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pawn and knight (watch your words)

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8 (0)

He is eight when the mark appears. He doesn't notice. His opponent does. "Congratulations", Mr. Najdorf says, and points to the currently illegible blur on his right wrist.
But Benny is eight, and there is chess to be played, and this is the greatest game of his life so far. He moves.

It is a promise.
It is a warning.
Some call it a suggestion.
Others, a dream.

12 (4)

He is twelve, and the mark is coalescing into lines. His sister teases him, telling him to "make sure to wait until she is legal". His parents scold her, but in more cautious terms, they agree. But he is not a little kid anymore. He knows about this stuff. He tells them he is not going to do anything stupid.
It is an easy promise, because Benny is twelve, and all that matters to him is the next game.

She does not remember a time without the rough scrawl spanning her wrist. No one is around to remark on it, and her mother ignores it. Beth is young, and it is beneath her notice.

Physiologically, "soulmarks" are discrete accretions of melanin under the skin. In practice, a soulmark forms an image or symbol that appears at the birth of the counterpart upon the wrist of the bearer. A symbol that indicates, upon meeting, that this person has the most potential for lasting companionship.

13 (5)

He is thirteen when the mark suddenly changes from smokey blur to actual letters.
I'd take the knight
They are rough, and disjointed in the way of young hands. But the words are clear enough, and he knows what they are referring to. They interest him. Because they are not the words of a potential spouse, but a colleague or competitor. He has heard about such matches before.
He is relieved because it promises a lifetime of competition and going for the top. It means not settling down, not settling for the ordinary, of excitement. It means more chess.
But Benny is thirteen, and a chess prodigy, and he has games to play. He spares a thought to this upstart kid who he cannot wait to crush, and moves on.

She is five, and is learning her letters. She sees the similarity between the scribbles on her arm and the characters in her books. She asks her mother what they mean.
'That just means there is someone out there who will try to control you', Alice dismisses.
But Beth is five, and has been isolated her whole life. She does not understand.

Soul marks naturally change over time. They come in near-transparent, change with the language and counterpart, and set into final form upon initial interaction. Naturally, they draw notice in a way most scars or tattoos never will.

15 (6)

He is fifteen, and feels like he is actually learning something from people his own age. Levertov frequently attends the same tournaments he does, and where he goes, so too goes Wexler. They are soulmates, though they deny their connection when it comes up in conversation. Understandable, really, given the flak same-sex matches get. Not that he assumes they are that type of match, he assures them, but theirs is the first chess-related bond he has seen besides his own and he is curious. They certainly aren't rivals. How does it work?
Different niches, they explain. Wexler favors theory, Levertov the application thereof. To prove their point, they offer to play him. They play several games against him simultaneous, and he beats them handily—but then they tag-team him, and though he still wins, it is the closest game he has had in months.
He relishes the challenge. "This wouldn't be allowed in competitive," he points out afterward. Wexler shrugs. "Makes you think, though." It really does.
He is fifteen, and he thinks he has found friends.

She is six, and watching her mother burn something in the barrel outside the trailer. "Did Daddy try to tell you what to do?" she asks.
Alice waves her arm. "These marks make them think they can. But you know what? It's just skin."
Beth is six years old, and wonders if there is more to it.

In illiterate societies, a soulmark might form a picture - the representation of that person or their name, in their own hand. This, historians and anthropologists argue, held across the centuries. An ancient body found frozen in an Alpine glacier had a stylized fox on his wrist. The natives of Polynesian societies would have their counterpart's tattoos delineated in exceptional accuracy. In East Asia, it was even believed that soulmarks became the basis of their pictorial scripts.

16 (7)

He is sixteen when he revisits his mark. (He could never resist a puzzle.) In between reviewing Luchenko and Capablanca, drilling through Morphy, he idly keeps an eye out for upcoming American prodigies in recent publications. He (because it would be male, given the statistics) surely would be coming to national attention soon. He had by this age, and he cannot fathom his match would not be of the same caliber.
Yet the upstart does not appear on the scene.
But Benny is sixteen, and there is still chess to be played, and other people to meet, and so he doesn't dwell.

it's all pawns and no hope
She is seven, and she can read her mark all the way through now. She doesn't know if she likes it very much. It seems depressing, by any definition.
Beth is seven years old, and she puts the dictionary down.

And at least since Plutarch wrote of Xerxes I's mark, μολὼν λαβέ[1], another form of soulmark is known: a string of words spoken by the counterpart to the bearer during their meeting - pleasantries and rote conversation aside. (Could you imagine such a world where basic greetings are registered on the marks? The confusion!) In Anglophone countries, where the meaning behind a person's name is often lost, this form of mark is statistically the most common.

17 (8)

He is seventeen when he starts experiencing feedback from the mark. It is the third day of the 1957 National Championships, and he has his opponent pinned in eight moves. Then his entire forearm burns, then goes numbcoldpinsandneedleswhatthehell. He can hardly think. He is about to call an adjournment, probably should, but… eight moves.
Benny is seventeen, and impatient. He grits his teeth and finishes the game left-handed, taking twice as long because his coordination is thrown off.

The date is July 24, 1957. Beth is eight years old, and her world has just ended.

1Molon labe, Classical Greek for "come take [our weapons]". [return to text]

Chapter Text

9 (18)

She is nine when she first learns of the significance other people put to the scribbles on her arm. Mrs. Deardorff says they are a gift from God, but the staff tell the Methuen girls who have them not to get their hopes up. The girls don't care. She hears them giggling to one another at night, trying to decipher who their prince may be from the words they can read. She just looks up at the ceiling, and runs through pawn structures.
Beth is nine, and she is learning chess, and the words are irrelevant to the game.

He is eighteen when he experiences the feedback again. Now, he understands the significance, and worries about this kid who must have the worst luck in the world to have two near-death experiences in as many years. (He also wonders if feeling will return to his arm properly. The sporadic jolts of pins and needles sensation is getting annoying and disrupting his sleep.)
But he is eighteen, and on a plane over the Atlantic, and there is nothing that he can do about it. Benny shuts his eyes and pictures the board.

The remote sensory response between marks reflects certain immediate experiences in the counterpart. Psychosomatic pain may reflect from acute pain, an abrupt change of health or safety, or intense psychological trauma, while mild hypoesthesia (numbing) or "pins and needles" in the area may reflect lost or altered state of consciousness. A complete loss of sensation in the skin beneath the mark and surrounding dermal layers, however, only coincides with the death of the match. Reports of an intermittent "pins and needles" sensation is not unusual after experiencing first feedback, but can be a bad sign.

10 (18)

She is ten years old, and she is not allowed to play chess. Mr. Shaibel is not even allowed to talk to her. Without chess, she looks for a distraction. She discovers she had one the whole time.
Her own is a bitter reminder, but Jolene shows her her mark one night, and they spend hours wondering what gerrymandering is. (It is a funny word, winding and lizard-like. She finds it in the dictionary; it is neither.) Jolene may scoff at the words with the certainty of the jaded, but the only home she has will throw her out in a few years, and her words give her direction. Jolene gains a new spring in her step.
Beth is ten, and she cannot play chess for now, but the words say otherwise and she thinks there is hope.

He is eighteen, and legally an adult. He is a rising star in the game that consumes his life, and the world seems wide open. What do you expect a young man in his position to do?
Take risks. Raise the stakes. Experiment.
(Move out. Build a persona. Write papers. Raise funding. Scout seconds. Play more chess. He is no longer a child prodigy, hasn't been for years, but he is feeling the difference now.)
Benny is eighteen years old, and his career lies before him. But his mark reminds him his equal is out there; he can't waste his time in the sun.

Attempting to predict soulmark matches seems to be a cultural universal. From folk magic mirror games to statistical analysis, many young humans will attempt to souse out who that person might be. In Anglophone countries, where marks tend to contain seemingly random phrases, handwriting analysis tends to be a popular method to assess personality. Not that handwriting analysis is in fact a good predictor; there are often too many variables to give more than a rough segment of possibilities. Age, social status, even injury can twist the shape of the mark.
But the words stay the same. Funny how that works.

11 (19)

She is eleven when she feels her mark ache. It starts during chapel, and worsens over the next two days. It becomes a second heartbeat that keeps her awake at night and makes her wish for the green pills.
Knowing the price of ten demerits, she doesn't want to bring attention to herself, but on Tuesday after breakfast Jolene drags her to Mr. Fergussen. He checks for fever. He checks for a break. "Nothing's wrong with you," he decides. "Now your match, they be in trouble."
He can't give her painkillers after her "episode", but he looks sorry. She thinks he spreads the word around, because none of the teachers call on her that day, and Miss Graham even lends her a bag of ice before class. It is cool on her mark, and no one seems to mind when she dozes off at her desk.
On Wednesday, the teachers just excuse her from classes. Mrs. Deardorff locks her in the dormitory after breakfast. It is a perfect opportunity for chess, but she is too distracted to even rest. She just sits there, watching her mark burn invisible, until her arm suddenly goes numb— not comfortable, but better. She lays on her cot and basks in the respite, until Jolene checks on her at lunch. "Poor bastard must've passed out," she comments, impressed. Beth doesn't understand why. Another hour passes before she can feel past her elbow, another day before the phantom aches subside, and it is all terribly inconvenient.
But then one of the girls points to her arm at dinner Thursday, asking "Looks like he'll live then?", and it occurs to her that there is a living person who would speak her words, and that they almost didn't. It is a strange thought.
Yet Beth is eleven, and an orphan: she is all too familiar with people leaving and dying and not showing up. She is not happy about the near-miss, but she is not afraid either. How can you lose someone you never met?

He is nineteen when his invitation to the Moscow Invitational is rescinded. It rankles him more than he would like to admit. The Moscow Invitational was probably the best opportunity an American could get to study the greatest players in the world on their home turf, to play them when their guards are down. And it was taken from him by factors entirely out of his control.
Because the year he can finally afford to go, a spy plane gets shot down over Russia during peace talks. Then the idiot who sent it then admits it, refuses to apologize, and promises to do it again. The idea of an American being personally invited to Moscow in the middle of this is beyond laughable. It would even be funny, if he hadn't wanted to go so badly he could cry.
Benny is nineteen years old, an American grandmaster. But he now has the visceral impression of being a pawn, hemmed in by more pawns, on a board far bigger than sixty-four squares. He wants to advance, but he knows that for the moment, all he can do is hold position and look for the right play.
(He doesn't want to play politics. He just wants to play chess.)

The experience of a soulmate in danger can be traumatic for the bearer, but this psychosomatic response can at least tell if their counterpart is alive. Even children too young to remember other things tend to recall such instances. Militaries often use this feature to determine the survival of prisoners of war and missing units by registering soulmates and ensuring one can be contacted when the match's unit is deployed. Persons in other dangerous professions sometimes practice exercises to compartmentalize their state in hopes of protecting their matches, but they seldom stand up to prolonged use. No matter the situation, known matches to high-risk individuals are often restricted from operating heavy equipment or performing delicate tasks when their counterparts are working.
Outside of military use, some have found the reaction to be the most effective, and often only way, to discern the safety of soulmates and family separated by conflict. While not pleasant, in my experience the death of a mark, known or unknown, may be the only closure many will ever receive.

12 (21)

She is twelve years old, and is learning (to hate) calligraphy. Her mother never taught her, never put stock in it, but at Methuen they put great emphasis on the art of handwriting. It is important, some teachers claim. It is like a signature, others explain. "Better to leave something pretty on your soulmate's arm," Miss Lonsdale says.
But the boys don't have to learn it, she discovers. Beth may be twelve, but she is struck by the unfairness of it.

He is twenty-one, and Moscow is still out of reach. He keeps busy, blitzing through the U.S. Circuit and entering every international tournament rumored to have a Soviet presence he can. He takes advantage of his location in Manhattan to supplement his income. He develops his persona, turning his hat and coat into a second skin that means Benny Watts. At the suggestion of his editor, he drafts a book. He plays speed chess, does problems with Wexler, reviews games with Levertov, plays them both, and studies constantly.
His friends debate whether he is compensating for not being able to play in Moscow, or preparing for the Interzonal. His family just thinks that he is stretching himself thin. None of them get it.
Benny is twenty-one, and learning to play chess off the board.

While normally understood that soulmarks do not abide national lines, in times of political and social turmoil transcultural marks may easily become evidence of political allegiance. This is especially true when the marks feature languages or symbols associated with particular political or social groups. For instance, in Reich-occupied Europe, removal of Semitic-language markers became common practice, despite the risks inherent in the surgery.

13 (22)

She is a month past thirteen when there is disturbance outside the orphanage. She looks out the window, and spies a girl who three hours earlier had been adopted. She is crying. While puzzling, she does not think anything of it until Jolene tells her later. "Girl found her soulmate… He was their nephew." Even the newest girls agree that never being considered would be preferable to being sent home after that.
Mrs Deardorff insists it was their moral duty to take her back to Methuen Home. Even Fergussen agrees that it would be inappropriate (and illegal, which the lifers believe more readily) to place the girl with her soulmate's family.
But Beth is thirteen, and she hears things from the others. She thinks that if the soulmate had been female, they would not have thought to bother. This, too, strikes her as unfair.

He is twenty-two, and has made a new acquaintance. She calls herself Cleo, and her soulmark is as disturbing as she is beautiful. It rests on her arm, far too still for its tentative brushwork, for its pale patches of pigment— far too innocent for its hypoxic shade of grey.
He has seen enough dead marks (his mother's, old and not his father's hand; various opponents', in languages he never learned) to know the story behind this one is not pretty. He does not ask. But Wexler is there, and he does. She explains that her Axis-language mark saved her family during the occupation, burning out a mere month before peace was declared. She does not elaborate further, but they can do the math. They grow quiet then.
He thinks of his own mark. He realizes that twice he could have been like Cleo— bearing the script of a dead, unmet match. And that his own stubbornness in Buenos Aires had almost condemned the kid to the same.
But Benny is twenty-two, and still young. He doesn't want to think about it. When Cleo invites him to spend the night, he accepts.

Models are often vulnerable to fraudulent responses, as they are often required to have their arms bared. Makeup is of course preferred, but is not always an option. Models that have lost their soulmate often have to cover their marks or have them tattooed over. Customers do not like being reminded of their own mortality.

14 (23)

She is fourteen, fifteen in November, and she is leaving Methuen. The news is so sudden, she barely has time to pack and say goodbye to Jolene before she leaves. She is not able to say goodbye to Mr. Shaibel, but she sees him on the doorstep from the car.
Her new 'parents' are upfront with her about not being soulmates, but they seem content. They remind her of something her mother said once, and she wonders briefly what their 'more' would have been.
Beth is fourteen years old, and it has been five years since she last played another human being.

He is twenty-three, and scouting for seconds again. Vasily Borgov is the new World Champion, and there is talk of reopening the American seat at Moscow. Things are moving again, but the pieces are not quite there.
He gets a call back from an old contact (opponent, acquaintance, all the same) in Ohio. They agree to meet up at a tournament in Cincinnati to scout the new meat. There is talk about an upset at the Kentucky State Championship, but he doesn't hope for much.
Benny is twenty-three, and it has been five years since he last felt his mark.

Chapter Text

September, 1963.
He is twenty-three when Cleo voices a strange thought. She is visiting him in his apartment while he prepares for the upcoming Open when she notes that his mark's handwriting has grown more regular. It is so incongruous that he looks. He sees the mark every day, though, so he cannot see the difference. "I'll take your word for it," he decides.
"Mm… perhaps she is taking lessons." He thinks she is wrong in her assumption, and tells her as much.
Cleo looks astounded. "You did not realize? That is not a man's hand."
He scoffs. "Can't be. The math isn't there."
Cleo just gives him a look, and proposes a wager. Naturally, he accepts.
Benny is twenty-three, and confident in his judgment. But he does not have time to think about it further; the Open is in a week.

November 2, 1963
She turns fifteen in the wake of her first tournament victory and her second paternal abandonment. At Methuen her birthday would have passed unremarked, and she probably would not have realized it was something worth celebrating if Jolene hadn't told her in her second year. But now, Alma bakes her a cake, and she thinks that she might keep her word about being a mother.
It is nice to be wanted, she realizes.
She is fifteen, and it is almost too late, but Beth will always be an orphan and knows to take what she can get, Alice's advice or not.

"First-words" soulmarks seldom actually reflect the exact first words of a meeting. Sentences containing names, of course, are omitted in Anglophone marks. Linguists theorize that this is due to etymological ambiguities that prevent the manifestation of symbolic marks. Some psychologists differ; one common psychological theory is that it skews the focus of the interaction enough that the sentence does not register. Both theories have their strengths and weaknesses. But then, rote conversation - socially expected greetings and questions, for instance - and interjections almost never appear. In the event they appear as a mark, it is usually due to a context where the question or greeting is truly meant.

23 (15)

He is twenty-three, and leaving New York early. It is just as well; he has felt pins and needles around his mark on three occasions since September, two of which were in daylight. He wonders what has changed in his match's life for it to start up again, but he cannot dwell for long. The phenomenon may be worrying, but it is also inconvenient. He revises his route to Cincinnati from the I-76 to the I-90. The change adds two hours to an already ten-hour drive, but he doesn't want to be stuck in the Appalachians overnight because he can't manage left turns.
He leaves on Thursday, and arrives at dawn on Friday. His mark was quiet the whole time.

She is fifteen, and hasn't given a thought to soulmarks since Allston left. Since before, really—not since the glance at Townes' beautiful wrist during their game, despite knowing the gesture futile. Yet, she hears the words of her mark spoken aloud as she climbs the stairs to her first match at the Gibson Hotel. They are not directed at her, and she cannot help but take notice. (There is no risk, she thinks; it is hardly the kind of phrase one repeats.) She sees a man sitting there with a chessboard and a knife, and a crowd (all men, of course, why should here be any different?) hanging onto his every word. But she sees the weakness in his lineup, in his claim. Words, men, the world, the board: she wants to prove them all wrong. And she knows he is wrong, and that gives her the daring to speak. She draws up her courage and opens her mouth, and declares…

"I'd take the knight."

Science has yet to explain why the marks occur, let alone why it might appear on another part of the body if the primary limb was damaged before it could appear. Of course, the simultaneous psychosomatic response to a counterpart's extreme distress or injury has been subject to scientific scrutiny for decades, but the results have thus far been universally unsatisfactory. What we do know, according to statistics, that the marks work...
...Not as traditional matchmakers, not after centuries of political alliances and class divisions dictating marital candidacy in Indo-European societies. Not even as indicators of friendship (the numerous candidates for Attila the Hun's Roman soulmate being a perpetual argument against that theory). But as signs that, given any chance, personalities matched are the most likely to maintain some sort of lifelong association. And that, where romantic or sexual relationships are allowed and able to develop, they statistically are less likely to end in divorce or marital violence. Thus, for some adults at least, soulmarks are considered a good indicator of compatibility.

23 (15)

He is twenty-three, and finally in Cincinnati. Weiss is late (or he is early), so he has time to give an impromptu lecture on black openings to the team from New York. He has pulled out his board to illustrate a point to their second board, a former opponent he had crushed in a simultaneous two years ago, when the words come from behind.
He looks around, and is thrown. The kid on the stairs is a girl. He knows who it is; only one player on the national circuit even matches that description. Yet somehow, in the month since she stole the Kentucky crown, he had failed to even consider this possibility. (Cleo had examined his mark one day and told him in no uncertain terms that it was female and he had not believed her then. He regrets it now.) The potential problems now tick through his mind like seconds on the clock.
Such as that his mark is common knowledge, and the kid just outed herself by declaring the words to the room. Or that she is too old for people to assume a siblingship, and he too young for a mentorship. And that the bland majority would hardly expect a rivalry from a male-female match. And from there, how it would come up with FIDE and with the sponsors most likely to get him to Russia if the negotiations work out. How the accusations of favoritism (and worse) would dog the kid for the rest of her career. That may dog his career. (He remembers his sister's teasing, and his parents' quiet warnings. And that is from people who actually cared.) He really doesn't want to be labeled as the next W.R. Henry.
If she is who he thinks she is.
"You're, um…" He pauses, realizing he never actually caught her name from the gossip. He rephrases. "Are you that kid from Kentucky who wiped out Harry Beltik?"
Her eyes stay fixed on the board. "If you take his knight, then you double his pawns." He is not sure whether she had ignored his question or thought her argument was answer enough. Yet everything snaps into place. Why should any of it even matter? She is a kid, and this is chess. Nothing important has changed, and he will make sure they all know it.
So he shrugs and turns back to the board. He is still in the middle of a lesson, and this is Levertov's old college team. "Big deal. But like I said, it's all pawns, and no hope," he reminds, pointing out the weakness in the girl's suggestion. "Let me show you how to win with black…."
When his soulmark settles, Benny Watts is twenty-three and already playing five games FIDE will never rate. (He adds another.)

She is fifteen years old when she hears her words, feels her wrist itch, and understands what has happened. She recognizes her match from the cover of that month's Chess Review, and wishes that she had not been so impulsive. The men in the crowd keep glancing at her, and she knows their scrutiny is not for her audacity in breaking into their closed world. No, it is for her association with the man in black who is maneuvering the pieces on the board.
She wants to run from their eyes, the instinct of an orphan who witnessed the price of ten demerits and didn't forget, but a simmering resentment keeps her rooted to the spot. So she watches. And as the pieces dance across the board, she is drawn in by the game.
When Watts sets the rook on K5 and invites his audience to find White's next move, she answers automatically… as does the man sitting across the board. Discomfited, she holds her tongue as the plays unfold. The game is brilliant, like one of the examples from her books come to life, but her appreciation is soured by the sense that she is inherently out of place.
She fidgets as they discuss the original match; it seems irrelevant, and she wants to see the endgame. But then the man asks about the next move, which is confirmed with a dry "What else has he got?", and she spies an alternative. She almost speaks up, but Watts is already dismantling the set. She lets it go. Then he turns to her and observes that Reshevsky had been on that level at her age. He addresses her as a little girl despite knowing she is fifteen, and the diminution bothers her more than she would like. She doesn't call him out, however: her mind is on more important things. Like chess.
Instead, she asks if he is playing at the tournament. He twitches, and says that he was just here to meet with friends. She finds herself disappointed, even though it means the prize money is secure. (She hopes he doesn't mean what she thinks he is implying— she doesn't know what she would do if her match is the type to rest on his laurels.)
He claps her on the shoulder, wishes her luck, and is gone.
(Almost. The ghost remains.)
The crowd is staring openly now, and she is annoyed to be left to deal with the mess. Since Watts has disappeared to who knows where, she stares (glares) down the men until the group breaks up. Only then, unsettled by the whole encounter, she looks down at her crossed arms. The mark is now a clearly delineated black. Beth Harmon has found her soulmate, and knows that she cannot wait to crush him.

