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you wait and you wonder who'll take on your odds

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August in New York is not like August in Kentucky. The city has its own sticky, grimy heat that rises from the sidewalks and the brickwork and the people themselves, increasingly scantily-clad and bad-tempered. Beth takes to sitting out on a towel folded on the hot metal of their fire escape, reading magazines through her sunglasses or listening to the radio while she suns herself. Conversely, Benny spends a lot of his time hiding in his gloomy bedroom with the drapes firmly closed, or lying in the empty bathtub in his underwear, sulking. He clearly doesn’t deal well with higher temperatures, and this explains a lot about his complexion, frankly.

In the evenings, as people start gathering on sidewalks and rooftops, they go out into the cooler air; Beth finds an in with the local old men who play dice in the park, keeping half her attention on the game, half her attention on Benny playing dominoes for loose change and honing his Puerto Rican insults, cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth in a way that should look ridiculous and manages not to. Other nights, Wexler and Levertov drag them out to restaurants, to little tucked-away Italian basements and enormous places in Chinatown where none of them speak the language the people around them are happily chatting.

The invitations come from Russia maybe a week after Beth arrives back in New York, one for each of them. The Moscow Invitational is being held earlier this year, a little before Beth’s twenty-second birthday in early October; technically there wouldn’t be much time to prepare if this hadn’t been the goal all along. That thought sparks another thought, and she looks up from the official letter to watch Benny curled up at one end of their couch, reading his.

“How old are you?” she asks.

“Twenty-nine,” Benny replies, eyes still on the paper.

Beth frowns. “When’s your birthday?”

Benny folds the letter neatly, tucks it back into the envelope. “Not today, anyway,” he tells her.

Beth sighs. “Is this another one of those I’m Benny Watts things?” she asks. “Because you know I hate all of those.”

“You enjoy more of them than you think you do,” Benny says mildly, reaching to retrieve his morning coffee.

“I’m your wife,” Beth reminds him. “I’m pretty sure I’m allowed to know when your birthday is, you don’t have to keep fabricating weird little mysteries.”

“I don’t care about my birthday,” Benny shrugs. “One day, you’ll ask how old I am and I’ll say ‘thirty’ and then you’ll know it’s happened.”

“I could ask you every day,” Beth points out.

“You could,” Benny agrees. “But then we’ll just get snappy with each other and you’re supposed to be preparing for Russia.”

Beth narrows her eyes, successfully distracted. “And what will you be doing?”

“Well, Wexler is threatening to get Shakespeare In The Park tickets again,” Benny offers, deliberately flippant.

“Why won’t you be preparing for Russia?” Beth demands, not in the mood to skirt the subject for however long Benny feels like avoiding it. “You’ve got an invitation too, I just watched you open it.”

Benny’s brow furrows in the way it does when he’s about to say something that he thinks Beth should have worked out for herself. “One of us is going to Russia, Beth,” he says, faux-patient, “and we both know the person with a better chance of winning is you.”

“Pretty sure you can knock out the other European candidates,” Beth shrugs, “and you’ve never avoided a situation you couldn’t win before.”

“Case in point,” Benny mutters.

“Why don’t you want to go to Russia?” Beth demands.

“You know how much that shit costs, Beth,” Benny responds, voice tight. “You might have it, but I don’t.”

Beth rolls her eyes. “I’m still in possession of both your Boston and your Vegas Open winnings, which aren’t insubstantial, and I’ve got a savings account I’ve been feeding into for over a year. If I’d won outright you’d be coming to Moscow as my second anyway, we only need one hotel room, and the finances for you competing as yourself aren’t actually all that different.”

Benny is staring at her in the way he always does when Beth has successfully won something from him, mouth a little open, eyes wide.

“If you’d mentioned this to me instead of just being ridiculous in your head about it I’d have reminded you how good I am at math and that I’ve been working on it,” Beth points out. “I’m not going to Russia without you again.”

Benny’s lower lip tucks into his mouth, and Beth knows they’re both thinking about the same thing; but thinking about that last call doesn’t hurt the way it used to, knowing what came next.

“Also,” she adds, “the Federation actually likes you, so they’ll probably offer up some money, and my agent is already talking to the show about me filming some special stuff for them in Russia, for which I’ll overcharge them. We’re going to be fine.”

She watches Benny, who is still playing with his rings. “And you’re sure you don’t want me to just come as your second?”

Beth scowls. “Well, would you prefer that I didn’t play, and I’ll come as your second?”

“No!” Benny protests. “Of course not.”

“Well then.” Beth folds her arms. “We’re both playing in Russia, and we’ll be each other’s seconds. Unless you want to bring Weiss again?”

Benny shakes his head, something like a wry laugh escaping him. “Jesus, Beth, no, I don’t want to bring Weiss.”

“Then it’s settled,” Beth says. “We’ll both accept.”

“It’s a lot of pressure,” Benny reminds her, tone careful. “You’re sure we should do this?”

Beth shrugs. “It won’t be worse than Vegas,” and watches Benny tip his head, conceding.

They end up out at Coney Island; the last of the big theme parks closed years ago and everything has a vague dilapidated, unloved feel to it, but there are still crowds of New Yorkers filling the beaches. The sun verges on blisteringly hot but the breezes coming off the water mitigate it, and Beth feels like she can breathe more freely than when cramped in the city. There’s something loose in Benny’s shoulders, wearing the hat but none of his other affectations, sleeves rolled up to let the sunlight touch his forearms, as they stroll like so many other couples, over-excited children cutting across their path, shrieking and giggling, clothes and faces smeared with ice-cream. They pick up lunch from Nathan’s Famous Hotdogs and find a space on the beach to eat, surrounded by families and sunbathers and someone’s radio playing The Carpenters warbling Close To You.

Beth casts a sideways look at Benny, already smiling; his mouth is grim, and he shakes his head as he murmurs: “fucking insipid”.

Prepared for the weather, Beth is wearing short culottes and a sleeveless blouse, and it’s easy to kick off her espadrilles and dig her toes into the sand. Even Benny consents to remove his boots and roll up his jeans enough to trail after her to the water, complaining: “it’s probably contaminated, they dump so much shit in here.” He follows her in anyway, surf around their ankles, wet sand and cool water, while kids shriek and splash in brightly-coloured swimsuits. Beth’s childhood did not involve trips to the beach, sandcastles and ice cream and sunburn, and she thinks back to that serious, awkward little girl and wonders if she’d have liked it.

Beside her, Benny has his eyes on the horizon, seeing and not seeing; Beth’s always seen her imaginary chess matches on the ceiling, on the sky, high above her and full of possibilities. She knows now that Benny visualises things ahead of him, just out of reach. When they’re playing chess without a board, she looks upwards, Benny looks forward. It’s probably just as well; he’d definitely have crashed his car by now otherwise.

