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An Exchange of Kings

Chapter Text

 

 

There's nothing quite like the annual chore of Nationals to force perspective on things.

 

Benny's had to plan around it for years: every August the United States Chess Federation hosts a round robin tournament at some pokey college campus, so he'd had to play however many rounds were needed to keep his title. Naturally he'd tried to make it as fun as possible since he could hardly get out of it without forfeiting. So he'd make some friends and network a little (there are chess people in all sorts of weird jobs around the country), get a little action playing Skittles or Blitz, and come out a few weeks later still US Champion and a grand and a half richer.

 

This year he felt weird even sending in his entry. His normal entry, since Beth's defending champion now.

 

He's playing better than he ever has too, but he hasn't managed to do better than draw against her since September of last year. Still, it's not the worst way to get some cash and he'd rather not spend the time apart anyway.

 

Thing is, he's been trying to figure out where exactly he's going as Former US Champion. He might still be doing well on the International Invitational circuit, but he's cynical enough to figure that has a lot to do with being Harmon-adjacent. And he's already gone through a dry spell before – he's got to plan for a future where invitations and prize money are harder to come by, and he doesn't want to end up as some chess bum schlepping between domestic tournaments.

 

Like he'd assured Beth, something always turns up. It was just different than he'd expected.

 

He'd set up a meeting with his editor to pitch a training book, and he'd been surprised when a bigwig from Random House, Cadogan's parent publishing company, had also been present. That rep had made a proposal instead: they want a book from him that would have broader popular appeal. The glimpses they get of international tournaments in the newspapers sound glamorous and exciting, and people are currently very interested in Beth Harmon and the world of chess – if he could write about all that in an accessible way, they would probably have a national bestseller on their hands.

 

Benny's been through the publishing process before, and he's been writing on and off his whole life, but a chess book from a niche imprint like Cadogan isn't anywhere near a Random House title that's going to be marketed across the country. Still, he'd be an idiot to forgo the opportunity, even if he's left the advance in the bank untouched, just in case. And he's been compiling travel and tournament stories he's more used to telling aloud into a memoir: highlights from the early days with his mom, then adventures and challenges he'd had on his own. Then finally what most people want to know about: stories about competing internationally with Beth.

 

It's been intimidating to write – it's a hell of a lot more personal a book than Openings and Tactics. He'd been so antsy when Beth was reading his first draft that he'd smoked half her cigarettes before forcing himself to walk to the store to buy replacements just so he would stop checking to see how far she'd gotten.

 

It's a big step in a new direction for him, career-wise. But he likes the way it's shaping up despite -- or maybe because -- of the daring kind of risk involved. A lot of the Chess Greats wrote books, but none of them have written a book meant to engage the general public instead of only chess players.

 

Benny figures he doesn't mind being first.

 

So he brings a typewriter along to Nationals, even if it means he won't be doing as much of the usual casual game hangout thing. Might have been weird anyway, since Beth's not exactly socially inclined around strangers - first time he's ever come to Nationals with a girlfriend, too.

 

Most players don't bring their wives since even the "married student" quarters are utilitarian barebones, but he hopes the walls are thicker here than in the usual student dorms – Beth's always pretty vocal in bed when she’s close.

 

Like the way she's begging: “Please, Benny, again. There, again, again, again.” It takes all his self control to keep fucking her without losing his wad until she comes apart a second time. And he collapses next to her after, wondering if she realizes how ironic using that particular word is.

 

“...You know, I think I really prefer sex to speed chess,” she muses breathlessly.

 

He just groans. “...Should have known that was on purpose.”

 

She smirks. “Benny Watts is just going to have to hustle some other naïve Nationals newbie this year.”

 

Benny glances at her sideways. “And here I thought you liked me, Harmon.”

 

She laughs and presses a kiss to his shoulder. “Oh, come on, Benny. You like to win. You like the thrill when you do it fast. And you like it even better when you can wipe them out repeatedly, in a different way every time. I told Alma you were a chess pirate once,” she laughs.

