite the twinge she always gets at a loss, she’s too impressed to mind too much.

They hit a draw on their rematch, and after that Christine is called over to mediate an argument over a problem that Beth doesn’t care about but suspects Wexler would enjoy, and she takes the chance to get herself some more coffee and meet a few more members of the club. The informality is a bit of a contrast to the competitions she normally plays, but she likes it, it reminds her a little of the evening Benny first invited his friends over and drilled her in speed chess until every move was second nature. That night was a catalyst for a lot of things, many of which Beth hasn’t clarified in her mind yet, but it was fun, and she finds herself craving fun nowadays, looking for something to fill up the spaces inside herself that isn’t harmful in the long run.

On the subway on the way back to the apartment they don’t really talk, but things don’t feel as taut as they have this past week. Beth predicted disaster when they first arrived back from Kentucky, but it turns out that it is completely possible to live in an apartment with a man you have married who has pissed you off and who you hurt worse in the past than you knew, and still get on perfectly well. It’s been eerily polite and while conversation is always periodic and patchy between them there’s been more silence than speech over the last few days, but none of it particularly uncomfortable for all that. The courteousness and occasional small talk were more like Beth would have expected if she’d actually taken Jolene’s advice and married a stranger, treading carefully around each other like they don’t know any better.

Of course, the reality is that they know each other far too well now, so well that Beth doesn’t know what to do about it: the things that Benny has on her that she can’t get back, the pieces of Benny that she carries, all of it too honest and too emotional and too awful to really contemplate. Somehow, she’d thought that getting married would freeze things in place, that mostly-friendship they can largely maintain would become their natural state, and that would be that. It didn’t occur to her that things would shift, for better or for worse, and now they’re both paying some kind of price for her naïveté.

It must be said, though, that politely living with a stranger is boring as all hell.

“Okay,” Benny says when they get back to the apartment, hat and coat hung up, shoes kicked off, “I know what we have to do.”

Beth eyes him suspiciously as he walks into the living room, pushes the coffee table across the rug until it’s under the windows and there’s some space on the floor. They finally have some shelving and weirdly the apartment seems bigger for it, now most of their books and trophies have stopped cluttering up every empty space available. Benny strips off his overshirt and chucks it onto the couch, stretches out his neck. Beth raises her eyebrows but stays silent.

“I never did teach you how to punch someone,” Benny explains. “Roll your sleeves up, kid.”

“You’re… giving me permission to punch you,” Beth says slowly.

Benny screws his face up. “Not exactly, but one of these days you might want to, and besides, the next asshole that grabs you definitely deserves a broken nose.”

For a second, Beth has no idea what he’s talking about; then she remembers Albert Stone, the way he made her skin want to crawl off her body, the bruised wrist that hurt for days afterwards no matter how she tried to ignore it. She’s never told Benny what happened, but apparently he read between the lines neatly enough. He has a habit of doing that.

“Okay,” she says slowly.

Benny nods, business-like, and Beth wonders if she’s about to get a lecture on the glories of a decent punch the way Benny likes to give lectures on the glories of chess, but instead he gestures at her. “Fists up.”

Beth is still distinctly dubious about this whole enterprise but she does as she’s told, raising them to roughly chest height.

“No,” Benny shakes his head. “Thumb on the outside or you’ll break your hand.”

Beth obeys, adjusting her grip; Benny watches carefully, wearing that expression he has when they’re playing chess and he’s working out her strategy. When he’s happy with her, he forms a fist of his own, shows Beth how to align her wrist with her forearm, forming a straight line from elbow to knuckle. He demonstrates this by skimming a fingertip along the path; Beth’s skin does not prickle. It doesn’t.

“This is more detailed than I was expecting,” she admits, looking up from her arm to Benny’s face. “How many punches have you been throwing?”

“C’mon, Beth,” he says easily, allowing a hint of a smile to flit across his face, “half my strategy is to piss off every person in any room I walk into.”

“That’s a strategy?” Beth asks. “I thought that was just you.”

He scoffs at her, then takes a step back. “Tuck your chin in, fists level with your cheeks. Good. No, bring your elbows in, you want to keep them close to protect your ribs.”

Benny’s skinny as a rake, especially in just his black t-shirt, but he’s got a surprising amount of strength in his arms; Beth knows this for a number of reasons but she’s never thought about them in this context, watching the muscles in his forearms bunch as he demonstrates the stance for her. She swallows.

“Isn’t this what your knife is for?” she asks.

“You don’t carry a knife unless you intend to use it,” Benny says shortly, something shuttering in his expression. Beth drops her stance and opens her mouth but he shakes his head: “no, the police will not be banging the door down, fists back up. Okay, good. Now, plant your right foot behind you. No, knees bent, you need to get your strength from this.”

Beth tries but isn’t entirely surprised when Benny puts his hands on her hips to direct her, adjust her posture. He’s never touched her for this purpose before, but as usual they fit together well, and Beth can’t tell if he lingers for a moment too long or not before he steps back, a couple of feet between them.

“Right,” he says, “you’re ready.”

“I’m not going to punch you,” Beth tells him, because while it’s often tempting to take the smirk off Benny’s face, she’s not sure she actually wants to do it now she’s here.

“You’re not,” Benny agrees, “but we’re going to follow it through.”

He instructs her to aim for something behind him so she doesn’t pull the punch too soon; not to clench her arm but to squeeze her hand a little, to aim to strike with the knuckles of her index and middle fingers but not the fingers themselves. Beth tries it out a couple of times slowly so Benny can watch the way that she moves, instructs her to draw strength from her stance and not just her arm, to snap her shoulder back after she lands the blow in case she needs to do it again.

Beth has a lot of questions and can tell that Benny isn’t going to answer any of them.

“Okay,” he says when he’s happy, raising a palm, “let’s try this a bit faster.”

“…you’re not worried I’ll break your hand before Boston?” Beth asks.

“Ideally no one’s hands are breaking tonight,” Benny replies, “c’mon. Don’t say you’ve not been dreaming about this since we’ve met.”

“I’ve mostly been wanting to kick you in the crotch,” Beth corrects him.

“You should probably use your knee,” Benny says cheerfully, “but you’ll forgive me if we don’t practice that. Now. Throw that punch.”

It’s a lot to remember, all of it unfamiliar to her muscles, but Beth concentrates on doing what Benny’s said and is pleasantly surprised when her knuckles successfully strike his palm, the smack of skin meeting skin ringing through the room. Benny sucks in a breath through his teeth and shakes his hand out, but he’s smiling with it.

“Good,” he says. “One more.”

Beth is not convinced she should but he holds his hand up again and she lands another solid punch, the impact running up her arm as she pulls her shoulder back, watches Benny flex his fingers.

“Aim for the guy’s nose,” he advises, “there’s less chance of you cutting your knuckles open on his teeth.”

He falls into the couch, looking pleased with himself. After a brief consideration, Beth sits down beside him.

“You don’t want to regale me with tales of your many victories?” she asks.

Benny screws up his face. “They’re all fucking inglorious,” he admits, “but I kept my face pretty and walked away okay, and that’s all I want for you.”

It hasn’t felt like this between them since that stupid car ride back from the wedding, and Beth is startled by how relieved she feels, watching Benny watch her.

“Why would you ask me to marry you if you hate me now?” she finds herself asking, no finesse to it, just a thought she’s been turning over from a dozen angles all week, unable to voice it.

The crease appears between Benny’s eyebrows. “I don’t hate you,” he says. “There was a time when I thought you were a brat who chewed people up and spat them out when you’d gotten what you wanted, and there was a time when I didn’t like you very much, but then I remembered that we’re the best players in this damn country. We’re too alike and we’ll never be able to get away from each other, but maybe when we’ve finished sorting through the wreckage of our respective egos it’ll turn out we can be friends after all.”

He smiles, soft and wan but genuine.

Beth lets his words filter slowly through her brain, poking at them for traps. “So, castling,” she says at last.

“Sure,” Benny agrees, “castling.”

They stay slumped on the couch a while longer, the silence back to their usual level of companionable instead of tense. It’s nice, this return to normality after so many days of awkwardness.

“There,” Benny says, “I think we got through that one okay.”

Beth rolls her head to look at him. “You think it’s over?”

“Well.” Benny shrugs. “I basically gave you detailed instructions for how to shatter my nose and then just stood there, and you still didn’t do it. So I figure you’re not as mad at me as you want to be.”

Beth considers this. “Alright,” she says. “And you’re not mad at me?”

“It was nearly three years ago,” Benny replies. “But I’ve made you study enough of my games; you know I’m smart enough not to make the same mistake twice.”

“Good,” Beth says, and wonders why it doesn’t feel it.

-

One of the things that came up regularly on their pre-wedding organisational lists was what they were going to do about their respective tournament careers. Neither of them wants to give up competitive chess but there’s a very real chance that they could just end up constantly facing each other in finals, over and over and over, one of them eking a win or otherwise the exhausting grind to a stalemate. In the end, they decided to alternate the smaller American meets, play a handful each. The larger and international tournaments are something entirely different, but they’d be that way whether they were married or not.

Beth played in Chicago before the wedding, so this time it’s Benny’s turn to play in Boston. It’ll be mostly American players, though a smattering of Europeans usually end up arriving; Benny claims it’s no one he can’t handle, anyway. Beth scans the lists of competitors they’re expecting, and doesn’t see anyone she thinks will be an immediate problem. Benny spends an afternoon ransacking the boxes they filed their magazines into, pulling out back issues and tournament pamphlets to study the previous games of the highest-ranked players. Beth offers to help, but then realises that Benny has a weirdly encyclopaedic memory for his magazine collection, knowing the majority of the issues he needs without even glancing at their contents pages.

It quickly becomes apparent that there’s not much that Beth can do to help. Harry was the one who first taught her to properly study for competitions but it was Benny who showed her how to really train, to dedicate hours every day to practicing, researching, calculating. Beth plays a few of the printed games through with him so he doesn’t have to play both sides, and they discuss a few of the smarter pins, but overall Benny disappears into himself, making pages of neat notes in his cramped, impatient handwriting, tucking scraps of paper into books and magazines in a complicated reference system that Beth doesn’t even try to understand. She feels oddly redundant, watching Benny shifting pieces across the board, lower lip caught between his teeth, occasionally nodding to himself or reaching to jot something down.

Leaving Benny to his studying, Beth finds other ways to entertain herself. She goes back to the chess club, spends a whole afternoon listening to Christine’s reminiscences of the various women’s championships and the financial wall she ran into that stopped her taking her career international; Beth sheepishly admits how she nearly scuppered her trip to Russia and Christine laughs one of her low throaty laughs before she congratulates Beth on sticking to her guns.

“The Federation never been particularly interested in advancing the women’s games,” she tells Beth. “They think there’s no real reward or money in it.”

“They’ve never liked me,” Beth explains.

Christine waves a hand. “You could wear a sack and spend every day trying to promote chess and they still wouldn’t let you into their little gang. It took me a long time to realise it, but I was happier once I did.”

Beth makes a face. “They call up to talk to Benny, but they never want to talk to me. They wanted me to promote chess on the television, but now I actually do, I’m back to being too glamorous and frivolous.”

“You can’t win with them,” Christine replies, sighing. “Whatever you do, it’ll never be enough. I still find it funny that they’ve grudgingly accepted Benny.”

“He’s Benny Watts,” Beth says, making sure to lay a sarcastic drawl over the words to make Christine grin.

“He is now,” Christine agrees, “but I knew him in the late fifties when we were both still hanging around the Manhattan Club and clawing for space.”

Beth props her chin on her hands. “What was he like?” she asks.

Christine’s expression is carefully thoughtful; Beth recognises it as the one she wears before she makes a move in chess. “He hit the transition between child prodigy and adult grandmaster pretty hard,” she says at last. “This skinny teen with a face several years too young for him who’d never had the chance to be a real child, stuck in this Peter Pan limbo. He’d been around adults his whole life, playing and winning against all these men who thought it was fun or maybe fitting to teach the kid to drink and smoke and god knows what else; he was sixteen and there was nothing left to conquer.” Christine smiles wryly. “He still played with raw expertise that drove everyone crazy, he had a filthy temper and when it came around time to pay his membership he’d do this hustle with blitz that no one ever managed to beat until he had the cash for another month. In the end he learned to channel all that wildness into his playing, cultivated that cowboy attitude he drags around so he gets everyone’s attention but no one gets close.”

Beth processes all of this. “He still does the hustle with blitz,” she says. “Completely cleaned me out the first time, I was about ready to kill him.”

Christine nods, something nostalgic in her expression. “I remember him goading this older guy – a middle-ranked player who thought he was better than he was, frankly – over a game in one of the informal club tournaments. Benny wound him up and wound him up and they ended up having to take it out onto the sidewalk.” She’s gazing out of the front window, looking at nothing as she talks. “I saw your wedding photos and I thought, he’s come a long way from that seventeen-year-old with the collar torn off his shirt and blood on his teeth.”

Periodically Beth comes close to telling Christine the truth about their marriage; she thinks if anyone would understand, Christine would. But they’re never alone in the club, and even though everyone always seems to be caught up in their own conversations and games, it would only take one unscrupulous eavesdropper to ruin everything.

“I think that boy is still in there somewhere,” she says.

Christine’s mouth quirks. “I hope so.”

She also introduces Beth to a few of the more regular female chess players at the club – none of them have dedicated their lives to the game like Beth has, but they’re all enthusiastic and pleasant; Beth exchanges telephone numbers with a couple of them, and hopes that this might be the start of some new friendships in the city.

When she gets back to the apartment she finds Benny sitting at the kitchen table with a magazine and his chess board, apparently in the same position that he was in when she left, the ashtray full and his hair lank and messy from where he’s been running his hands through it. Beth brings him a glass of water and stands over him while he drinks it, then scrambles them both some eggs for dinner. At some point one of them should probably learn to cook real food, though Beth is determined that it won’t be her, and she’s not sure that she’d willingly eat anything prepared by Benny.

Dinner is Benny distractedly forking eggs into his face while testing an arrangement of pawns, while Beth sits and watches him with her own food until she eventually cracks. “Christine was telling me about your misspent youth.”

“Which part?” Benny asks, eyes still on the board.

“The part between that angel-faced kid I saw draw against Najdorf and whenever it was that you decided that John Wayne was your role model,” Beth replies.

Benny’s face twitches a little at the John Wayne dig, which is exactly what Beth was counting on to get him to actually reply. “You’re snooping,” he says, flat.

“Christine offered this all up,” Beth protests.

“I don’t pester you about the orphanage,” Benny says, brow furrowed as he moves the Black rook to an open file and the White queen pawn in response.

“Everyone knows about the orphanage,” Beth replies, “it’s in every profile on me that’s ever published.”

“And my whole life is printed in magazines,” Benny says. He sounds a little testy. “Most of them are in a box on the bottom shelf of one of our bookcases. You can track me losing my baby teeth and getting my growth spurts in every tournament photograph, it’ll be just like you were there.”

Benny’s defensive, Beth realises at last, watching his shoulders hunch in on themselves as he maps out the next few moves of the game he’s working through, dinner forgotten to one side.

“We’re married,” Beth reminds him, “I’m pretty sure I can ask a couple of questions about your childhood without it turning into a melodrama.”

“We don’t have a normal marriage, and I was never a child,” Benny snaps, though Beth can tell the anger isn’t necessarily aimed at her. She sits quietly and finishes her food, and waits. Benny sighs. “I think I’ve been sitting here too long, too much nicotine, not enough actual daylight.”

It’s enough of a concession. “Eat the eggs your fake housewife lovingly prepared,” Beth advises dryly, and Benny huffs a half-laugh as she leaves the room.

The next day Benny takes over the living room, three boards scattered across the rug and two tournament pamphlets open at once. Beth stays in her room and reads the latest Vogue, folding over the edges of the pages when she spots something she likes, but on the third run-through of the same Bob Dylan LP she gives up and goes out before she breaks the disc over Benny’s head. She feels a little at a loose end; she has a block of filming obligations next week, but they don’t exactly take much prep, and then she’s not competing until the US Open, held in Vegas again this year. She can always be practicing and honing her skills, but she has no specific imminent goal; Beth’s not used to being around another chess player preparing themselves, and finds herself a strange mixture of piqued and jealous watching Benny studying.

Beth takes herself to lunch, eats a complicated salad while leafing through the latest Chess Life; there’s a large section on the Chicago tournament and she reads about the matches she didn’t see, reads about her own performances. There’s a photograph of her just after her win, radiant and pleased, and she looks at that woman, herself just a month and change ago, and already feels separated from her, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing. She turns the page to find an article about the wedding, not exactly the usual thing for Chess Life but they run profiles on players all the time and this is really only a step up. The writer doesn’t try particularly hard to hide his disdain for Benny, but he has at least printed the entirety of Benny’s impromptu speech about why he doesn’t feel emasculated about marrying Beth, which makes her smile. There’s a photograph of Beth playing in the quarter-finals, judging by her outfit, poised and thoughtful as she looks at the board, and a photo of Benny in Cincinnati last year by the look of it, something wolfish in his smile as he reaches to move his rook. When she turns the page Beth is confronted by a set of pictures: herself and Benny in Vegas in Sixty-Six as reluctant co-champions, Benny smug, Beth barely holding herself together; the two of them in Ohio in Sixty-Seven after Beth won, a rueful twist to Benny’s mouth and Beth’s eyes lit bright; them looking at each other after Benny’s Cincinnati win last winter, fury and maybe something else in Beth’s eyes; and finally them standing outside Chicago city hall in their contrasting jackets and matching daisy buttonholes. It’s one of the ones the journalists outside took, and Beth has seen a bunch of them although this one is new to her. She and Benny are looking at each other and laughing about something, hands entwined around Beth’s bouquet. Maybe it’s the contrast to the three pictures above it that makes Beth’s breath catch in her chest, swallow hard; there’s so much history on this page, so much that the readers won’t understand or pick up on.

She brings back two packets of cigarettes for Benny, trades them to him on the understanding that she won’t have to listen to The Doors all night, and grabs a cushion to sit on the floor opposite him. They end up playing two games of speed chess simultaneously, each playing White on one board and Black on the other, barely any gaps between the clicking of the clocks. It’s tricky to do this and it always makes Beth wish she was more ambidextrous, but it seems to relax Benny and helps ease some of the weird feeling that’s been in Beth’s stomach since she read the Chess Life piece. She doesn’t ask if Benny’s read it, what he thought of seeing them laid out like a semi-logical couple instead of a series of coincidences and accidents; either he didn’t think it was worth mentioning, or he hasn’t seen it and she doesn’t want to throw off his preparation.

Benny goes off to take a shower and Beth opens the window to clear some of the cigarette smoke, takes the opportunity to hide a few of her least favourite records under the couch so she’ll be spared from presumably waking up to All Along The Watchtower again tomorrow. She definitely prefers Benny’s long periods of concentrated silence to when he wants background noise, but everyone has their quirks; how this is going to work when they’re both training for Vegas isn’t clear yet. The US Open Champion title is one that they both desperately want, and whatever truce they’ve formed by getting married isn’t going to get in the way of that.

They spend the evening playing through a few more of the games Benny wanted to study, bickering over their different interpretations of moves and what they think the original player should have done; it feels like what Beth hoped this marriage might be like, the two of them training each other and working together, minds always attuned. She goes to bed with her mind still moving pieces across the inside of her eyelids, and it doesn’t take all that long to fall asleep.

She wakes up for a glass of water at three-thirty in the morning and finds that Benny is still up, frowning over a book. She drinks her water and then stands in the living room doorway and watches him until he looks up.

“You’re going to be unbearable to live with if you lose, aren’t you?” she asks.

Benny gives her a half-smile, a one-shouldered shrug. “I’d say I’m pretty unbearable to live with now.”

“You’re working on it,” Beth agrees, keeping her voice soft. “You should get some sleep.”

“I will,” Benny replies distractedly, looking down at his book again.

Beth goes back to bed; she doesn’t hear Benny’s bedroom door close before she falls back into sleep.

-

With two days until the tournament, Benny has stopped studying all the time and has cut down on the smoking but he glitters with a restless energy that Beth understands but can’t offer any way to cipher. She wonders if this is what she looks like before playing, if this is what Alma used to live with, the odd tension that ebbs and flows at the strangest moments. Benny’s moods are more level, less snappish, but there’s still something taut in his shoulders, and Beth keeps finding him staring off into space, lips pressed together so hard they disappear. More than once, she finds herself thinking about Christine’s descriptions of a younger Benny, all sharp dangerous energy that he hadn’t learned to redirect yet.

This evening, Benny is apparently picking up books at random, flicking through them and then putting them back on the shelf. Beth doesn’t know what he’s looking for so she can’t suggest any particular title; she suspects that Benny doesn’t know what he’s looking for either. It can be tricky to know what books to take with you: too many, and you risk overloading yourself with research, but you don’t want to find yourself planning a strategy you can’t double-check in the safety of your own room. Beth carries around her old copy of Modern Chess Openings nowadays, something like a good luck charm, the photograph of herself and Mr Shaibel tucked carefully between the pages. It’s a couple of editions out of date by now but the basics have remained the same if she wants to read back through anything. She doesn’t know what Benny likes to keep in his duffel, if he has a talisman of his own, but he doesn’t seem to have found what he wants yet.

Halfway through a Morphy biography, Benny slams the book shut and swivels around to stare fixedly at Beth. She’s reasonably sure that he is getting some sleep, but then he seems to be awake whenever she is, so maybe he isn’t. Beth raises her eyebrows expectantly.

“You’re not packing,” Benny says.

“I’m… not,” Beth agrees slowly.

Benny’s eyes narrow. “You like to be coordinated, you think things through, you plan, but you’re not packing.” His mouth sets, a firm line. “You’re not coming to Boston.”

“No,” Beth says. “I’ve got filming for three days, the show’s host is going on vacation so we’re shooting the extra shows to air while he’s away. I told you this.”

Benny’s expression doesn’t flicker. “Did you.”

Beth scrabbles back through her memories. “I… did. I definitely did. I know we said we’d go to each other’s competitions but I can’t get out of this. I’m planning on coming for the final, Boston’s not far.”

Benny says nothing for a long pause, gaze still uncomfortably trained on Beth. After a moment he turns back to the bookcase, and Beth takes a breath. But then Benny spins back around again. “You know what, don’t bother.”

“You know you’ll get to the final,” Beth points out. “I want to come and watch.”

“Sure.” Benny’s mouth twists, humourless. “Beth Harmon deigns to drop by a real chess competition for a couple of hours just to prove she’s not a sell-out. She’s on television every week doing a job someone without the talent she has in her little finger could do, but don’t worry, she can find time out of her busy schedule to show her face, it’s not all about the money, honest.”

His voice is so scathing and so venomous that it leaves Beth stunned for a second; sure, they’ve not talked much about her television role and she got the sense Benny was vaguely disapproving, but this raw contempt is something new and unexpected.

Beth takes a deep breath, sits up straight, and looks Benny in the eye. “For someone who is so disdainful about how I make my money, you certainly have no trouble spending it.”

Her voice doesn’t shake, stays low and cool, and she watches Benny take the blow like she actually landed one of those punches he taught her to throw. It’s not come up, but the fact is that Beth pays for their rent, their food; she paid for their wedding and their accommodation in Chicago, and the entirety of the honeymoon. Whatever Benny has or doesn’t have is probably keeping him in cigarettes and the occasional coffee, but in truth Beth doesn’t know, and hasn’t asked.

Benny opens his mouth and Beth wonders what he’s got left in his arsenal to throw at her. After a second he just shakes his head and walks out. The front door slams behind him a minute later. Beth stays on the couch and takes several deep breaths against a burn in her throat and a suspicious angry stinging in her eyes, and tries to work out what the hell just happened.

An hour later, Benny isn’t back and Beth finds that she has a throbbing headache, a sharp stabbing pain behind her eyes. She thinks about calling Jolene, but what can she say that hasn’t been pointed out to her before: she is volatile, Benny is volatile, their history is volatile, their present maybe even more so, and a smart person would have realised that this would overbalance all the benefits this marriage could offer. Castling, sure, but only to put your rook straight into the path of a well-placed bishop.

Fuck, but Beth wants a drink.

It would be good, she thinks, if Benny came back and Beth was just fucking bombed, incoherently so, a reminder that she owes him nothing. She can be drunk when she wants, and the fact that he doesn’t want her to be doesn’t mean a damn thing. Benny has been drunk, has been foolish, has probably done everything that Beth has and worse, and he hides it all now behind that condescending attitude and stupid hat, like he’s any better than she is, living his life with his finances on a knife-edge. Beth has fought and Beth has struggled and Beth has put up with his shit, his anger over things that are barely her fault, and what is she even trying to demonstrate anymore? She doesn’t need his approval, it’s emptier than his fucking bank account, this manipulative man-child trying to make himself seem knowing with a cowboy drawl and a swagger that gets women into his bed but not for long. Who made Beth think he could make her life easier with the lie of a marriage and who has instead dumped on her every last piece of resentment he’s carried for years because her knees didn’t go weak enough to crawl back to him after she fucked up her Parisian Invitational.

Her head is thudding, like she’s getting the hangover with none of the payoff beforehand, and Beth can’t tell if her eyes are wet from pain or anger.

The first aid kit in the bathroom contains band-aids and bandages and gauze and antiseptic, Beth could probably patch up all the participants in a busy barfight and still have some left over, but there are no painkillers whatsoever. No pills of any kind. No medication. This wasn’t something that ever occurred to Beth but apparently it occurred to Benny, patronising her even in his absence.

There’s no way Benny would leave them both without so much as an aspirin.

Beth slams into his room; his duffel is on his bed, shirts and jeans foaming out of the top, but she ignores it, heading to rummage through his nightstand drawers. They’re almost empty, cigarette packets, pens, an old pack of playing cards with the box half-torn. There’s a strip of condoms in the left one; for a moment Beth remembers a woman breathlessly laughing Benny’s name in a Cincinnati hotel hallway, Benny saying that no one would care who Beth fucked once she was married, and she wonders who he’s got these for, briefly considers poking a hole in every packet out of sheer spite. In the end she replaces them, contemplating where else to try.

There’s a desk against the wall of the room instead of the bureau Beth has, piled haphazardly with notebooks and magazines and a selection of second-hand novels, Kerouac and Chandler and Steinbeck, Vonnegut and Heinlein and Philip K. Dick. Above it is a pinboard with Benny’s vanity collection attached, his newspaper clippings and photographs, and Beth forces herself not to rip it all down, not to make a bad situation worse. There’s a locked drawer on the right-hand side, and Beth goes to find a hairpin. She never did learn to pick locks and eventually has to admit defeat, angrily hitting the drawer with the palm of her hand in case this magically makes it spring open. It doesn’t, but it does make one of the towers of magazines slip sideways and fall noisily onto the carpet, a sprawl of bent glossy pages. Beth swears softly and starts gathering them up, hoping Benny doesn’t have a secret organisational system, piling them back onto the desk.

Underneath an old Chess Review with Benny glaring up from the cover, Beth finds the photographs. They’re from the wedding – the ones taken by Townes during the ceremony. Beth has seen the pictures, he posted the prints to New York for them while they were in Paris, but apparently Benny got to them before she did because Beth hasn’t seen these before. In one of them Beth is signing the paperwork, bent over with her hair and veil in her face, and Benny is looking down at her. Beth can’t read his expression but he looks younger than she’s ever seen him, something open and vulnerable on his face. In the second picture Benny is concentrating on putting Beth’s ring on, and it’s Beth’s turn to see an unfamiliar expression on her face; something soft, something that’s nearly a smile curling her mouth. The last photo is of their second kiss; Townes has caught the moment Beth pulled Benny back in, the second before their mouths touched again, barely a breath of air between them. Beth’s hands are splayed against Benny’s cheeks. Her eyes are open; his are closed.

Beth’s headache feels worse and she literally has no idea what to do with these, with why Benny has them, with why he’s hidden them from her. She shoves them into the Chess Review, no idea where they fell from in the first place, and dumps all the other magazines onto the desk, desperate to get out of Benny’s room, out of his space, out of the scent of his cologne on everything.

Lying in her room in the dark in the hope it might help the headache alleviate, Beth finds herself thinking of Alma. Not Alma as she usually thinks of her, staunchly fond of Beth and determinedly in her corner no matter what, whether she understood what was happening or not, but Alma when she first met her. Alma, small and sad at Grandmother June’s piano, a thousand crushed dreams under her feet and her husband driving away without a glance in the rear-view mirror. This is what marriage is, Beth knows: one person at home with no idea where the other person is, what they’re doing, if they’re ever coming back. She pretended it wouldn’t be that, like she and Benny could be courteous roommates, and that was naïve of her. She doesn’t know if her parents were formally married, she doubts it, but either way her mother was the one running and her father gave up chasing in the end. Beth has no idea if she should have hoped for him to catch up or not, and anyway she tries not to think about that anymore; Jolene is wrong, her parents will never be gone, no matter what Beth does, but it does her no good to dwell.

She finds herself hoping that Mike will prove an exception. He and Susan are setting up their new home in Kentucky, a real home filled with wedding crockery and honest love, and Beth hopes Susan never has to sit alone wondering where her husband has gone.

Beth told herself that she would never be that woman, that she was too smart and too sharp to ever be the one left behind. But maybe it was inevitable, you live the marriages you know, and Beth has never seen anything but abandonment, over and over again.

She wakes up disoriented and fully-dressed on top of the covers in the dark to the sound of the phone ringing. Beth staggers to the living room to answer it, banging herself on the doorframe, nearly tripping over the coffee table. The clock on the wall tells her it’s nearly three in the morning. She snatches up the handset.

“He’s with me,” Levertov announces before Beth can say anything. “He told me not to call you but frankly this is reminding me too much of my parents’ marriage and I’m not finding myself in the middle of that scheisse again. He’s asleep on my couch, he’s fine.”

Beth lets out a long breath, not even trying to hide it. “Thank you,” she says at last.

“I thought the point of having a fake marriage was so that this kind of thing didn’t happen,” Levertov remarks, but his voice is kind.

“Yeah,” Beth sighs. “So did I.”

There’s an awkward pause, and then Levertov says: “I’ll come get his bag tomorrow and take him to Boston. A couple of old friends are playing there, I was thinking of going anyway. You need to focus on your job and not on Benny’s tantrum.”

Beth shuts her eyes against what suddenly threatens to be tears. “Are you sure?”

“Benny’s being Benny,” Levertov replies. “Personally, I think you should take that TV company for everything they’re offering and then ask for a raise. Don’t worry, I’ll keep him out of trouble.”

She chokes a half-laugh. “Don’t make promises you can’t keep.”

Levertov laughs as well, a warm sound Beth is suddenly desperately grateful for. “Get some sleep,” he advises, “I can handle your arschloch husband.”

“Alright,” Beth says quietly. “You should sleep too.”

“I’ll think about it,” Levertov says. “Goodnight, Beth.”

Her bedroom light is blinding when she switches it on, fumbles herself into her nightdress; she considers brushing her teeth and removing her make-up but it all seems like so much effort, and instead Beth turns the light back off and crawls into her cold bed, the only peaceful oblivion she can afford to reach for, and finds herself thinking that if Benny thinks he can collapse their chaotic mess of a marriage over this, he’s once again taken the wrong fucking bet.

-

The apartment feels very different in a way that Beth can’t put her finger on, now that she’s living there alone. It’s not like she and Benny were often there at the same time, and even less frequently in the same room at the same time, but there was a knowledge that someone was around, taking up space, another beating heart on the other side of the wall instead of the ghosts of memories and wishes. She always knew she’d be staying here while Benny was in Boston, but she thought she’d maybe wave him off, get phone calls in the evenings. Now it’s just Beth, rattling around in rooms full of furniture she didn’t choose and doesn’t own, eyes drawn repeatedly to shelves full of trophies they arranged half from pride and half from spite.

At least there is filming to focus on. The studio is busy, filming several shows and a special back-to-back, and while Beth is only a part of it, there’s still plenty to do. Her segments themselves aren’t particularly difficult to film; at the moment she’s describing attacking moves to the audience, guiding them through the easiest ways to capture an opponent’s pieces. For one of them she even shows how to checkmate in three moves; not a sequence you can ever use in a competition, but a neat party trick if you don’t know any actual chess players. When she’s not on set she sits in her dressing room and reads, or hangs out with the hair and make-up girls, listening to their easy brand of feminine gossip that she’s never been able to emulate, but they make an effort to include her and it’s nice, none of the underlying bitterness of her awkward early teens.

When she goes back to the apartment at night, Beth lingers to talk to Pete, who always has an interesting anecdote or a funny story to share. His discretion alone is impressive: he knows that Benny stormed out in the middle of the night days ago and hasn’t come back yet, and he hasn’t even implied to Beth that he knows this. It makes a change from Lexington, where her neighbours watched from behind their curtains and judged each other’s every move, claustrophobic and narrow-eyed. Beth barely knows her neighbours here, and her doorman is open and friendly and sympathetic, and doesn’t let on whatever he thinks about her marriage.

One night, when sleep is elusive, Beth ends up taking Benny up on his snarled advice and looks through his boxes of magazines. He was an adorable child with his golden hair and dark eyes, his small face screwed up with a look of concentration that Beth recognises from his adulthood, and an adorable smile for the cameras that’s sweet and boyish and long lost. His exhibition games are interesting to read, to watch Benny’s style alter as he grew up and learned more, a tiny serious boy shaking hands with Najdorf after their draw the year that Beth was born, always with the head start. There are shots of Benny with his proud parents; he has his father’s eyes but in truth neither of them look much like him, and once he hits his teens they disappear from the official printed pictures. The photos of him in adolescence remind Beth of the ones taken for Life when she was fifteen: there’s a similar stiffness to his posture, shoulders back in a collar and tie, hair combed into a crisp neat parting, holding his trophies close to his chest.

In his late teens, Benny doesn’t look like any of the boys that Beth went to high school with, or even the boys in her college Russian class. His hair is longer, wilder, and there’s something darkly knowing in his smile. Without the moustache he looks younger than his age, but there’s a dangerous glint in his eyes that stops him from looking childish, his ranking seemingly climbing with every new magazine issue. Beth reads over more of his games; for three years he plays nothing but Black, and wins almost every match. She stares at his first cover of Chess Review, Benny at eighteen and beautiful and fragile and terrible, and thinks that there’s something important that she’s missing.

The next night Jolene calls her when she’s home from the studio, cheeks aching from her television smile, eyes aching from the excruciating lights.

“This paper is kicking my ass,” Jolene says, “tell me something glamorous.”

So Beth does. She describes the burnt orange dress she wore for one of the shows she filmed today, the nipped-in waist and round neckline, the playfully short hemline, and how she was sure it wasn’t going to work at all until she was wearing it and someone was pinning up her hair and suddenly it looked lovely. She tells Jolene about the romance happening between one of the women in the studio canteen and one of the lighting operators; they both think no one knows, but everyone does. In return, Jolene tells her about which of her classmates are hooking up, about the professor known for raising the grades of female students under very specific circumstances and how he invited Jolene to his office hours last week but she didn’t go.

“Does that mean he’s going to fail you?” Beth asks.

“He can try,” Jolene replies grimly.

To cheer her up, Beth tells her about Four Tops performing All In The Game yesterday, one of those songs that never seems to be off the radio at the moment. The producers don’t mind if she hangs around to watch the interviews or musical acts, and while Beth doesn’t always want to, she enjoyed watching the Motown legends, their sharp coordinated suits and easy smiles.

“Your fucking life,” Jolene groans when Beth’s done. “Who knew all your crazy chess studying would get you here?”

Beth thinks back to Methuen, the sweet musty smell of the pages of Modern Chess Openings, the nights without drugs when she traced the Sicilian across the ceiling ‘til she knew it like she knew the individual breaths of her dormitory mates in the darkness. “Not me,” she admits.

They sit in easy silence for a long moment, and then Jolene adds: “speaking of crazy chess studying, how’s Boston going?”

Beth screws up her face, glad that Jolene can’t see her. “You keep better track of our lives than we do,” she says.

“Someone has to,” Jolene replies. “I assume your cowboy will be an ass if he doesn’t win.”

Jolene often refers to Benny as your cowboy; sometimes it makes Beth laugh, but right now it makes something twist sharply inside her.

“Presumably,” she says, trying to sound neutral. “I don’t know how he’s doing.”

“He’s not calling?”

“He’s not calling.”

Jesus.” There’s the click and snap of a lighter, Jolene lighting a cigarette on the other end of the line. Beth thinks she might like a cigarette too, but she stays sitting where she is. “You wanna talk about it?” Jolene asks at last.

Beth considers this. “No.”

“Sure?”

If she’d wanted to talk about it, she’d have called Jolene when Benny first left, when she was raw and angry and, with hindsight, a little panicked. Now she’s calmer, although still no clearer on the exact dimensions of this particular stumbling block. “I’m sure. And you’re just looking for an excuse to give up on your paper for the night.”

“I wouldn’t do that to you!” Jolene protests, but she’s laughing.

“Uh-huh,” Beth says, “of course not. Go back to studying.”

She feels a little more settled once Jolene hangs up; there’s no filming tomorrow, and now she doesn’t have to get up early for a train, she could do something with the night. Christine’s place stays open pretty late, or Wexler’s still in the city and usually up for a movie or dinner, or there’s a couple of clubs the girls on set have recommended as having good music and not too many grabby men; Beth could go and dance, be surrounded by people. If a man wanted to dance with her she could dance with him; she’s married, but she’s not married, and no one will care whose hands are on her waist.

In the end Beth lies on the couch in front of the television, half-drowsing in front of one of the old movies Alma loved. It’s implausible, a touch too saccharine, everyone constantly beautiful, but Beth’s had a busy few days and it helps to relax her.

When the phone rings again just after the end of the movie, Beth speaks as soon as she picks up: “you really need to finish that paper, Jolene.”

“It’s me,” Levertov says.

“Arthur.” Beth swallows. “Are you alright? Is Benny alright?”

“We’re… okay.” There’s a tone in his voice that Beth can’t place, some emotion she can’t pin. “Were you still planning on coming to Boston tomorrow?”

“I assumed it wasn’t a good idea,” Beth tells him, because that’s the simplest answer.

Levertov hesitates and then says: “I think you should come. The final doesn’t start ‘til the early afternoon.” There’s a voice in the background; he murmurs fuck and hangs up.

Beth stands by the telephone in the empty apartment and looks out of the window at the always busy, always lit streets of the city that doesn’t sleep, and thinks that fuck just about covers it.

-

The train journey to Boston is a little over three hours, and Beth is a veteran of journeys far longer in far less comfortable seats; she skims a magazine, stares aimlessly out of the window, and lets her brain percolate what she’s going to have to say to Benny without consciously focusing on it.

Beth’s not played in Boston before but the hotel venue is like all of them are, full of a particular kind of man, analysis boards in the lobby with the semi-final games posted. People turn to look at her as she walks past, she’s easily recognisable of course, but Beth is aware that there’s a slightly different buzz about the way they’re staring, an energy and a pattern of low murmurs that she can’t decipher. Something runs cold down her spine, but there’s nothing hostile in anyone’s gaze, nothing dangerous; just the sense that they know something that she doesn’t, or they’re putting something together that she won’t be able to stop.

The analysis boards are nothing fancy, just paper pieces pinned onto paper boards tacked to large chalkboards with the moves written up beside them. Beth stops to have a look, learns that Benny’s facing Joseph Maimon in the final. Beth’s never played Maimon but she’s seen him play and read several of his match reports; he hails from Israel and usually plays in Europe but he makes a couple of trips to the states a year, leaves a trail of devastated American players in his wake, and sweeps back to do the same thing in France, England and Scandinavia. He’s about ten years older than Benny, grey starting to sprinkle his dark curly hair, a handsome jawline and a mouth that never seems prone to smiling. He’s got flaws and he’s beatable but he’s pretty formidable.

The other match pinned up is Benny’s semi-final one, against the latest California State Champion. Beth looks at the moves and then looks at the names again, sure that someone’s gotten them the wrong way around. Benny’s on Black, nothing unusual there, but everything after that can’t be right. White opened with his knights, aiming for centre control immediately, but instead of developing his main pieces Benny pushed his pawns toward the White ranks and, six moves in, swept across his bishop to check the White king. Sure, Beth was demonstrating a quick check for the cameras two days ago, but that wasn’t for tournaments, it was for something fun between amateurs. Benny’s never liked to over-rely on his pawns but by pushing them so hard White was forced to deploy his queen early. Beth recognises the strategy, and the vicious use of the rooks that follows: it’s Alekhine, absolutely brutalising Reti into a resignation in 1925.

You attack like Alekhine says the Benny in Beth’s head to the real Beth in Ohio in 1967. A respect for it, for her recklessness, but the barrier was clear: Benny does not. Benny’s more a sniper than a battering ram, moving when you least expect it.

Beth stands and reads through the game again, Benny hammering Mr California into a queen sacrifice and an ugly resignation, feeling the stares of strangers on her back.

“Oh, thank God,” says a voice to her left and she turns to see Levertov standing beside her. He grimaces. “I see you’re catching up.”

“What…” Beth trails off. She knows what happened before Benny left for Boston; it’s pretty certain that Levertov does too. Beth can beat Benny at chess a thousand times and he’ll still manage a smile at the end but she hit a different nerve this time, sank something venomous deeply into his ego, and the cracks are showing.

“Here.” Levertov guides her to one of the lobby couches, hands her a little notepad. “I started taking notes on his games once I realised what was happening.”

Beth skims the first few games, focusing more on the later matches as Benny got closer to the final. He’s playing well, no draws in the entire tournament, but where Benny’s usually a garotte wire in the dark, a knife between the ribs when you thought his hands were empty, he’s now a machine gun, sacrifices that look careless but turn out to be calculated, fierce captures, hammering his opponent into submission. It’s a storm of exquisite fury and utter destruction, risky to play and gloriously damaging in the pay-off, and it’s not like Benny at all.

It takes a little longer, but then Beth realises why everyone is looking at her, the low hum of interest that’s dogged her since she arrived. Benny isn’t playing like himself. He’s playing like her.

“Oh my God,” Beth says.

“He won’t talk about it,” Levertov tells her. “We played through his games in the evenings, worked through them, you know, and he shut me down every time I tried to ask.”

“Maybe he couldn’t explain it,” Beth murmurs. She isn’t sure she understands completely, but it makes a kind of sense that she can’t put into words. Beth disappointed him and he disparaged her career and she struck at his pride, and now Benny is playing as both of them in all his hurt fury. No wonder the spectators are so bemused, who knows how they’ve interpreted this.

“I think he’s got a good chance in the final,” Levertov offers at last, Beth mutely returning his notebook. “Well. He’ll either crush Maimon or he’ll go down in flames.”

“I assume that’s what he’s hoping for,” Beth says.

Levertov rolls his eyes, looking frustrated. “I knew he was being an arschgeige when I agreed to come with him, but I hoped it would have worn off by now.”

“Did you ask me to come here so I could apologise?” Beth asks.

“Nothing that drastic,” Levertov replies, and laughs. “But it’s time for Benny to be your problem again, you did sign all the paperwork for him.”

“I did,” Beth agrees wryly. She manages a smile. “I’m guessing we’re less like your parents now?”

“Oh, you’d be surprised,” Levertov sighs.

In a conference room upstairs, everything is set for the final. Beth keeps her shoulders back and her expression neutral, glad for Levertov’s presence at her side as she walks through the crowds of interested spectators. She knew she was coming to be observed as Benny’s wife as much as anything else and applied her make-up with care, elegantly dressed in sharply creased black cigarette pants and a pale blue blouse with a bow at the neck, a smart black blazer to go over the top. She looks calmly collected, a united front of confidence with her husband, who is already sat at the table and not looking at his audience. Beth wonders if he knows she’s here, isn’t sure which answer she’d prefer. At least all the attention means that she gets a chair to sit on, aware as she crosses her legs and keeps her back straight that several of the journalists present have started scribbling away industriously.

Despite his usually glowering cowboy outfit, Benny is playing White for the final; Maimon is dressed neatly in a dark blue suit and tie, hair carefully styled. Beth’s not sure if Benny has even combed his hair since he left their apartment, but no one is going to suspect anything because that’s what the public persona of Benny Watts is. Maimon runs his fingers over his row of pawns and then reaches to punch Benny’s clock.

The game starts out less violently than Beth expected: Benny’s doing a variant of the Pirc Defence, getting out his knights and central pawns in a neat formation. It all unfolds pretty quickly: Maimon encases his own king in a safety-net of pawns and there are a few swift, early exchanges, they each lose a couple of pawns while developing across the centre of the board. Benny takes one of the Black knights but sacrifices a bishop to do so and Beth fights not to flinch, to keep her expression calm and thoughtful, while her fingernails dig hard into her knee. She hopes that Benny knows what he’s doing but she honestly can’t tell if he has a strategy or just a plan to surge forward and see how it all rolls out.

What happens next is surprisingly fast, sends a jolt through the spectators. Benny attacks Maimon’s protected king and sacrifices a knight to one of the pawns – Beth feels her mouth fall open at the unequal trade, Benny can be foolhardy but he’s not stupid – but then he moves his other knight, capturing the pawn and checking the king. Maimon tries to move his king to safety, but he hasn’t developed enough of his back row and the king is trapped by a rook, a bishop, and ironically his previously protective pawns. Benny moves his queen as the final nail in the coffin, fully encasing the king in a wider net – even if the Black king can evade the knight he can’t evade the queen, and his own pieces have boxed him in.

Maimon looks slightly sick as he offers Benny his hand in concession, and Beth runs back through the game in her mind as people start applauding; twenty-three moves and Benny closed a suffocating trap around his opponent. Perhaps he played a little like both of them today.

Benny stands up to receive his adulation; flashbulbs go off and people are buzzing about what they’ve just seen, the swift cruel mastery of it, and Beth already knows she’ll be reading dozens of analyses of this match for months to come. Benny grins for the cameras, the fastest gunslinger in the West again, and then his eyes fall on Beth. Beth keeps her expression calm, smiles her bloody-lipsticked smile for her conquering hero, applauding with everyone else. Something twists in Benny’s mouth and he steps off the dais to come to her.

“You came,” he says softly, the words public, the tone private.

“I did,” Beth agrees. “I said I’d be here for your win.”

She’s acutely aware that everything they say and do now is being scrutinised, that neither of them can admit that they fought before Benny left for Boston, that his switch in playing style is because he’s mad at her, that anything could happen right now and it could be disastrous. They got married to protect her reputation and she’s pretty sure that whatever else happens, Benny won’t violate that.

What Benny actually does is grab her and kiss her, a public kiss that’s not quite chaste, dipping her like she’s the lucky girl at the end of a movie. It’s ridiculous and showy and mostly for the cameras, but Beth feels the way Benny moves her whole body, swift and strong, and knows that this isn’t over, that it hasn’t even begun yet. His mouth is hard where it opens against hers, a tightness to his movements that can’t be anything but anger. She puts her hands on Benny’s shoulders, lets his hat hide her face from the cameras, and knows that this over-the-top photo will be printed in far too many publications, and everyone who sees it will think they have a wonderfully balanced marriage of chess and passion. It will do the job perfectly, and Beth already hates everyone’s misinterpretation.