When Beth leans sideways and presses her mouth to his, she feels Benny startle back into himself, into the moment. His lips are a little cracked and taste of salt and sand, and when she pulls back she can see herself reflected in his eyes.

“What was that for?” he asks quietly.

For knowing that I needed to come home when I didn’t even know where home was, Beth thinks, but they’re not touching that night in Lexington yet, maybe they never will. “It’s a nice afternoon,” she shrugs.

“There’s too many people and the water’s probably polluted and I’m gonna have sand in my socks all the way home,” Benny tells her.

Beth reaches to pluck off his hat for the way the sunlight catches how gold his hair is, for the way the breeze picks it up and blows it off his forehead, for the way he reluctantly smiles when Beth sets the hat on her own head, taking the role of cowboy king for herself for a moment. Benny responds by taking her sunglasses, slipping the cat-eye frames onto his own face; they don’t look half bad.

“What’s that for?” he asks when Beth tilts the brim of the hat a little and kisses him again, quick and simple.

“It’s what Benny Watts would do,” she responds, laughs when Benny catches her at the waist to pull her in once more for one last lingering kiss, like they’re like those other couples around them, summer sweethearts, born of cloudless skies and sunshine and that shade of golden light that only happens on certain evenings.

Neither you nor Benny are the type to like or to trust things that come to you easily says Townes in Beth’s head afterwards as Benny wades back to shore, jeans splashed to the knee despite his best efforts. He turns once he’s back on the beach, sunlight glinting off the frames of Beth’s sunglasses.

“Are you coming?” he asks.

Beth makes sure her eye-roll is dramatic. “Yes,” she says, and wonders for a second what it would be like if they did, if they could.

-

Beth’s spent her evening playing speed chess with some of the women at Christine’s club, finishing up with a simultaneous against the three strongest players at their insistence: “we have to get you ready for Russia!” Afterwards, they fall easily into chatting, topics Beth can identify with and topics she can’t, but it’s comfortable and easy and nice to slip back into, after those weeks of silence in Kentucky. It’s also a reminder she has the beginnings of a life in New York, there’s more than just Benny here.

Later, she drifts over to find out what Benny’s been doing; she didn’t hear any arguments break out behind her, which is always a good sign, but if she’s learned anything by now it’s that Benny can create trouble very quietly. For now, though, he’s looking at a folded-over page in a magazine while the guy opposite is saying: “I can’t believe you haven’t been yet, Benny, Jesus.”

“July got a little crowded,” Benny responds.

“Well, they’re still there for a week or two,” the guy says; he’s dressed a little like Benny and Beth thinks she’s seen him before around here, although he carries the look off with a lot less panache. That, or she’s hopelessly biased by this point. “You can still go.”

Beth drops into the chair beside Benny’s, borrowing a trick from his book by leaning over and saying: “where are we going?”

Benny startles a little, gives her one of those momentary looks like he’s forgotten she exists and isn’t sure what to do now he’s remembered, and then shrugs. “The Velvet Underground are playing,” he says, “but you’re not much of a fan.”

Beth considers this. “I like them more than Bob Dylan or… any of those jazz guys you like.”

It’s almost too easy, and she laughs at Benny’s pained expression. Benny’s friend pushes the magazine at the two of them: “Take him,” he tells Beth, “you’ll have a good night.”

“Benny’s taking you to Max’s?” Levertov asks the next night, and he and Wexler exchange looks.

“Don’t be assholes,” Benny tells them. “Also, Hilton, I think you’re cheating.”

He’s studying a creased pamphlet on playing backgammon that arrived with Wexler, Levertov and their game. It doesn’t seem to have cast any real light on the rules for any of them.

“I’m not cheating!” Wexler protests, and then looks down at the board, mouth twisting. “Wait, am I?”

Beth doesn’t want to be distracted. “Why can’t I go to Max’s?”

“Oh, you can,” Levertov shrugs. “It’s just… well, it’s not either of your scenes.”

“It’s the beautiful people and the wannabes,” Wexler says, casual, carefully moving one of his white counters and then looking hopefully at Benny. “Will that do?”

“…I think so,” Benny agrees, still squinting at the little booklet of rules.

“He’s grumpy because he got in a fight with William Burroughs,” Levertov tells Beth, before carefully picking up his dice cup and rattling it. They did start out the evening trying to play as two teams, but now it’s Wexler and Levertov playing each other, while Beth and Benny help and hinder and distract them from the sidelines.

“I got into a minor disagreement with William Burroughs,” Benny replies, “and that was years ago.”

“Fewer years than you’d like,” Wexler shrugs. He turns to Beth. “You won’t have met the stage of Drunk Benny where he’s just weirdly but impotently angry with everything, it’s very entertaining.”

Levertov spills the dice and then frowns at their numbers before tentatively reaching for one of his black counters. “No,” Benny says. Levertov scowls and then moves a different one instead.

“You’ll be fine,” Levertov says, “I went last month, it’s just Velvet Underground fans, it’s not like you’ll get invited into the Back Room to hang with Warhol’s pals.”

Now that’s a name Beth recognises. “Andy Warhol?” she demands, turning to Benny.

“He won’t be there,” Benny says dismissively, “he and the Velvets parted ways years ago, and anyway he doesn’t go out so much since he got shot. It’s just some of his Factory types, and none of them are going to look at you, so I wouldn’t worry.”

“Just don’t wear anything you’d want to wear again. Or mind getting other people’s booze on,” Wexler tells Beth. “Or other people’s bodily fluids.”

Beth frowns. “You’re not serious.”

Benny sighs. “Oh, he is.”

In the end, after giving it all some careful thought, Beth waits until Benny’s out getting cigarettes and then sneaks into his room.

The set doesn’t start until eleven pm, so Beth has plenty of time to work on her outfit, knowing she and Benny will be entirely anonymous but enjoying the idea of dressing up for the occasion anyway. She’s started planning her wardrobe for Moscow already, a stack of torn-out magazine pages building up on her dresser, but tonight’s look isn’t anything she’ll be wearing for cameras, for competitors. She takes the time to work on her eyeliner, bold and black, paints her lips pale again, spends time on her hair until it has a careless, just-been-fucked look to it that she likes. It feels strange doing this to herself stable, sober, but not necessarily bad. Beth finds a black sleeveless blouse in her closet, undoes as many buttons as she dares, and decides she’ll have to do.

Benny is slumped on their couch; his eyes flick up to Beth and she watches them widen, and his mouth falls open for a second before he catches himself, blinks twice.

“Are those my jeans?” he asks at last.

Beth shrugs. “They are. Is that my eyeliner?”

Benny gives her a rueful smile. “It might be, yes.”