 

He huffs a laugh and raises his eyebrows in acknowledgment, turning back so he can slide his fingers back over her. She's flushed all over, her eyes are still dazed with pleasure, and she's got that soft little smile, like she'd thoroughly enjoyed being pillaged. Hell, she'd pillaged him right back – he's worn out from riding the edge for so long and he probably still has her fingernail marks on his butt and shoulders, but he feels so good that he's having troubles remembering why she's talking about pirates. “...Really got to work on the book, though. Want to have something in manuscript shape to submit next month,” he says reluctantly.

 

She yawns and nods. “...Maybe work on it most nights and take the night off every few days? You're just typing it up, right?”

 

“Yeah. Making it all nice and neat and readable. So the editors can rip it apart, tell me all the changes they think it needs, how I put things in the wrong order and fucked up my grammar.”

 

She frowns and studies his face, hesitating. “It's not like you to be unsure of yourself.”

 

“It's not like me to do something that's not chess,” he counters dryly, and her eyes widen slightly before she slides her arm around his waist and cuddles close.

 

“Well, I've read it and I love it,” she insists.

 

Benny can't help smiling before he pulls her close. “...Pretty sure you're biased,” he informs her.

 

But he likes hearing her say it anyway.

 

 


 

 

Nobody is surprised when Beth secures her championship title and Benny ends up in second place again. There were more entrants than the previous year, and a couple of interesting newcomers, including a few female chess players. But players at a level warranting serious preparation and tactics are still few and far between on American soil, and it makes her wonder when it won't come down to her and Benny in the end.

 

Beth's also anxious to get back in time to help Jolene pack and move to Lexington before her semester starts. She's been so excited to have Jolene living nearby again that she's been hunting through rental listings in the paper daily, circling ones that advertise themselves as quiet and clean and within Jolene's price range.

 

Going to see them makes a sobering reality hit home, though.

 

She's bewildered, then appalled when the landlady takes one sneering look at them before they're archly told the apartment they'd made an appointment to see is no longer available. Then the need for a bonded guarantor materializes out of nowhere at the other, even on top of the damage deposit.

 

It makes her understand exactly why Jolene is so dead set on law school.

 

Townes immediately comes through with a sweet rental unit on New Circle Road that belongs to a friend, but the blatant prejudice leaves her shaken and it gets Benny ranting mad, since new laws were passed just months ago to prevent exactly what they went through.

 

Jolene just seems bitterly resigned to it, though.

 

“It's Kentucky. There's white folks here still mad that I even get to vote and renting from one of them would have meant they'd find some problem with how I took out the trash, or how late I was coming home, or maybe with the guests I had. Instead, I found me a nice place that is well within my price range in a quiet little neighborhood - it all worked out.”

 

“Well, the last time I checked, Kentucky was still one of the United States,” Benny retorts. “And that was an act signed by the president.”

 

“I know what it means - majored in Political Science and everything.” Jolene points out before she sighs. “Society is a work in progress, and the Fair Housing Act is brand spanking new. There'll be plenty of time to sue Ms. Haven and Mr. Schmidt if they continue to remain ignorant about what rental discrimination entails after I pass the bar.”

 

 

To top things off, Jolene's Rick has gone from consternation to downright petulance over her enrollment in law school, and he breaks things off completely when Jolene gives her two weeks' notice at the firm.

 

It's not just her moving out of Louisville, although Beth is sure that was a big factor: it was going to take him a lot more effort just to get laid. What really upsets Jolene though is that his bigger objection was to her going to law school at all.

 

“Ain't that just like a man. Telling me he sees me like most white folks won't – can't, even. When he actually preferred looking down, too.”

 

“Didn't you tell him you were planning to be a lawyer?”

 

“I did.”

 

“So... he didn't think you'd actually manage to do it.”

 

“Seems that way.” Jolene puts down her box in the trunk and raises a warning brow at Beth. “Don't even start.”

 

“What?” Beth asks, carefully lowering her box into the trunk before shoving it flush with the back. They can probably fit a couple more before starting to load up the backseat.

 

Jolene rolls her eyes. “I already know you never liked him. You really don't know how lucky you are, finding a man who thinks it's hot when you whoop his ass.”

 

Beth's mouth drops open - as if Benny doesn't get pissed off when his pride is wounded. “That is completely untrue.”

 

But she suddenly remembers speed chess in New York and Benny catching her bare arm. That look in his eye before all that tension had finally come frantically unspooled between them.

