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An Exchange of Kings

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Benny in black in his final shot, Beth in white in hers, in the center them driving into the sunset

 

 

Beth wakes up and blinks when she smells coffee. She turns over in bed, unsure if she's disappointed - Benny's always been up earlier than her, but she'd been hoping to wake up in his arms again. Instead she can hear the low sound of his voice downstairs - he's probably on the phone.

 

She pulls on a slip and then a cardigan before heading downstairs, where Benny's leaning back in her usual chair while on the phone, coffee and a scribbled on legal pad in front of him on the counter. His eyes light up before his gaze travels hungrily down her body, and Beth's stomach flip-flops giddily.

 

“Uh huh. Hey, she's up now, so I'll call you later, 'k? Yeah, thanks, buddy. Will do.”

 

“...Morning,” she says, suddenly feeling rather shy. It's still strange to see Benny here, barefoot and relaxed, surrounded by all her things.

 

“Morning.” He hangs up the phone and her insides dance with butterflies again when he gets up and pulls her close.

 

He never used to kiss her except in bed, and even then, he'd avoided it, like he was trying to keep sex a strictly physical thing. Any warm words and affectionate gestures had quickly had him changing the topic back to chess and closing off. So she'd stubbornly resolved to stifle and contain her own feelings in response. They were just friends who had sex - the message was loud and clear.

 

It was just like how she'd treated Harry - maybe karma was a real thing after all. So she'd told herself to enjoy playing with him until she left for Paris; the way Alma had had her penpal dalliance - it would be fun while it lasted, and then they'd adjourn before any real damage could be done.

 

She hadn't expected Benny to ambush her in her territory in one bold, sacrificial move, and finally giving in to their feelings is even more heady than popping five or six Librium at once. They'd made love every time one of them had woken last night, and she loves how he still wants to connect after being apart for all of maybe three hours; loves burying her fingers in his hair while sunlight pours through her kitchen windows and coffee scents the air. Everything feels full of blissful promise even if she has no idea what's coming.

 

Part of her still trembles over how she feels like her king is caught in a mating net as surely as his; both of them free to make the next move. Worries that since this high is so exhilarating, the low is sure to be brutal. Remembers exactly how it felt to hear Don't call me anymore despite how she'd tried to protect herself.

 

But from the way he's cradling her close and the open emotion in his eyes, she wants to believe that it's safe to just be happy. That they're playing a whole new sort of game now, where they're a team instead of opponents.

 

“Been keeping your phone off the hook so you could get some sleep - I still remember how this 'Groundbreaking International Win' circus goes. That was Hilton. He says 'Hi.' And congrats, again.”

 

He pauses and glances away before continuing. “He's also going to ask around, see if anybody's interested in taking over my lease. Did you know that Kentucky Chess Federation memberships are five dollars cheaper than New York State ones?” There's a wary look in his eyes, but his expression is also slyly hopeful.

 

She smiles slowly, cheeks flushing. “...I didn't. Sounds like a savings if you switched. Free curbside parking here, too. And a garage, come to think of it,” she ponders casually, and he grins.

 

“...Yeah?”

 

She nods, unable to say aloud just how much she wants him here, like this, all the time.

 

He lowers his eyes uneasily and tilts his head. “Just to warn you... I've never done the couple thing before, Beth.”

 

She shrugs and makes a wry face. “Me neither. But... I want to try. If you do,” she adds, glancing up to meet his eye.

 

He smiles crookedly, tucking her hair back, like it's been something he's wanted to do for ages. “You know I do.”

 

He leans forward and they kiss again before they jolt apart when the phone rings next to them and he heaves an annoyed sigh and glances at the clock. “I can run interference if you want to have your coffee and breakfast first.”

 

She makes an apologetic face before shaking her head and reaching for the phone - might as well get it over with.

 

“...Hello?”

 

Benny doesn't say anything, just gestures towards the chair for her to sit before going to pour her a cup of coffee and bring her the plate he'd fixed.

 

Thank you,” she mouths at him, and he grips her shoulder and smiles, thumb making affectionate circles for a moment before he ducks close to whisper, “Shower,” and heads back upstairs.

 

She sips her coffee and agrees to reschedule meeting the President, apologizing for the flight delay in Russia. She idly peeks into the sandwich while she listens to the official explain about the security measures to expect upon arrival at the White House and her eyes widen.

 

It's an egg and ham sandwich with thin sliced pickles -- her favorite from that deli on Third they'd often gone to -- she hadn't realized Benny had even noticed.

 

 

Beth can't believe she's smiling mushily at a sandwich, her cheeks flushing warm.

 

 

She's suddenly optimistic that this couple thing is going to work out after all.

 

 

 


 

 

The press tour is a whirl: talk shows, newspaper and magazine shoots and interviews, constant questions and cameras flashing. Beth's done it all before, but never as much of it - she's even giving soundbites to publications that surprise her, like Good Housekeeping and Mad Magazine.

 

Alma would have been delighted - would probably have bought extra copies for the scrapbook and to lay on the coffee table for guests to “happen upon”. Beth still can't bring herself to even snip out the articles, so she's been making a neat pile of the newspapers and magazines she's collected about her time in Russia - like TIME and Paris Match. Maybe she'll be able to do it one day without feeling like crying, remembering Alma reading them aloud at the table before carefully pasting the pieces in, beaming with pride and satisfaction.

 

It's especially exciting to be interviewed and photographed for Vogue and Harper's Bazaar, getting to model spring dresses that aren't even in stores yet for the shoots and reach an audience of women about playing chess at the same time. Copycat patterns of the coats and dresses she'd been photographed in overseas are all the rage, and she's been dubbed a new fashion icon, which both flusters and flatters Beth - she just likes pretty clothes.

 

Chess has also experienced a kind of national revival as a pastime, and game stores are having runs on sets. Both Chess Review and the Chess Federation gleefully report that memberships and magazine sales are at a record high as well.

 

Chess book sales are up too, and since Benny's been identified as her boyfriend and she's credited him for helping to train her, his book was immediately given a new printing by his publisher - along with a new royalties check.

 

Benny laughs with chagrined disbelief when he gets the news. “Geez, Harmon. Guess I need to stop complaining about that phone call. Wow.”

 

Being a new couple though all of it is a bit like being a newlywed in the movies - they sit cozily together on airplanes and in taxis while they play chess in their heads and talk about favorite places they've been and places they'd like to see.

 

They see a couple of the big landmarks in L.A. and D.C. while they're there, but they usually opt to go back to the hotel once official obligations are discharged, enjoying each other in bed and indulging in room service so they don't even have to bother to get dressed again.

 

It's different being lovers now; feeling free to touch and take their time with each other. Even just lying together lazily after, basking in the warmth of cuddling close is quietly thrilling in its own way.

 

It's still a little strange, telling Benny about things she'd assumed he didn't care to know. She can't even meet his eye when she does, which is crazy - lying there naked and moaning while he spreads her legs apart and eats her out doesn't feel half as revealing as answering his questions about growing up in Methuen a few minutes later.

 

“The other girls could just go to sleep even without the Librium, but I could hear the bed-springs squeaking around the room like nails on a chalkboard in the dark. Feel all the lumps in the mattress and remember all the stains I was lying on that were probably pee... so I memorized the Sicilian Defense in order to pass the time after lights out.”

 

“You're kidding me.” He huffs a laugh and squeezes her. “You know what I did when my old man and my mom were fighting? Memorized the English Opening so I could try to focus on something other than them shouting.”

 

She stills. He's never talked about his family before.

 

“...It's like the Sicilian, but -”

 

“ - but in reverse, yeah.” He shrugs. “Didn't help much. Even when I was winning enough to pay the bills, she didn't want to leave him. Kept trying to pretend that everything between them was peachy. I fucking hated it.”

 

She can tell he's brooding, thinking back, and then he abruptly sits up and gets out of bed. “Hey, you want to play chess?”

 

Beth turns to look at his bare back as he pulls on his underwear, and pulls the covers closer around herself. “...I guess,” she says, not sure why she feels so reluctant.

 

 

But she feels a little better when he ducks close to kiss her before he stretches out next to her and starts setting up the board between them.

 

 

Some things might be the same, but she's glad some things have changed, anyway.

 

 

 


 

 

It's nice actually, having Benny do the things that Alma used to while she gets interviewed: making sure the Chess Federation representative provides coffee and water to soothe her throat from all the talking; collecting business cards and details about complimentary copies and publishing dates and stepping in when reporters run overtime or ask questions that cross the line.

 

“Beth's beaten a Soviet World Champion - first time in decades that's happened. It's fucking historic. And you're asking her about popping out babies?” he interjects once, furious. “I've never been asked anything so ludicrous in the years I've been playing, and I went pro when I was just a kid, so that's really saying something. Beth Harmon's career is red hot right now - ask her a better fucking question already!”

 

 

What Beth finds more irritating is realizing that there are actually fewer sexist, inappropriate questions when Benny's there, too.

 

When they get to New York, he packs and cleans out his apartment instead of helping her do press, and the difference when it's only the Chess Federation representative in her corner becomes readily apparent.

 

“It's as if some of the reporters were more worried about insulting your girlfriend in front of you than asking a woman on her own stupid prying questions,” she muses with an annoyed huff, yawning against his shoulder. “One wondered if my beating you for the US title caused 'unnecessary tension' in our relationship. And another asked if I intended to retire now that I've peaked - I bet Borgov never got these kinds of questions.”

 

Benny scoffs, disgusted. “What the hell was the Chess Federation rep doing?”

 

Beth rolls her eyes. “Making nice with the press and keeping the schedule packed, what else?”

 

“Should ask Levertov or Wexler if they're free tomorrow.”

 

Beth sighs. “Oh, don't worry about it, Benny - I've done press by myself for months now. I can tell them off myself; it's just annoying. Besides, the guys are helping you at the apartment, right?”

 

Benny shrugs dismissively. “Ah, I only need them to get big stuff like the bookshelves moved out. It's mostly just books and trophies going in boxes and throwing out junk. Don't have a lot of furniture.”