Max’s Kansas City turns out to be a crowded building on Park Avenue South, with a black awning outside and several people hanging out on the sidewalk, smoking pot and laughing about everything or maybe nothing. They pay their three dollars each on the door and Beth lets Benny lead her through the narrow restaurant downstairs, all the tables with bright crimson vinyl coverings and crammed full of all kinds of people; she catches a glimpse of a backroom bathed in red neon light before they head upstairs, the heat and noise and smell of sweat and cigarettes hitting her nose as they climb.

Upstairs is even more crowded and dark, the tables packed together and another bar doing brisk service. Beth feels people’s gazes sliding off her, disinterested, and again she loves that anonymity, after so much scrutiny in Vegas, back in Lexington where everyone knows her face because that’s where she grew up. Here, no one cares who she is, who Benny is, that they’re married or whether that marriage is real. They don’t care that Beth likes kissing Benny too much and isn’t sure he should be letting her do this, or that Townes’ response to Beth telling him that she and Benny are going to Moscow together as players and each other’s seconds was a long and careful silence. They find seats at a table in the corner; there’s dark wood panelling behind Beth and she thinks the paint might be some shade of blue, but the poor lighting and the air thick with a fug of cigarette smoke make pinpointing things difficult. Everything has a touch of stickiness to it; Beth now understands what Wexler meant and is even more pleased that she stole a pair of Benny’s jeans to wear.

There’s no formal stage, more a cleared space of the floor with a handful of spotlights and piles of audio equipment, instruments and microphones. All the tables are cluttered with uncleared glasses, overflowing ashtrays, and the air is sticky and hot from summer and proximity and lack of ventilation.

“You can get a drink, you know,” Beth offers; she’s not sure how she feels anymore after her failed experiment in Kentucky, because part of her still thinks she’s got the balance wrong, that next time she could get it right and she could go back to feeling like she used to. It’s not made her daily determination harder, but it’s not made it easier either.

“I’m fine,” Benny responds on a shrug, pressing his shoulder briefly into hers.

There was a band for Mike and Susan’s wedding, and a band at the nightclub in Vegas, but they were doing covers, crowd pleasers, something for everyone. From the moment Lou Reed quietly introduces his band, laughs a little, and says: “you’re allowed to dance, in case you didn’t know”, it’s very different. In the cramped space the music is loud enough to really vibrate through Beth’s chest, her feet, her head, loud enough to hurt her ears. The drums are a constant thudding beat but it’s the bass guitar that really takes up residence in Beth’s ribcage, a sharp thrum she can feel when she puts her hand there. Around her people are singing along, shifting in their seats, clapping their hands and beating time on their knees, all of them here for the same thing, moved by the same rhythm.

This isn’t like the music Benny listens to in their living room, aimlessly tapping his bare feet with a cigarette and a novel that Beth won’t enjoy: it’s wilder, louder, faster, better. Beth is streaked with sweat in minutes, the energy in the room feels like touching her tongue to a live wire, everyone connected by the same sound, the same beat, the same moment in time. As the set goes on, people start getting out of their seats, dancing in the tiny amount of floor space, unselfconscious and free. Beth lets the music carry her to her feet, moving the way it demands, the way she needs. It’s not like her drunken stumbling a week or so ago, it’s purer than that, more urgent, uncontrolled. It’s simple, easy, to pull Benny’s hips to hers, for him to move with her, caught by the same fever that’s captured everyone in the room, the same pleasure on everyone’s face.

I’m beginning to see the light, Lou Reed sings, over and over, words that ring up and down Beth’s spine and beat breathlessly in her chest. She’s not herself anymore, adrift in noise and smoky light and unimaginable heat, everyone around her bumping hips and elbows, flying hair and singing along and laughter.

In the gap between songs, Beth pulls Benny to her and kisses him, and no one cares. His lips part and she can slip her tongue in, deep and slow, and his hands slide down her back, pull her closer, and nobody cares. There’s more music, more dancing around them, but they aren’t drawing any attention, this is positively chaste from some of the stories Beth’s been gleaning about this place, her hips grinding into Benny’s, his heartbeat and the bass guitar both thudding under Beth’s hand. For a moment Beth thinks that they should stop doing this, every time they go somewhere dancing together it becomes almost impossible to remember all the reasons why it isn’t a good idea to get too close, Vegas was one thing, but this is something else.

Except that Benny’s tongue is pressed to hers and his hands are possessively spread across her back and Beth is enjoying the music, is going to be insisting on going to more shows in future, but right now her self-control is cracking apart, and she thinks about Benny saying of course we’re attracted to each other like it was obvious, like it didn’t matter, wasn’t a problem at all. Maybe there are times when it isn’t.

They stumble down the stairs like they’re drunk, and no one cares as Beth pushes open the door to the women’s restroom, pulls Benny after her before he can protest. The cubicles are tiny, black-painted wood and grimy white tile, but it’s a shred of privacy and that’s all they need, all Beth wants, pulling Benny into another one of those endless kisses, sharp and suffocating and hot. He bites at her mouth, stinging and sweet, and their hips connect again, a rasp of denim against denim. Beth lets out a soft helpless sound against him and Benny swallows it; Beth is torn between making as much noise as she wants and knowing that there are other bathroom stalls, a restaurant full of drunk people outside the door, not quite an audience, but enough of one.

“We should go,” Benny murmurs against her lips, and Beth thinks about catching a cab, riding the subway, the space, the distance, and knows that if they go home they won’t see this through, logic will have returned. Logic is probably the right thing to do, but this is the best she’s felt since before they left for Vegas, an easy warmth humming through her bones. They can do this: they’ve talked about this, agreed that sex doesn’t change things, doesn’t mean more than it ever did between them.

Beth responds to Benny’s stupid suggestion by meeting his gaze and slowly, deliberately sinking to her knees. She watches realisation fall across his face, his eyes with their hopelessly smudged liner widening, and gives him a smug little smile before reaching for his zipper.

She can still remember, of course, the mess with the word cocksucker, with squinting at her anatomy book and thinking why? at the idea of wanting to do that, baffled about the appeal. Frankly, this is another one of those things she can blame on Benny: he never showed any hesitation, any shame in diving straight between her legs, in making her come with his mouth until she begged him to stop, overstimulated and exhausted. He never indicated that he wanted her to reciprocate, and Beth has gathered from Cosmopolitan that a lot of women don’t seem to want to do this, but curiosity got the better of her and she asked him to show her what to do. The shock on his face was vaguely similar to his expression now, years later, in this badly-lit bathroom stall, watching Beth peel his jeans open.