Benny sets Beth back on her feet and they stand frozen for a long moment. His eyes are glittering and sharp and Beth fights to keep her expression neutral, attention caught by the smear of her red lipstick on Benny’s lower lip. She reaches out to smudge it off and he finally blinks, exhales.

“I’ll leave you to your fans,” she says softly, making it clear that there will be an afterwards, and walks away before Benny can reply.

The staff at the front desk definitely recognise her, which is helpful. Beth assumes a brightly vacant smile, leans on the counter and drops her voice to a friendly secretive level.

“My husband, Benny Watts, is staying here, and I don’t have a key for his room,” she explains. “I was wondering if I could get one?” The concierge hesitates, so Beth leans in a little bit further and adds: “He’s just won the whole tournament, you see, and I was hoping to surprise him there so we could celebrate.” She drops her gaze in a parody of demureness, and then raises it again, hopeful.

“I- I’m sure we can make an exception, Mrs Watts,” he stammers, flushed, and Beth smiles sweetly and takes the key to room 301 with satisfaction.

Someone’s been in today to clean: the bed is neatly made, fresh towels in the bathroom, empty trashcan. The room still smells of cigarettes and Benny’s cologne, and because he never unpacks his clothes are spilling out of his duffel as usual. His chess board is on the desk, laid out ready, with a neat stack of magazines beside it. Apart from that, it’s as impersonal as all spaces Benny inhabits are, he’s always so focused on his interior life. Beth uses the bathroom and she washes her hands, looking at his razor on the edge of the sink, the single toothbrush in the glass.

There’s nothing to snoop for, and even though it’s a neutral hotel room Beth still feels like she’s invading somewhere. She sits down at the desk, props her chin on her hand, and settles down to wait.

-

Benny arrives earlier than Beth was expecting and doesn’t look surprised to find her in his room; either the staff downstairs said something or he correctly predicted what she’d do. She could have waited in the bar, but there’s nothing left that they can say to one another in public. He’s still riding his win, the victory shining out of every pore, something bold in his posture that comes with the coat and the reluctant admiration of the spectators.

“Beth,” he says.

“Benny,” she replies, and forces herself to stay completely still while she waits to see what he does next.

He considers her for a long moment, brow furrowed, mouth tight, and then he sighs and takes off his hat, walking past her to dump it and his coat on top of his duffel. He looks smaller without them, shoulders already starting to curl in on themselves. Beth watches him as he exhales heavily, scuffs his hands through his messy hair.

“Are you happy now?” Benny asks without turning around.

Beth doesn’t move. “Are you?”

Jesus,” Benny mutters, the word spilling out fast and hard. He spins around. “Why are you here, Beth?”

“I said I’d come to watch the final,” she replies, fighting to keep her voice flat, calm. “And here I am.”

“Right.” Benny’s mouth twists and he digs in the back pocket of his jeans, pulling out a folded piece of paper. Beth recognises it as his winner’s cheque. “Was this what you were looking for?”

He throws it at her, and maybe there’d be more of a dramatic effect if it wasn’t a single piece of paper; it flutters to the carpet several inches from her feet. Beth flinches anyway, more from the ugly look on Benny’s face than the gesture. She makes no move to pick it up.

“That should cover my half of the rent for a while,” he says.

Beth meets his gaze and holds it, refuses to look away. “How long are you going to keep this up?” she asks. “Because I didn’t come here for you to be a fucking coward.”

It’s Benny’s turn to flinch and he’s the first to blink, looking down at his boots. “Then what did you come here for? And don’t tell me that it’s because you were desperate to watch me play.”

Beth takes a breath, but she made her choice on the train. She adjusts her posture a little so she looks less confrontational, and says: “I came to exchange queens.”

Something in Benny stills. He’s not looking at her, and she watches his jaw work in profile as he swallows.

“You’ve always said how we think alike, how similar we are,” Beth tells him, her words dropping into a heavy silence. “We could just keep hurting each other forever, there’ll always be something new we can drag up. But then I don’t think this marriage will last very long. And I thought about letting it collapse after you walked out, everyone would believe that you were the asshole and I was the naïve ingenue, I might just make it out okay, but we’ve put a lot of time and effort into this lie, it would be a shame for it to break down two months in.”

Benny sits down on the end of his bed, darts a glance at Beth before returning his gaze to the carpet. It’s got ugly swirls of brown and beige and taupe, Beth can see the fascination, but it doesn’t help her figure out if Benny is listening to what she’s saying, if he agrees with her.

“So, to overwork a metaphor, I have come here to exchange queens. We’ve managed it before.”

The queen is the best piece to attack with: she has the best range of movement, her captures are frequently the most dramatic and important, and she’s the best piece to have in one’s arsenal, no matter how clever you are with the others. To trade queens is usually only an act of the reckless and the desperate: you take away the other player’s power, but you forfeit your own advantage in doing so. It can lead to a range of smart and unusual and complex endgames between grandmasters, but it’s not a move to make lightly. Under specific circumstances, though, it can be a smart tactic, a way to entirely change the nature of the game. Beth’s aware that she often uses chess as a way to parse her reality, to help dictate her life, but she really could think of no other option here.

Beth looks at Benny’s slumped shoulders, the tension in his posture, his hair hanging in his face, and takes a chance.

“I grew up in a trailer,” she tells him. “My mother was a mathematician but something happened to her and she took me and we lived in that trailer until she decided she didn’t want to live anymore. Then I lived in the Methuen home, where I had a toothbrush and a doll and a daily dose of green vitamins that almost made the nights bearable. When Alma adopted me, I had a change of clothes and two books and a cheap plastic hairband that was a gift to make me look wholesome, the kind of teenage orphan you’d want to take home with you. And Alma did her best but her husband didn’t give her much and she had even less to pass on to me.”

It’s Beth’s turn to look down; she talks to her hands, interlaced in her lap. “I thought that was behind me, but then I wanted to go to Russia, and if Jolene hadn’t been better at saving than I’ve ever been then I wouldn’t have made it. I want to go to Russia again, and no one will fund me. Either I compromise myself so that church will fund me – and I think that bridge is burned now – or I spend hours begging men for money that I know and they know they don’t intend to give me. I need money for my career, or I won’t have one. I could only play at tournaments, write articles for magazines about the artistry of the game, and I might just keep my roof in Kentucky over my head as long as nothing breaks or leaks or gives out. Or I can do something that I enjoy, that isn’t difficult, that takes up a small part of my life, and with my earnings I can do what I like without being beholden to anyone: not my family, not my friends, not the Chess Federation, not the fucking Christian Crusade.”

She feels a little breathless when she’s finished, knows that she’s flushed, and she risks a look at Benny to see if he’s listening, if this is working at all. He’s looking at her, expression sombre, but at least he doesn’t look so angry.

Benny chews his lower lip for a moment and then looks back down at the carpet. “It was my grandfather who found out I could play chess. I was five and curious about the set and I think he taught me just to try and keep me quiet so I wouldn’t trash his study on a wet Sunday afternoon, but then I turned out to be good at it. Really, really good at it. And I liked it, it made sense to me in a way that nothing else had, I enjoyed it in a way I’d never enjoyed anything, like it had just been waiting for me to discover it, you know? Like we were always supposed to find each other.”

He looks up briefly and Beth nods, because she remembers that same feeling, watching Mr Shaibel move the pieces in the peaceful half-dark of the basement, like she was discovering a whole new world that had been built only for her.

“It was great,” Benny carries on. “I got to study chess as much as I wanted, I got to beat adults, I got to go to cool places and play more chess. My parents were very proud.” There’s a weird sharpness in his voice that Beth can’t understand, a bitterness in his expression. “I just wanted to play chess; they were the ones who realised it could be a career. A well-publicised and lucrative career. There’s a book of clippings somewhere, all the interviews they gave about their genius son, the pressures and the joy, the college fund they were making for me with all my winnings.”

Benny is fidgeting with his ring and a small part of Beth wants to tell him that he can stop, he doesn’t have to keep talking with his posture crumpling in on itself, tension in every line of his body. But he can’t stop, not just because she’s wildly curious, but because if they don’t get this out now then maybe they never will.

“I was sixteen when I found out the ‘college fund’ was a lie,” Benny says simply. “There was no money put away for me. There was no money put away anywhere. My parents had spent all of it, and more, and then more again; anything I ever earned or won just fell into this bottomless pit of debt they were never going to climb out of. They fucking loved having a little prodigy because he could make them money in a way a regular kid never could have.” He laughs, sharp, brittle. “They could have kept this going longer but I was due to play at an Invitational in Florida and I guess someone had called some debts in because all of a sudden I couldn’t go. I couldn’t pay for my flight or my hotel or any of it. Hell, I couldn’t even pay for the greyhound to hop a state over and play an Open I stood a good chance of winning, I didn’t have the money to cover my entry fee.”

He falls silent for so long that Beth prompts him: “what did you do?”

“I hitchhiked,” Benny shrugs. “When I got to the Open I looked around at all these guys who had read about me in magazines and sneered at my baby face and I bet them I could take them apart in less than twenty moves. And then when I’d done that I did it again to someone else, over and over, and then I had a stake and could afford a cheap room and to eat a couple of times over the course of the tournament and when I won I had some cash in my pocket, I had a bag with some clothes and a chess set in it. I never went back to my parents’ house again.”

“What happened to them?” Beth asks.

“Oh, they’re still there,” Benny replies. “Calcifying in their own greed. I get a phone call sometimes, can I spare a few thousand dollars, just this once.” His mouth twists, tight. “I signed all that paperwork because while I would never touch your money I don’t ever, ever want there to be the slightest possibility that they could have it. They’ve taken enough, and they never learn.”

The way that Benny has always avoided talking about his parents, Beth just assumed that they were dead. The idea that she has living in-laws is a little startling, might take some processing, but she can tell from the raw hurt radiating from Benny whether he realises it or not that she’ll never meet them. She doesn’t think she wants to – for all the failings of both of her mothers, they both loved her, and neither ever used her.

“I don’t understand,” Beth finally says. “If you know what it’s like to have nothing-”

“Why the gambling?” Benny finally smiles, rueful. “Well, at first it was because I realised there’s way more money to be made from cards than from chess, the amounts of money people throw around are insane, it was the perfect way to fund my chess career, particularly once I worked out how to cheat.”

“But it doesn’t fund your chess career,” Beth reminds him.

“It didn’t fund your chess career,” Benny corrects her mildly.

Beth thinks about calling Benny, the tightness of his voice when he said I don’t have it. Beth was not the first person to ring him and ask for money and, oh, ouch.

“Well, it doesn’t cover your parking tickets or your phone bill or that time Wexler told me about when you didn’t have any electricity and held obnoxious parties by candlelight for three weeks,” Beth says.

“Sometimes it does,” Benny replies. He hesitates. “Chess… chess has been a part of me for twenty-four years. It’s what I think about, it’s what I do, it’s the world that I live in. When I win it feels good because I’ve worked for it, because I’m clever enough, because my pieces are extensions of my hands, my fingers, my brain. When I lose it’s my own fault, but later I can find what went wrong and exorcise it. But cards… even if I’m not cheating, even if I’ve just managed to keep more of a straight face than the other guys, I don’t earn that win, it’s just chance, and it’s a good feeling. Luck is a fucking trip and a half.” He runs a hand through his hair. “You win or you lose because of a scrap of card and the ability to hold your nerve, and sometimes I can influence it and sometimes I can’t, and either way I can’t control it, I’m not seven moves ahead, it’s a free-fall, and sometimes losing everything feels better than having it in the first place.” His eyes flick to Beth. “I know you know what that feels like.”

Beth nods, not sure she can voice the agreement aloud. “I’m trying not to do it anymore,” she says instead.

“Well,” Benny says, “so am I.”

Castling, thinks Beth, and finally leans down to pick up the cheque. “Do you want this back?” she asks.

Benny looks at the paper and then at her and then at the neatly written monetary amount. “Not yet,” he says quietly and Beth nods, tucks the cheque away. Benny gives her a sheepish smile. “Think Levertov will drive us back to New York?”

“I think he will if we promise not to talk at any point,” Beth replies.

“He’ll just pick a radio station we both hate,” Benny points out.

Beth is exhausted; there’s a lot to think about, and she still doesn’t know if this is enough, if they’ll be right back furious with each other next week. “I think I can handle that,” she says.

-

[extracts from Chess Life, July 1970 issue]

…Of the players redefining modern chess in the last half-decade, there are none more famous on American soil than two home-grown champions whose clashes have taken on mythic proportions. Grandmaster Benny Watts (29) was the undisputed king of American chess until Grandmaster Beth Harmon (21) arrived on the scene, altering the landscape forever with her refusal to relegate herself to the women’s leagues, proving not only that the fairer sex could play as well as the men, but that they could frequently play better. After becoming US Open Co-Champions in 1966, Harmon returned the following year to take the title of US Champion outright from Watts, and while focus on her personal life and international career meant Harmon did not return to defend her title in ’68 or ’69, she is here at the start of this new decade to face Watts, once again the current reigning champion.

The stakes would be high enough based on their history alone, but in an unexpected development that surprised the entirety of the chess world, Harmon and Watts announced their engagement in January of this year and married in Chicago in early April. The union of two such titanic rivals is unprecedented and caused much speculation as to how this would affect their respective careers. With Harmon taking the top spot at the Greater Chicago Open on her wedding day, and Watts conquering in the Boston Tornado tournament in late May, it appears that rumors of the newlyweds getting distracted and forfeiting their advantages were incorrect. However, this July’s US Open is the first time Harmon and Watts will have competed together since going public with their relationship, and also the first time they will have officially played each other since Watts beat Harmon in Cincinnati last October.

With the eyes of the world on them, curious as to how this extraordinary couple will navigate the Las Vegas Open with their chess credentials and marriage intact, I sat down with them in their Manhattan apartment to discuss how they handle their training, the pressure, and each other.

“We’re still settling in,” Harmon informs me apologetically as she gives me the tour of their new home. “We’re both so busy neither of us have time to be here much.”

In fact, their apartment is charmingly bohemian: we drink coffee from mismatched cups in their living room, which contains pillows decorated with chequerboards and a truly dazzling array of tournament trophies most players would give a vital organ for. Following my line of sight, Watts grins rakishly and says: “we both know who we are, I’m not sure false modesty does us any favours.”

Looking at Harmon and Watts sitting side by side on their couch, you could initially be forgiven for wondering what drew them together. Harmon, with her movie-star good looks and understated deep red shift dress, is a sharp contrast to Watts, a self-styled maverick in faded jeans and an array of silver jewellery. While both started playing at a young age, Watts grew up in the public chess world, while Harmon made her public debut in mid-adolescence, displaying a maturity and grace that Watts will himself admit that he has never had. However, watching the two of them together, it becomes clear that despite an epic rivalry that has kept chess fans entertained for years, the two are as well-matched off the board as they are on it. They talk over each other, finish each other’s sentences and expand on the other’s train of thought with comfortable ease; while both are ostensibly talking to me, I frequently get the sense that they forget that I’m there until I ask them another question.

[…]

Acknowledging the amount of pressure and scrutiny they are facing at the upcoming US Open, I suggest that the best option might be for Harmon and Watts to find themselves co-champions again. They both react as though I have suggested re-enacting Romeo and Juliet in the lobby of the Stardust hotel, exchanging matching horrified looks.

“I hated being co-champions,” Harmon tells me vehemently. “Every time I heard the title it was a reminder that I had been defeated so publicly.”

“I have no interest in sharing the title again,” Watts adds. “I would rather lose outright, for me it’s an unacceptable compromise.”

With the country’s two top players living together and training one another, the expectation of analysts and of Harmon and Watts themselves is that they will be facing each other in the final. Their skills are so evenly matched that I wonder if they will be able to avoid ending up with a draw and being forced into sharing the title anyway. Watts is fresh from his definitive victory in Boston, where he stunned competitors and spectators alike with a sharp diversion from his usual playing style into one that seems more in line with Harmon’s.

“A successful experiment,” he replies dismissively when I ask about it. “I don’t know if I’ll do it again but I could stand to add some more Alekhine moves to my repertoire.”

Harmon’s face remains inscrutable when I ask if she had a hand in Watts’ change of strategy, but she does state that she has no intention of implementing any of Watts’ signature moves into her own play.

[…]

When I remark upon the fact their rivalry doesn’t seem to have diminished, both Watts and Harmon laugh. As we’ve talked their bodies have been increasingly angling toward each other; by now they bracket either end of the couch, knees brushing from time to time. While both remain professional and engaged throughout the interview, it’s easy to see that they are newlyweds in the way they constantly watch one another, returned from their Parisian sojourn but evidently still in the honeymoon period.

“Neither of us saw any point in retiring,” Harmon tells me. “Benny and I are both at the top of our game, and our professional lives are very different to our personal ones.”

When I point out that by getting married their personal and professional lives have blended, Watts nods and gives me a rueful smile. “We’re still navigating where the lines are and where they blur, but frankly until now marriage never appealed to me, it seemed like too much of a compromise.”

Harmon is nodding. “I don’t see how I could have married anyone else,” she explains to me. “Benny and I think very similarly, and our goals are alike. While that may cause problems further down the line, I don’t think I could have anyone in my life who didn’t understand my motivations or who expected me to abandon them.”

“I think there’s still a misconception about marriage,” Watts remarks. “I’ll freely admit it was one I had too: that when you get married you’re supposed to take on a certain level of maturity, you settle down in suburbia, nine to five, get a lawn to mow and tablecloths and the next thing you know you have three kids and all you want in life is to read the newspaper on a Sunday afternoon in peace.”

“That’s very specific,” Harmon says to him. She looks to me. “I was concerned too, but we’ve both learned that marriage means doing pretty much what you were doing before, but now you get to do it with the person that you love.”

Watts’ gaze immediately leaps back to Harmon and she turns her head; in yet another of several silent exchanges they have throughout our conversation, his mouth opens and closes again, while Harmon’s expression seems to change very little but she doesn’t blink. I am never able to discern what these little interludes involve but both participants clearly do, the familiarity in their non-verbal discussions yet another reminder of what a perfect match of kindred spirits they appear to have founded.

“When our engagement was announced, people kept expressing surprise that I’d decided to settle down,” Watts says after a moment. “I think that’s just another example of misconceptions about marriage, that once you’re hitched you can’t do anything anymore, you’re static. Neither Beth nor I have settled at all. I don’t think we intend to.”

Harmon smiles. “Well, I think there might be a tablecloth somewhere in the apartment,” she offers.

-

Las Vegas in July turns out to be unbearable. They get off the plane into a wall of heat, the desert in the height of summer, and Beth’s light dress and tennis shoes immediately feel like she’s wearing too much clothing. Even Benny concedes to carry his leather coat over his arm, adding a pair of aviator shades beneath his hat. The sun is blindingly bright and even with all the windows of their taxi open, it’s almost suffocating as they crawl down the strip, skin sticking to the seats. It’s a dry, breathless heat that feels like it’s sucking everything out of the air. Beth was a mess of energy on the plane, but all she can do now is slump limply in the car, hair sticking to her neck.

Thankfully, the Stardust Hotel has air conditioning. Walking inside is like entering a pool of cool water – and Beth will definitely be getting acquainted with their lido later – and she pushes her sunglasses on top of her head while hoping her eyeliner hasn’t melted all over her face. At least the temperature won’t distract her from playing; Beth can’t even imagine trying to make an intelligent move while the heat pressed down on her.

Their room is decorated in various neutral shades with a large window overlooking the busy mess that is Vegas. Benny kicks off his shoes and folds into a chair immediately, while Beth goes into the spacious bathroom to run her wrists under the cold tap and tie up her hair. When she’s repaired her sweat-smudged make-up and is feeling a little more like a human being, a thought occurs to her, and she walks back into the room.

“This isn’t a suite,” she says, and watches realisation tumble across Benny’s face.

“I can go talk to them,” he offers. “I know they’re pretty booked for the tournament, but there’ll be another room somewhere, we’ll just be primadonnas who need separate spaces for our prep.”

Beth thinks about the fuss of demanding another room, of having to go track Benny down somewhere in the hotel if they want to play through a match, of the last few weeks they’ve spent almost peaceably in the apartment swapping research and resources, driving their friends mad with their focus.

“We’ve shared a bed before, and it was about half the size of this one,” she says at last.

“I was told I steal the covers,” Benny says, his tone neutral.

“I don’t think that will be a problem in July,” Beth replies, careful.

She can feel the way both of them are edging around this, maybe waiting for the other to break first, not wanting to be the one to refuse. It’s not like this wasn’t something Beth thought about when they were first engaged, considering that they’d be spending a lot of time together, presumably sharing hotel rooms, and she dismissed it as something that wouldn’t be a problem given their history. That seems sort of wilfully ignorant of her now, all these months later, but then neither of them really realised how complicated this was set to get. Perhaps they should have done, but Beth’s foresight has never been good anywhere but on a chess board.

“You’re sure?” Benny says, and Beth can’t tell if he’s checking for her wellbeing or if he wants her to refuse because his pride won’t let him.

Well, he’s not the only proud one here. “I’m sure,” she says.

Once they’ve rested and Beth has unpacked and Benny has rummaged amongst his crumpled clothing for his chessboard and books to stack on the desk, they go down to officially sign in for the competition, check out the boards of competitors, and generally immerse themselves into the atmosphere. Beth can’t miss that many of their would-be opponents do not look particularly pleased to see them, given that if Beth doesn’t win Benny presumably will, easily crushing their chances of even taking second place, but there are a few other acquaintances around who smile. Wexler and Levertov have stayed in New York and while Townes was trying to swing coming as a photographer, the paper’s board needs him to stay and do something that sounded both boring and complicated when he was complaining about it on the phone to Beth. It’s just her and Benny now, trapped in the joint scrutiny of the chess world and each other.

“Did you see the number of articles predicting that we’re too competitive and we’re about to get a nasty shock and the marriage will collapse?” Beth asks later when they’re sat in the bar, cold sodas and Mama Told Me Not To Come playing just the right side of too loud.

“I wouldn’t take that bet,” Benny shrugs. “If we’ve learned nothing else from this, it’s that you and I are stubborn as all hell.”

They clink coke bottles and go back to people watching. Beth is aware that they’re getting a decent amount of attention; while the US Open attracts the top calibre of players, it also draws lower-ranked and amateur players with its bands specifically for them. She’s never encouraged a circle of admirers the way that Benny does but it doesn’t irritate her as much as it used to, and she enjoys sitting back and watching Benny hold court with his easy superior manner over old and new acquaintances. It took her some thinking after Boston, but she’s realised that Benny has monetised Benny Watts as well as his parents ever did, but he’s done it on his own terms. Beth might find the persona a little ridiculous, perhaps even more so than she did before she knew there was someone else underneath it, but she doesn’t judge him for it anymore.

Not that Benny is the only one with interested fans; Beth finds herself fielding perhaps even more interest than Benny. She’s sure she used to be more unapproachable but maybe something about Benny has rubbed off on her, and she does her best to be gracious. Plenty of people want to congratulate them both on their marriage, and a few even edge over nervously with the latest Chess Life – featuring both of them on the cover and a vaguely patronising article about how Vegas might shake out – and ask for autographs. Benny’s signature is enormous and looping, a perfect fit for his meticulous cultivated image, while Beth’s hasn’t moved on much from when she was scribbling it on Life for the more awkward of the high school boys.

“Have they expanded your ego to unbearable proportions?” Beth asks when they’re back in the safety of their room.

Benny, shorn of his accoutrements and lounging with his feet kicked up on a chair, grins at her. “Tell me that you don’t love their mixture of terror and resentment and admiration. You know that you do. You always have.”

Beth, caught, rolls her eyes and goes to shower.

It’s not until later that Beth realises something else about sharing a room that hadn’t occurred to her. “Are you going to be up half the night with all the lights blazing? Because if you want to keep reading, you can go and sit in the bathroom.”

“Enchanting as that prospect is,” Benny drawls, “I figured I’d try your ludicrously early nights instead. I don’t need the beauty sleep or the extra rest, but what the hell, huh?”

“Maybe you’ll find some modesty if you sleep more than five hours a night,” Beth suggests.

“That’s very sweet of you, Beth, and very wrong,” Benny replies easily.

Beth is meticulously applying cold cream to her face when Benny appears beside her at the sink, hip-checks her over. She hesitates, then carries on smoothing the lotion up her cheeks, while he starts brushing his teeth. What with Benny’s shitty basement bathroom being, well, shitty, and their wildly different opinions of a decent time to go to bed, they’ve never done this, stood side by side getting ready for bed. It feels very different to sharing the space with Jolene, watching Benny squinting at himself in the mirror, smoothing a stray eyebrow hair before he leans down to spit into the sink. It’s another one of those moments that they have periodically, when something entirely mundane happens in their lives and Beth thinks to herself we’re actually married.

She leaves Benny rinsing his mouth and goes to get into the bed – which, like everything else in Vegas, is unnecessarily large – choosing the right-hand side because it’s what she prefers. There’s a strange pit of nervousness in the bottom of her stomach which she does her best to ignore, reaching to turn off the bedside lamp and carefully remove her watch, the last thing she does every night. The bathroom light snaps off and Benny walks out; he also likes the right side of the bed, if Beth recalls correctly, but all he does is briefly twist his mouth before crossing to the left side. He doesn’t really like pyjamas much but he’s wearing a t-shirt with his underwear, presumably in concession to her, and Beth is glad and can’t put her finger exactly on why. She lies very still as Benny climbs in, the bed wide enough that they won’t touch unless they both put in the effort, and turns off his own light.

“‘Night, Beth,” he says easily.

Beth swallows. “‘Night, Benny.”

-

The first few days of the Open pass by like they normally do: the matches aren’t too strenuous and for the most part don’t take too long. Beth’s played a couple of her opponents before and can compliment an awkward man from Seattle that he’s improved a lot since they last met. She still wins, but he gets in some elegant captures before she does. One of the new players is a shy seventeen-year-old boy called Glenn who just placed second in Wisconsin’s state championship and whose high school apparently held a bake sale to get him here. His nerves get the better of him, but he makes a few decent moves in there. It’s Beth’s last game of the day, and when she’s won she gets him to meet her in the hotel bar later. She brings her chess set, buys them both 7-Ups and sits there for two and a half hours with Glenn, talking back through the game, asking him constant questions until he stops stammering and looking at his hands and actually starts answering her. There’s a smart kid in there, the makings of a really good player, and Beth watches him make pages of careful pencil notes as they go through exchanges and traps and wonders if one day this will come back to bite her.

Benny arrives as Beth and Glenn are picking apart the net she placed around his king, examining the checkmate from all the angles. He drops onto the banquette beside Beth, slinging an easy arm around her shoulders and smacking a kiss to her cheek.

“Hey, doll.”

Glenn’s eyes grow about three sizes as he takes in Benny, who is resplendent in hat, coat, knife and glittering jewellery. Beth discreetly digs an elbow into Benny’s ribs as she introduces them to each other, hoping he’ll get the play nice message. He probably won’t; Benny is still working through a mental list of petnames for her, and only tends to use them when he’s about to be a dick.

“You lost the state to Becker, right?” Benny says to Glenn. “I read that write-up, it was a pretty good game. You need to strengthen your diagonals, though.”

“You think everyone should strengthen their diagonals,” Beth points out.

“And they should,” Benny shrugs, leaning to grab Beth’s drink. “And don’t take whatever my wife has done to you personally, kid, she steamrolls everyone like that.”

Glenn’s eyes are flicking between the two of them like he’s watching a tennis game. Beth finds herself hoping that he’s got a chess club back at school he can relay all of this to; maybe that’s a little vain of her, but there’s something enjoyable about dazzling this teenager.

“She’s been really helpful, actually,” Glenn pipes up.

Benny raises his eyebrows. “That’s very civic-minded of you, Beth.”

Beth watches him tuck the straw she’s marked with her lipstick into his mouth, and offers sweetly: “if Harry hadn’t helped me out, I’d never have beaten you in Ohio. We don’t all have to treat each other like enemies off the board.”

Benny’s eyes narrow a fraction and Beth smirks, turns back to finish the game analysis with Glenn. It’s lucky that they’re almost done, because while Beth had managed to work off the worst of Glenn’s nerves around her, Benny’s arrival has put a whole bunch of them back; in the end she sends the boy off with a handshake and the hope that he’ll do well in the rest of the tournament, and he stumbles off looking a little stunned.

“When he creams you in a tournament in three years’ time because you turned his under-use of his knights around, you’re going to regret this,” Benny says cheerfully when they’re alone.

“He was sweet,” Beth replies, “and I hate wasted potential.” She turns a glare on Benny. “And if you’re about to suggest I was seducing that teenager-”

“Oh, you’d seduced him completely, but you weren’t doing it deliberately,” Benny shrugs. “He was looking at you the way most guys look at you, like you could punch him in the face and he’d thank you and ask for another.”

Beth is about to retort that Benny has never looked at her that way and then vividly remembers the night they first fucked, when she beat Benny at speed chess over and over and over and he said no one has done that to me in fifteen years and took her to bed moments later.

“Don’t call me ‘doll’ again,” she says instead. “I hate it.”

“Do you hate it more or less than ‘honey’?” Benny asks. “In the interests of scientific enquiry.”

He actually called her ‘honey’ three different times in front of the Chess Life interviewer, and none of them made it into the published article. His annoyance at this was almost worth repeatedly hearing the stupid nickname in the first place.

“I think more,” Beth replies. “But remember that I now know how to break your nose without causing any injury to myself.”

“A tiger on and off the board,” Benny sighs, but he’s smiling while he says it. He flicks Beth’s emptied glass with a fingernail. “Want another?”

As other games finish for the day, people are starting to filter into the bar. Beth can already see at least three other groups replaying matches from earlier, two guys in matching argyle are arguing over a fork in one of the booths, while an older man sits alone, chin propped glumly on one hand while he plays the same sequence through over and over.

“Sure,” she says, and Benny heads off to order.

What Beth will never tell him and hopes that he’ll never find out is that Benny doesn’t need to work through his saccharine nicknames to ruffle her; all he has to do is call her my wife in that casual way he has.

The days start blurring together like they always do for longer tournaments. Beth catches a few of Benny’s games when she’s not playing, and he turns up to see some of hers, but for the most part they stay on their own paths, names rising steadily up the boards. Benny gets a draw on Thursday afternoon and spends the evening sulking and refusing to play the game back through no matter how many times Beth offers; she goes to bed and he shuts himself in the bathroom with his board, the strip of light still there when Beth half-wakes hours later. Part of Beth is pleased that he’s drawn because it gives her an advantage overall, until Sunday morning when she draws with a grandmaster from Albuquerque. She eventually works out that she played the wrong response to his opening and spends the rest of Sunday in the lido, swimming out the frustrated energy, until she’s not seeing a tangle of gridlocked pawns every time she blinks.

Sometime at the start of the second week, Beth finally finds out that the book on Benny’s nightstand, The Dragon Variation, is not an analysis of the Sicilian but actually a fairly trashy novel based around chess. Wexler lent it to me, I’m reading it for the matches, he drawls, and Beth rolls her eyes because in her brief flick through she’s noted the only female main character has plenty of romantic and sexual misadventures.

“Shouldn’t you be studying?” she asks, arch. “Or are you just planning on finding something to distract me with before the final?”

“You shouldn’t have declined his Queen’s Gambit on Sunday,” Benny responds immediately.

Beth scoffs at him because they both know that she already knows this, and goes to take an extended bath. When she gets out Benny is sitting at the table with his chess board, frowning at the booklet from the Beverwijk tournament earlier this year.

“Study hard,” she offers; he doesn’t look up from the endgame he’s plotted out, but does respond with his middle finger.

As ever, Beth is reminded that she and Benny work better in enclosed spaces than they logically should. Both of them spend a lot of time lost in individual thought, no need to fill the silence with pointless conversation; they can study separately for hours without disturbing each other. Beth doesn’t pretend she isn’t examining the games Benny’s been playing, and knows that he’s looking at hers. Both of them want to win this tournament and she thinks the tension should be unbearable, but somehow the fact they’ve acknowledged that they want to mercilessly crush each other means that they’re comfortable, no awkwardness. Beth is aware of the attention that they get in public together, the way that everyone is unashamedly looking for cracks, but no one here knows anything close to the truth about them.

The next time that Beth can catch one of Benny’s matches she makes sure she’s at the front of the group of spectators, and when he wins she’s the one to sweep in and kiss him, swift and hard.

“Look at you winding up the opposition,” Benny tells her later, grin tickling his mouth.

“I’m bored of them watching us like we’re supposed to be openly plotting each other’s murder,” she responds.

“It’s stupid,” Benny agrees. “I’ll just smother you with a pillow in your sleep if that’s necessary.”

Beth’s childhood and adolescence were spent sharing rooms with people, listening to them breathe and snore and murmur in sleep, but somehow in adulthood she’s only ever shared a bed with Benny. Harry had a habit of slinking back to his own room after sex – Beth sees now that she instinctively manipulated the situation so that this would be so – and while Cleo slept in Beth’s bed in Paris, Beth apparently slept in her dress in a half-full bathtub instead. But she shared Benny’s bed on a selection of nights in New York, and now they sleep side by side in Las Vegas. It’s not the same as New York, of course; the bed is larger and comfier, and they don’t have sex before they settle down to sleep. Some nights Beth sleeps quicker than others, and she realises she hasn’t forgotten the rhythm of Benny’s unconscious breathing, the incomprehensible words he sometimes mumbles between one breath and the next. For the most part he still gets up before her, ambling around in his jeans and flowered robe with room service coffee when Beth surfaces, but once or twice she wakes up in the greyish light of dawn and he’s still in bed beside her, golden hair spilled across the pillows. He looks much younger in sleep, missing the spark he has when he’s awake, but missing the tension too. Beth watches him for a little while in the half-dark, this man she married who still remains part stranger, but whom she also knows so well that she remembers lessons at Methuen, people made of each other’s ribs.

It’s easy to stay in this tournament limbo, every day full of chess games, every evening a quiet studious domesticity, but the fact is that with each victory both of them step closer to the final, and then all bets are off.

-

Benny is the first to make it through to the final; Beth follows half an hour later, her opponent taking a long time to finally concede. There’s very little surprise among the other Open attendees, but there is a buzz of excitement about the next day’s match. Benny arrives to watch Beth win her game, and he pulls her into an embrace, calling congratulations, baby loud enough that no one on the entire floor can possibly miss it.

“I am going to fucking destroy you,” he whispers in Beth’s ear as he holds her, the words for her alone.

“Not if I destroy you first,” Beth responds, equally soft, and smacks a kiss to his cheek for their audience.

They have dinner in their room, bored of everyone’s scrutiny, and afterwards Benny eyes her thoughtfully.

“We should go out,” he says.

“Is this your way of sabotaging me for tomorrow?” Beth asks.

“We’ll be back by midnight, a good night’s sleep for us both,” Benny replies. “Will that do?”

Beth considers this. She could keep studying, but she’s playing Benny, and she’s not sure there’s much more she can cram into her brain. She already knows how he plays, and how she plays, and the rest is down to more luck than either of them would like. “We’re in Vegas,” she tells him. “One of us can’t gamble and one of us can’t drink; what else is there to do?”

This is how Beth finds herself in a dance club the night before her US Open Final, accompanied by her opponent, who also happens to be her husband. She wears a new dress she hasn’t found an excuse to wear yet, a rich indigo sleeveless drop waist that she pairs with bold dark eye make-up and low-heeled sandals. Benny’s wearing a soft mid-green shirt she’s not sure she’s ever seen before; it’s not new but it’s more colour than she’s used to seeing on him. The club is larger than the Parisian one was and decorated in a lot more gold, cheesy Vegas all the way, but there’s a live band and they’re good and Benny doesn’t abandon her to the dancefloor this time but comes with her, pulls her close, hips and hands and laughter entwining.

No one else from the Open is here, and if anyone recognises either of them they don’t let on; there’s a peaceful anonymity after all these days of pressure and scrutiny. Beth and Benny are just another of the young couples on the dancefloor, buoyed up by noise and light, free to be anyone at all. Benny becomes someone else here: not her husband, not her rival, just a handsome young man she’s enjoying dancing with, one who neither offers nor asks for more than she can cope with. His body moves and so does hers and that’s all that needs to make sense here.

Later, they drink cold cokes and sit at one of the nightclub tables, watching the people still dancing, the other groups and couples at the surrounding tables. Benny is a little flushed, his hair untidy in a way that would probably annoy him if he knew, the lights shining off his necklaces in a way that makes Beth want to reach out and touch them. She knows that that’s just an effect of the night, of the easy proximity, and reminds herself of Paris, of how it felt when Benny slammed into his bedroom and left her behind. They work surprisingly well together, better than she expected when she agreed to this marriage, but there are some things that don’t work between them and the trick is not to reach for those.

“I thought it would be harder, coming back to Vegas,” she admits. “After everything that happened here.”

“It’s a different place now,” Benny replies. “You’re not coming back to relive your first defeats.”

Beth nods thoughtfully, and then realises that Benny said defeats. “You were the only person I lost to,” she tells him.

“Something happened here,” Benny shrugs. “I told you, I knew you were upset long before I rocked up to tell you shouldn’t have castled.”

Sometimes Beth can still recall what it was like in that hotel room, how she walked in feeling like an adult and left feeling like a child. It’s not Townes’ fault and she accepts that now, that there’s a fondness between them that neither of them truly understood for years, but she was a young woman with a crush she’d been nurturing for years and her heart felt truly broken, a terrible adolescent shattering.

Benny isn’t asking explicitly but his gaze is fixed on her face, probably reading the emotions as Beth’s mind wanders through them. “Townes,” she says at last, and it’s almost worth the effort it takes to say that for the way Benny’s eyebrows lift in surprise. After that, it’s easier to add: “I wanted… and he didn’t.”

It takes Benny a moment to reply; he drains the last of his coke and fidgets with his ring, brow furrowed in the way it does when he’s slotting things into place.

“I did wonder when that happened,” he says, as though Beth has ever mentioned any of the feelings she had for Townes to him, as though this is something casually always known between them. “I imagine you’re not the first woman to make that misinterpretation.”

Beth stays carefully quiet: she’s been carrying Townes’ secret for years and she doesn’t want to say the wrong thing now, just in case.

Benny’s mouth curls at the corners. “One of these days, you’re going to believe me when I tell you I know everything about everyone. Really, I should’ve figured it out when I saw those pictures he took of you, but I didn’t realise they were from the Vegas Open.” He leans over and gently taps the face of Beth’s watch. “Come on, we’ve got a little time before we spontaneously turn into pumpkins.”

He takes Beth’s hand and she lets him lead her back onto the dancefloor, where there is no past and no future, just the music and the rhythm and the warmth of skin bleeding through each other’s clothes.

-

A trickle of sweat runs down Beth’s spine and for the third time in the last minute she wonders if the air conditioning has somehow stopped working. A covert glance beneath her lashes at the spectators tells her that she’s the only one feeling too warm, and she snaps her waning focus back to the board.

The middle game is moving painfully slowly. Benny is playing White to Beth’s Black, and any hopes anyone had of a quick definitive victory have vanished. Beth is currently in possession of all but one of Benny’s pawns, and Benny has both her knights, both of her bishops, and a rook. Benny checked with his queen on move 34 and Beth shifted her rook to intercept it; she was half-expecting him to capture her rook but instead he’s moved his queen to safety and she’s left trying to decide how to proceed. She still has eight pieces left on the board to Benny’s six, but five of hers are pawns. All pawns and no hope drawls a past Benny, and she flexes her shoulders, perhaps trying to shake off his ghost.

Beth moves her rook to meet his queen; maybe he’ll capture, but if he does she can take his queen, and he has no way to take hers in return. She reaches to hit his clock and picks up her half-empty water glass, manages a shaky sip. Everything is simultaneously very vivid and very far away: she can feel where her thin white blouse is starting to stick to her skin, where her heart is beating a little too hard against her ribs. She wishes she’d thought to wear a scarf to keep her hair back: every tickle of it against her face is like a tiny shock.

She risks a look at Benny, even though she knows what every one of his chess-playing expressions means and no interpretation has ever helped her work out which move he’s contemplating. He’s still in his hat, covering most of his face, but his coat has been relegated to the back of his chair and he’s rolled up his shirtsleeves. Beth can’t remember when he did that, wasn’t paying attention to anything but the board, but now her gaze is drawn to the muscles bunching in his forearms, the fine golden hairs caught under the bright lights. She swallows, and fights not to reach for her water glass again.

Benny’s fingers flex, and he moves his queen one more space to momentary safety. He restarts her clock and Beth looks at the time for a moment; they seem to have been playing for hours, years, maybe, but somehow there is still so much time left. She moves her rook to match him, firm and decisive, Benny can be the one to choose if he wants to be reckless or not. She doesn’t look at him as she starts his clock again, keeps her gaze on the board. He hesitates, fingers twitching above the pieces, then moves his queen down the diagonal toward his own rows, hits Beth’s clock again. Beth pushes a pawn, one of the few safe options she still has, and throws decision-making back into Benny’s lap.

This morning, Beth woke up with a pleasing soreness from dancing last night and relaxed from a mercifully unbroken night’s sleep. Sunlight was spilling into the room from a crack in the drapes, and when she rolled over she found Benny was still in bed beside her, expression sleep-crumpled and a little disoriented. They exchanged half-awake smiles and it felt normal – far more normal than it should have done – to be waking up beside each other in their bed. Beth beat Benny to the shower and he’d ordered breakfast when she got out; she drank coffee while she carefully dried her hair and listened to him whistling in the bathroom. They knew the final was today, that they both wanted to win, but neither of them felt the need to mention it. Benny wandered the room in his jeans with his wet hair dripping onto his shoulders and Beth tore holes in two pairs of pantyhose before deciding to go bare-legged with her neat black skirt, and they half-watched each other build themselves back into Beth Harmon and Benny Watts with lipstick and a knife and poise and swagger.

Now, Benny moves his knight to capture one of Beth’s remaining pawns, and she moves another pawn to kick at his other knight. Benny responds by moving his free knight to endanger Beth’s queen, and this time she’s the one who moves to check.

Beth risks a look at Benny, watches his lips press together and his Adam’s apple bob. She looks back at the board, something in her stomach jumping, and not just because she can already see what his next move will inevitably be.

Benny moves his queen next to hers; Beth takes it, and he takes her queen with his bishop. An exchange of queens, and Beth cannot look at him right now, heart pressed up against her ribs.

As she contemplates her next move, Beth shifts in her chair, and realises in shock that she’s wet. Wet enough for her underwear to feel cold and slick, like she’s been sitting here not noticing her arousal for a while. Now that she does, the twisting heat in the bottom of her stomach makes sense, the way everything feels too much, from the smooth varnish on the wooden chess pieces to the way her water glass clinks against her teeth. Every time she looks at Benny it gets worse, and she wonders if her face is half as flushed as she feels.

This isn’t fair. Beth can play chess through any and all emotions, has won drugged and won drunk and won angry and won upset. She suddenly remembers an article she once read about a female chess player who was in the first pangs of love and withdrew from a tournament because she was so distracted and knew she couldn’t play, and Beth pitied her, congratulated herself on how she’d never fall prey to anything like that. But now she sits here with hundreds of eyes on her and every time she looks at the man sitting opposite her she feels more like she’s going to burst out of her skin any second. She takes in a slow breath through her nose, then another one, and instead of calming her all she can smell is Benny’s cologne, the one that’s filled their hotel room, their apartment, her life this year.

Squeezing her thighs together and praying she can pull together some focus, Beth moves her rook to fork Benny’s knights, hopes that she just looks like she’s concentrating hard on the game and nothing else. She could take a bathroom break, there’s enough time on her clock: she could splash cold water on her face and neck, take a few breaths without an audience, and maybe even- she screws her eyes shut, forcibly pushing away the mental image of locking herself in a bathroom stall, sliding a hand into her sodden underwear, trying to take the edge off this badly-timed desire. She can’t leave the game to do that, and she certainly wouldn’t be able to come back afterwards even if nobody knew. It occurs to her that Benny would know, and somehow that thought is worse than all of the other ones.

When she trusts herself to open her eyes again, Benny is pulling one of his knights to safety. There’s the slightest of shakes in his hand; so subtle Beth’s sure that no one watching can tell, but she has played hundreds of games against him by now. She nudges her rook forward another row, stalking her prey like the tiger Benny likes to refer to her as, and gives him another covert look. She still can’t see most of his expression, the hat tilted over his face, but he’s leaning forward enough that his barely buttoned shirt is gaping open more than usual, necklaces shining against the bared skin, and Beth thinks she catches sight of a nipple. For some reason, this is her final straw; she curls her fingers into her palms, digs her nails in hard, hoping this will clear her mind. Yes, Beth enjoys sex, and she’s been alone for a long time – but she’s an adult, she knows perfectly well how to run herself a hot bath and where to touch to elicit a decent and efficient orgasm. She’s never been distracted like this before and it’s frustrating and embarrassing and just plain fucking stupid.

Benny rescues his other knight and some automatic part of Beth responds by snapping up his remaining pawn. He reaches to take one of hers with his bishop and Beth looks back at their clocks to see that no matter how crawlingly slow this game feels, there’s still too long left. She doesn’t know how to win, doesn’t know how to corral her remaining pieces to back Benny into a corner, doesn’t know anything right now except that she wants to be somewhere else where no one at all can see her. Benny is fidgeting with his rings, first with the signet, then with the wedding, then back to the signet again. Beth looks at those fingers and thinks about them closing around her arms, thinks about them sliding inside her, thinks about them lacing with hers as he pulled her onto the dancefloor last night. She’d assume it was a deliberate tactic of his, to take her out and get her thoroughly confused, except that if that were the case Benny would have won by now, wouldn’t be playing with his jewellery, his mouth working like it does when he’s trapped and annoyed.

Finally, Beth moves a pawn to kick Benny’s bishop. She’s not sure it’s the smartest move but she can’t see a better one. She won’t concede and she doesn’t want to lose but she can see them circling around each other on this board the way they circle around each other in reality, closer and closer but never close enough. They’ve been pretending to be in a relationship for six months now, false smiles and connected hands and meaningless kisses – except that no matter how many times they kiss, claiming each time that it’s nothing new, it’s as simple as actors pretending, it never gets any easier. Every time Benny kisses her, Beth never wants him to stop, that strange sharp lust they discovered while needling each other at the US Open in Sixty-Seven stringing on and on, sometimes worse but never better.

Benny licks his lips and Beth’s gaze is drawn to them; she’s probably openly staring but she can’t stop herself, it’s all she can do to sit still in her wet underwear, glad that her skirt is dark so the damp won’t show, teeth gritted and knuckles whitening.

“Adjourn,” Benny says, his voice strained and breaking on the single word.

Relief floods through Beth’s body, though as she relaxes a little she realises just how sensitive and shaky she is, and she’s glad Benny cracked because she wouldn’t and even if she would she doesn’t trust herself to speak.

Murmuring breaks out amongst the spectators, soft but still too loud in Beth’s ringing ears, and she watches Benny accept a pad and pen, scribble down his next move. When it’s been sealed in an official envelope until tomorrow, Beth gets up and leaves, not looking at anyone, tunnel vision for the nearest elevator so she can shut herself in her room until this all stops, until she has a plan for what the hell she’s going to do.