But for all their convenience, soulmarks come with a price. That price, much like the value assigned to the marks, is largely the product of the human mind. For example, some people may think a match entitles them to the other in any number of ways. Anything that a person predisposed to this line of thinking can easily become dangerous. The exploitation of a soulmark for political influence, money, or sex, are among the most notorious such examples, but more insidious threats exist.

23 (15)

There is no rejoicing, no screaming, no real change. This is reality, and soulmates meet every day. Neither the fact that both play chess nor that both can draw the attention of a room of their peers by merely stepping into it matters to the marks. They go their separate ways, one presumably to her first match, and the other to the nearest payphone, because he needs to talk this out and there are so few people he actually trusts in this world. That is where Weiss finds him.
They watch the first round of matches from the wings, but his eyes keep returning to the board at Table 15. E. Harmon, the board reads. She plays beautifully, with a natural instinct for the game and a boldness vaguely reminiscent of Bronstein. But she is all offense, and lacks the experience she needs to win in the higher ranks. For once, he is glad that he isn't playing. She is just not ready yet.
(But she will be, he thinks.)
Benny is twenty-three, and has held the US title for half a decade. He did not get there by ignoring advancing pawns.

After her conversation with the twins from the Kentucky State Championship— an ego boost she appreciates— she returns to her room. Alma looks up from the desk when she arrives; she had been reading the Enquirer when Beth left. "Finished already?"
"How did you do?"
"I won." Mrs. Wheatley smiles warmly, and calls her a treasure. Beth bites her lip. "I ran into my soulmate."
Alma's breath hitches. "Oh?" "What's his name? If it is a he, I mean?" She sounds wistful, and Beth is reminded that Alma never found her match. In lieu of an answer, she crosses the room to her luggage and pulls out the October issue of Chess Review. She taps the cover. "That's him."
Alma's eyebrows reach for her hairline. "Goodness!"
Beth shrugs. "There are matches that are for something other than marriage, right?" She knows the answer, has known since she was nine, but at this moment she needs the confirmation. (This is something she was told at Methuen that mothers and daughters are supposed to be able to talk about, but her mother refused to, and she doesn't have any other points of reference.)
Alma looks sympathetic. "Of course. Was it that bad a first impression?"
Beth thinks about it. "I'm not sure. He called me a little girl, though."
Alma makes a face. "Do I need to be having words with him?"
She glances out the window. "He left right after, I think."
Alma purses her lips, clearly thinking, then nods to herself resolutely. "You have four hours before your next match. A shopping trip will help take your mind off things." Perhaps it is cliche, this response to the upset of a fifteen-year-old girl, but Beth welcomes the distraction regardless, and her new cashmere sweater (with sleeves long enough to comfortably conceal her mark) even more.

The most common threat is to children, where questions of consent arise. What happens when a new mark appears, and the age difference is not a matter of months but nearly a decade? Or when on the wrist of a near-teenager, people see the pale shadow of an infant's first tentative fingerpaint? Is it evidence of a non-romantic match, a long wait, a lonely life, or a crime waiting to happen? Humans, by cautious nature, often assume the worst. (Do be careful.)

23 (15)

He had intended to drive back to New York overnight. Instead, he gets pins and needles shooting up his arm from his mark, and he cannot operate the controls. Weiss puts him up at his apartment, but he doesn't sleep. He plans, and rearranges those plans again as he stares at the ceiling. But he doesn't have enough information. (Enough to change everything, but not enough to rebuild from.)
Rather than drive tired the next morning, he returns to the Gibson to watch the second day of matches. That is how he comes to be waylaid by a black-haired housewife who introduces herself as Mrs. Wheatley just inside the Taft room's double doors. She claims to be his soulmate's adopted mother. They test each other a bit, neither trusting the other to be who they claim, before both decide to accept the other at (relative) face value.
She demands he explain to her his last-ditch attempt to shape how the public thinks he sees her before the rumors start flying. He admits that it was clumsy, but doesn't apologize. Mrs. Wheatley hums, and mentions being unfamiliar with the politics surrounding the game. He almost laughs, thinking of his own crash course. This is not politics, this is people, he corrects.
Mrs. Wheatley is unphased. "I've been dealing with people all my life," she says, tapping her wrist. The lettering on her wrist shifts slightly as she speaks; he averts his eyes, point taken.
Instead, he briefs her on what consequences the mark may have for Harmon's career. A few stand out. While players learning from each other is a natural part of the game, the accusations of cheating during the 1962 Interzonal have made FIDE more wary of collusion than usual, and by extension, two-player matches. They will be watching. The next is that the State Department might get involved if one of them gets to go to the Second World. Then there is the impact public opinion may have on tournament invites. There are only so many ways to avoid it. Mrs. Wheatley concludes that the best way to do that would be for him to keep his distance. He agrees.
He is pleasantly surprised that Mrs. Wheatley asks for suggestions of what she can do to help her daughter. Outside of chess, she clarifies. Thinking back, he has a few. "Start learning Russian. Both of you. It's easier to learn with a partner, and she's gonna need it eventually." He pauses. "She should have a partner to play against too."
"Not you, of course," she teases.
If this was a test, his answer would not change. "Definitely not."
Benny is twenty-three, and still at the height of his career. He doesn't want to put that at risk. But he's not letting slip his "workman-like" chess methodology, the days-long periods spent locked in his apartment without distractions, the small library he devours on a semi-annual basis, or how he started playing poker to practice reading his opponents long before it became his go-to for cash. He's barely touching on chess at all. He's just advising a concerned parent on raising a prodigy.
He contemplates drafting an article on the subject as he steals a scorecard from the nearest table and scribbles his number down for Mrs. Wheatley. (It's not like Black needs it, he reasons. Rudolph's got him in five.) She seems to be contemplating something herself; when he hands her the paper she finally asks. "Thank you, you've been very helpful, but…"
"What do you want from her?" Ah, the old parental interrogation. Benny has expected this question since she showed up, but he's known the answer since he was thirteen. (To play and to lose, to match wits and be pushed to greater heights. The reason he's wanted to play the Soviets from the beginning. The reason he first read his mark and felt excitement.)

After her morning match on the second day, she introduces Alma to Matt and Mike. Their soulmarks are strange: settled, but in the form of splotches that look almost like tiny bruises. Matt catches her staring at lunch, and laughs. "I got his fingerprints… he's got my foot," he explains. She thinks it is incredible that soulmarks could settle so soon after birth, but Alma corrects her and they confirm her assessment— they were born with settled marks, a phenomenon only possible with multiple births, and rare even then.
They tell her that someone on the New York team is claiming she is Benny Watts' soulmate. She doesn't deny it, and they don't congratulate her. Mike warns her that some may cry favoritism. Alma confesses that this morning she was given similar advice from a veteran player. She thinks it is foolish, but Matt reasons that there will always be those men who would prefer to be on the wrong end of collusion than admit to being beaten by a woman. "Even without your match, you would still be getting flack. Doesn't matter if you are a grandmaster. They won't see you as a player first," they opine, "and it will carry over to how people see your games."
"And that'll affect the invites you get."
"That's why Nona Gaprindashvili stopped playing in normal tournaments—"
"—though that might be due to that disagreement with Luchenko," interrupts Matt.
She has an idea, though. She tells the twins that she had seen a few errors in Watts' games, and that she is certain she can beat him eventually. "The US Championship. Would that be enough?"
They shrug. "Try World Champion," Matt snorts. His twin looks thoughtful, though, and suggests that she start learning Russian since the title has been held by the Soviets for decades. Alma admits that the player she spoke to had the same suggestion, even though the prospect clearly daunts her.
The memories of being doubted for her skills and feeling left out because of her gender are fresh on her mind still, and they make the answer easy. "I'll beat them all."
And, at least at the Gibson Hotel in Cincinnati, Beth does.
(It's a start.)

Chapter Text

15 (23)

She returns to Lexington with a check that only Alma and the bank appreciate, and a set mark that everyone in Kentucky seems to think is the highest imaginable priority for a fifteen-year-old girl. The reactions she receives during the series of errands Alma accompanies her through on Monday morning cement her dread for the week.
At the county records office, the secretary spews advice at her, and brightens when told her match lives out of state ("less talk, dearie"). At the doctor's office that Alma takes her to, the receptionist pesters her with questions about her match. Dr. McAndrews at least is professional, and even he hands her pamphlet after pamphlet bearing inane titles like "So You've Met Your Soulmate!" and "Mark Sympathy - What You Need to Know". (She knows she will never read them, and only takes them to be polite.) And then there are the school administrators, who permit her to miss the day for the task of registering her match when she is under no illusions that they would have allowed her to travel to Cincinnati under honest pretenses.
After that, she dreads her classmates' reactions. She wears sleeves at all times, her new sweater proving more than worth its price. She delays changing in the locker room until everyone else is out. None of her efforts work for long; by Thursday morning she walks through the doors and is greeted by stares. She endures the whispers and glares with as much dignity as she can muster. She decides she much prefers the dismissing looks and assessing glances at the Gibson to the dull pettiness of her peers.
Salvation comes an hour after lunch. The teacher is called out of the room, and returns pale. He tells them that someone just killed the President in Dallas. The room explodes into chatter, and not a word of it is about her. As the teacher attempts to reinstate some sense of normalcy, she just plays out games on the ceiling and tries not to think that the killer did her a favor.
Lessons end early, and the students are sent home. The next day school is shut, while every television isn't. When school resumes on Monday, she is relieved to be yesterday's news.
Beth is fifteen, and favors a strong attack on the board. But she has also spent half her life at Methuen; she remembers the security of being beneath notice. She is happy to put the past few weeks of her mind.

He is twenty-three and for fifteen years he has ignored a piece on the board.
(What is she? Pawn, queen, king?)
He digs into every article that even mentions an E. Harmon in an attempt to assuage his oversight. He finds nothing dated before October 1963. Until, that is, he gets lucky. He is calling around Lexington, and an operator directs him to a Mr. Ganz. A week later, he receives an envelope in the mail from Mount Sterling, KY. Enclosed are a couple of papers. The first is a clipping, a short article from some local newspaper. It describes a nine-year-old orphan defeating the high school chess club in a twelve-man simultaneous.
The other is a xerox copy of a photograph— an older man and a young girl stare grimly up at him from the page. The ink is blotchy where the paper was folded, and of course it is in monochrome, but he recognizes the cut of her hair, the set of her eyes.
This, he realizes, is the kid who almost died twice before her tenth birthday and endured some kind of recurring, dull danger in between. (And never really stopped, the way his mark still goes numb at times.)
Unsettled, he flips the page over, and realizes Ganz left a note on the back, and twelve lines of notation. He reads the note first. It says that soon after, she was forbidden from playing again.
His jaw drops. What should have been a miracle became a blip on the radar in less than a week. While it explains her late discovery, the prospect leaves him stunned. It was so evident even then she was exceptional, so why was she stopped from playing?
As a former prodigy himself, the concept is baffling. He has to think it out. Either someone made the kid stop playing then, or her absence had been voluntary but circumstances have forced her to start playing again. The first seems infinitely more likely, and unspeakably cruel.
Rather than dwell, he returns to the transcribed games. They are beyond one-sided, but…
Benny is twenty-three, and should be preparing for the Greater New York Open next week, and the Interzonal in six months. Instead, he sets Borgov's latest aside to analyze a nine-year-old's games.
(He never could resist a puzzle.)

The late president John F. Kennedy was the latest in a long line of U.S. Presidents with ambiguous soulmarks. His was settled, but that is as much as the State Department is willing to divulge. You may have noticed that Mrs. Kennedy didn't flinch on that motorcade. Not one grab to her arm. Some see this as a sign of her strength— others, that his mark was for someone else.

15 (23)

She is fifteen. She cannot drive, legally or in fact. It should not have been a problem, and yet somehow, it becomes just that.
When they return from Pittsburgh, Alma asks her who taught her to play, and she answers. She did not think anything of it then. But a week later, she discovers Alma discussing the issue over the phone with Mr. Shaibel because the thirty miles to Mount Sterling are an obstacle when neither adult can.
In the end, she gets a stack of correspondence chess cards in the mail alongside the December issue of Chess Review. Playing by post is not ideal; it is inconvenient and demands a different playstyle. But her old mentor has played correspondence for almost two decades and under worse conditions than these. She hears this, and refuses to be stopped from playing by the US Mail.
They make it work.
"It" is not perfect, and definitely not what Alma had hoped for when she first called Methuen Home and requested to speak to their janitor, but it is something. They barely converse, but Shaibel is about as talkative on paper as he is in person anyway.
They play four games at once. Because the cards Shaibel sent provide space for two games, she fills out the moves for two and sends it out, and later receives two back. She then waits two weeks to receive Mr. Shaibel's moves and post her next. But she gets impatient, and on the in-between week sends out another card with the openings for two more.
Mr. Shaibel refuses to play more than that. He tells her she needs to learn patience. She thinks waiting two weeks for the next move is enough of an exercise in patience, but because he has often been right about her, she does try.
Beth is fifteen, and can count two great endings in her life prior to Alma. At the end of each, her contact with the people from that time ended as well. Mr. Shaibel is the first person she remembers to come back (or perhaps never really be left behind). So she learns patience, and the post office, and maybe a bit about people who matter.

He is twenty-three years old. The Intercollegiate Chess Championship is the day after Christmas, and Levertov's old team will be playing. He and Wexler still play against them, with the tacit understanding that they are passing on tactics honed against the National Champion. As he enjoys a New York victory as much as any Manhattanite, and can tell that these boys won't be serious competitors once they graduate, he really didn't mind the arrangement until the invite to to watch the Championship shows up in the mail.
He would have ignored it, but his friends bring it up over drinks on Christmas Eve. Levertov of course wants to go, and he does owe Wexler for letting him into Columbia's newspaper archive. Against his better judgment, he caves.
He regrets it throughout the ten-hour drive in the backseat of Levertov's rickety truck.
He regrets it when they arrive, and he is first mistaken for a member of a team from Texas and then for a junior player.
He regrets it when he watches the games, and is half-convinced the players want to drive him to distraction with the lost opportunities and obvious blunders and he can't say anything.
He especially regrets it when a reporter asks him whether his soulmate really is that girl from the recent Chess Review article. It is the first time he has been ambushed by the press since his mark set, and while he doesn't want to lie on paper, the kid is being protected by the rumors being just rumors. So he takes the first interruption he gets— an older man in a red and white mittens— as an out.
The man claims there was a Miss Harmon on the Cornell faculty in the late forties, and wants to know if there might be a relationship. If he were a detective, this would be an essential lead. But he is a chess player, not Sherlock Holmes. This should not be his department. It is an oddly personal dilemma. This unknown is asking after his soulmate, to whom he has only spoken once, and whom he is actively trying not to be associated with. But she is an orphan, so she might be curious. He compromises, and takes down an address for her mother to pursue if they so choose.
Benny is twenty-three, and has a fifteen-year-old soulmate.That doesn't make him her guardian, or her press secretary. He is facing five Russians in as many months, and that needs to take priority.

American culture has a particular "ideal" of a soulmark match being the optimal choice for marriage. Despite the statistics suggesting some foundation, this has consequences for those matches that do not fit the assumptions such an ideal makes. The most common incongruence is, of course, polarity. Even when one disregards the issue of orientation, the illegality of same-sex marriages strongly discourages compatable matches from exploring the possibility. After the issue of polarity, the most consequential deviance from their "ideal" is those with significant age differences. Such matches seldom are at a compatible stage in their life's journey when they meet, and the expectations of either the elder match, the "ideal" upheld by society, or one's peers may push the younger to attempt to assume roles for which they are unprepared.

15 (24)

She is fifteen, and hasn't had regular partners to practice with other than Mr. Shaibel. Then Annette Packer calls, responding to an advertisement Alma posted in the Herald-Leader after they got back from Miami. They play at Toby's on Monday afternoons. She always wins, but Annette provides another perspective of her tournament matches, and analyzing the other girl's games helps her explore the reasoning behind moves she would not have considered worthwhile.
More importantly for her, though, the upperclasswoman from Henry Clay has experienced four years of tournaments mostly where girls usually need not apply. There is a comradery in that, and in the experience of being the "brain" of their year and the isolation that accompanies it. Their conversations seldom venture outside the realm of chess, but they do experiment with math from texts Annette pilfers from her college-age brother's bedroom. Neither of them mention the soulmarks, which is a pleasant change of pace from the chatter she overhears at school.
Beth is fifteen and three months old when she realizes she has found a friend outside Methuen. She still misses Jolene, but this helps.

He turns twenty-four playing some of the best games of his life to date. (He wants to crow from the rooftops that two Soviets drew against him. He settles for promising himself that he will pin the games on the wall when he gets back.)
It is the end of the Interzonal, and he will not be going on to the Candidates Tournament this time. Reshevsky, half a point ahead of him, might— if he wins the playoff. If the older American doesn't waste too much time in the beginning like he normally does. But that is not his problem.
He reviews his own games in his head. New mistakes and better alternatives sear themselves into his mind with each replay. Oh, he will learn from them, is learning, but they are proof he is still not ready to take on Borgov again. (He thinks of his mark, of pins-and-needles, of red hair and grim eyes, and tries not to wonder if he has enough time to improve.)
He reminds himself that he already knew this would not be his cycle, not with the bastion of Soviet Chess unified against the world. As ever, facing them was a reminder that the only way forward is how they train, how they share, the real "school" they hide behind the cover of a style. And by virtue of seven thousand miles and a wall of political rhetoric he can't.
But on that board, this tournament is not a loss. He speaks with his final Soviet opponent after their match. The Muscovite is amused when he brings up the Invitational and asks why he throws himself at further punishment. He wants to remind him that it was not he who called for the two draws. Instead, he stays his tongue and lets the guards chuckle. A sacrifice so the reminder is passed on.
Benny is twenty-four, and five years have passed since he first realized that his game had become a pawn on a much larger board. He has kept an eye on the papers. The USSR and the US are fairly stable at the moment, but with open war brewing in Asia this state of affairs may not last. Borgov's interest in playing New World opponents has long been implied by his presence at major tournaments in Central and South America. That view seems cemented by his appearance in Los Angeles last year.
This time next year, there may be a new champion, a new president, and a new war. This may be the last chance that the old seat can find its way back to the tables in Moscow. He couldn't let this chance pass.

Chapter Text

24 (15)

He is twenty-four, and by now he knows his return to New York means a return to responsibilities put on the back burner by the Interzonal. He just didn't anticipate running into the first one so quickly, or at all. It is his landlady, who informs him he hadn't paid the rent for last month and the only reason his stuff isn't on the curb is that he has always been good about it before now. He wonders why she didn't get the money, then realizes he forgot to mail it. He finds the envelope acting as a placeholder in the pages of The Middle Game in Chess. He adds to it the rent for this month, and rushes out to pay.
The reminder brings down the last dregs of his post-tournament high. His internal clock is still off, and it is daylight, so rather than crash he goes through the routines of rebuilding his life after a month away. The water, the power. Mail. Calls— to his sister, to Wexler and Levertov, and to Weiss. He calls his doctor and reports two more episodes of numbness overseas.
He checks the books. The trip to Amsterdam had set him back more than he would have liked; the prize money even for first place was $250, and he was tenth. Yet the costs of Amsterdam pale next to the pricetag he can expect from Intourist. The last thing he wants is to be unable to go because he cannot afford to.
The Championship and a couple large domestic tournaments should cover the rest for the year, if he is cautious in his other hobby and avoids events he knows he will lose. He is signed up for the upcoming Olympiad, if USCF gives the go-ahead. He makes a note to check with the Federation about reimbursements. There is an international tournament in Paris concurrent with the Capablanca Memorial, and it has a nice prize attached. But it will still require a bit more if he is to break even this year. He does not like doing Opens, doesn't like to gamble with chess or his rating, but he adds a few more to his calendar.
Eventually, he collects his Beetle from his friends. Levertov asks him if he has seen Chess Life's last two supplemental rankings lists. Benny hadn't bothered, hadn't the time the last three months. The implication that he missed something interesting now drives him back to the neglected periodicals.
He reads the first list, and then the second. He makes some calls.
Benny is twenty-four, and has heard about soulmate rivalries almost as long as he has played. He understands their value in competitive environments. Rivals are supposed to push you forward. They can't do that if they are hamstrung before they can catch up.

She is fifteen, so Matt and Mike draw odd looks from the neighbors when they show up on the doorstep one Saturday morning in late June. They brandish a mangled April-issue Herald-Leader like a Bible and ask why they weren't called if she needed victims. She retorts that they said they "could only lose so much". Alma laughs at their antics and tells them to come inside.
The twins become a fixture of her Saturday mornings in Lexington. They lose constantly, even when they add handicaps like blindfolds, until one day Alma suggests that they play her two-against-one. They had dismissed the idea already because, despite what some superstitions may claim, neither twins nor soulmates can share thoughts. Their discussion would give their plans away. But Alma thinks she has a workaround. So they play on two boards, one in the kitchen and the other in the living room. She wears earmuffs and Alma passes their moves around the wall and the unknowing anchor on CBS provides a barrier of sound to drown out the twins' louder whispers.
It's messy, and slow, and they have to pause their play when the phone rings and Alma answers it, but it is fun. She realizes she hasn't laughed like this since she was in Methuen with Jolene. It feels the same.
But then the twins actually manage to force a draw, and she stops laughing. She wanted a win. She always wants to win.
Later, Alma reminds Beth that two collegiate players teamed up to defeat a fifteen-year-old with less than six months of competitive experience, and all they could manage was a draw. Beth thinks about it, and counts it a win anyway.

Serial killers commonly first target their soulmate, and may seek them out to do so. Other times, a sufferer of psychiatric episodes, paranoia, or delusions may turn on their match, often in the belief that it will free themselves. The papers are rife with examples of matches gone wrong, and before paper, rumors and myth.

24 (15)

He is twenty-four, and while others his age are working, or protesting, or finishing their degrees, he spends the summer fundraising. A tournament in Cincinnati, then the usual Fourth of July pileup. He is tempted by the Southern, with its promise of decent opponents. But he can't risk the money, and his arm has been going numb for the last three nights. Instead, he grits through the Eastern, then hopscotches back up the coast, fleecing the unwary in clubs enroute.
He defends his title, paying attention to the reports of Harmon that circulate the campus. He is not surprised that she dominates the Western. She does not go against big names— she is not taking risks with her livelihood. Fiscally smart, but she isn't being pushed.
He faintly regrets not being in New York to see her play, but Wexler went while he defended his title. Together they analyze her games and mental state based on his observations.
He is reviewing for the Remy-Vallon when he receives a call from Mrs. Wheatley. He hasn't heard from her since June, but he has been expecting this to happen since the kid swept the Western.
Harmon has an interview with Life. Not Chess Life, just Life. He is glad Mrs. Wheatley called. She may be excited by the prospect of fame, but she clearly understands the magazine lacks the topical focus to write about the games rather than the player. He rambles off some of the strategies he had developed for dealing with the press. "Decide what you are willing to share and what to keep private ahead of time. Don't lie, but don't give them anything you don't want everyone to know. If they start pressing, remind them she's a minor, and they're in your house. Whatever you do, don't leave her alone with them—"
Mrs. Wheatley interrupts. "Beth is fifteen…. You don't think?"
He winces; that was not what he had wanted to imply. "No, she's safe. But they may think they can get more details than they could with an adult around," he points out. A particular interview from his early teens stands out. It had been right after Annapolis. Thirteen, fifteen… probably still applicable. "Also, keep them away from her room, if you can. Definitely no photography…" He hears Mrs. Wheatley scribbling, and keeps going.
Benny is twenty-four, but he was once a child prodigy, and has been in the public eye almost as long as he can remember. Harmon is much older than he was when he began, but she and Mrs. Wheatley have had no preparation. Since there aren't really books on this sort of thing, he is the best resource they have. He could let them figure it out for themselves, but.... Their mistakes could impact him down the line, he tells himself. So he pauses his preparation for Paris, and talks.