This isn’t Beth’s favourite thing to do but she doesn’t dislike it either, and she definitely likes the power it has over Benny, the way his breathing hitches when she pulls his hard cock from his underwear, breathes gently over the head. The angle isn’t perfect, there’s barely space to kneel here, but she doesn’t think this is going to take long. She leans in, pressing damp kisses along the length of him, a tease and a promise, and in her peripheral vision watches Benny’s fingers curl into his palm. She wraps her own hand around the base, remembering from past experience this will stop her choking, and makes sure she’s looking up at him when she takes his cock into her mouth.

It’s been a long time since she last did this, of course, but the muscle memory is there, and he tastes like he always did, sharp and salty but not unpleasant. Benny is watching her avidly, expression utterly enthralled, his eyes looking even bigger with the addition of the make-up, her make-up. Beth can’t really move, squirms a little as she sucks, discovers the rough inseam of her jeans catches her clit in an interesting way that isn’t really enough but is enough to try rocking a little more again. Benny gasps and she hums a little around her full mouth for the way he shivers, crams a hand against his mouth to try and stay quiet. Beth catches his free hand and pulls it until he realises that she wants him to touch her, his fingers sliding through her hair, cradling the base of her skull.

She pulls back for air, takes a breath or two, licks swollen lips and then leans back in again. Beth has always been a perfectionist, diligent and careful, and she worked at oral sex the way she worked at the chessboards in Benny’s living room, until her fingers were sore from pushing pawns and her jaw was sore from exploring the dimensions of Benny’s cock, what made him cry out, what made her choke and have to pull back. Now, Beth doesn’t try to take his full length in, knows that she can’t, but she can keep going until her lips meet the top of her fist. Benny’s fingers twitch but he doesn’t try to control her, isn’t rough with Beth the way she is with him; it’s the only thing that they do where he treats her like she’s fragile, like he doesn’t want to hurt her. Beth thinks she could stand to have him a little rougher but maybe not now, not when she can tell from his harsh breathing that he’s getting closer; instead she squeezes his cock and moves her mouth, sliding on her own spit, pulling back enough to wrap her tongue around the head and then taking him all the way back down again.

Fuck,” Benny pants, “Beth, Beth, I’m-”

Beth’s as unsqueamish about this as he is about her; she pulls back enough that she won’t choke, sucks hard on the head and feels him come with a rough shudder that runs through his whole body, makes his fingers clench in her hair. Beth swallows what she can and thinks suddenly and vividly of Wexler telling her not to wear anything she didn’t mind getting other people’s bodily fluids on, fights not to accidentally laugh because she can’t imagine explaining it to Benny. While he slumps against the cubicle wall and gasps for breath, Beth takes the opportunity to tuck his half-hard cock back into his underwear, wipes her wet mouth and sticky face on his t-shirt; he might mind when he realises later, but it’ll be too late by then.

Her knees hurt when Benny helps pull her back to her feet, pushes her into the wall on the other side and kisses her, sucking the taste of himself from her tongue. His touch skims up her sides, and he pulls open a couple more buttons on her blouse to drag it open, slides one of his hands into the cup of her bra. It’s too much and not enough all at once, Benny twisting her nipple while he licks into her mouth and Beth’s hips rock into nothing; she can hear herself keening a little, frantic for stimulation. Benny pulls his hand free and that isn’t what she wanted; he nips her lower lip when she makes a sound of protest, and then he’s already pulling at her jeans, his jeans, undoing the fly and pushing his hand inside, under her panties. It’s a tight fit but not impossibly so; he twists his hand and pushes two fingers straight inside her and Beth almost bites right through his lip at the sensation.

Both of them panting into each other’s mouths now, Benny crooks his fingers, twisting them inside her to find that angle that makes Beth jump and quiver, and presses the palm of his hand against her clit. It takes a minute but they find the same rhythm, Beth riding his hand frantically, Benny’s fingers working inside her cunt. Beth tries to stay quiet, breath stuttering and breaking, and when Benny works the hand inside her jeans – inside his jeans – to press a third finger inside her Beth clenches around him and shatters. He fingers her through the aftershocks, more gentle now, and Beth still sways her hips a little against him, feeling how wet she is, thinking about it all soaking into the denim on the way home, giving Benny his stolen clothing back when they get there.

Finally, Benny carefully wriggles his hand out of her waistband, fingers shining and slick, and something jumps in Beth all over again when he raises them to his mouth to lick them clean, not looking away from her while he does so. It’s too much and not enough, and Beth is sweaty and chilled at the same time, finally registering the music thumping through the ceiling, people dancing above their heads. They do up each other’s jeans clumsily, and Beth doesn’t need to look at her reflection in the mirrors above the sinks as she washes her hands and splashes water on her flushed cheeks to know how wrecked she must look, eyeliner all over her face, lips reddened and sore-looking. She does her blouse back up, but there’s not much else she can do.

She meets Benny’s gaze in the mirror and after a second both of them start laughing. They both look a mess, but no one here cares, there’s no one to hide from. Maybe tomorrow – well, later today – Beth will regret this, waking up to daylight and a desperate need for a shower, but as Benny links their fingers and pulls her outside in search of a cab Beth thinks, well, maybe she won’t after all.

-

As August carries on, Beth sits in front of an ineffectual electric fan and works through dozens of issues of Shakhmatny Bulletin and Shakhmaty v SSSR until when she closes her eyes all she can see is Cyrillic. She and Benny work through Europe Echecs together, Benny translating where relevant, until they’re pretty sure they know any potential French players as well as they can manage. Levertov and Wexler take it in turns to provide their copies of Schach and Deutsche Schachzeitung and translate anything relating to the top grandmasters: once you know the code for the notations in each language the numbers are mercifully always the same. A vague contact of Benny’s in the Netherlands provides them with a selection of EG magazine, which specialises in endgame studies and is printed in English despite its Dutch publisher. Beth studies so hard her brain is full of nothing else; she drops into bed at night watching pieces move behind her eyelids. It’s been a while since she was last like this, and in all honesty it’s a relief not to have room for anything else.

Beth practices Russian the way she used to, handstands against her bedroom wall for as long as she can bear it, reciting verbs and phrases as the blood rushes to her head. She and Benny pass each other in the kitchen, making ever more coffee, eating toast at odd hours and trying to hold conversations entirely in Russian, then critiquing each other’s grammar afterwards. Sure, they could probably manage without the language, but anything that can give you an edge against the Soviets is essential.