 

Her mouth works and her cheeks flush before she comes up with a plausible argument. “... Even when he loses, playing against me helps him improve his game. His rating's actually gone up since we've been together.”

 

Jolene gives her a knowing smile. “Mmmhmm. Like I said, it's a good thing. Means he's secure in who he is, anyway.”

 

Beth chews her lip, not sure what to say that can possibly be comforting. “You think Rick felt threatened?”

 

Jolene gives one of her enigmatic shrugs as they head back towards her building. “I think he thought I should stay a paralegal. You know, he would come to me with briefs to ask my opinion. Pointed out how sharp I was at seeing things other people didn't; how I had good instincts for the best way to approach cases and clients. And he was so excited after they decided Loving vs. Virginia...” She shakes her head bitterly.

 

“Well, I'm sorry it didn't work out the way you were hoping. And that his true colors were so... ugly,” Beth offers. She is sorry to Jolene so unhappy, even if she's not actually sorry about her leaving Rick and her old job and Louisville behind. “But... I also think there are plenty of great guys out there who would appreciate who you are instead of what you can do for them. Like, say... Mike.”

 

Jolene's eyes narrow, but her lips twitch. “I told you: I'm swearing off white men.”

 

Beth frowns with pretend confusion. “...Remind me who it was that swore off ice cream?”

 

Jolene fixes her with a glare, words unneeded.

 

“What? You always flirt back!”

 

“That's just friendly conversation!”

 

“And he lives maybe five minutes drive from your new place,” Beth adds helpfully.

 

Beth. Harmon.

 

Beth raises her hands in mock surrender. “Okay, I'll stop, I promise. I just... hate seeing you upset when you're finally getting to do what you want.”

 

Jolene huffs and gives her a wan smile before she deliberately changes the subject. “...Speaking of promises. What about Benny?”

 

Beth blinks in confusion. “What about Benny?”

 

Jolene scoffs, as if it's obvious. “Getting married to your man. You've been shacking up all cozy and you actually seem happy together. That picture of you two in Munich looked like something out of a brochure.”

 

Beth gives her a flustered smile and hastily looks away. “It's... not like there's any rush.”

 

Jolene tilts her head. “Well, it would solve your other problem,” she points out.

 

Beth gives Jolene an uneasy frown. “Not if whatever happens to me happens to him too, and we'll most likely be traveling together. ...Besides, Benny doesn't want legal red tape anyway, so there's really no point.”

 

Jolene still looks skeptical. “Seems to me he'd rather have a say concerning the person he shares his life with.”

 

Beth shakes her head wistfully and wraps her arms around herself. “He thinks it's safer for him not to. And it's a big commitment, so...” She takes a deep breath to try to ease the sting of that before she continues – she knows he's not rejecting her, just the idea of marriage. “I have you and you have me. Just like playing an endgame that doesn't utilize the king.”

 

Jolene gives her a rueful smile and bumps her shoulder. “...Not everything has to relate to chess.”

 

Beth rolls her eyes and bumps back. “I know, but it helps me understand things,” she admits.

 

And she's got this sequence figured out. All she has to do is wait until her birthday.

 

 


 

 

Beth has been looking forward to New York Fashion Week for months – she adores the clothes that she got while in Paris, but she's actually talked to designers like Oleg Cassini now. And apparently Anne Klein is going to show a black and white themed collection that has already piqued her interest.

 

She's worried about Benny, though - he's usually raring to go back to New York, but this time he's stressed about the trip basically being a deadline for his manuscript.

 

He'd gone through her notes on it before revising his book, and then he'd asked Townes to read it and revised it again after going through his critique.

 

Beth hopes the endless editing and typing will be done soon – he's been so distracted and yet oddly energized, like she imagines artists get about their paintings. And she can't focus on playing through games for the Swiss tournament they're going to next month with the intermittent clatter of his typewriter in the background.

 

So instead she's doing something that she's put off for far too long: clipping out her articles from the pile of newspapers and magazines she's saved.

 

Maybe it's silly and self-indulgent to add to scrapbooks now that Alma isn't here, but she thinks Jolene and Alaina might still like to see them.

 

She doesn't feel quite ready to read through the articles like Alma would have, but she's careful to pencil the dates on the back so she'll be able to put them in order. Everything had been stacked haphazardly in the corner of the guest room and with Benny borrowing the occasional one to read, it's become painfully disorganized.