She is fifteen, and is doing her first simultaneous demonstration at the University of Kentucky. It is the twins' fault, she is certain. (A lot of things are their fault.) It is they who suggest that she needs even more "victims", and they who volunteer their school's team for the trial.
She has school, and she and Alma are scheduled to take Russian on Friday nights. She could turn down their suggestion. But after the interview with Life, during which Alma had to keep interrupting Miss Balke's attempts to probe into the soulmate issue, she has to cut back on major tournaments and the publicity they attract. A two-hour-long weekly exhibition before their class is too convenient an opportunity to pass up. Alma asks her, and she agrees.
She does not quite understand the humor in their jokes about human sacrifice, but their mood buoys her as they escort her to the meeting. The last time she did one of these, she was amazed how easy it was, and she had been only nine. But Townes was a decent opponent when he played her, and he had been first board. While he apparently graduated in June, she assumes his replacement is of similar caliber.
Her hopes for a challenge sink when she sees the first board— a man in a worn Duncan High School blazer— pale at the sight of her. Despite the rush of satisfaction that accompanies someone seeing her as a threat, she's played enough to know that players that react with fear are unlikely to provide a challenge. Just from his reaction, she suspects his position is more due to seniority than skill.
Her suspicions prove correct. Matt and Mike play to their usual standards, but she is disappointed with how quickly she takes out the rest of the six-man team. She cannot see how she would benefit from staying longer, but Mike catches her at the door. Then the team begins to assess their games, and the twins make sure the others listen to her.
She cannot explain how she thinks, and does not want to give away her thoughts. She is uncomfortable with the attention, despite the twins running interference and Alma smiling at her from a chair on the side. She certainly cannot mention the pills or the illusory board above their heads. Instead, she speaks up about their precise moves, their weaknesses, and how she countered them. The team members try different moves, and she gives the weaknesses of those. She tells them why they are wrong over and over again. It is frustrating, having to spell what look like the simplest blunders to her out in such detail. Can't they see?
She is speaking to four strange young men, all shock and resentment and freshly wounded pride. A volatile demographic. And yet, these men also value intelligence, aspire to it, and were warned in advance what they would be facing. It is not easy, but eventually the twins don't need to work to make their peers listen, or to get Beth to talk. By the end of the hour, when she speaks, she speaks with confidence, and the entire team and their coach listen.
And yet Beth is fifteen years old, and has ventured far outside her realm of experience. Her confidence leaves her at the door. She does not know what to think, or why this bothers her so much. "Am I really that different?", she asks Mrs. Wheatley that night, after they get home. Alma hugs her. A hug isn't an answer, and that, she thinks, is an answer in itself.

In many cultures there are superstitions attached to "dead marks" and those who bear them. Although a period of seclusion is more common after the "death", as characterized by loss of sensation in the skin, in a few primitive cultures bearers are regarded as taboo. So too are "unmet" "dead marks" - usually distinguishable, due to the presence of trace pigmentation.

24 (15)

He is twenty-four, and at the Remy-Vallon Invitational. He had to adjourn early today, the sudden pins-and-needles of his arm throwing him off. He knows he cannot afford a handicap against an opponent like Laev, but it is irritating nonetheless that a game could be interrupted by a misbehaving soulmark.
He wants a distraction. Cleo is back from Berlin, he knows. He had sought her out after his match with Duhamel on the first day of matches. It was as good a time to pay her back as any. He found her at the salon on the Marais, and they caught up on the way to her apartment. She asks him about "the girl" who had won her two hundred American, and he accuses her of gloating that she was right about his rival. Cleo laughs. "Indulge me." But he cannot answer most of her questions, though. He could analyze her style right now, talk about her favorite strategies for hours. But Cleo doesn't want to hear about chess, and he does not know much about the kid beyond that. There is what he saw in Cincinnati and in a photocopied picture, and Cleo was asking about her favorite foods or if she had friends. He finally confesses that he knows her mother better than her. "It's safer for our careers," he defended.
Cleo looked wistful. "You may be being wise," she mused, lips thinning around her cigarette, "or the greatest of fools."
He wanted to take offense; to remind her that whatever might-have-been she envisions does not dictate his own life. But he has seen her dead mark, and it embodies one point he can never refute. Time is never on their side. Cleo seemed to take his silence for her victory. "Think about it," she stated with finality.
She did not invite him up.
Benny is twenty-four, and has been mulling over it for five days now. He's still no closer to an answer.

She is fifteen, and in the middle of her fourth simultaneous at the University. She is walking across the room to the fifth board when she hears the door open. This is not unusual, and she ignores it.
But then she hears a familiar voice.
"There you are, Cracker."
Beth is fifteen, and has known that voice for half her life. She cannot ignore it.

Chapter Text

15 (24)

She is fifteen, and up until it happened could never have imagined walking away from a game this close to checkmate. But Jolene is there, a second ghost to track her past the Methuen's doors, and she wants to react, how could she not?
But her mind is blank and her mouth is dry and she does not know what to think. People even staying, let alone coming back into her life, is still so new. But she is in the middle of a simultaneous, and while this is new, interruptions in these exhibitions have become enough of a regular occurrence that Alma now fields the gawkers at the door. But Jolene is one person she does not want turned away. So she excuses herself, and walks over to the door.
And Alma's voice cuts through her thoughts. "Beth, do you know this girl? She says she is from Methuen." She nods, and cannot help but smile. "Yes, Mother. This is Jolene, my friend." Jolene smiles back. Alma raises her eyebrows. "Oh my…. I didn't realize that…." She trails off, clearly puzzled about something. Beth does not know what.
"Ma'am, I am truly sorry for the interruption," Jolene says, in carefully measured tones. "Mr. Shaibel didn't have the room number, so I had to do some hunting."
It is bewildering to hear her speak so respectfully, but Alma's eyes brighten, and her entire manner softens. "Oh, I see. Why didn't you tell me Mr. Shaibel sent you?" Alma shakes her head, and she follows the direction of her gaze. The coach, who was climbing to his feet, leans back against the into his chair.
Reminded of the others in the room, she can't help but feel embarrassed by how long this is taking. She blurts out, "Would you like to watch?"
Jolene laughs. "Watch you beat all these guys? Girl, I'd take photos if I had a camera."
"The photographer is coming next week," Mike cuts in from behind. She turns, and sees a strange look on his face. Matt looks at him, confused, but offers that, "it's for the State Championship, but we can have copies made." Jolene raises an eyebrow skeptically, but thanks them.
Alma seems to decide on something, and interrupts. "Perhaps we ought to step outside for a bit. Will you be alright, dear?" she asks Beth.
Beth nods, and smiles slightly as she watches them leave the room. While happy to see Jolene again, she is relieved to have the exhibition back to normal again. She is fifteen; is hard enough to command a room of twenty-somethings without interference.
The door clicks shut, and she breathes out. She stands up straight, and approaches the fifth board. Queen to bishop five, she thinks, and moves. "Check."

He is twenty-four, and returns from Europe to a thick envelope covered in Cyrillic stamps. He opens it, already knowing what it says. He reads it anyway.
He is on the list for the 1965 Invitational. He has a year to prepare.
Benny is twenty-four, and the first American in five years to receive this opening. He considers this both a checkmate and an adjournment— one board has closed, but the higher stakes game still ongoing.
(He can advance again. He feels like he can breathe.)

While the use of soulmarks for government identification has been known at least since the Qin Dynasty of ancient China, the systematic registry of soulmarks in modern times seems to be a direct consequence of the American Civil War. As the body count rose, the machinery of a nationwide draft, artists, and the advent of photography combined to provide the basis of the modern registry... The high mortality and long distances of this large-scale conflict contrasted with the prevailing beliefs regarding what constitutes a "good death", creating a need for body identification and closure that various technologies attempted to fulfill... In the age of firearms, head injuries provided an insurmountable obstacle to identifying bodies most easily overcome by the unique soulmark on a person's dominant hand, where it was still intact...

15 (24)

She is fifteen, and not very hungry despite the hour. She picks on the ice cream while Alma makes small talk and Jolene describes what happened after she was adopted.
"…it wasn't like I was trying to ignore you. I did something that had me grounded until graduation, and left straight after. Shaibel isn't allowed to talk to any of us, so I didn't know you even wrote until I came back last month to collect some papers and he shoved this flyer in my face and told me to go."
Jolene says she is studying at Kentucky State College on a Physical Education scholarship, although she plans on switching to Poli-Sci as soon as she can afford it. "It's all thanks to Beth, here," she tells Alma. "Her and that dictionary phase." With that, she guides the conversation into an anecdote of her soulmark investigations at Methuen, and away from Jolene's work with the NAACP. She thinks that Jolene leaves details out for Alma's sake, which is as concerning as what she does say.
When Alma excuses herself to the Ladies', she asks for details. Jolene prevaricates. She persists, and finally Jolene relents. "Well, you know I've wanted to get into law, heck it's kinda your fault, you and that dictionary. Wasn't going to change just 'cause you left…
"So I hear about this protest in Frankfort, and all the big names coming— and it was on my birthday. It was like a sign from heaven. I ditched class and went with the Mount Sterling chapter. It was like nothing you'd ever seen. Glorious.
"I wanted to join up immediately. Almost did, too. But Grievous started asking about my goals and whether I had graduated, told me to go back to Methuen until I finished school. Said they'd need more lawyers. So I accepted whatever Deardorff threw at me, kept my nose clean, and joined CORE the moment I was free of that place. They've been doing things down Mississippi, and that's where people're hurting most, and I wanted to fight."
Her breath catches in her throat. "Did you?" Even she had been aware of the murders in the South.
"Me? Nah. I was too angry. They had me in the office, working papers. But I saw enough, Cracker." She rubs a hand over her face.
Beth glances in the direction that Alma had gone. There is still no sign. She swallows. "Enough?"
Jolene chuckles lowly, a bitter sound. "Man, this is why I didn't want to tell you… Shit. Real shit. Never thought us Methuen brats lucky, orphans and all, but there ya have it, and it's right pissing me off."
"Everything pisses you off," she retorts— an old joke, and she gets a shove in return.
"Yeah. But seriously, I'm going to keep with it. I'm taking the classes now, you know, for the nonviolence stuff. They teach us how to take shit the right way, see. Can't be flying off the handle in a courtroom."
Beth feels cold. She had heard the term "worried sick" before, but thought it an exaggeration. Now she knows better. "And then you go back."
"Yeah, maybe. Wherever they need a hand," Jolene shrugs. But her worry must show on her face, because she's enveloped in a one-armed hug. "Aw, come on Cracker, it'll just be paperwork. I'm on track for law. Can't get myself arrested when I'll be up against the Bar in a few years."
She thinks Jolene is taking an unnecessary risk. She says so.
Jolene sighs. "I want what you got. Don't think I missed that article in Life. 'A girl Mozart,' they called you. You're already making history. You think those chess boys would be so willing to listen to you if they didn't know you're a genius? You're already changing your world. I want to change mine."
Beth thinks. It seems absurd. Aside from Jolene's ambitions, and maybe the twin's college team, she hasn't seen any evidence of it. What does Jolene mean?
She is fifteen, and has only ever wanted to do one thing with her life. It never occurred to her how the goal she pursued for herself might impact others. She hadn't wanted to change the world. She just wanted to play the sixty-four-square board.

He is twenty-four, and hasn't received a sororal scolding like this since he was nine. In fact, he is pretty certain this tops the time he put frogs in her bed by several decibels, and that had been with their mother's expert assistance. He doesn't hang up, or set the receiver down. He is pretty certain he deserves this one.
"—the hell, robe-stealer! This is the kind of thing you tell family! You don't just say 'Yeah, it's a kid who plays chess' and leave us to piece it together from Life!"
"Uh-huh. Sorry…" He drums his fingers against the tabletop. "Wait. What did it say?"
Her voice drops down to something safe for the human ear, and he nearly misses it. "You haven't read it yet." It is a question as much as a statement, and all disbelief.
But he hasn't. Despite his collection, he never saw much point in subscribing to magazines he barely reads, and he had dismissed the article after Levertov mentioned only Beltik's game was printed.
"I was in Europe."
"You've been back two weeks." Of course someone would rat him out. He should have just gone to Belgrade. "That's no excuse."
"I have an Olympiad to prepare for."
His sister is having none of it. "In a month. You have time to go out and read a stupid magazine. I'm not telling you anything."
A couple days later, he walks up to the bodega on the corner of Third for groceries and stops for a coffee and lunch. He spies a month-old copy of Life by the register. On the cover is some woman he vaguely remembers Cleo complaining about. But the date matches up to the article, and he has a moment. The woman manning the counter— a grandmotherly old thing whose mark would have gotten her killed in Europe— doesn't seem to notice as he skims the contents.
His eye is drawn to the photos first, noting with satisfaction that all shots were taken in what looked like a suburban living room. He is pleased that his time on the phone with Mrs. Wheatley was not wasted. The article itself is wholly uninformative on her tactical preferences, and yes, only the one game was printed. It is vaguely insulting from a player's perspective, but typical of a national magazine. There at least was an attempt to put together a coherent personal profile. They mention the orphanage and the adoption, and that her first tournament was the Kentucky State Championship. But at this point, even Cleo probably knows more.
He thinks they were alluding to him in the introduction, but definitely catches their attempt to identify him near the end. "She neither confirms nor denies the rumors regarding her soulmark, and believes the only thing worth noting about her match is whether they play chess." It is an excellent evasion, really.
Benny is twenty-four, but he remembers his own thoughts about soulmates at that age. Her words are like a mirror.

Although the technology of the time was insufficient for the automatic comparison that known soulmates would prefer given their immediate knowledge of a death, mark tracings of the dead were able to confirm the deaths to the families of those who had tracings made in life... By 1863, it had become common for volunteers and conscripts to hire artists to trace their mark for their families before leaving.
Due to its origins outside the realm of criminal justice, soulmark tracking never gained the stigma that fingerprinting has...

15 (24)

She is fifteen years old, and she is again attending the Kentucky State Championship. But this time, she is the one defending the title. And this time, she does not arrive not alone.
Alma accompanies her to the first two rounds on Friday morning, and the university team joins them after lunch. The twins have again found work at the desk, but they chat while they wait for the other matches to finish. Her games are short, and she feels proud with how much quicker she outwits her opponents after a year's practice.
Annette has again entered, and this time she gets through to the final rounds of the new Women's Section. They talk about the sudden increase in women entries in Kentucky tournaments during lunch on Saturday. Jolene comes by, and somehow the conversation diverts to law school. She doesn't get it, but Alma takes notes about colleges that give women a fair shot, in case she should choose to attend.
But for Beth, the highlight of the Championship is not a win, or a trophy, or even a nice check. It is a person. It is Sunday, when Mr. Shaibel shows up in time to watch her beat Beltik again. Afterwards, she doesn't hug him, but she wants to. She knows by now how much he hates crowds and understands the gift in his presence. Instead they exchange their latest correspondence moves in person.
It is an excellent early birthday present, she decides.

He is twenty-four, and this is his fourth Olympiad. Fifty countries, maybe three hundred players, and six Russians. There is no other occasion to study so many high-level players in one setting, and the data he collects from watching others' games is as valuable as what he collects playing his own. He hasn't missed one since his first invitation, and he definitely isn't going to miss this one.
He plays with the Russian lineup when he doesn't play their games. Borgov. Tal. Petrosian. Keres. Spassky or Shapkin. Botvinnik or Luchenko. Murderous.
The U.S. team this year is as social as can be expected of a group of American chess players, although it lacks the cohesion of an intercollegiate team. Of course not, not when some were competing against each other less than a month ago. (What is two weeks, next to two years?) But there is a certain comradery, even friendship, to be had when pitched against the world, and a shared appreciation of each other's talents that pervades their discussions, and he savors it.
On the flight to Tel Aviv he sits next to the only other person in the country to have received a Moscow invite, the middle-aged ex-champion who preceded him as the model chess prodigy in the American consciousness. He probably pesters him about his experiences a bit much when the team suspends their debate for dinner. The man is suspiciously busy examining the contents of his tray despite this being an El Al flight and kosher already. But it is that or spend the thirteen-hour flight beginning an article for Chess Review while trying to ignore the airsickness brewing, so he asks away. That is, until the other grandmaster asks him if he has informed his soulmate about his travel plans, and the nearest member of the Canadian team gags on his drink.
He has to handle the other passengers' inquiries and teammates' ribbing after that, but at least he isn't bored.
Then the lights dim, and they try to rest, and by the time the flight lands all other thoughts are washed away by the games ahead. There isn't time to talk about a new player, no matter how talented, and soulmarks mean nothing on the board.
Until he is playing through the sixth round, and his arm goes numb again. Afterwards, the team captain questions him about it. He assures him the doctor cleared him to play. The older player looks skeptical, and suggests that if there is nothing wrong with his mark there may be something wrong with his soulmate.
Benny considers it. But he is twenty-four, and knows this is not a conversation to be had over the phone, and certainly not on international rates. He decides to try to speak to Alma at the U.S. Open. With over $700 dollars on the line, he knows they will be there.

Chapter Text

24 (16)

He is twenty-four, when he joins his friends to compare national rankings during that narrow window between the Intercollegiate championships and the U.S. Open. Because it is January, in New York, and therefore 'too cold for cement floors' according to Levertov, they are meeting in his friends' apartment (two rooms, for appearances). They make it a small affair. Just himself, of course, and Levertov, and Wexler. Cleo shows up, ostensibly to enjoy her favorite pastime of watching chess bums get riled over a mere game, more likely to lord her win over him. There is laughter, and drinks, and Wexler's latest puzzles, and Elvis's blue suede shoes. They lay out the listings, and joke about their new ratings, how he had overtaken Sammy and where Levertov was planning on playing next.
Then Cleo brings up another old topic. "How is the girl?" There is no question to whom she refers.
He doesn't want to revisit their last conversation at the moment, so he takes the question literally. "Pretty good. 2258."
"Worth those hours on the phone with USCF?" Wexler teases, and Cleo raises her eyebrows.
He glares at Wexler, who smirks. He rolls his eyes and leans back against the chair. "They dropped the ball in her initial Elo calculations. They fixed it last June," he explains to the sole outsider to this world.
"After you called them out. How altruistic," she drawls, reading between the lines with a slight smile.
He shakes his head, "Don't get any ideas, Cleo. I got involved because it set a bad precedent."
"Oh?" she asks skeptically. "How so?"
Wexler and Levertov are conversing in their usual mid-game tap-code, so with no help on that front he goes ahead and lists. "They claim they tabled her scores from Cincinnati and Pittsburgh for review, and then lost track in the end-of-year rush. It's nuts; everyone else from those tournaments had their ratings accurately calculated. But the average for the Kentucky State scores was blatantly off, and they didn't bother to check. The listings were already delayed, they had no excuse for sloppy work."
"I see…" Cleo murmurs to herself, then code-switches back to English. "Something rotten. It is fixed, no?"
He shrugs. "Elo's doing her ratings personally now."
"Good," Levertov cuts in. He and Cleo stare; Wexler looks amused. "I played her in Kansas. She's good," Levertov confesses, "although she needs to learn that there is a time to accept a draw."
He gapes. "You played the kid?"
"We were waiting for you to connect the dots," Levertov snorts. Cleo laughs, and Wexler tracks down a copy of his notes from the tournament and offers to go through them with him.
Benny is twenty-four, and has seen a lot for his age. He is proud of his ability to read people, but his friends are perfectly capable of surprising him. This time, he has no complaints.

She is sixteen years old, and it has been a year since she last saw D.L. Townes. He is as beautiful as ever, and she is surprised to see him visiting the University team when she walks in. Perhaps she should not have been; he had been their first board for three years, and had already visited once, with a photographer. She had not seen him then; he had left before she arrived.
They are discussing the Intercollegiate Championships, which took place in California at the end of December. The team had given a better showing than expected in the regional tournament, but the school had claimed the team's prospects were not sufficient merit financing the long-distance trip to the Championship. She thinks the school is wary because of her. Instead, Townes went, on behalf of the Herald, and collected some pamphlets for them to work from. She thanks him, and takes the packet. His mark is uncovered, and she recognizes the writing. It matches the photographer's signature from last year. Her heart sinks in spite of herself, in spite of logic.
Beth is no longer fifteen, and thinks she should have known better by now.

By the first World War the registration of soulmarks had become a standard practice for soldiers in most Western countries... With the more industrialized workforce, the registry of soldiers expanded to registering their soulmates, and systems were put in place notifying them of when their matches would be called to the front to prevent accidents on the homefront should they be killed in action.

24 (16)

He is twenty-four, and arrives in Los Angeles just in time to sign in for the National Open. It took three days to make the trip, and he is the last of the serious entrants to arrive. From the selection of players on the list, though, he knows it was worth the gas money. The chess should be excellent.
But he is reminded of a conversation he probably needs to have, as he encounters the people who agreed with its necessity on the flight out of Tel Aviv. But, the kid is not present.
He doesn't hear about it from the desk— that would certainly draw attention. He finds Levertov, who flew in, and he confirms her absence. He agrees it seems odd.
She is physically fine, at least. His mark tells him that much. But there are over seven hundred dollars on the line, and she plays for money. Even the juniors prize would be worth the trip. Why would she miss it? (He is certain Levertov wouldn't have shaken her that much.)
But Benny is twenty-four, and he has four grandmasters to defeat, and at least that many masters as well. He has no time, or energy after his trip, to spare for anything other than chess. He puts the mystery out of his mind.

The registry of civilians came as a result of the Spanish Flu pandemic. While newspapers were restricted from speaking much of the matter, it is impossible for a soulmate to ignore the death of a mark, even when inattention may put their lives at stake. Telegraphed notices of infected soulmates allowed soldiers on the front to be notified and pulled off critical missions, or reassigned to less essential roles where their sudden inattention would not endanger their unit.