Some afternoons, Benny plays Beth’s games from big competitions, and Beth plays his; they both take notes, exchange strengths and weaknesses afterwards. It’s not easy: Beth’s immediate response to criticism from Benny is to get defensive, and he clearly feels the same, but after the first couple of times it gets easier, useful to have a second pair of eyes looking over her work, picking out things she might not have spotted. This Benny is the Benny she remembers from the days in his apartment back in Sixty-Seven; quiet, serious and sombre, all his public talismans and affectations abandoned in favour of hours of silence, cross-referenced strategies, and pages and pages of meticulous notations. In some ways it’s a little jarring, the retreat of Benny’s personality in favour of concentration, but it’s also a reminder that Benny is more than a smug drawl for his public, a kindness he’ll never admit to in private, and the kind of kisser who can turn Beth inside out: he’s a teammate and a rival, a chess player every bit as dedicated and determined as Beth is. He brought her back to the city, helped her settle herself back in when everything about her felt unbalanced, but there’s real work to do now.

It’s hard work, made harder by the sticky humidity, and more than once Beth finds herself staring at the diagrams in front of her with unseeing eyes, thinking longingly of how the pills made the world fuzzier and the pieces sharper, enabling her to spend hours tracing games across the ceiling and still sleep afterwards. The nights are halfway to unbearable but Beth tries to stick to a routine; Benny does not, keeping to a schedule only he seems to understand that overlaps with Beth’s in some places but not in a lot of others; she’ll get up for water in the early hours of the morning and find him studying the living room or pacing their narrow hallway or perching on the kitchen sideboard for a change of scenery.

The increasing solitude is what Beth needs to work, her only interactions with other people generally chess-related, but it doesn’t help the restlessness, sometimes looking out of the window at the busy streets below like a child stuck in detention while all her classmates are out playing.

“I should have come to see you when I was in Kentucky,” Beth says to Jolene, an early evening call to break the monotony.

“I was busy,” Jolene replies, a shrug in her voice. “You were busy.”

“Busy lying on my couch sulking about chess,” Beth admits awkwardly.

“You needed the space, don’t feel guilty about it,” Jolene tells her. “Though I do have to say, I was on the point of demanding you drag your ass back to New York if your cowboy hadn’t gotten there before me.”

“I wasn’t ready!” Beth protests.

“You’d decided you were never gonna be ready,” Jolene replies, matter-of-fact. “And I get that too, but you’re not a scared little girl hiding out in her dead mama’s house because she has nowhere else to go anymore. You have options now. You have so many options.”

Too many options, Beth thinks. There’s something terrifying about being backed into a corner, in the real world or on a chess board, but at least then you know what you have to do. When there’s nothing in front of you, everything rolled out free and clear, it’s too much. How do you know which move is the right one, the best one, the one that leads you to the ending you want? Beth prefers playing White, but even so, there’s something about picking your opening that can be overwhelming. Games have been lost from the very first move.

“Most of those options make sitting in my house in Kentucky look very appealing,” Beth points out. “And I’d be closer to you, which is no bad thing.”

“Beth.” Jolene’s voice is soft. “I’m where I’m supposed to be, and you’re where you’re supposed to be. Those places aren’t near each other right now, but I’ve got my last year of school to focus on and you’ve got a career and a bunch of titles to win. We won’t lose each other again.”

Beth doesn’t want to say how good it feels to specifically hear that, to admit that she’d gotten used to only having a few people in her life and losing all of them, one way or another, but maybe she doesn’t need to: Jolene grew up in Methuen too, after all.

“Okay,” Beth replies, voice small and soft.

“Besides,” Jolene continues, “once I graduate, who knows where I’ll end up? The more I research, the more places seem to need me.”

“I’m glad there are so many employment opportunities for radicals,” Beth tells her. “I’m surprised our school guidance counsellor never mentioned them.”

“Like you attended school often enough to see a guidance counsellor,” Jolene scoffs. “All you ever wanted to do was chess, I don’t need to have been there to know that.”

“I thought about modelling for a while,” Beth corrects her. “Mostly because I assumed I’d get a bunch of free clothes.”

“You’d have been bored,” Jolene says dismissively, reminding Beth sharply of her conversation with Cleo, all those years ago in a basement apartment rented by somebody else now. “And by this point you’d probably have overdosed at least a couple of times, at least chess gives you something to focus on.”

Beth flinches, glad Jolene can’t see her, although Jolene probably knows the effect her words have on Beth: she was there, sometimes in the house, sometimes on the other end of the phone, during those messy weeks when day was night and night was day and Beth was constantly in a cold shivering sweat, puking nowhere near anybody’s trophies. In honesty, her memories of that time aren’t clear, and she doesn’t particularly want them to be, but they’re lingering there sometimes in the back of her brain, a reminder of what she did to herself, what she could so easily do to herself again.

“I still find the idea of free clothes appealing,” Beth says at last, after a noticeable pause Jolene doesn’t comment on or try to fill. She clears her throat, awkward. “Where are you looking at for after graduation, anyway?”

“I’m thinking,” Jolene replies. “I might stay South or I might head to Chicago or Washington, there’s plenty of work all over.”

“What does Rick think?” Beth asks.

“Oh, I’m not letting a man make this choice for me,” Jolene says, firm. “If he wants to come, he can come. If he doesn’t, fuck him, someone will.”

Beth considers her next question carefully. “Do you still love him?”

Jolene sighs. “People need different things, Beth. Kind of like how I stopped needing the green vitamins and you never did.” Beth stays quiet, listens to Jolene breathing. “And sometimes, what you needed once isn’t what you need later, and it’s okay. Wanting something that you didn’t want before isn’t a weakness. I mean, hell, imagine telling me as a teenager I’d be doing all this studying voluntarily, I wouldn’t have believed you.”

Beth isn’t sure if Jolene is really talking to her or not, so she gives it a minute and finally offers: “do you get to keep the car, at least?”

She’s relieved when Jolene laughs, even if it sounds a little shaky. “Yeah, whatever happens, I get to keep the car.”

“Well, that’s good,” Beth says, a little helplessly.

Jolene sniffs. “Anyway,” she says, “that’s me dissected, let’s talk about your latest terrible idea.”

Beth very nearly asks which one? but decides that won’t help her case. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she says primly.

“Look, I try not to know too much technical chess stuff,” Jolene tells her, “but I’m pretty sure that you and Benny aren’t supposed to go to Russia as each other’s competitor and support team.”

“The Russians play as a team,” Beth tells Jolene, which is the line she’s told three different reporters so far. “They play as individuals and together, both in competitions like this one and in the Chess Olympiad.”

“Yeah,” Jolene says dryly, “I saw that one printed up. But those Russian teammates aren’t also married to each other, with a history of having really big fights and badly timed sex.”

Clearly Jolene has shaken off whatever she was feeling a couple of minutes ago. Beth makes a face. “We dealt with that!” she protests, voice rising a little too high. “I told you.”

“Right,” Jolene says. “And the part where you’re dating now, where does that fit into your very casual platonic masterplan?”

“We’re not dating!” Beth’s voice has definitely reached a stupid pitch now. “We have to leave the apartment sometime, we’re not shut-ins.”