 

But it feels good – healthy, even -- finally starting to clear something that had only gotten worse the more she'd neglected it.

 

She thinks Alma would be proud of her keeping up the scrapbooks, come to think of it. And they're a nice visual record for herself, too.

 

 


 

 

Beth adores fashionable clothes, and Benny loves how she always looks like a million bucks. He gets a kick out of the way she turns heads in Lexington, shopping at her usual drugstore and supermarket dressed in designer duds. Still, New York Fashion Week's frenetic pace and aggressive branding always feel more like a series of pretentious sales pitches to him than the “Celebration of American Fashion Design” the invitations tout.

 

She's been so excited even picking out outfits to pack that Benny can't begrudge her despite his reservations, especially since he needs some kind of distraction from the fact that he'd dropped off his manuscript.

 

It's in the hands of the publishers and out of his, and obsessing about it isn't going to make the process go any faster. Besides, Beth's one of the newest celebrity darlings that designers want photographed wearing their overpriced “pieces,” and he knows how much coke and alcohol circulate at these things. With cameras snapping like teeth the whole time, she's probably going to be tempted unless he's there.

 

He's not looking forward to the possibility of bumping into Cleo either, although it's always possible she didn't get hired to model this year.

 

But she's on the runway at the Halston show and Benny resigns himself to maybe having to apologize for losing his goddamn temper. Cleo struts by without giving the impression that she'd spotted them, but he isn't surprised when she seeks them out right after the show as if they were still friends.

 

“Beth! Benny! Such an unexpected pleasure! I must offer a belated congratulations on your win as well, Beth,” she coos, giving Beth the customary cheek kiss, although Benny's glad that she keeps her distance with him.

 

Beth gives her that bright smile she has when she's feeling awkward. “Thank you. It's... good to see you. I love the dress- is that suede? How did they get it so thin?”

 

“Not exactly. It's a new kind of fabric, and such a modern cut, don't you think? Although it should be me to marvel at all your accomplishments,” Cleo says, with a meaningful glance at their linked arms.

 

Benny glares. The fuck does she mean by that?

 

Beth blinks and inhales before she obviously changes the subject. “So... will you be in any other shows this week?”

 

Cleo gives one of those Gallic shrugs. “Oscar de la Renta tomorrow. Have you tickets?”

 

“...We do,” Beth admits.

 

“Perfect. Then I will see you there – I will be modeling the wedding gown at the end.” She gives Beth a speculative look. “Who knows? Perhaps you will be modeling one yourself soon.”

 

Beth looks like she's been ambushed for a second, the way she brings her hand reflexively to her neck before her eyes go hard and she puts on a coolly dismissive smile. “It's really not a priority,” she says lightly.

 

Cleo smiles back, and Benny's annoyed that he can't tell if she's smug or conceding. “Of course not. Well, I must mingle but I shall see you tomorrow, then,” she says, and then she swans off into the crowd.

 

 

“...What the hell was that?” Benny murmurs.

 

Beth looks away. “Nothing. Just... something stupid she said in Paris. I honestly can't even remember all of it,” she admits softly.

 

Benny studies the look on her face and makes a decision.

 

“Look, I know you probably want to hobnob at the afterparty, but can we get out of here? There's someplace I've been wanting to show you, and it'll be nicer if we get there while it's still light out.”

 

Her face quirks. “What, you don't want to talk about hemlines and inspirations for the colors and fabric choices?” she teases. But she takes his hand and squeezes, and Benny's relieved as all hell to walk her out of there.

 

She looks bemused, but doesn't question when they take the subway to 68th street and then he leads the way into Central Park. It's a sunny fall afternoon, so the air is warm and there are plenty of people walking dogs and strolling the paths. It's weirdly normal to see everybody in jeans and casual tops after all that polished, stylized beauty. But she shoots him a truly perplexed look as he steers them towards the playground full of shouting kids.

 

And then she notices the people playing on the inlaid boards in the tables around it and her face finally relaxes, delight filling her eyes.

 

“They're all around this area – the city put them up so the adults would have something to do while their kids were playing, I guess, but all sorts of people use 'em. Like the Russians, though it's not just old geezers here,” he says, grinning slyly before he jerks his head towards the pavilion.