 

She smiles fondly and presses a kiss to his shoulder. “...I remember. And... I really appreciate you doing this.”

 

He squeezes her. “Ah, it's worth it. I mean, your place is a lot bigger. Better water pressure, too.”

 

She gives him a derisive look. “...My shower is the main attraction?”

 

“Well, there's this redhead, too. Drives me crazy but she plays a decent game of chess,” he says, grinning.

 

She scoffs and nudges him with her elbow. “Keep that up and you're going to need to pack that air mattress, too.”

 

He gives her a sideways look and a lopsided smile. “You know, I was trying to keep things professional.”

 

She tilts her head, blinking like she's puzzled, walking innocent fingers up his bare chest. “How'd that work out, again?”

 

“You're a determined little minx, you know that?” he growls, rolling back on top of her and studying her face.

 

“I thought you liked that about me,” she laughs, burying her fingers in his hair. She likes it when he goes all intense like this, like there's nothing else in the world but them.

 

“...I love that about you,” he admits, and that spurs another bout of passionate lovemaking that makes them late to meet Arthur and Hilton for dinner.

 

 


 

 

It surprises her when he calls her midday to let her know he's made reservations for dinner, too.

 

“Can't we just stay in tonight?” Beth asks, rather dismayed. She'd been looking forward to finally not having plans in the evening - the days have been extra long in New York since Phil Donahue and The Tonight Show film in the evenings, and they've been meeting with his friends for goodbye drinks and dinners as well.

 

He hesitates. “...It's one of my favorite joints - you'll like it; the food is very European bistro. And... I actually invited my mom, if that's okay.”

 

She blinks, startled speechless for a moment. “...Yes, of course. It's... fine. Just... I didn't even know she lived in the area,” she manages. She rapidly reviews the blouse and dressy slacks she's wearing and decides to change the cardigan for a cashmere shawl before dinner - it'll hopefully make her look a little more grown up. His mother. Jesus.

 

“Yeah, she lives out in Jersey, actually, so I made early reservations so she can get a decent train back. She's looking forward to meeting you - she's seen you in Chess Review and whatnot all along, you know.” He pauses and she can practically hear him smile. “Was a little miffed that you beat me in Ohio, but uh, she came around after reading about how you beat Borgov too. And, you know, after I told her we were together. And also... that I was moving out to Kentucky to be with you.”

 

Beth closes her eyes. “Benny.

 

“I know it's last minute but she really wants to meet you and we've only got the hotel for a few more days. We could detour to Jersey, I guess, but you want to head straight back to Lexington after, right?”

 

“No, of course - it's your mom. I just didn't expect it, is all.” Beth sighs and rolls her eyes before smiling and shaking her head at herself. “...And I wanted a nice lazy night with you. It's been kind of non-stop since we got here.”

 

Nobody's there, but she lowers her voice anyway. “...I miss seeing you during the day. And having dinner naked.”

 

He chuckles. “I promise once I'm moved in we will be naked a lot, okay?”

 

Her cheeks flush, and she bites her lip as she smiles. “...Deal.”

 

 

 

And if Beth feels self-conscious and nervous, it's obvious Benny's feeling the same way as he makes the introductions.

 

He takes after his mom with the height and thick blond hair, though her eyes are bright blue and framed with laugh lines, her skin tan like it sees plenty of sun even in midwinter. Her grip is warm and firm and she's dressed like an artist in a breezy, layered dress under a handknit shawl. Beth feels terribly overdressed next to the two of them for a moment, but the delighted smile his mother gives her is obviously genuine.

 

“Oh, aren't you just a picture, Beth? However did my beanpole Benny manage to charm someone so lovely?”

 

Benny's mouth falls open and he gives her an aggrieved look. “Mom!”

 

She blithely ignores him and continues. “It is such a pleasure to finally meet you. You were just marvelous in Moscow and that sounded like such a grueling tournament. I used to go along to Benny's and the Soviets were always the worst - just one adjournment after another. Sometimes he'd fall asleep in the taxi on the way back to the hotel, he'd be so worn out.”

 

Beth smiles, unexpectedly charmed by the picture of a young Benny falling asleep in frigid Russian taxis years ago. “It's a pleasure to meet you too. My Russian professor used to say that Soviets took especial pride in how much suffering they could endure.”

 

Alaina Watts huffs a laugh. “Oh, I believe it. Those speeches of theirs! Interminable as sermons, and the audience expected to stoically stare straight ahead like soldiers,” she sighs, lifting her eyes. She watches with obvious approval as Benny pulls out Beth's chair for her.

 

Beth tilts her head as she thinks back. “...Surprisingly, not all of them were, this time,” she reflects. “Luchenko actually fell asleep in the middle of one of the opening ceremonies. The rest of us were properly attentive, but he was very peaceful, snoring with his head thrown back. We all pretended not to notice, of course,” she assures them.

 

Benny grins slowly. “Of course. Ahhh, I guess he's old enough to get away with it, the career he's had. His games are still damn impressive, too.”

 

Alaina nods. “He was undefeated at Moscow until he played you, isn't that right, Beth?” she asks.

 

The waiter arrives to take their orders and though Alaina blinks with obvious surprise when they both order coke instead of wine, she deliberately opts not to question that.

 

“So... you also managed to go to college, then, Beth?”

 

“No. I took Russian night classes at college during high school. Russian players were always just so much better... I was sure I'd need it one day.”

 

Alaina inhales and glances at Benny before she gives them a wistful smile. “...Well, that sounds very familiar. What was it again- в чужой монастырь -?” (When in Rome...)

 

Beth smiles back, astonished. “-со своим уставом не ходят. (Do as the Romans do. Lit. “Don't go into a monastery with your own rules.”) You learned Russian, too?” 

 

Alaina lifts an eyebrow drolly. “Well, Benny was nine when he insisted he needed to learn Russian, so I had to take him to the classes, anyway. Found it much easier to wrap my head around than all the chess, at any rate.”

 

Benny tilts his head with a hint of exasperation as he elaborates. “Mom always had a knack for languages. I'd come back from a game and find her fast friends with some... woman selling dried fruit at a stand or... the guy paid to clean the hotel windows who was also a musician playing at a tomato festival that we just had to go see.”

 

Alaina chuckles, eyes bright. “Oh, I'd forgotten about that one - that was an adventure, wasn't it? We did see some marvelous places over the years. Do you have any idea where you'll be headed next, then?”

 

Beth takes a breath and shakes her head. “I... honestly haven't thought about it. It's all been so crazy since Moscow - haven't even been home long enough to sort through the mail, yet. That's what I've been telling the press, too: my next step is just to get home so I can get my bearings and figure out the one I want to take after that.”

 

“You'll have to defend your national title this summer, but the World championship is still a couple years out,” Benny supplies. “You can probably expect a truckload of international invitations coming soon. Probably already a bunch shoved through your mailslot already. Everybody's going to want to see you play, and you can bet Borgov's going to be studying every single game like a hawk now.”

 

Beth nods slowly, sipping her coke. “...Any advice?”

 

Alaina and Benny look at each other before Alaina shrugs. “Well, the nicer the brochure was printed, the nicer the tournament, I always found.”

 

Benny raises his brows and nods agreement to that statement. “There are a few Grandmasters that you haven't played yet whose games we can study, but after Borgov...?” He shakes his head dismissively. “New tournaments pop up from time to time, but some aren't really worth the entry and hotel fees and airfare - you gotta read all the fine print and gauge your odds of winning or splitting the grand prize. Which, for you, is much less of a risk than for me,” he admits. “Also factor in jet lag and just... road weariness if you commit to too many in a row. But you'll figure out your own pace once you get started.”

 

Alaina beams and raises her glass. “The world is really your oyster, my dear.”

 

Beth flushes and dips her head before raising her own glass.

 

 


 

 

The rest of the dinner passes very pleasantly, with Benny's mother relating plenty of anecdotes about both Benny's childhood and traveling, and being so interested and engaging that Beth feels rather silly about her initial reluctance - she can see exactly where Benny gets his knack for drawing people into an audience. It doesn't even feel that awkward, giving her a hug at the station after.

 

“Don't be a stranger - I mean that, Beth. Our house is down the shore, and especially nice in summer, when I'm sure it has to be just sweltering in Kentucky. Benny and I can show you all the places he knocked around as a boy.”

 

Benny scrubs the back of his neck awkwardly. “...Thanks for coming out, Mom.”

 

“Oh, pish! As if I was going to give up a chance to see my favorite son-”

 

“-Only son- ”

 

“- especially when you'll be moving so far away. You're sure you don't need any help with your place? I can always tell the girls to come over next week instead. Oh, and did you need the registration papers for the car?”

 

Benny frowns. “You can keep those. It's in your name, right?”

 

“Well, it was your money, dear. I figured you'd want to look them over.”

 

He looks distinctly uncomfortable. “Naw, it's okay. And I'm just cleaning up now, basically. Beth and the guys will be there to help get the boxes in the van. I got this, Mom.”

 

“I know you're all grown up. Just making sure, is all. Give me a hug then, and I'll be off.”

 

Beth looks away while they're embracing - they're quietly snatching a few private words, and she feels a little bad, like she's abruptly and unknowingly taken him away from his own mother somehow. He's quiet after too, in the taxi back to the hotel.

 

“You okay?” she ventures, and he takes her hand.

 

“...Yeah. Just... thinking is all. Mom adored you. Obviously.”

 

Beth flushes with pleasure at that. “You were right - I'm really glad we had the chance to meet. And I think she has even you beat at telling stories. Your childhood sounded like so much fun.”

 

Benny makes a face. “Well, all the stories about being stuck in waiting rooms for hours or sick in countries where the doctors need to be bribed don't tend to come up as much. But... I guess we were a pretty good team. That's how she liked to put it.”

 

She leans her head against his shoulder. “...I'm glad we're a team now,” she says quietly.

 

Though she can't see the smile on his face, she can hear it. “Former Chess Prodigies versus the World?”

