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Health before Chess

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'And I'd sink to the floor, what's the point anymore?

And you, you'd reply

With a glint in your eye (With a drink in your hand)

Saying, "I don't know, but I'm here

Oh, dear God (I'm all yours), dear heart, don't cry"

'Cause I will wait, I will wait and hope

Your eyes aren't rivers there to weep

But a place for crows to rest their feet

And I will wait, I will wait and hope

And rest my head at night content

Knowing where my marbles went

I've loved you for a hundred years

Certainly fucking feels like it' - Song link

 

This was perhaps the most important game in Beth Harmons life. It was one thing to become World Champion, it was another thing to hold that title. 

 

Because now there was expectation, now there was a standard. She felt the pressure in her bones as she walked into the grand hall in the middle of Moscow once more. This time, she wasn’t alone. This time Benny was there, in all his cowboy glory. He simply rolled along next to Beth, looking relaxed as he could be.

 

“Pretty impressive,” he breathed, letting out a soft whistle at the grand archways in the hall. The room lit by chandeliers, the small crystals glittering and making the light dance across the room. 

 

“Prettier than any college hall,” she murmured back, making Benny snort. He took out his cigarettes, lighting one and humming.

 

“So, Borgov isn’t playing?”

 

“No, he wrote me a letter.”

 

“Oh, he wrote you a letter,” Benny drawled, rolling his eyes. “Saying?”

 

“He’s not playing.”

 

“And…?”

 

“And?”

 

“I doubt Borgov simply wrote to you saying ‘I’m not playing’. I know small talks not your thing, kid but other people do enjoy it.”

 

“Right. He said he’s sorry not to be playing but his wife is sick and sometimes family needs to take priority but he looks forward to listening and reading my match.”

 

“You say these things so casually.”

 

“Why, is it a big deal?” she looked up at him, taking the cigarette from his fingers and taking a draw. “I thought everyone got letters from Borgov.”’

 

“You’re terrible, truly,” He murmured back. Beth simply answered with a smile, handing him back his cigarette and walking around the hall.

 

“It seems more daunting.”

 

“You’re here to defend your title, Beth. It’s going to be daunting. But, you’re not alone this time.”

 

“I wasn’t alone the first time either.”

 

“You know what I mean,” Benny breathed, lifting their bags. “Lets get settled into our rooms, yeah? Put a game plan together, and have an early night.”

 

“Do you not want to play chess in the park?”

 

“I need to recover from the flight, I still feel their food in my throat.”

 

“I told you not to eat airplane food,” Beth murmured, linking her arm with Bennys. She bent to lift her bag when there was a sharp jabbing pain in her stomach. She hissed, pressing her hand to her stomach, Benny had stopped moving and glanced at her, narrowing his eyes.

 

“Darlin?”

 

“Yeah I’m fine,” she answered quickly. She didn’t have time for stupid belly aches. It was probably period cramps. She got rather bad ones, and she didn’t need this now. She swallowed, taking a deep breath and lifting her bag. She didn’t like how the pain lingered, but definitely had eased.

 

Nothing was coming between her and her title.

 

 

-----

 

 

“Beth, are you really sure you can compete?” Benny asked from the other side of the door as Beth threw up for the fifth time. 

 

“I’m fine,” she called, gasping for breath. She heard Benny sigh, loudly.

 

“Can I come in?”

 

“No.”

 

“Why?”

 

“I look terrible.”

“Beth, I saw you when you had a flu, and when you had food poisoning.”

 

“I’m on my period, Benny.”

 

“Right and?”

 

“I…” Beth couldn’t finish, another roll of her stomach hitting and making her retch. She heard the door clicking open and then felt Benny next to her, rubbing her between the shoulders. 

 

“Alright, darlin.”

 

She felt tears streaming down her face, the acid taste in her throat and mouth. She hated this. But she did not have time to be sick. She did not have time to be weak.

 

“I need ginger tea and hot towels.”

 

“What else do you need?” he asked.

 

You, she thought to herself. I need you to just hold me until the morning. 

 

She didn’t say that, she just leaned into Bennys chest. He met her gladly, wrapping his arms fully around her. “Do you think that’s all of it out of your system?”

 

“I think so.”

 

“Come on, up we get and we’ll get you some tea and crackers.”

 

“I don’t want to eat.”

 

“You need to get something into you, Beth. Great as you are, I don’t think you’re great enough to survive with no food.”

 

Beth pouted at him, putting a hand on the toilet to push herself off. The pain seared, so harshly her vision went white. She slipped but Benny caught her.

 

“Beth, please,” she heard the concern in his voice. “There’s no shame in pulling out if you’re sick.”