“You go to nice places together and then you make out,” Jolene says. “I know your romantic history is pretty dodgy but that’s what dating is, Beth.”

“I didn’t say we made out,” Beth hisses. She thinks Benny is asleep, but who knows; he could be in his room with a glass to the wall, laughing at her.

“You didn’t have to,” Jolene replies. “Lawyer, remember?”

“That doesn’t even make sense,” Beth tells her. “It doesn’t make you psychic.”

“No, that’s just the part where I know you,” Jolene explains. “I think it’s cute! It’s a terrible idea given your history and your upcoming chess pageant thing, but cute.”

Beth scowls, knowing Jolene can’t see her. “We’re just friends,” she says. “It’s taken a lot of work, but we made it, it’s good.”

Jolene makes a dubious noise, but she doesn’t push it, and Beth is glad. She isn’t sure she knows how to explain something that barely makes sense to her, but it’s working right now and surely that’s the most important part.

“You know,” Jolene says after a moment, “your cowboy is still sending me books?”

“…what?” Beth asks.

“I get little packages every few weeks, ever since he sent that first Audre Lorde collection. Black poetry, essays, manifestos, magazines. I don’t know where he’s getting them from or how he knows what the good stuff is, but I keep receiving it. No notes, no receipts, and you never checked if the post was arriving, which is how I figured it wasn’t you. He just… sends stuff along.”

“Oh,” Beth says.

Ten minutes later, when they’ve said their goodbyes, Benny surfaces from his room. In deference to the weather, he’s abandoned the robes, but he’s still wearing his jeans. There are pillow creases on his cheek, and his eyes have the vague look that Beth has learned means that he’s just woken up. He leans against the doorframe, hair messy from sleep and soft looking.

“Been studying hard?” Beth asks archly.

His mouth ticks in a smile. “Very hard,” he agrees.

“I’ve just been talking to Jolene,” Beth tells him, watching his face carefully.

“She good?” Benny asks, expression unchanging.

“Yeah,” Beth says slowly, “she’s good.”

Benny nods and pushes away from the doorframe, headed for the kitchen and presumably a lot of coffee.

Beth opens her mouth, and then closes it again. She has no idea what she wants to say, if there are even real words for it. She listens to Benny rattling drawers and opening cabinets and sighs, reaches for yet another issue of an Italian chess magazine neither of them can really read. This part of her life, at least, is very specifically what it is supposed to be.

-

Townes is in New York for actual work, some of which relates to Beth and Benny, most of which does not. He takes Beth out to lunch, somewhere fancy where she can wear one of her most stylish dresses and not feel out of place, and spends twenty minutes asking her questions about her preparations for Moscow that Beth has answered a hundred times before, and she tries to give him slightly more interesting answers than she’d give to another journalist. Most of them are for Chess Life, although he’ll probably slip something into the Lexington Herald Leader since even though she’s living in New York at the moment, she still counts as a local girl. Maybe she always will.

When that’s over, they can get on with eating lunch and catching up. Townes has a tan and his hair is a little longer, and he manages to carry off late summer in the city with a casual panache that Beth is pretty sure neither she nor Benny have managed, both of them looking like underwatered plants that have been kept in the dark.

“I know you don’t need this warning,” Townes says carefully, “but if you and Benny mess up in Russia, there’s no coming back. There won’t be anything I can do to help you out, the media will crucify you.”

“I’m pretty sure if the Russians think we’re mocking their Invitational the KGB will murder me and Benny in our hotel room,” Beth tells him.

Townes fixes her with a look. “Harmon.”

“I know,” she says, dropping her gaze to the tablecloth. “I know.”

Beth would like the world to move on from Vegas and everything it meant the way she and Benny almost definitely have, but it’s there, constantly, twinned with her name whenever someone writes about her. They can’t specifically say that she lost, because she didn’t, but the adjectives they use to describe that final match are damning, and while Townes’ gambit of pretending to expose her humanity and say it was their love for each other that threw that game might have worked overall, it makes Beth feel angry and uncomfortable. She’s spent years trying to stop people writing about her as a person, only wanting them to write about her intellect and skill, and now the gossip is worse in some ways because she helped them.

“Anyway,” Townes says, neatly changing the subject, “you’re looking better.”

“Well, I haven’t just humiliated myself in front of the entire chess world,” Beth replies, trying for flippant and thinking she might fall a little short. “That tends to help.”

“That’s true,” Townes agrees, “but you know that isn’t what I meant. You look good. Living in New York suits you.”

Beth thinks about Jolene saying you’re where you’re supposed to be with such certainty in her voice.

“I guess it’s not so bad,” she says. “I mean, there’s more crime, graffiti, rats and garbage than in Kentucky, but I’m getting used to it.”

“You were fading away in Kentucky,” Townes says, as straightforward as Jolene ever is when saying something that will sting anyway. “I didn’t say anything because I didn’t know what it was you needed, but it was as though all that light in you was dying out for most of last year. Now, I think you’re even brighter than you were before.”

Beth knows what he’s saying, but it still makes her grind the toe of one of her loafers into the restaurant’s expensive carpet.

Early evening, when the light is apparently better, Townes takes Beth back home and takes various pictures of her in the lobby, where the white walls are apparently the perfect backdrop. Pete watches with interest and starts making suggestions about lighting and angles, several of which Townes actually takes, and Beth lets them get on with it because, well, they seem to be having fun. They head upstairs to get Benny, and once Townes has insisted on him taking a shower and drinking two cups of coffee they go back to the lobby and repeat the process, Beth joining Pete to watch and heckle from the sidelines. For the most part Benny ignores her, scowling at the camera in a way that Beth recognises from countless issues of Chess Life before she ever even met him, hips smugly cocked, hat meticulously angled to look casual, as though any part of Benny’s persona is in any way accidental or left to chance.

Beth folds her arms across her chest and reminds herself that she has never found this version of Benny attractive, that she thought he looked like a dick the first time she saw him on a magazine and the first few times that she met him did nothing to make her revise that opinion. Maybe she’s too visibly unimpressed, because Benny looks over at her and winks, obnoxiously flirtatious. Beth makes a face back at him and he laughs; Townes’ camera flashes.

“Don’t print that one,” Benny tells Townes immediately.

“The Great Benny Watts does not laugh,” Beth says sombrely. “He is too busy winning chess games against lesser mortals and having effortlessly cool hair.”

“Damn straight I am,” Benny agrees, cocking his fingers into a gun to fire at Beth.

“I can’t believe I married this man,” Beth tells Pete, while Townes snaps a last couple of shots.

Pete smiles. “Right now, I can’t believe you did either.”

“Beth,” Townes calls, and jerks his head toward Benny. Beth sighs theatrically and walks over to stand beside him.