-

Once the hotel room door slams behind her Beth pulls off her sandals, throwing them aside, and frantically undoes the top half of her blouse’s buttons. It doesn’t really help but her mind feels thick and panicked and wanting, and she’s free-falling so hard she can’t think about what she wants or needs to do right now. There’s a chess board laid out on the table, pieces neatly set up for a game, and the thought of trying to recreate the ugly mess they’ve been building downstairs is like a blow to the head. Beth leans on the table, looking down at the pieces all smugly lined up, hair falling around her hot cheeks. She closes her eyes and takes a few deep sharp breaths, looking for a clarity she no longer seems to possess.

Beth jumps when the hotel room door bangs open and, right, this isn’t her private room. She spins around to find Benny standing hesitantly in the doorway before he takes a step inside and lets the door close behind him.

“I’ll talk to the hotel,” he says raggedly, “I don’t want anyone thinking we were colluding all night to organise the game’s outcome, they’ll have another room I can sleep in.”

She just stares at him, at his hands shoved deep in the pockets of his leather coat, his gaze darting around and never landing on her.

“‘Colluding’?” she echoes.

“We probably shouldn’t be up here together now,” Benny tells her, “you know what gossips chess players are, they’ll accuse us of rigging the game.”

The edge of the table is digging into the back of Beth’s legs and she can’t look away from Benny biting his lips together, throat working.

“Is that what they’re thinking?” Beth asks. “That we’ve come up here and sat down with the board to do that all over again?”

Benny’s shoulders, already tense, seem to stiffen further. “Beth,” he says thickly.

“Everyone’s favourite newlyweds, diligently working to cheat,” Beth continues recklessly for the way Benny’s expression tightens. “Playing endless games of chess all night. That’s what they’re all thinking.”

“Don’t,” Benny manages, barely above a whisper.

Beth reaches blindly behind her and shoves the game off the table, the board hitting the floor louder than she expected, pieces flying everywhere, and she doesn’t even blink.

“Beth.” He sounds like he’s pleading now.

She’s only half aware of what she’s doing but she can’t stay feeling like this, can’t sit down at that table tomorrow to keep playing this fucking shitshow of a game if she spends tonight pacing this room while somewhere else in this hotel Benny paces his. She can’t.

“Benny,” she says, a tease and a taunt and a challenge and a request, all of it and none of it. She leans back on her hands, cocks a hip.

“Fuck.” Benny bites off the word, swift and hard, ripping his gaze from hers. “Fuck.”

Beth says nothing, and waits.

This cannot be their careers, the couple who can no longer play against each other because stick them both under the spotlight with everything on the line and they’re both so turned on they can’t focus, there’s probably some kind of damage control they’ll have to concoct after this, but Beth doesn’t care. Benny tosses his hat aside, shrugs out of his coat and tosses that too, maybe the only time she’s ever seen him not lovingly hang it up, and Beth realises why he put it back on for the trip back upstairs: in his already obscenely tight jeans the outline of his erection is painfully clear, much less easy to hide than Beth’s sticky underwear. It takes him maybe four strides to clear the space between them, to pull Beth away from the table and crush their mouths together.

Considering it all with hindsight, Beth thought that there would never be anything like their first time together: Beth had neatly stripped Benny of his ego and his rent money in front of his friends and his ex-girlfriend, teasing because she enjoyed the reluctant admiration in his eyes, the way he came back for more even though he knew he shouldn’t, pushing it because she wanted to, because she was still smarting from him telling her to forget about sex. When they finally came together it was like a wildfire, passionate and furious and urgent, hands and teeth and skin and need blurring together. It was damn good on several occasions after that, but nothing was like that first time, twisted to a fever pitch.

This is worse than that, worse than anything; Beth thinks Benny might be trying to devour her whole and she’s only too willing to let him, sharing deep hungry kisses that make her lips hurt, her arms wound around his neck with her hand fisted in his hair so he can’t get away from her, can’t pull back this time. His hands are on her hips where, as always, they fit like that’s the only place they’re supposed to be, gripping too hard and it’s perfect. Benny’s teeth sink into her lower lip and Beth hears herself gasp, his tongue pressing to the sore spot for a moment before he does it again; she pulls his hair in response, wanting as much sensation as possible, wanting him to overwhelm her entirely.

When their hips collide Benny groans into Beth’s mouth, a desperate sound she wants to capture and keep forever, and he grinds against her, cock hard against her hip, hands skimming up her sides to pull her blouse free from where it’s been tucked into her skirt. His hands are warm against her ribs and Beth pushes into them, still claiming greedy, breathless kisses that she can’t get enough of, isn’t sure she’ll ever be able to get enough of. She wants Benny touching her everywhere, every inch of her that sat through that damn game shivering with sheer mindless want, making a broken sound of her own when his thumb grazes the underside of her bra. Benny staggers a little where she’s pressed up against him and Beth ends up pushed into the table again; she takes the time to pull away and drag Benny’s stupid shirt up and off, he undoes so many buttons it’s barely worth him even bothering to wear it, every part of his exposed chest a reminder that Beth knows exactly what his skin feels like.

Momentarily separated, Benny stares at Beth. His eyes are so, so dark, pupils blown wide and black, and her red lipstick is smeared all over his face; she suspects that she looks similar and it would be funny except that Beth likes that she’s marked him like this, like when he kissed her in Boston but more, wearing the slightest smudge of her mouth in all the victory photographs they took of him. He’s panting, the breath kissed out of him, and all Beth can think is something incoherent and needy before he leans down again, lips parting against her neck. Beth lets herself touch him, all that warm bared skin just for her, fingers tangling with his necklaces, mapping her territory. When she runs light nails up his back Benny groans, sucks the skin over her pulse until she’s the one groaning, the table creaking ominously behind and beneath her.

Beth leans back further, opens her legs so Benny can stand between them, and there’s too many layers, the denim of Benny’s jeans rasping against the lighter fabric of her skirt, both of them too frantic to find a good angle. Everything is too much and not enough, Benny kissing the sensitive skin behind her ear because he knows that undoes her, Beth refamiliarising herself with every jump of his back muscles under her palms, the way his breath shudders when she grabs him just right. The table makes another worrying sound and Benny pulls Beth against him just in time for it to crash to the floor too, much louder than the chess set was. Beth doesn’t even try to look, just drags Benny’s swollen mouth back to hers as he pushes her until her back thumps into the wall. This is better: Benny can pin her there, hips grinding, and Beth can concentrate on kissing him breathless, drinking every sound he makes when his cock slides against her.

It’s too soon when Benny pulls away, swiping the back of his hand across his face in a way that doesn’t do a whole lot for the lipstick she’s gotten all over him, and sinks to his knees. Beth’s breath catches in her chest as he runs his hands up her legs, leaving trails of gooseflesh everywhere he touches, until he can hook his fingers in her drenched underwear and pull them down. Beth barely gets a chance to step free before he’s rolling up her skirt, smudging open-mouthed kisses up the inside of her thighs, his facial hair tickling her skin. She tries to reach to undo her skirt but Benny is already pressing her hips harder into the wall with one hand and squeezing the back of her leg with the other until she shifts and he can throw one of her thighs over his shoulder.

Beth’s head thuds back hard enough for it to hurt when Benny buries his face in her wet cunt; she lets out a ragged helpless noise as her nails scrape the wall behind her, a shred of the wallpaper catching beneath one, and this room will have that little torn imperfection when they’re gone, a reminder that Beth stood right here while Benny ate her like a starving man. He’s a slim guy, downright skinny from certain angles, but there’s a strength in the way he supports her body, shoulder pressing into her thigh to keep her spread wide so he can kiss her as thoroughly between her legs as he did her mouth. Beth wants to see him but her bunched-up skirt is in the way; she gropes until she can knot her fingers in the back of his hair, an extra point of connection like her skin isn’t burning everywhere they touch already. Benny groans against her and the feel of it is glorious; Beth hears herself whining, can’t seem to stop, and Benny runs his tongue the length of her cunt before he concentrates on sucking her clit and it’s so much that she has to screw her eyes shut, colours exploding across her vision.

She tries to shift her hips but the angle is all wrong, and Benny’s grip tightens to hold her still and maybe also upright; she resigns herself to staying put while he laps at her, lips and tongue and the slightest briefest hint of teeth. At least he isn’t teasing, they’re so far beyond that, and she’s been tense for so long that it’s almost a surprise when the want in her stomach finally uncoils and bursts, Benny’s tongue sliding inside her enough to finally crack her open and she comes, shouting something incoherent, clutching at his hair tight enough to make him whimper, the vibrations only making the whole thing better.

When Beth can open her eyes again Benny is still kneeling in front of her, grinning up at her fierce and wild and just a little smug. His face is shining with her arousal and his mouth is pink from friction and the remains of her lipstick, and he looks so good and so perfect that Beth can’t believe for a second that this is happening, that they haven’t been doing this constantly for years.

“Get up here,” she manages shakily and Benny pushes himself upright, knees cracking, grin spreading, and Beth’s the one to pull him into her and kiss the taste of herself from his lips. Benny’s the only person she’s ever done this with; well, Benny’s the only person who’s ever done anything to her that wasn’t disappointing missionary, and the first time he made her come with his mouth Beth thought she might be about to die, the sensation was so good and so much. He didn’t kiss her afterwards, seemed careful about leaning away from her, but Beth thought about it and decided she didn’t care and kissed him instead, enjoying the startled sound he made against her lips as she explored their joined tastes with her tongue. It’s been years since they last did this but it hasn’t changed; Benny clutches her against him and Beth lets him hold her upright, her legs trembling with aftershocks.

“Bed?” Benny suggests eventually and Beth nods. When he pulls away from her and she looks around she can see where they’ll be paying the hotel for a new table and it’s possible that she’ll owe Benny a new chessboard too, but none of that matters right now as Beth fumbles for the zipper of her skirt and lets it fall around her feet. She’ll never be able to wear it again but that seems like a small sacrifice for the sound Benny makes as he looks at her, watches her open the last few buttons of her blouse and throw that aside too. She nods at him and his hands fall to his jeans, to where his cock is somehow even more pronounced. Beth swallows, and wants, and it takes her three goes to unhook her bra, kicking a pawn out of the way as she walks across to sprawl on top of the covers.

Benny looks down at her for what feels like an endless moment, lips parted and eyes huge, before Beth reaches out a hand and he takes it, lets her drag him down on top of her. His warm weight is comforting, skin against skin everywhere, and Beth rubs her sore hard nipples against his chest for the sleek friction, hooks a leg around his. His cock presses into her stomach and he sucks in a breath through his teeth when Beth rolls her hips.

“Not yet,” he murmurs, pulling back enough to cup one of her breasts, his hair a wreck from her hands. He circles her nipple with his thumb and Beth whines, encouraging, and he watches her avidly, the way he does when he’s trying a new chess move for the first time, memorising every detail to think about later.

Benny,” Beth demands, impatient; her orgasm has not only failed to take the edge off but has made the desperate hunger inside her worse, every second Benny isn’t all over her is a second wasted. Benny rolls his eyes, expression fond, but then he ducks down to take her other nipple into his mouth and that’s better, that’s so much better; Beth squirms against him until he shifts to do the same thing to the other one, hands caressing everywhere his lips aren’t, and maybe later Beth will be ashamed of the noises he draws out of her but right now she doesn’t care in the slightest.

Benny finally eases away from her breasts, smoothing messy kisses down her chest, her ribs, her stomach. Beth finally realises where he’s headed when he pauses to suck a bruise into her right hip.

“I can’t,” she tells him, “not so soon.”

“You fucking well can,” Benny responds, hard. “You sat opposite me for that whole game with your pink cheeks and sparkling eyes and luscious goddamn mouth and all I could think about was what if I crawled under the table in front of all those people and stuck my face between your thighs, would it finally crack your poise if I put my tongue inside you, just round and round in my head for forty-four fucking moves.”

Beth sucks a breath into lungs that seem to have forgotten how to. “Maybe you should’ve done it,” she says.

“Next time,” he replies, a threat and a promise, and oh fuck, they have to go back tomorrow and play through the wreckage of that stupid game, and none of it matters because Benny is pushing her lipstick-and-desire-smeared thighs apart to lay butterfly-soft kisses on and around her cunt, half teasing, half worship.

It’s almost too much, the warmth of his mouth, the pressure of his tongue; Beth moans and tries to shift away and he throws an arm over her stomach to hold her in place, bites the inside of her thigh in a way that has her shuddering. Her hands return to his hair, to his stupid blonde hair that falls over his face in a way she hates that she’s always found mesmerising, and she tugs him closer to where she wants him, breath tumbling out of her when he gives in and runs his tongue over her clit. Beth has no idea if he’s good at this in the grand scheme of things, if there are other men out there who could get between her thighs and make her feel better than this, but she can’t imagine it, can’t imagine anything that could feel more incredible than Benny thoroughly and insistently working her over with his mouth, responding to every sound she makes. He’s more unhurried this time and it takes longer but it’s worth it as he slowly fucks her with his tongue, transforming every tug on his hair into a low groan that she can feel, writhing against his face with gradual heat unfurling through her whole body.

She swears repeatedly, the words spilling into each other until they’re meaningless, Benny relentless and determined no matter what sound she lets out; c’mon he whispers before he wraps his lips around her clit, sucking sharp and hard and so good, and Beth’s back arches off the bed when she comes for him, shivers of hot and cold running through her whole body. His hands are all over her, soothing her through it, and when she can breathe again she pulls him in for a sticky kiss, his bruised lips tender against hers. She reaches down his body, curls her hand around his cock, remembering the way he likes to be touched.

Fuck,” he groans, pulling away from her mouth to bury his face in the curve of her shoulder. His sweat-damp hair against her cheek, Beth carries on working his cock, his entire body twitching, breath erratic. She can feel where he’s leaking onto her stomach, how his hips rock in increments toward her, and even over-sensitive and a little shaky, she wants.

“Benny-” she begins, and he shakes his head, face still buried in her neck.

“We can’t,” he tells her.

Beth stills, lets go of him. “If you don’t want-”

“I want,” Benny cuts her off, voice tight, raising his head for her to see his flushed face, his bright dark eyes, “but I don’t have a rubber. Do you?”

There’s a sharpness in his demand but Beth can tell there’s no real anger in it; more frustrated desire, and fuck, why didn’t either of them see this coming? For a moment she thinks about telling him they should do it anyway, she wants him inside her that damn much, but he’s right: they can’t do this without protection, all it takes is one time and a pregnancy would be inconvenient for Benny but would derail her entire life. Beth shuts her eyes and scrabbles for contingency plans: there must be drugstores nearby, or maybe they can ring the front desk, it’s Vegas, but then Beth thinks about sitting on the phone and asking someone to bring up a condom so she can fuck her husband and no, nope, it makes something inside her fold over and die.

Benny has a strip of condoms that he doesn’t use in his nightstand in New York, and they are two thousand miles away and he didn’t bring them with him; why would he have done? Their marriage isn’t a real one.

“Okay,” Beth says slowly, both of them aware that the wrong word could crack this apart now an edge of reality has intruded, “tell me what you need.”

Benny curls his fingers around her wrist, pulls her hand back to wrap it around his cock. “Are you sure?” Beth asks. “I can return the favour.”

“Your mouth is going to be very busy,” Benny informs her solemnly, and then he’s kissing her again, another one of those deep, insatiable kisses that Beth feels right down to her bones. She concentrates on trying to keep an even rhythm with her hand while Benny sucks her tongue and nips at her lips and generally drives her insane. He lets out little moans periodically, the head of his cock brushing against her from time to time, and Beth squeezes harder, wanting to feel him come for her, it’s been so long since she last made him fall apart.

He pulls away from their kiss in the end, panting for air, and hisses her name before he’s spilling over her fist, splashing her stomach, eyes open until they screw closed. Beth watches him, the way everything but pleasure falls from his face, a memory she picks up and swiftly puts back down again from time to time. He looks just as good as he always did.

The silence is suddenly very loud; Beth thinks she can hear her heart pounding, or maybe that’s his, and their breathing is erratic and overlapping and messy. Sweat is cooling on her skin but Benny is warm everywhere that they touch, and Beth wants him to kiss her again and knows that he won’t. This moment is a bubble, one that will burst any second, and neither of them know how to stop it.

“You can take first shower,” Benny offers at last, his voice a low rasp, and Beth doesn’t want to pull out of his arms even with her stomach covered in dried come and her thighs starting to stick together. Everything becomes too real when she gets off this bed, they go back to being themselves, and there’s a US Open final adjourned downstairs that they still have to play through tomorrow, sexual tension broken but everything else still intact.

“Thanks,” she says and disentangles herself from him, doesn’t look back when she heads for the bathroom because she’s not sure what she’ll do if she does.

Beth turns up the shower to burning hot, is brisk and efficient about getting herself clean, her soapy hands uncovering a range of places where she’ll have bruises and marks tomorrow; she hopes there’s something in her wardrobe that will cover everything, this has all been humiliating enough. She scrubs at her face, the remnants of lipstick and her smudged mascara sloughing off easily, and carefully washes herself between her legs, her every touch reminding her of Benny. She feels sore and wrung-out and fragile and holy, she’s not had orgasms like that in years, not even the most vivid memory was accurate against how good Benny can make her feel, but they can’t hide in this hotel room forever.

Benny offers her a rueful smile and Beth keeps her eyes on his face as they exchange places, the bathroom door locking behind him.

Both the overturned table and the chess board are cracked, but Benny has uprighted them, all the scattered pieces laid out neatly, and if you narrow your eyes to the damage then maybe none of this happened after all. Beth gathers her sweaty clothes from earlier, bundles them up and shoves them into the hotel room trash can, spends a moment running a fingertip over the streak of missing wallpaper, and then pulls on a pair of casual slacks and a simple t-shirt, pushes her feet into loafers.

Annoying though it is, Benny is right: Beth isn’t sure how long they’ve been holed up here, whether it was minutes or hours, but she doesn’t want everyone thinking that they’re working out how to play through the game or that they’re so unprofessional that they had to drop everything and come up here for sex. It’s proximity, Beth thinks; they’ve just had each other these last two weeks, if Townes or Levertov or the twins were here, this wouldn’t have happened, they’d have remembered the real world and their place in it. She and Benny need to be seen in public, need to be seen apart so that everyone knows that they’re serious about the final tomorrow, that nothing has changed.

She ties up her untidy hair, grabs a notebook and a strategy book at random, and heads out into the main hotel before the shower water shuts off. To do anything else would be dangerous, would be impossible.

-

Chapter Text

“Would you like anything to drink?” asks the friendly stewardess, perfect lipstick and a white-toothed grin.

Benny starts to wave her away but Beth sits up from where she’s been pretending to doze against the window.

“A scotch on the rocks,” she says, and the stewardess makes a note and turns to the people across the aisle.

“Fuck the wagon, huh?” Benny asks dryly.

“It’s for you,” Beth replies, shrugging.

Benny eyes her. It’s the first time they’ve really looked at each other in hours and it makes Beth’s teeth grit, subtle enough that maybe even he won’t notice. Benny looks haggard, exhausted; she can only imagine how she looks.

“I don’t want a scotch,” Benny says, although there’s no force in it and he doesn’t attempt to call the stewardess back.

“I wanna watch you drink it,” Beth tells him.

Benny is the first to blink; he tips his head back against his seat and lets out a long sigh through his teeth. “You know what? Okay.”

Sitting at that angle, the collar of his shirt flapping open, Beth can see a dark purple bruise on his neck. She doesn’t remember the specifics of giving it to him, but she knows that she did, desperate to claw and clutch and mark and maim. Now, she thinks if she were that close to his jugular again, she’d just go straight for ripping it out with her teeth.

They drift back into their shared sullen silence, barely broken since yesterday afternoon, and wait for the stewardess to return. It doesn’t take her long; her smile hasn’t shifted as she places down a paper coaster with a flourish and adds a tumbler of ice and scotch on top of it. Beth scrapes a smile together for her and when she’s gone puts the whole lot onto Benny’s table. Benny looks at it, mouth twisting.

“Why scotch?” he asks at last.

Beth looks at the amber-coloured liquid, the ice just starting to melt. Her throat burns a little, her fingers twitch, but it’s okay.

“I don’t like it,” she replies.

“Ah.” Benny doesn’t move to pick up the glass. “Did it occur to you to wonder if I like it?”

“I don’t care if you like it,” Beth says simply.

Benny’s mouth curls into one of his half-smiles. “Right. Of course.”

He picks up the tumbler and takes a sip. Beth watches avidly: the liquid sloshing, the clink of the ice cubes, the way he swallows, throat working, the slick of liquid on his mouth when he puts the glass back down again. She tried scotch once, years ago, thinking something about sophistication or perhaps matching the men around her drink for drink, but while the burn was good the taste left a lot to be desired. Now, she looks at the alcohol and wants it because she wants the world to stop, but the thought of forcing herself to drink it turns her stomach.

“That’s not bad, actually,” Benny says, sounding faintly surprised. He takes another sip, a bigger one, and sighs. “Jesus fucking Christ.”

“I know,” Beth agrees.

Benny scrubs a hand over his face; he looks like he hasn’t slept in a couple of days and it wouldn’t surprise Beth if he hadn’t. She managed a couple of hours last night but it was nowhere near enough, and everything feels fuzzy and jagged at the edges.

“One hundred and fourteen moves,” Benny sighs, and the third mouthful of scotch looks like it goes down very smoothly. “I’ll never live this down.”

“They’ll have already started analysing it,” Beth says gloomily. “It’ll go international, everyone will know.”

“I can feel my ranking sinking by the minute,” Benny says, picking up the glass again.

“Mine too,” Beth reminds him.

Benny takes another long drink of scotch, catches a drop at the corner of his mouth with his tongue. “Right now, I don’t really care about your ranking, Beth.”

Beth considers this, and nods. “That’s fair.”

This is the problem with their shared bitter humiliation: they’re mostly angry at themselves, but there’s plenty left over for each other. From certain angles, it’s like camaraderie. From others, it’s nothing but knives. Beth sits quietly and watches the drink in Benny’s glass vanish at a surprisingly swift rate, while he plays with his signet ring and stares straight ahead and doesn’t turn to look at her. Some of the tension looks like it might be starting to seep out of his shoulders, even if his mouth is still tight; Beth knew he’d never order a drink for himself, not sitting here next to her, but he looked like he needed it.

US Open Co-Champions 1970. And if that weren’t bad enough, it wasn’t even a definitive final game – it was a long, drawn-out, ugly disintegration to stalemate. Beth’s never played a game like it, in a tournament or out of one. The only good thing about the amount of time that she and Benny took chasing one another around the board is that no one can think that they planned it this way. Beth played fifty-one moves with only a rook and the king in her possession; she can feel this game is going to dog her forever, she’ll roll over in the night and find herself faced with that almost-empty board, see herself evading Benny’s remaining knights and bishop, unable to take him down, refusing to concede. It was gruelling and infuriating and by the time they finally reached a point where there was nowhere left to go, they’d not only beaten the game to death but desecrated its corpse too. Beth was exhausted and shaking with anger, and when she finally looked at Benny for the first time in almost two hours she could see the barely-contained rage in every line of his body.

Beth has always been obsessed by the beauty of chess, the meeting of two minds and the clash of strategies. Her losses are her own fault, but she can eventually appreciate a good move no matter who played it; the board is her kingdom, her world, and all she’s ever loved has been to crawl onto those squares and pull the door shut behind her. She knew going in on the second day that there wasn’t a hope for a win; she’d called Christine during the adjournment and they spent over an hour on the phone looking for a way to crack the game back open to no avail. They’d be fighting to a draw. Beth just hadn’t realised that they’d be so stubborn that they’d abandon all dignity, all grace. It all goes, and you just push wood, Benny said once; it was that, except that this time it was within Beth’s power to make it stop, and she wouldn’t.

The fifty-move rule exists for a reason, and that reason is to prevent what happened yesterday, two players with no hope of winning chasing one another into an eventual stalemate. You can extend it: Beth’s read a 1966 game that drew at move seventy, after neither player had made a single capture in that time. One of the officials should have spoken up; Beth or Benny should have spoken up. One hundred and fourteen moves is a disgrace to the game, to themselves, to the competition. She can’t imagine they’ll be invited to play together anywhere for a long time: no one wants to watch two people give up on strategy and talent and convention and just make fools of themselves for hours. Someone should have stopped them, Beth has decided, but who wanted to get involved? Better to leave them to sink each other.

They shook hands for the cameras and left it at that; Benny had his second hotel room from their adjournment and Beth spent much of the evening throwing her shoes across the room until someone next door finally banged on the wall in annoyance. She breakfasted alone this morning and Benny rocked up as she was debating getting in the cab to the airport and just leaving him in Vegas, his sunglasses firmly in place, wearing yesterday’s creased shirt and smelling strongly of cigar smoke and the artificial chlorinated scent that even Beth knows casinos use to try and mask the constant stench of booze and cigarettes.

“Did you win?” she asked.

“I did not,” Benny replied shortly.

Beth was the one to collect both of their winners’ cheques, so she let it go. Whatever he left behind on the baize of Vegas, it wasn’t enough to bankrupt him.

Now, trapped on the plane for another five and a half hours, Benny raises a hand and indicates that he’d like another scotch.

“Really?” Beth asks.

“That one was for you,” Benny tells her. “This one is for me.”

Beth knows that Benny hates being drunk, but he’s never had an actual problem with drinking. As far as Beth can tell, right now he’s pouring booze straight into an empty stomach after a sleepless night spent losing at the card tables, but she doesn’t know how to stop him and wouldn’t be particularly interested in helping even if she did. She’s clinging to sobriety with something grim and something resentful, because there will be an invitation to Russia in the near future and she will be accepting it.

Don’t they deliver the mail in Kentucky? asks a past version of Benny, and a past version of Beth reaches across to brush his hair out of his eyes like she’s wanted to for days, the taste of beer on her tongue and the wry curl of his mouth in defeat finally letting her do it.

Three years later, in the sky somewhere between New York and Vegas, Benny takes a deep swallow of scotch and every time Beth shifts in her seat she can feel a bruise on her inner thigh, awkwardly high and intimate, and it reminds her that their whole trip to Vegas was maybe worse than it was the first time she went, when at least she had Alma to hold her hand in the back of a taxi cab on the way home.

“You’re looking at me like everyone else does,” Beth tells him.

“Weren’t you pretending to be asleep?” Benny snaps, and when Beth doesn’t turn away adds: “I’m not looking at you at all, Beth.”

Beth scoffs, irritated. “When I’m winning competitions, everyone looks at me with these sad resentful eyes, like I should be sorry for being good at chess, like I should have pulled my punches and let them win or at least keep some dignity. You’ve never looked at me like that, no matter what I’ve done to you.”

Benny’s head drops back, and he closes his eyes. “I just played the worst game of my life,” he says. “Forgive me if I’m not in the mood to preserve your ego, I’m busy trying to shore up my own.”

“Right,” Beth responds, “because you have such low self-esteem, I keep forgetting, you hide it so well.”

Benny huffs a sigh. “Yes, I’m angry with you,” he allows. “I’m also angry with myself, with every single person who stood there and watched us battle through that goddamn quicksand, and with whoever the fuck built Vegas in the first place. It’s not an exclusive club.”

Beth watches him drink his scotch and offers: “now, this is what I figured marriage would be like. Everyone mad and no one talking about it and at least one person drinking some kind of fancy liquor.”

Benny allows her a crooked half-smile. “Do you want to talk about it? Because I sure as hell don’t. You didn’t win and I didn’t win and it took us hours and one hundred and fourteen moves to drag the limp carcass of whatever point we were trying to prove far enough for the rules to put us out of our misery. And when we get back to New York I’m gonna have to lay it all out and play through it again, and then again, and again after that, because if I don’t exorcise every last move I’m going to lose my fucking mind.”

Beth lets out a long, slow breath. “No,” she agrees, “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Good.” Benny looks down at the rapidly-disappearing drink in his glass, swirls it to make the ice cubes clink together. “Are you done?”

“Am I done?” Beth demands, only remembering at the last second that the plane is mostly full and dropping her voice. “All you’ve done on this flight is complain at me.”

“I was quite happy when you were faking sleep so we didn’t have to do this,” Benny tells her. “But then you had to start demanding I drink your alcohol for you, you know how fucked-up that is?”

“You spent last night throwing away money you don’t have,” Beth responds, “or am I supposed to be pretending that I didn’t notice that?”

“Don’t be a brat, Beth,” Benny tells her, low and hard.

Beth bites her lips together, reminds herself that they’re trapped in the plane for several more hours, and that unlike in Benny’s shitty little car they’ll also have a captive audience if they’re not careful. She woke from a couple of crumpled hours of sleep today to find that she’d rolled into Benny’s abandoned side of the bed, face pressed into his pillow that smelled like him, that made her stomach roil with annoyance and something else entirely. When they finally land, there are far too many consequences to face.

When Beth says nothing, Benny drains the glass, leans into the aisle to wave at the stewardess for another.

“Who’s this one for?” Beth snips.

Benny’s mouth twists. “Luck,” he says.

“‘Luck’ is a loser’s word,” Beth reminds him.

“Yeah,” Benny agrees with savage cheerfulness, “I know.”

-

Jolene calls an hour and a half after they get back into the apartment; Beth is drinking black coffee because there’s nothing to add to it in the kitchen and she doesn’t want to go back out again, and Benny is shut in his room, hopefully sleeping but probably not. Beth has showered off the clinical smell of the plane’s recycled air and has changed into clean clothes and is hoping that if she keeps acting like she’s fine then maybe she might start feeling it.

“Sorry,” is the first thing Jolene says when Beth picks up. “You want to talk about it?”

Beth casts a look at Benny’s closed door, and then remembers that they’re not speaking to each other right now anyway, haven’t spoken since Benny got his third scotch and Beth decided to take his advice and go back to pretending to be asleep. She might have drifted off once or twice but mostly spent the time staying entirely still, playing through their post-adjournment game against her eyelids. Every single stupid move, every place she could have sacrificed herself for a quick end to it and wouldn’t, not looking up, not looking around, not looking at Benny, just staring at the handful of pieces they were pushing around that got worse every time she blinked and they were still there. They’d been too distracted on the first day, let the game fall apart, and there was nothing to salvage when they came back on the second day, focused and ready. Or something almost like it.

“I don’t know if I want to talk about it,” Beth admits. “Did you read a report?”

“Not the technical shit,” Jolene replies, a shrug in her voice. “I read the part where it took you two days and an insane number of moves and neither of you won.”

“Yeah,” Beth says. She sighs, long and heavy. “I’m so mad, Jolene.”

“I know,” Jolene tells her. “They printed photos too. Your cowboy’s lucky he made it home in one piece.” She coughs. “I mean, I assume he made it home in one piece?”

“He did,” Beth confirms. “Anything he does now is his own fault.”

Everything he does is his own fault,” Jolene corrects her. There’s a long pause. “Anything else you wanna talk about?” she asks.

Beth thinks about it. “No,” she says.

“You sure?”

Beth frowns. “What are you looking for?” she asks.

“Oh,” Jolene says, “come on, Beth. I may not understand all the stuff with pawns and knights but the part where the paper says: ‘the first day had a ferocious intensity, the competitors barely able to take their eyes off each other’ – I know what that part means.”

“Did you have that ready to quote at me?” Beth demands, playing for time.

“I did,” Jolene confirms. “And then you chose to play in matching black turtlenecks the next day; sure, of course, everyone wears those in Vegas in July. Maybe the newspaper knew what they were reporting and maybe they didn’t but I knew the second I read it.”

Fuck,” Beth says. It seems to be the only thing she has left to say these days. Jolene stays silent, but there’s an expectation in it. “It was an accident,” Beth offers weakly.

“I hope not,” Jolene replies. “I’m not ready to be Aunt Jolene yet.”

“Not that kind of accident,” Beth tells her quickly. “Just. We didn’t plan it.”

Jolene makes a thoughtful humming sound. “But it was good, though,” she says after a moment.

Beth chokes. “What- I didn’t even-”

“If it was bad, you’d have said ‘mistake’,” Jolene tells her. “I’m gonna be a damn good lawyer, you know word choice is important.”

“There was a time when I didn’t have you or Benny interpreting every little thing I said or did,” Beth sighs. “And it was much less annoying than this is.”

“You were also downing pills like they were candies,” Jolene points out. “So this is better.”

“Is it,” Beth says.

“How’s Benny taking all this?”

Beth thinks about it, and then settles on the truth. “He’s mad at himself for the mess we made of the final, and he’s mad at me for the mess we made of the final, and then I got him drunk on the flight home. Honestly, I don’t think the fact we had sex is even a big deal in the scheme of things.”

Jolene sighs. “Oh, Beth. Every time I think we’re getting somewhere with you, you go and say shit like that.”

“We used to have sex all the time!” Beth says.

She kind of doesn’t blame Jolene for bursting into laughter; she worries about the pitch of her voice and cranes awkwardly off the couch to check that Benny’s bedroom door is still shut.

“You’re not helping,” Beth tells her.

Amusement is still threaded through Jolene’s voice when she says: “okay, the two of you are going to pick over this game for weeks, and if you want to do that shit ‘til you go crazy, then do it, but promise me you’ll also talk about the sex thing.”

Beth winds the phone cord around her finger. “I don’t think there’s anything to talk about,” she mumbles.

“If it wasn’t terrible, there’s something to talk about,” Jolene replies, firm. “You’ll thank me for this later.”

Beth is pretty sure that she won’t, but acquiesces anyway.

However Benny is or is not feeling, and whatever he is or is not doing right now, he’s shut himself out of the room that has the record player in it. Beth takes advantage of this to lie on the rug and listen to Janis Joplin, periodically picking up the phone to journalists with questions she doesn’t want to answer, dropping the handset back down again instead of saying a word. She’ll blame it on Benny later if anyone gets huffy. There’s nothing to say: in a lot of ways Beth remembers feeling this way after Paris, like she’d been handed something important and instead of treating it properly, she’d dropped it.

Outside the windows, New York carries on, uncaring; periodically there are sirens, cars honking at each other, but they’re much further away than they were when Beth was sleeping on an inflatable mattress below street level, half-waking to stripes of headlights in the middle of the night. There are so many people here, piled up on top of each other, all living and screwing up and carrying on, anonymous and endless, none of them thinking about Beth as she shifts pieces across the ceiling and periodically rolls onto her side, pressing her face into the carpet in sheer embarrassment that she played like that, played like that where everyone could see.

Honey, I tell you that I was very, very blind, oh, but I’m just a girl, Janis sings, heart in her words and her mouth, and Beth plays through conceding sixty different ways, each one more dignified than that final, last stalemate. She’d have been annoyed with herself, angrier with Benny if she’d suggested a draw or just plain lost, but at least she’d still have her self-respect. That’s the problem, beneath the bitterness and the fury and the messiness of it all: Beth is ashamed.

-

“If you’re thinking of moving onto Levertov’s couch, it’s very uncomfortable,” Benny warns.

For once, Beth is up before him; she’s run down to the nearest bodega for groceries, has eaten an approximation of breakfast and drunk three cups of coffee, and now she’s picking through her half of their chess library for anything she wants to take another look at. She clawed together a plan late last night and has managed some sleep and even if everything still feels a little bit like it’s unravelling faster than she can grab it back she has something to aim for and that’s enough for now.

“I’m going home,” Beth explains. “I called the airport and there’s a flight in a couple hours.”

Maybe Benny is a better poker player than his turbulent moods will let him be, because his expression doesn’t flicker.

“Your show wrapped up for the summer?” he asks, sitting down on the arm of the couch.

Beth nods. “I filmed a couple of extra segments before we left for Vegas anyway, they don’t need me for a while.”

“So you can retreat to Kentucky to lick your wounds,” Benny says. Beth stiffens but runs through his words and tone twice and can’t find anything sharp in them. “It makes sense,” he adds, as Beth turns her attention back to the bookcase.

“I think we could probably do with getting away from each other for a while,” she says carefully.

Benny makes a sort of humming noise that might be confirmation, and Beth thinks that it’s stupid, they’re here in their living room wearing one another’s bruises but they can’t bring themselves to look at each other. It seems ridiculous, that if they’d had sex at any other time that would be the topmost thing on Beth’s mind, and right now it seems like it happened to somebody else, a story she heard once and forgot the punchline to. She picks out a couple more volumes, stacks them neatly on the floor beside her.

“That Modern Chess Brilliancies is mine,” Benny protests.

“I know,” Beth replies, “but you’re refusing to read it because I have two more games printed in there than you do.”

“I might want to read it eventually,” he says.

“Then I’ll bring it back with me,” Beth tells him. She turns around, makes sure she’s looking at Benny when she says: “I’m coming back.”

Benny shrugs, untied robe sliding off one pale shoulder. “Okay,” he says.

He’s looking particularly young this morning, the traces of that boy in all the magazines from the forties and fifties visible beneath the skin of the man. It makes something indefinable in Beth twist, makes her want to back away and reach out and touch him in equal measure. He spends so much time swaggering around, taking up space in the world, taking up space in her life, that Beth sometimes forgets just how skinny he is, how fragile he can seem when all that arrogance and bluster has folded flat.

“I’ve still got most of your money,” she tells him, because practicality seems like the best refuge right now.

“You can hang onto it,” Benny replies. His hair needs washing and there’s some kind of mark on his shoulder that Beth thinks she might have made with her teeth and she had fewer pieces, she was the one who should have offered the draw; if she’d reached out he might have given in gracefully. “I’ve got enough to get by for a few weeks.”

“I don’t think it’ll be a few weeks,” Beth says. She hasn’t bought a return ticket, hasn’t thought that far ahead, but she won’t be gone long, right?

“It can be,” Benny offers.

It’s like they’re back to being politely awkward strangers again, politely awkward strangers who are so furious with each other that the anger runs deep enough that it doesn’t even show on the surface anymore, and yet Beth thinks that if Benny showed the slightest inclination to want to she’d give in and they’d fuck on the floor right now, rug burns be damned. It’s so complicated, so knotted, and they both need to pick everything apart before they can live together again.

Frankly, Beth hasn’t thought much beyond crawling into her bed and pulling the covers over her head and listening to the quiet. That seems like more than enough of a plan.

“I should get going,” she says, “the traffic will be a mess.”

She doesn’t need to take much, she still has half her stuff in Lexington, one foot in both cities. The books will be enough, and she’ll pick up some magazines when she gets into Kentucky.

“Hey.” Benny reaches out, takes the neat stack of books from her to put beside him on the couch, and then takes Beth’s hands. She lets him, ignores her heart beating just a little faster. “You will call me every day, even if it’s only to list all the new insults you’ve thought of for me.”

Beth wants to pull away, to demand what makes him think he can ask that of her, but it would ring false: they owe each other certain things, and not just because they both signed that marital register.

“You can call me,” she reminds him, “I’m paying this phone bill too.”

“I know.” The corner of Benny’s mouth ticks. “So. We’re accountable to each other.”

“We’re accountable to each other,” Beth agrees, and wonders briefly what she’s promising, what Benny thinks he’s promising.

Benny uses Beth’s hands to pull her a little closer, almost taking her off-balance, and he kisses her, mouth closed but lingering.

“We’ll talk when you get back,” he says softly, more a threat than a promise, no matter how gentle his tone is, and lets her go.

-

The dust has been building up, scattered across surfaces and in corners, rising in little puffs from the carpet. Beth finds jeans and an old shirt in her closet, ties a scarf around her head and keeps herself busy vacuuming and dusting and reorganising, radio turned up loud. There isn’t much room to think when she’s concentrating on cleaning up, opening the windows to allow sunlight and summer air in, turning the staid empty house into a home again. At least her lawn is neat and tidy: she’ll have to remember which neighbourhood kid is doing that, tip them something in thanks.

On the coffee table one of her chess sets is laid out in an endgame, rows of captures standing on each side; the Black king has been tipped neatly over, lying here since Benny pushed him two months ago. Beth reaches out to set everything back up and then leaves it instead, the little tableau a touch of humanity in the otherwise empty house. She wipes the dust from her trophies and from Grandmother June’s piano, looking at where patches of it are lighter, the shape of long fingers. Even alone in her own space, shaped carefully around herself, Beth is never really alone.

Beth flops onto her couch, far more elegant and attractive than the one in New York, and stretches out her back and shoulders, cramped from clearing up. She’s been in the space long enough for it to feel familiar again, flooded with summer, blissfully private. Her neighbours might have seen the taxi pull up, and there’s a scattering of old mail she found when she walked in that she might look at later and she might not; either way, there’s nothing pressing, nothing demanding her time. Nowhere to be and nothing to do, at least until someone calls New York for her and Benny tells them where she is. Beth’s been under so much scrutiny that the idea of being mostly lost is a relief.

Sooner or later she’ll have to leave the house, pick up groceries, cigarettes, magazines, everything you need if you want to hide out for a while. For now, she can stay lying here, staring up at her reassuringly familiar ceiling, while on the radio Ronnie Dyson sings if you let me make love to you, then why won’t you let me touch you?

Beth waits until it’s late before she picks up the phone. She could have called Benny to let him know that the plane landed safely, but she doesn’t think they’re the kind of people who need to reassure each other after a four-hour flight, and she doesn’t even know if she needs to call him today at all: they saw each other this morning. That somehow feels a long way away too, that exhausted, damaged version of Benny someone she imagined, dreamed up once and realised he was implausible next to the original.

Benny picks up the phone and says: “Beth is not available right now” in a bored-sounding monotone.

“I know,” Beth says.

“I think you should start paying me as your secretary,” he complains. “Half the journalists today have been looking for you.”

“I think ‘secretary’ is just one of the many unpaid roles encompassed by ‘husband’,” Beth tells him. “And that just means the other half were looking for you. What’re you saying?”

“To call back next week,” Benny says, sounding a little tired, a little wry. “Oh, Townes rang, so expect him to turn up soon.”

“Oh,” Beth says, “right.”

Really, she should have called Jolene and Townes as soon as she got here, maybe the twins or even Harry, coordinated something social while she’s here. And yet the thought of seeing anyone, especially someone sympathetic, made something in Beth’s head hurt. She knows that isolation isn’t good for her, but a few days alone probably won’t do any harm.

“If you wanted to set up a complicated lie about your whereabouts, you needed to tell me that this morning,” Benny points out. “I mean, I lied to your agent, but that was more for me than you.”

Something in Beth’s head thumps. “What did you tell him,” she says flatly.

“Oh, I just told him you were indisposed and would call him back, but I made it sound very debauched,” Benny replies easily. “Like we got back from Vegas and threw something bacchanalian.”

“Of course you did,” Beth says, and reflects that she should probably make a call or two of her own tomorrow.

“Maybe we should have done,” Benny muses. “It would have been more fun than last night was, anyway.”

For a moment Beth thinks: last night? before she remembers that just because everything in her life seems to be happening either very fast or very slow and disproportionately far away, it doesn’t mean that time isn’t passing like normal for other people.

“Have you started playing through yet?” she asks instead.

There’s a long silence, just the crackle of breathing on the phone line. “No,” Benny says at last. “Go to bed, Beth. You could use the sleep.”

“So could you,” she replies, and he laughs before he hangs up.

Beth brushes her teeth and her hair, carefully applies her face cream, listens to the silence of the house around her. Part of her is still thinking about those days in Vegas when she and Benny overlapped in the bathroom, slept side by side like real couples do, and she keeps turning her head like she’s lost something before remembering that it’s not supposed to be there in the first place. There’s something freeing about being alone again, about being in a space that belongs only to her. She turns off the lights and stands in the hall and listens to her home breathing around her, every creak from the walls and the pipes a part of her, gathered and learned over the years.

The clean bedsheets are soft and cool when Beth slips between them, the crack of moonlight through the drapes exactly where it’s supposed to be. There’s no one moving on the other side of the wall, no lights snapping on or off, no cars on the street outside. Beth could be the last person left in the world, and that’s the thought she holds in her head as she finally falls downwards into a mercifully dreamless sleep.

-

As always, Townes is frustratingly well put together, a casual yet crisp white shirt, elegant sunglasses, and perfectly tailored pants. His hair looks so good Beth just kind of wants to touch it. Townes always has this effect on her when she first meets him again after a while: he’s just so embarrassingly good-looking, no wonder her adolescent heart melted like cheap candy. Once she gets used to him again he’s back to just being a good friend who looks beautiful from certain angles, but the first few minutes are always a shock.

He picks her up for lunch in his tasteful but not flashy car, and Beth puts on her cats-eye sunglasses in the passenger seat and is glad she left this particular pale yellow summer dress in Kentucky: it seems like the kind of thing to wear to an expensive restaurant Townes will successfully charge to his paper.

“I have a proposition,” he tells her when they’ve ordered and are sipping glasses of mineral water in lieu of the cocktails everyone at the surrounding tables seems to have.

“The last time someone said something like that to me, I ended up married to a chess pirate,” Beth says dryly, propping her chin expectantly on her hands.

“I thought we’d settled on cowboy?” Townes smiles.

Beth tips her head. “It comes and goes. What’s the proposition?”

“You and Benny, separately, give me exclusive interviews,” Townes explains. “I already called Chess Life, if we get them done in the next couple of days they can go into print alongside their reports from Vegas.”

At the word Vegas, Beth decides she isn’t hungry anymore. She reaches for her water glass as her stomach turns over. “I thought this was lunch,” she says hopelessly.

“It is lunch,” Townes replies gently. “But the quicker you get the damage control out there, the less of it you have to do.”

Beth swallows. “Did Benny put you up to this?”

“Benny doesn’t even know yet,” Townes replies. “I’d write his interview without consulting him at all but I assume he’d only throw a tantrum when he found out.”

Beth manages a half-smile for him. “What sort of interviews?”

Townes interlaces his fingers, leans in slightly more. She doesn’t see much of him as a journalist these days, but she can see how he must be good at it, drawing confidences out of his interviewees.

“The match itself wasn’t bad until you two lost your minds,” Townes says, a simple statement of fact that makes Beth wince. “And you both played pretty impeccably until it came time to face each other. You talk about that, lean into the expertise you both showed over the previous two weeks, analyse the point at which you should have drawn and didn’t, show that you’re both regretting it now and don’t intend to do it again.”

Beth considers this as the waiter brings their starters. “And what do we blame the sixty extra moves on?” she asks. “Heat? Madness?”

“Love,” Townes says simply, shrugging, neatly spreading his cloth napkin in his lap with an ease Beth has never been able to accomplish.

“…love?” Beth repeats.

“It’ll only work the once, but hopefully that’s all you need,” Townes tells her. “You’ve been married a couple of months, there’s been so much speculation about the two of you, there’s been pressure between the two of you. Of course neither of you wanted to concede. You’re passionately intelligent newlyweds who got carried away with their own competition. No one made a mockery of chess, no one deliberately ignored the fifty-move rule, no one’s stubbornness was bordering on stupidity.” When Beth opens her mouth to protest, he adds: “I’m just saying some of the things I’ve heard. I know you don’t like this, but I think it’s the best shot you’ve got. The press has treated you badly enough, let me use it to help you.”

Beth reluctantly reaches for a fork, turning his words over in her head. “So it’s less of an actual ‘interview’ and more me saying what you think I should?”

Townes nods. “Pretty much.”

“You’ll never sell it to Benny,” Beth tells him.