She is sixteen when she is reminded of the bridge. She is preparing for a match when Jolene calls. The call in itself is not unusual. Jolene's increasing workload this semester makes meeting in person difficult, so they are both in the habit of calling at least once a week, for a total of two calls and a split bill. Though she plays against Annette and the Twins in Lexington on their respective days, and the University team on Fridays, with her in the outs with Alma after she got sick the week of the U.S. Open, Jolene has become her primary personal connection.
But the timing does not make sense. This is their first break from the schedule— the first part of the two-weekend Greater Chicago Open. They had talked on Friday after she and Alma arrived to give her the room number, but it was now Sunday evening, and she will be home tomorrow. If Jolene is calling now, it must be an emergency. Thus, she is puzzled when Jolene immediately asks, "Is there a TV in your room?"
She knows there is not, because Alma was unable to watch her programs earlier. She says no.
"Okay," Jolene breathes, "That's okay." She is pretty sure she was not meant to hear that; the words almost blend into the talking in the background. But the next is clear. "Listen. Something's come up, and I'm not going to be able to meet up with you tomorrow. Tell Annette to hang onto that book for me…"
But she reads between the lines, and interrupts. "Where are you going?"
Jolene tuts. "Eyes on the prize, Cracker. You got some egos to beat. You can read it in the papers tomorrow. But yeah, a few of us are going down to Alabama to help out with some shit tonight. Might be a few days."
She knew this was coming, wasn't she? Over ice cream, after Jolene found her at the University, she had been warned. And later, in conversations that in this moment seem so far away. She didn't say anything then, so she can hardly speak out against her friend taking such risks now. (How can she, when Jolene lives and breathes the fight like she does chess?) "Be careful," she says instead.
They don't say goodbye, because this is not a goodbye, and neither of them are good with byes besides. Jolene tells her to give them hell, she says she won't even give them that but "you can if you feel generous", and they hang up laughing.
Then she is alone again. Alma was out, giving her space to study. She had claimed she was old enough to take care of herself, but now the room is too quiet. For a moment she feels like a child again, watching her mother drive away to some unknowable place and not knowing when she would be back.
But Beth is sixteen years old, not six. She returns to her review, and then to her correspondence cards, and tries not to remember the last time someone she cared about chose to drive into danger.

Chapter Text

16 (24)

March 1965

She is sixteen years old when she finds her focus on chess has put her at a disadvantage.
She watches the news, and glimpses footage from the day before. It makes Alma blanch and turn off the television, but other than the screams she doesn't see anything too horrible. Her mother's accident seemed much worse. But that Jolene is at risk of walking into something similar is disturbing, and she has questions. She does not like the sense of helplessness that comes from being so uninformed. So she calls Annette, whose brother is attending the four-year at Berea and left all sorts of useful books in his room for her to rifle through.
So, despite that they had agreed they wouldn't be meeting that week because of the tournaments, Annette comes by on Tuesday afternoon with a worried expression and a box. "I called, and he gave me a list," she explains. The books are used, though, and probably a few years old at best. She doubts they will explain what Jolene is trying to accomplish. She thanks Annette anyway. They linger by the radio and do homework while flipping between stations for news.
Around four, Annette asks if she can stay for dinner and the evening news cycle. "My parents don't want to watch, but I want to know what to expect," she explains.
She asks what the older girl means. Annette tells her that her brother plans to go to the "next one."
She asks Annette to clarify while they wait for the soggy green monstrosity that was Alma's attempt to "make something nice for their guest" fails to congeal. "There's always a next one," she states with finality. She nods, disappointed but unsurprised. If she couldn't see the obvious feint in the incomplete march covered by the radio today, she should hand in her USCF title right now.
Beth is sixteen years old when she realizes she has a decision to make.

Someday children will wonder how it was possible that slavery and racism could persist in the face of mixed-race soulmarks. The easy answer would be that "it is easy when it is someone else's soulmate". But that wouldn't be close to the truth. The truth is, it is all questions.

April 1965

He is twenty-four, and this time he is prepared for Mar del Plata. He consults a doctor before flying, and the condition that forced him to forfeit when he was nineteen cannot be repeated. He is comfortable playing with the opposite hand at this point, and through mild numbness. Other than the Kid ending up in mortal peril, he is prepared for anything from his mark. He carries a stockpile of extra currency, and keeps a summary of his medical history on him. But the tournament runs like clockwork, with only two unrelated hitches. The first is the discovery of a bowl next to his seat. Apparently, not only did the memories of his last appearance run deep, but someone at the Hotel Nogaro fancies themselves a comedian. He uses it as an ashtray and ignores his first opponent's smirk. He is here for serious chess, he reminds himself.
The second, however, is a long streak of periodic numbness that starts a few days in and lasts almost a week. It is a relief when it ends, and he makes it through the tournament without further incident.
While he is reeling from narrowly losing third in the playoffs, El Viejo invites him to dinner. Naturally, he accepts. Over the meal and the fine wine the older blitz player favors, they revisit the games before turning their eyes to their mutual hobby. Being the showmen of new world chess they are, they manage to wrangle some of the other players into an impromptu blitz tournament. The two best players with the time constraint present, they exchange friendly barbs over the table as they wait for the others to move, often timing them to trip each other up. But eventually, it is just them again. The "old man" then asks him about the girl behind the mark that appeared during their first game. He excuses himself with as much grace as he can muster, claiming he needs to pack for his early flight, but he can hear the old man chuckle.
Now, his head is fuzzy, he is sensitive to lights, and he is leaving Argentina for New York in a plane that is louder than it ought to be. Benny is twenty-four, and it has been five years since the last time he took this flight, but other than that he cannot see much difference.

Consider: What does the belief that you can literally own your soulmate do to a child? What of the prospect of being owned by your soulmate? What is the damage of knowing that any moment you soulmate may be sold away? What does it do to a parent, if a slave is being beaten and suddenly it is your child who starts screaming? What does it do to a soulmate, to know their match is being beaten or worse and there is nothing they can do?
Which is worse? To leave a match behind in a bid for freedom, or to be the one left?

16 (24)

May 1965

She is sixteen, and she has a dilemma. Jolene stops on the way back to Frankfurt from the third march with mud under her fingernails, a grin on her face, and an ugly black beanie that is thrust at her with a teasing "See? Told ya I'd bring you something nice."
She had, in her last call. She is touched, and confused, but she laughs, and wonders aloud where her sense of taste had gone.
But beyond the joking, there is tension, and it is from her, and she knows it, and knows that Jolene knows it. She does not want to lose Jolene, because while this one went well, what about that guy who died? What about those people who were murdered last summer that she read about? What Jolene is doing is dangerous, no matter what she claims, but she knows her friend, and she is stubborn, and this is something Jolene calls "her calling". She thinks that if she can't stop Jolene from this, at least she can be around to pull her back. But she doesn't even know how.
One day, a month later, Jolene has enough of her distraction, and demands an answer. And she has learned, over the past year, about people, and a bit about how they feel about feelings. She admits to being worried, and frustrated at being left out of the loop.
They talk it over, that day and over several calls to follow. She is convinced the former is a contradiction without a solution but to power through, but Jolene knows the work better than she, and she thinks that there is a way to address both. She herself is skeptical, but her curiosity drives her forward.
Beth is sixteen, however, and needs Alma's permission before volunteering to go hang signs in Frankfurt and meet Jolene's friends in the BSU at Kentucky State. But it is not a paid job, and it shouldn't take too much time from chess. The twins are supportive of the idea and offer to drive her, and Annette tells Alma her brother is involved in something similar at Berea. Her mother caves. "At least you are getting out some," Alma justifies. And that is that.

Is it any wonder, then, the emphasis American colored culture still places on fictive kin? Just as in the munitions factories of the next century, or in prison gangs throughout the ages, the social expectation for physical neighbors to cover for each other at a moment's notice seems to have been a fundamental survival strategy for a people.

June 1965

He is twenty-five, and has left his review of the latest quarterfinal to recoup his losses. There's a big pot on the line tonight, and enough newcomers that he can keep his agreement with the Algonquin about not fleecing their regulars and still turn a profit. The regulars all know he counts cards, but so long as enough of his winnings go back to their pockets they keep mum. He is leaving soon, so he starts carefully simulating a losing streak to avoid any trouble when he leaves, when a latecomer joins, and conversation takes a turn to current events in the Village.
"…Ah, that new production? Don't think it'll last long."
"The one about the Pacific?"
"Can't believe somebody'd make a musical of it."
At this point, he tunes in. He doesn't pay much attention to theatre, but there has been talk about this one. It is an old story. So old, in fact, that just about every war in history, or even in myth, features a variant. Two soldiers on opposing sides, neither supposed to be fighting since their marks are each in the enemy's language. But on each side, someone who understands what the marks say decides from the content that it is worth the risk to field their man. So, they end up in this grueling one-on-one indirect combat, all traps and sniping, and never meet each other until finally one has the other bleeding out in front of him. 'You destroyed my command,' the one still standing says in his language. 'No wonder ours was a fight for the ages,' the other says in his.
What happens next varies. Sometimes the first kills himself, or dies of his own wounds. Sometimes the latter kills him before expiring, or sets off a trap that kills them both. It doesn't matter, really. Neither survive the encounter.
He never liked it much. It is hard to, with what it implies about soulmates in competition.
They are still talking. "Timings crap. Okinawa, Vietnam, what difference is there? Jungles full of bugs and death. They'll censor it, mark my words."
"How much you willing to bet?"
"More than you're worth. Hey you boy," and of course they are talking to him, now. The regulars always call him that. "How is it you're not over there?"
He glances out over the cards and beneath the brim of his hat, but does not speak. He knows he cannot answer. He has only a year left before aging out, despite never going to college and being in a career that most Americans don't even recognize. Others would think he has the devil's luck, or somehow gamed the system. But he didn't. The examiners had looked at his medical record, and considered his mark activity a liability, even long past. (Little would they have known how the numbing would come back with a vengeance this last year and a half.) It would have been insulting if he hadn't so not wanted to go. Now that his soulmate is known and likely healthy, even if he has yet to confirm it, it seems likely that it is in fact a flaw of his mark. No solution. "I'm I-Y," he says neutrally, and draws.
He doesn't stay much longer. Benny is twenty-five, and thinks he knows when to walk away.

Chapter Text

25 (16)

July 1965

He is twenty-five, and has three months left.
The Federation cannot cover the remainder of his deposit before the trip to Moscow because of some new financial difficulties. Instead, he accepts a check from a group in Texas. He only takes enough to cover the deficit, and preemptively drafts them a statement that he is eager to prove to the Communists that Americans are capable of playing on par with the Soviets on their home turf and agrees to a few questions over the phone. He finalizes the paperwork and finances for the Invitational a few days before the U.S. Championships begin, and thinks no more of the issue.
Wexler comes around to return some books before the first round. He gestures to the seat across from him; it is the third Spassky-Keres quarterfinal match, and he would like another perspective. "I needed a break from the tension," the visitor admits. It is an unnecessary reminder that Levertov would also be playing.
"The Henry Hudson's hardly Zagreb," he points out.
Wexler shoots him an exasperated look, and grabs a beer from the refrigerator. "That's not what's setting him off, you know."
At twenty-five, Benny has been playing for almost a decade. He knows.

She is sixteen, and sees more of her birth state in one summer than she has in whole life. She accompanies the twins up to Frankfort one day, and meets Jolene's friends at the college. She is both warmed and irritated that she is immediately recognized as Jolene's redheaded white sister. But they are smart, and funny, and full of both ideals and realism. She listens to them and marvels at their courage. She thinks of her own troubles, and while her frustrations seem weak compared to theirs, she finds can empathize with their struggle. She recalls Jolene's ambitions, and wonders if they have similar.
But she knows she would never be willing to risk herself by playing the parts of pawns and knights, and so she feels set apart. While Jolene has found in them a community and a way forward, she cannot see a potential benefit for herself to continue their association. She is glad when Jolene returns with the signs, and flyers, and tells her they are burning daylight.
That might have been the end of her association right there, but the Twins, who had developed an unlikely friendship with her friend some month prior, rejoined them on the way to the car. As they drive through the state capitol she is regaled from three sides with tales that would never make it into the textbooks.
History is more than just horses and civil war battles, she realizes then. She mildly regrets not paying more attention in class, if only for Jolene's sake. The very idea that someone as vibrant as her best friend could be whittled down to distant dates and figures for disinterested students to recite is depressing at best. And there are those who would not even give Jolene that much? That is what drives her to come back, in between tournaments, practices, and language classes at the university. She learns about race and matches that are left instead of found, of a culture that learned to depend on found families and worked to make it fit. She learns of a different board of black and white.
She hitches a ride to Frankfort with the twins on Sundays when she isn't at a tournament. Sometimes she helps Jolene organize rides to meetings, and other times she goes on errands where a mixed group is less likely to have issues. There is an exhausting amount of walking, though. Up and down Frankfort, trips into Louisville, through Lexington and Berea. Many times they put up signs, but once she tags along as they assess housing patterns for some bill. By August she has as many freckles as she did when she was eight. One day Alma suggests she take a break as she gingerly fits new sneakers over her blistered feet. She shrugs, and points out that she won't have time come September anyway.
But then they hear about riots in California, and a neighborhood up in flames, and Alma grows concerned. She doesn't see why; California is very far away. But Jolene hands her a copy of the Times. The newspaper is blazoned with the headline "2000 TROOPS ENTER LOS ANGELES ON THIRD DAY OF NEGRO RIOTING; 4 DIE AS FIRES AND LOOTING GROW".
Jolene looks sympathetic. "Not worth risking your visa over, Cracker." Beth nods, and gets the message. She asks if someone can cover her shifts from now on. There is.
She tells Alma she has resigned when she gets home. Her mother is palpably relieved, more than the news probably was worth. She is frustrated that she had not noticed how worried she was, and does not know how to make up for it.
But she does not regret her foray into human rights. She has learned so much more than she had imagined that first day. She is sixteen years old, and she thinks she has learned a bit about how to put some trust in strangers.

Some slaveholders would indeed buy their family's in-souls, especially if they were viable house slaves. The reasoning varies between an assumption of trustworthiness, and the simple belief that the life of a "house negro" was safer than one in the field, and so would lead to a less troublesome mark. Depending on the orientation (same-sex being preferred for practicality), such a match might even be acknowledged publicly, or the enslaved match would be sent to another house to work. As slaves with white marks were often ostracized by their own community, whether they were lucky is debatable.

25 (16)

September 1965

He is twenty-five years old, and doing an interview.
"It seems like the Moscow Invitational has been your Holy Grail for a while now," the reporter prompts.
"It's not." The Best Chess has been his grail, if they must use that analogy. At the moment, it is in Russia.
"But you have been pursuing it. May we ask why?"
"You just did," he quips. He rolls his eyes, and slouches back in his chair. "…Well, at first it was because I couldn't go. But then, it became something more. You cannot play the Soviets and come away without respecting them for their skill…. You might say that I want to see what they can do in their natural habitat." It is a solid answer. One that is true enough. It is also not the whole story. But it leads the reporter for a bit, into more comfortable lines of questioning. Until….
"And have you told Miss Harmon yet?"
Benny huffs. "No comment." He's twenty-five, and been doing interviews since he was seven. He isn't about to fall for that old trick.

She is sixteen years old, and a junior. Annete graduated last spring, and moved up to Louisville to attend university, so they have switched to correspondence games. She checks the mail, hoping to find Annette's latest move. Instead, she finds a somber envelope from the State Department in the box. It is stamped with two stylized arms, and initialed NSR. National Soulmarks Registry. While it is addressed to her, she is underage, and so she takes it to her mother. Alma sees it, and pales. "It is a good thing you quit when you did, dear," she says. Alma looks irritated, and she doesn't know why. She lets it slide, more interested in this puzzle.
Beth is sixteen years old, and has heard of Overseas Soulmate Monitoring before. It sometimes happens to students at her school, when older matches get shipped overseas. Because of this, she never anticipated getting one herself. Where would a chess player go that would be so risky as to require such a notice?
It is the first time in a while she has taken an interest in her soulmate's whereabouts.

The Moscow Invitational, like anything alleged to have come from the mouth of Dmitry Luchenko, is a bold play concealing an underlying purpose that in turn uses that very boldness to further its cause. This tournament, which produces more brilliancies than any other is one in itself.

25 (16)

October 1965

He is twenty-five years old, and probably will never master the art of sleeping on planes. (Sometimes he can, sometimes he cannot. This is one of the latter.) Not when it means eleven hours trapped in an aluminum can with people he does not know and a voice in the back of his mind telling him that if he isn't entertaining someone, he is doing something wrong. Not when he remembers all too well the time on a transoceanic flight just like this when his soulmark had burned and not even chess could keep his attention from it.
Reading is also out, and writing. So, he dictates to Weiss. Good handwriting was not one of the reasons that he selected Weiss for this trip two years ago, but it is a perk he plans on making use of.
After transferring to Aeroflot for the final leg, they bounce around ideas for the potential threats he will face; who will be present is kept under wraps. Only two are to be present: Borgov, and Luchenko. Given the number of grandmasters in the country, the other two slots could be anyone, and if he were religious he would be praying not to face Botvinnik and Luchenko in succession. Three other countries, probably Soviet Bloc but not necessarily— Borgov likes his Latin American venues, Weiss observes. It's a real possibility, but he returns to playing against Europe's best in his mind when his second explores the option.
He looks out the window. There are clouds obscuring the landscape below, but it doesn't matter. Benny is twenty-five years old, and he knows where the flight will land.

She is sixteen years old, and knows the handwriting like the front of her arm.
She sees it while flipping through the mail, on a letter marked as "redirected". The handwriting addresses it to her and her mother. She brings it to the kitchen.
"Ah. So he did have the decency to warn us," Alma mutters, when she sees the letter. Beth is sixteen years old, and fairly certain she is missing something.

Chapter Text

16 (25)

October 1965

She has seen neither hide nor hair of her soulmate in two years, an eternity for a sixteen-year-old girl. That is what she knows others would use to excuse her apparent disinterest in Watts' presence in Moscow. She, on the other hand, would tell the truth as she sees it: She is just too busy with other things to concern herself with an event on the other side of the world.
Other things, including three hours studying or playing chess each night on top of increasingly time-consuming homework.
Other things, like maintaining three correspondence games, and considering competing officially.
Other things, like admiring the special advance copy of Chess Review containing the short article on the Richter-Rauzer she submitted last August. It arrives on the twenty-ninth, largely unchanged from its submitted state thanks to extensive edits by the twins and Townes. She is satisfied with this first publication, and Alma wants to frame a copy. "The good kind of national recognition," her mother explains. She agrees.
Other things, like preparing the university team, who are going to play in the National Championships this year because of their performance in April. Because of her.
Other things, like learning French to go along with her Russian. She knows she will be in Europe sooner than later.
Beth is only sixteen years old, and technically too old to be called a prodigy. Methuen may have hobbled her progress, but her career seems to be coming together. So she tells the secretaries at the school office and tries to not look too annoyed when they ask for details.

He is twenty-five and suspects that Gary Powers may have saved his life. When he was nineteen he looked at Moscow and wanted to play because it was his first invitation to be rescinded over something out of his control. But now he is twenty-five, and no longer that child. And the reason he had taken notice in the first place was never about control. It was about chess. (It is always about chess.)
But Russian chess and the Soviet Union are a study in contradiction and hypocrisy. A government that claims to love chess but destroys its problemists and guts its senior players. A land fraught with suspicion yet whose grandmasters have learned teamwork in single-player chess. A game that is allegedly not played for its own sake, yet played everywhere he turns in this city. The contradictions are too dangerous to trifle with, and he now realizes that his twenty-year-old self would have done just that.
(Whether he would have been disappeared like the composers Wexler so mourns is not a prospect he wants to think about.)
After five years of studying the nation and its players, he knows better than to gamble with the USSR. So he sits quietly, ignores the uncomfortable itch of his too-tight collar, and listens at breakfast the first day. He tries to read between the lines of the speech, and finds more puzzles. They preach about politics, and chess, and culture, and the struggle of the proletariat. It does not jive with the fine woods and furnishings they will be playing in. He considers the tiny size, and the Invitational nature of the tournament. Chess has a history of elitism, but this smacks of it. He wonders how this tournament survives in the political climate of the Soviet Union, when so many others have not.
He cannot ask, however, and while on the surface irrelevant to chess it bugs him. He signals Weiss to note the line for later review. He does not have time to consider it. His first opponent is Laev, also new to the tournament. They have played each other before, hard-fought games in places like Amsterdam and Paris. He knows he can beat him this time.
He has to.
Benny is twenty-five, and while confident in his potential, he has no illusions as to his chances in the face of the lineup before him. He needs every win he can get to make a good showing.

Now, as to your question about why the systemic limitations on soulmates playing in the same tournament, the answer is not to be found in the why but the when. Unlike much of human history, it is incredibly rare in the industrialized world to find soulmates engaged in the same profession, let alone one as obscure as chess.
The when you are looking for is 1911, with the birth of two boys in what was to become the Soviet Union, six months apart to the day. Of course, no one then knew the titans they would become.

16 (25)

October 1965

She is sixteen years old, and while she does not mind, even enjoys, being at the center of attention when in the right crowds, the attention of her schoolmates has been at best awkward, and at worst miserable.
That is why she is surprised when Margaret walks up to her one day after class. She is reminded of the last time she spoke, and she had declined the Apple Pis' invitation to their get-together in favor of the exhibitions. They hadn't spoken after that, which satisfied her immensely. This time, after the concern she had received from teachers, she can only imagine the awkward but socially expected expression of concern she must now deal with. She braces herself for false sympathy.
Instead, she gets curiosity. "So, Beth… I heard your soulmate is going to Russia?"
Yes," she replies, wondering if there was a point to this.
Margaret inhales, and "Is that… normal, for chess players? He is a chess player, right?"
She is mildly annoyed that this girl is assuming her soulmate is male, but given the profession it is a reasonable assumption. The rest of her sentence does not make sense though. "Normal?"
"Oh, um. The traveling."
She blinks, surprised she has to answer this. "If you're good enough," she replies.
Margaret nods. "But you are good enough."
She is suspicious at the Apple Pi member's certainty. "Of course," she confirms.
"Then you will be going all over the place someday," Margaret decides, as if she somehow had control over that. Then, she asks, "Have you considered taking up photography?"
No. She has not. For all the places she has visited, she has always been more interested in the chess inside. "I don't think I would be any good at it," she hedges.
Margaret smiles prettily. "You don't know until you try," she points out with a shrug.
"Photography club meets on Thursdays at lunch if you're interested."
She is not. She has chess. She stalls. "Maybe."
But Margaret seems to take that as confirmation, and flounces off back to her friends with a bright "See you there!"
Students are staring.
Beth escapes to the bathroom and, for the first time in months (when did she stop?), goes for the packet of green pills she keeps in her purse. She downs two without a second thought, wondering what just happened.
As she waits for the pills to take effect, Beth contemplates how to get around this, or if she should. She is sixteen years old and supporting herself and Alma through chess. They are on a budget, financially and temporally.
But she thinks of beautiful Townes and Roger, and their collections of "architectural" shots and "landscapes", and an idea occurs to her. She wonders if the Herald's secret power match has a spare camera she could borrow.