 

“See that building there? We can borrow a chess set or checkers from them for a deposit. Why don't I see if I can stake us out a table while you do that?”

 

He snags a table near the seesaws just as Beth comes up with a zippered bag with a NYC logo on it. “It must be a friendly New Yorker thing. The guy running the booth offered to teach me if I didn't know the rules,” she says mischievously.

 

Benny chuckles. “...I bet he did.”

 

Beth keeps looking around with an air of delight even as they automatically set up the pieces. “Why didn't you ever bring me here before?”

 

Benny frowns as he thinks back. “Didn't even think about it while we were training, to be honest. And then I guess it was the season - used to come here in summer when I was a teenager. It's only light enough to play until evening when the sun's up later, and then the kids have gone home and there's more guys willing to bet on speed chess.”

 

Beth smiles slowly. “I see.”

 

He grins at her unrepentantly and leans back. She wouldn't let him wear his hat to the fashion show so he has to squint into the sunlight, but he likes how pretty she looks sitting there behind the white pieces. “What do you say, Harmon? Think you can take me again?”

 

There it is, that look he loves.

 

“Well, Benny, if you insist.”

 

 


 

 

They play a few rounds of Skittles before he goes to buy them something to eat.

 

He doesn't even care that it was probably stupid to swap catered canapes for sodas and hot dogs at the park – he knows they're both having a blast. Just what they both needed, even the bursts of hilarity when they knock pieces down because they're both moving so fast and every time they tease each other with, “Again?”

 

He's surprised when he comes back to see a little girl in his seat with a woman crouched next to her watching with interest as Beth explains.

 

“That's right. And then these castle-type pieces move along straight lines, so you also have to keep that in mind: they can also mount an attack from far away if they have a clear path. And those are the basic moves. It's easier to understand once you start actually playing. My boyfriend's back with our lunch, but you can keep going with your mom, if you want.”

 

The woman immediately waves her hands. “Oh no, we don’t want to impose! It just looked so exciting to see you two play, we both simply had to ask about it.”

 

Beth shakes her head and beams. “No, please. I'd love for more girls to learn to play chess,” she confides, and the girl grins up at her before swiveling her head to peer at him.

 

“Is he a real chess player, too?”

 

Beth's eyes brighten wickedly, but she only replies, “he is. He was actually the US Champion before me.”

 

The woman's eyes go round and she brings a hand up to cover her gasp, but the little girl doesn't seem to register what that means. “That's neat. I want to play games with my boyfriend too, someday.”

 

Beth gives him a warm look before she smiles at the little girl. “It is pretty fun. Please, I insist. Once you're done you can keep the pieces or bring them back to the pavilion there. I hope you have a good time,” she says, gesturing for the woman to take her seat before walking towards him.

 

They can overhear the exchange that happens as they walk away too:

“Goodness! No wonder she looked so familiar! Megan, do you know who that was?! That was the lady who won a big chess game against the Russians!”

“She was nice and had pretty hair. The horses move like Ls, right? Can I go like this?”

 

Benny gives Beth a knowing smile. “Trying to rope in the next generation?”

 

Beth shrugs, unapologetic. “It would be really nice to see more girls playing chess.”

 

She looks introspectively content as they sit on a bench and watch kids swing around on the monkey bars while they eat.

 

He glances at her before he ventures. “You... ever think about it?”

 

“Kids?” She tilts her head as if she's trying to picture it. “Maybe one day. I don't know that I'd be any good at being a mom, though,” she says softly. “How about you?”

 

Benny shrugs. “...Yeah, one day.” His fingers twitch. “If I can find somebody who won't mind having 'em with me.”

 

She smiles and bumps her shoulder against his. “Well, that's not that hard.”

 

He slides his arm around her shoulders, wrinkling his nose to try to cover how he's suddenly feeling triumphantly elated. “Yeah, I don't know. I've heard some people hate me.”

 

She laughs. “...Well, miracles happen sometimes, so they might just get over it.”

 

Benny grins, already considering. A queen capture usually requires a coordinated attack, after all.