Townes eyes her. “If I tell him you’ve bought it, I think he will.”

Beth considers this as she starts poking at the salad she’s entirely lost interest in. “Present a united front?”

“Something like that,” Townes agrees, smile gentle. “A little bit now will go a long way. We’ll sort it out later.”

“Okay.” When Beth smiles, it feels a little more natural.

“That’s business done.” Townes wriggles his shoulders, as though sloughing something off. “Now: lunch. How are you?”

Beth thinks about this, pushing arugula around the plate. “Okay, I think? I mean, I guess we’re both pretty angry and exhausted-”

“No,” Townes cuts her off. “I didn’t ask how Benny is; I spoke to him last night and I suspect I’ll be talking to him tonight. Just you.”

Beth freezes, playing back through what she’s just said. She has no idea where that we came from, or when Benny’s feelings became an indicator of her own; she wants to blame it on a slip of the tongue but isn’t sure that she can.

“I don’t know how I am,” she admits at last. “It’s been a strange couple of weeks.”

Townes nods, and smiles gently. “Tell me about Vegas,” he says. “I’m so frustrated that board meeting got called, I was looking forward to coming to the Open.”

So Beth starts telling him about her two weeks in Vegas; she awkwardly starts removing Benny from the narrative from the beginning and then it gets easier, telling Townes about various players she met and watched, answering his questions about certain games he read about, exchanging rumours and gossip. Townes tells her about some of the places he’s been lately for the newspaper, the people he’s interviewed, the photoshoots he’s been sent to, and when Beth next blinks they’ve eaten three courses and been sat there for two hours and some of the tension has fallen out of her shoulders.

They spend the afternoon sitting on Beth’s porch with lemonade, carefully constructing something that looks like a brief interview with someone entirely cognisant of her mistake and comfortable with denouncing it. Phrasing the statements tastes more bitter on Beth’s tongue than the lemons do: she has spent years building up her armour, trying to show herself to the chess world as a grandmaster, not as a woman or as a real person, no matter what they wanted to write about her in her articles. It’s almost worse than Paris; the loss was horrible and the rumours about her drinking and hangover were rife, but she didn’t have to confirm them. Now, she’s deliberately showing herself as vulnerable, fallible, and while there’s a reason for it Beth hates laying even a tiny, lying part of herself bare like this.

Throughout the whole thing, Townes is warm and reassuring; when he suggests rephrasing something it’s done gently, non-critically. Beth thinks that under other circumstances she might be more irritated, or feel patronised, but this is hard enough that she’s glad Townes isn’t making it harder.

“There,” Townes says at last, pencil tapping against his lower lip as he reads over his notes one more time. “That should do it.”

“You’ll never get Benny to say any of this,” Beth points out.

“No,” Townes agrees, “but I can get him to agree not to publicly contradict what I’m going to claim he said.”

Beth laughs, almost in spite of herself. “I know we didn’t get married because I want you to find someone who’ll make you happy, not to make you publicly live several different lies, but this is… this is easy.”

Townes tips his head thoughtfully. “That’s because there’s a spark between us, but there’s no fire. You and Benny have never been anything but fire.”

You could extend that metaphor until it cracks, drag it out and talk about burning or maybe just burns, but Beth doesn’t want to. “I think we could do with less fire,” she admits.

“Undoubtedly, but neither you nor Benny are the type to like or to trust things that come to you easily,” Townes shrugs. “Unless you’ve had to struggle and fight for them, you don’t think they’re worth it.”

Beth is about to protest that that isn’t true, that she doesn’t remember learning math or learning to breathe but that chess flowed into her as naturally as she’s sure those did, but then she thinks: the matches that she thinks about most, recalls most happily and vividly, were not the ones where she won in a handful of moves.

“We should probably work on that,” she sighs.

“What do you think you’ve been doing all year?” Townes asks.

Beth waits until it’s late to call New York, sure that Townes’ discussion with Benny won’t have gone quickly. The phone rings for a long time and she wonders if maybe he’s gone out, there’s much more nightlife in New York than there is in Lexington, but finally he picks up.

“Beth?”

“Benny,” she says. “Did Townes call you?”

“He did,” Benny confirms. “Don’t worry, your guy got me toeing the party line.”

He sounds tired, a rasp in his voice.

“He’s not ‘my guy’,” Beth says, something in Benny’s tone riling her. “He’s not my anything.”

“No one’s your anything, Beth,” Benny replies sharply, and hangs up on her.

“…fuck you too, Benny,” Beth says to the dial tone.

-

The phone starts ringing when Beth is idly flicking through Cosmopolitan and reminding herself that if she lets herself drift into a lazy afternoon nap now, she won’t sleep tonight. She forces herself to get off the couch; she called her agent this morning to explain that she has a plan in place already and isn’t deliberately trying to tank her career. The whole conversation left her with a thumping headache that even aspirin hasn’t fully managed to shift.

“Hello?” she answers cautiously.

“Beth.” It’s Benny, efficient and business-like.

“I… thought I was the one who was meant to be calling you,” she says, in lieu of the dozen other things she can think of to say.

“I figured I wouldn’t call me after last night,” Benny tells her. He doesn’t exactly sound apologetic, but he’s got the slightly softer tone to his voice that means he’s trying.

“If I stopped calling you back every time you were a dick on the phone, we’d have stopped talking years ago,” Beth reminds him.

“Well, for a while there, we did.” Benny sounds matter-of-fact about it, but Beth thinks about don’t call me anymore, the number of times she picked up and was halfway through dialling his number when she remembered she’d burned that particular bridge.

“You weren’t even that much of a dick that time,” she offers, more to keep the words falling into the silence than anything else.

“Beth, if I stopped talking to you every time you were more of a dick than I was, all this would have ended in Ohio back in ‘Sixty-Seven,” Benny tells her, but his voice is soft, non-combative.

She doesn’t know exactly where they are with each other right now; if this is one of those conversations that they can have or if any moment the whole thing will collapse into blame. They’re off-balance these days. One minute Beth is thinking about Benny on the other side of that goddamn chess board, refusing to concede, and the anger is still hot enough to grip her lungs and tighten her shoulders; the next, she thinks about him kneeling between her legs, vivid enough to make her clench her eyes shut; and then there’s still that image of him, worn and tired and acquiescing in their living room before she left the state. Benny is all of those things to her right now and none of them, and until she can sort out where they all fit, she doesn’t know how she’ll be able to go back to New York.

“It’s not my fault your inflated ego comes with a surprisingly thin skin,” she teases, well-worn ground, and is relieved when Benny laughs.

The next evening, she asks: “what do you actually do all day?”

Benny hums thoughtfully. “What do you think I do all day?”

“I didn’t ask as a riddle,” Beth tells him, but when he says nothing she considers and offers: “I think you play chess and listen to Bob Dylan and every couple of days you remember you should consume something that isn’t coffee.”

“You’re not far off,” Benny tells her. “Although today I’ve been looking through all these glossy magazines the apartment seems to be full of, this one claims to have a list of Twenty-Three Ways To Kiss A Man So That He’s Yours For Life, I’m thinking of inviting Levertov and Wexler over and seeing if it’ll make them complain less about knowing me.”

Beth presses her free hand to her face. “Those are not for you,” she protests, “stop it!”

“You’re the one who leaves them lying around,” Benny responds, and Beth is suddenly glad that the latest issue, with How Sex Keeps You Slim on the cover, is currently in Kentucky with her.

“Alright,” she says, “but when one of your friends punches you in the face, I will tell you that you brought it all on yourself.”

“I always do,” he replies, unrepentant and cheerful.

Jolene is busy with work over the summer, sounding a little stressed but mostly energised on the phone, and while Beth knows she should contact some of her other friends near Lexington, she finds herself unwilling to break the quiet. This used to be a fact of her everyday life, her independence, something she was so used to that it never occurred to her that it might be weird, to go a day without speaking aloud. She and Benny have different sleep schedules and there are days when it’s like she has the apartment to herself until Benny emerges at some point in the evening, barely-dressed and cranky, but she remains aware of him, of his presence on the other side of the wall, reminding her that she’s not alone. Her house has a different kind of silence; from time to time she finds herself turning to tell Benny something, only to remember that there’s nobody here.

“If you don’t at least go for some kind of terrible girly shopping trip with Susan soon, I’m calling Harry and telling him you’re home, and he’ll come over with his sad eyes and make you feel bad,” Benny warns one night, half-serious, half-teasing.

“I’ve told you not to talk about Harry before,” Beth tells him.

“The guy’s not eating his heart out over you anymore and that’s great, good for him, but he’s still charmingly invested in your welfare,” Benny replies in a blithe tone Beth knows is designed to make his words sting more. “Stop holing yourself up like something died.”

Beth makes a face that he can’t see. “I think our honeymoon period did,” she says.

“We didn’t have a honeymoon period, Beth,” Benny says briskly. “I’m serious, reach out.”

Saturday night, Beth falls asleep in front of the television and rings Benny a little later than she meant to; when she picks up there’s laughter and music in the background.

“Am I interrupting something?” she asks, fights not to sound like some kind of jilted wife, waiting for her husband to deign to come home. After all, she’s the one who left in the first place.

“No,” Benny says, calls: “Hilton, get your ass over here and tell Beth that I’m a saint.”

There’s more laughter, familiar now that she’s listening for it, and the fumbling sound of the receiver changing hands.

“We came over to check on him,” comes Wexler’s cheerful voice. “Arthur washed all your dishes and found your vacuum; Benny claimed the apartment didn’t have one.”

“Of course he did,” Beth says, feeling a smile curl across her face.

“We’re looking after your boy for you,” Wexler assures her.

“You don’t need to do that,” Beth says, something unfurling in her chest.

“Oh, you know that we really do,” Wexler replies. “And we’ve been doing it for years, we know that somewhere underneath all that bullshit is half of an almost semi-decent person.”

“Hey!” Beth hears Benny say, and it sounds like he’s wrestling the phone back off Wexler. “That’s not true,” Benny tells her.

“I already know that your chess bad-boy image is all hot air,” Beth points out. “You like to swagger around in black belittling other players and flashing that knife you don’t use but you took the Christian Crusade’s money, I’m the one who told them their religion was fucking nonsense.”

“Ah yes,” Benny says, “and that worked out brilliantly for you.”

Beth scoffs and is about to reply when there’s some more shouting in the background. “What are you all doing?” she asks.

“They thought it might be good to bring over a game none of us could cheat at, and so we’re playing backgammon,” Benny explains dryly.

“Oh,” Beth says.

“Yeah,” he agrees. “If I don’t pick up the phone tomorrow, I’ve committed a murder.”

“You’re only saying that because you’re losing!” Levertov calls in the background.

“…do any of you know how to play backgammon?” Beth asks.

“I don’t know that we do,” Benny replies, and hangs up.

It takes a while, but one evening Beth turns off all possible distractions, gets herself a glass of water, and starts laying out the Vegas game. She doesn’t want to, has been avoiding it, but the trapped feeling has started invading her dreams, leaving her waking up in the middle of the night, breathless from trying to outrun nothing. She’ll be having a perfectly nice afternoon in the sunshine and then she’ll blink and all she’ll see are captures and pawns, victory skimming away from her. She can’t settle herself, can’t fully relax until she drags this game back out of her, piece by bloody piece.

Benny sounds tired on the phone and they only exchange a few words before Beth hangs up again, goes back to her notes and her boards. Although she didn’t technically lose, it was really her match to lose from move forty onwards, and the dozens of moves she made with only a king and a rook only get more shameful the more she plays through them again, a game of cat and mouse that neither of them could possibly hope to win. The nausea rises in her throat as she works backwards from the endgame, each shift of pieces a reminder of just how awful the game really was. Beth doesn’t know how she’s going to ever play chess publicly ever again; she doesn’t know how to look at herself in the mirror anymore. The precocious little girl she once was would turn away, embarrassed for her.

The board is starting to blur in front of her eyes as she works through it once more, checking she’s picked out every weakness, every stupid idea, every point where one of them should have given in. The shame is starting to seep into something listless, hopeless; when Beth looks up it’s half past three in the morning. She should sleep, she thinks; and then she changes her mind.

Sitting on the stairs with all the lights off, Beth calls New York. Her back hurts and her shoulders are stiff, her throat is dry and her eyes don’t seem to be focusing properly, and her fingertips feel bruised. She might even feel worse now than she did that first night, prowling her Las Vegas hotel room like a caged tiger. Over a week later, even the purple mark Benny bit into her hip is gone, the ghosts of his hands faded like they were never there to begin with.

“…Beth?” Benny sounds a little groggy, a little disoriented.

“Did I wake you?” Beth asks, although she doesn’t really care either way.

“Not necessarily,” Benny says. His voice sharpens. “Are you okay?”

“I’m okay,” Beth tells him, and hopes that it might be true. “You once said to me that there were things I wouldn’t talk to you about with the lights on. I think we still have some of those things.”

Benny lets out a long breath, and Beth shuts her eyes and leans her head back against the wall to listen to the miles between them.

“You want to do this now?” he asks.

“I never want to do this,” Beth replies. “But if we don’t then I don’t know that I’ll ever leave this house again.” She curls her bare toes in her carpet. “So tell me what you can’t tell me with the lights on.”

There’s a minute of quiet; Beth listens to Benny breathing, listens to her house silent around her.

“I didn’t marry you to wreck my career,” Benny says at last. He sounds tired; he sounds annoyed.

Beth asked for this but it still feels like he’s punched her in the chest. Recriminations and irritation rise to her lips, and she reminds herself that she started this, she knew this could happen.

“Why did you marry me?” she asks at last.

Maybe she should have asked this before, but she doesn’t think that Benny would have answered her. She doesn’t know if he’ll answer now, but this might be as close as she gets to him being willing to be honest.

When Benny says nothing, she adds: “you say I broke your heart, but you don’t feel that way about me anymore. I needed a husband so people would stop gossiping about me, except now the gossip is that my marriage has damaged me as a chess player, and I’m back in my house hanging up on reporters who still don’t want to talk about my games. So tell me that this is better.”

Benny is still silent; she’d think he’d gone, but she can hear him breathing.

“I don’t want to burn up and burn out,” he offers at last. “I want to be like Luchenko: a kindly old bastard people still don’t want to play against.” He sighs. “A chess player is all I’ve ever been, and all I’ve ever wanted to be.” There’s another long pause that Beth fights not to break. “It didn’t hurt as much as I thought it would when you took everything from me,” Benny tells her at last.

Something tightens in Beth’s throat. “I didn’t-”

“You did.” Benny sounds matter-of-fact, too calm. “Before you, I was the undisputed champion of American chess, the country’s greatest hope on the international stage. I was a wunderkind, and then I was an enfant terrible, and all I had rolling out in front of me was being the best at the thing that I loved. And then you turned up and it was all over. I’m good, but you’re just as good, and a lot of the time you’re better. Even before we met for the Ohio Championship, I knew you’d be taking it. And I thought, that’s it, I can fight it, but this girl has everything that I have and more. I was always waiting, you know, that sword of Damocles, for someone to show up and finally break me, and I just assumed it would be the end of the world when they did. But it wasn’t.”

“But if you felt that way,” Beth says carefully, “why did you invite me to New York?”

There’s more silence; Beth pictures Benny sitting alone in their apartment, maybe on their living room floor, playing with his signet ring, with his wedding ring, that endless nervous tick.

“Because I wanted to help you,” Benny tells her simply. “And no one was more surprised by that than me, but I knew how good you were and I didn’t want to see you piss all that talent away because you couldn’t study properly and drank like a sailor. I thought, if this girl is better than me then she’s going to be the best, and I wanted to help you get there.”

“Was the speed chess a test?” Beth asks.

“Well, that and I needed the gas money,” Benny replies lightly. “I was never angry with you for what you can do to me on a chessboard, it was just for what you did to me. And that was my own fault – I knew who you were and I still gave in. If I hadn’t, you wouldn’t have.”

“And who did you know I was?” Beth asks, tone a little sharper than she thinks she intended.

Benny laughs, rueful. “You were a chess-obsessed teenager who was half intent on taking over the world and half intent on drinking yourself to death, you didn’t have space for a guy who thought he might be falling for the woman who’d ruined his life.”

Beth presses a hand to her face, and wonders if her headache is getting worse. “This doesn’t explain why we’re married now,” she says, because she feels they could pick their shared history to shreds and neither of them would ever come out the victor.

“I’m explaining it badly, but I don’t mind being second best,” Benny says. “I actually kind of like it, which is probably the same streak in me that means I don’t fold when I should. And I don’t think I’ve ever made a secret of the fact that we make each other better players. Yes, I want a slice of your publicity, and yes, it’s helpful to have someone to stop me running up gambling debts so high I have to leave the city ‘til the heat dies down, but who out there is going to keep me sharp but you? And who is going to keep you sharp but me?”

“That isn’t what happened in Vegas,” Beth points out, though she likes the way his words settle into her.

“Well,” Benny says, and she thinks she can hear him running his hand through his hair, “Vegas is designed to make you forget who you are, and it worked. We forgot that we are chess players first and everything else second. We got lost in this weird glittery dreamworld where we weren’t ourselves, and we forgot that you don’t fuck about in a championship final.”

“Is that what you think happened?” Beth asks.

“I’m not sure I’ve slept through the night since that game,” Benny replies. “As for everything else: well, we’re both young, we’re good-looking, we challenge each other, and we’re both used to being the smartest person in the room. Of course we’re attracted to each other. Most of the time that won’t matter, and, okay, sometimes we’ll fuck, but that’s just what people do. People who aren’t married, people who don’t even like each other manage that. And now we know this, it doesn’t need to get in the way of our lives.”

“And by ‘our lives’, you mean our respective chess careers, I assume?”

“What else is there?” Benny asks, a trace of a smile in his voice.

It makes sense: all of it makes sense. Something finally snaps in Beth, something exhausted, like she can crawl to bed and sleep at last without her dreams trying to devour her.

“You’ve taught me how you read people,” she says, “and you say you knew exactly who I was. So, tell me: who am I now, Benny?”

“Oh, Beth,” Benny says, quiet and tired and fond, “if you ever figure that out, you can let me know.”

-

Mike and Susan’s home is a work in progress, they assure Beth: they have much more specific plans when they have time and money. For the time being, though, it’s clearly a place that they’re enjoying constructing together. It’s a modest house with a small yard behind it, but it’s still bigger than Beth’s New York apartment and probably a lot cheaper too. They drink homemade iced tea and spend an enjoyably long amount of time looking at wallpaper samples; Beth didn’t get to pick out any décor for her new home but she enjoys looking at patterns with Susan and debating what is fun versus what might get grating on the eyes, while Mike periodically leans in to say not that one at some of the garish options.

There’s a half-played chess game on the coffee table; White is winning. When Beth raises her eyebrows, Mike nods to Susan, who flushes but looks pleased with herself.

It’s easier to catch up with her friends than Beth thought it might be; if they know anything about it, they don’t mention Beth’s abrupt departure from their wedding, and while they ask about Vegas in general they avoid the specifics of the final. It’s not so hard to talk about: she describes the hotel and the places she went to Susan, mentions a few mutual acquaintances to Mike, and they talk about some of the lower-ranked games that were interesting or complete disasters. Susan might have started out a novice, but she’s catching up to her husband and doesn’t get lost at any point in their conversation.

This is what a honeymoon period actually looks like, Beth thinks; her friends are glad to see her and keep track of the conversation well, but they cast each other little looks from time to time, like a compulsion, like they’re struggling to look away. At one point in a story, Susan reaches over to take Mike’s hand, and then just doesn’t let go. It’s not overly affectionate, not embarrassing or awkward for Beth, but the natural ease and happiness they have with each other is both lovely to see and a sharp reminder of what she doesn’t have.

“It’s sickening, right?” Susan says, when she’s sent Mike to fetch them more iced tea. “I know I’m driving the girls at work crazy, they tell me I’m always saying Mike this and Mike that, that once we have our first fight the shine will come out of my eyes.”

“I don’t think it will,” Beth says carefully.

“It didn’t,” Susan shrugs. “Or the fight after that. We’re not perfect, and we fight, but we talk about it afterwards and we move on.”

“It’s all those years living with Matt,” Mike says wryly, coming back into the room. “One of you has to be a peacekeeper before fratricide happens.”

“How is Matt?” Beth asks.

It turns out Matt is making some life changes of his own: his complicated-sounding studies have paid off and he’s now working in sound production for television. Neither Mike nor Susan can specifically explain exactly which part, and Beth is fairly sure she wouldn’t understand if told, but he’s gotten a job at the local TV station and it all seems to be going well. It’s a foot in the door to the industry, and he’s happy about it; Beth makes a mental note to work out what you send someone when they’re fulfilling their career dreams, a bouquet doesn’t sound like it would cut it.

Susan admits that she’s been attending a local women’s chess club – “no one believes that I know you!” – and is thinking about entering one of the women’s tournaments in the fall. “I know it’s not much,” she says, “but if I don’t start playing somewhere I can’t have a ranking.”

“My wife’s going to do better on the chess circuit than I ever did,” Mike says, but he sounds happy about it, and the way he smiles at her is proud.

I’m good, but you’re just as good, and a lot of the time you’re better says the Benny in Beth’s head, two nights ago; Beth pushes it away the way she’s pushed away their casual half-conversations since then, the two of them checking in but little more. Instead, she tells Susan about Christine’s chess club, and is pleased to find that Susan has read all about Christine: “if you ever make it to New York, I’ll introduce you,” Beth promises.

When it’s time to go, Susan hugs Beth and offers softly: “did you know that Benny’s in all of your stories, even when he wasn’t actually there? I just thought you might not have realised.”

Beth doesn’t know what to do with that, and is relieved that all she has to do is stumble outside, to where Mike has his car ready to drive her home.

“You look happy,” he tells Beth when they’re driving, radio on low, Mungo Jerry singing about singing about the joys of the summer. “I know I was a little distracted when you were last here, but we agreed afterwards we were worried about you. Maybe worried about you both.”

“Don’t ever tell Benny that,” Beth says, deflecting because her stomach turns over at the thought of her friends discussing her or her fake marriage when she’s not there.

“Oh, I never would,” Mike laughs. “But we watch you on television every week, and we read all the magazine articles, even the bad ones written by people who’ve clearly never met you, and you’ve been looking better lately. Don’t let Vegas beat you. It’s Vegas: nothing that happens there counts.”

“You’re not the first person to say that to me lately,” Beth says wryly.

Mike gives her a sidelong look. “Sometimes I still think of you as that gawky kid who turned up from nowhere and wiped the floor with everyone in Kentucky, and then I blink and look at you, and you’re this sophisticated woman taking on the rest of the world.”

Beth knows what he’s saying, and feels a little warm gladness that she managed to retain this friendship that she could so easily have thrown by the wayside years ago.

“Well,” she replies, “sometimes I still think of you as this interchangeable nerd who thought I didn’t stand a chance against Harry Beltik. And now look at you, this happily married adult.”

Mike laughs, cheeks flushing. “I’m glad you’re doing okay, Beth.”

Beth smiles at him, easy and honest. “I’m glad you are too, Mike.”

When she calls New York in the evening, Wexler answers the phone.

“Oh God,” Beth says, “what’s he done now?”

Wexler laughs softly, whispers: “hold on”, and she hears him moving himself and the phone, closing a door behind him. “He’s finally fallen asleep on the couch, he’s fine.”

“…if he’s fine, why are you there?” Beth asks suspiciously.

“I never know if it’s insomnia or just stubbornness,” Wexler says, sounding like he’s shrugging, “but you know Benny’s sleep habits are erratic at best. Arthur and I were going to drug his coffee if he was still looking manic tomorrow.”

“That’s kind,” Beth says.

“It’s not the kindest thing,” Wexler tells her. “He was talking about growing a beard for a while, but we think we’ve talked him out of it.”

Beth considers this; Benny has basically had exactly the same amount of facial hair the entire time she’s known him, his razor used mostly to keep it tidy. “…can Benny grow a beard?”

“Not as far as we know,” Wexler replies, “so you’re doubly welcome.”

Beth laughs, but something is still clenching a little in her chest. “Thank you,” she says, and hopes that Hilton knows she means for more than just this evening.

“Ah, it’s practically my job,” Wexler says. “When Benny decides that actually winning at cards is only for uncool people and Arthur forgets that he can’t bluff for shit, I’m always left making sure these idiots don’t end up starving and homeless.”

“That’s very selfless of you,” Beth tells him dryly.

“I’ve always thought so,” Wexler agrees cheerfully. “I’ll tell Benny you’re fine when he wakes up. I mean, I assume you’re fine?”

“I’m fine,” Beth assures him.

“Good,” Wexler says. “Schlaf gut, Beth.”

“Whatever that is back at you,” Beth tells him.

“We really need to teach you both some German,” Wexler says mournfully, and hangs up.

Beth stands in her living room and thinks about Benny, sleeping in their living room in New York, wonders if it’s her fault he’s not been sleeping or if that’s just part of who he is. She wonders if his hair has fallen over his face or if it’s pushed back, revealing that soft, boyish face in slumber. And then she wonders if she’s supposed to be thinking about this at all, her husband who exists as a knife to hone her own blade: nothing more, nothing less.

-

When Beth was redecorating her home, she had a lot of choices to make. So many choices that once the initial novelty wore off, she didn’t feel capable of making most of them. In her attic, collecting dust, are boxes of Alma’s belongings. She donated most of the clothes and paintings and knickknacks to Goodwill, but she didn’t know what to do with any of the personal things. She simply taped up the boxes, fluttered eyelashes at the delivery men who brought the new furniture until they helped her get them up the ladder, and then she closed the hatch and left them up there.

Some days, Beth doesn’t think about them at all. Other days, they’re like dark clouds above her head. Alma lingers in a way that is different to the way her mother lingered because Beth’s memories of her mother are vague, tinged with the hazy sunlight of childhood, some of them buried so deep she doesn’t know if she could excavate them even if she tried. All of her memories of Alma were created when she was old enough to form them perfectly. Alma, who loved her for who she was, who took the lost stumbling girl from Methuen and taught her everything she knew about being a woman: the good, the bad, the messy, the awful. Alma, with her quiet sadness that Beth always told herself she’d ask about one day, when both of them were ready.

The tape peels easily from the boxes, a fading scent of Alma’s favourite perfume rising from the tissue paper Beth wrapped everything carefully in. Beth still doesn’t know what to do with any of this, unwilling to throw these things away, not sure that keeping them helps either. Jewellery and trinkets collected together in a life that wasn’t what Alma hoped for, until she was only left with her forcibly organised house, dust building up in the decorative ruffles she was so fond of.

Beth has a small framed photograph of Alma in New York, her laughing for something the camera didn’t capture: that’s how she likes to remember her, fond of travel, fond of comforts, bemused by chess but pleased by Beth’s successes. It’s easiest to think of her that way, that Beth helped give her something different, better in the last years of her life. Alma, twinkling quietly at the piano in Mexico, something in her eyes that Beth had never seen before.

There are photo albums that Beth placed straight into the boxes after Alma died, and she cracks one open, sitting amidst the dust and the silence of the attic, dirty sunlight filling the space. Alma is younger in these pictures, prettier, carefree or faking it well enough. Allston starts appearing after a while and Beth’s lip curls, angry at him for a thousand betrayals, almost none of them hers. He looks happy for a while, and she finds herself squinting at the photos, studying his eyes, trying to work out if he ever meant any of it. She wonders if Alma used to do this with the photographs too, poring over her past to see if it was all that she thought it was.

Beth blinks, dust in her eyes, and thinks about the photographs from their wedding day that Benny keeps hidden away from both of them.

Alma and Allston’s smiles look like plastic, never changing even as the distances between them get wider, bodies angling away from each other. Beth picks up a small album bound in dirtied white velvet and finds the wedding pictures, Alma clutching her bouquet like a lifeline, Allston’s tie just slightly askew. There are photos of bridesmaids, mothers in large hats, friends who must have drifted over the years, a neat traditional cake and flower arrangements.

Even in the most professional pictures, taken by the official photographer, Alma and Allston don’t look directly at each other, not once.

Dragging the trash to the kerb, Beth listens to the July day on her suburban street: kids playing in backyards and on the sidewalk, shrieks and yells, radios burbling from open windows, and at least two domestic arguments, the participants trying to keep their voices down and failing. Beth knows arguments, knows how to have them, but these are worn and tired, voices strained thin from the same fights, over and over and over. Later, these families will have dinner together, food on the table at the same time every day, and the kids will bicker and their parents will talk to each other in monosyllables, stiff, before he takes a beer in front of the television and she drinks in the kitchen, cleaning up, and they sleep side by side in bed later with nothing to say at all.

The modern-day marriage in all its glory.

In the late afternoon, daylight turning into something soft and golden, Beth and Harry sit on a bench in the local park with cokes and make small talk. Harry has just finished work, his tie in his pocket, the top button of his collar undone. In the fall, he’ll be done working in the supermarket, moving on to bigger things. Maybe everyone does, except Beth; the only one good enough at the game they played when they were younger to still keep going.

“I’ve been thinking,” Harry says, and something in his careful tone makes Beth’s toes curl. “You know that I’ve told June everything about our history, don’t you?”

Beth turns to look at him too fast. “You did?”

Harry smiles weakly. “I mean, I don’t come out of it looking great, but it was always going to come up sooner or later.”

“I think I come out of it looking worse,” Beth replies. She thinks there might be dust from the attic caught in her hair, under her fingernails; even with the cola, she swallows and she can still taste it.

“I like you, Beth,” Harry says. “You’re smart and you’re quick and you’re braver than I’ll ever be, but that summer I wasn’t looking at you, I was building a girl with your face and someone else inside her, and that wasn’t your fault.”

Beth thinks about getting up and walking away, going somewhere where no one wants to talk to her about the past or the present or the future. “I liked trying to be that girl,” she tells Harry at last, because it’s more or less true; she was trying to be a lot of people that year.

Harry takes her hand, and Beth lets him. “She wasn’t you,” he says. “And that wasn’t fair of me.”

“Well, I wasn’t exactly fair on you either,” Beth tells him.

All Harry does is squeeze her hand, and, after a moment, Beth squeezes back.

It’s not a relapse, Beth thinks when she gets home. To relapse, she’d have to crave the oblivion again, to feel that hopeless pit and think that only intoxicants could fill it. She doesn’t want that, she’s sure that she doesn’t, and once she’s confirmed that to herself it’s easier to open the bag from the liquor store. The staff were completely different employees, none of them looked at her in the way that they used to, knowing and slightly judgemental, too judgemental for people who supposedly wanted her money. And Beth knew what she was going in for, picked up three bottles of wine, the same dull mid-range red she’s always favoured, and nothing else.

These days, Beth has self-control, has fought too hard to keep it. She doesn’t want to lose it. But day after day it’s not getting easier, the fury and the guilt and the shame of everything that happened in Vegas, and she can’t continue like this. A half-remembered lesson from school, something about interrupting the flow of electricity, a circuit breaker. That’s all that Beth needs. She needs one night of not feeling like the sky’s about to fall, and she’ll be able to pick herself back up again, reach for other emotions. She’s sure of it. One night, one calculated stumble. That’s all this is.

It’s light outside as Beth opens the first bottle, drops the needle on James Brown’s Soul On Top, and lies back on her couch. The shadows are just starting to lengthen in the living room, crawling across the ceiling and into the corners. It still looks exactly how it should: picked out to match the showroom she visited, perfectly modern and stylish, the shape of the old room filled with a brand-new space. It’s nothing like the apartment in New York, with the style of the owners imposed onto them, the shelving Beth picked out and Wexler helped her paint white on a Sunday afternoon while Benny claimed he was supervising and mostly said unhelpful things like you’ve missed a spot when he deigned to look up from a magazine. The rug for Benny’s room that he claimed he didn’t need but Beth chose to match his wallpaper anyway, the books Beth stacks beside her bed, the mismatched crockery slowly filling the kitchen, the bathroom cabinet with their toiletries jumbled aimlessly together. This house here could be anyone’s, could belong to the perfect casual modern woman that Beth will someday magically be.

Wine rich and sour-sweet on her tongue, Beth closes her eyes while James Brown screams this is a man’s world, but it wouldn’t mean nothing without a woman or a girl, the brass section shrieking in. Drinking and music used to be Beth’s favourite thing, a way to cut loose the knots inside herself that she could never untie no matter what she tried, and she wonders how much more it will take to feel that. It’s been long enough that while the initial tipsy hit trickling in is familiar she can’t recall how long it takes for the next part to take effect. Soon, she hopes.

The album concludes with a sleek version of Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag and it’s enough to pull Beth onto her feet, the hot riot of the horns and guitar riff wrapped around her shaky ankles. It’s like organised chaos, the way the music twists together, makes Beth spin barefoot on her carpet, remembering a dozen other evenings with her record player, the real world safely bolted outside and inside just sound and colour and the way she could feel her hips swaying. It was safety for a summer, a way to protect herself from everything she couldn’t face, couldn’t even stand to think about.

Eventually, the song ends and the needle hits an empty groove; there’s just the sound of soft crackling and Beth’s sharp breathing. The blur has hit, everything simultaneously bright and fuzzy around her, and she staggers to a standstill, listening to the white noise. It’s better than a lot of the silence in this house, at least it’s something, but at the same time it’s the sound of nothing, of dead air. She could turn it off, put another record on, but she doesn’t even try.

Mouth dry, she wanders to the kitchen, gets herself some tap water. The glass clinks against her numb teeth and she thinks again of Vegas, of a stupid woman who sat across from a competitor under the harsh scrutiny of the lights and wished he’d touch her like the piano she’d inherited and couldn’t play. Benny, who can play half a concerto with his eyes on the horizon and his mind elsewhere, and was that what that was, a swift burned-out passion that Las Vegas instils in everyone.

Beth lays out the Open final like a compulsion, fingers blurring on the pawns, alternating moves with mouthfuls of wine, standing in her kitchen fighting through the game laid out on her sideboard in the last of the summer evening light. Harry sat here, once, with a game Beth lost to Benny spread out in front of him, right here, years ago and seconds ago, Harry who’s long since forgiven Beth for something Beth doesn’t know how to forgive herself for. She tips the wine bottle, fighting to chug as much as possible like she’s dying of thirst, the gritty sediment in the bottom sticking to her tongue. She puts it aside, her focus back on the failed match, all her limbs alight and simultaneously too far away. In the game, Benny’s bishop takes her queen; Beth lays her face down beside the board and cries.

They’re ugly sobs that shake her whole body, each one ripping from her gut, from her chest, faster than she can contain them, faster than anything. She feels like a failure, like an idiot, like there’s something vital she’s lost and it isn’t coming back. Paris hurt like this, dug into her heart like shrapnel she couldn’t remove, but at least Beth knew at the time that she’d sabotaged herself, deliberately or otherwise, scared to face Borgov or scared to face Benny – she’s still not sure. This time, she didn’t even know that she’d sabotaged herself until the second day, lust gone from her mind, saw the stupid tangle she and Benny had made that no one could untie. Benny says that they forgot who they were, and isn’t that what Beth has been trying to do all along: forget herself in her kingdom of black and white, rules and regulations, where there’s no losses and gains that you don’t pick for yourself, if you’re quick enough.

Beth flails for the wine bottle, doesn’t make it, and watches it tip from the light of the counter into the growing darkness of the kitchen. The sound it makes as it smashes is too loud, startling her upright and into brittle helpless hiccoughs instead of the tears. She can’t feel her face, numb from sobbing, hair sticking to her wet cheeks. Wine never used to hit like this; it’s why she liked it. It didn’t heighten these emotions, it made them fade, made them dull until they were bearable or even possible to ignore. Everything feels worse, her humiliation and disappointment etched onto her bones, and she’s struggling to breathe, panic snapping around her ribs.

Back in the living room, the final wine bottle lolls under the coffee table like a snake in the grass, and you never do know if they’re poisonous until they bite you. Everything about Beth feels heavy, heavier than anyone could possibly bear, heavy enough to sink forever. She crumbles to the floor beside it, the glass cool against her shivering hands, and thinks about drowning.

-

There’s a loud knocking at the door and Beth startles from something like unconsciousness to find it’s gotten dark, and for a few seconds she has no idea where she is. Finally, the shadows and shapes coalesce into her living room, Lexington, home. There’s a weird crackling sound that she thinks is only inside her head until she realises it’s from the record player, left to spin on and on for who knows how long. Then the knocking starts up again and she jumps, wonders if it’s Harry, if he saw her double back when they parted and slink into the liquor store. If it’ll be Jolene, ready to tell her another childhood hero is dead.

It takes too long to push herself to her feet from where she’s been slumped on the floor against the couch, dizziness hitting her like a physical blow. Her mind feels a little less cloudy but her body seems to be making up for that by feeling entirely uncoordinated. Maybe it isn’t even her body anymore, she thinks, breathless, careening into a reassuringly solid wall that she can follow along toward the door. There’s that banging again, persistent, and Beth tries to call out that she’s coming but only manages a mangled mouthful of vowels.

It’s almost too much to work the locks but Beth manages to get the door open, staggering back, and then wonders if she should have left it shut because even when she blinks three times Benny is still standing there in the glow of the porchlights.

“Oh,” Beth says.

She can feel excuses fountaining to her lips but doesn’t think that she can articulate any of them, could make them make any sense. Her mind is blurred with wine and shock and, suddenly, a brutal awful guilt.

Benny just stands there and looks at her, and Beth has no idea what she looks like, ghostlike in the doorway of her dark empty house.

“I always did have a great sense of timing,” he says wryly. “You gonna let me in?”

Beth stumbles out of his way in lieu of a reply, manages to close the door behind them while Benny flicks the hallway light on. She flinches at the rush of brightness, sure she must look as much of a mess as she feels, but Benny doesn’t turn around before he heads into the living room. Beth thinks about the empty wine bottle on the coffee table, the half-empty one beneath it, the record still playing with no sound. And then, worse, the kitchen beyond it, the wreckage of the chess game and the broken glass on the floor.

This was an accident, an act of desperation, and Beth thinks that she might even know better now but it doesn’t matter because this is what Benny walked into. Every night that she brushed her hair and ignored the pain of the silence and went straight to bed passed by uneventfully, but the night Benny turns up unannounced on her doorstep is the night she fucked up. Of course it is.

She tries to go after him, wonders what she could possibly say to mitigate this, if Benny will even listen, makes it halfway down the hall before the trembling in her legs takes her down to the carpet, graceless and hard beside her sidetable. There are too many lights on, and Beth covers her face with her hands, not wanting to be seen like this.

Through the thick roaring in her ears, Beth hears Benny coming back to her. She tries to look up at him but he’s so far away and the lights are so bright and she settles for staring at the fading knees of his jeans. “Please, don’t leave,” she manages.

Benny sighs and then he’s sitting beside her on the carpet; Beth didn’t even realise that she was crying until his hand comes out of nowhere to swipe her cheek.

“Don’t,” he says quietly. “I’m not going anywhere, Beth: firstly because there’s nowhere to go in Lexington at this time of night, and secondly because only a monster could leave you now, and while I’m working on it I’m not there yet.”

Beth watches him, his dark eyes, the tight lines of his mouth. “How are you here?” she asks, because everything else is still so complicated.

“There was a late flight,” Benny says, shrugging. “We now owe Wexler a bunch of money.”

Beth nods until it makes the room shiver around her and then leans her head back against the wall instead, looking for stability.

“You didn’t say you were coming,” she tries. There’s a different question she should be asking, or something she should be saying, but she can’t find it, can’t reach for it. Her mind is working so slowly, and her body isn’t working at all.

“I didn’t,” Benny agrees. He draws up his knees, rests his elbows on them. Beth blinks at him, the little cage he’s made of his body, his black shirt open at the cuffs, the fall of his hair into his eyes.

“Wait,” she says. Benny turns his head to look at her, and again, there’s something Beth isn’t catching, can’t find. “Benny Watts didn’t come,” she says, and that’s not what she means, but she tries again. “No hat. No coat. You came. But not Benny Watts.”

Fuck,” Benny murmurs. “Of course you’re too observant even when out of your mind.”

“I’m not out of my mind!” Beth protests, and the words jumble together a bit but they come out mostly clear. “I was supposed to be. But it didn’t work.”

Benny sighs. “I’ve walked into an experiment, haven’t I? Because I don’t think you could hide this on the phone for very long, and your place is too tidy for you to have been doing this for days.”

“Circuit breaker,” Beth says, because she thinks that Benny might understand what she means.

Benny’s mouth twists into a half-smile, cynical but gentle. “Didn’t work, though, did it.”

“No,” Beth agrees, and suddenly feels very heavy. “No, it didn’t.”

“Alright.” Benny pushes himself to his feet, then leans down to grab Beth’s hands. “Let’s get you up.” Beth’s body doesn’t seem to want to respond but he still manages to get her upright, and before her legs can crumple he’s hooking a strong arm under them, pulling Beth into his arms. It’s all accomplished very competently: Beth finds him carrying her up the stairs before she’s even really aware of what’s happening, his every step solid and sure, his surprisingly strong arms firm around her.

Benny lays her on her bed, turns on the lamp beside it. “Do you want pyjamas?” he asks.

Beth considers herself, still in her pants and blouse from earlier, and then thinks about how none of her limbs are obeying her right now. “Too hard,” she decides.

Benny sighs softly and then starts rummaging in drawers; Beth rests her thudding head back against her pillows and lets him, until he returns to her carrying a soft blue cotton pair. “Don’t try to help me,” he tells her, “it’ll probably be easier if you just let me handle this.”

There’s still that tightness in his face but Beth lets herself lie there lax while he pulls her pants off, works her legs into the pyjamas, unbuttons her blouse. He’s way too efficient in removing her bra, hands working behind her back, and Beth wonders if she’ll remember to ask him about this in another time that’s not so fraught. He pulls the pyjama top over her head and guides her arms into the sleeves and Beth feels both like a rag doll and entirely relieved.

“You need water?” he asks brusquely. “The bathroom?”

Beth considers these things. “No.”

“Okay.” Benny leans over her to tuck the covers around her, necklaces glinting in the lamplight, brushing her hair off her face with tender fingers. “You should sleep this off.”

“Don’t go,” Beth says, and Benny closes his eyes for a long moment, biting into his lower lip.

“Fine,” he agrees at last, shifting away toward the chair in the corner of the room, and that’s not enough. Beth doesn’t know how to express what would be enough, not to the tightness in his shoulders.

“Benny,” she mumbles, “please.”

He lets out a long, slow sigh, and then nods. Beth lets her eyes drift closed, listens to him kicking off his boots and unzipping his jeans, and eventually the light snaps off and the bed dips as he gets in beside her.

“I’m sorry,” Beth says at last.

“Don’t be,” Benny replies. “These things happen.”

“Are you mad at me?” Beth asks. Her voice sounds too young, a little lost, but when she tries to turn her head dizziness overwhelms her.

“No,” Benny says softly, “no, Beth, I’m not mad.”

They lie in the dark for a while longer, and Beth thinks she’s supposed to be falling asleep but even with the July night and the covers she’s shivering. She wonders if this is worse than if she’d just fallen asleep on the living room floor, woken up in the morning to a hangover and stiff limbs and a crick in her neck; it almost definitely is.

“Oh, come here,” Benny sighs, and rolls over. He’s warm, so warm, and those strong arms wrap around her. Beth wriggles a little, burrows her face into his shoulder, where there’s the faintest hint of cologne and the stronger smell that is just Benny.

“You came to Kentucky,” Beth tells him, muffled.

“Well, phone calls never did do the trick of getting you to come back to New York,” Benny replies, and Beth thinks she’s missing something, missing a lot of things, but everything is too fuzzy to get a good grip on.

“I was scared,” she says, because she sat on that bench with Harry hours ago and suddenly it doesn’t matter, the words pressing against her teeth, desperate to escape. “You saw this woman and she was so good and so smart and so much better than me and I didn’t know how to be her, I didn’t even know if I wanted to be her.”

Benny is quiet for so long that Beth thinks maybe it didn’t come out right, she’s too drunk or too tired. “I guess it was easier to be drunk than to be the best American player in decades,” he murmurs at last.

“I knew how to be drunk,” Beth says.

“You got there in the end anyway,” Benny offers.

“Not without you,” Beth tells him.

“Mostly without me,” Benny replies, and she feels him shrug, pragmatic or uncomfortable.

Beth keeps her face pressed into his shoulder, the soft worn cotton of his t-shirt. Benny came to see her without his hat or his knife or his coat, just a man on a plane he couldn’t afford.

“I know you’re probably not,” she says, “but I’m glad you’re here.”

“I’ve had better welcomes,” Benny tells her, “but I’ve had worse.”

Beth nods, but that makes her feel woozy, so she stops. “I want to go home,” she tells him.

She hears Benny’s heart beat harder, where she’s pressed against his chest. “You are home,” he replies.

“The other home,” Beth says, and then wonders when that clicked in her head, what changed.

“What, the home you don’t own, where you didn’t pick out any of the furniture and you hate half the wallpaper and I’m there all the time making a mess of your stuff?” Benny asks.

“Yes,” Beth replies.

His heartbeat doesn’t slow down, and Beth likes listening to it, a real person and not a pantheon of ghosts.

“Okay,” Benny says at last. “We can do that.”

-

Chapter Text

August in New York is not like August in Kentucky. The city has its own sticky, grimy heat that rises from the sidewalks and the brickwork and the people themselves, increasingly scantily-clad and bad-tempered. Beth takes to sitting out on a towel folded on the hot metal of their fire escape, reading magazines through her sunglasses or listening to the radio while she suns herself. Conversely, Benny spends a lot of his time hiding in his gloomy bedroom with the drapes firmly closed, or lying in the empty bathtub in his underwear, sulking. He clearly doesn’t deal well with higher temperatures, and this explains a lot about his complexion, frankly.

In the evenings, as people start gathering on sidewalks and rooftops, they go out into the cooler air; Beth finds an in with the local old men who play dice in the park, keeping half her attention on the game, half her attention on Benny playing dominoes for loose change and honing his Puerto Rican insults, cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth in a way that should look ridiculous and manages not to. Other nights, Wexler and Levertov drag them out to restaurants, to little tucked-away Italian basements and enormous places in Chinatown where none of them speak the language the people around them are happily chatting.

The invitations come from Russia maybe a week after Beth arrives back in New York, one for each of them. The Moscow Invitational is being held earlier this year, a little before Beth’s twenty-second birthday in early October; technically there wouldn’t be much time to prepare if this hadn’t been the goal all along. That thought sparks another thought, and she looks up from the official letter to watch Benny curled up at one end of their couch, reading his.

“How old are you?” she asks.

“Twenty-nine,” Benny replies, eyes still on the paper.

Beth frowns. “When’s your birthday?”

Benny folds the letter neatly, tucks it back into the envelope. “Not today, anyway,” he tells her.

Beth sighs. “Is this another one of those I’m Benny Watts things?” she asks. “Because you know I hate all of those.”

“You enjoy more of them than you think you do,” Benny says mildly, reaching to retrieve his morning coffee.

“I’m your wife,” Beth reminds him. “I’m pretty sure I’m allowed to know when your birthday is, you don’t have to keep fabricating weird little mysteries.”

“I don’t care about my birthday,” Benny shrugs. “One day, you’ll ask how old I am and I’ll say ‘thirty’ and then you’ll know it’s happened.”