He is twenty-five, and it has been a quarter of a year now without feedback from the mark. A good run, that ends, as ever, inconveniently. He is playing an evening adjournment with Duhamel when the numbness starts again. "Goddamnit, Kid," he thinks, withdrawing his right arm and moving his knight with his left. He doesn't realize he was thinking aloud until he looks up, and sees the Belgian staring at him.
"Draw?" In this instance, the offer of a draw to an opponent with the upper hand isn't an insult. Many players would cut their losses, or at least adjourn, to check on their soulmate if they got feedback from their mark. It is low, but reasonable.
But Benny is twenty-five years old, and has been playing with this handicap for over a decade. In three moves, he's got his opponent pinned. "It's fine," he replies, and punches the clock.

His father had been taken for questioning not long prior due to connections with the White Army. What would have become of chess had he not accompanied Rabinovich to Moscow at the tender age of nine? What would have happened, had he not drawn Alekhine during that exhibition?
In 1924, Botvinnik came to the attention of Krylenko when he defeated Capablanca. The two boys met sometime thereafter.

16 (25)

October 1965

She is sixteen, and normally does not sit during team practices. Standing adds to her relative height, making her appear more confident and in control. But today is different, so she pulls a chair up next to the Twins as the team play along with their copies of Watts' first five games. Townes had gotten them through some of his newspaper contacts and brought them in. He and Roger, the photographer, are now talking to Alma and the coach across the room about something probably not camera-related, so she turns back to the board. They do not have the full transcripts of today's game, as it adjourned, but it is the most interesting.
"Of course it is. He is playing the former World Champion," Alexander Levy (first board, favors the English) asserts. "He may even beat him."
But she looks over the last known positions, and at once shakes her head. "He needs to trap that rook if he wants to draw."
Beth may be sixteen years old, and for once not able to explain why the options before Watts feel wrong. But they believe her, and that matters.

He is twenty-five when he faces Dimitri Luchenko.
They say this entire tournament is the ex-Champion's pet project, the legacy he wants to leave upon the world of chess. Not a title, but a tournament, though he has held both. Though the old Soviet is no longer the strongest player there, and his countrymen have constructed a united front around their new champion, he still hears them speaking, in empty halls and hushed tones, of the Moscow Invitational. While Borgov is their new light, the Invitational is still the Tiger's den.
But he is Benny Watts, and to respect is not the same as to be intimidated. As a teenager he had kept an eye out for Luchenko's games, watched as he and Botvinnik pushed each other past their limits in challenges and rematches. He may not have played the ex-World Champion before, but he has been preparing for this day for half his life. He is excited.
So they play, and he is reminded of how the Tiger of Kyiv got his epithet. Luchenko is as unpredictable as he is powerful in offense, naturally intuitive and unafraid to sacrifice material for advantage. But he is careful to balance defense and offense, and triple-checks his calculations. There are no mistakes as he herds his pieces into position. They play for an hour, and then another. As the veteran player takes another sacrifice, he dares to wonder if his plan might actually succeed.
But then Luchenko pounces. He will later wonder whether that maneuver was devised on the spot, or a stratagem so archaic it never reached the West, but in the moment it does not matter. He should have seen it coming.
Benny is twenty-five when he remembers the other reason why Dimitri Luchenko is called a tiger. Like any cat, he likes to toy with his food. He needs to find a way out before the jaws snap shut.

They again came to a head at the 1931 Soviet World Championship. And again. And again. With the demise of Alekhine, they were the obvious candidates to take the mantle. But which? Luchenko won in 1948, but it was not uncontested. The cycles of the early 1950s have been criticized as the "Decade of Two Champions".

16 (25)

October 1965

She is sixteen, and keeps a bi-weekly schedule for calling her best friend. She last spoke to her on Thursday, when Jolene agreed with Alma about that while she should get involved in something other than chess, something without potential legal consequences like photography was the way to go and to send her some nice shots. So she does not anticipate her friend visiting this weekend.
It is Sunday morning when she and Alma are woken by strong, resounding knocks.
Alma is a heavy sleeper, and slow to rise, so she grabs her robe and goes to open the door. Jolene is there, and looks annoyed. "What's this about your soulmate going to Russia, Cracker?" She holds up a copy of the Courier. "Girl, you gotta tell me about these things. I don't want to hear about my nutty in-souls from the Twins."
Beth is sixteen years old, and too stunned by this strange echo of another time last year to do anything but laugh and invite her in.

He is twenty-five, and knows when to resign. He should have done so sooner, but his pride and curiosity and that damnable hope won out. He stalled, looking for an escape but finding none. He could have resigned then. But the drive to scrape any victory from defeat drives him to push the wooden pieces, testing, fishing for information as Borgov's mating net manifests.
He bites down the burn in the back of his throat. His hand as it reaches for his king, muscle memory acting of its own accord. But he stops it, remembering where he is, and instead extends his hand across the board.
They shake, and they stand, and they leave. Borgov, no doubt, will be enveloped by the crowds gathered out the main. He has a meeting to attend, however. So he and Weiss are escorted out a side entrance by an eleven-year-old from the local Pioneers Palace. The boy informs him he lasted longer against Borgov than expected before changing the subject. Weiss humors the kid and fields his questions about American films while he processes the game he left on the table. Then the car arrives, and they are off.
Benny Watts is twenty-five, and he has reached Moscow. Played Moscow. Lost to two, drawn two, beat four. And now, he has one last match to play.

Chapter Text

25 (16)

He is twenty-five, but he is not a fool. He knows a bad bet when he sees one. This isn't even a bet. He knows he is walking into a rout. But he also knows that not to take this chance, and possibly allow this scenario to go unplayed, would be a much greater loss.
So he had accepted their terms to play what is effectively glorified skittles at the Soviet equivalent of a Boy Scout's camp.
He, Weiss, and their young guide are dropped off outside a modernist building on the opposite side of the Moscow city center. The new Palace of Young Pioneers. It seemed a long way to go, when he looked it up on the map. They must have their reasons for this location, but he doesn't think much of it. He has his own games to focus on.
They pass by a group of school-age children. A quick glance at the tile floor underneath tells him they are playing human chess. A second glance tells him it was Borgov vs. Tal, from this very Invitational. They recognize him instantly, and call out to the "Amerikantsy". Their guide— Girev— shouts something back, however, and they run ahead.
They meet them on the portico, and Girev disappears inside. "Thank you for agreeing to this," he says to his opponents. He means it. He can see Luchenko is exhausted from constant last-minute preparation and competitive play, and Weiss told him Botvinnik had to take an afternoon off work for this. Yet, because of the nature of the players this game had to wait until the end of the tournament. As he and Weiss were leaving tomorrow, this is the only opening.
They lead him and Weiss to a room with a board set up to play, a room with glass walls and a mezzanine where a crowd is gathering. Weiss, pulling a chair over so he can take notation, looks up and swears. "Please forgive the audience," Luchenko says in perfect English. "I am certain you can imagine their curiosity."
He shrugs. "It's fine." Weiss just rolls his eyes.
The clock starts, and they play. Oh, they trounce him, for all the preparation he did against Levertov and Wexler in New York. Of course they are different— these are both World Champions. Luchenko and Botvinnik. These two players are known for their collaboration. Even at the height of their rivalry, they took up the mantle left in the wake of Stalin's purges and the World Wars and built the game in Russia to new heights. They have forgotten more about chess than most grandmasters will ever learn.
But the methods they use are different, and should not mesh as well as they do. One favors attacks and middlegame tactics and natural genius, while the other is armed with all the advance preparation and rigor that made him a household name. They balance and build off each other's ideas and strategies well. Their body language tells him they barely need to speak to pick up where the other's thoughts are headed.
He is amazed to find any weakness at all.
But they hold back. They both have two opponents here, and greater games. One will begin to say something, then stop and suggest something else rather than let the other hear the first. He uses their dissonance to buy him time to think and plan, but it is not enough. They still push him into check, again and again. He is in awe.
Benny is twenty-five when the best game of his life thus far is supplanted twice in a month. In the end, the best chess in Moscow is not in a veritable temple to chess in the Sokolniki District, and it's audience is not the elites of the USSR. The two champions of the 1950s are trying to tell him something, and it bugs him all the way back to the States.

She turns seventeen on Tuesday, but she celebrates it on the Saturday following.
The gathering is part birthday party, part commemoration of her third title as Kentucky State Champion. The university team comes over. Jolene picks up Mr. Shaibel, on the way down from Frankfort, and Annette drives in from Louisville. Even Townes and Roger show. With so many players, the afternoon quickly devolves into a tournament, while the three non-participants talk about "anything but chess" in the kitchen.
Tournaments aside, she is used to feeling uncomfortable around so many people. That is why she never had accepted invitations to parties before. (She had gotten a few, after the article in Life.) When she realizes that for once all she feels is an easy familiarity, her fingers stumble over her rook. The game is touch-move, and the thought fades away as she considers how to compensate for the loss of her queen.
There are presents (the number for a camera owner interested in selling from Townes and Roger, royal blue hats and scarves from the Twins). There is cake. Carrot. She takes an extra slice outside for Mr. Shaibel, who had reached his tolerance for human company for the day and taken shelter on the back porch. "This isn't like chess," she admits.
"Nothing is like chess," Shaibel agrees.
Beth is seventeen, and has never heard a truer statement.

Accusations of collusion have hounded Soviet Chess since Capablanca cried foul in 1935. There is no evidence that he knew Botvinnik and Luchenko were soulmates.

25 (17)

He is twenty-five when the lights go out.
He doesn't like using the subway. The subway is expensive. In New York, it is also crowded. Any public transit denies him the control and freedom he favors in travel. But there is a station two and a half blocks from his place, and his car is in the shop overnight, and he has an appointment with his publisher. He bites back his misgivings, and reviews Weiss's notes, ignoring his surroundings as best he could.
Then the train stops, and the lights fade. Stops sometimes happen, so he returns to his reading.
A half hour in, however, people start asking questions. Accusations start flying. A bomb. The Russians. He sets his book away, and begins listening, taking the pulse of the hapless crowds.
He notices a six-year-old on a seat nearby starts getting antsy. He usually depends on stories more than memories about himself at that age, but he can remember the sense of control and illusion of escape that first drew him to the game. He also remembers his games with Botvinnik and Luchenko at the House of Young Pioneers. How at times, one or the other would interrupt their play to make a suggestion to the spectators. Would such a crowd have gathered without such encouragement?
They were playing the odds, he realizes. That is what it is about. Assuming that chess talent is evenly distributed in the population, early exposure and interest in chess would be the first factors someone could reasonably hope to affect.
Increase exposure early, and maybe some kids with the right stuff will apply themselves early enough to make that difference, to rise to master, to grandmaster in twenty years. More talent, more victories, more notoriety, more funding, further exposure. Add to that mentorship, accelerating the growth… The pieces fall together and interlace like his favorite endgames.
The Soviets have been playing the odds. And maybe— he sees the kid pace— he can too.
He is twenty-five, and his memories of those early years have faded. But he will never forget how it began for him. "Hey," he says, snagging the lad before he runs into something, and redirecting him towards his mother, "does anyone here play chess?"

She is seventeen when she encounters a ghost.
She is scraping plates in the kitchen when Alma walks in. She is frowning. Beth wonders if she has found out about the pills, and something tightens in her chest.
Instead, Alma hands her an envelope, thick and manilla "Beth, I have a confession to make," she begins. "Over a year ago, I received a letter from my contact about a professor at Cornell. He thinks he may have known your mother. I have been sitting on this for over a year, and I still don't know how to respond. But you are old enough now to decide for yourself, and with the trip with the team coming up…"
She quickly skims through the letter, and sits down. "He says he has some of my mother's things."
Alma sits, and grasps her free hand. "I didn't want to get your hopes up. It may not be legitimate."
She looks at the letterhead, and the name. She recognizes them.
Beth is seventeen, and it has been almost a decade. Should this bother her? She feels like it shouldn't. But for a moment she is a little girl on the threshold of her mother's trailer, watching her sole parent burn away her ties with the world. "It is."

In the subways, between 600,000
and 800,000 people were stranded.
Full police and fire mobilization
closed off all subway entrances with-
in half an hour—and then, tediously,
police, transit officials and firemen
led Indian files of commuters one by
one out of the catwalks and emergen-
cy exits to the streets. It was an evacu-
ation equivalent to that of 20 army
divisions, but by midnight 90% had
been freed. So calmly did matters go
that, at one stop, a tall blond girl
actually complained that they ought
to return her 15¢ fare. For the most
part the entrapped New Yorkers re-
laxed and enjoyed the wait. On the
East Side a group began to play
charades under the battery-powered
emergency lights. In another car,
passengers played chess against a
local grandmaster. By 10 p.m. all but
one train had been cleared—about 60
persons were forced to spend the night
in cars deep in a tunnel under the
East River.

25 (17)

He is twenty-five when he sees her again.
He hadn't planned on attending the Intercollegiate this year, despite it being in New York. He had been too focused on Moscow to assist Wexler and Levertov with their pet team. But he gets a call from them around three, and they tell him he needs to come to the awards banquet. Wexler sounds serious, so he does.
She is sitting next to Mrs. Wheatley, hair a red blur in a sea of blue and white.
She is facing away from him, likely engrossed in some explanation about one of the games from the tournament's final round.
Mrs. Wheatley looks up, and gives him a pointed stare.
He tips his hat, and heads in the opposite direction, eventually finding his friends among the Colombia contingent. He grabs a plate, because Wexler and Levertov sprang for it. "That's what you wanted me to see?" He nods in the direction of the Kentuckians.
"She's been doing this every day," Wexler says by way of explanation. Levertov just hands him a list of games. He skims it, and curses. She's improved a lot.
He doesn't stay long, warning taken. He hasn't given her much thought since his return from Russia, but her growth proves that was a mistake. He needs to prepare for her if he wants to hold onto the U.S. Open title.
Benny is twenty-five, and has played the strongest duo in the world. He knows not to underestimate soulmates.

She is seventeen when she sees him again, a dark-clad figure in the Mariposa lobby. She knows he has been playing, but she is not afraid. He may have played the Russians, but he lost to the only one she really fears. Her assessments pushed the Kentucky team to third nationally, and her career is on the rise.
Beth is seventeen, and is confident this is her year.

Chapter Text

17 (25)

She is seventeen, and finally at the Open. It is the first time she has played in person since some skittles in New York City.
She notices a shift in how other players regard her as she plays through the early rounds. There is certain respect she has not seen outside Kentucky before. It is most noticeable in young men, around twenty. Instead of the arrogance she has come to expect of young men that age, or the fear and despair of weaker players, many are remarkably polite, and those with class rings and university lapels track her presence in the room with what can only be described as cautious optimism.
She has always drawn glances from this crowd, but now it seems more considering than judgemental. She accepts it as an improvement, but it is enough to drive Alma to worry, and Townes to ask around.
They meet Townes and Roger for breakfast at the casino restaurant. It is not very early by Beth's standards, but early for Alma. They listen as Townes reports his findings. "It's your appearance at the Intercollegiate," he states. "Everyone noticed that you were coaching the UK team, and their improved standings speak to that you've done wonders. People are impressed."
"There are even coaches plotting to poach you for their teams. Didn't realize that happens for chess," Roger notes.
"It doesn't." Townes corrects, and his soulmate chuckles. Alma asks them which ones. After hearing that Cornell is interested, she tunes them out.
Beth is seventeen, and has three semesters left before she graduates high school. She knows what she wants to do with her life, and it is to play chess on the highest levels. While Intercollegiate may give her some interesting opportunities, she doesn't know if it would be worth her time. She doesn't like that total strangers are treating it as a given.
But these thoughts aren't worth her time, either. She finishes her eggs and pulls out a pamphlet on the Semi-Slav.

He is twenty-five when he sees the Kid at the Open. She is seventeen, and holds a rating solidly in the 2400s. She hasn't lost a game in the two and a half years she has been playing. It is about time she showed up, he thinks. She could even win it, if she can get through the attending grandmasters without a draw.
If she can beat me.
Because if Russia taught him anything, it was to take no chances with his score. Which is why he is on his way to an adjournment, rather than conserve energy for more serious threats. But he is waylaid past the soda fountain by a player he's seen around on occasion, and they are talking when he glimpses her from the corner of his eye.
She was clearly on her way to the soda fountain, but had stopped. She looks like she wants to say something. She doesn't, though. She turns around, goes on her way.
He can understand that; the lack of interaction has done its job. When players speak about her it is for her own activities, and Alma told him they were rarely bothered by rumors… although she had overheard enough to see the value of their tactic.
Wexler had turned up once while he was packing, and told him he should probably speak to the Kid at some point during the Open. He had initially scoffed and told him that he was spending too much time with Cleo. But Wexler had pointed out the Kid will be turning eighteen next year, and what legalities protect minors with set marks from disclosure will be lifted. Theoretically, at that point anyone could just check the public record, and some reporter probably will.
Considering Wexler's day job, it seemed like good advice, especially with her now participating in larger tournaments.
The U.S. Open is one thing, but how will they handle the National Championships? The Olympiads? The USCF is already wary.
No, they will need to coordinate their careers. He doubts either will be leaving the circuit any time soon.
Benny is twenty-five years old, and knows not to burn bridges unnecessarily. He thinks of the Two Champions, who can't even play skittles in tandem without treating each other as opponents in a war for information. Benny is twenty-five years old, and for the first time in over a decade, finds himself revising his expectations. He doesn't know what he wants, but he at least hopes they can play on the same side without instinctive mutual sabotage.
(He can spare ten minutes to play nice.)
(Well, he can spare ten minutes.)

Some philosophers hold that soulmarks in fact encourage stable soulmate relationships. They reason that if someone believes that their destiny is intertwined with another's, they will seek to make their interactions as painless as possible. Of course, what each party sees as optimal can differ tremendously.

17 (25)

She is seventeen when they speak again. She doesn't notice him at first.
Alma had told her to take a break from study, so she had claimed a table in a corner of the mezzanine and set up a board for a purpose other than play.
She is experimenting with her new camera— a used Canonet. Townes had found the seller through his contacts, and Roger had examined it for defects and given the five-year-old device a clean bill of health before she made the purchase. It is utterly hers, though, purchased with her winnings from a tournament in Louisville. The case is solid and cool in her hands as she adjusts the settings. She had liked the way the pictures from her first roll captured lights and darks, and she now is trying to recreate the effect on the shadows the pieces cast across the white squares.
She notices how the light shifts as someone cuts between her subject and the Mariposa's enormous chandelier. She waits for the interloper to move away from her corner.
They do not. She looks up, a request on the tip of her tongue, and stops. Watts is leaning against the railing, inscrutable. She sets her camera down. Straightens.
She knew he was around today. She had seen him by the soda machine earlier, talking to some nondescript male player.
He had been wearing the same hat and too-big coat as in Cincinnati, and though obscured by the angle she was certain he also had the knife. It irked her then, this living evidence that even a man who dressed as a pirate drew less comment than a girl playing chess, and she was frustrated she could not go over to speak about a subject she knew well. But, Alma and Townes had both advised her to keep her head down this first Open, so she held her tongue. It is fine, she told herself as she passed. She had her own friends and allies who listened to her, and she was confident she could defeat her soulmate in chess. Things that really matter.
She didn't think he saw her. But maybe he did. How else would he find her? Why would he?
She suppresses a sigh. What do you say to the stranger whose writing adorns your arm? Especially when she has heard mercifully little of him in two years. There isn't a manual for this kind of thing. She stares back. "Watts."
He looks like he is about to speak. Stops. Taps his fingers against the rail. "Hey, Harmon," he says instead. "How are you?"
She shrugs. "Fine."
"Good, good. Um… What are you doing?"
She rolls her eyes. "Homework," she replies, suddenly understanding why he is talking to her. It is an odd project.
"Strangest homework I've ever seen," he mutters. He looks down at the table, brim obscuring his expression. "Pittsburgh 1963. Harmon vs Rossolimo."
She relaxes, and nods. She finds chess easier than people. If they are soulmates, it makes sense to her that the same would be true for him.
He isn't wrong. She had chosen this game because it was a solid game, with no glaring mistakes. She was proud of it. "It was a good game."
He nods, brightening. "Much cleaner than the pretty one they put in Life. You could have lost your king pawn—"
She interrupts. "Yes, yes. The queen knight. Mr. Shaibel told me."
He frowns thoughtfully. "Shaibel…"
Then something occurs to her, and she whips around. "You study my games." She feels cold.
He blinks. "You haven't?" There is an edge of skepticism that edges on derision, and she bristles inwardly.
She plays nonchalant. "No more than anyone else. You shouldn't have castled against Borgov though."
He snorts. "Good catch. But if I hadn't he would have had me in half the time."
This bothers her, because she and the team had been all over that game. She should have seen it. But somehow he had. "Wait a minute."
He shakes his head. "Can't. I have to play an adjournment… Set it up, if you like. Problem's on the queen rook file."
Beth is seventeen, and has been playing for two years— but studying whatever she could get her hands on since she was nine. Despite reading numerous commentaries, she still has trouble believing that any player would willingly give away a potential weakness. When Watts leaves, she doesn't bother… Not immediately.

He is twenty-five when he plays the Kid for the first time. It is not the game he dreamed of when the words manifested, not when his wrist was numb half the night before, but it is close.
He plays black, and she plays white. It is luck, but the best kind; each is playing their favored color. She is good, and he is delighted.
He knows not to underestimate her. Her words on his arm have become a persistent dog on his heels.
But he played three World Champions only a few months ago, and a year (and a lifetime) spent preparing for the Invitational is not lost in that time. He had thrown himself into revision with the same fervor, adapted what he had learned to America's greatest threats.
He plays like he is still fighting the Tiger of Kiev, and she keeps pace, dodging several unpublished lines that would have spelled an end for her if taken. He savors the rush of facing a truly gifted opponent and knowing he will still come out on top.
But she is neither of the Tigers. She lacks the experience against matured opponents. She attempts something on his king-side, and he plays along, curious to see what she comes up with. She has stumped him a few places, but he has several different avenues, and this plays into an interesting one. She does not see his trap until it is too late.
Her face falls. Four moves later, so does her king.
He is struck by how young she looks as she sticks out her hand. "All pawns and no hope"... had she been distracted doubling his pawns?
He hopes he had not accidentally sabotaged her.
He clasps his hand around hers, a solid shake. "Tough game," he says. He hopes this loss will not set her back too much. But a loss can do psychological damage, and she is clearly hurting.
Benny is twenty-five years old, and he wonders if he has miscalculated.