 

 


 

 

Their next tournament is in Lugano, in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, and the one after that is a month later, in Palma de Mallorca in Spain, so originally, they'd planned a leisurely roadtrip between them through southern France. Beth had imagined she would spend her birthday making love with Benny in some romantic villa and enjoying beautiful French meals and pastries and wandering the pastoral countryside. She'd even gotten her international driver's license so they could switch drivers at need.

 

But they've had to cancel those plans because Benny wants to be home to start the copy-editing process as soon as his editors get back to him. Which is disappointing, but Beth knows there will always be more European tournaments, and that they'll probably be able to do a similar trip in another few months. This book has been a huge project and waiting for approval from his publisher seems to be the next stressful hurdle involved. He's even forwarded their overseas hotel information to them, just in case.

 

Benny's been studying player patterns and games with her again, but he's also mentioned edits he missed and worries that they'll ask for a total rewrite, although he's trying to keep the fretting to a minimum by actively distracting himself.

 

Which means they've been having a lot of midday sex again and having friends over in the evening - he's even been inviting Jolene and Townes over. But it all seems to help, even if she's noticed that he's often lost in thought instead of reading whatever book he's holding.

 

Traveling to Lugano really helps get his mind off it, too – it's a picturesque lakeside town and Beth loves the way the terracotta roof tiles and cobblestone streets help create the historically charming atmosphere. They both struggle a little with the language though - Italian is a lot like French, which they both unthinkingly default to when unsure of a word or phrase. So they've been trying to speak Italian to each other as extra practice and of course, Benny has made a game of it.

 

He's annoyingly good at avoiding losing points, which she suspects is a direct result of him setting up the rules, but she's too stubborn to give up until she wins at least one round.

 

Which he's probably also counting on. She's just got to find a way to trip him up, somehow.

 

They both start when the phone rings in their hotel room while they're figuring out possible strategies for her adjourned game against Durao the next day.

 

She has to smile when Benny fumbles the pawn he's holding before he hurries to answer it.

 

“Si, pronto,” he says, and Beth watches anxiously, hoping for good news. Surely they wouldn't make a long distance call to Europe with demands for a rewrite.

 

“...Speaking. Yes, hello. …No, it's perfectly fine, we're just preparing for a game tomorrow. ...We're both doing well, thanks. ...Yes.”

 

She can hear only one side of the conversation, but the way Benny obviously has to restrain his gleeful excitement has her grinning already. “That's... exactly what I was hoping to hear; I'm absolutely thrilled. ...I'm sure they would have, but Beth wanted to make sure we kept a couple things to ourselves. I'm grateful you understand. ...No, that sounds perfect; we'll be going home in a couple of days and I'll be able to work on it as soon as it hits our doorstep. Thank you so much for this opportunity. ...And to you,” he says, before hanging up and letting out an exultant whoop and scooping her up.

 

“Editor said he couldn't put it down! They're aiming for it to go to press in spring; already got copy-editors on it now! God, Beth, this is- "

 

He stops abruptly when he sees the way her eyes are bright with laughter and groans with belated realization.

 

“Sembra che domani comprerai ciambelle e caffé,” she gloats, tiptoeing to kiss him. (Looks like you're buying donuts and coffee tomorrow.) “Congratulazioni - sono così orgogliosa di te!” (Congratulations – I'm so proud of you!)

 

“Harmon, that's just low down dirty.”

 

“Sto seguendo le regole che hai impostato!” she protests laughingly. (I'm following the rules you set!)

 

He kisses her anyway. “Fuck it, I don't even care. I'll buy you donuts and coffee every day now,” he declares, and she just holds on and laughs when he picks her up and spins her in a giddy circle.

 

 


 

 

Benny's relieved that Beth agreed to postpone the European roadtrip while things at home are happening all at once. Not just the book, although now that it's been accepted for print, the collaborative editing process has been going great. At this stage, it would take an actual disaster to stop it from being published.

 

Beth's also turning twenty-one, and he's actually glad that she'll be surrounded by friends to celebrate it. The bouquet of hothouse roses he'd had delivered have already had her smiling all morning, and everybody will be at her surprise dinner party that evening.

 

Most new adults might spend their twenty-first doing something fun all day like drinking.

 

Beth made an appointment with her lawyer.