“I could ask you every day,” Beth points out.

“You could,” Benny agrees. “But then we’ll just get snappy with each other and you’re supposed to be preparing for Russia.”

Beth narrows her eyes, successfully distracted. “And what will you be doing?”

“Well, Wexler is threatening to get Shakespeare In The Park tickets again,” Benny offers, deliberately flippant.

“Why won’t you be preparing for Russia?” Beth demands, not in the mood to skirt the subject for however long Benny feels like avoiding it. “You’ve got an invitation too, I just watched you open it.”

Benny’s brow furrows in the way it does when he’s about to say something that he thinks Beth should have worked out for herself. “One of us is going to Russia, Beth,” he says, faux-patient, “and we both know the person with a better chance of winning is you.”

“Pretty sure you can knock out the other European candidates,” Beth shrugs, “and you’ve never avoided a situation you couldn’t win before.”

“Case in point,” Benny mutters.

“Why don’t you want to go to Russia?” Beth demands.

“You know how much that shit costs, Beth,” Benny responds, voice tight. “You might have it, but I don’t.”

Beth rolls her eyes. “I’m still in possession of both your Boston and your Vegas Open winnings, which aren’t insubstantial, and I’ve got a savings account I’ve been feeding into for over a year. If I’d won outright you’d be coming to Moscow as my second anyway, we only need one hotel room, and the finances for you competing as yourself aren’t actually all that different.”

Benny is staring at her in the way he always does when Beth has successfully won something from him, mouth a little open, eyes wide.

“If you’d mentioned this to me instead of just being ridiculous in your head about it I’d have reminded you how good I am at math and that I’ve been working on it,” Beth points out. “I’m not going to Russia without you again.”

Benny’s lower lip tucks into his mouth, and Beth knows they’re both thinking about the same thing; but thinking about that last call doesn’t hurt the way it used to, knowing what came next.

“Also,” she adds, “the Federation actually likes you, so they’ll probably offer up some money, and my agent is already talking to the show about me filming some special stuff for them in Russia, for which I’ll overcharge them. We’re going to be fine.”

She watches Benny, who is still playing with his rings. “And you’re sure you don’t want me to just come as your second?”

Beth scowls. “Well, would you prefer that I didn’t play, and I’ll come as your second?”

“No!” Benny protests. “Of course not.”

“Well then.” Beth folds her arms. “We’re both playing in Russia, and we’ll be each other’s seconds. Unless you want to bring Weiss again?”

Benny shakes his head, something like a wry laugh escaping him. “Jesus, Beth, no, I don’t want to bring Weiss.”

“Then it’s settled,” Beth says. “We’ll both accept.”

“It’s a lot of pressure,” Benny reminds her, tone careful. “You’re sure we should do this?”

Beth shrugs. “It won’t be worse than Vegas,” and watches Benny tip his head, conceding.

They end up out at Coney Island; the last of the big theme parks closed years ago and everything has a vague dilapidated, unloved feel to it, but there are still crowds of New Yorkers filling the beaches. The sun verges on blisteringly hot but the breezes coming off the water mitigate it, and Beth feels like she can breathe more freely than when cramped in the city. There’s something loose in Benny’s shoulders, wearing the hat but none of his other affectations, sleeves rolled up to let the sunlight touch his forearms, as they stroll like so many other couples, over-excited children cutting across their path, shrieking and giggling, clothes and faces smeared with ice-cream. They pick up lunch from Nathan’s Famous Hotdogs and find a space on the beach to eat, surrounded by families and sunbathers and someone’s radio playing The Carpenters warbling Close To You.

Beth casts a sideways look at Benny, already smiling; his mouth is grim, and he shakes his head as he murmurs: “fucking insipid”.

Prepared for the weather, Beth is wearing short culottes and a sleeveless blouse, and it’s easy to kick off her espadrilles and dig her toes into the sand. Even Benny consents to remove his boots and roll up his jeans enough to trail after her to the water, complaining: “it’s probably contaminated, they dump so much shit in here.” He follows her in anyway, surf around their ankles, wet sand and cool water, while kids shriek and splash in brightly-coloured swimsuits. Beth’s childhood did not involve trips to the beach, sandcastles and ice cream and sunburn, and she thinks back to that serious, awkward little girl and wonders if she’d have liked it.

Beside her, Benny has his eyes on the horizon, seeing and not seeing; Beth’s always seen her imaginary chess matches on the ceiling, on the sky, high above her and full of possibilities. She knows now that Benny visualises things ahead of him, just out of reach. When they’re playing chess without a board, she looks upwards, Benny looks forward. It’s probably just as well; he’d definitely have crashed his car by now otherwise.

When Beth leans sideways and presses her mouth to his, she feels Benny startle back into himself, into the moment. His lips are a little cracked and taste of salt and sand, and when she pulls back she can see herself reflected in his eyes.

“What was that for?” he asks quietly.

For knowing that I needed to come home when I didn’t even know where home was, Beth thinks, but they’re not touching that night in Lexington yet, maybe they never will. “It’s a nice afternoon,” she shrugs.

“There’s too many people and the water’s probably polluted and I’m gonna have sand in my socks all the way home,” Benny tells her.

Beth reaches to pluck off his hat for the way the sunlight catches how gold his hair is, for the way the breeze picks it up and blows it off his forehead, for the way he reluctantly smiles when Beth sets the hat on her own head, taking the role of cowboy king for herself for a moment. Benny responds by taking her sunglasses, slipping the cat-eye frames onto his own face; they don’t look half bad.

“What’s that for?” he asks when Beth tilts the brim of the hat a little and kisses him again, quick and simple.

“It’s what Benny Watts would do,” she responds, laughs when Benny catches her at the waist to pull her in once more for one last lingering kiss, like they’re like those other couples around them, summer sweethearts, born of cloudless skies and sunshine and that shade of golden light that only happens on certain evenings.

Neither you nor Benny are the type to like or to trust things that come to you easily says Townes in Beth’s head afterwards as Benny wades back to shore, jeans splashed to the knee despite his best efforts. He turns once he’s back on the beach, sunlight glinting off the frames of Beth’s sunglasses.

“Are you coming?” he asks.

Beth makes sure her eye-roll is dramatic. “Yes,” she says, and wonders for a second what it would be like if they did, if they could.

-

Beth’s spent her evening playing speed chess with some of the women at Christine’s club, finishing up with a simultaneous against the three strongest players at their insistence: “we have to get you ready for Russia!” Afterwards, they fall easily into chatting, topics Beth can identify with and topics she can’t, but it’s comfortable and easy and nice to slip back into, after those weeks of silence in Kentucky. It’s also a reminder she has the beginnings of a life in New York, there’s more than just Benny here.

Later, she drifts over to find out what Benny’s been doing; she didn’t hear any arguments break out behind her, which is always a good sign, but if she’s learned anything by now it’s that Benny can create trouble very quietly. For now, though, he’s looking at a folded-over page in a magazine while the guy opposite is saying: “I can’t believe you haven’t been yet, Benny, Jesus.”

“July got a little crowded,” Benny responds.

“Well, they’re still there for a week or two,” the guy says; he’s dressed a little like Benny and Beth thinks she’s seen him before around here, although he carries the look off with a lot less panache. That, or she’s hopelessly biased by this point. “You can still go.”

Beth drops into the chair beside Benny’s, borrowing a trick from his book by leaning over and saying: “where are we going?”

Benny startles a little, gives her one of those momentary looks like he’s forgotten she exists and isn’t sure what to do now he’s remembered, and then shrugs. “The Velvet Underground are playing,” he says, “but you’re not much of a fan.”

Beth considers this. “I like them more than Bob Dylan or… any of those jazz guys you like.”

It’s almost too easy, and she laughs at Benny’s pained expression. Benny’s friend pushes the magazine at the two of them: “Take him,” he tells Beth, “you’ll have a good night.”

“Benny’s taking you to Max’s?” Levertov asks the next night, and he and Wexler exchange looks.

“Don’t be assholes,” Benny tells them. “Also, Hilton, I think you’re cheating.”

He’s studying a creased pamphlet on playing backgammon that arrived with Wexler, Levertov and their game. It doesn’t seem to have cast any real light on the rules for any of them.

“I’m not cheating!” Wexler protests, and then looks down at the board, mouth twisting. “Wait, am I?”

Beth doesn’t want to be distracted. “Why can’t I go to Max’s?”

“Oh, you can,” Levertov shrugs. “It’s just… well, it’s not either of your scenes.”

“It’s the beautiful people and the wannabes,” Wexler says, casual, carefully moving one of his white counters and then looking hopefully at Benny. “Will that do?”

“…I think so,” Benny agrees, still squinting at the little booklet of rules.

“He’s grumpy because he got in a fight with William Burroughs,” Levertov tells Beth, before carefully picking up his dice cup and rattling it. They did start out the evening trying to play as two teams, but now it’s Wexler and Levertov playing each other, while Beth and Benny help and hinder and distract them from the sidelines.

“I got into a minor disagreement with William Burroughs,” Benny replies, “and that was years ago.”

“Fewer years than you’d like,” Wexler shrugs. He turns to Beth. “You won’t have met the stage of Drunk Benny where he’s just weirdly but impotently angry with everything, it’s very entertaining.”

Levertov spills the dice and then frowns at their numbers before tentatively reaching for one of his black counters. “No,” Benny says. Levertov scowls and then moves a different one instead.

“You’ll be fine,” Levertov says, “I went last month, it’s just Velvet Underground fans, it’s not like you’ll get invited into the Back Room to hang with Warhol’s pals.”

Now that’s a name Beth recognises. “Andy Warhol?” she demands, turning to Benny.

“He won’t be there,” Benny says dismissively, “he and the Velvets parted ways years ago, and anyway he doesn’t go out so much since he got shot. It’s just some of his Factory types, and none of them are going to look at you, so I wouldn’t worry.”

“Just don’t wear anything you’d want to wear again. Or mind getting other people’s booze on,” Wexler tells Beth. “Or other people’s bodily fluids.”

Beth frowns. “You’re not serious.”

Benny sighs. “Oh, he is.”

In the end, after giving it all some careful thought, Beth waits until Benny’s out getting cigarettes and then sneaks into his room.

The set doesn’t start until eleven pm, so Beth has plenty of time to work on her outfit, knowing she and Benny will be entirely anonymous but enjoying the idea of dressing up for the occasion anyway. She’s started planning her wardrobe for Moscow already, a stack of torn-out magazine pages building up on her dresser, but tonight’s look isn’t anything she’ll be wearing for cameras, for competitors. She takes the time to work on her eyeliner, bold and black, paints her lips pale again, spends time on her hair until it has a careless, just-been-fucked look to it that she likes. It feels strange doing this to herself stable, sober, but not necessarily bad. Beth finds a black sleeveless blouse in her closet, undoes as many buttons as she dares, and decides she’ll have to do.

Benny is slumped on their couch; his eyes flick up to Beth and she watches them widen, and his mouth falls open for a second before he catches himself, blinks twice.

“Are those my jeans?” he asks at last.

Beth shrugs. “They are. Is that my eyeliner?”

Benny gives her a rueful smile. “It might be, yes.”

Max’s Kansas City turns out to be a crowded building on Park Avenue South, with a black awning outside and several people hanging out on the sidewalk, smoking pot and laughing about everything or maybe nothing. They pay their three dollars each on the door and Beth lets Benny lead her through the narrow restaurant downstairs, all the tables with bright crimson vinyl coverings and crammed full of all kinds of people; she catches a glimpse of a backroom bathed in red neon light before they head upstairs, the heat and noise and smell of sweat and cigarettes hitting her nose as they climb.

Upstairs is even more crowded and dark, the tables packed together and another bar doing brisk service. Beth feels people’s gazes sliding off her, disinterested, and again she loves that anonymity, after so much scrutiny in Vegas, back in Lexington where everyone knows her face because that’s where she grew up. Here, no one cares who she is, who Benny is, that they’re married or whether that marriage is real. They don’t care that Beth likes kissing Benny too much and isn’t sure he should be letting her do this, or that Townes’ response to Beth telling him that she and Benny are going to Moscow together as players and each other’s seconds was a long and careful silence. They find seats at a table in the corner; there’s dark wood panelling behind Beth and she thinks the paint might be some shade of blue, but the poor lighting and the air thick with a fug of cigarette smoke make pinpointing things difficult. Everything has a touch of stickiness to it; Beth now understands what Wexler meant and is even more pleased that she stole a pair of Benny’s jeans to wear.

There’s no formal stage, more a cleared space of the floor with a handful of spotlights and piles of audio equipment, instruments and microphones. All the tables are cluttered with uncleared glasses, overflowing ashtrays, and the air is sticky and hot from summer and proximity and lack of ventilation.

“You can get a drink, you know,” Beth offers; she’s not sure how she feels anymore after her failed experiment in Kentucky, because part of her still thinks she’s got the balance wrong, that next time she could get it right and she could go back to feeling like she used to. It’s not made her daily determination harder, but it’s not made it easier either.

“I’m fine,” Benny responds on a shrug, pressing his shoulder briefly into hers.

There was a band for Mike and Susan’s wedding, and a band at the nightclub in Vegas, but they were doing covers, crowd pleasers, something for everyone. From the moment Lou Reed quietly introduces his band, laughs a little, and says: “you’re allowed to dance, in case you didn’t know”, it’s very different. In the cramped space the music is loud enough to really vibrate through Beth’s chest, her feet, her head, loud enough to hurt her ears. The drums are a constant thudding beat but it’s the bass guitar that really takes up residence in Beth’s ribcage, a sharp thrum she can feel when she puts her hand there. Around her people are singing along, shifting in their seats, clapping their hands and beating time on their knees, all of them here for the same thing, moved by the same rhythm.

This isn’t like the music Benny listens to in their living room, aimlessly tapping his bare feet with a cigarette and a novel that Beth won’t enjoy: it’s wilder, louder, faster, better. Beth is streaked with sweat in minutes, the energy in the room feels like touching her tongue to a live wire, everyone connected by the same sound, the same beat, the same moment in time. As the set goes on, people start getting out of their seats, dancing in the tiny amount of floor space, unselfconscious and free. Beth lets the music carry her to her feet, moving the way it demands, the way she needs. It’s not like her drunken stumbling a week or so ago, it’s purer than that, more urgent, uncontrolled. It’s simple, easy, to pull Benny’s hips to hers, for him to move with her, caught by the same fever that’s captured everyone in the room, the same pleasure on everyone’s face.

I’m beginning to see the light, Lou Reed sings, over and over, words that ring up and down Beth’s spine and beat breathlessly in her chest. She’s not herself anymore, adrift in noise and smoky light and unimaginable heat, everyone around her bumping hips and elbows, flying hair and singing along and laughter.

In the gap between songs, Beth pulls Benny to her and kisses him, and no one cares. His lips part and she can slip her tongue in, deep and slow, and his hands slide down her back, pull her closer, and nobody cares. There’s more music, more dancing around them, but they aren’t drawing any attention, this is positively chaste from some of the stories Beth’s been gleaning about this place, her hips grinding into Benny’s, his heartbeat and the bass guitar both thudding under Beth’s hand. For a moment Beth thinks that they should stop doing this, every time they go somewhere dancing together it becomes almost impossible to remember all the reasons why it isn’t a good idea to get too close, Vegas was one thing, but this is something else.

Except that Benny’s tongue is pressed to hers and his hands are possessively spread across her back and Beth is enjoying the music, is going to be insisting on going to more shows in future, but right now her self-control is cracking apart, and she thinks about Benny saying of course we’re attracted to each other like it was obvious, like it didn’t matter, wasn’t a problem at all. Maybe there are times when it isn’t.

They stumble down the stairs like they’re drunk, and no one cares as Beth pushes open the door to the women’s restroom, pulls Benny after her before he can protest. The cubicles are tiny, black-painted wood and grimy white tile, but it’s a shred of privacy and that’s all they need, all Beth wants, pulling Benny into another one of those endless kisses, sharp and suffocating and hot. He bites at her mouth, stinging and sweet, and their hips connect again, a rasp of denim against denim. Beth lets out a soft helpless sound against him and Benny swallows it; Beth is torn between making as much noise as she wants and knowing that there are other bathroom stalls, a restaurant full of drunk people outside the door, not quite an audience, but enough of one.

“We should go,” Benny murmurs against her lips, and Beth thinks about catching a cab, riding the subway, the space, the distance, and knows that if they go home they won’t see this through, logic will have returned. Logic is probably the right thing to do, but this is the best she’s felt since before they left for Vegas, an easy warmth humming through her bones. They can do this: they’ve talked about this, agreed that sex doesn’t change things, doesn’t mean more than it ever did between them.

Beth responds to Benny’s stupid suggestion by meeting his gaze and slowly, deliberately sinking to her knees. She watches realisation fall across his face, his eyes with their hopelessly smudged liner widening, and gives him a smug little smile before reaching for his zipper.

She can still remember, of course, the mess with the word cocksucker, with squinting at her anatomy book and thinking why? at the idea of wanting to do that, baffled about the appeal. Frankly, this is another one of those things she can blame on Benny: he never showed any hesitation, any shame in diving straight between her legs, in making her come with his mouth until she begged him to stop, overstimulated and exhausted. He never indicated that he wanted her to reciprocate, and Beth has gathered from Cosmopolitan that a lot of women don’t seem to want to do this, but curiosity got the better of her and she asked him to show her what to do. The shock on his face was vaguely similar to his expression now, years later, in this badly-lit bathroom stall, watching Beth peel his jeans open.

This isn’t Beth’s favourite thing to do but she doesn’t dislike it either, and she definitely likes the power it has over Benny, the way his breathing hitches when she pulls his hard cock from his underwear, breathes gently over the head. The angle isn’t perfect, there’s barely space to kneel here, but she doesn’t think this is going to take long. She leans in, pressing damp kisses along the length of him, a tease and a promise, and in her peripheral vision watches Benny’s fingers curl into his palm. She wraps her own hand around the base, remembering from past experience this will stop her choking, and makes sure she’s looking up at him when she takes his cock into her mouth.

It’s been a long time since she last did this, of course, but the muscle memory is there, and he tastes like he always did, sharp and salty but not unpleasant. Benny is watching her avidly, expression utterly enthralled, his eyes looking even bigger with the addition of the make-up, her make-up. Beth can’t really move, squirms a little as she sucks, discovers the rough inseam of her jeans catches her clit in an interesting way that isn’t really enough but is enough to try rocking a little more again. Benny gasps and she hums a little around her full mouth for the way he shivers, crams a hand against his mouth to try and stay quiet. Beth catches his free hand and pulls it until he realises that she wants him to touch her, his fingers sliding through her hair, cradling the base of her skull.

She pulls back for air, takes a breath or two, licks swollen lips and then leans back in again. Beth has always been a perfectionist, diligent and careful, and she worked at oral sex the way she worked at the chessboards in Benny’s living room, until her fingers were sore from pushing pawns and her jaw was sore from exploring the dimensions of Benny’s cock, what made him cry out, what made her choke and have to pull back. Now, Beth doesn’t try to take his full length in, knows that she can’t, but she can keep going until her lips meet the top of her fist. Benny’s fingers twitch but he doesn’t try to control her, isn’t rough with Beth the way she is with him; it’s the only thing that they do where he treats her like she’s fragile, like he doesn’t want to hurt her. Beth thinks she could stand to have him a little rougher but maybe not now, not when she can tell from his harsh breathing that he’s getting closer; instead she squeezes his cock and moves her mouth, sliding on her own spit, pulling back enough to wrap her tongue around the head and then taking him all the way back down again.

Fuck,” Benny pants, “Beth, Beth, I’m-”

Beth’s as unsqueamish about this as he is about her; she pulls back enough that she won’t choke, sucks hard on the head and feels him come with a rough shudder that runs through his whole body, makes his fingers clench in her hair. Beth swallows what she can and thinks suddenly and vividly of Wexler telling her not to wear anything she didn’t mind getting other people’s bodily fluids on, fights not to accidentally laugh because she can’t imagine explaining it to Benny. While he slumps against the cubicle wall and gasps for breath, Beth takes the opportunity to tuck his half-hard cock back into his underwear, wipes her wet mouth and sticky face on his t-shirt; he might mind when he realises later, but it’ll be too late by then.

Her knees hurt when Benny helps pull her back to her feet, pushes her into the wall on the other side and kisses her, sucking the taste of himself from her tongue. His touch skims up her sides, and he pulls open a couple more buttons on her blouse to drag it open, slides one of his hands into the cup of her bra. It’s too much and not enough all at once, Benny twisting her nipple while he licks into her mouth and Beth’s hips rock into nothing; she can hear herself keening a little, frantic for stimulation. Benny pulls his hand free and that isn’t what she wanted; he nips her lower lip when she makes a sound of protest, and then he’s already pulling at her jeans, his jeans, undoing the fly and pushing his hand inside, under her panties. It’s a tight fit but not impossibly so; he twists his hand and pushes two fingers straight inside her and Beth almost bites right through his lip at the sensation.

Both of them panting into each other’s mouths now, Benny crooks his fingers, twisting them inside her to find that angle that makes Beth jump and quiver, and presses the palm of his hand against her clit. It takes a minute but they find the same rhythm, Beth riding his hand frantically, Benny’s fingers working inside her cunt. Beth tries to stay quiet, breath stuttering and breaking, and when Benny works the hand inside her jeans – inside his jeans – to press a third finger inside her Beth clenches around him and shatters. He fingers her through the aftershocks, more gentle now, and Beth still sways her hips a little against him, feeling how wet she is, thinking about it all soaking into the denim on the way home, giving Benny his stolen clothing back when they get there.

Finally, Benny carefully wriggles his hand out of her waistband, fingers shining and slick, and something jumps in Beth all over again when he raises them to his mouth to lick them clean, not looking away from her while he does so. It’s too much and not enough, and Beth is sweaty and chilled at the same time, finally registering the music thumping through the ceiling, people dancing above their heads. They do up each other’s jeans clumsily, and Beth doesn’t need to look at her reflection in the mirrors above the sinks as she washes her hands and splashes water on her flushed cheeks to know how wrecked she must look, eyeliner all over her face, lips reddened and sore-looking. She does her blouse back up, but there’s not much else she can do.

She meets Benny’s gaze in the mirror and after a second both of them start laughing. They both look a mess, but no one here cares, there’s no one to hide from. Maybe tomorrow – well, later today – Beth will regret this, waking up to daylight and a desperate need for a shower, but as Benny links their fingers and pulls her outside in search of a cab Beth thinks, well, maybe she won’t after all.

-

As August carries on, Beth sits in front of an ineffectual electric fan and works through dozens of issues of Shakhmatny Bulletin and Shakhmaty v SSSR until when she closes her eyes all she can see is Cyrillic. She and Benny work through Europe Echecs together, Benny translating where relevant, until they’re pretty sure they know any potential French players as well as they can manage. Levertov and Wexler take it in turns to provide their copies of Schach and Deutsche Schachzeitung and translate anything relating to the top grandmasters: once you know the code for the notations in each language the numbers are mercifully always the same. A vague contact of Benny’s in the Netherlands provides them with a selection of EG magazine, which specialises in endgame studies and is printed in English despite its Dutch publisher. Beth studies so hard her brain is full of nothing else; she drops into bed at night watching pieces move behind her eyelids. It’s been a while since she was last like this, and in all honesty it’s a relief not to have room for anything else.

Beth practices Russian the way she used to, handstands against her bedroom wall for as long as she can bear it, reciting verbs and phrases as the blood rushes to her head. She and Benny pass each other in the kitchen, making ever more coffee, eating toast at odd hours and trying to hold conversations entirely in Russian, then critiquing each other’s grammar afterwards. Sure, they could probably manage without the language, but anything that can give you an edge against the Soviets is essential.

Some afternoons, Benny plays Beth’s games from big competitions, and Beth plays his; they both take notes, exchange strengths and weaknesses afterwards. It’s not easy: Beth’s immediate response to criticism from Benny is to get defensive, and he clearly feels the same, but after the first couple of times it gets easier, useful to have a second pair of eyes looking over her work, picking out things she might not have spotted. This Benny is the Benny she remembers from the days in his apartment back in Sixty-Seven; quiet, serious and sombre, all his public talismans and affectations abandoned in favour of hours of silence, cross-referenced strategies, and pages and pages of meticulous notations. In some ways it’s a little jarring, the retreat of Benny’s personality in favour of concentration, but it’s also a reminder that Benny is more than a smug drawl for his public, a kindness he’ll never admit to in private, and the kind of kisser who can turn Beth inside out: he’s a teammate and a rival, a chess player every bit as dedicated and determined as Beth is. He brought her back to the city, helped her settle herself back in when everything about her felt unbalanced, but there’s real work to do now.

It’s hard work, made harder by the sticky humidity, and more than once Beth finds herself staring at the diagrams in front of her with unseeing eyes, thinking longingly of how the pills made the world fuzzier and the pieces sharper, enabling her to spend hours tracing games across the ceiling and still sleep afterwards. The nights are halfway to unbearable but Beth tries to stick to a routine; Benny does not, keeping to a schedule only he seems to understand that overlaps with Beth’s in some places but not in a lot of others; she’ll get up for water in the early hours of the morning and find him studying the living room or pacing their narrow hallway or perching on the kitchen sideboard for a change of scenery.

The increasing solitude is what Beth needs to work, her only interactions with other people generally chess-related, but it doesn’t help the restlessness, sometimes looking out of the window at the busy streets below like a child stuck in detention while all her classmates are out playing.

“I should have come to see you when I was in Kentucky,” Beth says to Jolene, an early evening call to break the monotony.

“I was busy,” Jolene replies, a shrug in her voice. “You were busy.”

“Busy lying on my couch sulking about chess,” Beth admits awkwardly.

“You needed the space, don’t feel guilty about it,” Jolene tells her. “Though I do have to say, I was on the point of demanding you drag your ass back to New York if your cowboy hadn’t gotten there before me.”

“I wasn’t ready!” Beth protests.

“You’d decided you were never gonna be ready,” Jolene replies, matter-of-fact. “And I get that too, but you’re not a scared little girl hiding out in her dead mama’s house because she has nowhere else to go anymore. You have options now. You have so many options.”

Too many options, Beth thinks. There’s something terrifying about being backed into a corner, in the real world or on a chess board, but at least then you know what you have to do. When there’s nothing in front of you, everything rolled out free and clear, it’s too much. How do you know which move is the right one, the best one, the one that leads you to the ending you want? Beth prefers playing White, but even so, there’s something about picking your opening that can be overwhelming. Games have been lost from the very first move.

“Most of those options make sitting in my house in Kentucky look very appealing,” Beth points out. “And I’d be closer to you, which is no bad thing.”

“Beth.” Jolene’s voice is soft. “I’m where I’m supposed to be, and you’re where you’re supposed to be. Those places aren’t near each other right now, but I’ve got my last year of school to focus on and you’ve got a career and a bunch of titles to win. We won’t lose each other again.”

Beth doesn’t want to say how good it feels to specifically hear that, to admit that she’d gotten used to only having a few people in her life and losing all of them, one way or another, but maybe she doesn’t need to: Jolene grew up in Methuen too, after all.

“Okay,” Beth replies, voice small and soft.

“Besides,” Jolene continues, “once I graduate, who knows where I’ll end up? The more I research, the more places seem to need me.”

“I’m glad there are so many employment opportunities for radicals,” Beth tells her. “I’m surprised our school guidance counsellor never mentioned them.”

“Like you attended school often enough to see a guidance counsellor,” Jolene scoffs. “All you ever wanted to do was chess, I don’t need to have been there to know that.”

“I thought about modelling for a while,” Beth corrects her. “Mostly because I assumed I’d get a bunch of free clothes.”

“You’d have been bored,” Jolene says dismissively, reminding Beth sharply of her conversation with Cleo, all those years ago in a basement apartment rented by somebody else now. “And by this point you’d probably have overdosed at least a couple of times, at least chess gives you something to focus on.”

Beth flinches, glad Jolene can’t see her, although Jolene probably knows the effect her words have on Beth: she was there, sometimes in the house, sometimes on the other end of the phone, during those messy weeks when day was night and night was day and Beth was constantly in a cold shivering sweat, puking nowhere near anybody’s trophies. In honesty, her memories of that time aren’t clear, and she doesn’t particularly want them to be, but they’re lingering there sometimes in the back of her brain, a reminder of what she did to herself, what she could so easily do to herself again.

“I still find the idea of free clothes appealing,” Beth says at last, after a noticeable pause Jolene doesn’t comment on or try to fill. She clears her throat, awkward. “Where are you looking at for after graduation, anyway?”

“I’m thinking,” Jolene replies. “I might stay South or I might head to Chicago or Washington, there’s plenty of work all over.”

“What does Rick think?” Beth asks.

“Oh, I’m not letting a man make this choice for me,” Jolene says, firm. “If he wants to come, he can come. If he doesn’t, fuck him, someone will.”

Beth considers her next question carefully. “Do you still love him?”

Jolene sighs. “People need different things, Beth. Kind of like how I stopped needing the green vitamins and you never did.” Beth stays quiet, listens to Jolene breathing. “And sometimes, what you needed once isn’t what you need later, and it’s okay. Wanting something that you didn’t want before isn’t a weakness. I mean, hell, imagine telling me as a teenager I’d be doing all this studying voluntarily, I wouldn’t have believed you.”

Beth isn’t sure if Jolene is really talking to her or not, so she gives it a minute and finally offers: “do you get to keep the car, at least?”

She’s relieved when Jolene laughs, even if it sounds a little shaky. “Yeah, whatever happens, I get to keep the car.”

“Well, that’s good,” Beth says, a little helplessly.

Jolene sniffs. “Anyway,” she says, “that’s me dissected, let’s talk about your latest terrible idea.”

Beth very nearly asks which one? but decides that won’t help her case. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she says primly.

“Look, I try not to know too much technical chess stuff,” Jolene tells her, “but I’m pretty sure that you and Benny aren’t supposed to go to Russia as each other’s competitor and support team.”

“The Russians play as a team,” Beth tells Jolene, which is the line she’s told three different reporters so far. “They play as individuals and together, both in competitions like this one and in the Chess Olympiad.”

“Yeah,” Jolene says dryly, “I saw that one printed up. But those Russian teammates aren’t also married to each other, with a history of having really big fights and badly timed sex.”

Clearly Jolene has shaken off whatever she was feeling a couple of minutes ago. Beth makes a face. “We dealt with that!” she protests, voice rising a little too high. “I told you.”

“Right,” Jolene says. “And the part where you’re dating now, where does that fit into your very casual platonic masterplan?”

“We’re not dating!” Beth’s voice has definitely reached a stupid pitch now. “We have to leave the apartment sometime, we’re not shut-ins.”

“You go to nice places together and then you make out,” Jolene says. “I know your romantic history is pretty dodgy but that’s what dating is, Beth.”

“I didn’t say we made out,” Beth hisses. She thinks Benny is asleep, but who knows; he could be in his room with a glass to the wall, laughing at her.

“You didn’t have to,” Jolene replies. “Lawyer, remember?”

“That doesn’t even make sense,” Beth tells her. “It doesn’t make you psychic.”

“No, that’s just the part where I know you,” Jolene explains. “I think it’s cute! It’s a terrible idea given your history and your upcoming chess pageant thing, but cute.”

Beth scowls, knowing Jolene can’t see her. “We’re just friends,” she says. “It’s taken a lot of work, but we made it, it’s good.”

Jolene makes a dubious noise, but she doesn’t push it, and Beth is glad. She isn’t sure she knows how to explain something that barely makes sense to her, but it’s working right now and surely that’s the most important part.

“You know,” Jolene says after a moment, “your cowboy is still sending me books?”

“…what?” Beth asks.

“I get little packages every few weeks, ever since he sent that first Audre Lorde collection. Black poetry, essays, manifestos, magazines. I don’t know where he’s getting them from or how he knows what the good stuff is, but I keep receiving it. No notes, no receipts, and you never checked if the post was arriving, which is how I figured it wasn’t you. He just… sends stuff along.”

“Oh,” Beth says.

Ten minutes later, when they’ve said their goodbyes, Benny surfaces from his room. In deference to the weather, he’s abandoned the robes, but he’s still wearing his jeans. There are pillow creases on his cheek, and his eyes have the vague look that Beth has learned means that he’s just woken up. He leans against the doorframe, hair messy from sleep and soft looking.

“Been studying hard?” Beth asks archly.

His mouth ticks in a smile. “Very hard,” he agrees.

“I’ve just been talking to Jolene,” Beth tells him, watching his face carefully.

“She good?” Benny asks, expression unchanging.

“Yeah,” Beth says slowly, “she’s good.”

Benny nods and pushes away from the doorframe, headed for the kitchen and presumably a lot of coffee.

Beth opens her mouth, and then closes it again. She has no idea what she wants to say, if there are even real words for it. She listens to Benny rattling drawers and opening cabinets and sighs, reaches for yet another issue of an Italian chess magazine neither of them can really read. This part of her life, at least, is very specifically what it is supposed to be.

-

Townes is in New York for actual work, some of which relates to Beth and Benny, most of which does not. He takes Beth out to lunch, somewhere fancy where she can wear one of her most stylish dresses and not feel out of place, and spends twenty minutes asking her questions about her preparations for Moscow that Beth has answered a hundred times before, and she tries to give him slightly more interesting answers than she’d give to another journalist. Most of them are for Chess Life, although he’ll probably slip something into the Lexington Herald Leader since even though she’s living in New York at the moment, she still counts as a local girl. Maybe she always will.

When that’s over, they can get on with eating lunch and catching up. Townes has a tan and his hair is a little longer, and he manages to carry off late summer in the city with a casual panache that Beth is pretty sure neither she nor Benny have managed, both of them looking like underwatered plants that have been kept in the dark.

“I know you don’t need this warning,” Townes says carefully, “but if you and Benny mess up in Russia, there’s no coming back. There won’t be anything I can do to help you out, the media will crucify you.”

“I’m pretty sure if the Russians think we’re mocking their Invitational the KGB will murder me and Benny in our hotel room,” Beth tells him.

Townes fixes her with a look. “Harmon.”

“I know,” she says, dropping her gaze to the tablecloth. “I know.”

Beth would like the world to move on from Vegas and everything it meant the way she and Benny almost definitely have, but it’s there, constantly, twinned with her name whenever someone writes about her. They can’t specifically say that she lost, because she didn’t, but the adjectives they use to describe that final match are damning, and while Townes’ gambit of pretending to expose her humanity and say it was their love for each other that threw that game might have worked overall, it makes Beth feel angry and uncomfortable. She’s spent years trying to stop people writing about her as a person, only wanting them to write about her intellect and skill, and now the gossip is worse in some ways because she helped them.

“Anyway,” Townes says, neatly changing the subject, “you’re looking better.”

“Well, I haven’t just humiliated myself in front of the entire chess world,” Beth replies, trying for flippant and thinking she might fall a little short. “That tends to help.”

“That’s true,” Townes agrees, “but you know that isn’t what I meant. You look good. Living in New York suits you.”

Beth thinks about Jolene saying you’re where you’re supposed to be with such certainty in her voice.

“I guess it’s not so bad,” she says. “I mean, there’s more crime, graffiti, rats and garbage than in Kentucky, but I’m getting used to it.”

“You were fading away in Kentucky,” Townes says, as straightforward as Jolene ever is when saying something that will sting anyway. “I didn’t say anything because I didn’t know what it was you needed, but it was as though all that light in you was dying out for most of last year. Now, I think you’re even brighter than you were before.”

Beth knows what he’s saying, but it still makes her grind the toe of one of her loafers into the restaurant’s expensive carpet.

Early evening, when the light is apparently better, Townes takes Beth back home and takes various pictures of her in the lobby, where the white walls are apparently the perfect backdrop. Pete watches with interest and starts making suggestions about lighting and angles, several of which Townes actually takes, and Beth lets them get on with it because, well, they seem to be having fun. They head upstairs to get Benny, and once Townes has insisted on him taking a shower and drinking two cups of coffee they go back to the lobby and repeat the process, Beth joining Pete to watch and heckle from the sidelines. For the most part Benny ignores her, scowling at the camera in a way that Beth recognises from countless issues of Chess Life before she ever even met him, hips smugly cocked, hat meticulously angled to look casual, as though any part of Benny’s persona is in any way accidental or left to chance.

Beth folds her arms across her chest and reminds herself that she has never found this version of Benny attractive, that she thought he looked like a dick the first time she saw him on a magazine and the first few times that she met him did nothing to make her revise that opinion. Maybe she’s too visibly unimpressed, because Benny looks over at her and winks, obnoxiously flirtatious. Beth makes a face back at him and he laughs; Townes’ camera flashes.

“Don’t print that one,” Benny tells Townes immediately.

“The Great Benny Watts does not laugh,” Beth says sombrely. “He is too busy winning chess games against lesser mortals and having effortlessly cool hair.”

“Damn straight I am,” Benny agrees, cocking his fingers into a gun to fire at Beth.

“I can’t believe I married this man,” Beth tells Pete, while Townes snaps a last couple of shots.

Pete smiles. “Right now, I can’t believe you did either.”

“Beth,” Townes calls, and jerks his head toward Benny. Beth sighs theatrically and walks over to stand beside him.

“Want us to look competitive?” she asks. “If you want me to strangle him, just say the word.”

Townes rolls his eyes. “Just stand there and look like people, if that’s not too much of a stretch.”

They obey, more or less, both of them black-clad and probably looking like they’re going to a very specific funeral more than anything else, posing for Townes’ camera and Pete’s clear entertainment. In the end, Benny shifts a little, rests his elbow on Beth’s shoulder to lean on her; Beth shrugs him off, turns her head to glare while he smirks unrepentantly at her.

“I think that one’s the cover,” Townes remarks.

“We have to share the cover?” Benny demands, in the most primadonna voice Beth has ever heard him use; she falls back against the wall behind her and laughs until her stomach hurts.

She gives Townes the extremely brief apartment tour; when she first found out Townes was coming to the city she offered to let him stay. When Townes pointed out that they didn’t have a spare room, Beth had simply said it’s fine, I’ll make Benny sleep on the couch. It turns out the paper can put him up in a far nicer hotel than their apartment, one which probably has reliable and consistent air conditioning, but Beth is still pleased to show him the home they’ve managed to shift together in New York anyway, even if most of the wallpaper is terrible and the place is a mess of books and magazines and unwashed coffee cups.

“This is nice,” Townes remarks, looking out of the window onto the hot streets below. If he’s surprised, he manages not to sound it.

“It doesn’t have a bathtub in the living room or glass doors on the bedrooms, so it’s an improvement on Benny’s place,” Beth replies from her seat on the couch.

“The only person to ever complain about those things was you,” Benny says from where he’s lounging in their armchair, long legs stretched out in front of him.

“Now I know you’re lying,” Beth tells him, “I know you invited other women over before me.”

“Maybe I was entertaining them too well for them to care,” Benny snips.

“Children,” Townes cuts in neatly, though he’s smirking as he says it. “I need to do Benny’s interview.”

“Sure you don’t want to make it all up for me again?” Benny asks, easy-going but with an edge of something underneath it.

“I might tidy up some of your grammar,” Townes replies, and the corner of Benny’s mouth ticks into a half-smile. “Come on,” Townes adds, “Beth got lunch on the magazine, the least I can do is buy you a beer. You can leave the knife here, though.”

Beth hadn’t been expecting this, but isn’t sure how to say that she doesn’t want the two of them to go off without her in a way that doesn’t make her sound like a petulant child. Benny’s relationship with Townes is very different to Beth’s, but they get on well enough, and Townes is right: Benny should be interviewed semi-professionally like she was. She waves them off, gets herself some cold juice from the refrigerator, and turns her attention to an issue of L’Italia Scacchistica that she and Benny are trying to decipher with help from his patchy Spanish and a dictionary. Their progress is very slow, but Italy is producing some great players so it’s worth the effort.

It’s not strange. Beth isn’t going to let it be strange. Benny and Townes already knew each other in a way that is entirely separate to Beth, she’s seen photographs and articles in chess magazines by Townes from tournaments Benny was at when she was still skittering her way around the more local ones. Yes, it’s a little complicated, because some part of her made it complicated, and then there was that summer when Beth was mad at both of them and they both flickered into her mind too often, wore each other’s faces in her anxiety dreams until they were verging on being the same person, a handsome man who methodically stripped Beth of everything. And there was that tangled night Beth lost her virginity, when the pot made everything very close and very far away at the same time, and she tried to think of Townes but Tim had shaggy gold hair like Benny Fucking Watts and when she’d finished being distracted from the two of them by the sheer discomfort of it all, she’d mostly been thinking is this it?

Beth shakes her head to clear it, puts on The Beatles’ White Album to take advantage of Benny not being around – his dislike of them being an apparent fixture in his life – and tells herself to focus. Again, it’s a sour reminder that narcotics helped her to fold her emotions away and concentrate on chess in a way that’s very difficult now she’s just relying on herself. She opens the windows to the noisy summer night and turns up While My Guitar Gently Weeps and goes back to playing through one of the games from the La Spezia tournament earlier this year.

The front door opens maybe two and a half hours later; Beth tells herself that she doesn’t leap up from where she’s been sitting on the floor, periodicals and boards spread in front of her.

“Did you have fun?” she asks as she leaves the living room, and then registers that Townes has Benny’s arm slung over his shoulders, an arm around his waist, and Benny barely manages to lift his head to acknowledge her. “Oh,” Beth says carefully, “I see that you did.”

Townes gives her an eloquent grimace and holds out what Beth recognises as Benny’s keys; she takes them from him to lock the door again, while Townes lugs Benny into his room, deposits him carefully onto the bed. Beth joins him as Townes is tugging off Benny’s boots by the light of the bedside lamp; Benny has one arm thrown across his eyes and is mumbling something incomprehensible.

“Is this what charging a beer to the magazine actually means?” Beth asks, a little sharp but, she feels, not as sharp as she could be.

Townes sighs heavily, dropping Benny’s boots to the floor, and follows Beth out of the room, leaving the door ajar.

“Coffee?” Beth offers.

“Sure.”

She makes the coffee in silence, aware of Townes hovering carefully beside her, something guilty in the set of his shoulders. For a moment she thinks that yes, she should be angry, and then she thinks that maybe she shouldn’t: everyone here is, for better or worse, an adult. In the end, Beth hands him a cup, and they go to sit on the couch.

“Are other people’s fake marriages this stressful?” Beth asks, only partially hypothetically.

“I think,” Townes says carefully, “that other people’s fake marriages start with two people who build their issues and their baggage as they go along. You and Benny brought yours with you in the first place.”

Beth nods, sighing. “I thought it might be something like that.”

Townes takes a sip of his coffee before he speaks. “I’m sorry that I brought him home drunk,” he says. His voice is a little tentative.

“I’ve never seen him that drunk,” Beth remarks, because she still can’t tell if she’s mad. “He doesn’t like the loss of control.” She sips her own coffee, more to give herself something to do. “Did you see him at the stage where he apparently gets very angry and picks fights with beat authors?”

Townes frowns. “…I don’t think that I did, no.”

Beth shakes her head a little. “Ignore me, I’m trying to… why is Benny catatonic right now? I thought you were interviewing him?”

“I was,” Townes says. “And then… well, I hate that I’m saying this to you, but he doesn’t drink much because he doesn’t like it, but he wanted and maybe even needed to get drunk and he never would because he wanted to protect you.”

Circuit breaker, Beth thinks dully. Hers didn’t work; she wonders if Benny’s has.

“Is he okay?” she asks, because she can’t work out how to phrase any of the other thoughts in her head right now.

Townes nods. “I think so. Or he will be, anyway.”

Beth thinks about how she’d ever explain this to her younger self, sitting drinking coffee in silence with Townes while Benny, her drunk husband, lies in his bedroom. She thinks suddenly, vividly, about Jolene saying what you needed once isn’t what you need later, and swallows a little too hard.

“I can stay,” Townes offers, and Beth shakes her head.

“Do you need me to call a cab?” she asks.

“No,” he tells her, “I drove, I’m fine to get back to the hotel.”

He kisses her gently on the forehead, and then he’s gone. Beth looks at their empty cups on the coffee table and then takes a deep breath.

She puts a glass of water on Benny’s nightstand; she’d add aspirin too but if there is any in the apartment she has yet to work out where it’s hidden. She thinks about Benny looking after her in Lexington, about him asking if she wanted pyjamas. Benny doesn’t wear pyjamas but she’s not sure he’ll like sleeping in his jeans either; she remembers wearing them herself, and there’s not much wiggle room.

It’s almost a laughable parody of the last time she did this, Beth thinks, as she undoes Benny’s belt buckle, unzips his fly. That all seems like a fever dream, something she fantasised about once, as she stands here working off Benny’s jeans; he’s skinny as all hell but still dead weight right now, and it’s a relief when she finally pulls them away from his ankles to dump on the carpet. Benny makes a soft noise that might be interpreted as her name; when she looks at him his eyes are open, half-lidded, looking at her.

“You’re okay,” she says quietly. She doesn’t know what it’s like in Benny’s head when he’s drunk, only what it’s like in her own, but it seems a good thing to say one way or the other.

“No,” he responds; that is clear at least.

It’s too warm to tuck him into bed, probably best to leave him like this, propped up a little on his pillows. “Light on or off?” she asks.

She watches the question sink into Benny’s mind, his brow furrowing slowly as he considers it. “Off,” he decides at last, and Beth leans over to snap it off. He watches her every move, eyes looking particularly dark. There’s a sliver of light left from the hallway, but it doesn’t illuminate much. Beth considers just leaving him here, but then she can’t.

“Hold on,” she says, and goes to find her pyjamas, brush her teeth, turn out the living room light. It only takes a few minutes and she kind of assumes he’ll have fallen asleep, but his breathing is too fast and shallow when she finally turns out the hall light and finds her way to the bed using the hint of light from behind the drapes. It’s never truly dark in New York, not darkness the way that she remembers it.

She climbs onto the bed beside Benny, rolls onto her side. After a moment she reaches out, finds his wrist; his skin is warm, his bracelet warmer. His arm twitches, but he doesn’t try to pull away.

“I’m here,” Beth says, soft. “I’ll stay with you.”

Benny is silent for a long time; maybe he’s finally slipped over the edge into slumber. Beth listens to the quiet rasp of his breathing, his pulse beating steady and sure against her fingertips.

“You won’t,” he whispers at last, barely audible.

Beth sits up, says: “what?” but Benny’s breathing has evened out, slow, and she realises that he’s fallen asleep.

-

“Shouldn’t you be getting ready?” Benny asks, his voice breaking through Beth’s concentration.

She looks up from Chess Catechism, blinking. It’s a recently published book, a grandmaster dissecting what he sees as the greatest ten games of the modern era. They’ve not had it long, but Benny got his hands on it first and the notes densely packed into the margins aren’t so much helpful annotations as snide judgements. Some of the remarks are incredibly personal and pretty funny, but they aren’t exactly helpful for studying.

“Do you ever wonder what you could achieve if you didn’t waste so much energy pissing off every player you come into contact with?” Beth asks, waving the book at Benny.

He shrugs, not looking up from Europe Echecs. “I don’t waste any energy doing it,” he responds, “that’s kind of the point.”

“Right,” Beth says. “Because writing all these mean little comments about other players’ hair and alcohol intake and what you see as pawn mismanagement didn’t take you what appears to be multiple days.”