The causality of soulmark phrases have long been studied in the Western World, not the least because they are apparently inescapable. Avoidance regularly turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Even if one match, having seen the words they are meant to say on the other's arm, refuses to say the words, external factors tend to cause them to speak them regardless. In other cases, the very act of seeing the mark on their match and reading it to themselves is sufficient to set the mark, or the mark's wording is such that the corresponding phrase is, in the situation, unavoidable. Quantum physics has introduced new life into the debate, but the temporal aspects remain untestable.

17 (25)

Beth is seventeen when she loses her first competitive game. It is humiliating, and she cannot stop thinking it over.
Her whole life she has focused on the win, on chess, and now she lost. What does that make her?
But Alma is there, and Townes and Roger find them at the restaurant. Townes talks about how he lost three games in his one attempt at the Open. Considering he considers himself an amateur, albeit a very good one, Beth doesn't immediately grasp the connection, but then Roger talks about his first attempts to submit photography to National Geographic, and Townes counters with his own first attempts to get human interest pieces into national magazines. Then she thinks she gets what they are trying to tell her. It still doesn't compare, she thinks.
Then Alma admits she has no similar story; her own dreams cut short soon after high school. The conversation stops.
But Beth is seventeen years old now, and understands more than she did when she first came to the Wheatleys. She remembers that Alma said once that she had a child. Perhaps Alma's stories of losing are just too painful to talk about. She realizes that while she does not know, and may never be able to ask what happened, she at least can say, "Next time, I'll beat him."

He is twenty-five years old, and pacing his room instead of packing. He has beaten his rival, but it is no victory. He can taste it sour in his mouth. U.S. Open Champion.
It was so close. He had drawn one game prior. She had come into the game with a perfect score. Had she won, she would have taken his title then and there.
All that, and her plays are still inexperienced. All fight, not enough polish. A matter of time before their rivalry can really get started.
He hears the clock ticking.
And his arm is aching bone-deep, too strong to ignore. Like it has since she resigned… Since she looked up at him in shock and all he could think was that he had beaten a seventeen-year-old. (Not beaten. Just slowed her advance.)
But tonight, after he witnessed the fire drain out of her, his arm had grown numbtinglingcold over the course of a half an hour. It all reminds him of the games he has lost in Europe as a kid, that feeling of the Russian bulwarks overwhelming him.
He remembers what he would have liked back then.
He picks up the phone, and asks the operator to connect him to the Wheatleys' room.
It rings. "Hello." It is not Harmon, which makes sense. The awards banquet is tomorrow morning. The Kid is probably asleep, or reviewing.
"Mr. Watts? Why are you calling?"
"Yes, me." He tries to sound light about the whole business, but it doesn't pan out. "I just wanted to check that she's alright. First outright loss in what, three years? It's gotta sting."
"She told me about it over dinner. She's asleep, though. Perhaps I can take a message?"
He huffs. He knows what his own teenage response would be. Perhaps it doesn't translate directly, but… "No, I'm pretty sure that is the last thing she needs."
Mrs. Wheatley sounds amused. "Probably not."
They converse a bit, talking about things that have come up in their correspondence. But he ultimately thanks Mrs. Wheatley for her time, and hangs up. He stares at the clock. It is a quarter to eleven.
Benny is twenty-five, and he knows he needs to rest before another cross-country drive. But he is kept awake again, by his mark and by the ticking clock, into the early hours of morning.

Chapter Text

25 (17)

He is twenty-five years old, and somewhere between Flagstaff and Albuquerque. He's done these drives almost every year for the last seven; ever since the USCF picked up the habit of hosting the U.S. Open in the West. Region VI, the Southwest. Region III, the Pacific.
Manhattan to Vegas is a long drive, and he does it two ways, but flying still isn't worth the cost. He has the time. So he adds a day to the expected trip length, and traverses the country, playing at any available clubs en-route and sleeping in cheap motels, his car, with friends or a quick lay.
He does not mind the long hours alone on the road, not when he can fill his thoughts with chess and play dead masters until the sun gets low in the sky. And when his back gets stiff and his fingers begin to cramp, he can easily find somewhere interesting to get out and explore.
But this time the only game that goes through his head is the newest Senior Master's first loss, and he mulls it over as he loops south to avoid the heavy mountain snows.
His fingers tap the wheel, frustrated. He can see how she could have drawn, or won if she had switched her focus more effectively. If she hadn't fixated on one idea until it cost her the game. And he could see, feel, how it hurt her.
No one likes learning they aren't invincible. But if she cannot get past it, she will not survive playing internationally.
But Benny is twenty-five, and he knows while his soulmate is seventeen, she has been playing opponents for only three years. She is probably still learning when to focus, and when to see the whole board. She will learn from this. When they will play again, she will be better.
('And when she does?'
He will deal with it when they come to it.)

She is seventeen when she confronts the box the man from Cornell gave them.
He had introduced himself as "Miss Harmon's old thesis advisor", and he brought with him a heavy cardboard box and a book. "Her research materials and books were left to the University library," he had apologized, "but she never came back for some of her belongings. Teaching supplies, I think, but a few personal items." But she had been amazed, nonetheless. Her mother had taught at the University. She hadn't even known that much.
The old professor looked surprised when she told him this, and gave her permission to write if she had questions.
"I have one now," she had said. He nodded, and she asked if he knew her father. He didn't, but he gave her the book to keep. She recognized it at a glance, but Alma flipped to the first page.
"She spent two years on that," the professor told them.
"Nineteen-forty-six? She was—" Alma trailed off, prompting her to look at the page. There is a quick biography, featuring Alice Harmon's birth year. Her mother had been working on her doctorate at her age. Younger, perhaps. She didn't know what to think. But Alma, her new mother, did. "She was a genius," she murmured.
As a child, she had never asked her mother for details. Then, it became too late to ask. In one meeting her knowledge of her first parent practically doubled. She wants whatever she can. This box has all that is left.
But she has doubts. How much more could this box teach her? And does she want to know? But some people call her a genius at chess. Is this her fate? (If it is, perhaps ignorance really is bliss.)
But Beth is seventeen years old, and she knows there are things you have to face. She had held off on opening the box until after the U.S. Open because she hadn't wanted to be distracted, not because of fear. Now she has over a month until the next big prize, in Chicago. She has the time, and no more excuses.

They say the onus of the older soulmate is patience, of waiting for their match to become themselves. In my experience, however, expectations are just as much a cause for conflict. One can think they know themselves, but can one ever truly know another? Predict their nature, or their movements?

25 (17)

He is twenty-five, and back in his friends' apartment. They had run down to the nearest deli to grab sandwiches, but Cleo is still there.
(The sleeper couch hasn't been used. It is covered in stacks of Levertov's two-week-old grading.)
They share a light, and fall into their usual subjects of choice. Beyond the technical ones that only two regular world travelers can appreciate, they compare notes on politics and travel, European music and New York's many undergrounds.
But inevitably, Cleo brings up "the girl". She does it with her usual bluntness, and when he least suspects. "Hm… Is she attractive?"
He is thrown, because they were discussing Moscow. "Who?"
Cleo raises an eyebrow. "You just played her."
He shoots her a look. "She is seventeen." Even as he says it, he kicks himself. Considering her background, Cleo will not care. For her, survival in the postwar economy came first.
She smirks. "Obviously. Tell me something else. You did speak to her, didn't you?"
It sounds familiar. "Did Wexler put you up to this?"
Cleo laughs. "No, but Hilton and I discussed it while you were wasting a week in that tin can of yours. So? What was she wearing?"
He was about to reiterate his first point, when it occurred to him that, for Cleo, clothes were a language in the way chess was for him. Unfortunately, he hadn't been paying much attention. "Blue at the game, but I saw her wearing a red shirt and a camera before."
"Nothing else?" she teases. He takes a drag from his cigarette, rather than answer. Cleo sighs. "Yes, yes. Underage. But if she wasn't?"
I don't think I would notice, he thinks. I have a rule: don't shit where you eat, he wants to say. The first would be honest; he has never seen his opponents like that, not when chess is involved. The other would also be true; he doesn't want to cause problems in the driving force of his life. But instead, he settles for something just as true. "She's the Kid."
Cleo rolls her eyes, skeptical. "You keep saying that." She pauses, and admits, "With all this talk, I would like to see her play."
Benny is twenty-five, and it has been twelve years since her words took shape. That one word has become layered with meaning beyond its definition. A potential rival, an equal, a way to improve. A fellow chess player above all else. Later, a pain on his wrist, a grim-faced child in black and white, an awkward teenager with a well-hidden temper. Now, a talented player not quite there yet, but could be. Soon.
(Someone to watch out for.)
"You will."

She is seventeen, and thinks she understands there are times when you may need help, or friends. So they make a day of it, she, Alma, and Jolene. Jolene comes over on the following Sunday, curious after too many blanks in their conversations over the phone. Alma greets her with some relief, hoping that "you may be able to understand if something is worth bringing to our lawyer. Would you like some tuna casserole?"
Jolene laughs as she attempts to signal to her from behind Alma not to accept the offer.
The levity ends, though, as the box is opened. On the top is a glass paperweight. Jolene picks up a stack of books and sets them aside for her to look at later.
Underneath there are photographs. They all have tiny holes from being pinned to some sort of display, but they are clear enough. The only framed photograph is a professional print dated January 1948 on the back, featuring a middle-aged couple, and a girl who looks familiar enough to identify. She knew intellectually she had grandparents, but it is another thing to see the smiling, well-dressed pair.
While Jolene comments on sharing a taste in clothes, she recalls that her mother once said she came from money. She remembers that her mother said she married into more of it, and starts flipping through. But there is no sign of the man who she saw before the accident. She is not surprised.
She looks at Alma, who is studying the portrait with a frown. "I hope they are dead," she confesses with sudden clarity. Her adoptive mother stumbles at her words, but Jolene nods.
Alma sets the frame down on the coffee table. She clears her throat. "For not coming for you, I take it?"
"It's better than your own family not wanting you," Jolene explains solemnly.
Alma looks even sadder. "I see… And she had no one else?" It hadn't even occurred to her to check. She skims the photographs, but all the people they contain seem to be students or staff.
"Not soulmate, Cracker?" Jolene asks gently.
"It's all just skin." Alice waves her arm, displaying where the mark had been rendered permanently illegible by jagged scars.
Her voice hitches. "No. No soulmate."
She knew her mother's was set, the words of some stranger too far away to help the daughter indistinguishable under the scars. It figured. Just another missing man in her life. Another might have been. She can handle that; Mr. Shaibel is everything she needs in a father, she has a whole team of brothers, and Townes may be one too.
She does not know what to think of her own match. Though she understood the logic, and over time began to welcome the simplicity it afforded her, his absence had left a great deal of ambiguity. It was probably for the best; her focus was on chess. If his intention in letting her be was to let her progress on her own, it had done its job. She could at least respect that.
Determined to set aside this topic, she flips open what appears to be a pocket planner. She sees a simple slip of paper sticking out of the back, and freezes.
Beth is seventeen years old, and can recognize a prescription when she sees one. And she has been intimately familiar with that particular name for the last three years.
(She puts it in her pocket, and later, in her copy of de Fermian. She doesn't want to get rid of it, but she doesn't want anyone reading it. There, it will be safe.)

Yet almost all soulmates, save the rare few who find each other in infancy, display this behavior to some degree. It is as though, having had time to develop that image of their soulmate, humans may find it hard to shake when faced with the reality of the person behind the mark…

25 (17)

He is twenty-five years old, and comes back from Argentina to turmoil. Not for him, but for the Invitational in July. The organizers had just gotten a response, and apparently the Soviets will not be joining them.
It is a blow, for them and for him. But it is not enough to make him reconsider his travel itinerary. Not with its prize fund, and the likes of El Viejo and Reshevsky.
Still, it is disappointing. He distracts himself from it by challenging everyone he can find, and scanning the magazines for tournaments nearby. He could use some speed chess with decent players, and most club members won't risk playing him.
Instead, he finds an announcement. He thinks of his last conversation with Cleo, and the likelihood of Harmon showing up. With her rating potentially pushing 2450 after the Greater Chicago, she is a shoe-in. Still, he snips out the announcement and adds it to a response to Mrs. Wheatley.
Benny is twenty-five, and not above doing a friend a favor.

She is seventeen years old when she asks the Kentucky State team for help with her game analysis. She phrases it as homework, the first she has ever assigned beyond "practice", but they can read her well enough, she suspects.
"What did I miss?" she asks. It was a radical suggestion of Jolene's to do this, and seems pointless, but she trusts her. Still, asking hurts almost as much as losing, or finding out some unknown (even a soulmate) has been studying her games, and she braces herself for the answers.
And they come, and come, and come. Some are brilliant, and others are absurd. Lines of notation she would not have had time to work out, or which her gut would have dismissed. Joking assessments of her opponent's character, and serious assessments of his past and present play style. Strategies. Priorities. Even luck is argued, regarding a possible fork.
But then Jones, a freshman from Ashland, pulls out a book. "Have you seen this?" He sets up a position on the board. It looks familiar, but it is not from her game.
She starts imagining the lines that might result from such a position, while the others look at the book. Then Levy looks back at the board, and swears. "Are there any others?"
"A couple." The team breaks into murmurs.
"I don't know whether this is a complement or an attempt to destroy your confidence, but I think he was inspired by some of the early games between Luchenko and Botvinnik. Or maybe a Tal? And there are a couple from Hoogovens that look similar…"
She lets their discussion wash over her, and makes a decision.
Beth is seventeen, and has been all but coaching these men for two years with outstanding results. Perhaps now, after these not-strangers she trusts to have her back have studied her games, they could point out what others see.
Maybe that is what Jolene meant when she told her, "You need to get off your pedestal."

Chapter Text

17 (25)


She is seventeen, and used to joining Alma on early in the month to evaluate their finances. The paperwork may be tedious, but whatever boredom is overcome as they together watch the money grow. Alma has done most of the work, arranging for the right investments and budgets to let the accounts accrue, but with greater involvement she is impressed by the thought her mother has put into her itinerary.
It is a balance; in order for a tournament to be profitable, the winnings need to offset the cost of transport, housing, and food for two people. This drain has kept her from larger purses in the past, so it is a surprise to discover that some invitational tournaments will cover the traveling expenses outright.
She realizes this when Alma pulls out a clipping she recognizes from Chess Life. "Our contact highly recommends we consider this one," Alma explains. She looks at the announcement; she has read it before, in her copy last month, but dismissed it because it was designated for "Juniors". She is a senior master now. She wants to play adults.
Obscuring part of the first paragraph, the words "Piatigorsky Foundation" are circled, twice over, in heavy pencil. Next to it in the margin are two dollar signs and an exclamation mark. It is not the first time she has seen this particular hand. It is painstakingly printed, so she can't place it. Alma's evasive answers to past queries had been suspicious, although the little information she knows he has provided has only been useful so far. But this seems far more direct than the last time he wrote. No middleman, no ferried messages. Curious. She raises an eyebrow.
"I've heard about Piatigorsky— he is a musician," her mother comments. "It seems strange that he would be connected to chess tournaments, but his wife—"
"She plays," she interrupts. "She came in eighth in the Women's this year." Women players rarely get noticed, but even she has heard of Mrs. Piatigorsky.
"And there was that tournament a few years ago," Alma agrees. "I have done the research, and flying internationally is expensive. If we are to get you 'off the ground' and keep you there, you need a backer. This foundation occasionally sponsors young players, I hear."
Beth is seventeen, but she understands the implications. For almost three years, her chess has funded itself. But she has hit a ceiling she did not anticipate, and she curses herself for missing it. She supposes she had thought misogyny would be a greater threat to her play than cost analysis. "Well, I guess we can't complain about a free trip to New York," she quips.
Chess is chess after all.

He is twenty-five, and has been the face of American chess for seven years. In his dealings with the Federation, they had discovered he has a talent for handling unscripted interviews. It gives him an opening now. As much as he would love to retreat to his basement, to Unzicker and Portisch and the greats of the game, and ignore the world until June, he still has bills to pay. Royalties only go so far, and his last international ventures have drained his account lower than he would like. So, he has this, and he has gambling, and the pots this month are lacking. He accepts an interview.
It is an inclination of his: to talk, to inform, to convince. He knows that; for him, the challenge of the interview has always been in controlling the outflow of information. But he has tangled with reporters of all stripes, and knows them as well as the shifts in traffic on Fifth. There is a world of difference between the people who write for chess publications and those who write for general papers. There may be good ones and bad ones, but more importantly is the distinction between the useful, and the rotten. He knows when to keep his guard up.
And so he does, because he knows this type. He saw it the moment he walked into the room. That challenge, the evident hunger for a story. He can respect that drive, but he has no intention of inviting scrutiny. So he watches his words, and he watches his opponent for any sign that he has misstepped. For any sign that he needs to do damage control.
They begin with the biggest topic in chess this month, Borgov's recent victory over Petrosian. He tries to talk them through one of the games, the shortest of them, and when they change the subject to other Soviet players, he allows them the reprieve.(He could have filled up the entire allotted hour on it alone.) The questioner shifts to whether the Russians — "Soviets", he corrects — would be attending the upcoming event in Santa Monica, and he plays the event up. Promoting interest in chess, after all, is what he is really being paid to do here.
But he saw that look, and knows it cannot be that simple.
And it isn't.
He doesn't react when asked to comment on intuitive players— Tal's play had already been mentioned. But when they ask about his own speed chess, and about seeing patterns, he knows something is up. Then they ask about "apophenia", and intuitive players. He almost rolls his eyes. He shuts them down with a piece of paper and two lead dots strategically placed over a half-circle.
It is only when he leaves the building that it occurs to him that they may have been referring to Harmon. He is twenty-five, and comfortable with the Press as he can be. But the Kid needs to train, not field the press. It is a reminder, just why he needs to keep distant.

Of all the different superstitions surrounding soulmarks, perhaps the most harmful, is the assumption that in some way the character of one's soulmate, at the very moment, is a direct reflection of their match. For following the belief in reflection of the soul, the soulmate of the adulterer may themselves be branded adulterous, the match of the murderer murderous, the petty crook's crooked. The soulmates of witches were sometimes themselves executed through such associations.

17 (26)


She is seventeen and in New York again. She is familiar with the venue; she played at the Henry Hudson in 1964, and it does not appear to have changed too much. A couple of players she even recognizes from prior events. One of her opponents, in particular, is like looking at a male mirror. He is the same age as she, only a couple months younger, in the same grade and has been playing as long as she. (It is enough to make her wonder, if for a moment, why her words rest underneath the sleeves of a horrific black duster.) And yet… She has played more, and she has far more incentive to win.
Alma is here, despite the number of doctor's appointments she has had recently, and she is all business this time. While she reviews for her games, Alma has worksheets and maps spread out over her bed, has conversion tables and price estimates. (She wants to kick the person who told her mother she doesn't have a head for numbers, when she so clearly does.) During her first match, Alma procured a list of likely tournaments from her "unknown" grandmaster contact during the first match, and spent the evening plotting itineraries. And when she went to bed this last night, her mother was skimming through canvas-covered books she must have borrowed from Jolene.
It buoys her to know someone else is working just as hard for her career to be a success.
She moves a rook, and punches her opponent's clock, and scans the crowd. She recognizes a few. Here, a player from a tournament last year. There, the grandmaster she once defeated in Pittsburgh. Over there, the teacher-faced man who first forced her to draw two years ago, standing with a strikingly beautiful woman on his arm. She stares down at her like an Egyptian queen from Methuen's Saturday movie selection. She looks away, embarrassed, and spots Alma speaking with an elegantly-dressed older woman whose primary arm is, even at a distance, adorned with beautiful brushstrokes.
Beth is seventeen, and she has her own job to do if this is to work. She has this one last opponent to defeat for a perfect seven-zero, and she cannot afford to have any slip-ups.

He is twenty-seven when Cleo finally sees his soulmate. They are in the lobby of the Henry Hudson. She refuses to ride in his car, so she meets him there with Levertov and Wexler.
"Is that her?" He knows she hardly has to ask. Of the eight players present, only one would fit the description. "She has potential," Cleo mutters.
"Don't go poaching her," Wexler quips.
Cleo barks a laugh. "Of course not. She would be miserable. Models are…" She waves her hand in an attempt to express some indescribable frustration, then drops it. "Well, are you going to introduce us?"
"We've met," Levertov smirks.
He shakes his head. "No."
"There've been reporters sniffing around. Someone must have leaked that line cut from Life."
Wexler curses quietly. He pretends not to hear him.
"Why are you here, then?" Cleo asks skeptically. He shrugs.
They part ways; they to watch, and he to speak to the Foundation representative. Benny is twenty-five years old, and the U.S. Champion. He is noticeable, especially in this crowd. But with the return of the Soviets to the field, he has good reason to want more information.

Likewise, the bearer of a respected leader's mark may be deemed just as worthy to lead, and the honesty of one soulmate may be used to vouch for the word of the other. Despite the many proofs that these assumptions are logical fallacies, and that we cannot know the whole story, these beliefs pervade even modern societies.
Who have you judged, based on the actions of their soulmate?

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She is seventeen, and has successfully sweeped her first invitational. Yet somehow, Alma had the greater victory. She tells Alma as much, congratulating her over getting past her stage fright. Her mother corrects her. "She actually spoke first. That interview in Life got her attention. She might be interested."
Alma rambles on, and she doesn't interrupt. "You could go to Moscow once you become U.S. Champion—" and how nice it is to hear that confidence— "but the cost is worse than I imagined. Five thousand dollars, for just two people!"
She raises an eyebrow, and opens her mouth to speak, then stops as a thought comes to her. She already knew that mother's chess contact was a grandmaster. She knew he was based out of New York City based on the anonymous P.O. Box address. But it all meant little—New York has more grandmasters than anywhere in the United States.
But Alma's comment, however, tells her far more. Only two grandmasters could reasonably know about the costs involved in reaching the Soviet Union's capital— and Reshevsky didn't bring a second.
Her mind reels.

He is twenty-five years old, and back on the road again. He tries not to make the same trip twice, but there are two highways to California that don't require large detours, and they both run through Nevada.
(It works out, though. He can pick any casino inside the border, and leave the state with his available funds doubled. Or halved. Blackjack or poker. Skill or luck.)
The first time he had made the trek, he had been unprepared for the extremes of the desert, and utterly miserable. Now he knows to keep blankets in his trunk, and keep a spare battery, and matches and water.
But the second time he had gotten lucky, for a different sense of the term. It had been the right day, the right time, and the wind had been in the right direction. He had gotten directions from the locals and a pair of binoculars, and drove out to a rocky hilltop to watch from a distance the mad stupidity of man.
Benny, at twenty-six, doesn't stop to reminisce, or gamble. Not this time. Not with the heat he will have to endure should he remain, and not with six hours better spent preparing for the nine opponents he will now be facing.
(He welcomes the prospect.)