 

It actually reminds him of his own twenty-first birthday. One of the drawbacks of being a prodigy and earning so much money before getting to the age of majority: you acquire assets and yet not full control over them. They've always thought alike: taking back that control the instant it's possible is of paramount importance.

 

But he's surprised when Jolene shows up at the door in a smart looking suit and skirt.

 

“You’re taking her out for lunch?” It's a smart plan - it would have looked suspicious if she hadn't done something with Beth for her birthday.

 

Jolene raises her brows and blinks. “She didn't tell you.”

 

Benny raises his brows right back as he waves her inside. “Tell me what?”

 

“Next of Kin and Power of Attorney. We're signing papers today.”

 

Benny gives Beth an appalled look as she comes down the stairs. “You're... thinking about dying on your birthday?

 

She purses her lips and nods. “Would really rather not have Allston Wheatley get the house I bought from him over my dead body, so... yes? We take an awful lot of airplanes.”

 

He takes a deep breath and shakes his head. “...Wow. I don't even have a will.”

 

Jolene gives him a sage look. “You should. Witnessed an awful lot of lawsuits are over estate matters – better to leave something that says exactly what you want. And of course I'm taking my birthday girl out to lunch. Some asshole already asked her to dinner,” she adds airily.

 

Benny grins. “I sleep with her; I get dibs,” he says smugly.

 

Beth rolls her eyes although she can't seem to help smiling either. “Stop it, you two. Jolene, we should get going. The radio said to expect freezing rain?”

 

“Ah, I wouldn't worry about it. Those clowns always get it wrong. 'sides, that boutique I told you about is in the same little complex as the lawyer's.”

 

Huh. He tilts his head casually and smirks when Jolene gives him a barely perceptible nod.

 

Looks like she's planning on getting that information he asked for too.

 

 

Benny's pretty satisfied with how they completely surprise her that evening. Beth actually gets teary eyed when she realizes all her friends are there to celebrate with her at the restaurant, even Beltik with his new girlfriend despite it being a Saturday.

 

Beth looks slightly mortified but mostly pleased to be presented with a cake with glowing candles to blow out after the meal and have Happy Birthday sung to her, like she's totally unused to it, which makes Benny doubly glad they decided to do it. And if Beltik's new girl seems baffled by the way they're all raising bottles of soda and coffee mugs instead of booze at a twenty-first birthday party, she goes along with it just fine.

 

Mike apparently carpooled with Jolene to the party, which makes Benny chuckle over the gleeful expression Beth gets when she finds out while they’re all getting their coats on again to go home - she really needs to work on some kind of poker face.

 

 

Still, something's been bothering him all day, so he asks while he's driving them home.

 

“Why didn't you tell me you'd been dreading an accident happening all this time?”

 

“Because I wasn't dreading it, exactly. Just... aware in the back of my head. I have two dead mothers, Benny. And they were mostly fine until they suddenly weren't. So I just... want to be ready. And I didn't want Jolene to have to worry about the money, or people not believing she was there to get my remains, if it came to that. It feels like she's my sister, but we don't actually look much alike,” she says, as if perplexed about why.

 

Benny has to smile at that. “Guess paperwork has to be good for something.”

 

She sighs, as if satisfied. “The thing with being an orphan is that there's not automatically somebody. I'm glad I'm old enough to be her somebody now.”

 

He hadn't thought of it like that. “Well... I think she's lucky to have you.”

 

She smiles fondly. “That goes both ways. Most of the time,” she adds cheekily.

 

 


 

 

Alaina flies in for her first visit a week before Christmas, and for the next few days, Beth feels like she's at Christmas camp. It's not the Nativity scenes and recitation of Bible passages that she's used to enduring at Methuen either: Alaina is the kind of mom who bakes cookies and stuffs homemade stockings with candy canes and oranges, and actually knows what to do with the frozen turkeys and cranberries on sale at the supermarket.

 

Alma had never been terribly concerned with homemaking endeavors and Beth had actually found not having to do all the performative religious stuff at Christmas a relief. But it's also nice to have the house warm and full of delicious smells and know that everybody is just enjoying each other’s company.

 

She loves seeing Benny in an apron with his sleeves rolled up, precisely cutting out cookies like a pro while arguing about the meaning of some poem with his mom.