Benny waves a hand. “I’m not a machine yet,” he replies, “I need study breaks too.”

“This is why people say things about you behind your back,” Beth reminds him.

“The ones who say them to my face are the ones I actually respect,” Benny tells her. “I think it’s nearly four.”

Beth blinks a couple of times and then realises that he’s talking about the time. “Right,” she says, and goes to wash her face, comb her hair, find her purse.

Benny finally glances up from his magazine as Beth hovers in the living room doorway. “Did we say ten for checking in?”

“We did,” Beth agrees.

“Keep yourself safe,” Benny adds. “Did you memorise Levertov’s number in case you need bail money like I suggested?”

Beth smiles. “I did,” she confirms.

“Good.” Benny smiles back. “Take care, okay?”

Beth nods, plays with the strap of her purse a moment. “Alright,” she says, “I’d better go.”

Benny turns his attention back to the page he’s been reading, several boards printed across it; Beth hasn’t worked through them yet, but presumably that’s for tomorrow. As she turns to leave, Benny reaches out without looking, takes her arm. He presses a kiss to the inside of her wrist. “Enjoy taking down the patriarchy,” he says.

There are a lot of women on the subway, a few already carrying placards; Beth shyly exchanges smiles with some of them. She’s on her way to meet Christine and some of the other women from the chess club before they go to the Equality Day march on Fifth Avenue. She wasn’t sure about going, but Jolene demanded that she attend to represent her if no one else, and Christine had posters for the Women’s Strike put up in the club, told Beth she could come with her. Beth thought about hesitating, and then remembered every fucking article that wanted to just talk about her being a girl, and not about her mind. About every last article that talked about her appearance and her love life and not about what she’d achieved.

Benny was entirely supportive when Beth told him she wanted to go. “I mean, don’t get arrested,” he added. “You do that, you’re not going to Russia.”

“I’m not intending to get arrested,” Beth replied.

“No one ever is,” Benny told her sagely. “Just keep your eyes open while you’re demonstrating, okay?”

Now, Beth walks through the growing crowds; there’s an excitement in the air, and while no one knew what number of people to expect, it seems really busy. She finds Christine and the others outside the storefront where they agreed to meet; some of the girls have come from work, still dressed for the office with the top buttons of their blouses unbuttoned, the sleeves rolled up. Beth is in tailored pants and a boatneck top with tennis shoes tightly laced, a bright scarf tied around her hair; she wasn’t sure what to wear to a women’s equality march, really, and then thought that maybe that was part of the problem.

The march officially starts at around five, thousands of women of all ages and races linking arms to walk through the city; despite the police attempting to contain them so the traffic isn’t disturbed, the march ends up spilling from sidewalk to sidewalk, pedestrians and bystanders joining in. Later, Beth will learn that at least ten thousand women participated, some of the older ones recalling their days fighting as suffragettes to obtain the vote fifty years before. There are banners and placards throughout the procession, some protesting the Vietnam war, others demanding freely available abortions, equal pay, better opportunities. There are chants of I am not a Barbie doll! and while Beth catches sight of a few groups of men gathered to heckle on the sidelines, for the most part there’s no opposition, just the hastily-cleared roads stretching out before them, the atmosphere electric.

As darkness falls, they rally in Bryant Park to hear multiple feminist speakers; Betty Friedan, who spearheaded today’s march, gets the loudest applause, and Beth remembers sneaking Alma’s battered copy of The Feminine Mystique from her bookshelves as a teenager. She thinks of Alma, unwittingly trapped into the life so many around her are demanding an end to, and sinks her teeth into her bottom lip until her eyes clear.

Everyone starts dispersing when the speeches end; some are heading out to nightclubs and bars, some going home to husbands and children left to fend for themselves for the night. Christine closed the chess club for the night but has invited them back for an afterparty, a beer or two; the thought sort of made Beth want to slink home, but she’s still fired up from the speeches, still wonderfully overwhelmed from the sight of so many determined women in one place, so she takes the packed subway back with their little chess group that is also so much more.

Beth’s not the only one who needs to use the club’s telephone; it’s almost ten when she calls the apartment, and Benny picks up on the second ring.

“I’m fine,” Beth says, “I’m at Christine’s place, but I won’t be home late.”

“Take your time,” Benny responds, a smile in his voice. “I’ll see you when you get here.”

There’s coffee and Christine’s weird choice of herbal teas and, yes, a few beers when Beth rejoins the others; the closed sign is up on the locked door and they sit toward the back, talking about everything and nothing, everyone’s voices still overexcited and proud. As they all start to calm down, Beth can recognise the fire seeping out of her, the flattened feeling she used to get after a definitive victory that ultimately left her hollow, trying to pack the space left behind with tranquillisers and sometimes alcohol. It was an imperfect method, but it usually distracted her enough from the absence of adrenaline, the bottomless pit she was left peering into when everything else peeled away.

Beth looks at a couple of cans of unopened beer on the table, forces herself up, goes to hide in the club’s little green-tiled bathroom. She splashes cold water on her face, closes her eyes and takes several deep breaths. An exhaustion is crawling in, and with it the sour thought that she doesn’t deserve to be here, amongst all the others with their placards saying things like End Human Sacrifice – Don’t Get Married. So many have stayed standing, while she chose to capitulate.

When she finally steels herself to leave the bathroom, Christine is waiting for her, a gentle smile on her face. “Come on,” she tells Beth softly, and leads her into the tiny back office where she does her paperwork; there’s a neatly organised desk and a wall covered in photographs. Some are official press images of Christine in her younger years, while others are more candid shots: Beth catches sight of other highly-ranked female players she recognises. There are more pictures taken in this club, clippings from newspapers of all kinds of games; she spots a photo of herself and Benny at a tournament years ago, leaning over to bump fists from their respective boards. She swallows hard, and looks away.

“Do you want to talk about it?” Christine asks, sitting in the chair nearest the wall. There’s barely room for the other chair, but Beth sits in it and crosses her legs to stop their knees knocking together.

Beth opens her mouth, closes it again. “I don’t know how to,” she admits at last.

Christine gives her warm, gentle smile; there’s a burst of laughter from the women in the club, a cheer of some kind. “Start at the beginning,” she offers gently.

So Beth tries to. She tells Christine about the way people have always talked about her, how it got worse as she got older and the hook that interested people was no longer her youth but merely her gender, the snide magazine articles and the way people looked at her, and the letters, the constant letters that said the same things over and over and over. Christine nods and doesn’t interrupt; when Beth dares to look at her she finds an understanding sadness on her face, someone who has experienced so much of this for herself. This gives Beth the courage to continue, to talk about Albert Stone, the way the fear flooded her to such an extent, and, finally, the way Benny offered marriage, offered castling.

Christine nods thoughtfully. “I see.”

Beth wonders if she really does. “It’s all lies,” she blurts. “I didn’t want any of the harassment anymore, so I married a man because I knew it would protect me from the worst of it. I went out there today chanting for women’s rights but when it came to myself I gave in like a coward.”

Christine leans forward to take her hands. “Beth. I don’t think choosing to marry Benny was cowardly. You made a difficult decision about what you needed, and that’s all anyone wants for themselves or others. I hate that the world forced your hand, but for what it’s worth, I don’t think everything about your life is a lie.”

“It feels it some days,” Beth admits, twisting her mouth.

“I’m sure it does,” Christine agrees. Her hands are cool, her touch reassuring; she doesn’t try and pull away and Beth is glad. “I read all your interviews, you know, and I’ve watched plenty of both of you on television, and when you’re here.” She frowns a little, like she’s picking her next words carefully. “I think, if you remove all references to ‘love’, then nothing that you have said to the press is a lie.”

She doesn’t say more, gives Beth time to think about this. For a moment, Beth can’t understand what she’s talking about, but then she tries to think about the lines she usually spouts for the media: that she and Benny make logical sense, they make each other better players, they keep each other sharp. A lot of it sounds like the list of reasons that Benny gave Beth in the first place way back in that Washington hotel when she wore the imprint of Albert Stone’s fingers around her wrist and Benny wore the impressions of defeat in his eyes, in the shape of his mouth.

“For what it’s worth,” Christine adds quietly, “I think the two of you make each other happy, whatever your motivations were. Either that, or you should both look into acting professionally.”

Beth tries to smile for her. “It’s more complicated than that,” she admits.

“It usually is,” Christine agrees.

Because she’s come this far, Beth gives in and tells her about Ohio, about how she finally defeated Benny and took the title and how he gave in gracefully, watched her in a bar with a hangdog expression and offered to help her.

“Wait,” Christine says, stopping Beth for the first time, “you’d met him maybe three or four times and he’d upset you on every single one of those occasions and you agreed to go live in his apartment for several weeks?”

“It was… it was a complicated year,” Beth offers helplessly. It’s not an excuse; god knows she’s spent enough time looking back on her adolescent choices and horrifying herself with them over and over.

“You know I care about Benny,” Christine tells her, “but you didn’t know him, how could you have known it would be alright?”

She doesn’t sound like she’s condemning Beth; more like she’s retroactively worried for her, wants to reach into Beth’s past and rearrange the pieces for her. Beth knows better than maybe anyone that that doesn’t work, and what was it Benny threw at her in Paris? You can’t take back a move once you’ve made it and you can’t recolour the past to make it sit better.

“I knew,” Beth says, with a certainty that surprises herself. “I just… I knew that we’d be okay.”

Christine looks a little dubious still, but neither of them can change the past, can stop that Beth from diving headlong into what’s coming. After a moment, Christine squeezes Beth’s hands, silently asking her to continue.

Beth pulls herself together and tells Christine about the five weeks in New York: the studying, the cohabitation, Benny’s grungy apartment that began to feel homely after a while, the hours a day they’d spend in silence but in total coordination, the way Benny pushed her and pushed her until she could feel herself improving, understanding things she hadn’t before. She doesn’t go into details about their sexual life, but doesn’t hide the fact they weren’t entirely platonic.

“And then I went to Paris,” Beth says. “And I fucked up, and I flew home to Kentucky, and I never went back to Benny.”

Christine is chewing her lower lip thoughtfully. “Why?” she asks.

“I was scared,” Beth confesses, though it’s taken her years to realise this, to even admit it to herself. “Benny saw this version of me, of what I could be, and I wasn’t ready to be that woman yet. So I ran where no one could expect anything of me.”

Christine nods, and gently lets go of Beth’s hands. “Were you scared of Benny?” she asks, tone neutral.

“No!” Beth exclaims. “No, he was… well, he was only ever mad at me when I refused to see him and then asked for money to go to Russia anyway.”

“That wasn’t what I meant,” Christine says, “although I’m glad to hear it. You say you were scared of the woman he thought you could be, but was that all you were running from?”

No, Beth thinks.

“Yes,” she says.

“Okay.” Christine smiles. “Well, I’m glad you finally got over that fear and became that woman anyway.”

When Beth finally leaves, Christine gives her a long hug; there’s something maternal in it that makes Beth want to cling to her, but she forces herself to let go, to promise to drop by next week and walk away. She hails a cab, sits in the back with the streetlights cutting stripes through the car, and thinks about what counts as a lie these days anyway.

Benny is sitting in the same place he was when Beth left earlier, but he’s wearing one of his robes now and there are dirty dishes in the sink, so she assumes that he’s at least fed himself.

“Have fun?” he asks.

“I did,” Beth replies. “Did you?”

Benny waves the book he’s reading at her. “Don’t I always?”

They haven’t discussed what happened last week in the same way they haven’t discussed what Beth did in Lexington, but Beth is aware that both occasions underlie their every interaction. They’re not tentative, but there’s a knowledge that there are things they shouldn’t – can’t – touch too close to the surface right now. At least Benny seems to be okay: when he was sulking around hungover, Beth finally asked: did your circuit breaker work? He looked at her, eyes bloodshot and overcaffeinated. Yeah, he allowed at last, it did.

Beth puts on her pyjamas, goes to the kitchen to make a cup of late night coffee.

“I’ll have one if you’re making one,” Benny calls.

“I’m not supposed to be making you things,” Beth calls back. “We’re fighting for oppressed wives everywhere.”

Benny appears in the kitchen a moment later. “In that case I’ll make you one,” he says, hip-checking her away from the machine.

Beth goes to sit on their couch, pushing Benny’s notebook of increasingly crazed-looking analysis aside to curl up her legs. Domesticity is something they were good at, right from the beginning: she anticipated awkwardness, uncomfortable patches like she had with Harry when they were figuring each other out and coming up with the wrong conclusions, but she and Benny never had that. They spun around each other easily, planets on interlocking orbits; they clashed on the surface from time to time, scratches and scrapes, but underneath everything worked perfectly, so well she stopped noticing it after a while, the way she no longer noticed breathing or blinking until attention was called to it. So perfectly that Beth knew in the Paris airport that if she went back to New York then she wouldn’t leave again.

Benny brings her her coffee and sits down beside her, cradling his own cup in his hands. It’s almost funny, really: that Beth put so much effort into running, into destroying everything that those five weeks taught her was possible, and yet almost all of it caught her up anyway. Maybe if she hadn’t tried so hard there wouldn’t be a careful amount of space between the two of them on the couch, Benny would be looking at her and not a magazine in a language he doesn’t understand, but, as Benny himself told her a long time ago, maybe is a loser’s word.

-

Benny arrives home late one afternoon; Beth listens to the familiar set of sounds that mean he’s hanging up his hat and coat – reinstated despite the early September warmth the city is enjoying – and toeing off his boots.

“Is there a reason Christine asked me if I make a habit of asking teenage girls to move in with me?” he asks, dropping into their armchair.

Beth, sitting on the sofa reading through a Swedish tournament pamphlet from last year, does not let herself hunch her shoulders or look in any way guilty.

“What did you tell her?” she asks instead.

“That you already hate sharing a bathroom with me, I didn’t think you’d like it if I brought anyone else into the apartment.”

“That is true,” Beth agrees.

She keeps reading through the game report and becomes aware that Benny is watching her; she raises her head and finds that he’s got that thoughtful look on his face again, the one that makes Beth feel like one of Wexler’s chess problems.

“What?” she asks.

“Why did you agree to come to New York with me?” Benny asks.

“You’re about three years late to that question,” Beth responds. “And I really did like your hair.”

“That’s what it’s for,” Benny agrees, but his expression hasn’t lightened.

Beth sighs, but Benny has given her more honesty this year than she would have believed he possessed and she can give him some in return. “It was what you said to me,” she offers.

“That you’d be washed up by the time you were twenty-one?” Benny asks, dubious.

“No,” Beth says, “when you came to see me that day when we knew we’d be playing the final game.”

She remembers that whole conversation with the weird, sharp clarity that she recalls certain moments in her life, so bright she could close her eyes and be right there, sitting on the bench in the sunshine watching the college students wander around, laughing and chatting and lounging on the grass, close enough to call out to but feeling a million miles away from her. And then Benny sat beside her and his voice was softer and he didn’t have an audience and wasn’t trying to get anything from her, and for the first time Beth saw a sliver of someone in there she might want to actually know, a hint that there was more to Benny Watts than an infuriatingly sharp mind and a smug drawl.

Benny smirks. “Because I told you that you were the best player in the competition?”

“Because when I asked if you played through entire games in your head, you said ‘doesn’t everyone?’ like that was the obvious response to the question,” Beth tells him. “I’d never met anyone who saw chess like me,” she adds. “It felt… it felt like I’d been stranded on a desert island for years, and then someone raised a sail on the horizon.”

It’s a bit of an overblown way of putting it, and Beth’s not sure that it’s entirely right; when she thinks the moment over, there’s a fleeting other emotion in there too, one she can’t pinpoint and name. Beth sees things the same way I do, Benny had said the night before, but that was the moment when she actually believed him.

Benny is watching her, his expression thoughtful. “All that effort I went to to be nice to you, and it was a piece of throwaway truth that got you.”

“There’s a lesson in there somewhere,” Beth tells him, making a face at him when he rolls his eyes. “And you didn’t go to that much effort.”

“Do you know how many rivals I’ve tried to get to know over the years?” Benny asks.

“I’m assuming none,” Beth replies.

“Exactly,” Benny tells her, as though this proves some sort of point. Maybe it does.

Although the weather doesn’t reflect it yet, the summer is over and suddenly there seems to be a hell of a lot to do. Beth isn’t trying to scrape her finances together this time but there are so many calls to make, things to arrange, people to speak to. She and Benny split the list of the organisational calls, take it in turns to sit on hold with various departments and travel agents, arranging visas and flights and a hotel room. The government insist on sending someone with them again, still claiming that it’s for everyone’s safety and not using the word “babysitter” at any point, even though they both know better.

“I went out of my way to give mine the slip,” Benny recalls fondly, lying on the living room carpet with one arm tucked behind his head and a cigarette between the fingers of his free hand. Beth can hear the hold music burbling tinnily out of the handset tucked under his chin. “I didn’t even want to go anywhere, but the minute they said I couldn’t…”

“So it’s your fault if they send a team of heavily armed agents to make us stay in our room,” Beth says.

“You’re the one who missed your flight home so you could play chess in the park with a bunch of old men,” Benny shrugs. “All I did was go briefly missing and come back with vodka, I didn’t send a whole department into a defection panic.”

“We don’t know that I did that,” Beth protests, even though Booth had been furious with her for a number of hours when he finally got her back to the hotel, made her sit in his eyeline while he made several calls. Beth hadn’t minded, curiously at peace even when Booth kept asking her increasingly weird questions, like a KGB agent had infiltrated the elderly chess players and brainwashed Beth in the course of an afternoon.

“Well, there’s a reason the state department keeps putting me on hold and going off to consult each other, and I don’t think it’s me they’re worried about,” Benny tells her.

“You’re the unpredictable one out of the two of us,” Beth reminds him.

“Ah,” Benny replies, “but I’m an All-American boy, just look at me.” He gives Beth a wink and exhales a plume of pale smoke while she scoffs at him.

“Is that what the cowboy hat is for?” she asks.

He lifts a shoulder. “It doesn’t hurt,” he says, and then sits abruptly upright as the call reconnects. "Hi, yes, did you get that confirmation...? Uh huh.” He drops his cigarette into the ashtray near him and grabs up a pen to start scribbling in the notepad they’ve had to start keeping all the details in. “Okay. Okay. Okay – no, I get that.”

Beth leaves him wrangling with whoever he’s been transferred to and goes into her room, where her outfits for Russia are starting to take up most of the available space. It’s her usual balancing act of appearing smart and sombre while reminding people that she’s still a young woman who can wear what she likes. She’s found the perfect blood red wool midi caped coat to wear, styling herself more as an avenger returning to see if she can capture her crown again than the young ingenue, daring everyone to underestimate her. Her outfits for indoors stick to mostly dark colours and clean lines, nothing to distract herself or anyone else with. It’s not technically time to start packing yet, but Beth wants everything organised, to know that she has everything she needs and that it looks exactly how she wants it to look. There’s a lot about Russia that she won’t be able to control, but this is something that she can.

She doesn’t know exactly what Benny is planning to do, if he’s going to stroll into Moscow in his usual array of fading jeans and barely-buttoned shirts; when she asked about it he responded with keep your hands off my wardrobe, fashion harpy and she had to let it drop.

A few days later, Beth sits in an actual photography studio, trying not to blink too much as a woman meticulously applies several coats of mascara to her eyelashes. Beth is wearing a chunky grey felt suit and platform boots, with a chequerboard cravat foaming at her throat. It’s not a look she’d pick for herself but when she sees it all together in the mirror, her eyes looking enormous and dark, hair curled differently, she doesn’t hate it at all. Vogue are doing a feature on intelligent women – Beth has a suspicion it’s going to have a title like Smart Is The New Sexy, or something irritatingly similar – and she is one of the people they’ve asked to participate. There seem to be people everywhere: a scientist and a mathematician are also having their pictures taken today, separated from Beth by racks of clothes and screens, and there are huge blinding lights dotted around. A record player in the corner blasts Edwin Starr’s latest chart topper, and Beth is still trying to work out if she can recreate this look for her own hair at home when an assistant comes to grab her arm and the next thing she knows, she’s stood in the white box they’re using as a backdrop and the camera’s eye is on her.

This isn’t like posing for Townes, not even that first fragile time in his hotel room, and it isn’t like any of the shots the press or the chess magazines take. Beth is momentarily disconcerted, and then thinks about the way she walked into every tournament as a teenager, the way that she still has to walk into some of them now: shoulders back, head high, no hint of her anxiety on her face or in her eyes. The photographer yells at her periodically over the noise and the music, demands and adjectives that she can barely understand but does her best to follow anyway. It must work, because a few minutes that feel both like seconds and hours pass by and then she’s being told that she’s been perfect, that’s the shot, and does her best to return to the station she was sitting at without turning her ankle in the boots.

Later, back in the sheath dress and loafers she arrived in, Beth sits with an interviewer and a cup of coffee and tries to sound coherent. The questions aren’t anything particularly new but they’re for a different publication, and she talks about what attracts her to chess, about Mr Shaibel teaching her when she was a child, about how men’s assumptions about her are frustrating but they make her want to win more. She talks about women’s chess, carefully mentioning Christine’s name, about the lack of recognition that female players receive. When they ask her which women inspire her, Beth talks about Jolene and about Alma, about family that can be found as well as given.

The interviewer nods and smiles and makes her notes as Beth speaks; Beth has no idea what will make it into the article and what won’t, how her words will be interpreted, but she does her best to talk coherently about what matters to her in the hope something like the truth will come through.

“And lastly,” the woman says, glancing down at her notes, “you chose to get married this year, and to a fellow chess player. What has that been like?”

Beth opens her mouth and then closes it again, thinks about Christine reminding her that she stopped lying a long time ago. She licks her lips and then tries again. “Marriage to anyone can be difficult,” she says. “It requires patience, and honesty, and compromise, and a lot of hard work. What you have to do is marry someone that makes it worth all that. I’m lucky because my husband sees the world the way that I do: the same things matter to us, and he knows me better than anyone. It’s been an interesting year, but I don’t have any regrets.”

The interviewer gives her what seems to be a genuine smile, shakes her hand and thanks her, and then apologises as she needs to talk to the scientist upstairs next; Beth waves her off and waits until she’s alone in the room to play her own words back to herself. They sound fine, the kind of thing any person happy in their marriage might say in response to a similar question; except that Beth hadn’t prepared the statement beforehand, hadn’t planned it out.

It’s been ridiculous how many people have told her lately that she looks better, brighter; that she’s been staking a claim on her life instead of letting it drift past her; that she just seems happier. Maybe that’s what this is, Beth thinks, maybe this is her realising that they’re right.

When she gets home, she finds their living room surprisingly crowded, the coffee table pushed underneath the window for space. Wexler and Levertov are there, along with Christine and a couple of guys from her chess club that Beth recognises but can’t recall their names. Benny is seated on the floor, simultaneously playing three people, and Beth stands in the doorway and watches him, watches his hands dance across the boards, the constant clicking of clocks and pieces. She can’t see the centre board properly but he’s most of the way to a victory on the left board; it’s the right board she thinks he’s miscalculated, until he sacrifices a rook and oh, there’s the discovered attack, skewering his opponent’s queen. Within four moves he’s checkmated across all three boards, sits back, rubs his hands together. Beth can’t see his face, but knows the smile that he’s wearing anyway.

“Beth,” Benny says, pushing himself to his feet and turning. “You’re in.”

“I haven’t even taken my coat off yet,” Beth replies.

Levertov, Christine, and one of the unknown men are already setting the boards up again. Benny crosses behind Beth, eases her coat off her shoulders. “There you go,” he says, and then, taking a good look at her face: “wow, that’s a lot of mascara.”

“It looks good,” Beth replies, making a face at him.

“It does,” he says, and disappears into the hallway.

For a moment, just a moment, Beth wants to order everyone out of her apartment, lock the door behind them, be left with just her and Benny. And then- and then that’s the problem; Beth doesn’t know what she wants to happen next. Does she tell Benny that he’s right, that this marriage was a good idea after all? That she’s happy? No, that doesn’t work. That isn’t what she means. But she doesn’t know what she does mean.

“Beth?” Christine asks. “Are you ready?”

Beth blinks her heavy sticky eyelashes twice, and nods. “I’m ready,” she says.

-

September seems to slip away the more Beth tries to clutch at it. Half the time she’s studying, constantly immersed in that liminal space where she is both the players, the board and all of the pieces too, everything an extension of her own body. The rest of the time still seems to involve too much admin: she and Benny go on Phil Donohue, say the same things that they always say, this time with a little extra patriotism for show. They hold hands for most of the interview, and Beth only notices afterwards, untangling their fingers. Beth plays most of the members of Christine’s chess club, together and separately, and later half-watches Benny do the same thing while she reads through the notes on her games, circling anything she’s unhappy with in red ink. Various publications from around the world call the apartment, wanting to speak to one or both of them, the questions the same and the answers more or less interchangeable; there’s only so many ways to say well, I want to win in Russia, and yes, so does my husband, so we’ll see how that turns out.

When the worst of the panic turns up, Beth calls Jolene in the evenings and Jolene reads to her from her law textbooks until Beth can breathe again; she understands all the separate words but once you put them together they become something else entirely, something Beth can’t parse at all, and there’s something soothing in that. Other nights, Jolene rants about other students in her classes, assures Beth that she’s crushing all of them, or they flick through matching copies of fashion magazines and debate the styles they like best. It reminds Beth a little of the preparations she made for Russia the first time, playing squash with Jolene in the hopes of tiring herself enough to sleep. Now, she fights not to play chess on the ceiling when she goes to bed, tries to just lie as still as she can until she finally drops off.

Eventually Beth finds herself still awake at two-thirty in the morning, and she can’t bear to lie in bed any longer, the sheets too warm now, tangled restlessly around her legs. She gets up, thinking about water, about warm milk, about gin, about little green pills. Benny is on the couch, still fully clothed, hair a mess and brow furrowed. There’s a stack of books on the floor in front of him, all marked in various places with slips of paper, and he’s squinting down at his notebook, pages of his own opinions. Even now, he’s adding things to the margins in different-coloured ink.

“Are you writing ‘I should get some sleep’ in any of those notes?” Beth asks quietly.

“I’ll sleep in Russia,” Benny replies, but he does at least put the cap back on his pen. “Why are you awake?”

Beth shrugs, and comes to sit beside him. The nights haven’t turned cold yet but they’re cooler than they were, and she wishes she’d thought to grab her housecoat or a cardigan before leaving her room.

“What was Russia like for you?” she asks.

Benny placed third the last time he attended the Moscow Invitational; the highest of the non-Soviet players that year, but Borgov and Laev proved too much. Beth’s played all the games from that tournament multiple times, initially annoyed to see that Laev had prepped far more for Benny than he had for her, and then darkly amused that it was so easy to beat him because of that. Benny held his own against Borgov far better than Beth did the first few times she met him, but he crumbled in the end. Beth doesn’t know if she’ll win against Borgov this time around; she hopes that she will, but it’s not as vital as it once was, now she’s not afraid of him anymore. Borgov is as human as she is, both a blessing and a curse.

“It was… cold,” Benny says at last. Beth makes a face at him, and he laughs. “It was probably a lot like your trip,” he tells her. “I stayed in a swanky hotel, I had a government agent keeping an eye on me, I wasn’t supposed to go anywhere or talk to anyone, I didn’t drink much vodka but Weiss drank enough for both of us, frankly.”

“Why did you take Weiss?” Beth asks. “I mean, couldn’t you have taken Levertov?”

“I wanted to,” Benny shrugs. “Great man, Arthur Levertov, mind like a steel trap, goes to pieces under pressure. He refused.”

Beth frowns. “How has he made it to grandmaster status?”

Benny shrugs. “I was there for most of it and I still don’t know how. So, Weiss it was. He’s… there’s a half-decent mind in there somewhere, and the rest of the time he was willing to sit there while I talked at him.”

“That’s your favourite quality in a person,” Beth agrees, dry.

“Exactly,” Benny agrees, a half-smile curling his mouth. “Also he was raised Catholic or some shit like that, the Jesus people were fans.”

That was something that occurred to Beth. “Why didn’t the Jesus people make you give some kind of public statement about Christianity and Communism?”

“They tried,” Benny replies, “there’s a reason they only paid for part of my trip.”

Beth laughs, even though it stings a little. Of course Benny got away with things she couldn’t; because he’s a man, because he knows which lines to cross and which ones not to, because he’s Benny Watts.

He nudges her shoulder gently. “What was Russia like for you?” he asks.

Beth’s stomach drops a little, but it was two years ago and she won anyway and now she and Benny sit here on their couch, in their apartment. It’s weird, the way things turn out.

“I missed you,” she says quietly. Benny opens his mouth and Beth holds her hand up to stop him. “You were right to tell me to leave you alone,” she adds. “And if you’d come to Russia we’d have fought the whole time and I’d have done something I didn’t mean and I’d probably have lost. I wasn’t… I wasn’t ready to go to Russia with you then. But I still missed you.”

“Are you ready to go to Russia with me now?” Benny asks, and when he turns his head to look at her Beth realises just how close together they’re sitting, close enough that she can see herself reflected in his eyes, feel it when he exhales.

“I am,” she says.

For a moment, she thinks that Benny’s going to kiss her; she can see that for a moment he thinks he is too, and then he half-shakes his head and shifts a little so they’re not sitting staring at each other. They don’t kiss in the apartment, Beth thinks, not in this space they’ve made their own. The only time Benny ever kissed her here was when she was leaving for Kentucky, and he’s not said it but she thinks he was sure that she wasn’t coming back.

If they kiss here, it makes it real, not a game, not a press opportunity, not a momentary flare of that attraction they’ve strung between them for more years than either of them will ever admit to. And this marriage isn’t a real one, not like it would have been if Beth’s pride and Beth’s courage and Beth’s exhaustion had let her crawl back to New York after Paris, when Benny still loved her and Beth knew what they could be, what their potential held in its shaky cupped hands. It wasn’t enough, or it was too much, and the only thing Beth knew how to yearn for was a fucking drink.

Wanting something that you didn’t want before isn’t a weakness, Jolene says in the back of her mind, a sigh in her voice.

“I should try and get some sleep,” Beth says at last, trying to make it sound natural. “And so should you.”

“I know.” Benny’s smile is soft. “I’ll think about it.”

Time carries on running downhill, away from them. Beth packs everything and then finds herself unpacking it all, changing the footwear and packing it all back again. She even finds Benny organising and folding clothes one afternoon, using an actual suitcase and not his usual battered duffel.

“That looks suspiciously like a real shirt,” Beth remarks, hovering in the doorway to his room. “And I don’t think I realised you owned an actual pair of pants that weren’t made of denim.”

“Out,” Benny orders her. “I told you, I’m handling my own clothes for Russia.”

“Fine,” Beth says, stepping back, and then leans in again. “Do you own a pair of cufflinks for those shirts?”

“I’ll improvise,” Benny replies, giving her one of those rakish grins that used to irritate her.

“I can’t believe all those Russians in their impeccable suits are going to see that I married you,” Beth complains loudly on her way down the hall.

“Your next husband can be a Russian,” Benny calls back. “He can buy you a dacha to practice chess in and everything.”

“You can help me pick him out in Moscow,” Beth responds, and Benny laughs before his bedroom door closes.

With two days to go before their flight, the phone starts ringing at nearly midnight. Wexler and Levertov were over earlier, something that wasn’t a good luck party but wasn’t not one either, but they went home at a vaguely reasonable time because even Benny is trying to get some sleep these days, for better or for worse. Beth stumbles half-awake out of bed, makes it into the living room just before Benny does.

“If it’s Argentina, I’m dead,” Benny tells her groggily, and goes back to bed.

Beth tentatively picks up the still-ringing phone. “Hello?”

“Harmon.” It’s Townes.

“Are you okay?” Beth asks, something panicked jumping in her. “Did something happen?”

“No,” he says quickly. “No, don’t worry, everything’s fine. But I do need to speak to you.”

Beth clutches the handset to her ear and sinks into their armchair, heart still beating too fast. “It’s late,” she says; her voice sounds thin and still weirdly scared.

“I know,” Townes replies. “And I’m sorry if I scared you. I wasn’t going to call at all, but then I realised that I have to.”

“You’re not making this sound less scary,” Beth points out.

“I’m sorry about that too.” Townes sighs, long and slow. “Look, I had dinner with Jolene yesterday.”

There’s that sudden weird punch in her gut again, like the one Beth got when Benny and Townes went for beers without her; the slippery sinking feeling, as though the people she cares about will suddenly decide that she isn’t worth it, will leave with each other instead. She swallows hard, and reminds herself that that’s paranoia, she has no evidence for it at all. “Is she okay?” she asks instead.

“She’s good,” Townes assures her. “It turns out we were both thinking about the same thing, and, well, I guess that’s why I’m calling.”

Jolene hasn’t called for a couple of days; Beth wonders if that’s significant or not.

“Townes-” she begins.

“Do you like being married to Benny?” Townes asks.

Beth puts a hand against her ribcage like she’s been hit.

“Yes,” she says slowly, wondering if somehow this is a trap, if the world is about to be ripped out from under her feet yet again. “Yes. I do.”

“Okay,” Townes murmurs, sounding like he’s talking half to himself. He clears his throat awkwardly. “Then I need you to listen to me very carefully.”

His serious tone isn’t helping: for a second, Beth thinks about just hanging up the phone, walking away from whatever is or isn’t happening right now, getting some sleep. They fly to Russia in two days. She already has so much to concentrate on.

“I’m listening,” she replies.

Townes inhales, and then says: “I don’t know how you feel about Benny. I mean, I see that you care about him, I see that being married to him is good for you, I see that you’re making the effort to build your life together. I just don’t know specifically what you feel, and neither does Jolene, and that makes me think that we can’t tell because you don’t really know. And that’s okay, but… you do need to think about it.”

Beth stays silent, heartbeat too loud in her ears.

“Benny loves you,” Townes tells her. “I went to his room like you asked me to before you got married, and he was a wreck because he couldn’t back out but he’d realised that he wasn’t as over you as he’d thought he was, had realised he probably wouldn’t ever be. I hate that I’m the one telling you this, but I don’t think that he ever will. I’m not telling you that you have to reciprocate, or feel things that you don’t feel, but you’re aware of what Russia will be like. Only the two of you know what happened in Vegas, if you can stop that happening again, but the pressure in Moscow will be worse. And I think you need to be very careful if you want to come back from Russia still married, because you could easily break him without even meaning to, Harmon.”

Beth blinks, and her eyelashes feel wet. “Right,” she says, dragging up the word from a long way away. Her hand is curled so tight around the phone that her fingers hurt, clenched rigid.

“I thought things might be different, that it was more pre-wedding jitters than anything else, but when I came to New York I could see that nothing’s changed for him. I took Benny out in case he wanted to talk and what he really wanted was a drink. So, yes, I helped him get drunk, and I realised that I had to talk to you before it was too late.” Townes is still talking, so gentle, so earnest, and it’s all Beth can do to hold onto the shreds of her composure.

“I see,” she manages, the words falling out of her mouth with no real input from her brain.

“If you two need a second, I can help,” Townes adds. “I’ve got savings, the visa is tricky but I know someone in the department who could probably rush it through, if you think it would help to bring another person-”

“No,” Beth interrupts him. Her voice is still too calm, too steady, like it belongs to someone else. “Thank you, but we’ll be fine.”

“Harmon,” Townes says, “Beth.”

Somehow, that stings something in Beth that she didn’t even know could sting.

“I’m okay,” she tells him, “thank you for calling.” She sounds stiff, polite. “I’ll see you in Moscow.”

Beth hangs up before Townes can say anything else; she sits in the dark and listens to herself breathing, in and out, in and out, while underneath it all, uneven and terrified, thumps her too-loud, inconstant heart.

-

“There’s coffee,” Benny offers. His hair is wet from the shower and he’s wearing his untied robe over his fading blue jeans, the pair that look like they’re minutes away from ripping open unexpectedly.

Beth blinks, looks away. “Okay,” she says, and goes into the kitchen.

She takes her time getting her coffee together, the tinkling of the spoon too loud against the cup. She didn’t sleep well last night – how could she have done – and everything about her feels like it’s on high alert, raw and exposed as a nerve ending. Finally, she goes back to the living room, perches on the couch and tries not to look at where Benny is sprawled in their armchair, easily taking up twice as much space as he actually needs.

“You okay?” he asks; Beth can feel him looking at her, but doesn’t look back. “Who was that last night?”

Beth shrugs. “You can’t have been that worried, you went straight back to sleep,” she says, trying not to sound too sharp.

“I figured you’d come wake me if someone was dead or something was on fire,” Benny replies easily.

Something hysterical in Beth’s brain screams that everything is dead and on fire before she gets herself back under control. “It was just Townes, he forgot what time it was and wanted to check some details about Moscow.”

She doesn’t look up to see if Benny believes her. It doesn’t matter whether he does. Things have… slipped, that’s what this is, that’s all this is. Sure, they can drink coffee together in their living room in their respective nightwear, but it doesn’t have to mean anything. It doesn’t have to be more than that. This marriage was a business transaction, meticulously plotted as such, and that’s all it should be. Everything else is static, background noise, a distraction.

“You sure you’re okay?” Benny sounds actually concerned now, and he comes to sit beside her on the couch. Beth forces herself not to shift away, to try and calculate how much distance is too much, how much is not enough. “Are you getting sick? I told you that you needed to drink more orange juice.”

“I’m drinking plenty of orange juice,” Beth replies. “And you’re the one who was supposed to buy more of it and didn’t.”

Benny leans over to put the back of his hand against Beth’s forehead; it’s tender and reminds her of Alma in a way that makes her swallow too hard. “You feel a little warm.”

“I’m fine!” Beth snaps, realises that she’s snapped, and pulls away from Benny as naturally as she can, sure that it probably still looks like a flinch. “I didn’t sleep great last night,” she adds, quieter.

“I know you’re just had your coffee, but I think you should go back to bed,” Benny tells her. “See if you can get some more rest.”

Beth risks a look at him; the twist of his mouth, the gentle concern in his eyes. She feels like a monster.

“I think I will,” she says, putting her half-empty cup on the coffee table, standing up quickly enough to force Benny to sit back. “Thanks,” she adds, vague, and all but flees back to her bedroom.

Within the four walls with their lilac floral paper that Beth doesn’t even notice anymore, she finally lets out a long breath. Her bed is a mess, pillows and blankets flung about as she tried to sleep last night and failed, and she sinks down to sit on the edge. The room is dim, the drapes closed but morning sunlight creeping in around the edges, and Beth covers her face with her hands.

We have to get divorced, she thinks with horrible sharp clarity, an idea that’s been floating since she hung up on Townes finally crystallising. It’s an awful thought, scoops the stomach out of her, but she can’t think of any other alternative. How can Beth stay married to Benny knowing that he loves her? Beth knows that she’s hurt people in the past, but most of that wasn’t deliberate: she doesn’t think that she’s a naturally unkind person, has never wanted to be. She knows what she did to Benny before, how badly she fucked all of that up, but that was born more of something selfish, something caught up in addiction and desperation, not out of any real desire to actually hurt him. The truth is that she was barely thinking of him at that point, was trying too hard not to think of anything at all.

But Beth isn’t cruel, and surely this is cruel. Beth has no idea how to go about loving someone, not in a real way that would be enough for anyone. She loved her mother – both ¬her mothers – and lost them, loved Jolene and has only just got her back, and whatever she felt about Mr Shaibel and the gifts he gave her, he’s gone now too. Beth thought that she loved Townes for a time, but that was an adolescent crush, a desire for his handsome face and the promise of a different world in the way he smiled. The truth is that Beth has never been in love, doesn’t know what it’s supposed to feel like. Maybe she’s not built for it, her brain and her heart wired to care about chess more than anything else, to the detriment of personal relationships, to the detriment of her own life. And maybe that’s okay, that can be enough for her.

It isn’t fair, though. When Beth could believe that she and Benny were in the same position, friends and rivals and occasional lovers; well, that was one thing. Now, every touch, every kiss, every moment in the darkness feels different, feels like Beth has been tormenting Benny unknowingly. You could easily break him without even meaning to, Townes said, and maybe Beth is halfway there already. She knows so many things that Townes doesn’t, so many things she wishes that she could take back now. What felt normal and natural in the moment wasn’t, because surely everything that Beth does makes everything worse. The last few weeks play back behind her eyelids in bright, sticky technicolour, and it leaves Beth feeling nauseous.

How could Benny just let her behave like that, is he trying to cling onto anything that Beth can give him, trying to scrape up any hollow affection that she shows him? And yet how could Benny have stopped her – Benny has never successfully stopped her from doing whatever she wanted, not in the whole time they’ve known each other. Beth thinks about calling Benny from the airport in Paris, him saying: what if I said “go ahead, get drunk”? Would you come then? Benny, who wanted Beth to come back to him so much that he’d compromise on anything. And she still wouldn’t give him even that.

Beth forces herself to breathe as her ribs feel tighter and tighter, every breath she manages sounding shaky. Her throat hurts and she thinks that maybe all she wants to do is scream, but then if she does Benny will come to check on her, and how can Beth face him anymore, what can she say to him other than I’m sorry, if I knew how to love you I would, I would try for you. But Beth can’t give him what she doesn’t have, and while she’s never pretended that she could, it feels worse now that she knows Benny would want her to be able to.

She won’t tell him before they go to Moscow, Beth thinks, trying to construct something concrete to concentrate on as everything crumbles around her. If she starts now, Beth should be able to rebuild her composure for the Invitational, and she doesn’t want to throw Benny off. This competition means a lot, and Beth wants both of them to come out of it as well as they possibly can. When they come back afterwards, then she’ll talk to Benny. They can claim that they realised they care more about chess than a romantic relationship, that it threw their respective games off. Perhaps the press will crucify Beth afterwards, call her heartless, an automaton; it won’t be easy but Beth will take it anyway because they’re probably right. She’ll go back to Kentucky, back to that enormous empty house; maybe she’ll join Susan’s chess club. And Benny… well, he can’t afford to live in this apartment, but she’s sure Wexler and Levertov will find somewhere with manageable rent. He got by before Beth showed up; he’ll get by fine without her. And he’ll be able to get over her, maybe find someone else, someone better for him. Beth doesn’t know what she’ll do exactly, but at least Benny can be with someone who loves him back. He deserves that much.

That conclusion finally steadies Beth: if she does this it might hurt them both in the short term but in the end Benny can find happiness. Maybe in the end they’ll be able to be friends, perhaps when he’s in love again and realised that his love for Beth would only ever have been unsatisfying; Beth would hate never being able to play chess with him again. She likes to watch his mind at work, the way he can still take her by surprise even when she thinks she’s got him mapped out. Benny’s never been wrong about how playing together sharpens them both: sometimes Beth thinks about that first night they played speed chess in the student union in Ohio, the way she returned to her room burning with fury, indignation and humiliation and frustration overwhelming her so strongly that she was shaking, incoherent. It was awful, but it was also the most alive she’d felt since she’d found Alma’s body. That fire Townes talked about, perhaps: uncontrollable and often painful but not always bad.

Beth lets herself fall sideways, curling up on the cool sheets. Her head hurts, her eyes and throat feel tight and sore, and she can feel her heart beating too fast, too hard. She wants to crawl under the covers and wake up in Moscow, games laid out ready for her to play. That’s the only part of her life that makes sense right now: everything else is too difficult, too complicated, too unbalanced. But she has a plan, however wavery and uncertain and terrible it feels. And it might not be soon but one day, in the end, Benny might even thank her.

-

There’s an old romantic movie on the television, a comedy that’s not quite funny, the gender politics a little dubious. Alma would probably have enjoyed it, Gibson or three in hand, revelling in the escapism more than the specifics. Beth has been sitting in front of it for well over an hour and couldn’t tell you a single thing about the blandly attractive main characters, not even their names. They move around and talk and very occasionally kiss – very primly and properly, not an ounce of real passion – and Beth lets it all wash over her, blinks every ten seconds. Benny went to bed a while ago, claiming exhaustion, though Beth doesn’t know if he was actually tired or just tired of her, of her inability to sustain a conversation or look him in the eye. Beth doesn’t know how she’s supposed to act around him anymore.

Beth woke earlier from a tangled, claustrophobic sleep to find that she’d kicked all the blankets onto the floor. She reassembled her bed slowly, caught sight of herself in her mirror and flinched at her pale face, the dark circles around her eyes, the mess of her hair. I bet Benny doesn’t love this she thought, sharp and wry, and then remembered what she must have looked like when he came to Kentucky, drunk and wavering and incoherent. And when she woke up the next morning, ready to vomit red wine for an hour; she wouldn’t let Benny watch her like that, and when she finally made it downstairs, guilty and embarrassed and wretched, all the glass was gone from the kitchen floor, wrapped in newspaper in the trash, and the chess game she’d left scattered out was gone too. Benny gave her two glasses of water and then coffee and dry toast until she felt a little more like a human being, at no point told her that she’d brought all of this on herself, smiled at her with something gentle in his expression that felt good at the time and hurts in hindsight.

Venturing out of her room this afternoon, Beth found a note from Benny saying he’d gone out for cigarettes and orange juice, read the handful of words over and over while she assembled a sandwich for some kind of lunch. She thought about Lexington, where she’s never had to leave a note with her whereabouts because there’s no one to care, about how no one will ever use the last of the milk without her knowing, and when she wakes up in the middle of the night it’s just her, no strip of light underneath someone else’s door to remind her she’s not alone.

Beth ate her sandwich and it tasted of nothing, cardboard in her mouth.

She blamed her listlessness on pre-Moscow nerves and Benny let her, maybe because they’re both trying to be careful at the moment, Las Vegas and all its failings on their minds. Beth tried to read through a magazine she’s already read multiple times, focus entirely shot, while Benny lay across the couch reading The Master and Margarita. If he looked at her at any point, Beth can’t tell, because she took great care not to look at him. She didn’t know what she’d say to him if she did.

And now Beth sits curled up on the couch and watches and doesn’t watch this love story unfold in front of her, stirring music and misadventures, and whenever she blinks she can see herself telling Benny that she wants a divorce. His reaction changes every time she imagines it, some of them better than others: the worst one is probably relief. Beth can acknowledge that she doesn’t want a divorce, but she can’t think of any way for the marriage to function anymore. Townes himself said that Benny had realised he shouldn’t go through with the wedding because he cared too much for Beth, but he couldn’t back out. Beth owes him enough to make all of this end; there’s a lot that she can’t give him, but she can let him go.

You keep longing for something that’ll never happen, and you never have to deal with the kind of man who could want you back was what Jolene told her, months ago now. Well, Beth has had to deal with the kind of man who could want her back, the same man, twice, and both times what she’s managed to do is hurt him because she couldn’t love him. She doesn’t know how. Beth thinks back to that night after she won in Ohio, the two of them sat side by side in a bar, how she watched him handle his defeat with grace, that something she’d felt stringing between them throughout the tournament finally sparking. In truth, Beth knows that what she really wanted Benny to do was take her back to his presumably equally uninspiring dorm room and fuck her; her experiences with sex thus far had told her she’d probably be disappointed by the whole thing but she wanted it anyway, wanted to kiss that mouth with its wry smile and run her hands through that golden hair. Really, it would have been better for their story to end that way: one awkward night to break the tension, Beth creeping back to her own room in the early hours of the morning, blouse buttoned wrong, shoes in her hand, overtired and unsatisfied. At least then that would have been that.