Chapter Text

26 (17)

Los Angeles. Occidental county. Six million people and counting, the biggest city in the West. But how many of them know about the eleven elites gathering today? Almost none, especially in this nowhere point of land.
And that is the point.
He had gotten here a couple days earlier than expected; his mark had not given him the trouble it had the week prior. The organizers set him up at the hotel early. But he has been here before. He knows the area well enough, and he has his own car. He has places to be, and people to see, and when he leaves the hotel early, there is nothing to stop him.
In the window between the morning rush and the summer tourists flocking the beach, it is an easy drive south. He skirts the airport and hugs the coast, where the winds trade the sounds of the city for the smells of salt and dead fish. He passes a black-capped lighthouse that draws his eye like a Russian set's white queen, and a new tower over the aquarium, which does not.
He arrives at a salty diner on the cliff over the harbor entrance, greets the woman behind the bar, and claims a table for himself and his books. He orders a bacon and egg sandwich now, and contemplates a "Bessieburger" for lunch.
He hears meat sizzling, and the proprietor pouring coffee. He glances outside. Some teens are laying out towels in the park, and an old man walks past whistling an unidentifiable tune. He looks out at the lighthouse. This one is boxy, and doesn't look like anything. It doesn't draw his eye, and that helps him focus. He returns to his reading, a loan from Wexler before he set out.
Two Years Before The Mast[1] is old enough that it might describe Middle Earth for all it matters to his daily life, but out here Dana makes him think. Maybe in a bit he will go look out at the ocean, and try to identify the ships passing through. Maybe he will stay right here, with his books and his pocket set and his smokes, and be productive with his off-day. But that would be a waste, wouldn't it? Maybe he will pack up, and go explore the town instead. A seaport studded with names like "Deadman's Island" and "Beacon Street" should be entertaining, at least.
Benny is twenty-six years old, and recovering from four days of constant driving. He has been training more or less nonstop for the past two years; a couple days of rest can only help him, he thinks.

She is seventeen when she sees her soulmate's handwriting in use.
A box of neatly-dated letters and notes from two phone calls, and half of a torn scoresheet with an address and number written on the back. She is not surprised that Alma kept them all, considering their potential impact. She is more surprised how easily she got them.
She hadn't planned on saying anything. Not with a very full schedule on her plate. But questions haunt her throughout the the Eastern Open, the largest prize for Independence Day Weekend, and she knows by the end that she cannot continue with the distraction.
She didn't know what she was expecting when she walked into the dining room the morning after they returned from D.C.. Yet Alma surprised her, dismissing the refrigerator in favor of pouring another cup of coffee and inviting her to sit down. She says with a solemnity she has only ever seen over the accounting books that "It was never meant for casual conversation."
"What was it for, then?" she asks, and Alma told her how it began, and how she had taken the advice of the only person she thought might take an interest and turned it into a successful plan to make sure that she had a good start.
"Why didn't you tell me?" was her next question. It didn't seem so harmful.
Alma explained that she had thought Beth had been asking about the man from Cornell, and how she had come to believe that she had had no interest in her soulmate beyond that of any other grandmaster. "I have trouble reading you sometimes, dear," she admitted. "I thought you weren't interested. You seemed happy enough… and I did not want to ruin that."
It isn't a good excuse, and she says so. "I had a right to know."
And Alma had agreed. The admittance soothes something in her. Never before had an adult in charge of her admitted to a mistake.
Her mother took nearly a week to compile the papers, but she gave them to her immediately once she thought she had gotten them all. She doesn't mind the wait— it was enough, she thinks, to no longer have to hold her tongue on the matter.
The papers are a strange conciliation for two years of silence. But in her seventeen years, Beth has been burned too many times to trust someone with power over her at their word. She studies the pages, over and over, until she is satisfied there is nothing missing. The apparent lack of interest from her soulmate had bothered her more than she had wanted to admit. The avoidance, she understands as necessary— but that there was a way around it, and it had been used, warms her and frustrates her in turn.
She has questions, she realizes— ones that could only be answered by one person, if at all. She purses her lips and wonders if they are worth asking.

In most industrial societies, workers compensate for the risk to themselves and others by watching their neighbors for signs of sudden feedback and being ready to step in. Yet even this last line of defense is insufficient, if the spacing between entry into danger and the resolution of the feedback, be it through actual death, serious injury, or escape, of a soulmate is fast enough, and in large enough numbers.

26 (17)

He is twenty-six, and knows how to behave at receptions like this. He has seen enough in his twenty-year career. This is an ideal time to network, to gather information, to take the pulse of the competition. Some are on the way up (like him, he hopes), and others should be plateaued, or on the way down. The trajectory doesn't matter, in this instance. They are here because they were invited, and they were invited because they play truly amazing chess. It is a compliment, but it is an obligation to play to that standard. They can all feel it, he knows. The anticipation.
There is a tenor to tournaments of this caliber, and even among them the Piatigorsky Cup in Santa Monica is unique. It is not small and private, like the European invitationals in their elegant salons. Nor is it to promote government interests, and lacks the grandiosity of Moscow's halls. No. From its location to the boards on the walls, this round-robin will cater to the audience as much as the players. This may be an answer to the international tournaments held elsewhere, but it also drums up the public support so essential to the American chess scene. Last time, he had been like the foreign players, here for the chess, the prize, and the chance to show off. But now, it is a chance to see if the effect that Moscow's finest have on potential players can be repeated.
Thus, seeing Borgov and his wife walk in is an unpleasant surprise. Yet here he is, the second time in six months, after a span of seven years. He thinks drolly that he must be moving up in the world, seeing his chances of winning the top prize sink in one go. He does not want to face Borgov again so soon— but after the last-minute complications that had occurred this week, he wouldn't put one final last-minute switch above the USSR. Besides, shouldn't he still be in Mexico? So many questions. He eyes the warm welcome the hostess gives the man and his wife warily.
He strikes up a conversation with Najdorf after he greets the World Champion. The older player instantly catches on to his concerns in an instant. "He convinced the Moscow Chess Club that their interests would be better served with him here, acting as second, rather than at home."
He tries to hide his utter relief behind amusement. "And of course he had to take his family…."
"He is wise to do so," El Viejo agrees. "Although the little Borgov is quite looking forward to Disneyland, I hear. So it may be that."
The levity isn't quite enough to overcome the grim reminder of a traveler's nightmare, though. The old man changes the subject. "I hear that your soulmate is your country's new Junior Champion. What was the prize, again?"
"All expenses paid to a tournament of their choice in the following year," he paraphrases. There had been some debate, he had heard, about how to handle the terms since the American Open was meant to be held in November, and the U.S. Open even later, and both were when school was in session. He has money that she will wait, and use it for the U.S. Open, but it is possible that ambition will drive her to make the trip to Ontario in an attempt to increase her international standing. He hasn't paid attention despite the proximity to his home state because, with it overlapping the U.S. Championships, his attendance is a moot point. So, he asks his older companion his opinion. He asks if she actually needs to play in the tournament to get the trip paid for.
Benny is twenty-six, but he remembers what he was like at seventeen. The prospect that the Kid would choose to use this opportunity for a tournament she wouldn't be playing in seems ludicrous. He snorts, but doesn't meet his oldest grandmaster opponent's eyes.

She is seventeen when she understands what Annette said by that there is always a "next one". Jolene is back, this time from Chicago, where she had been on the ground with the SCLP. While Jolene had been occupied by work with the NAACP chapter in Frankfort during the school year, she admits that she had liked the group's emphasis on direct action ever since she got back from Mississippi. Jolene gets back, finally with enough time to visit. She had wanted to attend the King rally in Chicago, see what this king was about, but there had not been enough time, and Jolene had already been there. But now she and Alma have received an invitation to visit from their potential sponsor, and she wants a third eye.
Though they had called regularly, she is relieved to see her friend in person again. Jolene stands tall as ever, though she hopes she has at least caught up some. Jolene gives her a couple new buttons to add to her collection; she shares pictures of Washington D.C. and New York.
They talk about Jolene's camera, which she had scrounged up to record the proceedings of the Meredith March, and since took to Chicago. Unlike her own, it has scrapes that clearly could not be buffed out. She refused to share what she shot with Beth, but she sounds pleased with what she has. "I spoke with your newsie friends and they had some good ideas about creating your own evidence." She laughs, and points to a picture she took last Sunday. "Never thought I'd be on my way to becoming a black Riis."[2]
"Why are you, anyway?" She thinks she knows, but… it seems strange to think the North may have its own problems, when so many have their concern directed south. "If someone can pull something in one place, it's a bad precedent." Her friend (or sister) shrugs, and changes the subject. "Hey, I'm thinking about going back to Chicago soon— an observer only, don't get your panties in a bunch." She laughs, soft and bitter, at her look. Then she flips her arm over to reveal her own soulmark. "This thing is still acting up."
She is alarmed, remembering her sole real instance, but Jolene shakes her head. "It's not so bad when you're in trouble yourself, Cracker. 'Kinda evens out. It's a good thing, really. Only a few places would give my mark this kind of feedback this long, and I've just been through two of them."
Considering her friend's adventures her own complaint seems trivial. But something must show on her face at the mention of the soulmark, because Jolene— with an eye that will help her as a lawyer she thinks— throws her arm around her. "I'll be fine, Cracker. I'll stick around a bit until it dies down, and I'll be good to go."
She doesn't like it, but Alma interrupts with the invitation and related correspondence. They wait, and watch, as Jolene goes through it all in silence. Then, Jolene looks up, and assures them they probably are safe to move forward. "Go get 'em," she laughs on the way out the door.
Beth is seventeen years old, and is warmed by the support. "I will," she assures with a grin.

Likewise, there may be a connection between perception of danger and severity of the feedback, or to relative increases in danger compared to the norm. The former has been suggested to explain those who have become acclimated to a particular level of danger in their work, and the latter to explain the lack of significant disability in mark bearers with matches in perpetual jeopardy, or who are permanently ill or dying from prolonged illness. An evolutionary argument based on anecdotes that when both bearers are in danger simultaneously, feedback numbs, is known but hampered by insufficient data.

26 (17)

He is twenty-five years old. He should be able to pass this test with flying colors.
Playing Reshevsky is an exercise in patience, especially when he has the white pieces. In this scenario, there is nothing he can do to speed his opponent up as the clock ticks down. He has played him more than any other grandmaster in his twenty-six years, and would suspect by now that Reshevsky is doing this on purpose— except that it isn't just him, and he gets penalized for it on occasion. Even if it is not a mind tactic, it works as one. It is not the seconds ticking away— he plays too much speed chess for this clock to phase him. But nothing makes him feel more trapped than having to wait to move, and when he doesn't even have that first piece out to contemplate, the opening stages become excruciating.
So he looks over at Spassky and Petrosian. He had identified Petrosian as a top-level threat and prepared accordingly, but no amount of preparation can make him comfortable against the Lesser Tiger. He could be champion if it wasn't for Borgov. But if it wasn't for Borgov, the Soviets probably wouldn't be here— or so he gathered from Portisch. Washington, as ever, an obstacle for chess.
So interested he is in the Soviet game past his opponent, he almost misses the click of the clock to his right. He looks to the board. Pawn to queen four. He looks at the clock. Reshevsky is down twenty, but that means nothing. Reshevsky is more than able to compensate for the time pressure. So is he.
He wants to move fast, after the wait. Once, he would have moved immediately. Benny is twenty-six, and the reigning U.S. Champ. He did not get there without knowing when to slow down and look. He won't be tricked into a hasty blunder by his predecessor.

When she was little she was taught the West had bright beaches and clear blue skies. Instead their plane touches down through a hazy dome that she can see from a distance. It grows to cover the horizon, and smothers the outlines of buildings. She has seen nothing like this before, and is amazed that such wealthy people would live in this smoke.
Alma pulls out a handkerchief and coughs.
Beth is seventeen years old now, but she remembers days at Methuen spent watching old movies, with famous names. Now that she has seen this stomping ground of the rich and famous, she has to wonder what drew them here. What glamor is there to Hollywood?
(Clearly, reputation isn't everything.)

Chapter Text

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She is seventeen when she sees where the "good kind of national recognition" leads. An invitation to join the analysis team at the Second Piatigorsky Cup by the hostess herself was "nothing to sniff at", according to Alma. But this trip is more than that— Alma had been negotiating a sponsorship for her through the mail the past month. She thinks they are close to an agreement, if the hostess and founder of the organization is so eager to meet her as to pay for their transport and rooms.
The regal woman and her husband take her and Alma to a restaurant in Los Angeles. The prime rib is excellent, but the real treat is playing their host. She has seldom had a more enjoyable game with a near-stranger, and she thinks she gets this lady. The older woman's rating may have taken some hits this last year, but she decides it must be the strain of the ongoing Cup that is responsible, rather than a want for skill. She is tough enough to be a pleasant challenge, and she is calm. For once, there are no egos to break, no stigma, just playing for the love of the game. They could have played in a moldy basement or a cold street corner and she would have been happy, and she can see in the regal woman's eyes that she was the same. And that is why she agrees to some of the stipulations as they negotiate the terms of the patronage.
It goes on half the evening, and she finds herself agreeing to attending college, and doing the occasional exhibition. They ask questions, and talk about the Foundation's work. The talk of outreach gets her thinking. She thinks of Jolene, currently working with the SCLP in Chicago, and the "Watts Riots" a year ago next Friday, and a boy she almost played in the Eastern, and wonders if there is a place for chess in the slums. There is something there, she thinks, but she cannot put her finger on it yet. She sets the thought aside.
They will have to do paperwork to finalize things, but Alma is all but convinced this alliance is the best thing to happen to them, if they handle it correctly.
Beth agrees that the financial backing affords her more freedom and the ability to really improve her standing, but Alma, for some reason, is more relieved that she has "a clear path forward". She is seventeen, however, and thinks that if there is clarity, it is obscured under options. But for now, if it comforts Alma, and helps her reach her goals in chess, she could get used to having a sponsor.

He is twenty-six years old, and glad that he got out of the hotel when he arrived because he does not have time to explore now. The Second Piatigorsky Cup is nothing next to an Interzonal or Candidates in terms of stamina, but even a tournament of this size becomes exhausting without proper pacing. Yet replaying games is no hardship, and with the essentials packed in the trunk of his Beetle he takes the absence of his library in stride.
It is the other side of this tournament he must consider. If his visit to the Soviet Union had taught him anything, it was not to waste an opportunity to increase public interest. The commentary on the games, and annotations for the organizers are quick enough. He jots down his notes before he can forget, often at the table. More difficult is the people. He speaks to the wall boys, quizzes them on better moves, gets them thinking. He engages with his competitors, and the reporters. He talks cars with the Hungarian and the Curtain with the West German; he debates openings with Larsen and tactics with Spassky. He plays blitz with Najdorf and Petrosian and visiting players enough times before the games that reporters start arriving early and keeping score.
Chess on the board, chess off the board.
He decides the analysis room is an excellent idea, if only because it keeps the reporters contained and the audience entertained while the players plot. He itches to stop in after every match, baited by the willingly captive audience. But that would take too much time; he knows he needs to work. He limits himself to only visiting when invited— and if those invitations come more days than not, he turns a blind eye. But he never turns away.
That is, until he steps inside on the second to last Sunday, and sees Harmon glaring at the board bearing that day's end position like it has personally offended her.
Now Benny is twenty-six, and has been playing against an exceptionally strong field for the biggest prize he has seen in years. He hasn't given a thought to his soulmate in weeks, and now needs to reevaluate. He turns on his heel and walks out, leaving a confused Spassky to make excuses for him.

...The restrictions on those who have endangered soulmates is a luxury, however. In peacetime it is easily executed, but in large-scale conflicts, it is not so simple. When many are conscripted, their soulmates may not be easily removed from their roles. Highly-trained individuals, for instance, may not be easily replaced, and so be left in positions where a sudden reaction may endanger others. This is not the only scenario. When manpower is at a premium, the able-bodied worked in munitions factories around the United States and Great Britain during both World Wars, despite the risk. When warnings could be given, such individuals were cleared from the floor and for the duration of an operation.

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She is seventeen when she decides there is one thing about chess she wants nothing to do with, and that is to organize a tournament. Despite the occasional talk with tournament directors, this is the first time she has been behind the scenes of a chess tournament, and the amount of work she sees astounds her. She feels exhausted just watching the organizers herd all the cogs into alignment.
She thinks of the twins, and their recent discussions of starting a chess club in Lexington. She decides they can handle that themselves, if they are so inclined.
The analysis room is a welcome respite. She loves the large boards, and she loves how she is hidden from the crowds. Yet the man in charge and her co-analysts seem to humor her, though as a guest of the organizer, until that first day. She grits her teeth when they set aside her prediction that the aging Dutchman would turn the game with Watts around. (He doesn't, and she is confused. Has she overestimated grandmaster chess?) But while she is wrong in that the player does not find her winning line, when the younger of the Russians walks in, sees it, and asks if this was Borgov’s handiwork, she feels vindicated nonetheless.
Beth is seventeen years old, and she knows this ceiling well. She does not flinch, and holds her head high under the scrutiny of these men twice her age. Just as she did the men in Ohio and the boys on the team. She does not need to be welcome to be correct. But the next day, she is not dismissed, and when she speaks they consider her words.
She wonders if this is the bridge between national recognition and the beginnings of national respect.

He is twenty-six, and has seen the Kid twice in six months. He isn't bothered by her presence, in itself, but he is frustrated that he wasn't warned she was coming. He hadn't heard from Mrs. Wheatley, so it must have been sudden. Perhaps, yet again, the Harmon-Wheatley team has taken a suggestion and run with it beyond his expectations.
This is a sharp reminder that what Harmon does affects him. The press coverage of this world-class event makes their match a liability— a few of his opponents have brought their soulmates, but none of them are like the Kid. None of them play nearly so well— and she could start playing internationally at any point, now. All it would take is for the wrong person to recognize her handwriting for someone to make a fuss.
He still doubts Najdorf's suggestion has merit. She would hardly waste a free tournament on one without a payoff. There is probably another reason she is here. Whatever they are up to, he shouldn't get involved. He has a full plate anyway; can he really afford one more puzzle when facing Spassky and Petrosian back-to-back, with Borgov backing them should they run into an adjournment?
Benny is twenty-six, in the middle of a world-class tournament, and facing a Zonal the week after it ends. For his own sake, he needs to put chess first in his mind.

But this solution is not always viable. It depends solely on the quality of communications, and the willingness of military governance to disclose potentially vital information. Not only were spies on the ground a concern, but human behavior itself can give an operation away. With the advance of aerial reconnaissance, human activity on the ground has become in itself a valuable tool in predicting enemy action. During the First World War, spies in the air were able to correlate the sudden drops in factory activity that accompany warnings with upcoming offenses. As a result, information relating to critical military options was often withheld during the Second in order to "maintain appearances".

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She is seventeen, and is not in the habit of watching other players. She studies the games; despite her opinion after seeing how many errors she had found in that one Petrosian-Benkowitz game, that studying ordinary chess might not be worth her time, her long hours spent working with the University of Kentucky's team had long since demonstrated the necessity. The players, on the other hand? What could she learn from them? She was all for spending the tournament in the analysis room, where she could compare notes and ask people why this or that grandmaster failed to see a winning line. But the other analysts are not the only ones to encourage her to watch this one— Alma admonishes her that if their host had gone to such effort to produce this tournament, she should at least try to appreciate the whole of it.
She is amazed at the friendliness between many of the players before and the jovial atmosphere after the games end, even from the ones with clear losses. A couple leave, but others stay longer. They set up the boards and she can hear them whisper to each other "...and if I had done this, what did you have planned?"
She now understands her mother's concern over how she had taken her loss in Vegas, if this is how world-class professionals are expected to comport themselves. She wonders how they seem so unbothered about losing.
But there are jokes and gentle ribbing, and a bucket by Watts' seat that is so puzzling she has to ask her host for an explanation. It is a Soviet stipulation. Allegedly, Watts had taken ill in the middle of Mar Del Plata and caused a mess on Spaasky's board. She suspects she does not have the whole story, and the year is familiar, but the fact that the incident had become an inside joke highlights the fact that these men, some of whom could tentatively be called friends, are part of an exclusive club she has little chance of joining. She wonders if it makes losing easier.
She glances at her watch. Twenty after eleven. It is time to leave, ahead of the rush to the doors. It is very late for her, but she has gotten used to it. Her mother, not so much. She turns to nudge Alma, and almost misses a pair of dark eyes looking through her. It is the first time he has acknowledged she is present. She glowers; she does not like being ignored. His opponent, the Argentinian, follows his gaze, and smiles. He says something, and grins at Watts' scowl.
Beth is seventeen, and it occurs to her these two had first played the year she was born. Just another entry in the barrage of trivia this tournament has provided. But she has her own questions. It is about time they were answered.

Chapter Text

26 (17)

He is twenty-six years old, and has been in the game since he was seven. He knows about pressure, and the point where stress takes a toll on his play. He is nowhere near that point. So while he knows it is not advisable to dwell on standings during a tournament, he is comfortable enough in his mindset and his position to allow himself to consider the rankings while waiting for his opponent to move.
He is currently third from the top; his opponent currently has a half-point on him. He has the two Soviets ahead. Someone else could pull two straight wins and take the lead, but it is unlikely. If he wins this one game, he will be tied with Spassky going into the last few matches.
If he wins. This is not an easy opponent. The Danish threat had increased significantly since he started experimenting with new openings. A joy to play against, really— but he had already lost to him once, in the first half. He can't afford it again.
He had spent the evening prior evaluating their adjourned position. He had held a slight advantage when they adjourned, but there is now an unexpected element in his favor. Many of the players are unused to the consistently warm weather… But the man currently across the board from him has in particular not done well with the local climate. It is not like he had aimed for a war of attrition at the outset, but the long grind is slowly reaping its rewards. He knows if he offered a draw now he would get it, but… If he can outscore a Soviet, despite Borgov playing second, it would certainly get people talking.
It would be worth the wait.
The Dane is frowning. He still has a good amount of time on the clock, and he doesn't seem decided when he looks up from the board. "Would you stop tapping?"
He looks down, and realises he has been drumming his fingers against the table. He withdraws his hand, and settles it in his pockets. "Sorry."
"Go take pace or something. I'm trying to think."
"Been for a while. Going to call it soon?"
"Don't make me complain to the proctor about you existing again."
"…Again?" he mutters, but doesn't expect a response. Trying not to unbalance his hat, hooked on the corner of the chair, he stands up and glances around. He spies a familiar face headed in the direction of the analysis room. Shit, he thinks.
Benny is twenty-six. He did not make it this far without knowing when plotting is afoot.