 

And it’s funny to watch Mike patiently try to show Jolene how to play chess in the living room, as if Beth hadn’t given up years ago. Maybe Matt’s right and he’s just a sucker for punishment, but she thinks they’re actually flirting more than playing anyway.

 

Meanwhile, Harry and Townes are going head to head Blitzing in the “Skittles room” that is their dining room right now and Matt and Roger are spectating while they all munch on cookies she is proud to have helped bake.

 

She's glad they invited Townes and Roger especially: it had made her heart ache when he'd told Alaina how nice it would be to share in a big family style feast for Christmas again, and she'd quietly decided to avoid future tournaments at Christmas so they could do this every year.

 

It's strange - her mama had always told her how it was best not to need anybody. But after everything she's been through, she thinks she actually prefers being part of a team.

 

And looking around at all the people here in her home, Beth thinks she likes the one she's put together just fine.

 

 


 

 

Beth grins despite the whirl of snow into the house when she sees the hefty package the postman's holding.

 

“Benny? I think this one's for you,” she calls, and he hurries out of the kitchen, eyes wide.

 

“Oh wow. That was fast. Geez.”

 

Beth takes the package while Benny signs for it, bringing it over to the counter and then grabbing the scissors so he can sit while he opens it.

 

She's a little disappointed to see that the bound galley doesn't have a real cover yet, although the title and byline and Benny's name look nice in big, professionally printed lettering. It looks like a real book, just paperbound. Benny looks funny too, like he's close to tears.

 

“Are you okay?”

 

“Yeah. Just can't believe it's almost out there.” He studies the title and his name for a moment and then carefully cracks it open and inhales as he flips through a couple of pages.

 

And suddenly shuts it again.

 

Beth immediately reaches out to touch his arm. “...Benny? Do... you want some coffee first?”

 

He swallows and runs a hand through his hair, oddly unnerved. “Yeah... yeah, that sounds great. I've got to grab something, but I'll be right back.”

 

Beth blinks with confusion when he takes the book with him. Maybe he needs a minute to look at it by himself – she wishes there were some way to make this easier on him. But she's never been good at knowing what to say to put people at ease, so she measures out water and starts grinding beans. At least she can get him a drink while he reads it for the first time.

 

She's still grinding when he comes back down the stairs.

 

“Listen, Beth. …You think you could read it first?”

 

She blinks with surprise but nods immediately. “Yes, that’s fine.” She smiles teasingly. “There's an extra pack of Chesterfields in my purse too, if you need them.”

 

He tilts his head to give her a sardonic look, but that gets him to crack a crooked smile at least. And then he moves the chessboard aside a little so he can put the book on the counter squarely in front of her usual seat and gestures for her to sit. She gives him a bemused look at the odd ceremony of it before setting down the grinder and sitting.

 

She smiles as she runs her fingers over the title – she's always loved the double meaning. En Passant: Traveling through the World of Chess.

 

It has that stiff feeling of a new book, and the printing of the Table of Contents is such a polished step up from the typewriter manuscripts she's looked through over the past months. No wonder Benny's so emotional – he's worked so hard, and En Passant is tangibly a real book in print now.

 

Her eyes go wide and she smiles when she turns to the dedication.

 

 

For Beth,

Again forever, babe.

 

 

“Oh, Benny. I love it,” she whispers, and when she turns to look at him she swears her heart stops.

 

He's holding a square-cut diamond ring in a little velvet box, and his expression is somewhere between apprehensive and hopeful. “I mean it, Beth. If you want.”

 

Her eyes are filling with tears and she lifts them to his, too stunned to speak for a moment. “I - I thought. You said you didn't want to.”

 

He jerks his head into a shake and shrugs a shoulder nervously. “I mean, I always thought marriage was like locking in your pieces instead of keeping your game open. People change as they move through life – I figured it was stupid to sign a binding contract on things that weren't actually constant. Hell, we're already different people from who we were last year. But... we've loved each other enough to adjust and... it's been the best year of my life. It’s like you said, too: the legal shit matters sometimes. So Elizabeth Harmon-”

 

Yes,” she gasps, and then she kisses him because she's crying and too overwhelmed to try to speak.

 

Benny will probably always be able to blindside her like this - and she can't wait to have a whole lifetime of it.