In her imagination, Beth tells him: I can’t love you, and the latest version of Benny, this one more confrontational, sighs and says: well, who the fuck asked you to, anyway?

Beth sighs and shifts and on the television screen the heroine laughs too high and too loud, and it’s fine for her, she knows how to fall in love, the writers gave her all the right lines and the right emotions, put the two people in the right places with the right lighting and it all snapped together like a jigsaw, like a beautifully wrought Sicilian. Beth’s experiments with desire have only ever ended one way: the sound of the closing door, the phone hitting the cradle. People realise, by the end, that there’s nothing inside her. That’s why she can be so brilliant at chess, because she was hollow, full of empty space for the strategies to fit. Cut her, and she bleeds notations. Make her cry, and her tears run with cheap beer and other people’s medication. That’s who Beth Harmon really is, and you can take the girl from the board but you can’t take the board from the girl. People went wrong when they looked for more from her than a solid checkmate.

In the end, Beth gets up, turns off the stupid television and its lying little movie. She feels unsteady on her feet; sober, damnably sober, there are no other options these days, but still shaky and adrift from reality. She doesn’t mind. Beth doesn’t want reality right now. Reality is full of truths she can’t bear to look at, endless choices that don’t end well. This is when you tip your king, when you resign. Beth wants this marriage, wants this life they’ve somehow created despite their mutual stubbornness, but not at the expense of what it would do to Benny. There was a time when I thought you were a brat who chewed people up and spat them out when you’d gotten what you wanted was what he said about the first time they were together, and Beth doesn’t want to do that anymore. She doesn’t want to be that person, not accidentally, not deliberately.

I can’t love you, Beth tells Benny, but I still want you. He looks at her with those dark eyes, the corner of his mouth tugging a rueful smirk. Well, that and a dollar will get me a cup of coffee.

That’s for after Moscow, though. First, Beth has to return to Russia, has to play the best chess of her life to show the first win wasn’t a fluke, has to act as Benny’s second to keep him doing the best he can. It won’t be like Vegas – they won’t be able to forget who they are, where they are. It won’t be easy, but there’s a thread of relieved self-preservation in that too: there’s no chance to blur their lines anymore, not if they want to do well, not if they don’t want to ruin their reputations for good. Benny wants to play chess for the rest of his life, and Beth will not be the reason that he cannot. She’s already done enough.

It hurts more than she would have expected it to, given how many times in the last six months this precarious marriage has almost fallen apart on its own: how many arguments they’ve had, how many frustrated times Beth has just wanted to let the whole thing capsize itself. Even if Benny has been in love with her the whole time, he’s been just as volatile as she has: neither of them have allowed this to be simple. They’ve spent half the time caught up in their own lies, their own grudges, their own history. Beth thinks about the Open, the mess they made of the final, the hotel room, each other; tangled up in their own lie of a real marriage, in the bright scrutiny of the lights and the tension of their mutual ambition. And that night at Max’s, well, if they weren’t drunk from the fug of alcohol in the air they were drunk on the anonymity, the music, the atmosphere. Dressed up, playing at being other people.

It’s this thought that finally propels Beth to leave the living room, to step into the hall and look at the light spilling under Benny’s door. It’s late, but he’s still awake. He’s still awake and Beth is still awake and there are nearly eight million other people in this city but none of them are here, in this apartment, in this moment. There’s the two of them, no press, no audience, no friends, no opponents, no one to see, no one to know, no one to care.

Benny’s head snaps up when Beth walks into his room, closes the door behind her. The lamp beside his bed is on, illuminating some of the space, leaving everything else shadowy. Peripherally, Beth can see his neatly-packed suitcase, a half-played game on his desk, a stack of books on the floor. She doesn’t look at any of it, just at Benny, lying on top of the covers with a magazine cracked open in front of him.

“Beth?” he asks uncertainly, and when he sits up the magazine spills to the floor. Beth doesn’t blink, and he doesn’t reach for it.

“Don’t speak,” Beth says. “Don’t say anything unless you’re telling me to stop or asking me to leave.”

She watches his brow furrow, his mouth opening and then closing again. Is this cruel? Maybe this is the worst thing that Beth has ever done, worse than the opponents she’s left crying, worse than the sadness in Harry’s expression when he left that final time; this is what it felt like, standing on that stool cramming pills into her mouth, greedy and insatiable and glad about it, that she could want and want and want and finally have.

Beth meets Benny’s stare and doesn’t blink, doesn’t look away as she shrugs off her cardigan, throws it away into the darkness. She maintains eye contact as she undoes every button on her pyjama top and lets it fall to the floor, eases the pyjama bottoms over her hips to pool on the rug that she chose for Benny’s room, steps out of them. She watches him, drinks in his expression, the agony of his indecision, the way he can’t stop his gaze dropping from her face to her breasts, dragging it back to her face again, down to the triangle of auburn hair between her legs, her breasts again, her face. His mouth opens, and he doesn’t try to say anything at all.

Finally, Beth holds out her hand; a command, a plea. It takes a long minute – Beth can hear her heart, already beating too hard, hear the harsh rasp of Benny’s breathing – and then he gets off his bed and comes to her. Beth can’t look away from his expression, from those dark eyes pinned to hers, as the floral kimono slips off his shoulders, as he bends to remove his underwear. They’re close enough to touch, close enough that when Benny exhales Beth feels it, and she doesn’t know what her expression is doing because Benny’s gaze rakes back and forth across her face like he’s looking for something, and she doesn’t know if he finds it or not. They stand and stare at each other, more shadows than light, and Beth thinks she’s prepared for anything until Benny pulls her to him, wraps her in his arms and just holds her. His skin is warm in places and cool in others; he buries his face in her neck and Beth puts her arms around him too, slides her hands down the sharp wings of his shoulder blades, clings to him as tightly as he’s clinging to her.

If Beth has to let Benny go, if she doesn’t get to keep this, then she wants them to be themselves together, just once, just so she knows what it’s like. When she has other lovers, when Benny finds someone who actually loves him, Beth wants to know that she did something right, that not everything was a lie of omission, an accident of proximity. Something she can look back on without wincing.

Beth curls her fingers into Benny’s hair, his breath spilling out against her collarbone, while her other hand explores the inch-long scar on the small of his back that he doesn’t talk about. She’ll never know the story now, never his version of it, presumably glorified and tidied into something amusing for pillow talk. Maybe it’s different when it’s not Beth, maybe his other hook-ups get a selection of flirtatious stories, real and imagined, but then maybe they only get Benny Watts, the camera-ready grin and the blindingly bright ego. They don’t get the way his mouth twists in defeat or the momentary tremor in his voice when he second-guesses himself. Other girls wouldn’t know to miss those things, but Beth would, and Beth does.

They’re still half-curled into each other when Benny turns his head to press his mouth to Beth’s. It’s soft, careful but not tentative, and he pulls away before Beth can demand more; his eyes are glitter and shadows. Beth skates her left hand up his spine, the steady bump of bones beneath the skin, and he finally loosens his grip on her, arms sliding away and leaving warmth and chill behind them; he cups Beth’s face with gentle hands as her palm finds the back of his neck. For a second she’s disconcerted: they’ve never been cautious with each other, have always flung themselves together with reckless bruising abandon from that first night in Benny’s apartment to that bathroom stall at Max’s. They’ve always been a blazing fire, passionate and furious and competitive on a chess board or a mattress, and Beth doesn’t know what to do now, the only sound their mismatched unsteady breathing, starting from scratch and not that deep shared well of violent delights they normally keep between them.

Benny kisses her again, chaste and slow, and her heart thuds in her chest; she tries to follow him as he leans back, both hands tangled in his hair, and there’s a hint of that smile, a tease. She acquiesces for now, lets him steal brief brushes of mouths that make her toes curl, the scrape of facial hair against her upper lip there and gone again. She pictures Benny at a bar, magnanimous in loss, dragging out a bottle of beer in slow sips like he wants to make it last or just punish himself. Beth isn’t sure which category she fits into, maybe both, and when he next kisses her she clenches her fingers and pushes forward, opens her mouth against his. He inhales, sharp, and Beth stills for a second before he kisses her back. Benny is still taking his time but she can feel the tremble in him now, and she matches it, tries to show him without words and without sound how much more she needs from him. She leaves one hand knotted in his hair, maybe she’ll never be able to let go, and slowly draws the other one down his face, fingertips to his cheek, thumb to the corner of his mouth where it touches hers.

When Benny steps away Beth is left breathless, suddenly grasping at air. Without their proximity she realises how cold she is, October filling the room in every space they’re not touching. She’s pebbled with goosebumps and she can see them mirrored on Benny’s skin; he’s the one to hold his hand out now, to pull her with him back to his bed. Beth slept here not all that long ago: woke up to find herself curled protectively around Benny. He was still drunk and sleeping, and Beth told herself to get up, shower, be ready with coffee and wry sympathy, but she closed her eyes instead, stayed where she was for a couple more hours. Now, the sheets are cold when she pulls back the covers but she drags Benny in on top of her. The chains around his neck pool against Beth’s chest when he leans down to kiss her; they’re a little cool, not enough body heat left to warm them, but she stops noticing when his tongue touches hers.

What was it Beth was thinking about banked fires, about restraint? Benny kisses her like he was never trying to hold himself back, and Beth kisses back viciously, brutally, like she’s trying to steal every kiss she’ll never have again from him right now, to steal all of his kisses so he’ll have none left for anyone else ever again. No, no, Beth is trying not to be selfish, Benny deserves better than her, better than this, he deserves real love not lust dolled up in confusion and camera lights, Beth can’t give him anything but she can take and take and take. And then there will be Moscow, sleeping without touching in a bed with nicer sheets than this one has, and however the pieces fall they’ll come back to America but they’ll never come back here again, to the way Benny’s mouth looks as sore as hers feels when they have to part to breathe, watching each other as though daring someone to be the first to blink; to the sound Benny makes when he finally kisses her again, friction-raw lips and nothing short of desperation.

It’s a relief and a disappointment when Benny presses his mouth to her throat, tasting her pulse, a brief measured scrape of teeth: there’s no time for marks to heal, and the Invitational is too important to turn up with each other’s bruises. Best behaviour or something like it, even if part of Beth wants to leave herself all over him, render herself unforgettable. Claw her nails down his back hard enough that he’ll have another scar to explain away, leave him saying oh, that was Beth every time he takes off his shirt for the rest of his life. But she can’t do that, you can’t be possessive over something you’ve resolved to give up, and now she’ll always be his ex-wife, a shadow he’ll never be able to shrug from his shoulders. That can be enough. That will have to be enough.

The temptation is to close her eyes, surrender to touch and to sensation, but she can’t, she has to watch every moment that she can and file them all away, bright and bold in her mind the way some of her memories are, ones she can unfold later and step into. Beth wants this memory later, every part of it, from the ugly wallpaper she can barely make out in the lamplight to the almost laughable mess she’s already made of Benny’s hair to the slightest trail of sensation from his necklaces against her skin before he takes one of her nipples into his mouth. Beth gasps and Benny’s eyes flick up to hers, dark and bright all at once, and she thinks there might be a hint of a smile on his face before he turns his attention back to her breasts, to a slow methodical worship that Beth wants to tell him to stop and wants him to continue forever. She can hear herself, the urgent little sounds she can’t stop letting out as Benny licks and suckles and nips and occasionally bites, knows all the best places to touch her, learned them years ago and then only built on the foundations. What his mouth doesn’t cover he caresses with his hands, with his long sure fingers that indifferently play the piano but that shake on Beth’s skin.

Benny looks up at Beth again, a question in his eyes like he’s asking for permission; she nods, thinks she nods, does something affirmative that has him sliding down the bed, pushing her legs further apart. Beth shoves the covers aside, not caring for the cold if she can’t see him, can’t watch as Benny presses his mouth to the curve of each hip, the crease of her thigh. He gently repositions Beth’s leg before kissing the inside of her knee, a moment of tenderness, a tease. Beth thinks that maybe she shouldn’t have stipulated no talking; it solves one set of problems but creates another, something Benny fully takes advantage of as he trails his lips slowly, painfully slowly up the inside of her thigh. Beth is panting, her pink-flushed breasts rising and falling erratically as she watches Benny take his time, knowing she can make no demands of him. And yes, Beth wanted this to be something to savour, something to keep holy and secret inside of herself until the wanting somehow stops, but she’s too impatient, too needy, too desperate for him to touch her.

Benny bites the inside of her thigh, just too hard to be playful; it speaks to the dark hollow places in Beth that want to leave him marked, leave him forever stained from her, the flash of bright real pain a jolt that makes all her nerve endings sing. She gasps, gunshot, and Benny looks up at her through his fucking eyelashes and gives her that grin, the one he’s developed specifically to rub salt in the wound of every last opponent he’s crushed, teeth white but the blood is implied, a wolf, a shark, a tiger. It makes Beth reach out, run her fingers through his already ruined hair, where the tips shine blond and the rest is darker, the man beneath the golden boy, the champion she brings home with her for the way his performative smiles drop into something softer, less sure, less antagonising. She finally scrapes her nails across the nape of his neck, thinks about the way his hair curls onto his collars and how it always distracts her. I like your hair she told him once, a little graceless and naïve perhaps, but it wasn’t a lie: in truth Benny’s hair has always been an obsession, from finding it affected and smug to finding it attractive, too attractive; what is his hair even for anymore if not for Beth to pull it, to run her hands through it, to lay claim to her own ground.

Beth thinks she could just crack apart into pieces when Benny finally lowers his head, purses his lips to blow a stream of warm breath against her. Her toes curl against the sheets, her stomach clenches in anticipation, and she fights not to be too eager because she knows that then he’ll just go back to teasing her. Even so, he takes his time, dotting gentle kisses on her stomach and thighs and finally around her cunt without ever going close enough to the slick waiting core of her; she wonders briefly if Benny’s read her mind, if he knows that this has to be the last time they do this, or if he’s just taking advantage of the fact they have time, nowhere to be tomorrow, a full match to play and not just the hasty rush of blitz. She pushes herself up on her elbows, thighs sliding further apart against the sheets, watches the shift of muscles and bones in his back in the halo of light before the rest of him tapers into the darkness of the rest of the room. Not that she’ll ever tell him, but he’s as much a master here as he is when faced with a board; perhaps this is also the result of diligent study but she doesn’t want to hear about it. Maybe if the two of them had just stayed good at chess and good at sex they wouldn’t be here now, the world brought down to this single moment, everything and nothing all at once.

Her head tips back when Benny’s mouth presses to her cunt fully, running his tongue leisurely from her clit to her entrance and back again, slow sweeps designed to leave her shivering from sensation. Beth’s nails scratch against his scalp in a vaguely similar rhythm; she learned years ago he prefers a sharp tug on his hair to a gentle stroke, enjoys sex with an edge of something that messily skirts real pain. When they first fell into bed – literally, really, Benny’s cheap bedframe complaining in a way that made Beth briefly wonder if it would collapse beneath them – they were still rivals enough that every scrape and bite and bruise made a kind of reasonable sense, and now it’s perhaps the only way to vent their emotions, the bloom of tiny injuries that Beth uncovered across her body in the hours and days after Las Vegas, each one a war wound, a badge of honour, a guilty secret to press her fingertips to over and over in a house that yawned and creaked around her with the weight of history and solitude. In some ways she’s still alone here but then she will never be alone, not with her legs bracketing Benny’s body, not with his mouth dragging out a glorious, aching need from her, exploring every last inch of her, every fold of skin, everywhere that makes her breath stop, spill from her like absolution. He chases every sound she makes, does whatever it was that made her gasp over again, harder, worse, until Beth is arched up from the mattress, arched to his mouth where his lips form shapes or the lyrics to the last song they heard together or every one of his favoured openings, all of the above or none of it. She looks back down when she dares, to her white-knuckled grip in his hair, his closed eyes with the lashes a streak of shadows on what’s visible of his face, the slightest graze of teeth over her clit because he knows she can take it, wants to take it.

One day, somebody else will do this to Beth. She may not have a heart that works like real people’s hearts do but she has a body that functions well enough and there are plenty of other people in the world with lips and tongues and long quick fingers: she will find one, or two, or six, and it will feel good. No one will care who you fuck, Benny told her when they were organising her marriage, and perhaps she’ll retain some of that as a divorcee; and if not, well, Beth is bored of trying to behave, of trying to be enough for people who don’t know her or like her or owe her anything. Maybe, when Beth has had half of Kentucky between her thighs, it will exorcise this moment: Benny’s tongue inside her, flickering to the beat of her pulse in her chest and her throat and her ears, his fingertips digging into the tops of her thighs to keep her where he wants her, each point of a pressure a tiny light that tingles like a struck match. Maybe she’ll no longer need to keep his hair brushing against her legs and tangling around her clutching fingers, the way he hums right there, at the centre of her, a swift vibration that tips her over the edge before she’s ready for it, before she’s prepared: something raw rips out of her throat and she falls back into the pillows, all of her trembling and full of something unnameable, unknowable and blinding along with it. Other people will make Beth come and it won’t feel like something magical, Benny easing back with tender slow kisses that shiver and sting and prolong her orgasm into something unbearable and right. This will be one night among many nights, one regret among many regrets, and she’ll be able to look at it with some perspective and know it for what it really is.

Benny is still mapping her body with his fingers and his mouth when Beth can finally construct a coherent thought, or something enough like it to drag his lips from the underside of her breast and roll them over, a clumsy tangle of limbs. Now Benny’s the one sprawled in his sheets, eyes widening as Beth leans down over him to kiss the slickness from his face, the taste of herself from his tongue. His cock presses eagerly into her stomach, his hands restlessly caress her back, her hips, her ass. She can picture herself mirroring him, hands and knees and the spill of her hair as she takes him into her mouth, the broken sounds escaping his throat, trying to watch until he no longer can. It’s good, even the thought of it makes her heart twist, her cunt pulse, but she wants more than that, wants everything he can give her, it’s been too long, so fucking long. Beth slowly undulates her body, feeling the wet smear of his pre-come against her skin, drinking the breath from his lungs, mouthing at his jaw, his throat. He doesn’t say her name but Beth watches him fight not to, steals a last kiss before she crawls off him.

The contents of Benny’s nightstand haven’t changed much in the last months: Beth shoves aside a copy of Franny and Zooey and two packs of playing cards to unearth the condoms exactly where she last saw them; something sharp and pleased in her notes that there are the same number there were last time. If Benny is surprised that she knows where to look he doesn’t show it as Beth tears a packet from the strip; she finds herself gratefully and ruefully reflecting that at least she didn’t let her spiteful fury poke a hole in them all, that would have been a difficult conversation to have. She drops the packet on the mattress and is about to shuffle backwards when Benny sits up, pulls her to him, gives her another one of those searing kisses that makes Beth’s brain stop functioning, his hands caught in her hair, her hands tangled in the chains around his neck. Beth drags herself away, all but falling out of his lap into a heap on the covers while Benny scrabbles for the condom, rips the packet open, heavy dark gaze flitting between putting it on and just gazing at Beth.

I’m not afraid of him, says teenaged Beth, thinking of the chess pirate with his sycophantic entourage and smug plastic grin. And she’s not afraid of him: she’s mad at him in a whole range of ways, of colours and furies and spikes. He’s less a real man, more of a cardboard cut-out of a grandmaster, the only thing genuine about him his skill on a chess board and Beth has played skilled men before.

Now, years later, Beth is scared of no one but Benny. Scared of how he reads her, the pieces of her he’s taken that she’s not sure she can ever get back. Scared of missing him – of knowing that she has no choice but to miss him. Beth has missed Benny in a variety of ways: in the toppled king of an unworthy rival, between her splayed legs on a drunken anonymous Lexington night, in the expectant dial tone before she recalled his demand to leave him alone, in the space and silence left behind where she’s become used to seeing only him. Beth has forgotten how to be alone, to enjoy her own solitude and not to feel isolated and trapped by it. She will be left to peel the recollection of laughter from the walls, to press her hands to her own heart to remember that the beat means she’s still alive, to assert the fact she lived for years with just her own mind, her own touch, the sound of her own breathing, and no one died of it. She made her own coffee, smiled her own smiles, wrapped her own arms around herself, and she survived day after day. She has done it before. She will do it again.

And that is the last fear, the worst and most secret one: of the way Benny looks at her changing, of his gaze going back to being sharp and cool and calculating, the fastest draw in the West ripping the skin from your bones and the defence from your game, looking at Beth and seeing her without knowing her. Or, worse, looking at her with faded nostalgia, like he’s recalling a song he once knew all the words to but can no longer remember the tune.

Beth blinks, and swallows, and draws in a sharp breath, and Benny is here, now, here, watching her with bright eyes and flushed cheeks and his mouth bitten raw, and there’s nothing of that man who so efficiently destroyed her in Sixty-Six, nothing of the arrogant champion on the covers of so many magazines. Here he is Beth’s, still, hers and no one else’s, and it’s that fierce realisation that propels her into movement. Benny reaches for her and Beth falls into his hands, plants her knees on either side of his thighs, lets him steady her with his sure perfect hands that fit now as they always have. She closes her eyes a moment, centring herself, and she’s used to the warm band of his signet ring pressing into the skin of her right hip but the warm band of the wedding ring on the left side is new with no clothing in the way, a strip of metal that means nothing but that mirrors the one on Beth’s left hand where it’s clenched into Benny’s shoulder. The rings they exchanged for a wedding that was a terrible idea from the start and that Beth agreed to not because she had to or even because she actually thought it would help but because she wanted to, God help her, afraid to even think the truth too loudly, but she wanted this.

Benny’s breathing is fast and shallow and Beth’s isn’t much better; it takes a moment of fumbling and searching for angles but it’s a relief when everything lines up and she finally, finally sinks down on his cock. Something perilously close to a whimper spills out of her mouth: she’s not had anything more than fingers – some of them Benny’s, most of them hers – inside her for so long that it takes a moment to adjust. Benny holds her, his lower lip caught between his teeth, but he doesn’t push for more and Beth shifts and keeps dragging in slow breaths and it gets easier, gets better. She rocks, careful and deliberate, and takes more of him each time until at last she’s fully seated, watching Benny’s Adam’s apple bounce as he swallows compulsively, hands shaking on her hips, holding still for her like it’s breaking him apart.

His lips form her name but he doesn’t make a sound; it’s been a long time since they did this and it feels the same as it ever did and yet completely different. Beth clenches experimentally and watches Benny’s eyes flutter closed in response; it’s like she’s drunk on the way it feels to have him inside her, how hard he is, how hot he is, how full she feels. The Beth of three years ago took this as her due, learned the many different ways their bodies could fit together, counted how many ways Benny could make fireworks shoot up her spine, assumed this would always happen whenever she wanted it. But then it didn’t, and now it’s not the same, nothing is the same: not the way that this feels, not the way that they want each other, none of it. Beth reaches out, suddenly frightened, suddenly overwhelmed, suddenly tender, and cups Benny’s cheek, runs her thumb over a flushed cheekbone. He turns his face, kisses the palm of her hand, and part of Beth wants to wrench herself from him, run from this room and this apartment and this marriage and this life, but she doesn’t, and when Benny opens his eyes they’re raw with want and it’s easy to surge forward to kiss him, to bite at his mouth and tilt her hips and oh, she remembers how that feels too.

It’s too fast, too much, too hard, but Beth can’t slow herself down and doesn’t try to, hands braced on Benny’s slim shoulders as she works herself on him, pulling back and plunging deep, the rhythm erratic and frantic and so good it’s almost blinding, Benny’s nails biting into her hips as he moves in tandem with her, thrusting up hard enough the sound of their skin smacking together is louder than his bedframe creaking, louder than their tight broken breathing. Beth can feel it building in her, a liquid heat that runs throughout her body, tingles in her fingers and her toes, burns sweet and urgent in the glorious stretch every time she takes the full length of him in her cunt. They should have done this before, but how could they, how could they have carried on with everything else and not just done this over and over again, every day, let every other aspect of their lives collapse around them.

They said no sex in Moscow, weeks ago now, less a real conversation and more a sheepish exchange of rueful laughter. Maybe that’s what this is, maybe that’s what Benny believes is happening here: a way to exorcise that lust neither of them has ever been good at hiding, burn it down to ashes before they have to play prestigious chess, chess too good for this, for this raw animal mingling of teeth and skin and sweat and breath that has no rules and no lines and no endgame. There’s no art to this, no strategy, and yet Beth knows what sex with amateurs is like and it’s not like this, doesn’t leave you broken and helpless before it, swept under and drowned by a wave of your own making. It’s nothing like the way Benny bares his teeth before he pushes Beth over onto her back, knocking the breath out of her as she falls beneath him, the rise of his body blocking most of the light. He braces himself on one arm while his other hand presses into her lower back, helps her tilt her hips to a new angle as he slides deeper, and Beth cries out, wordless and needy and lost.

Benny is a man possessed, fucking her hard enough for it to hurt, ripping control away from Beth and leaving her stranded, unable to do anything but lock her legs around his waist and keen, demanding everything that he has and then still more. He’d slow down or stop if she asked, all it would take would be a single word, and that knowledge is enough for Beth not to have to, to watch the shadows spill across his face and the gleam of half-light off his chains. Her hands roam aimless and desperate across his back, his ass, keeping him as close as she can while he hisses deliciously every time she digs her nails in. Benny shifts her hips again and this time when he thrusts in the base of his cock catches her clit; it sends sparks skittering through Beth’s stomach and he presses closer, grinding determinedly slow and deep until she falls to pieces for him, devastating sensation flooding her whole body, losing her in the undertow.

She tries to watch Benny, what she can see and what she can’t, but it’s all too much, broken sounds tumbling in fragments from her lips. A tear trickles down her cheek and Benny presses his mouth to it, bending Beth almost in half and she clenches around him, demanding, begging him to come for her, his pelvis still close enough to set her clit on fire every time he moves. Beth is weak from overstimulation but he doesn’t stop and she doesn’t want him to; she’s still wound so tight, so desperate, and she can tell from his breathing that he’s close. She claws at his arm until he lets her back drop to the mattress; she links their sweaty fingers, squeezing tight, thinks, let go, I have you, and holds onto him tight, tight until a frantic groan breaks out of Benny, his head dropping, hair falling in his eyes, and he comes, hips snapping erratically into hers. He all but collapses onto her and Beth thinks that’s it, it’s over, it has to be, but he manages to roll them onto their sides, slides the hand not entwined with hers between them to clumsily but efficiently work her clit. You bastard, Beth wants to say, whatever point you’re proving, I’ve got it, but he doesn’t stop, keeps rubbing her and gently rolling his hips until she comes again, a wreck of incoherent oversensitivity around his softening cock.

It takes time for them to finally draw apart, the cold returning to the room as Benny bites into his lower lip and carefully pulls out. Beth gasps, thought she’d be prepared to be left empty and isn’t, and Benny staggers off the bed, disappears down the hall; she hears the bathroom light snap on, the sound of running water. Beth closes her eyes and opens them and tries to work out what she’s supposed to do now, if she should gather her clothes together, if she should go back to her own room, if she should prepare herself for Benny asking questions she doesn’t have the words to answer. Instead, she stays lying prone, every inch of her tingling and exhausted; maybe she’s supposed to flee but she’s honestly not sure that her limbs work anymore. When Benny returns a minute later he’s carrying a damp washcloth; Beth takes it gratefully and summons enough strength to run it between her legs, the tops of her thighs. Everything stings and sings and she lets out a slow breath; she glances at Benny when he takes the cloth back and he’s got one of those half-smiles on his swollen mouth, the kind he wears when he’s won a game of blitz against her: half-proud, half-guilty. He goes back to the bathroom and Beth forces herself to sit upright, to at least move enough to be lying the right way on the bed, head on the pillow.

Benny says nothing when he comes back into the bedroom, shuts the door behind him. He makes no effort to claim either of their clothes, still scattered on the rug, and instead goes straight to the bed, shakes out the bundled heap of the blankets and covers Beth, gets in beside her and then leans over to turn out the lamp. It’s too simple, too easy, too perfunctory for what’s just happened, for the way Beth feels like she’s floating, not a pill in sight. Benny sighs beside her, and then she feels him roll over, wrap himself around her. She swallows and her throat feels tight but she relaxes into him, his warm sticky skin, the brush of his mouth at the top of her spine. His hand spreads over her ribs, five fingers and one metal band, and the matching one Beth wears clicks against it when she puts her hand over his. He exhales, shaky, and Beth thinks what are you doing but Benny doesn’t ask and she doesn’t tell.

Sleep is creeping over her, humming in her lax limbs and behind her eyes. Part of her is already there, lulled from exertion and orgasms, but that mind of hers that’s never been good at drifting off is still spinning to itself, pinballing from thought to thought, moment to moment. Every move that ever brought her here, every exchange of queens, every tip of a king, every capture, every check, every discovered attack. Some of them were more metaphorical than others, and she glides through a series of hotel rooms in other cities, in Las Vegas, Paris, Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Moscow. But that’s not why she’s here, and once again she’s on that bench in the sunlight, college students wandering a foreign planet she’ll never inhabit, and beside her Benny Watts tries to apologise and she takes pity on the twist of his mouth and asks what she’s always wanted to ask another player: do you ever go over games in your head? When you’re alone, I mean: play all the way through them? And Benny looks at her, but not like she’s stupid, not like she’s weird, not like he doesn’t understand what she’s talking about, and says: doesn’t everyone? And Beth feels it, that glimpse of a kindred spirit, that sail on her empty horizon, and something else, something so quick it’s there and then gone. But Beth now, she’s almost asleep, ghostly footsteps in her own memories, and she reaches out a hand to take that feeling, to smooth it flat like crumpled paper to examine. She’s felt it before, just the once: in a basement in an orphanage where everything is terrifying and lonely and wrong, and then there’s a board with black and white squares and specifically designed pieces that move like clockwork in carefully designated roles. She doesn’t know what it is yet, doesn’t understand it, doesn’t know what role it will play in her future, but she sees it and thinks yes, and a hook somewhere in her stomach catches on and says: mine.

-

The daylight is trickling into the room at the wrong angle, and realising this is what finally drags Beth into slow wakefulness. Her mind feels muddled, sluggish, and her body is sore, the muscles twinging and aching. None of it’s a bad feeling, though, and she knows that she’s smiling, satisfied by the soreness in her thighs, the curl of her toes in the sheets. It would be easy to roll over and go back to sleep, and she briefly considers doing it: there’s nothing much to do today, nowhere to go, the flight to Moscow isn’t until tomorrow.

Moscow. Ah, there’s the final shove into consciousness, and Beth lets out a breath as a gateway opens somewhere in her brain and everything rushes through like a waterfall, memories and realisations and conclusions and resolutions, a great torrential roar of them to foam around her feet. She’s tempted to pull the covers over her head and hide from all of it but she can’t for a number of reasons, the most pressing perhaps being that these aren’t her covers and this isn’t her bed. Benny’s no longer beside her, she’d be able to tell that even if she couldn’t hear the shower going, but when she reaches out a hand the pillow is still faintly warm on his side of the bed, and the blankets have been tucked carefully around her. Something about that thought makes her stomach swoop and then lurch.

Beth knows that before she fell asleep she was on the edge of something, there was a sort of understanding that made perfect sense to her, but maybe that was just exhaustion and a succession of good orgasms. It wasn’t even that long ago that Beth was scoffing at Benny on the phone as he said, you can’t look at me like you’re in love but if you can look at me like I’m helping you find God three times a night we might just get away with it. Beth has no idea how she looks at Benny anymore but she remembers thinking that three times was excessive and then the bastard actually fucking did it. Lying here in the cool October morning light, Beth is torn between stomping down to the bathroom and dragging Benny back to bed, and swearing that she will never need to have sex ever again. And maybe Jolene has always had a point that Beth should play more squash or something similar, because she feels like she ran a marathon and isn’t sure her spine is ever going to go back to normal.

The water snaps off and Beth contemplates pretending to be asleep, contemplates scrambling for her pyjamas; there are no good options and she ends up grimacing at the ceiling in the moments before Benny walks back into his room, towel around his waist, wet hair several shades darker and dripping onto his shoulders. He stoops, straightens up again with his robe in his arms; when he turns to put it on, Beth notes that despite her vaguely good intentions there’s a raw-looking scratch on his back. She didn’t break the skin but it’s still an angry, slightly swollen red.

“Did I hurt you?” she asks. Her voice comes out scratchy, hoarse, like she’s been screaming even though she hadn’t said a word.

Benny shrugs. “Ah, what’s another war wound?” he says, and grins at her. Beth knows that grin: it’s Benny’s favourite cowboy one, the easy jingle of bullets and spurs, kicking his boots beneath a different bed every night. It looks great on camera, plenty of teeth, and it’s not a real one. Benny fucked her halfway insane last night and now he won’t even smile at her.

Beth doesn’t deign to answer him; she doesn’t know what she wants to say, if there is anything that she can say, but she refuses to try to make meaningless small talk with Benny Watts. She didn’t enjoy it before she knew there was someone else in there, and she enjoys it even less now.

If Benny notices her annoyed silence he doesn’t mention it as he rummages for clean underwear and scrubs the towel over his hair. “I’m making coffee, if you’re getting up,” he says, and walks out again.

Slowly, her muscles complaining in unexpected ways, Beth manages to get herself off the bed. Even the soles of her feet hurt. Her pyjamas are still crumpled on the floor, and she puts them back on, the silk feeling rough against her skin. She finds her cardigan on Benny’s desk where she threw it; a few magazines fall when she picks it back up but there aren’t any more wedding photographs waiting to ambush her, and she ends up leaving them on the floor. The bathroom is warm and steamy, the mirror still fogged up; even not able to see her expression clearly Beth can tell her hair is a mess, a nest of tangles. She could get straight into the shower, maybe then she wouldn’t be able to still feel Benny’s touch on every inch of her raw skin, but that seems like a level of effort that her body just isn’t ready for yet. Instead, she pees, brushes her teeth, splashes her cheeks with water, and hopes that Benny was serious about the coffee.

Benny sits at their kitchen table, the shoulders of his robe damp from his wet hair, drinking black coffee. When Beth walks in the corner of his mouth flicks into a smile, and then he tucks a cigarette into it before he turns his attention back to the pamphlet he’s studying. Beth goes to get herself some coffee, tips in cream and an extra spoonful of sugar because she’s pretty sure that she needs it, and then sits down opposite him. Benny doesn’t look up, and maybe that’s for the best because Beth honestly doesn’t know what she’s supposed to say. Her experience with this kind of thing is not exactly wide-ranging, but Beth is beginning to come to the conclusion that she might have just had a one night stand with her husband.

Her husband, fuck, and there’s that thought that goes round and round like a carousel that won’t slow down and doesn’t ever stop. Benny is her husband now, will be her husband in Moscow, but he can’t stay her husband after that. He just can’t. Now their marriage is a finite thing, their clocks ticking down, Beth is more willing to look at it for what it is. She’s been so caught up in it all, in the little details, the individual moves, that she couldn’t see the bigger picture, the overall game plan. It’s unforgivable in a player of her calibre, really, to be bogged down in the minutiae; she sips her coffee and sits back in her chair and for a moment almost expects to see pieces moving across their kitchen’s orange ceiling, each pawn labelled with a moment, a journey, a smile, a touch, a kiss. But there’s nothing there. Beth has been thinking about anger, about arguments, about worry and guilt and independence.

Years ago, Harry sitting on Alma’s couch: okay, tell me, what was your endgame? What was your plan? Beth laughed at him then, but he was right, she was improvising, relying on her own skill to breeze through. Harry and then Benny taught her how to study, to really look dozens of moves ahead, to turn the board into a map to traverse with her pieces, the journey already plotted. Beth told herself when she returned from Moscow the first time that she would no longer improvise with her life, leap from thing to thing, searching for distraction, for anything that filled the voids inside her without her having to look too hard at them. But all she’s done this year is focus on each individual move, no destination in mind. Now, it’s like that morning in Vegas when she returned to the adjourned game to see the mess they’d made of it, the scattered remaining pieces beyond any hope of a strategy to corral them.

People have been telling Beth for months how happy she is: they could see things in her she couldn’t see in herself, couldn’t let herself see. Everyone from her closest friends to casual acquaintances have noticed her change in mood, her demeanour, and Beth was so busy counting her mistakes she couldn’t see what she got right either. She couldn’t let herself be happy, perhaps too afraid that if she noticed it she wouldn’t let herself remain happy, would have to deconstruct it and destroy it.

But then, what is happiness in the scheme of things? Beth drinks her coffee and watches the ash grow on Benny’s cigarette because it’s easier than looking at him, at his clever fingers, his knowing mouth, his sharp eyes, the tips of his hair drying into soft spun gold. Happiness is something intangible, unmeasurable, won and lost like the cash Benny throws so easily into every game anyone will let him bet on. Back when Beth was selling her soul to anything and anyone in exchange for the ability to be the best, to beat Borgov, happiness was never on her list of desires. Strength, yes; perseverance, intelligence, focus, determination: these were the things she wanted, the things that she needed. Happiness was negotiable, negligible.

So Benny makes Beth happy, makes her happy even when he’s making her angry, makes her happy even when he’s cutting her to the bone with unrepentant truth, makes her happy even when he’s confusing her. Beth was so sure last night that she couldn’t love Benny, but then what is the definition of love anymore. Maybe her love doesn’t look like another person’s, maybe no one else would call it love, but it might be there in her respect for Benny’s mind, in the way she’s meticulously learned everything about him from the stories he doesn’t tell other people to the details of his body language, in the ease with which she can’t stop herself touching him, and now, of course, this ridiculous reluctance to let him go.

It doesn’t matter, of course. It can’t matter. Beth was once terrified that she’d erased her own brain with drugs and booze and her own sense of spiralling misery and madness, hidden away in Kentucky too scared to touch a chess board in case it fell apart in front of her, just wood and splinters. She dragged herself out of that, hand over hand, step by step, and her mind was still waiting for her when the pills and the alcohol were gone, fragile and unsure but whole. Beth wouldn’t let unhappiness take her brain away from her, so why should she allow something so pedestrian as joy to do it? Happiness is a distraction: love or lust or affection or whatever the fuck she’s calling this tore the US Open from her hands. How can she possibly stay feeling like this? Beth has spent years realising that she doesn’t want to be like everyone else, she cannot be like everyone else: so what makes her think that she can have this?

Benny has said that they were made to keep each other sharp, and in a lot of ways that has proven to be true, but if this marriage is a real marriage then Beth can’t see how it could do anything but blunt them both, dull them, flatten them. She has spent half her life in a furious constant focus – well, except for those months when she tried something different and all but killed herself – and that has got her to where she is now, one mountain peak climbed and several larger ones to go. She is a chess player first and everything else second, and anything that demands she prioritise something else – even her own heart, treacherous and plaintive – cannot be sustained. It is too much, to feel this way, to want this way, to sit at their kitchen table and watch Benny not look at her.

But then the way that Beth feels about Benny has never been proportionate. He’s annoyed her from the second they first met, that patronising afternoon in Cincinnati, and it’s only ever grown worse over time. The way he beat her in Las Vegas the first time, casually tangling up her brain with hurt pride and anger until she’d stumbled into his trap. And of course that night in Ohio, when he took all of her cash and left her feeling so furious she felt explosive, unsure if she wanted to scream or to cry or to punch a hole through the cheap university accommodation wall, her body flooded with adrenaline and humiliation. With hindsight, Beth knows now that that was the first real thing she’d felt since she found Alma’s body: she’d been swimming through a strange hazy sea for months, hadn’t realised how bad it was until it was blasted away by fucking Benny Watts and his pirate grin, the flick of his hands as he offered: again? When he reached out to her later as someone else, someone kinder and smarter and more real, it cracked Beth open, and of course she agreed to move to New York with him. He’d lit something inside her, and she was afraid that if she went back to Kentucky it would die, she’d be back to that constant numbness. She was a lot of things around Benny, but numb wasn’t any of them.

Benny crushes out his cigarette, drains the last of his coffee and stands up, flipping the pamphlet closed. Beth grits her teeth to stop herself from saying something, still with no idea what she’s supposed to say. Maybe this is the answer that she needs: that last night was cruel, and now Benny feels used by his indifferent wife. She doesn’t know how to explain that that wasn’t it at all, because they still have to file for divorce after Moscow. Beth doesn’t know what she’ll tell Benny: the awful truth or the slightly more comfortable lie. She drops her gaze back to her cooling coffee, vaguely nauseous. She should shower, she thinks, scrub off all of this, leave it as a set of memories that hopefully she’ll be able to look at one day for better or for worse.

“Beth.” Benny pauses in the doorway, tapping his fingers against the frame. He looks conflicted; it’s the first time this morning that he’s really looked like himself.

“Benny,” she says, and waits.

“Look,” Benny begins, but he stops himself, mouth twisting. He sighs. “We’re okay,” he tells her finally. “So don’t- don’t look like that. It’s okay.”

His bedroom door closes a moment later. Beth stays sitting where she is, head in hands, and tries to convince herself that even if she did go after him, there’s nothing she could say.

-

The state department send a grim-faced man who introduces himself as Agent Peterson. He has thick salt and pepper hair and his shoulders are easily twice as wide as Benny’s; Beth has no idea what he was told in his briefing or what files he read but he clearly decided long before he arrived that he doesn’t like either of them and nothing that’s happened since they met has changed his mind. Benny has facilitated this by referring to him as Mr Government, frequently to Peterson’s face, and Beth is still trying to work out if there’s room in his smart suit jacket for a shoulder holster. Peterson is passive-aggressively demonstrating his displeasure by calling Beth nothing but Mrs Watts, despite the fact that his files must have said that Beth mostly still uses her maiden name, particularly in a professional context. If Peterson notices that Beth and Benny are both a little shaken every time he calls Beth that, he doesn’t let on, and he doesn’t stop either.

Beth has the middle seat in their row on the plane, and has the funny feeling that she’s supposed to be mediating something. It’s a night flight so there isn’t much to see; Benny’s drawn the blind over the window and is hunched in his seat reading a battered second-hand copy of Valley of the Dolls, something which seems to personally offend Peterson, sitting on Beth’s other side with his arms folded.

“Are you reading this one for the gripping chess scenes?” Beth asks dryly.

Benny smirks. “Sometimes it’s nice to read something that doesn’t tax my brain,” he replies.

Beth is reading a Capablanca biography on the flight, but also has several magazines in her bag; she’s willing to concede the point.

Peterson eventually gets up to use the bathroom, giving them both a significant stare before he leaves. What he thinks they’re going to get up to while he’s gone, Beth has no idea, but he’s definitely several steps up from Mr Booth.

Benny leans over to speak into Beth’s ear. “What would he do, do you think, if we were to fuck in the plane bathroom?”

Beth jerks away, heart thumping, breath caught. “We said no sex in Moscow!” she hisses, and hopes she doesn’t look as startled as she feels.

Benny rolls his eyes. “We’re not in Moscow yet,” he replies. “Anyway, I’m not suggesting we actually do it, it’s a hypothetical. Like one of Wexler’s problems, only actually fun. So: what would Mr Government do?”

Beth swallows hard and tries to regain her lost composure. “I think… I think he would demand that they turn the plane around,” she says.

“What about all these poor people who just want to get home to the mother country?” Benny asks, faux-shocked, raising playful eyebrows.

“They’ll just have to wait,” Beth replies, shaking her head in mock sadness. “If we’re too badly behaved, we just can’t be allowed to go anywhere.”

“Appalling of us, really,” Benny says. “I bet all those chess players in the media with their pocket squares don’t act like this.”

When Peterson returns a minute later Beth tries to keep a straight face but ends up bursting into giggles; Benny pretends to give her a scandalised look but starts laughing himself. The agent genuinely does look like he’s contemplating sending them both back to the States the moment they land. A couple of other passengers look around at them: this is not exactly a plane full of mirth, and Beth bites her lips together, tries to look chastened. The truth is that, ridiculous as it is, it feels good to still be able to laugh with Benny; even if things aren’t exactly tense between them at the moment, she knows that they’re not completely stable either. If this is the swansong of their marriage, Beth wants it to feel good, to feel normal. They both deserve that much.

The day’s been full of phone calls: a few from journalists, wanting last minute statements, but the rest from friends. Beth and Benny handed the phone back and forth, receiving good luck messages and an array of chess advice. It was better than two years ago, when her phone remained obstinately silent and she kept picking up the handset, dialling Benny’s number, and then hanging up before it started ringing. But Jolene hugged her and sent her off from the airport, and this time Beth had to make do with just talking to her. If Jolene and Townes collaborated on the call that ripped the floor from under her a couple of days ago, Jolene didn’t mention it, and neither did Beth. Take care of yourselves, was the only thing Jolene said that had anything to do with Benny, and for a minute Beth wanted to breathlessly demand advice but Benny was sitting in the armchair double-checking the books he’d chosen to bring and even if he hadn’t been Beth didn’t know what she actually wanted to ask.

The best way to kill time on the flight and to prepare for Moscow is probably to get some sleep; Beth abandons her book and tries to get herself comfortable in her seat. She’s a veteran of sleeping on flights by now, although for several years she was popping a couple of pills before take-off, which made the journey considerably easier and more peaceful. Eventually, Benny sighs, and shifts his posture so he’s not leaning against the window but is actually sitting closer to Beth. His shoulder is a little bony but it’s not uncomfortable when Beth rests her head on it; she closes her eyes and breathes in the scent of his cologne from the surprisingly soft black sweater he’s wearing, one that she hadn’t seen before and which fits him in a way that has been enormously distracting all day. After a moment, Benny’s cheek comes to rest against her hair, and Beth thinks about the flight to Paris, months ago now, the strange terror and serenity of her new husband asleep on her shoulder.

She’s half convinced that she won’t be able to sleep, not with the knot of excitement and anxiety about the Invitational that’s tangled in her chest, not with her sharp hopeless awareness of everything that Benny is. But Beth sits still and listens to Benny breathing, steady and familiar, the occasional whisper of him turning a page, and it lulls her under anyway.

-

In the car on the way to the hotel, Agent Peterson gives a lecture on what he expects from their behaviour in Russia, and Beth is forcibly reminded about trips into town from Methuen, the endless speeches from Mrs Deardorff they all pretty much ignored as soon as they were out of her view.

“You will not leave your room. You will not answer the telephone. You will not make phone calls. You will not socialise with anyone who has not been pre-approved.”

Benny, who has largely been staring out of the window at the dark misty streets, raises his eyebrows. “Wait, should I have been writing this down?”

“How do I know who has been pre-approved?” Beth asks. She’s thinking mostly of Townes, but it’s easy to widen her eyes, playing at confusion. “Are Benny and I approved to socialise? It might be difficult sharing a room if we’re not.”

“Oh, darling, we’re very good at not talking to each other,” Benny replies easily; there’s the slightest of edges in his voice but Beth knows that Peterson won’t pick up on it.

“If either of you break the rules,” Peterson interrupts, raising his voice a touch, “or if I become unaware of your whereabouts at any point, I have the authority to contact the embassy and have you deported.”

Now that’s a new one. Beth blinks a couple of times, processing this. “What if he breaks the rules and I don’t?” she asks.