She is seventeen when she meets the first person, other than her first mother and perhaps some doctors, to know of her birth.
She is back in the analysis room, debating Reshevsky's final position when she sees the sole Argentinian contestant enter the scene. He is a well-dressed, balding gentleman with a clever smile. He hardly needs to introduce himself, but he does anyway. He says quietly he was present when the mark appeared, and the math seems to work out. Alma is charmed. Before she can get a word in edgewise, they agree to meet for dinner. The three of them. She does not like the change to her plans; she had been looking forward to an evening off.
Still, she can appreciate the opportunity to learn from this particular veteran. The Don is, after all, an expert on her favorite Black opening, and he has actually read the article she wrote in Chess Review.
There is an ambiguity to this entire appointment, however. "He's married, you know," she tells Alma on the way back to their room. Normally she would not consider this her business, but she is certain Alma does not need more heartbreak.
"A woman can dream," Alma glibly responds. She grimaces, regretting opening her mouth. But her mother laughs, and pats her arm lightly. "But not me, dear. It will be nice, though, to practice my Spanish with an expert." She relaxes; so long as Alma is warned, she doesn't mind avoiding their small talk.
The meal is interesting. Najdorf proves to be an incredible storyteller, although she finds herself deciding not to trust half of what he says. His stories are… unbelievable, sometimes. Who would honestly miss words appearing on their arm? And yet, he plays like her… He favors the middlegame, loves tactics. He asks her about his position, and gives her tips in return. Specific tips. "The boy is strongest in the openings and endgame. The middle is where you can trip him." She thinks the descriptor sounds odd applied to Watts, but supposes that a player of his age and caliber could call him a puppy and no one would blink. "But ignore those areas and he will get you there," he continues as the waiter takes away the soup. She ignores her first mother's diatribes and takes notes between courses.
The food is excellent, and she squeezes her mother's hand whenever the waiter comes by with a carafe. She is so proud when Alma turns down Najdorf's offer to split a bottle. She is irritated, however, when towards the end Najdorf suddenly excuses himself, and comes back with an increasingly familiar figure.
"What now, old—" Watts trails off. His hand twitches, as though he is deciding on a piece to move. Then, he shrugs. "Mrs. Wheatley, Harmon," he greets mildly, but he seems tense.
Not knowing quite what to say, she nods her head. "It is good to see you again, Mr. Watts," Alma says pointedly. "Have you eaten yet?"
Watts shrugs. "There's a convention this weekend. UROC. Ronald Reagan is going to be appearing— the reporters are already casing the place."
Alma raises her eyebrows. "The movie star? Beth, did you know about this?"
She does not follow state politics outside Kentucky, so she shakes her head, and picks at her chicken. "I'd have to ask Jolene about it."
"Best to make the most of the time we have, then," the Don decides, then taps the side of the board with his fork. "What do you think about Black's move here? Strong?" And just like that, Watts turns to the setup…
"This is the thing that Spaasky's been raving about all week."
"One of four, apparently."
Najdorf sounds too smug for her taste, so she interrupts. "Five." Watts blinks. Frowns. "May I sit?"
The old man scoots over in answer, and the current U.S. Champion sits. His position directly across from her is eerily reminiscent of the last time she saw him this close. Even the turn of his mouth is the same… Except for the hat.
It is the first time she has seen him without the hat, she realizes. It seems to keep his hair away from his eyes: several locks fall forward without it, distractingly.
Without the hat, he looks years younger.
He looks at her. "Do you mind?" he asks, fingers twitching at a bishop. She nods, absently rattling off the first way to equalize the advantage while he pushes the pieces. It takes a bit, and the conversation turns to Spanish as he plays through a section.
While he studies the board, she tries to study him. She has been working on her ability to read people this week, but with this person there are too many ambiguities, and for once, chess cannot give her the answers she needs. She reaches over, and moves Black. He looks up.
The restaurant is busy; she keeps her voice low. "Do you know what they are talking about?"
She doesn't know if he is fluent, but based on a few suggestions in the correspondence she thinks it is likely he understands some of what the other two are saying.
He nods. "They're talking about his daughter in Switzerland. At school." He frowns at the board.
"College, then," she decides. She never had planned on going but now that she is, she cannot imagine going overseas to school.
"Probably. He's rich enough to afford the overseas expenses…" His finger hovers over the king. "Are you going?"
She is taken somewhat aback at the thought. "I suppose I am." The prospect still seems surreal to her— she had never imagined it for herself.
"'Suppose'?" he repeats.
"Sponsorship condition."
He moves the king, and hums. "Would've thought it would be the Intercollegiate," he murmurs, mulling it over. "Can I ask who?"
"The Piatigorsky Foundation. It was Alma's idea."
He hums. "Like Reshevsky." He glances at Alma, clearly reconsidering a prior assessment. "She really doesn't go halfway does she?"
She nods, thinking. She could choose to continue talking about chess, or she could change the subject. She knows which she would prefer. But she has so many questions, and so little time. She could try to ask them outright, but between Methuen and Alma she has learned a barrage of questions can seem like an interrogation. Not that she would mind, really, but she does not want to come off as rude.
Still, the questions buzz around her head. She cannot see Watts as someone who does not operate without an element of self interest, so why did he help them? Why did he make those first suggestions to Alma? There are other, older questions. What happened when she was eleven? Why Watts, and not Jolene? Or someone obviously similar like Annette, or that Australian she faced in June. Why not a proper mentor?
And most importantly, can he even be trusted— and if he cannot, can she trust herself?
(It is a terrifying prospect, so she sets that idea aside.)
Beth may be seventeen, but she's been playing chess for more than half her life. She knows better than to waste an opportunity. She weighs her options, balances relevance to the likelihood of getting a straight answer. One strikes her as unable to wait, and she may not get another chance. And so she switches to Russian, certain he speaks it better than Alma, and opens a new game.

The first six hours of June 6th, 1944, saw an unprecedented peak in factory accidents outside occupied Europe. For these unwilling civilian casualties and their survivors, recognition, let alone recompense, has been slow in coming.

26 (17)

He is twenty-six years old, and he should have seen this coming. Yes, El Viejo wanted to see them interact. That is no surprise.
But of course the kid would be curious. He would be too, if he was the one with a soulmate who has been on the circuit longer than he was alive. That is a lot of time to cover, and the papers tell little.
He supposes it would be better if she hears his side first, before she starts digging. He knows himself, and he knows what he was like at that age. He knows she will not take him at his word, but perhaps this will prevent her from investigating too far, too soon, and causing them all trouble. The real question is whether he can answer them. Whether he will even try.
This is a fork, he realizes. On the one hand, there is the model of his friends. Open with each other. No secrets. But they have split their roles and contributions. They never seriously compete. He doesn't want that. Without competition what is the point in improving? Where is the challenge?
And yet Luchenko and Botvinnik hold the other corner. All competition, but so used to holding back information rather than letting it fall into their match's hands that they cannot turn it off when they are on the same side. He does not want that either. He supposes there must be a middle ground, if there is he hasn't seen it. Neither has she, he suspects.
And this will also depend on her. His ego assumes that she will of course want the same, but he knows that is not how soulmates operate, and how they can change. He needs more information.
He compromises. Until he knows more, he will be honest— but he will not bear his guts either. This is the opening, after all.
Braced for a question, he does not expect a statement, let alone in Russian. "I know you've been writing to Alma."
Gratified that she has been applying herself to that particular tool of the trade, he moves a piece. "She told you?" He wonders what would have triggered this shift in her pattern.
"I worked it out. She likes you, I think." He thinks that is a good sign, but then she says, "I am not so sure."
He nods. That is fair; soulmarks or no, have only met a couple of times… and the last time did not end not particularly well for her. "Okay."
She asks him why he helped her mother. He responds that she had asked. (He is still impressed how she tracked him down.)
"And you just did this out of the goodness of your heart." He trips up over the direct translation, but he can hear the sarcasm.
He huffs. "'Goodness?' More like common sense, Kid. What happens to you affects me. Sometimes directly." He glances down at his mark. It had been quiet all week, to his relief.
She seems to catch the movement, but doesn't say anything. She gazes ponderously at the mark. "I would have rather been informed you were in correspondence," she mulls.
He raises his eyebrows, wondering what that would have accomplished. But then he considers. At her age, before he discovered how many boards he was actually playing on… Yes, he could see why she would prefer the semblance of control that comes with dying with your boots on. "Fair enough. But it really is not up to me, is it?" he points out, nodding his head to the side…
She eyes him suspiciously, about to speak… And then the waiter arrives to ask if the party is ready for dessert. He turns away from the Kid, from the board, and sees El Viejo and Mrs. Wheatley staring. He checks the clock, and grimaces.
He had had a perfect opportunity to play the Kid again, without the stress of the tournament— and missed it in a verbal spar. In Russian. It couldn't have sounded pleasant.
("Be careful," his parents once told him. At the time, he had not considered his mother-in-soul a reason for concern. He hadn't considered a lot of things as a kid. He is making up for it now.)
But the Kid seems to decide on something, and it isn't cake. "We don't have time to go through the rest of these," she states flatly, in English. She pulls out a notebook. "I'll send the rest to your room… Do you play correspondence?" El Viejo laughs— they had tried it, once, but the postage was too much of a drain for either to get a taste for it. He shoots him a glare, and grabs a pen.
"Yes," he says quickly, scribbling down his room number hard enough to leave an imprint in the page underneath. He can work with this, he tells himself.
Benny is twenty-six, and he still cannot turn down a puzzle, or a challenge. And the Kid is both.

She is seventeen years old, and her time in Los Angeles is coming to an end. Despite being in the same county, she has not seen the famed Hollywood. She isn't personally bothered, even if she is somewhat disappointed she couldn't get some photographs for her friends. There has been enough to do. The Steiner Chess Club has a new building, and it is beautiful— light and airy and open, very unlike the spaces at the Henry Hudson. She sets up a chess board, selects a game (Game 80, Sicilian Defense), and adds it to her collection.
In spite of this, Hollywood comes to her. It does not come in the form of someone she would recognize, or with obvious finery. She is just a lady, an unassuming sort of pretty, with short-cropped brown hair and a nice dress and cleanly-delineated soulmark. The woman approaches while she is playing through the previous Spassky-Watts game outside on Saturday afternoon, and asks where her partner went. She is surprised to learn there was no partner; she is even more surprised to learn she is working as a mid-game analyst. "You must be very smart," she says. She privately agrees, but shrugs. No sense putting herself out there for a stranger.
But the woman has a sharp ear, and asks if she is from the South. She allows that she is from Kentucky, and watches for any sign of derision. There is only recognition. "You are the chess girl. The one in Life," she realizes.
She confirms it. The woman has a few questions, and she does her best to answer. Yes, she did mean what she said about feeling more in control. Yes, she was an orphan. No, she was not happy at the orphanage. "I have Alma now, though. And I have friends."
"It seems strange, though. Why did you start playing in tournaments so late." She sours, then shrugs. If this was a reporter, she would have been taking notes. There is no sign. "Actually, I started on the late side for a professional—" her eyes follow Vasily Borgov, whom she has yet to speak to, despite her ongoing question of why he has worn Mickey Mouse cufflinks every time she saw him, across the lobby. "But I did do one simultaneous when I was nine."
"Just one?"
She doesn't want to say anything incriminating, but she allows, "That was all I had time to do—who are you, again?"
The woman apologizes, and says her name is Nancy. She offers to play a game, but Nancy says she does not have time. "I hope someday, though."
She walks away, and she sees Alma standing a few yards away. She looks dumbfounded. Beth asks what she is staring at. Alma shakes her head, and laughs. "Dear, you have the strangest luck."
Beth is seventeen years old, has lived through two near-death experiences and has, in one trip, met several of the greatest personalities in the chess world. She is well aware.

Stigma over unset dead marks tends to be proportional to infant mortality rates, and in the wake of depopulation events. The most widespread example is presently Eastern Europe. Following the Second World War, the Soviet Union featured the highest rate of deadmarks in the world, with approximately 5% of its surviving population bearing a dead mark, and other Nazi-occupied Eastern European countries saw similar rates of mark death. Under the circumstances, dead marks became less a thing to be feared and more a fact of life. This has likely also been the driver for their increased research into protective measures for particularly insensate skin.

26 (17)

He is twenty-six when what may well be his greatest tournament performance comes to an end. He draws with Petrosian, a few minutes short of six o'clock, and the next day attends an award banquet.
He overhears the hostess speaking with Harmon, and considers going over to speak. He wants to tell her he has made some notes on the analysis. But she is busy with her sponsor, who he can see is spreading herself thin. A suspicion arises, that this might be the last. He cannot go up and speak; he does not know how much she knows. He tips his hat, and goes on his way.
With play now over, it would be remiss to remain. He knows he needs rest, with the drive and Championship ahead of him. He finds a place on the balcony. While the Pacific is hardly outside the door, he has a good view from his room. It beats crossing two roads and a park only to get mired in sand.
He remembers reading once that the sun on the edge of the horizon has already passed below it. That the earth's own gravity was so great as to distort the light and hide the transition. It is a strange prospect, so unrelated to chess, but he remembers it. He isn't artistic, he thinks; he doesn't think in the metaphors and symbolism that Wexler indulges in and Levertov likes to play with. But in the smog-touched air, the sun reminds him of the kid's hair, and that reminds him of her analyses.
He sees her down below, dark camera in hand. He does not wave. She wouldn't see him from here.
Six months. Was that improvement, or had the skill been there before their game?
Benny is twenty-six, and he wonders if time has passed him by without his noticing.

She is seventeen years old, and spends her last hours in California with a camera in her hand.
The drive to the airport takes them inland, over flat, weedy ground. She thinks she can see the city skyline in the distance, beyond the yellow haze, and is reminded of the riots that cut her volunteering short last year. She snaps a photo. She sees a river, and it is discolored, but the sun shines nicely over it. She shoots a picture of it, too. They probably will come out blurry, but she tells herself that is okay. She will be coming back in November.
She thinks she is starting to get used to coming back to places. It is reassuring.
On the plane, she puts her camera away and pulls out her pocket set. She has her first international tournament in two weeks, a state championship title to defend in two months, and a team to train for the Intercollegiate at the end of the year.
Beth is seventeen years old, and she can see her time in the sun approaching. She will be ready.

Chapter Text

17 (26)

She is seventeen years old, and her summer is almost over. She comes back to Kentucky with a week before her next competition. It is not a lot of time, and far less than she had hoped for at the beginning of the season. But she is confident in her ability, after a week studying how and what the cream of her world currently play. She assigns herself a less intensive study schedule, and affords herself time to rest.
Time to rest actually means time to think, and work on other things.
So she visits with Jolene, and they go shopping for the autumn, selecting stores by how they greet Jolene and their history of equal treatment. Alma shakes her head when they explain their selection criteria, but she can tell she is laughing, and smiles back. It is a small thing, but she has nursed enough pawns across the board to know the value of the minute.
At Townes' suggestion she completes a quick article on the Cup, and she spends a morning editing with him and Roger.
She spends Friday afternoon with the team, breaking in new members as they trickle in. On Saturday morning the twins tell her about their latest ideas for the chess club over a lazy, one-sided game.
She hitches a ride with Levy, newly-graduated but still living in Lexington, to Mount Sterling, and spends an afternoon playing Mr. Shaibel over the board. She teases him about his clippings; he huffs and ruffles her hair. His quiet support warms her, though, and she decides she needs to come by more often.
And, between fashion magazines and her favorite games, she helps Alma with the house and papers. Alma's demeanor has changed since their return, she realizes. She appears no more confident than before, no more determined, but she smiles more, as though a heavy weight has been lifted. She feels blind that she hadn't noticed before.
She asks, and Alma indicates her mark. "I am glad you never had to live with one of these being unsettled for so long," she explains. "I had given up on mine… but now, with travel, there is perhaps a chance. I hope you don't mind, dear."
It is a small smile, hopeful. She feels guilty her first reaction was irritation.
She thinks of Alston's reasons for leaving, and her mother's assertion. She recalls the explanations the teachers at Methuen had put forth for soulmarks. She doesn't want to share Alma's time, and she doesn't want her to get hurt.
But Beth reminds herself she is almost eighteen years old. She is not a child. She has friends, and a soulmate. If she can have both, Alma can have them too. She hasn't left Alma behind— perhaps she can trust her to return the favor. "I don't."

He is twenty-six years old: he knows he is cutting it close. Taking his preferred mode of transport over such a distance is a time-sink, but he has found the options it affords worth the inconvenience. Especially when he does some of his best thinking with a task to keep his hands busy. (Why else would someone put a chess set in the hands of a five-year old, other than to keep a young mind occupied?) But five days visualizing games on the road is not the same as five days of regimented study, when he has to pull over if he wants to check something, or memorize a new position to play though.
Worse, half the time he cannot keep his mind off the Kid's analyses. He itches to find holes in her assessment, but cannot find as many as he would like. The implications are unsettling… and intriguing.
He is disappointed he didn't get to speak to her before he left. He had found some oddities in her play. He asks her about them in his letter, but his mind keeps wandering back to their conversation as he settles into the latest motel en-route. (He does not have room for contacts or clubs on this trip.)
Few things can so successfully distract him from a game as another with higher stakes. In retrospect he can tell she was testing him. For what, he is not certain. Her offer of a correspondence game is promising, though. He is certain he passed, though. He looks forward to this new opponent.
But it will have to wait for later. At twenty-six, Benny knows he needs to prioritize. So he mails his response, now expanded twice over, from a post office near Columbus, and finally focuses on the Championship ahead.

It is worth observing that fermented spirits, and likely other mind-altering substances, have been used since the dawn of humankind. For just as long, no doubt, their soulmates have noticed the characteristic numbness of the artificially impaired. The stigma of substance abuse runs deep, when impaired faculties can throw a soulmate off. In the centuries prior to the modern study of addiction, such individuals were considered suspect, because they could cause their matches unsolicited discomfort.

17 (26)

She is seventeen when she enters the world of international chess competitions. By dint of the National Championship summoning the highest-rated players in the country to New York, she is somehow the American to beat in the Canadian Open.
She appreciates the familiarity, after the events of Santa Monica.
But the location looks decidedly European, with its arched ceilings and its clocktower, and the room she plays in reminds her of cathedrals that she has only seen in photos. It isn't Europe, but it is as close as she has gotten so far.
And she almost missed it.
Not because Alma had gotten sick again— no; her health has been good over the past few months, despite a slow increase in doctor's visits. Rather, it was that she would miss the first day of classes. The final game was scheduled for six in the evening, and school was to start the next day. Some of the school administrators were concerned it would establish a bad precedent; others worry about her missing too much school in her final year. Theoretically, she could have gone without the school's support, but she might need to attend summer school in order to graduate. So she points to her grades, and when the teachers offer to send her the first few days of material ahead of time, opinion shifts.
It was touch-and-go, and she hated every uncertain minute of it, but she and Alma had managed to get on that plane. A victory.
She plays through the first nine rounds without much difficulty. One young man held out long enough to adjourn, but she took care of him soon enough. But coming into the tenth, she is not so sure. She knows of her opponent, has studied his games: He had played in Santa Monica.
The former Yugoslav Champion.
She tries not to think of the U.S. Open. She has the advantage, this time. She had no draws— he had one. Even if they drew, she would still come out on top in the rankings.
But she knows she will not draw.
Beth is seventeen years old, and she plays for the win.

He is twenty-six, and after Moscow, and after playing the best tournament of his life, he is unsurprised to find the National Championship wanting in just about every aspect. Not only is the setting a problem— cost-saving measures agreed upon at a USCF meeting in January. He is less prepared than he would like, although he is familiar enough with all his opponents that it is a minor irritation rather than a concern; his reflexes are just that bit slower. He doesn't play badly enough to lose his title, but it is enough to be concerned. Santa Monica had drained him more than he would like to admit, and he has an Olympiad to play in in two months.
He would console himself that Reshevsky also appears drained, but Reshevsky is not much younger than the Old Man, and isn't going. It is hardly an even trade-off.
But in the ninth match, he gets a pleasant surprise. Levertov had spent much of his leave last spring playing in Europe and the Middle East, and it shows: he can no longer predict his friend's moves. Levertov forces him to adjourn, and later to draw. When they shake hands, he cannot help but tell Arthur he cannot wait to see what he will do in Cuba.
He knew Levertov had hoped to eventually become a Grandmaster. Now, he thinks he may yet follow the Canadian's footsteps, and do so with an Olympiad performance.
They toast to it later at the Queen's Pawn. Him, Levertov, Wexler, and Cleo. Friedman and Weiss are here, and a few others. It is the last time they will all be free until after the Olympiad, so they make the time count. They play skittles and bughouse, flip the values of the pieces, and laugh as Cleo flirts with the proprietor so subtly that her advances are ignored. As the night wears on, though, they return to the topic, about the embargo and the Memorial and the sights. It is food for thought.
Benny is twenty-six years old when he realizes that this is the year he is going to play on Capablanca's home soil. Cuba had never been a dream of his, not like Moscow. The man has been dead for years, while the Soviet city still boasts the finest players in the world. And yet… It is tempting. If given the chance, he wouldn't mind a look around.

Soulmates are known for their potential for both cooperation and competition. In establishing rules for fair play in competitive sports, their presence is often a problem for organizers. Often, two soulmates on the same team seem to be more likely to predict what the other is doing, or pick up on fear or pain. An unfair advantage — or disadvantage — depending on the sport.

17 (26)

She is seventeen, and starts her final year in high school a day late. She comes back with a triumphant score of 9 ½, drawing the Grandmaster from Yugoslavia.
Senior year is different, she decides. There is a lot of focus on the future— and she can appreciate that energy. But other students are talking about careers, or college, or marriage, or the war. Even soulmates come up, as more find theirs. Not all are happy with their options. She hears about their grievances as she looks through her photographs from Los Angeles one day.
She is looking for the shot she took of the river. Something must have affected the light, because while it came out better than expected, the river is off-color. Instead, she dislodges an accidental shot. It is of a dark figure silhouetted against a light inside the windows. She did not get his face, but she recognizes him. The hat says it all.
"I didn't know there were cowboys in Los Angeles," Margaret says from behind. She turns around.
"As far as I know, they don't."
Margaret parses through her words, and concludes, "You know who that is?"
"The U.S. Champion." Of what is not in question.
Margaret raises her eyebrows. "He wears that?"
She shrugs. She hadn't asked about it in their correspondence. It had seemed petty. But then, she hadn't asked about a lot of things. She will have to do better, she decides.
Beth is seventeen, and may not have much experience with functional soulmate relationships. She thinks that knowing why one's mark goes off is probably the kind of thing she should know, at least.

He is twenty-six, and second to the Soviets of his generation, if Spassky is any indication. What would it take to get over that hurdle? Training, time? He doesn't have it, for they have the same. How about a different point of view? He had always dreamed of someone to train against. She will not be playing in the upcoming Interzonal; this is his chance— but it could be his only chance.
Given her trajectory, she will be playing in the national championship next year.
But next year is not now, and the Olympiad is not the only the issue at hand.
There is still more paperwork, and legal arguments, and loopholes to work out for once the Kid turns eighteen. But, at least for now, he can use a phone to deal with this part.
Benny is twenty-six years old when he calls to inform the mother of his soulmate that, for the second time in a year, he is going into a communist country closed to the United States. And while Cuba is closer, in some ways it seems much further away than Russia ever did.