 

“I am not sick. I am fine,” she repeated. She lay concussed for days, passed out drunk and survived. She would survive whatever was going on.

 

She couldn’t even walk to her bed, Benny had to keep her upright. The sweat was rolling down her neck and she felt too clammy. It might have been the food from the airplane, if that was the case then she’d be fine by tomorrow. She had to beat Gregori Girev. She could not lose her title today, or ever. She fought for it harder than anyone else.

 

“Deep breaths,” Benny whispered in her ear and he helped her into the bed. She was wheezing, breathless and in pain. It was like an iron clamp on her stomach and side. As soon as Beth was in the bed she felt herself slip from consciousness and drift between a line of awakeness and not. At one point she heard Benny on the phone to someone, she heard brief moments of the call.

 

“She’s really sick… I tried. Yes, Jolene. I tried…. What do you think I’m doing?... Ok. Right, sure…. yeah, yeah, you’re great. Right, bye Jolene.” 

 

Beth's lips were sticky, and her skin disgustingly sweat. 

 

“Benny…” she tried to sit up but god the pain had gotten worse.

 

“No, no. Lie down, darlin” Benny said firmly, pressing a hand to her shoulder and touching her chin. “What do you need?”

 

“Water.”

 

“Ok, ok,” Benny hurried away, returning with a glass of water. She took it gratefully, small sips in controlled measure. 

 

She barely swallowed the water when she threw it back up into her hands. Benny was there, grabbing a bowel and holding it in front of her.

 

“Beth, you need to listen to me. You cannot compete like this.”

 

“It’s food poisoning.”

 

“Please.”

 

“I just need a good night of sleep,” she mumbled, her head falling back. “Night, Benny.”

 

“Sure, night kid.”

 

 

----

 

 

While the vomiting eased, the fever and the pain did not. Beth played all her matches and won them all, but barely had the strength to move afterwards. Benny was there the entire time, always sat in her eyeline and watching like a hawk with worry across his features. She would compete, she would win, then would return to her room and pass out. When she eventually did reclaim her consciousness, Benny and her discussed the different matches and how to play Gregori. That was all she cared about, she needed to defeat him and hold her title. It didn’t matter how much pain she was in. 

 

It didn’t matter how much she begged Benny to let her take the tranquillizers. She knew she would be better on them because then she’d be numb..

 

“You play best sober, Beth. And you need to be more than your best right now,” he answered firmly, not budging on his choice. Beth would curse him, try to throw something at him and then just lie down instead. 

 

In no time at all, Beth was sat opposite Gregori. He was older, matured. There was even a sprinkle of facial hair on him. He smiled, extending his hand for Beth to shake. She did, and she saw the question in his face.

 

“Are you well, Miss Harmon?”

 

“Perfectly.”

 

“You do not look it.”

 

“Such flattery before a competition,” Beth answered, smirking at him yet the blinding lights and the noises were like a drill directly to her skull.

 

The pain in her side was burning. She was on fire, her skin so sweaty. This was a fever, she knew that because apparently Mr Shaibel was sitting next to her and Alma was in the background somewhere. She wanted to throw up again. 

 

Beth looked out and saw Benny with his concerned look, one arm crossed and his chin resting in his palm. She saw the fight in his eyes, it was not too unsimilar to the one that Gregori was giving her. 

 

Beth hissed, gritting her teeth and holding onto the table.

 

“Miss Harmon?” Gregori said quietly, “Do you want an adjournment?”

 

Beth hated how long it took for her to register that he had spoken to her. She blinked hard then nodded, not moving from her seat until Benny was crouching next to her.

 

“Beth, talk to me,” he whispered, a hint of urgency in his tone. “Please, darlin. There is nothing wrong with being Co-Champion. There is nothing wrong with retiring this match.”

 

“I’m not going to lose.”

 

“Please, listen to me.”

 

“No one will love me if I’m a loser.”

 

There was a pause, a breath and then Benny said. “Do you really think so little of yourself, that you think I would not love you if you lost?”

 

Beth wanted to cry in frustration. She dropped her head to Benny's shoulder, who supported her weight. 

 

“Easy, easy,” he whispered, “What do we need to do, Beth?”

 

“I need to win,” she hated how her voice broke. She hated how there was that much emotion inside her burning. And the pain was blinding. 

 

But Beth would not be her enemy, She would not let her own body be the reason she lost. 

 

Beth leaned against Benny, grateful for his support and grateful for the fact he came to Moscow and that she didn’t have to face this alone. 

 

They returned to their room, Beth passing out once more while Benny ran over the game. When she woke, he spoke quietly and calmly to her, going over the game and talking her through the game and what she needed to do to win. And with every inch of strength and will-power that Beth possessed, she pulled herself back together and staggered down to the hall.