 

She smiles. “Something like that.”

 

 

 

He tells her he loves her after they make love that night, the words tumbling out like half a question.

 

This time though, Beth's ready to answer him.

 

 

“...I love you, too.”

 

 


 

 

“Feels like the end of an era, Benny. Still can't believe you're settling down with a girl,” Hilton sighs, looking around the bare apartment with nostalgic wistfulness.

 

“Settles, is the word all right. But I'm fairly certain it's poor Beth here settling for our Benny,” Arthur says, winking, and Benny shakes his head as he ducks to check the kitchen space again, making sure the shelves are bare.

 

“Gee, thanks, guys. I'm truly touched,” he says sarcastically.

 

Beth can't help smiling. “He's always just a phone call away, and the house has two guest rooms if you're ever down in Kentucky. And we'll be back to visit anyway - I've been promised invitations to Fashion Week here in September from Vogue and Harper's Bazaar, to start.”

 

Arthur and Hilton both shoot Benny alarmed looks, which makes Beth frown in turn. “...What?”

 

“Nothing,” he says shortly.

 

She blinks and double takes. “...Bullshit. Why are you-?” And she doesn't know how she knows from the way he won't look at her and his fists are clenched, but she suddenly understands. Fashion Week. “...Cleo?”

 

Benny scoffs angrily, and both Arthur and Hilton shoot her apologetic looks. “I still can't believe she did that to you in Paris! She knows how much we put into these tournaments; how much it costs just to enter. And she said something like, how it was 'fascinating to watch something burn.' Fuck. I wanted to kill her.”

 

Beth reaches out and touches his arm. “Benny. It was my fault too. I knew better. I think I was just... lonely and bored. Ready for any kind of distraction. If she hadn't called, I might have just taken the pills instead.”

 

He gestures furiously. “You don't know that! What I do know is that you would probably have gone into that game just fine if you'd never met her in the first place.”

 

Beth sighs and shrugs. “...Maybe. We'll never know now, will we? And even if I did burn down, I got back up, didn't I? Like... a phoenix or something.”

 

That finally gets him to relent, and he exhales raggedly as he studies her face. “...I guess.” He tucks her hair back and his face twitches with a smile and Beth rolls her eyes.

 

“...It has nothing to do with being a redhead!”

 

He raises his hands up but his eyes narrow teasingly. “Didn't say a word.”

 

She huffs and pokes him in the chest and he chuckles.

 

Arthur shakes his head at Hilton. “It's sad, really. How the mighty have fallen.”

 

“Yes, head over heels. Almost like a kind of somersault-”

 

Benny shoots them an exasperated smile. “Would you guys give it a rest, already? Geez.”

 

 

But they're all in a friendly mood again as they file back out of the apartment for the last time.

 

 


 

 

The U-haul van isn't as cramped as Benny's Beetle, but the drive is a lot longer than their first road trip.

 

It feels different too - that first time she'd been rather thrilled at her own daring, going to the big city to stay with a man she barely knew.

 

Now they're lovers and in love, driving towards a future together.

 

It's funny to realize they have more to talk about now than they did back then. She also likes how his hand sometimes wanders from the gearshift to her knee this time. She feels bad though, seeing him yawn and squint against the sun setting on the horizon.

 

“I should really learn to drive, too.”

 

Benny nods. “Yeah, it'd be handy to split the driving on long trips like this. Can teach you whenever - my car's pretty reliable. For now though, just keep me awake and we should be home in a few hours.”

 

She smiles to hear him say that and covers his hand with hers. “Okay.”

 

 


 

 

It's more of an adjustment than it was with Harry - Benny just has so much stuff with him, and boxes litter the living room and hallways for days while he unpacks and they try to find space for his things.

 

Alma's poor piano is absolutely buried under trophies now. He also needs closet space, which Beth has very much enjoyed having all to herself.

 

But they go shopping for a new dresser and book units and she hangs her summer things up in her old bedroom closet instead. Gets used to things like dealing with the grinds from coffee beans he grinds fresh every morning instead of just drinking instant and hanging his clothes out on the line with hers.

 

Mr. Bradley just dryly lines up a pack of Chesterfields and a new box of condoms in the discreet brown paper bag as soon as Beth walks into the drugstore now, looking mildly surprised when she adds anything else.

 

She just smiles brightly and hands over the money - $2.25, exact tender. He can judge her all he likes: at least she's fucking her boyfriend responsibly.

 

 

Benny's kept his promise admirably, and Beth is very, very satisfied.

 

 

Jolene just takes one look at her and laughs when Beth answers the door breathless and flushed and hastily dressed.

 

“You need an extra few minutes to finish?” she snorts.

 

“I know, I'm sorry - we totally forgot. Just let me go grab my socks and sneakers and I can put them on in the car.”

 

“You sure you need to go play squash? Looks like you've already gotten plenty of exercise,” Jolene hoots. “Just gimme your racket and I'll go wait in the car, you shameless hussy.”

 

 

It's hard to feel embarrassed for long - she's too happy about how things have been going with Benny. And her professional future looks rosy too: opportunities and offers come both by phone and post everyday.

 

There are more sponsorship offers, which Beth is approaching with more caution after that whole Christian Crusade debacle, but at least the Chess Federation is more than happy with her now and the fashion related ones she finds very exciting. Tears actually spring into her eyes when an offer from Bulova arrives - they're absolutely thrilled that she always wears one of their watches, and they'd very much like to get her official endorsement for advertisements, in exchange for a generous sponsorship.

 

Benny's publisher has offered her a book deal too, which she's tabling for now - she doesn't even know what she'd want to write, and really, what she wants to do is play. Borgov has said it and Benny too: chess players are like sports players; their careers are usually short-lived and she should make the most of the opportunities while the going is good, while she's healthy and high in demand.

 

It's exciting going through the stack of invitations and sorting them by date, and then by prizes vs. costs: dozens of possibilities for challenge and adventure all over the globe.

 

“Borgov usually plays the same tournaments –- probably approved locations by the Commies -- but you can choose based on prizes, location, whatever. And I don't think anywhere has a grand prize as big as Moscow's but, look what I just got.”

 

He holds up a thick envelope with his redirected mail label on it with a sly smile. “Looks like we've both been invited to Munich next month. The prize money is decent, even if I only end up in third. Pretty central too, so we could rent a car and see some more of Europe after, if you want.”

 

Beth beams. “Oh, Benny. That sounds perfect.”

 

 


 

 

Benny had never once thought he'd live anywhere but a big city. He loves cities the world over, where everything exciting happens: art, music, competitions. Different flavors of food and communities and culture - he'd never minded the smell and noise and closer quarters that came with convenient access to it all in one place. Maybe it just came with travelling so much as a kid - as long as his basic needs were met, he'd always known he could live everywhere and anywhere. He'd never missed a location so much as specific people, though he gets now why Beth is so attached to this place. 

 

Not that Lexington is actually that small a city, but her house is in one of those quiet, well-to-do neighborhoods with manicured lawns: there isn't even traffic noise, nonetheless arguments in foreign languages and kids thundering down stairwells. Just the occasional nervous dog and the next door neighbor who peers at him suspiciously when he throws out the trash.

 

Benny's taken to wearing the cowboy hat and coat when he does just to see the look on his face. Some Kentucky hicks are delightfully easy to shock.

 

And the music they've got on at this housewarming/belated celebration party might be loud enough to get him riled enough to march over and complain, but Benny's smugly sure the landlord isn't going to turf them out over a complaint.

 

He's been hoping to cultivate some local friendships too, and he already knows Beltik and Matt and Mike are decent guys, so he's pretty pleased that they all turned out. Townes is a pleasant surprise too: smoothly well-spoken and well-connected in Kentucky social/professional circles, and delighted to properly introduce them to his "good friend" -- obviously boyfriend -- Roger.

 

Beth had assured him that they were just friends, but Benny can't help remembering how many bad moments he'd had, thinking of the guy with movie star good-looks who had managed a rushed visa and plane tickets to join Beth, all alone in Russia when he'd furiously thrown out his own chance. That photograph of them joyfully hugging that had been in the Times still surfaces in articles about Beth sometimes. His mother had always warned him how his quick temper could lead to lifelong regrets, and it's an incredible relief to find he'd actually managed to scrape a win despite himself.

 

With the help of a couple of others, of course - Beltik is obviously appreciative of the bookshelves in the dining room. “I guess you can tell two internationally ranked chess players live here now, huh? Books in Russian, even, and Chess Informants from Yugoslavia and Shakhmatni Byulletens all the way back to the nineteen-fifties.” He blinks in the middle of his perusal, befuddled. “Why three copies of Modern Chess Openings though? Are the editions that different?”

 

Benny shrugs. “Beth had two - you'll have to ask her. Feel free to borrow whatever. We mostly study recent Grandmaster games out of magazines nowadays.”

 

He shakes his head. “Ahhh, I think I'll be leaving all that in you and Beth's capable hands. I like what you guys have done with the place. It's a lot more modern.”

 

Benny blinks. “You've... been here before?”

 

Beltik swallows uncomfortably. “...Uh, stayed for awhile last summer, after Beth's mom died. Trained her a little. Well, tried to.”

 

Benny inhales as he tries to take that in stride. He'd figured Townes for an ex, not Beltik. “Yeah, she mentioned that. Sort of.” He frowns as the rest of what he said registers. “Her mom died last summer?”

 

“While they were in Mexico City. The same day she lost to Borgov. She never told you?”

 

Shit. “...No.”

 

Beltik spreads his hands awkwardly. “...Beth's a really private person. I mean, I only knew because I was here. And she never talked about it or... cried, even.” He hesitates before continuing gingerly. “I think... she doesn't want to show weakness. Even to people who are close to her.”

 

Benny turns and gives Beltik a sardonic look. Close? He's literally inside her at least twice a day. 

 

Beltik shakes his head. “Sex isn't the same thing as emotional vulnerability. And you wouldn't be here if she didn't already trust you a lot. I'm just saying: stuff like that usually takes time. And you guys have been doing that whirlwind courtship thing.”