“You will both be deported,” Peterson replies. His tone is neutral, but he seems pleased about this fact. Beth wonders how the Russians will feel if two players are abruptly pulled out of their competition, but maybe if it looks like she and Benny are winning they might be pleased about it.

“That doesn’t seem fair,” she says, and Peterson’s mouth twitches into something that’s almost a smile.

“You married me, love,” Benny replies, and the edge in his voice isn’t even hidden this time.

“Would you like to just lock us in our room?” Beth asks Peterson, trying for innocent, probably sounding annoyed.

“Do not tempt me,” he replies.

“I told you you sent them into a defection panic,” Benny says in a stage whisper; now it’s Beth’s turn to pretend to be staring out of the window.

The hotel is the same one that Beth stayed in two years ago, still as immaculate and beautiful as it was then. Peterson sees them to their room, reiterates his warnings about them staying put, and reluctantly leaves them their keys. Benny kicks off his boots and flops onto the bed: “think this place is bugged?”

“If you want to live out your espionage fantasy don’t let me stop you,” Beth replies. “Do you think Peterson has to vet room service if I call for coffee?”

“I think he has to test the coffee to check it’s not poisoned,” Benny replies cheerfully.

“Why would it be poisoned?” Beth asks.

Benny sits up, shrugging. “You did win last time you came here,” he points out. “Maybe Laev threw a tantrum.”

“They could have just not invited me,” Beth points out.

“There’s no melodrama in that,” Benny replies dismissively. “Anyway, don’t order coffee, the sleep on the plane should have helped steady your body clock.”

“And what about yours?” Beth asks.

Benny waves a hand. “I’ve evolved beyond the need for sleep, Beth, you know this.”

Beth rolls her eyes at him and starts unpacking, a little arrival ritual of Alma’s that she has inherited. It helps her make the space her own, not just another anonymous hotel room with sharp geometric wallpaper and a selection of artwork she’ll stop noticing in the next few minutes. She stacks her books on one side of the desk, placing her board carefully on top, stows her boots and shoes in the bottom of the closet, places her toiletry bag in the bathroom and then turns her attention to unfolding her clothes so they won’t be creased or crumpled. Beth is used to doing this alone; Benny prefers to just live out of his ubiquitous duffle, letting his clothes iron themselves on his body. But Beth wouldn’t have needed to be as hyper-aware of Benny as she has been lately to notice that he’s brought an actual suitcase to Russia, has been wearing a smart black wool peacoat instead of the leather duster, and now he’s unpacking actual pants and crisp shirts and hanging them up.

“Who are you and what have you done with Benny Watts?” Beth asks dryly.

Benny smiles. “Take me somewhere worthy of respect, and I’ll dress to respect it.”

Beth considers this. “No cheap plastic boards with cheap plastic pieces?”

“Exactly.” Benny hangs up his last shirt with a flourish.

“I don’t think you dressed this well for our wedding,” Beth observes.

“Our city hall wedding that we had primarily to make money and stop weird men proposing to you?” Benny asks mildly.

Beth bites the inside of her mouth for a moment at his casually flippant tone, but he’s not exactly wrong. “Yeah,” she agrees softly, “that one.”

She hangs up her last dress, something unexpected twisting in her chest at their clothes hanging together in the closet: everything elegant and neat, like they belong to a different couple entirely. She closes the doors and hesitates; Benny is sitting on the couch now, laying notebook and chessboard on the table, and Beth could just put her suitcase away with the small box hidden at the bottom still in it. She probably should. Instead, she retrieves the box, puts it beside Benny’s stack of books and sits down too. She’s not nervous. There’s no reason to be nervous at all.

Benny raises his eyebrows at her before he reaches for the box; Beth is tempted to blurt out several things but makes herself sit still as he opens the lid.

“I was pretty sure you weren’t kidding about improvising,” she offers when he doesn’t say anything.

“I wasn’t,” Benny agrees quietly.

As cufflinks go, they’re nothing particularly complicated: silver to match Benny’s other jewellery, solid enough to be a decent weight but not too heavy, simple flat disks so as not to be distracting. There were other types, other designs, but Beth doesn’t expect him to wear them very often: these are for playing serious chess with. They were harder to pick out than she’d expected, especially when she admitted to the polite, well-dressed salesman that she was shopping for her husband. He’d asked a slew of questions, none of which seemed to encompass Benny at all, and part of Beth had wanted to run away before she reminded herself that she was an adult, buying a present for another adult, something that she was more than capable of.

“I knew you didn’t have any,” Beth adds. “And… now you do.”

Benny nods, visibly swallows. “And they’re monogrammed,” he remarks.

Beth had almost said no to the engraving, and then thought again. “Well,” she offers, “whatever you’re wearing, you’re still Benny Watts.”

Benny laughs; it sounds a little thick. “Damn right,” he says. He gently lets the box close again.

Beth doesn’t know what she was expecting, what reaction she was aiming for, so she doesn’t know if this is an anti-climax or not. She scrapes together a smile as Benny reaches carefully to put the cufflinks back on the table, curls her fingers into her palms. It doesn’t really matter: one day, all of their interactions will be like this or maybe even worse. This was never a real marriage, but they can definitely have a very real divorce.

“Beth,” Benny says softly. He’s fidgeting with his signet ring, brow furrowed; his mouth works silently for a moment.

“They’re just cufflinks,” she says quickly. “I mean, you don’t even use buttons most of the time, it’s not a big deal.”

Benny sighs and stands up, holding out his hand to Beth until she takes it and he pulls her to her feet. There’s a moment when there are too many possibilities and neither of them know which to choose; finally, Benny embraces her, holds her close and says nothing at all. Beth keeps her face buried in that soft sweater, tries very hard not to think about how the last time they stood like this they were both naked.

“You know how much of my jewellery was bought for me by other people?” Benny asks softly.

“I’m assuming that all of it was from your many admirers,” Beth replies, equally quiet.

Benny laughs, a little rough. “Yeah,” he says, “yeah, that’s exactly it. Yeah.” He kisses Beth’s temple and lets her go with a wry little smile. “Well,” he says, “here we are. Back in the USSR.”

“Hey,” Beth protests, “you don’t even like The Beatles.”

“I know a good line when I steal it,” Benny tells her, and there’s nothing but relief in Beth’s laughter.

-

There’s a brief informal coffee session for the competitors the following afternoon. Beth remembers the one two years ago vividly: sitting awkwardly wanting both to take up more space, to be more impressive, and to disappear into the upholstery altogether. She felt intimidated, surrounded by legends whose gazes passed easily over her except, of course, for Borgov, whose expression was far more complicated. He wasn’t human yet in Beth’s mind; it seemed insane that the man who haunted her nights, haunted her games could just sit there calmly drinking coffee like a real person.

This year, no one’s gaze is dismissive, and no one is wondering why she is here. Luchenko shakes her hand and kisses her cheeks like she’s a favoured grandchild, asks after her health and teasingly tells her that she was missed last year. He’s equally courteous to Benny, who is perhaps the most polite and awed Beth has ever seen him in his response. She considers filing this away to laugh at him later, but it’s very sweet, so maybe she won’t after all.

Borgov congratulates her on her wedding in English before switching to Russian to raise an eyebrow and ask: really, him? with a teasing smile. Beth shrugs, replies he has his moments in Russian too. She wasn’t sure what it would be like, seeing Borgov again in person: she’s read all about his games, the international tournaments she hasn’t attended in the last two years but which she fully intends to now. At some point last month Benny mentioned that they could spend spring in Europe, and – but, no, they will not be able to do that, because they will no longer be married in the spring. Beth can go wherever she wants, play whoever she likes, but she will be going alone. Anyway, in the event, it’s good to see Borgov, to meet as equals or something like it, nothing caught between them but an ordinary, not unfriendly rivalry.

There’s no Swedish contender this competition – perhaps he couldn’t come, or perhaps by having two Americans attend a different invitation had to be rescinded – but it seems that Flento has proven himself the strongest Italian again; he shakes Beth’s hand with cool politeness and she responds in kind. The French competitor, Rancourt, turns out to be one of the men she drew against in the Jardins du Luxembourg; he’s friendly when he greets Beth and when she looks over later, he and Benny are engaged in a serious-looking conversation in rapid French she can’t begin to pretend she understands.

Beth is used to always being aware of Benny to a greater or lesser extent: he’s spent years making sure he’s the loudest, most ostentatious in any given room, and she watched him as a rival for years before she moved on to paying attention to him for anything else. In more recent months, she’s become accustomed to being able to pick out his laugh, the tone of his voice, even in a crowded space; it seems to have happened without any conscious effort on her part. There’s not many of them at this reception, sipping coffee and exchanging banalities while they wait for the officials to sit them all down and tell them rules and regulations that they all know anyway; of course Beth knows where Benny is, she knows where everyone is. But she can no longer dismiss it as something that simple, much as she wants to.

Benny isn’t exactly dressed like all the other men in the room, but he’s wearing actual pants with shiny black brogues and an olive green turtleneck sweater under his unbuttoned jacket. It’s a good look on him, informal but smart, and Beth’s eyes keep being drawn to him even when she’s talking to other people, a sharp flare of attraction in her belly when she sees this handsome stranger who turns out to be her husband. For once, Benny isn’t trying to show off, isn’t playing the arrogant conqueror: he has the same quiet, sure confidence that all of them have, because how could any of them walk into a competition like this if they didn’t, but he wears it comfortably, unobtrusively. He isn’t acting like he’s doing anyone a favour just by being here, and while Beth has reluctantly developed a soft spot for even the worst parts of the Benny Watts persona, this capable, poised man is far more distracting than Beth could ever have guessed.

Eventually, they all sit down with refreshed coffee to listen – or pretend to listen – to an official telling them about the tournament, how things will be structured, the specific rules of time and gameplay. Beth knows all of these already and in any case it’s a lot of quick, dense Russian; she lets her mind wander, watching the faces of the other players. Luchenko spots her looking and winks at her; in fact, the only person who seems to be attentively listening is Borgov, whose expression reminds Beth of the kinds of students who would sit at the front of the classroom and always had a hand up with the correct answer. Laev looks sullen, Rancourt a little overwhelmed, Flento a little bored. Sitting beside her on a brocade couch, Benny discreetly takes Beth’s hand. Somewhere around the time they agreed on their no sex in Moscow rule, they also agreed that there’d be no need to play up their relationship for the media. They’re both here as serious chess players, their marriage has nothing to do with this publicity; they’ll be seen together, and that’s plenty. There’s no need to show off for anybody here, and Beth realises after a second that this is a genuine gesture: either support or nerves. She squeezes gently, and Benny squeezes back.

After the reception, Beth tries to indicate that she might like some fresh air, maybe they could go for a walk, but Peterson unrepentantly shepherds them back to their room, tells them they can have lunch brought and that he’ll know if they set so much as one foot outside.

“Do you think he loses his job if he loses us?” Benny asks.

“You’re the one who went missing on your last trip,” Beth reminds him.

Benny shrugs. “I left them Weiss as a hostage.”

They eat while playing through two of Shapkin’s most recent games, and two of Laev’s; they’ve played through them before, but it’s good to keep the strategies fresh, since that’s who they’ll each be facing first. There’s a formal dinner tonight; Beth remembers this vividly from last time, biting her tongue every time the waiter offered her wine, lost amid the maelstrom of other people’s conversation, wishing for an ally, for a friend, for Benny. He’d said it would be tough to go to Russia alone and it was then that Beth really realised what he meant: that you didn’t bring a second just to discuss chess. This time, Beth knows several of the people that she’ll be dining with, has someone to sit beside her, and she’s more relieved than she thinks she could ever vocalise.

“Want to go again?” she asks when they’ve finished the fourth game.

Benny screws up his face. His hair was neat earlier, but he’s been running his hands through it in the privacy of their hotel room, and it’s got the slightly ragged appearance that Beth privately prefers. “I thought I might nap,” he says.

Beth feigns shock. “I thought you didn’t need sleep anymore.”

“Well, there’s not going to be much in the next week,” Benny responds on a shrug. “Get it while you can.”

She’d sort of been thinking about taking a bath with their hours of imprisonment, taking the quiet and the time to centre herself, get ready for tomorrow. But then she looks at the bed and thinks that a nap might actually be really nice, an equally good way to relax. Benny pulls the drapes, blocking out the winter daylight, and Beth swaps her smart blouse and slacks for her pyjamas, delights in crawling back into the soft cool sheets. Benny strips down to his underwear and t-shirt and gets in beside her. There’s plenty of room in the bed but it’s not as large as the one they shared in Vegas: Beth remains acutely aware of him as he turns out the light, gets himself comfortable, listens to his slow, steady breathing as a way to help herself drift off.

Beth wakes up a couple of hours later, momentarily disoriented in the darkness before she remembers where she is and what’s happening; Benny has rolled over and is curled against her back, and Beth can feel where she’s relaxed into his touch. It’s tempting to go back to sleep for a while; there’s an alarm set so they’ve got time to get ready, and even if there wasn’t she suspects that Peterson has their itinerary memorised and will be making sure that they attend absolutely everything, on time and impeccably presentable. You’re not to blame for anything that you do in your sleep, and Beth likes it here, Benny’s every warm exhale against her spine. But this isn’t for her to have or to keep, and she forces herself to get up without waking him, to go take a shower.

A while later, hair meticulously styled and make-up applied, Beth steps into her dress, a short Oscar de la Renta in dark brocade with a jewel-accented belt, with long demure sleeves and sharp pleats. It’s the sleeves that prove her undoing: she’s had years of having to handle her own zippers but it’s easier to contort her arms in a sleeveless dress, and after a minute or two of frustrating wriggling she admits defeat and goes to ask Benny for help. He’s in a suit for tonight, a shirt but no tie, and the look is magnetically attractive; he’s left the top button undone, and Beth catches the briefest flash of silver, the knowledge that underneath that elegant exterior the real Benny is still there. She swallows, and her voice is almost steady when she asks if he can zip her up.

Benny has undressed Beth enough times, particularly in those weeks in his apartment, but somehow him slowly zipping the dress up is enough to make Beth’s toes curl; frankly, all of this is ridiculous, embarrassing, impossible, exhilarating. When she turns around, hoping she doesn’t look too flushed, he’s smiling a little sheepishly: “now it’s your turn.”

It takes both of them to do up Benny’s cufflinks, although it’s possible that Beth’s fingers are a little shaky and clumsy. Something about their overlapping hands and the fiddly little links in her hands reminds her of their wedding day, the exchange of rings that almost undid them both, and she swallows hard. Beth likes how they look when finally situated, anyway: subtle, but a glitter of silver when he gestures, and anyway she knows that they’re there.

“Well, at least you won’t embarrass me too much in front of all those Russians in their suits,” Beth offers, taking easy refuge in teasing.

Benny smirks back at her, like he knows exactly the effect he’s having on her and is enjoying it. “That was the idea,” he replies, and she can’t tell if he’s joking or not as he helps her into her coat and puts a steady hand on her lower back as they walk out.

-

Beth faces Shapkin first, while Benny plays Laev. Shapkin’s play is stronger than the last time Beth played him; she plays the King’s Indian Attack and has his king neatly netted in thirty-six moves, a little over an hour. Shapkin looks a touch thrown but bows over her hand politely before he leaves, and Beth folds her notes neatly, smiling to herself. Two of the matches are still going, but one finished within half an hour; she didn’t dare look up to see whose, although there was a ripple of murmurs through the audience before they applauded, and it took all of Beth’s willpower to focus on her own game. Now, free to look, she sees that it was Benny and Laev’s game that ended so swiftly, and in Benny’s favour. The endgame is a glorious forest of Black pawns and a pawn promoted to a queen putting the final nail in the coffin.

“Seventeen moves,” Benny says when they’ve left the hall; he sounds euphoric, shaken. “I thought he had some fucking masterstroke up his sleeve but… he just fell to pieces.”

“You were incredible,” Beth tells him; she doesn’t know the specifics of the game yet but they’ll play through them later in their room. She pulls him into an impulsive hug, can feel him trembling, the adrenaline still high.

“So were you,” he assures her, “I saw the last half of your game, his bishop move was suicidal.”

“Well, he had to try something,” Beth shrugs, but she’s grinning at the praise anyway.

Peterson hustles them to their car, although there are people waiting outside, wanting autographs from both of them. Beth smiles and signs what she can, aware of Benny being far more polite and gracious with the Russians than he ever is with the Americans back home. It’s difficult to be shut in the car, not to be able to walk, to run, to shake off the thrill of playing and winning her first match here, and Beth sees a matching restlessness in Benny’s eyes. Peterson must see it too, because he agrees that they can at least sit in the hotel bar for the first part of their post-match analysis; he sits one table over and eyeballs their drinks periodically like one of them is about to produce a hipflask. In fairness, if Beth didn’t know Benny as well as she does, she probably wouldn’t put that past him, but she knows how clear he wants to keep his mind, and they both stick to coke. They get a few interested looks as they work through Benny’s game first, but when they keep stopping to analyse the moves people turn away again.

“I barely got to start my strategy,” Benny complains, “Laev was a fucking mess.”

“It’s a definitive victory,” Beth responds, “don’t complain about it.”

He still makes a face, undoes an extra button on his shirt. Beth swallows, and they set the board up again to work through Beth’s game, Benny playing as her, Beth as Shapkin. She finds a weakness he could have exploited in her middle game, and is a little annoyed – even if Shapkin didn’t catch it during the match, the others will catch it during their various analyses – but overall the game is strong, and she’s pleased.

They get dinner in their room, and by then the results and moves from the other two games have been delivered to them: they play through Borgov’s win over Flento first while they eat. Borgov clearly has the upper hand for most of the match, but Flento hangs grimly in there, and Beth can’t write him off too easily: she remembers the gruelling four hours that their game dragged on for in Sixty-Eight. She might be fairly sure that she can win against him, but she doesn’t want to exhaust herself doing it. Luchenko’s game against Rancourt is much more interesting: Luchenko pulls out a win in the end but there are at least two points when either of them could have called a draw with grace, and there’s plenty for both of them to discuss as they work through it.

“It was the rook sacrifice that got Rancourt,” Benny decides, turning a captured White pawn over in his fingers absent-mindedly. “In the end it wasn’t worth a knight and three pawns.”

This was what was missing when Beth was last playing in Moscow: not just the company, not even the sex they would definitely have had regardless of whether Christian Crusade put them in separate rooms, but having a mind like her own to talk over all the games with. She played them alone, picked out the strengths and the flaws, but there was no one to talk about it with, to argue about it with; Booth was kindly but distant and clearly had no knowledge of chess, even if Beth had managed to get him to sit in her room with a cup of coffee and her board.

“What?” Benny says, looking up when Beth doesn’t speak. “You disagree?”

“I don’t,” she replies. “I just… there’s a lot about Moscow that’s the same as two years ago. I’m glad that you’re the thing that’s different.”

After she’s spoken, she’s not sure that she should have said it aloud after all; it’s getting harder to remind herself that when they get home she has to call an end to this marriage. Caught up in their little Russian bubble, their cosy hotel room that looks almost exactly like the one Beth had before except that she’s not desperately lonely, it’s too easy to imagine that they could keep this, they could be like this all the time.

“I’m not the only thing that’s different,” Benny replies, but his smile is gentle.

It takes Beth longer than she’d like to fall asleep; her mind is still alight, still caught up in the games from today, the anticipation of games for tomorrow. Despite his claims to be beyond such mortal things as sleep, Benny drops off quickly, and Beth is left lying awake in the darkness, listening to him breathing, trying to find that quiet stillness in herself somewhere. She shifts restlessly, ends up thinking angrily and longingly of the pills, the soft green slide into unconsciousness; she even remembers where the nearest pharmacy is, you don’t need a prescription there. Peterson might not want to let her go, but maybe she could convince him her period started unexpectedly, or maybe –

Beth’s relationship with dreaming has always been a complicated one. Even from a young age, she was never one for remembering them the next morning, everything fading as she woke up. The pills at Methuen – and then afterwards – induced a dreamlike quality to everything when she was awake, but created a remarkably clean night’s sleep. It was difficult in the earliest weeks of withdrawal, but as Beth’s body has stabilised and her brain has grown used to sleeping for itself she’s mostly gone back to wispy dreams she can’t hold onto in daylight and that’s fine by her. The only exceptions are the dreams that aren’t dreams, are memories that she’s suppressed so hard that they can only express themselves by bursting unexpectedly into her subconscious. She doesn’t have them often, more at times of heightened emotion or stress, and she’s getting better at coping with them. She is.

But then she’s sitting in the backseat of the car, the soft worn cotton of her favourite dress under her palms, and the sun is too bright and the road ahead is empty and she sees her mother in pieces, in slices, her hunched shoulders, her drawn face, her shaky hands, the reflection of her eyes in the rear-view mirror, the slow drip of tears down her cheeks. Beth is ten years old, confused and helpless, and Beth is twenty-one years old and knows what is coming next, and she can’t move, can’t speak, can’t beg her mom to reconsider, to pull over, to breathe, to stop. There’s just the car going too fast and the truck coming for them and Beth is screaming and Beth isn’t making a sound, and her mom lets out this broken noise that no human being should ever make and there’s splashing red and – no, Beth didn’t see that, or maybe she did, and the collision shakes her to the bone, rips the world away from her.

Beth lurches upright, fighting to breathe, ears full of the scream of crumpling metal and broken glass. It’s dark, everywhere is dark, and maybe she’s dead too, maybe this is where they take little girls who can’t save their mamas, down into the darkness, and there’s blankets covering her, blankets like the one they covered her mom with, what was left of her mom with, and she kicks at them, isn’t ready to be covered in a blanket yet, not yet, let her go.

Beth!” Someone’s voice breaks through her panic, hands on her shoulders, in her hair, solid, warm hands, not phantom touches long gone. “Beth, you’re okay. Come on, you’re here, you’re safe.”

She drags breaths into her raw lungs, stops kicking at the bedclothes – that’s all they are, all they ever were – and slowly lets reality filter back in. She’s… she’s in Moscow. It’s night, that’s why it’s dark, and Benny is beside her, Benny Watts, that fucking pirate, and she lets herself slump weakly against him, something like a sob spilling out of her.

“It’s okay,” he whispers, wrapping Beth in his arms. She thinks fleetingly of him carrying her upstairs in Kentucky when she couldn’t walk, the strength he conceals in that wiry frame; he’s holding her so tight she wonders if she’ll have bruises in the morning but she’s glad of it, glad of him holding her together so she doesn’t shiver herself apart into nothing. Helpless tears run down her face, drip off her chin, and Benny doesn’t try to quiet her or stop her, just murmurs I’ve got you into her hair until Beth starts to feel like maybe it might be true.

“I’m sorry,” she manages, minutes or hours later, when everything has receded but the last vestiges of shock, of blood behind her eyelids. “I didn’t- it’s been a while since I had one that bad, I didn’t mean to wake you.”

Fuck, Beth,” Benny says softly. “I don’t mind. We can fucking nap later, it doesn’t matter.” He kisses her temple, her wet cheek, clumsy in the dark. “I love three in the morning, I was planning on waking up anyway.”

Beth laughs a little, the sound still close to a sob, and shifts out of his arms so she can rub the sleeves of her pyjamas across her face. The collar is wet with tears, but the thought of getting up and finding something clean and dry to put on is beyond her.

“What do you need?” Benny asks, his voice low and steady. “You wanna get up? We can find out if Peterson is actually sleeping outside our door like a guard dog.”

Beth smiles, even though he can’t see it. “We should try and get some rest,” she tells him. “We still have games to play tonight.”

“I’ve got Flento,” Benny says, dismissive. “He may cling like a mollusc but his strategy is bullshit, I don’t need sleep to beat him.”

“You should have some anyway,” Beth replies. “And so should I.”

And yet the thought of lying down again, closing her eyes, surrendering herself to her subconscious is terrifying. She doesn’t think she’ll have another nightmare, but then she hasn’t shaken this one off yet.

“Can you-” she starts awkwardly. “Or, can I-”

Mercifully, Benny seems to understand her. “Of course,” he says.

It takes a little manoeuvring but soon enough Beth is curled on her side, head pillowed on Benny’s chest, where she can listen to his heart beating, his breathing. His hand absently strokes through her tangled hair, fingers gentle, and though she was semi-convinced that she wouldn’t fall asleep again, it doesn’t take too long for slumber to pull her under again, into something mercifully free of dreams.

-

Townes is here in his capacity as a reporter for the Lexington Herald Leader, Beth is still a local girl made good, after all, but is also taking photos and writing reports for Chess Life. Beth finally spots him in the audience not long after she’s beaten Laev, who shakes her hand like he’s hoping to crush the bones; he gives her a wink and she smiles, but there’s an empty chair next to Peterson reserved for her and Beth sits in it to watch Benny finish dismantling Rancourt. It appears to have been an interesting game, one much more interesting than the one she’s just finished playing, and she’s looking forward to playing it through later in the hotel. It takes another twenty-five minutes before Rancourt resigns gracefully; he and Benny embrace by the board while everyone applauds. Borgov and Shapkin’s match has finished already, and it looks like Luchenko will have Flento pinned in a few more moves, so Beth feels fine about leaving now and isn’t surprised when Townes slips out after them, catches them up.

“Harmon, beautifully done as always,” he says, and she hugs him tightly. He turns to Benny. “Nicely done,” he adds, and they do one of those handshake half-hug things that Beth has never really understood.

“Always,” Benny replies, a flash of that cocky grin, but Beth thinks he’s earned it.

Peterson is not looking happy; Beth wonders if Townes is on their approved list, what exactly their approved list is, or if it’s just them and Peterson on it.

“This is Townes,” Benny tells Peterson cheerfully. “He’s a communist. He’s extremely communist, the most communist person you could hope to meet. Red from his heart to his underwear.”

“Mind out of my underwear, Watts,” Townes says mildly. He turns his attention to Peterson. “I spoke to the state department when I was getting my visa, I’ll be wanting to interview these two, I thought we could all grab a quick late dinner. Yourself included, of course.”

Peterson looks tempted to refuse but Townes simply takes Beth’s arm and starts walking her out to the car with a charming grin, like the idea of any other series of events happening is inconceivable to him.

“I don’t think we’re allowed anything that’s not bread and water in our jail cell,” Benny says drily. “If you take us to dinner, Townes, it might give us unrealistic expectations of better.”

Townes hands Beth into the car and lets Benny slide in next to her before he gets in himself, leaving Peterson to grumpily join them.

“Have they been like this all trip?” Townes asks.

Peterson’s mouth twitches, just slightly. “Overall, they’ve been worse.”

They eat in the hotel restaurant; an amount of the people around them also seem to have been watching the competition because they get quite a lot of recognition as they’re seated, there’s a polite smattering of applause. Beth smiles and ducks her head, and Benny looks pleased and surprised for a second.

While they eat their starters, Townes briefly interviews them about the tournament so far: it’s familiar, easy to talk about the games they’ve played, the games they’ve watched, the matches they’re looking forward to or are apprehensive of. Beth is aware that she and Benny are talking over each other, finishing each other’s sentences, and she doesn’t know how to stop. She glances at Townes from time to time and his expression is his usual professional neutral, but she can’t stop thinking about that late-night phone call. She excuses herself to go to the bathroom; Peterson looks like he’s tempted to come with her, but he can’t actually come into the restroom with her and ends up staying seated, glaring.

Beth splashes cold water on her face and her wrists and takes deep breaths. She looks at herself in the mirror, bright-eyed, hair still neat, fashionable in her wine-red sheath dress, cheeks a little flushed from the warmth, from the ease of friendly conversation. I think you need to be very careful if you want to come back from Russia still married was what Townes said, hopelessly earnest, and was this what he was thinking of? This easy perfect synergy of herself and Benny, similar to Vegas and yet nothing like Vegas, that feels too natural, too simple. Part of Beth wants to bring this feeling back from Moscow with her, wrapped up like contraband in her suitcase, but she can’t. She sat in New York and she thought about it and she concluded that it doesn’t matter if Benny loves her, if she- if she loves Benny, it isn’t sustainable. It isn’t enough.

When she returns to her seat, Townes and Benny are animatedly discussing a move of Luchenko’s while Peterson sits with that same neutral expression on his face. Beth slips into the chess conversation easily until she feels steady again, a momentary blip of emotion here and gone, as the waiters take their empty plates and the four of them wave away the offers of the wine list. Beth thinks that Peterson looks like he’d like the option to drink to still be available, but she doesn’t feel at all repentant.

Townes taps his pen against his notepad for a moment before finally says: “okay, one last question. How is it playing together as spouses, seconds and rivals?” He grimaces, and adds: “I did not come up with this one myself, for the record.”

Beth curls her fingers in her hem under the table, keeps her voice light as she says: “it’s going very well, we make a good team.”

Townes looks to Benny. “Anything to add, Watts?”

“Nope,” Benny replies in a tone that forbids further questioning.

When Townes has tucked his notebook away things go back to normal: they mostly talk about chess, gossip about the other competitors a little, share old jokes and new experiences. Townes has a go at drawing Peterson into the conversation a few times – Beth has a brief flash of what he’d be like as a husband, holding the greatest dinner parties in existence instead of expecting any guests who come over to cook for themselves – but Peterson is having none of it.

“We did try,” Benny shrugs, “but Mr Government is very focused on his mission not to let us do anything at all while we’re in Russia, and talking to us might distract him from that.”

“Only you would think it’s fun to antagonise an armed government agent,” Townes tells Benny.

“I only need my brain and my hands to play chess, as long as he shoots elsewhere I’m fine,” Benny replies breezily.

Beth watches Peterson’s lips press together, just slightly, swallowing down something that might be a smile.

“If he does have to shoot you to get you to behave he can’t admit to it,” Beth says. “He’ll have to say it was the KGB and that just creates a whole mess.”

“You’ve thought about this,” Benny grins, like dragging Beth into his nonsense is something he’s pleased about. “And, hell, I don’t mind being the spark that ignites the Cold War, I can take that as my legacy.”

“Of course you don’t, Watts,” Townes says, shaking his head as he laughs; Beth grins and doesn’t look at Peterson’s glower.

When they’re saying goodbye, Townes hugs Beth and then stands and holds her upper arms and studies her for a moment. “You’re mad at me,” he says.

Beth shakes her head. “Not mad,” she replies. “You did something that you thought you had to do. I understand. But it’s still my marriage, at the end of the day.”

Townes looks a little thoughtful, a little sad. “If you say so,” he says.

In their room for the night, Beth yawns and slumps into the couch. “Want to start replaying?” she asks.

Benny drops down next to her. “Nah,” he replies, “we’ve got lots of time tomorrow afternoon. Best to just get some sleep, it’s not like we can go out all night dancing, we’ll be up early.”

Do they dance all night in Russia?” Beth asks.

“I guess they do somewhere,” Benny shrugs. “I didn’t see much of the city when I made my great escape last time; it was more about running away than running to anywhere.”

“I think this will be our first trip together where you haven’t taken me dancing somewhere,” Beth muses. “Well. I guess you didn’t dance with me at Mike and Susan’s wedding, but I danced.”

Benny’s mouth curls. “The view was just fine from where I was sitting,” he says, and despite his neutral tone something fiery clenches in Beth’s stomach.

Beth thinks about Townes’ careful expression, about Benny refusing to comment on their marriage to the press, about the night before last when he held her while she sobbed and didn’t once ask why. Something reckless flares in her and she gets up, navigates the table covered in books and chess pieces to the space of clear carpet; she turns and finds Benny is watching her, eyes dark and hot. No sex in Moscow! screams something inside Beth, followed by something else hissing you still need to divorce him. Beth ignores both of those voices and starts humming the first thing that comes into her head, sways her hips along and holds out her hands.

Benny’s mouth twists a little as he gets up and then he shakes his head and says: “your hold is all wrong” before he places one of her hands on his shoulder and takes the other one. There’s that same assurance in his movements as they start swaying in time, Beth has no idea what she’s doing with her feet but Benny leads her easily.

Beth breaks off humming to say: “you can dance.”

“And I was hiding it so well,” Benny responds, dry, twirling her under his arm with the same calm competence he collapsed Rancourt’s Four Knights opening. He picks up humming for her and Beth joins in. She’s been naked in Benny’s bed so many times over the years but somehow this feels like the most intimate thing they’ve ever done, slow dancing barefoot in a Russian hotel room. Beth’s not even sure what they’re dancing to, something with a bit of swing to it that Alma used to love and teenaged Beth rolled her eyes at, but Benny knows the tune as well as she does. He dips her easily and when she’s straightened up he’s grinning that self-satisfied grin of his, and Beth remembers the song: Call Me Irresponsible. Of course it is. What could be more fitting?

They finally sway to a stop but don’t let go of each other; there’s a long moment when Beth thinks that Benny is going to kiss her, or maybe she’s going to kiss him, but the moment stretches and finally snaps, and Benny steps away from her, shaking his head.

“What?” Beth asks, refusing to feel cold where he’s stopped touching her.

“I play all of your games, Beth,” Benny says quietly, “but I can’t play this one.”

“I’m not playing a game,” Beth replies, stung.

“No?” Benny sits heavily back on the couch. “Okay then. Would you like to have an honest and frank discussion about our marriage then?” Beth’s stomach drops, and something obvious must show on her face because Benny’s mouth twists into a smirk that verges on the cruel. “No, I thought not.”

“You can’t do this,” Beth tells him, angry now. “We’re in fucking Russia, this Invitational matters.”

“It does,” Benny agrees. “And we’ve both been playing very good chess and not driving each other crazy in this hotel room Peterson is keeping us imprisoned in until you decided to push it. This one is on you, Beth.”

“I didn’t push anything,” Beth protests, but it doesn’t come out with much conviction.

Benny’s expression is unimpressed. “You never learned to play poker,” he tells her. “You got through years of looking inscrutable because you were out of your mind on pills half the time, but what this all means is that these days your face is an open book for anyone who’s bothered to learn your language. You think you’re subtle, but I’ve been watching you mourn our marriage for days, before you’ve even had the courtesy to ask me for a divorce.” He sighs, rakes his hands through his hair. “I’m not stupid, Beth,” he bursts out. “I have sat here all fucking year watching you try and work out if you think marrying me was a good idea or the worst thing you’ve ever done, and I’ve let you, and I haven’t asked for a goddamn thing.”

“You’re asking for something now,” Beth points out, her voice sharp and cold, calmer than she is.

“I am,” Benny agrees. “Because the way you look at me has changed, that confused little expression you wear when I’m nice to you has gone. Yes, maybe I’m controlling, or demanding, or just an all-round asshole, but I will always do what I can to stop you sabotaging yourself with drugs or alcohol and now I’m going to try and stop you sabotaging this marriage.”

“Stop it!” Beth snarls. “We can’t do this, this doesn’t work. It’s a cute little fantasy that I might have bought into in Sixty-Seven but we’re adults, Benny, we know how this ends.”

“Do we?” he asks, eyebrows raised, and Beth considers slapping him.

“You were there in Vegas like I was,” Beth replies. “Your failure was my failure. We’re the best chess players in America, and we can be that, or we can be married. We don’t get both.”

Benny shakes his head. “We made one mistake,” he says, “and we’ve learned from it. I have no interest in humiliating myself on an international stage.”

“Then what the hell is this?” Beth demands. “You can’t pick a fight the day before I play Luchenko, now who’s trying to sabotage me?”

Benny stands up and slams his hand on the table; several books fall to the floor. “You know full well that when you’re playing chess you go into your kingdom and nothing touches you, you barely look at your opponent, you don’t notice what’s happening. The ceiling could collapse and as long as it didn’t fall on you, you wouldn’t care. You just fold away reality until the game is over. I’ve watched you do it.”

“What do you want from me?” Beth asks, glad her voice comes out hard because her throat feels perilously close to closing.

“I want you to win tomorrow,” Benny replies. “I want you to win against a top Soviet player the day after we fight about our feelings, and then I want you to come back to this room and I want you to tell me the truth.”

Beth swallows and doesn’t blink, doesn’t look away from him. “And if I lose?” she asks.

Benny’s mouth curls wryly, eyes a little too bright. “Then I’ll know that you’re a fucking coward, and I’ll have my answer.”

-

There’s fifteen minutes left on Beth’s clock and the silence in the hall feels absolute. The other three games have finished and she has no idea who won what, how Benny fared. Time is dragging on, but their audience hasn’t moved. Beth can feel their attention on her, but she doesn’t look up, doesn’t look away from the board. Her water glass is empty and she’d quite like another, but she pushes the lingering thirst aside the way she’s pushed everything else away, something to deal with once the game is over.

Beth is playing Black today, which feels fitting somehow. They’re edging toward fifty moves, the longest game she’s played in Moscow yet this year; thinking of fifty moves reminds her of Vegas, but that thought is far away, in a place far less hallowed than this, where the lie Beth told the press about love that turned out to be the truth. She lets out a slow breath, and surveys her remaining pieces. She sacrificed her queen early, taking one of Luchenko’s rooks, but she still has both rooks in play as well as a bishop, and her king is currently safely ensconced behind two pawns. Luchenko’s king is in the centre of the board; Beth uses one of her rooks to put him in check. She has a net in fragments and all she needs is to walk Luchenko into it. She can feel her heart thrumming in her chest, clenches her toes in her shoes.

Luchenko moves his king out of check and Beth bites the inside of her lip to keep a neutral expression; she thinks about Benny saying how well he can read her and forces that thought down, she’s so close now. She moves her other rook directly above the White king; if he captures, he puts himself in check with one of her pawns. Her net is closing, all she needs to do is hold her nerve.

It’s been a strange day overall. Benny offered to sleep on the couch after their fight last night and Beth told him not to be ridiculous, though it was weird lying next to him in silence, unsure if she was angry or terrified or strangely exhilarated, some complicated mixture of all of them. He was awake before her, gave her a sheepish smile over room service coffee, and they spent most of the day playing through yesterday’s games. Chess is something that they can’t take from each other, no matter how hard they’ve tried over the years. There was no real tension, but the comfortable ease was also absent. Benny didn’t say a word about his ultimatum and Beth didn’t bring it up because she didn’t want to start the argument again, because her chest got tight every time she remembered the way he said I want you to win.

Luchenko moves his king to safety once more and Beth reaches out to move her bishop, closing the net. He studies the board a moment longer and then smiles gently and nods, reaches out a hand to concede. The sound roars back into the room as everyone applauds; Beth shakes Luchenko’s warm steady hand and accepts his soft congratulations.

“It is always a pleasure to play against you,” he says.

“I feel the same,” Beth agrees.

She shakes the hand of the official who walks over and stands up on suddenly trembling legs. Finally, she dares to look at the audience. She spots Townes’ smiling face, Peterson already standing, and then her gaze lands on Benny. He’s still sitting, and the expression on his face is nothing short of naked relief. Beth reminds herself about dignity, about calm, about how they agreed their marriage didn’t need to play a part of any of the Moscow coverage, and then all but runs over to him; he stands up to catch her, wrapping her tight in his arms, and Beth clings back just as fiercely.

“I knew you had it in you,” Benny says softly, just the slightest shake in his voice, and Beth slowly lets him go, drinking in his gradually spreading smile, feeling its mirror on her own face.

They don’t talk on the drive back to the hotel, to Peterson’s visible relief. Beth’s mind, so carefully honed for the chess game, is in free fall now, possibilities tumbling over each other with every breath she takes. Benny can’t make her do anything, she thinks with a flare of heat, can’t demand anything of her. But then there’s Jolene’s voice again: wanting something that you didn’t want before isn’t a weakness. Or maybe it was something that Beth always wanted and didn’t know how to let herself want, so that even when she had it she couldn’t see it for what it was. Benny has always seen more in Beth than she could see in herself, and it used to scare her but maybe it doesn’t scare her anymore.

Beth closes her eyes and takes a breath and thinks about picking up the phone in Moscow two years ago and hearing Benny’s voice, the way it made her feel like her entire body was filled with light. In some ways, he’s never stopped making her feel that way.

Peterson definitely looks suspicious about how quiet they are as he wishes them goodnight, reminds them that they can’t go anywhere. Beth takes off her coat, kicks off her shoes, and walks over to the desk as she tries to find a good opening line. Over by the door, Benny takes off his own coat, takes his time hanging it up.

“I’m sorry,” Benny begins before Beth has pulled any real words together. “I… I told myself I wouldn’t let Moscow get to me but then it did, and I acted like an asshole, and I’m sorry.”

“I love you,” Beth says, instead of it’s okay, or whatever she was actually about to say.

Benny looked like that when she beat him at speed chess over and over and over, so shocked that he looked frozen.

Beth’s heart is beating so hard she can feel it, Benny can probably hear it, and she opens her mouth to mitigate what she’s just said, to change it or take it back or add a qualifier, quick, before the words are out there too long and the world changes as a result.

“I love you,” she says again.

If Benny hesitates any longer she thinks it might kill her, might break her entirely; he’s not doing anything, just standing there, not even fidgeting. Beth’s not sure she’s ever seen him so still.

At last, he lets out a shaky exhale. “I love you,” he tells her, and it’s all there on his face, open and vulnerable and honest and not a hint of that smug asshole Beth first met years ago and she’s glad, she’s so glad. And Beth knew, isn’t sure how long she’s known, but hearing actually spoken it is something different, and it’s like that phone call again, like thinking she was drowning until a hand closed around hers and it was Benny’s, like it’s always been Benny.

Beth realises they’re standing on opposite sides of the room breathing like they’ve each run a mile, and that seems ridiculous, seems insane that she has a husband, a husband who loves her, and she isn’t touching him. Benny seems to realise something similar: they meet in the middle and he pulls her into his arms and kisses her like it’s the first time, like he’s been waiting years to be allowed to touch her, and Beth kisses him back with the same frantic desperation. It’s not enough; she’s not sure it will ever be enough, this tsunami of want inside her demanding to be heard, gripping handfuls of Benny’s hair and his shirt, overwhelmed and relieved and terrified in equal glorious measure.

They have to pull apart at last, gasping for breath, staring at each other’s faces like they’ve never seen each other before. Beth kisses him again, clumsy, smiling and shivering, and Benny laughs into her mouth, clutching Beth tight enough that she hopes he’ll leave bruises.

“Beth,” he says, voice breaking on her name.

“I know,” Beth replies, and they murmur: “no sex in Moscow” in half-laughing, half-regretful unison. Maybe today Beth proved that she’s been wrong, that she can play chess and be in love and keep the two things separated enough, but lust is a ludicrous other thing, and if she allows Benny to take her to bed now they both know they wouldn’t want to stop, wouldn’t get the rest they need, wouldn’t be ready to play tomorrow. Benny gives her one last kiss before he pulls away enough to collapse onto the couch; Beth considers her options and then goes with what the thread of longing in her stomach demands, and climbs into his lap. Benny looks up at her, expression still a little dazed, a crooked smile spreading across his mouth.

“I think that might be cheating, Mrs Watts,” he says, soft, and while Beth still hasn’t made a firm decision about her last name she thinks she might not mind the way it rolls off his tongue. Maybe she’ll allow it, under very specific circumstances.

“Got all my clothes on,” she responds, faux innocent, and bats her eyelashes.

“You do,” Benny agrees, hands settling on her hips where they belong. He looks a little thoughtful, thumb brushing at the hem of her dress. “I mean, I’m facing Borgov tomorrow, I’m probably going to lose anyway.”

Beth kisses him, quick and hard, bites his lower lip. “Is that the sort of thing Benny Watts would say?” she demands.

“Benny Watts is currently a little distracted by having a lap full of his very beautiful and very frustrating wife,” he replies. “And you know that most games between grandmasters end in draws these days.”

“I do,” Beth agrees. She smiles a little. “I figured that’s what we might end up calling all this.”

“That could work,” Benny concedes. His mouth twists a little. “You know that I was always talking about both of us when I said ‘castling’, right? We can take it in turns to be the king, and to be the rook. It wasn’t… a blueprint for marriage.”

“I’m starting to realise that,” Beth allows.

Benny smiles, and doesn’t say anything, just looks at her. Ordinarily, Beth thinks that she’d be squirming under his attention, but right now she thinks she might like it, smiles back at him, lets him look. For once, she doesn’t care what she looks like, how tired or messy or adoring she is; it’s worth it for how Benny looks at her, that light in his eyes.

Fuck, I’m a lucky son of a bitch,” he says softly, almost like he’s talking to himself. He reaches up to gently tuck a lock of Beth’s hair behind her ear. “I’d almost given up hoping that everything would change for you.”

“I don’t know that anything did change,” Beth admits. “I think that we were always like this and it should always have been like this and I just didn’t understand.”

The look on Benny’s face is enough to make her duck her head and kiss him again, sweet and slow, and God, No Sex In Moscow is the stupidest important rule that they have to follow because she has to face Flento tomorrow and she may not need the brainpower but she does need the stamina. Beth draws back, groaning, tearing her gaze away from his tempting kissed-red mouth.

“I’ll make it up to you when we get home,” Benny offers. “We’ll have a second honeymoon, take the phone off the hook for a couple of weeks.”

“Do we have to go back to Paris?” Beth asks.

Benny grins. “I think it might be the kind of honeymoon where you don’t give a shit where you are,” he tells her. “We’ll have a lot of serious sex. Workmanlike sex. The kind of sex that is had by the best people in the world-”

Beth cuts him off by putting a hand over his mouth. “You are so obnoxious,” she says, laughing, “I can’t believe I love you anyway.”

The smirk Benny gives her when she takes her hand away is nothing short of smug, but Beth thinks he might be just a little entitled to it. She’s been smiling for so long that her face is starting to hurt with it; she’s not sure when she started or how she’s ever going to stop.

“Come on,” Benny says, “we’re chess players before everything else, remember? Do you want to play through your game first or mine?”

Beth climbs reluctantly off his lap; she has that weird floaty feeling again, like maybe she’s happier than she knows what to do with. Benny shuffles forwards, grabs the nearest chess set off the table and begins to set it up. Beth watches him for a moment, holding the view carefully so that she’ll never forget in the future what this felt like, this giddy insane rush of joy inside her, overwhelming but perfect at the same time. Benny’s hair is messy from her hands – the best possible option, as she’s always thought – and falling in his eyes as he lays out a neat row of pawns. He’s still wearing his smart white shirt and pressed slacks, a touch of formality despite it all, the cufflinks Beth gave him securely at his wrists. The light gleams off his rings, off the wedding band that catches Beth by surprise even after more than six months; she thinks it’ll keep taking her by surprise even years from now, and, oh, that’s a thought, that years from now Beth can still have this, can watch her husband set up a chessboard.

“I want to win chess matches against the world,” she tells Benny as she sits down at the opposite end of the couch, “but I want to play chess with you for the rest of my life.”

Benny’s hands still on the pieces; he doesn’t look at her, but she sees his throat bounce as he swallows hard. It’s enough to make Beth blink a few times herself: sometimes, that’s what the truth does to you when it sets you free.

“That’s not an answer,” he says at last, voice a little ragged.

Beth considers him as she tucks her legs beneath herself, hopelessly crumpling her elegant dress and so far beyond caring about it that it’s almost funny. Everything is almost funny right now, frankly, Beth’s chest is full of glee and, yes, well, love. Benny places the last pawn and looks up at her, raises an expectant eyebrow.

“Let’s play your game,” Beth decides, and pushes the first pawn.

end.