“Want us to look competitive?” she asks. “If you want me to strangle him, just say the word.”

Townes rolls his eyes. “Just stand there and look like people, if that’s not too much of a stretch.”

They obey, more or less, both of them black-clad and probably looking like they’re going to a very specific funeral more than anything else, posing for Townes’ camera and Pete’s clear entertainment. In the end, Benny shifts a little, rests his elbow on Beth’s shoulder to lean on her; Beth shrugs him off, turns her head to glare while he smirks unrepentantly at her.

“I think that one’s the cover,” Townes remarks.

“We have to share the cover?” Benny demands, in the most primadonna voice Beth has ever heard him use; she falls back against the wall behind her and laughs until her stomach hurts.

She gives Townes the extremely brief apartment tour; when she first found out Townes was coming to the city she offered to let him stay. When Townes pointed out that they didn’t have a spare room, Beth had simply said it’s fine, I’ll make Benny sleep on the couch. It turns out the paper can put him up in a far nicer hotel than their apartment, one which probably has reliable and consistent air conditioning, but Beth is still pleased to show him the home they’ve managed to shift together in New York anyway, even if most of the wallpaper is terrible and the place is a mess of books and magazines and unwashed coffee cups.

“This is nice,” Townes remarks, looking out of the window onto the hot streets below. If he’s surprised, he manages not to sound it.

“It doesn’t have a bathtub in the living room or glass doors on the bedrooms, so it’s an improvement on Benny’s place,” Beth replies from her seat on the couch.

“The only person to ever complain about those things was you,” Benny says from where he’s lounging in their armchair, long legs stretched out in front of him.

“Now I know you’re lying,” Beth tells him, “I know you invited other women over before me.”

“Maybe I was entertaining them too well for them to care,” Benny snips.

“Children,” Townes cuts in neatly, though he’s smirking as he says it. “I need to do Benny’s interview.”

“Sure you don’t want to make it all up for me again?” Benny asks, easy-going but with an edge of something underneath it.

“I might tidy up some of your grammar,” Townes replies, and the corner of Benny’s mouth ticks into a half-smile. “Come on,” Townes adds, “Beth got lunch on the magazine, the least I can do is buy you a beer. You can leave the knife here, though.”

Beth hadn’t been expecting this, but isn’t sure how to say that she doesn’t want the two of them to go off without her in a way that doesn’t make her sound like a petulant child. Benny’s relationship with Townes is very different to Beth’s, but they get on well enough, and Townes is right: Benny should be interviewed semi-professionally like she was. She waves them off, gets herself some cold juice from the refrigerator, and turns her attention to an issue of L’Italia Scacchistica that she and Benny are trying to decipher with help from his patchy Spanish and a dictionary. Their progress is very slow, but Italy is producing some great players so it’s worth the effort.

It’s not strange. Beth isn’t going to let it be strange. Benny and Townes already knew each other in a way that is entirely separate to Beth, she’s seen photographs and articles in chess magazines by Townes from tournaments Benny was at when she was still skittering her way around the more local ones. Yes, it’s a little complicated, because some part of her made it complicated, and then there was that summer when Beth was mad at both of them and they both flickered into her mind too often, wore each other’s faces in her anxiety dreams until they were verging on being the same person, a handsome man who methodically stripped Beth of everything. And there was that tangled night Beth lost her virginity, when the pot made everything very close and very far away at the same time, and she tried to think of Townes but Tim had shaggy gold hair like Benny Fucking Watts and when she’d finished being distracted from the two of them by the sheer discomfort of it all, she’d mostly been thinking is this it?

Beth shakes her head to clear it, puts on The Beatles’ White Album to take advantage of Benny not being around – his dislike of them being an apparent fixture in his life – and tells herself to focus. Again, it’s a sour reminder that narcotics helped her to fold her emotions away and concentrate on chess in a way that’s very difficult now she’s just relying on herself. She opens the windows to the noisy summer night and turns up While My Guitar Gently Weeps and goes back to playing through one of the games from the La Spezia tournament earlier this year.

The front door opens maybe two and a half hours later; Beth tells herself that she doesn’t leap up from where she’s been sitting on the floor, periodicals and boards spread in front of her.

“Did you have fun?” she asks as she leaves the living room, and then registers that Townes has Benny’s arm slung over his shoulders, an arm around his waist, and Benny barely manages to lift his head to acknowledge her. “Oh,” Beth says carefully, “I see that you did.”

Townes gives her an eloquent grimace and holds out what Beth recognises as Benny’s keys; she takes them from him to lock the door again, while Townes lugs Benny into his room, deposits him carefully onto the bed. Beth joins him as Townes is tugging off Benny’s boots by the light of the bedside lamp; Benny has one arm thrown across his eyes and is mumbling something incomprehensible.

“Is this what charging a beer to the magazine actually means?” Beth asks, a little sharp but, she feels, not as sharp as she could be.

Townes sighs heavily, dropping Benny’s boots to the floor, and follows Beth out of the room, leaving the door ajar.

“Coffee?” Beth offers.

“Sure.”

She makes the coffee in silence, aware of Townes hovering carefully beside her, something guilty in the set of his shoulders. For a moment she thinks that yes, she should be angry, and then she thinks that maybe she shouldn’t: everyone here is, for better or worse, an adult. In the end, Beth hands him a cup, and they go to sit on the couch.

“Are other people’s fake marriages this stressful?” Beth asks, only partially hypothetically.

“I think,” Townes says carefully, “that other people’s fake marriages start with two people who build their issues and their baggage as they go along. You and Benny brought yours with you in the first place.”

Beth nods, sighing. “I thought it might be something like that.”

Townes takes a sip of his coffee before he speaks. “I’m sorry that I brought him home drunk,” he says. His voice is a little tentative.

“I’ve never seen him that drunk,” Beth remarks, because she still can’t tell if she’s mad. “He doesn’t like the loss of control.” She sips her own coffee, more to give herself something to do. “Did you see him at the stage where he apparently gets very angry and picks fights with beat authors?”

Townes frowns. “…I don’t think that I did, no.”

Beth shakes her head a little. “Ignore me, I’m trying to… why is Benny catatonic right now? I thought you were interviewing him?”

“I was,” Townes says. “And then… well, I hate that I’m saying this to you, but he doesn’t drink much because he doesn’t like it, but he wanted and maybe even needed to get drunk and he never would because he wanted to protect you.”

Circuit breaker, Beth thinks dully. Hers didn’t work; she wonders if Benny’s has.

“Is he okay?” she asks, because she can’t work out how to phrase any of the other thoughts in her head right now.

Townes nods. “I think so. Or he will be, anyway.”

Beth thinks about how she’d ever explain this to her younger self, sitting drinking coffee in silence with Townes while Benny, her drunk husband, lies in his bedroom. She thinks suddenly, vividly, about Jolene saying what you needed once isn’t what you need later, and swallows a little too hard.