 

Benny glances at Beth, who's sitting on the stairs with Jolene, head leaning on her shoulder while they talk about something.

 

No prizes for guessing who she already trusts completely.

 

He's not always the most open person either - he knows that. Plus he's already in for the long haul - and he's pretty sure he's up to the challenge. So he just nods thoughtfully.

 

“...Yeah, that makes sense. Guess I got some work to do.”

 

Harry nods encouragingly. "It'll be worth it."

 

Benny glances at her again and grins when she laughs at something Jolene said. "...Don't I know it. Come on, Beltik - let me get you a drink and you can explain to me what the hell a 'hot brown' is."

 

Now's the time to have some fun and hang out. Plenty of time for going over whatever skeletons there might be in closets later. 

 

 

Beth's home to him now, and that's all that really matters.

 

 

Chapter Text

Benny hates to admit it, but looking back over the stamps in his passport makes it clear: he'd gotten complacent. Plateaued in international rankings and played only when he really needed funds.

 

He'd been relying on poker games to eke out enough for rent instead of jumping through all the hoops of sending in tournament forms and committing to airfare and fees; jetlag and stilted conversations.

 

He'd never even realized that not having somebody there to share the experiences with was probably what had taken a lot of the fun out of it for him. And losses meant losing hundreds of dollars and weeks of time and eroding his rating, and he'd grown both wary and weary of it all.

 

Typical Beth to stride in and upset the status quo he'd been maintaining, but he doesn't even mind anymore. It might have taken him months to admit how thoroughly miserable he was without her, but this couple thing has been pretty amazing so far.

 

He'd never wanted anything like what his parents had and he still thinks most societal expectations are bullshit, but he loves being with her, loves the contented little sounds she makes when she's cuddling against him. Not that he subscribes to his mom's hippie soulmate ideas either, but it still kind of floors him how sublimely right it feels to surrender his heart to the girl who used to glare daggers at him.

 

Beth's giddy excitement over their upcoming trip is infectious too, and he's looking forward to playing another tournament with her as much as the trip they have planned for after.

 

Benny has no doubt she's going to win, but especially with her support in adjournments he's betting he'll come home with some prize money too. Training her has already improved his own game, if only because he has to really understand what he's doing in order to explain it to her. Playing her regularly and analyzing games and possible move sequences together is the kind of challenging practice he hasn't done for years. And it's been paying off: it's taking her more moves to beat him recently, although she still plays brilliantly, with a beautiful sophistication to her middlegames that he likes to replay just to admire.

 

She's obviously resting on her laurels though - dawdling instead of focusing on learning the typical moves of the Grandmasters they're about to play. Everybody knows she's got the chops to beat Borgov and Luchenko now - they're all going to be bringing their A game. Beth's always been such an intuitive player that she tends to rely on it instead of planned tactics though, and she's ignoring one of Roth's games set up in front of her, humming along with the radio and paging through a guidebook instead.

 

“Babe, you're still only halfway through that game,” he points out, and she glances down and shifts one of the white knights before her eyes drift back to the guidebook.

 

“Seriously, Beth? You remember what happened when Laev figured you were an easy win.”

 

She gives him an exasperated look. “Oh, come on, Benny. Roth can hardly be anywhere near as bad as a Soviet player. And just look at this - it's an actual castle!”

 

Benny can't help smiling. She's so effortlessly glamorous now that it's easy to forget she isn't yet as globetrotting worldly as her French designer dresses imply. “There are castles all over Europe, you know. Mostly I think they're a pain to heat in winter.” He glances at the picture and raises his brows. “Though that one sure looks like the fairytale version - wow.”

 

“Says here they filmed a couple of movies there.”

 

He nods. “You want to add it to the itinerary?”

 

She tilts her head and bites her lip. “The list keeps getting longer, though... And I really need to get back in time to get the azaleas uncovered and other bedding plants in once the threat of frost is over.”

 

Benny blinks, puzzled. “Azaleas? …Like...flowers?”

 

She goes still for a second before lifting a shoulder dismissively. “...They brighten up the yard with a splash of color.”

 

She's got her eyes trained on the book, and her tone is offhand, but Benny frowns at the old-fashioned turn of phrase. So he's carefully casual in turn.

 

“...There a usual date for that?”

 

Beth shakes her head slightly. “Alma always tried to have the bedding plants done by April, but it depends on the year - sometimes it frosts late. Usually better to ignore the first sales in March anyway.”

 

Huh. Benny nods slowly. “I'll... take your word for it, but it shouldn't be a problem. We can't bum around Europe forever anyway. Besides, there's another tournament in Switzerland in October if you want to see something we miss this time round. Castle's not going anywhere, so you can just decide whether you want to see it in spring or fall.”

 

She brightens at that and smiles. “That's true enough.” She pauses and gives him a speculative look. “When was the last time you played Roth?”

 

Benny inhales, thinking back. “Geez... beat him maybe a couple years ago, in Amsterdam.”

 

“Sounds like awhile ago.”

 

He sets down his coffee. “...Fine. I'll play black - Richardson, right?”

 

She smiles, obviously pleased to get her way. “Mmmhmm.”

 

“...Brat.”

 

“...You love me anyway,” she says softly, and he pulls her close to kiss that smug little mouth. They usually eat and play games side by side while seated at the counter in the kitchen instead of across from each other at the dining table, and he likes how convenient it is to do stuff like this too.

 

“Guess you're stuck with me, too,” he retorts and then he reaches out and makes Richardson's next move with a pawn while she laughs and bumps her shoulder to his affectionately.

 

 

She looks pretty damn happy about that, and maybe he is too.

 

 

 


 

 

 

Munich is a beautiful city, and the hotel hosting the tournament is more than a hundred years old and incredibly grand, with domed ceilings and glittering chandeliers. The room they've been given is similarly luxurious and Beth is delighted to discover that the bathtub is big enough for two when she goes to shower off the grimy feel of more than twenty four hours spent traveling in the same clothes and makeup.

 

She's also pleased when Benny joins her, so that they're both clean and eager to try out the king sized bed straight after.

 

They've arrived a day early to adjust to the time difference and make any last minute preparations, although according to the roster, there have been no surprise additions to the list of players. Since it'll be a Swiss-system tournament, they will only be playing against each player once unless a tie-breaker final round is deemed necessary.

 

Unsurprisingly, the reporters at the opening press conference are very eager to ask Beth about her perfect score at the Moscow Invitational and her stunning victory over Borgov.

 

They're also fascinated by the fact that she and Benny are lovers.

 

“So was it love at first sight? Or perhaps first match? Mr. Watts was the American champion before you, wasn't he?”

 

Beth blinks. The press here in Europe obviously know American players about as well as most Americans know foreign players. “Not - at all. I met Benny several years ago - in fact, before I even got an official rating. I don't think he even remembers meeting me.”

 

The reporter looks disappointed for a moment before Benny speaks up. “We played our first match in Las Vegas, at the US Open a couple of years ago.” He gives Beth a teasing grin before he continues, shaking his head. “I ruined her perfect score in the final. Don't think she liked me very much after that.”

 

Beth flushes, but she has to laugh, remembering. “It's true. I... had become accustomed to winning games; to being able to see several moves ahead of everybody I played. But Benny could see the board the way I did, and he had years more experience playing at the international level. It was... eye-opening.”

 

Benny tilts his head at her. "Sorry.”

 

She gives him a disbelieving look and scoffs. “No, you're not.”

 

He grins and doesn't deny it. “I knew that you were coming for the title then, though. Was just expecting you to take a little longer - hoped you'd be my second for Moscow, actually.”

 

That surprises her, and she doesn't know why it pleases her so much in hindsight, but it does. 

 

“So there are obviously no “hard feelings” about losing your National title to Ms. Harmon, Mr. Watts? You were the U.S. Champion for fifteen years, were you not?”

 

Benny nods slowly and gestures towards Beth. “She's our champion now and probably the best player here,” he states, matter of fact.

 

“But there are reports that you trained Ms. Harmon for Moscow.”

 

Benny frowns and leans forward. “Training isn't the same as playing. Compare it to any sport - you'd never expect the coach to play with the same skill set as a gifted player, even if they're giving them tips and pointers; drilling them out of their weaknesses. Not - that I'm not confident I'll play well. …I just know exactly what Harmon can do.”

 

Beth can't help smiling.

 

“But isn't it going to be strange to compete directly against your lover?”

 

They were expecting this question and Beth answers dismissively. “Of course not. We play against each other more than anybody and I know we're both looking forward to playing other Masters and Grandmasters instead. Mr. Darga I've already played in Paris, of course, and Mr. Flento in Moscow.”

 

Both men bow their heads to her from across the stage and Beth breathes out a silent sigh of relief as the reporters start directing questions to them and she glances at Benny, who gives her a sly smile.

 

She gives him a little grin in answer.

 

 

This is going to be fun.

 

 

 


 

 

They like to eat lunch at the big square close to the hotel between games- there are a wonderful variety of food stalls to choose from, and the early spring sunshine and festive atmosphere make it very pleasant to sit outside. They try big, chewy pretzels and sausages with sweet Bavarian mustard and onions, rye and cured meat sandwiches with strange cheeses and steamed sweet buns. Munich's most famous for its beer, but Benny thinks it's smarter to wait until after the tournament to try it, and Beth has to agree, even if she's sure he won't let her overdrink. There are lots of German soft drinks anyway, and she gets used to ordering Fassbrausse and Spezi.

 

If they sometimes get people watching them play practice games after a meal, that's typical even back home. She didn't even realize they'd been photographed until a candid shot of them appears with the article about the tournament in the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper that's delivered to their hotel room every morning.