 

 

---

 

 

She won by the skin of her teeth. She didn’t think she was going to do it, yet here she was. Gregori breathed, shaking his head.

 

“Truly, it was an honour to play you, Miss Harmon.”

“You did very well,” she answered, giving him a soft smile and squeezing his hand as she shook it. 

 

Beth felt the tension she had been carrying leave her as she stood. And then, the world turned black. 

 

Beth awoke to the quiet sound of machines beeping, and a sleeping Benny to her left. There were wires everywhere, and a tube up her nose which was rather uncomfortable. She tried to speak but her throat was like sandpaper, painfully dry.

 

“Benny,” she wheezed, her voice barely above a whisper. She groaned, the pain was considerably less, but still there. She adjusted, the heart monitor beeping faster in concern.

“Benny,” she repeated, grabbing the pillow on her lap and throwing it at him.

 

Benny startled awake, jerking upright and looking at her.

 

“You’re awake.”

“Why do you sound shocked.”

“You been out cold for five days, Beth. Five.”

 

“What happened?” 

 

“You… you have appendicitis, but because you’re so stubborn, it burst. And you got peritonitis. Do you know how serious it is?”

 

“No?”

 

“Oh my god,” he murmured, rubbing his face and taking a deep breath. “Your appendix burst when we arrived, but because you didn’t go see a doctor, the bacteria spread and infected your stomach lining. That’s where the fever and vomiting came from.”

 

“Oh dear,” she sighed, rubbing her eyes slowly. “Did I win?”

 

“Do you not even remember winning?”

 

“I saw Mr Shaibel and Alma.”

 

Benny was silent for a moment and then he let out a long breath. “Darlin…”

 

“I’m fine, Benny.”

 

“Beth you could’ve died. You could’ve died. Do you understand what I’ve gone through these last few days? Do you understand? I had to ring Jolene, and Townes and Harry, I had to ring our friends and tell them what had happened. I had to ring them and tell them I don’t know when you’d wake up, I don’t know if you’d wake up,” Benny’s voice ached with emotion. He looked like he had aged years. “Please, Beth. If it’s ever a choice between your health and chess, pick your health. I can’t go through that again.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I know you’re sorry kid, I do. But fucking hell, I didn’t know anything. Anything. They thought it’d turned to sepsis. They thought that they were going to have to remove your stomach lining, they didn’t know what to do. And I kept having to ring everyone at home and tell them that I don’t know what was going, and you still weren’t awake.”

“Benny,” she reached out to him. He took it but one hand pinched the bridge of his nose and he took a shaky breath.

Benny Watts was crying. And Beth had never felt more pain in her life seeing him cry beside her. He wiped the tears away.

 

“I watched them feeding you through a tube, and watching them try to wake you up, and then you did. And you cried, and screamed and they had to sedate you, and we’re in fucking Russia of all places.” Beth took a deep breath, taking his hand and squeezing it as best she could. 

 

“You’re going to be the death of me, Beth Harmon. World Champion of Chess, three years in a row.”

 

“Did I win?”

 

“Only you could be verging on a complete body shut down and win the World Championship of Chess,” he breathed. “There should be a separate tier for you, not Grand Master. Perhaps Master of All.”

 

“I rather like that,” Beth hummed. She sat up slowly with the help of Benny, looking at him and smiling weakly. “I love you.”

 

“Yeah, I love you too, darlin. Next time you pull that shit though, I’ll be having words,” he grinned, kissing the back of her hand. 

 

Beth hummed in response, lying back flat and closing her eyes. “Three time World Champion,” she breathed.

 

“You got cards from Gregori and Borgov, the papers are going wild with you. They’re calling you the true Queen of Chess.”

 

“About time,” she murmured. “Goodnight, Benny.”

 

“Yeah, Goodnight kid, see you in the morning.”

 

 

---

 

 

On the 10th of September, 1971, Miss Beth Harmon announced publicly that she would for the foreseeable future be taking a leave from the competitive world of chess. In the statement, she said that her body ‘Is still not fully recovered, and so [she] needs to take time to heal and recover before I take on anything else. In my leave, I plan to write a book, and to relearn chess and other hobbies I have been ignoring like piano playing. Finally, I also owe Benny Watts some time together as an apology for nearly dying in Russia.’ It was the week after this announcement that Mr Benny Watts responded to her statement claiming he would be ‘Waiting in New York for Miss Harmon’. We wish the pair all the best, and are curious to see how far this relationship will progress’. - The Chess Life, 1971.'

 

The article was framed in Beth's office in her home in Lexington, next to the engagment photo of her and Benny in Moscow. What the press didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them, she decided, looking at the ring on her finger then beginning to write. 

 

'This is the story of an orphan who loved chess…'