 

From the position of the pieces, it was taken while they were debating the effectiveness of Huber using the Réti opening against Perez a couple of days ago, the remains of their lunch pushed to one side and Benny's arm casually around her while she explains. It doesn't look like any of their usual pictures from tournaments: she's animated and smiling instead of serious and Benny's got a glass of apfelscholrle (sparkling apple juice) in his other hand. They look like a couple on a date and not at all like they're studying, which probably explains the photo caption: Amerikanische Schachliebhaber (American Chess Lovers).

 

Which, she supposes, is actually what this tournament feels like, too- doing what she loves with the man she loves while somehow in Germany. She feels strong and confident, and she thinks Benny feels the same - they're both undefeated with no draws on the scoreboard so far. So they spend the first day off for adjournments in bed making love before checking out a museum and wandering through shops. They have dinner at a restaurant and then head back to the hotel to prep for the next day's matches - the first of which is going to be against each other.

 

Beth has no idea what he has planned; if he might try something unexpected. She's given up trying to read his poker face though, and really, she's not worried that he'll manage to maneuver her into something she won't be able to spot anymore.

 

 

Plus she's bought a dress especially for the occasion- the trick will be to keep it a surprise.

 

 

She concocts a last minute period emergency to get him downstairs before her the next morning, and quickly shimmies into the dress and does one last check of her makeup before hurrying out the door.

 

Benny's talking with one of the tournament directors and doesn't spot her until she's almost at their table.

 

And her lips curve with satisfaction when his mouth drops open and he just stares for a few seconds before he manages to speak. “...Seriously, Harmon?”

 

She lowers her lashes flirtatiously. “It's new. You like it?”

 

He shakes his head wryly before tilting his head and smirking at her. He calls it her “dressed to kill” look and he's always laughed over the effect it has on her opponents.

 

She widens her eyes innocently before explaining. “Didn't want anybody thinking I'd go easy on you.”

 

His checks her out again blatantly before he extends his hand to shake. “...My very own Harmon murder dress. Nice.”

 

She can't help laughing - they know each other too well now to really psych each other out anymore, but it was worth the effort to see that gobsmacked look on his face even once.

 

Even with the advantage of the white pieces, he plays it grindingly safe like a Soviet player instead of his usual slyly tricky style, obviously aiming for a draw instead of a win. She's come a long way from being able to be goaded into attack out of sheer boredom though, and she plays just as carefully, slowly managing to corral his queen by the thirtieth move which forces him to resign two moves later.

 

It's a solid game for both of them, and there's plenty of applause from the crowd of spectators - interest in their match was high, and the tournament directors look very pleased.

 

 

And if they end up taking the elevator back upstairs instead of heading out for lunch after the match, Beth is perfectly happy to let Benny show her just how much he liked the dress anyway.

 

 


 

 

The tournament wraps up three days later - Beth wins first prize with a perfect score and Benny is pleased to secure second place with the single loss and no draws after winning an adjournment against Flento on the final day.

 

The rest of the trip is like an extra reward in the wake of that, and they spend another couple of days exploring Munich's sights before renting a car to do a little tour through the Alps, taking in the majestic mountains and lakes and visiting beautiful castles and palaces.

 

Beth finds she really enjoys just being a tourist for once. She's already better at twisting her tongue around long German words, gamely trying mystery foods (“Well, it's some kind of meat seasoned with some sort of herbs.”) and knowing how many marks things should cost. Navigating with the clearly labeled German maps while Benny drives is a breeze, and they like stopping whenever they find a lodge offering hot cocoa or to have a cigarette while looking out over some gorgeous vista.

 

She isn't sure why she keeps thinking of Alma. Like when she's surprised by how little they spent on room service upon checkout, or when she spots vats of pickled onions among the boggling variety of pickles at Viktualienmarkt.

 

It's always been easier to avoid thinking of her, and Benny's a completely different kind of travel companion. Alma had never even said anything about wanting to visit Germany, so she's not sure why she keeps coming to mind.

 

“...You okay?”

 

Beth inhales and looks up at Benny, who's giving her one of his worried frowns. She shakes her head dismissively and smiles. “Yeah, fine. Just realized we never turned on the TV.”

 

He shrugs. “...Prefer reading to relax. And sex.”

 

She gives him a teasing look. “In that order?”

 

He smirks. “Well, it depends on who I'm traveling with. With you?” He pretends to ponder and she laughs.

 

 

She likes when their priorities match, too.

 

 


 

 

Benny's an old hand at the post-international-tournament order of operations: unpack, check in with his mom and the Chess Federation, then shower and fall into bed early on that first jet-lagged, travel weary day. Laundry, mail and food can wait until the next.

 

Beth had asked Jolene to stop by when she could to collect newspapers and any mail that didn't fit through the slot, but to both their surprise, there's a note on the kitchen counter:

 

 

Milk, rolls and eggs in the fridge for breakfast and a chicken casserole if you're hungry now- 375 for 30 minutes.

 

Jolene

 

 

Beth beams and goes to call her to say thanks and ends up gabbing with her about the trip instead, all while she's stifling yawns and leaning against the wall, she's so tired.

 

 

Women.

 

 

So Benny just does the unpacking, sorting their dirty clothes into the colors, whites and delicates baskets Beth insists on, and piling the various souvenirs they'd brought home – newspapers, books, postcards, German chocolate, and canned weisswursts - on the dining room table before heading up to shower and sacking out. He can make his calls in the morning while she sleeps in.

 

He stirs when Beth crawls into bed, her hair still damp, and he just sleepily pulls her against him into her usual spot. She gives a content little sigh and he goes right back to sleep.

 

 


 

 

They settle back in while also getting ready for their next tournament trip to Buenos Aires - Beth looks happy as a clam puttering in the front yard every morning, carefully mixing coffee grounds into the dirt around the azaleas and sunning and watering the seedlings she's been buying from nurseries. He parks on the street so she has room to place them in the garage overnight in case of frost and makes a mental note to get her flowers for her birthday - he'd had no idea she liked them so much.

 

Chess study-wise, they mostly prep for facing Georgi Girev.

 

“He's tough,” Beth warns. “He plays like a machine, and his defense takes forever to penetrate. We both played until flag fall - I thought my head was going to explode.”

 

“He's Russian,” Benny replies dryly, motioning with resignation. He's not even sure if he should enter with two such strong contenders already in the mix, but third prize is still a decent chunk of change and he's feeling confident, especially after his performance in Munich. He should be able to stay ahead of the other players he recognizes off the list if he keeps playing at the same level. The unknowns are wildcards, but he figures he's no slouch at keeping even brilliant prodigies from besting him.

 

“He intends to be World Champion by the time he's sixteen,” she says with a bright, fake smile and Benny just leans back in his chair.

 

“...Guessing you might have other ideas about that.”

 

 

God, he loves that wicked smile of hers.

 

 


 

 

All his shots are still up to date, but Beth needs to go to her doctor for a couple new ones before heading to South America, and she comes back to the car after her appointment with a bunch of pamphlets and a question of sorts for him.

 

“So... the doctor suggested something. A couple things, actually. There's this thing called a Lippes Loop he can put in to keep a baby from taking, and it's supposed to last for years. Or... I could go on the Pill. He says they're both more foolproof than condoms, and it'll be cheaper too, the way we've been going through them.” She hesitates before continuing. “...But he wants you to get tested for other things first - you know, to be sure it's safe. He took swabs to check me, too. And... we both need to be sure that we're only doing it with each other if we decide to do this.”

 

Benny inhales and blinks. “There's nobody but you - you know that. Hasn't been since you were staying with me.” He swallows. Shit. He's never had this kind of conversation before. “...Yeah, it's fine with me if it's what you want. Is it safe to have something in your body like that?”

 

Beth nods nervously - at least they're both feeling awkward about this. “The loop thing is supposed to be popular with married ladies who don't want to have kids too close together. Some kind of inert plastic. Might be some cramping or bleeding when he puts it in, but it goes away in a couple days. Can't be as bad as pushing out a baby, anyway. And then I don't have to worry about getting the timing wrong for the Pill when traveling or getting it taken away in countries where it's banned - like Argentina.” She chews her lip. “...I was in New York in September.

 

He can't help feeling annoyed by the reminder. Beth's always been so easy to read, and he'd spent months wondering why the hell she kept refusing to come back when he'd seen the longing in her eyes; knew she hadn't been faking the orgasms. “...I told you I missed you.”

 

“I thought you missed the convenience of having me there, was all,” she says defensively, looking away.

 

He doesn't really want to argue about it, but he can't keep the shortness out of his tone. “Well, it wasn't.”

 

She shrugs, shaking her head haplessly. “You never talked about anything but chess, though. …I felt like an idiot.”

 

He doesn't know how to answer that, and he just drives for a minute, trying to process.

 

“...Maybe we were both idiots,” he admits at last.

 

She huffs and her lips twitch ruefully. “...Maybe.”

 

He moves his hand off the gearshift to her knee and feels better when she grabs his hand and squeezes.

 

 

He's glad they figured it out in the end, anyway.

 

 


 

 

There's always more mail nowadays with two of them living here, but Beth is surprised when Benny suddenly starts getting more of the big manila envelopes with tournament invitations than her.

 

He just shakes his head with amusement though. “It's 'cause of Munich. Tournament directors probably started figuring that chances are higher you'll accept their invite if I'm also invited. Which - is actually pretty accurate, considering the ones we've accepted,” he points out.

 

Beth lifts her shoulders. “I like playing like a team. And they're all places I want to go and have good prize money.”

 

“Babe, I'm not saying I mind. I'm just saying there's a pattern,” he chuckles.

 

She looks closer at Benny's invitation to a tournament in Austria.

 

“...Petrosian and Tal? They weren't listed when I got mine.”

 

Benny gives her a suspicious look. “Probably hadn't accepted yet when they sent out yours. …You know, you don't have to knock out every top ranked Soviet player,” he says, slightly exasperated.

 

She shrugs in acknowledgment but goes over to page through the calendar. “But we could fit it in after Norway. Nationals aren't until August.”

 

Benny frowns. “What about the Open?”

 

“What about it? Domestic prize money is always less.”

 

“Yeah, but expenses are less too, and no jet lag. Plus no Russians, so I'll probably actually win something and not have my rating take a beating. Arthur and Hilton are going too, and Matt and Mike are thinking about it.”

 

Beth presses her lips together pensively. No wonder Benny wants to go to the Open - he has to be missing his friends. She can probably take Tal and Petrosian on on her own - she did Moscow mostly on her own, after all. And if she's going to face them at the World Championship in a couple of years, she would prefer to know what they play like first - they're ranked number two and three in the world, after all.

 

 

It will be hard without Benny though. It's an elimination tournament, so they'll most likely deliberately seed her in separate brackets from the Russians, hoping to build excitement throughout the tournament for the big clashes in the final rounds. So maybe... “When is the Open until?”

 

Benny reaches over to the box of invitations and flips through until he finds it. “...Closing ceremony is on the 10th.”

 

“I know you probably want to hang out with the guys but... if you fly out straight after, you could be in Austria for the last four days - maybe five, depending on the connections. I can pay for the ticket and everything, I just... I really want you with me as my second for this, Benny.”

 

He walks over and reaches out to pull her close, obviously still a little puzzled. “Yeah, of course. Hey. Come here.”

 

He kisses her until she relaxes and then he pulls back. “...Okay, is there some other reason? You know you'll eventually have to play them somewhere, so there's no need to rush halfway around the world.”

 

Her lips quirk. How does he know her so goddamn well? “What rush? It's not 'til July." She rolls her eyes. "...I might have overheard them talking smack about me in Mexico City.”

 

Benny raises his brows and inhales knowingly before he smiles. “Well, we can't have that,” he says, wrinkling his nose.

 

“Not mad. Just getting even,” she says primly.

 

Benny scoffs. “Sure. Is that how that works.”

 

She tiptoes to kiss him, still warm with relief over him being so accommodating. “...Thank you.”

 

He shakes his head dismissively. “You're happy, I'm happy. Being a couple means compromising, right?" His eyes narrow with sly satisfaction. "Besides... since you'll be at a different tournament, I might even win this one.”

 

She rolls her eyes and laughs, exasperated.

 

She'll never be able to explain how somebody so innately devious could become someone she never wants to be without, but she's the happiest she's ever been.

 

 

Typical Benny to surprise her - but she has to admit that she really doesn't mind at all.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

By the time spring warms into summer they're comfortable with the pattern: a couple weeks abroad for a tournament and travel, then a few weeks at home, relaxing and prepping for the next trip.

 

Beth thinks Benny likes living in Lexington more than he'll ever admit. He might miss being part of the hipster scene in New York, but he invites their friends over for game nights and get-togethers instead, with an ease that she's never had. Whether it's Mike and Matt teaching Benny how to work the grill, or Harry and Townes and Jolene debating politics over dinner, it's like opening up a new world in her own house that she'd never realized she could have been part of all along.

 

Or maybe it's that they're a couple now, so he's not as closed off as he was. He's been writing too, and she wonders if he wrote Openings and Tactics the same way: she comes down every morning to find him filling pads of yellow legal paper with his bold, slanted handwriting, a cup of coffee forgotten next to him on the table. But it isn't a chess book, or anything his publisher asked him to do.

 

“You know I should probably pitch a book about training - surprised Cadogan hasn't suggested it, considering. But... mostly I'm jotting down stories- you know, to keep the details straight, figure out how I feel about it. Like that coati helping itself to a hotel breakfast at Iguazú Falls. Or... those old ladies on the micro who adored your hair and fed us empanadas.”

 

 

Beth feels oddly guilty over how much she enjoys traveling with Benny - he's always as focused on the chess tournament part of the trip as she is, and also such a seasoned traveler that navigating a new place in another language comes second nature to him. She wonders sometimes what Alma would think of the stamps in her passport; of how she still wakes disoriented the first morning in a new hotel but it's not seeing her mother asleep in the next bed that instantly reassures her - it's Benny's warm body right next to hers.

 

They're breaking from their usual post-tournament tourist routine this month though: instead of exploring more of Canada after the tournament in Montreal, they're heading to New York to “schmooze” with sponsors: Chess Review has offered to pay for their tickets to Austria in exchange for a cover story with both of them, and Bulova wants her to do an ad campaign photo shoot. Benny also has an appointment with his publisher and since they're going to be in town, they've been invited to some exhibition his artist friends have put together.

 

 

And after that, they're heading to New Jersey to visit Benny's mom.

 

She's sure it'll be interesting to see the place where Benny grew up, but Beth's still nervous about staying as Alaina's houseguest.

 

Certain uncomfortable questions are bound to come up, and even she doesn't like knowing some of the answers.

 

Like how the only part of traveling with Benny she dreads are the long plane rides. She's sure he doesn't know how enviously she watches him lean back with his hat low and fall asleep as easily as slipping underwater. While all she can do is ache for tranquilizers, suddenly feeling alone and left behind while sitting right next to him, too aware of the droning airplane engines and that itch inside her to drop off. She always wonders if he'd notice if she takes just a couple; if he'd be disgusted to see her foggy and taste them on her breath.

 

So she hasn't taken the little green case out yet, just listlessly going over games in her head while waiting out the hours, grateful that Benny can take the lead through customs all the way to their new hotel when she's bleary-eyed and exhausted.

 

But she can't stop thinking of it either, a shiny tube in her purse with her lipstick and mascara and tampons - temptation and insurance, all in one.

 

 

 


 

 

After a couple of days, Beth notices that Alaina often cooks while sipping a glass of wine, though there's never any alcohol at the table when they eat.

 

Which means Benny must have told her- and she's not sure how to feel about that.

 

Not that the whole visit hasn't been lovely- Beth likes looking around Alaina's sunny studio and crowded garden and the artwork and mementos in her cheerily cluttered house; taking walks up their local beach or around town while the two of them relate anecdotes that come to mind. Alaina's warm wit combined with her endless supply of stories and wonderful home cooking would probably put anybody at ease, and Beth likes seeing how happy Benny is to spend time with his mom, too.

 

It makes her wonder if she and Alma would have had a relationship like theirs. She'd never really thought that parents could be friends with their grown-up children, but she feels rather like she's intruding, coming down to the two of them chatting spiritedly in the kitchen in the mornings, sometimes in the process of going over his writing. Alaina is always quick to offer her coffee and breakfast and Benny a kiss and a seat at the table, but it still makes her feel odd when he puts away his notepad and they obviously bring up a new topic once she arrives.

 

 

She understands - she talks to Jolene about things that she doesn't with Benny. It's just a little intimidating to realize that they were very much their own team long before she came along.

 

Alaina's quite open about how she wants them to know each other better too, which adds to that awkward feeling, since she doesn't have the same natural reserve Beth's so used to. In fact, she brings out an envelope of old photos without any self-consciousness, ignoring how Benny groans.

 

What catches Beth's eye first are the old fashions: they're formally posed with a much younger Alaina in a puff-sleeve white blouse with a knee-length skirt and her hair in big victory rolls, seated holding a baby in a white layette while a man in a smart double-breasted navy suit stands stiffly next to them. He doesn't look much like Benny besides the eyes, which stare into the camera with a serious intensity that's eerily familiar.

 

“Just look at those shoulder pads - that was the fashion then,” Alaina chuckles. “And Howie all dressed up,” she says fondly. “I was so worried Benny would fuss while we were at the studio, but as you can see, he slept through the whole thing like an angel.”

 

Beth wouldn't have been able to tell that it was him - it just looks like a baby. But she inhales with delight at the next picture: the chubby blond toddler digging on the beach is recognizably Benny. “Oh! You were so adorable,” she says, and he makes a face.

 

“I'm still adorable,” he growls.

 

Alaina's mouth twitches wryly. “Nobody with a mustache is adorable, Benny.”

 

“...Mom.

 

Just my opinion. Anyway, these were taken when we were renting a little place in Wildwood.”

 

There are only a few scattered pictures from when he was really young: Benny riding on the shoulders of his dad in some group photo, then glaring at the camera while on the lap of some old lady, then grinning proudly on a beat up tricycle, his hair much blonder than it is now. Benny's childhood looks pretty working-class normal as far as Beth can tell, even if his clothes all had the faded look of hand-me-downs. And then as expected, there's that photo of skinny boy prodigy Benny winning his first big game in Atlantic City that she's seen in articles and his book.

 

It's mostly photos of Benny with a chessboard or being awarded prizes at tournaments after that and the clothes he wears in them look newer and nicer. Some of them Beth has seen before, in old articles, but it's neat to see him grow up as they flip through the photos.

 

Benny frowns darkly when they get to a photo of him and his smiling parents in front of the house they're in now though, and abruptly gets up. “You know what? I should probably change the oil in your car, mom.”

 

Beth and Alaina both regard him with surprise. “Now?” Alaina asks.

 

“Why not? Not like I haven't seen these before,” he says waspishly, and then he strides out of the kitchen while they stare after him in dismay.

 

Beth sets down the pictures, at a loss over what she should do, but Alaina just sighs and puts one hand over hers reassuringly. “I'm sorry about that, Beth. He'll be back once he has a minute to cool down. I always encouraged him to work out his feelings over a chore if he could.”

 

“Oh. ” Beth says, blinking. “I guess he still does that. Although... he's always still mad after. He's just figured out all his reasons why.”

 

Alaina raises her eyebrows drolly. “Like arguing with a hurricane, isn't it? He's a lot like his father, actually.”

 

Beth hesitates. “...Benny doesn't talk about him. I figured he was out of the picture, but I didn't want to pry.”

 

Alaina smiles sadly before she tries to explain. “Benny had a gift, plain as day. And Howie thought it was... unnatural; had all these ideas about what a “strong boy” should be like. At first I thought maybe he had a point - maybe it wasn't healthy how Benny thought about chess all the time. But then he'd come back home with his nose bloody and knuckles scraped raw and show me some chess sequence he'd been thinking about while he was at Little League, cool as you please. So I took him to the community center so he could learn to make friends first. Well, it turns out they had a chess club, and he impressed the members so much they entered him in that tournament. And you know the rest of it.”

 

Alaina's mouth thins. “Money was always tight, so we couldn't look a gift horse in the mouth. But Howie got the idea that Benny kept at the chess to spite him, especially when he started winning more money than Howie could bring home. Things were rarely easy after that. Divorce wasn't something people did then, though, so I kept trying -” she cuts herself off and waves a dismissive hand.

 

“Anyway, I am just thrilled Benny has found somebody who understands even that chess part of him,” she says.

 

Beth gives her a chagrined smile. “Sometimes I feel like the chess part is the only part I understand,” she admits, and Alaina laughs.

 

“Well, I think it's wonderful that you share a passion and help each other,” Alaina amends. “ I've never seen Benny so fulfilled. And let me tell you: I've known him his whole life.”

 

 

That makes Beth flush with pleasure, and she doesn't know what to say. Alaina doesn't seem to expect any reply though, smiling and flipping to the next picture.

 

 


 

 

She's relieved when Benny seems okay again when he comes back to the guest room a little while later, but she speaks up to apologize immediately.

 

“Benny, I'm sorry. I didn't realize looking at those would upset you, but I should have guessed - Alma put all of Allston's pictures in a box in the closet after he left.”

 

Benny gives her a startled look and shakes his head. “God, Beth - it wasn't anything you did. Just... don't like being reminded about what it was like then.”

 

He sighs raggedly and looks away, fidgeting restlessly before he speaks. “...It's shitty, but... my dad hated me and I hated him right back. Mom was always trying to appease him; trying to keep up appearances even though she'd grown out of being a housewife dependent on him. Best day of my life was when he finally left. Mom cried, but by then I think she was more relieved than sad.”

 

She gives him a searching look before she approaches and slides her arms around him. “I'm still sorry. That sounds really hard.”

 

He shrugs slightly, but he sighs and pulls her close. “Ah, it's over. Mom's always going on about how we need to reflect on the past to learn from it, though. So I guess as long as I don't treat my own kid like a freak, everything's golden.”

 

Beth nods against his chest, but when he pushes the door shut and pulls her towards the bed, she knows it's because he wants reassurance anyway, even if he says it doesn't matter anymore.

 

They're both aware of his mom in the house, so she keeps the kisses gentle and loving as they undress each other and get into bed. They can be discreet - they're so familiar with each other's bodies at this point that they know exactly how to rouse each other without needing to look anyway.

 

It's different having the focus on comfort instead of orgasms too - slow and tender instead of wildly passionate. Showing Benny how much she loves and wants him with blissful sighs and deep kisses; the way she caresses him and cradles him close and revels in the fit and rhythm of their bodies. And after they both find that fine, fierce relief together, she nuzzles his neck and cheek as they struggle for breath.

 

“I love you,” she whispers, and he closes his eyes tight and swallows, his arms tightening around her convulsively. It takes him another moment before he speaks, his voice rough with emotion.

 

 

“...God, Beth, you're everything.”

 

 


 

 

It ends up a little bit like ripping off a band-aid: instead of avoiding talking about his dad, Benny starts using him as an example of how rigged legal and economic systems are to favor married men.

 

“Took Mom forever to get out of being married. She was his property --we both were-- until I turned twenty one and was finally man enough to buy back the stuff I'd been paying for,” Benny says bitterly. “It's safer just not to enter into all that legal shit. Why get paperwork involved anyway? Love should be free, not rubber stamped and certified.”

 

Alaina sighs heavily before nodding, but Beth shrugs and looks away, and Benny's eyes narrow. “...You don't think so?”

 

She pauses, not sure how to answer for a moment. “...I think it depends on who's looking at it.”

 

He double takes. “Seriously? After what I just told you? If we got married, I'd be entitled to half of your house. Even though you bought it!”

 

Beth nods slowly. “And... if you lived in it for awhile, that would make sense: it'd be your home too. But it's not just about... possessions.” She swallows and looks down at her hands - it really only makes sense to start at the beginning. “My mama died unmarried. And it was a bad accident - made all the front pages. But my daddy had no legal responsibility for me since his name was never on anything. So I grew up at Methuen. And he still lives in a big house in Franklin County with his real family.”

 

She shakes her head bitterly and continues. “...Whereas Alma used to carry around my adoption records and birth certificate, just in case anybody ever questioned why we had different names. Never actually needed it until Mexico though, so they could release her body to me to bring home. Her love was always free. The adoption record was just... an affirmation of it. And having it on paper really matters sometimes.”

 

“Oh my god, Beth. Oh, I'm so sorry,” Alaina says softly, reaching out to take her hand, which surprises her.

 

Beth smiles at her reassuringly. “Alma was a good mother. She didn't mean to leave me.”

 

 

And then she feels something run down her cheek and she wipes at it automatically before regarding the wetness on her fingers, blinking in horror. Oh god.

 

“...Excuse me,” she manages.

 

She hurries to the guest room, ignoring Benny calling after her so she can quickly shut the door before she sags against it, clapping her hands over her face.

 

Why now? And in front of both of them.

 

“Beth?”

 

She gasps to hear his voice right on the other side of the door, although she's grateful that her voice sounds steady and normal enough when she replies. “...I'm okay.”

 

“...Sure you are. ...Can I come in?”

 

She takes a deep breath and blinks rapidly to make sure her eyes have stopped leaking before turning and opening the door. “Sorry. Took me by surprise, is all.”

 

She can't quite look at him yet, and she still feels precariously off balance. She doesn't think she could bear to see disgust, or worse, pity in his eyes.

 

“Yeah, I kinda gathered. And you don't ever have to be sorry about that, okay?” He edges closer. “...I want to hold you. Can I?”

 

Beth stiffens and edges back. “I think that'll make it worse. I just...need to not think about it.”

 

“Pretty sure that's the opposite of what you need,” Benny states. 

 

She shakes her head adamantly, hugging herself.

 

Benny raises his hands but edges closer again. “Okay, fine. We'll do it your way. But I don't want you to try to do this alone.”

 

She swallows and rolls her eyes before reaching for his hand, and she's relieved that that fragile feeling doesn't crack apart.

 

She supposes she does feel steadier, holding onto Benny's hand but not having to look at him. And she doesn't know how long they stand there until that nerve-screeching feeling finally subsides a little. “Can we just go to bed? I don't want to finish having tea with your mom right now.”

 

“Yeah, that's fine. Why don't you brush your teeth first? I'll let her know we're turning in.”

 

 

She's already in bed when he joins her, and she's glad that it feels almost normal when she wiggles into her usual spot under his arm.

 

She can't help it - she's still thinking about what made her eyes spill over like that.

 

“...I'm glad you don't really drink, anyway,” she says finally.

 

He rubs his thumb in soothing circles on her shoulder. “That what happened?”

 

She nods. “Hepatitis. Her liver shut down and she just - her eyes were still open, like she was surprised.”

 

She closes her eyes tight when that horrible urge to cry comes welling up again, but Benny doesn't push for more details. So she focuses on the sound of his heart beating steadily under her ear and the smell of his skin and how reassuringly familiar it is to lie tucked against him like this, and eventually falls asleep.

 

 


 

 

Maybe it's because they haven't spent more than a few hours apart over the last months. Or maybe because it reminds her of them doing this exact same thing, but in reverse. But dropping off Benny at the airport makes Beth feel really strange. And she doesn't think it's just new driver nerves, even though it was only her third time on a highway.

 

Despite how she's known the plan for months and that she had decided to go to a different tournament on purpose, it gives her a horrible ache inside to kiss him and then see him heft his duffle bag over his shoulder and walk away.

 

She'll be fine. This isn't the same as when he'd dropped her off at the curb at LaGuardia and she'd wanted to kiss him but stopped herself. And then she'd flown to Paris and right out of his life.

 

This time she's going to drive his Beetle home and do their dishes before studying on her own. And she'll bring Townes and Roger their Norwegian souvenirs tomorrow, and they'll feed her something wonderful for dinner. She has squash with Jolene on Wednesday. And Harry is going to come over on Thursday to drop off some book for Benny and probably stay to visit.

 

She's never minded being alone before - she's just used to having Benny around all the time now. Like how living with Alma had been her norm until it suddenly wasn't.

 

That thought gives her a sharp pang in the chest, and she reminds herself fiercely that the situations are nothing alike. It's only going to be a couple of weeks. In fact, she's probably going to get home and be mildly annoyed at him for being a slob, like how he leaves books sprawled facedown everywhere and dishes in the sink as if they'll wash themselves. Although tomorrow morning she's going to have the chore of making breakfast and coffee for herself instead of knowing Benny would have had it ready and waiting for her.

 

 

She supposes missing somebody means loving them being in your life, is all.

 

 


 

 

Beth's having a smoke on the porch when she sees Jolene's car coming up the road and grins.

 

She might be all grown up, but she's still glad that Jolene invited herself to sleep over for the weekend.

 

Jolene's got her head tilted quizzically as she walks up from her car though, and she pulls a folded piece of paper out of her satchel and puts it down on the patio table. “Did you do this?” she asks.

 

Beth blinks and unfolds it, although she already knows what it is. “Notice of enrollment for one Jolene DeWitt at the University of Kentucky College of Law. And... yet you don't look happy.”

 

Jolene blinks and double takes. “Because I never asked you to pay for it! They sent me back my check, and I'd had that money ready to go! You should be saving your money to pay for college for your babies!”

 

Beth double takes right back. “I don't have any babies. I do, however, have someone in my family who wants to become a radical.”

 

Jolene sucks in a breath and suddenly lets out a laugh even though her eyes are filling. “...Okay, but - ”

 

Beth raises her brows. “ - But what? Mike and Matt and Harry all had their families pay for college. And I have more than enough.” She gives Jolene a searching look. “You helped me.”

 

Jolene lets out another huff that sounds suspiciously like a sob. “Because I'm supposed to be the big sister.”

 

Beth shrugs. “I mean, you'll always be older,” she points out helpfully.

 

“Oh!” Jolene swats her shoulder in mock outrage. “And I'll always be better looking, too,” she adds, and they both laugh as Jolene takes the seat next to her.

 

Jolene bumps her shoulder with hers. “...Thank you.”

 

Beth leans her head on her shoulder and smiles, satisfied. “Your turn to change the world.”

 

 

 


 

 

Beth's not had anybody disturb her in the pension she rented for the duration of the tournament, but she grins with delight when she hears a knock and then a familiar voice call out, “Zimmerservice.”

 

She might have been totally unprepared to see him standing in her doorway months ago, but she isn't this time.

 

So she skips to the entryway and artfully arranges her robe before opening the door with a confused pout. “That's so strange. I didn't know there was room service for these little cabins.”

 

She raises her eyes to his and can't help laughing at the way Benny's gaping at the lacy underwear, before throwing her arms around his neck and hauling his lips to hers.

 

There had been all sorts of breakup rumors and unprofessional questions that she hadn't bothered to dignify with an answer when she had arrived in Austria alone. If people foolishly assumed that she'd be off her game just because she and Benny were playing apart, that was really their own fault. She's almost sorry to see the KGB agent stationed at the door of the Russian pension head inside, doubtless to report Benny's arrival.

 

It's impossible to hide how ecstatic she is to see him though, or the thrill it gives her when he picks her up and kicks the door shut behind them.

 

 


 

 

Benny's worn out from traveling and also from two back-to-back rounds of reunion sex, but he's too elated to be back with Beth again to fall asleep yet. Plus he really needs a shower: after catching up on their respective tournaments he really can't ignore how sticky and filthy he feels anymore, so he goes to take a quick one.

 

He's toweling off when he notices a little green pill case sitting next to the sink, and his buoyant mood plummets like a stone.

 

He opens it up, and he's not sure if it's a good sign or not that it's mostly full of green pills.

 

Maybe they're some other type of medication, but he closes his eyes and sighs. Shit. He'd thought she was feeling good enough that she wouldn't need to get high.

 

Only one way to know though, and it's probably going to sour the rest of the night.

 

One good thing about Beth - she's never tried to hide or lie about her addictions, which is more than he can say about some of the addicts and drunks he's known. Still. Damn it.

 

He walks out of the bathroom with the towel tied around his waist, and he notes with regret that she's still naked and posed alluringly in bed, obviously hoping for another round. And he keeps his face as calmly quizzical as he can when he opens his hand to show her the pill case, letting his eyes ask the question.

 

And there it is - consternation and then guilt and shame, so these are exactly what he thought. She swallows and gets that stubbornly defensive look on her face before she looks away and he sighs.

 

“You haven't been using for months. I thought you were past this.”

 

She scoffs and crosses her arms over herself. “You don't see me grilling you about gambling! As if you didn't head to the tables with Arthur and Hilton!”

 

He recoils, stung at the too accurate accusation before his eyes narrow. “I'm not the one with the serious problem, Beth! Don't try to change the subject!”

 

“Well-! Stop acting like you don't have your own vices! I only took three so I could sleep on the plane. And... I was having troubles getting to sleep earlier this week, so I got them out again but... I decided to try something else and it worked, so you can stop judging me!”

 

“I'm not judging you; I'm fucking worried about you!

 

“...It feels like judging,” she says miserably, and then she turns away and pulls the covers over herself as if she's going to sleep, and he feels like shit because he's pretty sure she's crying.

 

Beth.

 

“Good night, Benny.”

 

“Beth, come on - don't shut me out.”

 

She curls up, and he sits next to her on the bed, although he exhales with exasperation when she flinches away from him. “Beth... I'm sorry, okay? I shouldn't have jumped to conclusions.”

 

She huffs and keeps her back to him, but the apology seems to make it easier for her to try to explain. “I didn't want to try to navigate a new country while exhausted, and I can't ignore the engine noise like everybody else can. So I just did what I always did on long flights before. I'm not - taking them to get high or visualize.”

 

“Okay. But you get why I'm worried, right? You should have told me you weren't sleeping - we probably could have gotten you different sleeping meds. My mom always took something on planes, too - I could ask her the name of those.”

 

She inhales and stills. “I never thought of that. I've always had Librium.”

 

“Yeah, well. Probably better not to, right?”

 

She sighs. “...I guess.”

 

He'll take that concession, although he's careful not to touch her when he gets into bed and turns off the bedside lamp. He fucking rocked the boat on purpose - maybe by tomorrow she won't be so upset.

 

But he sighs with relief when she rolls over into her usual spot, and he gladly tucks her close against him.

 

“Missed you so much, babe.”

 

“I missed you too,” she admits, “but I'm still too annoyed to fuck you right now.”

 

He sighs. “Fine.”

 

It makes him puzzle over something sleepily. “You know what's weird? That first time in New York. I was fucking pissed at you, but that's what made me so fucking horny for you, too.”

 

Beth shakes with laughter and snuggles closer. “That's not weird at all.”

 

He tightens his arm around her and grins up at the ceiling.

 

 

Yeah, they're going to be fine.

 

 


 

 

It's not until he's seated in the audience in a prime seat as her second that Benny realizes how rarely he actually just watches Beth play; he's always playing her himself or going over one of her games after the fact.

 

She's up against Mikhail Tal in a semi-final, and seating is packed, with reporters that have mostly just arrived in Ybbs among those standing to watch the game. Benny suspects the other semi-final game with Petrosian and Huebner happening at the same time probably has less than half of the audience - that result is pretty much a foregone conclusion, and interest in Beth Harmon vs. the Russian establishment in a rematch of sorts is sky high.

 

She's ready. They've been going over and taking apart Tal and Petrosian's games for months now, and they'd spent most of yesterday analyzing and prepping for Tal specifically.

 

Beth opens with the Sicilian Dragon and Tal's face twitches with a patronizing smirk that makes Benny proud of the way she keeps her expression calmly collected in response. She’s purposely chosen an attack heavy open to play into his assumptions that she would leave her back poorly defended.

 

Tal's smug attitude changes abruptly into alarm several moves later when she expertly counters the obscure Rossolimo variation he plays and starts to create tactical lines.

 

It's all over in thirty-eight moves, and Benny knows he's grinning like an asshole at the stone-faced look on Tal's face as they shake hands, but he doesn't even care.

 

Anybody who thinks her performance in Moscow was pure luck has to know better now.

 

 


 

 

“Hey, Mom, it's me.”

 

“Oh, Benny, you're back then! Oooh, do give Beth my congratulations! What was it like?”

 

He grins. “You know that Plath poem, Lady Lazarus?”

 

“Oh, what was it again? 'Out of the ash I rise with my red hair. And I eat men like air.'”

 

Benny chuckles. “That's the one. And it was fucking glorious, Mom. Petrosian made her work for that last win though - I was wondering if they were going to have to draw in the final because the board was just gridlocked until I saw how she'd gradually built an initiative. I think he saw it at the same time - he just sat and stewed for almost forty-five minutes too, but no matter what he did, she had him under threat by a tempo everywhere. I thought he'd go for an adjournment to try to find some other way out, but he resigned very sportsmanlike.”

 

“The papers here are calling it a Cold War Clash.”

 

“Ah, that's just them wanting to sell more papers and pretend we've won, somehow. Probably going to have to do more press, but I think Beth really wants to stay home and unwind a bit. Her mom's thing is coming up on a year too, so.”

 

His mom hums sympathetically. “Is she doing all right there?”

 

Benny considers uneasily. “...Honestly, I don't know. I think maybe it's getting easier to talk about stuff like that, but she'd prefer to avoid it.”

 

“Hmm. Sounds familiar.”

 

Benny scowls. “Huh. Listen, I should help Beth unpack and then we should try to sleep off the jet lag- just wanted to let you know we were back safe.”

 

His mom makes an amused sound before replying. “Well, thanks for calling, dear. Give Beth my love, and you two get some sleep. Let me know if you come this way too- I'd be happy to hop on the train and hear all about the games over dinner.”

 

“Will do, Mom. Love you.”

 

“Love you too, dear.”

 

 


 

 

Benny's not surprised that greedy capitalism ends up forcing the subject: Beth gets a letter from a place called “Durgin Brothers” with a cross on it that makes her go pale. She opens it worriedly and then frowns as she reads it.

 

“Something wrong?”

 

“...Hmm? No, it's just the cemetery where Alma is buried. For only fifteen dollars a year, they will power-wash her headstone and tend her plot. Weeding and raking leaves and whatnot.”

 

Benny nods and eyes her warily. “Did...you want to visit? Do it yourself? My mom does her family plot once a year. Like... a spiritual thing. Brings flowers to her parents and tells them what we've been up to.”

 

Beth nods numbly, looking at the letter in her hands, but Benny doesn't think she's reading it or even seeing it.

 

“...Beth?”

 

She shakes her head. “...I can't - I can't figure out how to explain you to her. She kept calling you Bobby - it drove me crazy. ...And I used to hate you.”

 

Benny knows she's not meaning to be funny, but he can't help the way his lips twitch. “Well, I might have deserved it. You were pretty easy to rile.”

 

She huffs a tearful laugh and rolls her eyes. “God. In Mexico she was so worried that all I was thinking about was chess when we were in a whole different country. She kept telling me I needed to have more to my life than chess. I was so annoyed at her for nagging- I'd think about boys and travel later; my game against Borgov was more important.”

 

She covers her face miserably and Benny immediately pulls her to him so her words are muffled against his chest. And he's relieved that she holds onto him instead of pulling away when the tears start. “And I finally beat him. And we've been traveling... and we're happy. ...And she missed all of it.”

 

“I got you, babe. It's okay,” he says, closing his eyes and rubbing her back.

 

She's choked it down for so long - this will probably be a long crying jag. 

 

His throat aches and his nose stings too - he doesn’t have any advice or helpful strategies. But hopefully she knows now that he'll stick with her through it, and that will make it easier somehow anyway.  

 

 

 

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.