“I can stay,” Townes offers, and Beth shakes her head.

“Do you need me to call a cab?” she asks.

“No,” he tells her, “I drove, I’m fine to get back to the hotel.”

He kisses her gently on the forehead, and then he’s gone. Beth looks at their empty cups on the coffee table and then takes a deep breath.

She puts a glass of water on Benny’s nightstand; she’d add aspirin too but if there is any in the apartment she has yet to work out where it’s hidden. She thinks about Benny looking after her in Lexington, about him asking if she wanted pyjamas. Benny doesn’t wear pyjamas but she’s not sure he’ll like sleeping in his jeans either; she remembers wearing them herself, and there’s not much wiggle room.

It’s almost a laughable parody of the last time she did this, Beth thinks, as she undoes Benny’s belt buckle, unzips his fly. That all seems like a fever dream, something she fantasised about once, as she stands here working off Benny’s jeans; he’s skinny as all hell but still dead weight right now, and it’s a relief when she finally pulls them away from his ankles to dump on the carpet. Benny makes a soft noise that might be interpreted as her name; when she looks at him his eyes are open, half-lidded, looking at her.

“You’re okay,” she says quietly. She doesn’t know what it’s like in Benny’s head when he’s drunk, only what it’s like in her own, but it seems a good thing to say one way or the other.

“No,” he responds; that is clear at least.

It’s too warm to tuck him into bed, probably best to leave him like this, propped up a little on his pillows. “Light on or off?” she asks.

She watches the question sink into Benny’s mind, his brow furrowing slowly as he considers it. “Off,” he decides at last, and Beth leans over to snap it off. He watches her every move, eyes looking particularly dark. There’s a sliver of light left from the hallway, but it doesn’t illuminate much. Beth considers just leaving him here, but then she can’t.

“Hold on,” she says, and goes to find her pyjamas, brush her teeth, turn out the living room light. It only takes a few minutes and she kind of assumes he’ll have fallen asleep, but his breathing is too fast and shallow when she finally turns out the hall light and finds her way to the bed using the hint of light from behind the drapes. It’s never truly dark in New York, not darkness the way that she remembers it.

She climbs onto the bed beside Benny, rolls onto her side. After a moment she reaches out, finds his wrist; his skin is warm, his bracelet warmer. His arm twitches, but he doesn’t try to pull away.

“I’m here,” Beth says, soft. “I’ll stay with you.”

Benny is silent for a long time; maybe he’s finally slipped over the edge into slumber. Beth listens to the quiet rasp of his breathing, his pulse beating steady and sure against her fingertips.

“You won’t,” he whispers at last, barely audible.

Beth sits up, says: “what?” but Benny’s breathing has evened out, slow, and she realises that he’s fallen asleep.

-

“Shouldn’t you be getting ready?” Benny asks, his voice breaking through Beth’s concentration.

She looks up from Chess Catechism, blinking. It’s a recently published book, a grandmaster dissecting what he sees as the greatest ten games of the modern era. They’ve not had it long, but Benny got his hands on it first and the notes densely packed into the margins aren’t so much helpful annotations as snide judgements. Some of the remarks are incredibly personal and pretty funny, but they aren’t exactly helpful for studying.

“Do you ever wonder what you could achieve if you didn’t waste so much energy pissing off every player you come into contact with?” Beth asks, waving the book at Benny.

He shrugs, not looking up from Europe Echecs. “I don’t waste any energy doing it,” he responds, “that’s kind of the point.”

“Right,” Beth says. “Because writing all these mean little comments about other players’ hair and alcohol intake and what you see as pawn mismanagement didn’t take you what appears to be multiple days.”

Benny waves a hand. “I’m not a machine yet,” he replies, “I need study breaks too.”

“This is why people say things about you behind your back,” Beth reminds him.

“The ones who say them to my face are the ones I actually respect,” Benny tells her. “I think it’s nearly four.”

Beth blinks a couple of times and then realises that he’s talking about the time. “Right,” she says, and goes to wash her face, comb her hair, find her purse.

Benny finally glances up from his magazine as Beth hovers in the living room doorway. “Did we say ten for checking in?”

“We did,” Beth agrees.

“Keep yourself safe,” Benny adds. “Did you memorise Levertov’s number in case you need bail money like I suggested?”

Beth smiles. “I did,” she confirms.

“Good.” Benny smiles back. “Take care, okay?”

Beth nods, plays with the strap of her purse a moment. “Alright,” she says, “I’d better go.”

Benny turns his attention back to the page he’s been reading, several boards printed across it; Beth hasn’t worked through them yet, but presumably that’s for tomorrow. As she turns to leave, Benny reaches out without looking, takes her arm. He presses a kiss to the inside of her wrist. “Enjoy taking down the patriarchy,” he says.

There are a lot of women on the subway, a few already carrying placards; Beth shyly exchanges smiles with some of them. She’s on her way to meet Christine and some of the other women from the chess club before they go to the Equality Day march on Fifth Avenue. She wasn’t sure about going, but Jolene demanded that she attend to represent her if no one else, and Christine had posters for the Women’s Strike put up in the club, told Beth she could come with her. Beth thought about hesitating, and then remembered every fucking article that wanted to just talk about her being a girl, and not about her mind. About every last article that talked about her appearance and her love life and not about what she’d achieved.

Benny was entirely supportive when Beth told him she wanted to go. “I mean, don’t get arrested,” he added. “You do that, you’re not going to Russia.”

“I’m not intending to get arrested,” Beth replied.

“No one ever is,” Benny told her sagely. “Just keep your eyes open while you’re demonstrating, okay?”

Now, Beth walks through the growing crowds; there’s an excitement in the air, and while no one knew what number of people to expect, it seems really busy. She finds Christine and the others outside the storefront where they agreed to meet; some of the girls have come from work, still dressed for the office with the top buttons of their blouses unbuttoned, the sleeves rolled up. Beth is in tailored pants and a boatneck top with tennis shoes tightly laced, a bright scarf tied around her hair; she wasn’t sure what to wear to a women’s equality march, really, and then thought that maybe that was part of the problem.

The march officially starts at around five, thousands of women of all ages and races linking arms to walk through the city; despite the police attempting to contain them so the traffic isn’t disturbed, the march ends up spilling from sidewalk to sidewalk, pedestrians and bystanders joining in. Later, Beth will learn that at least ten thousand women participated, some of the older ones recalling their days fighting as suffragettes to obtain the vote fifty years before. There are banners and placards throughout the procession, some protesting the Vietnam war, others demanding freely available abortions, equal pay, better opportunities. There are chants of I am not a Barbie doll! and while Beth catches sight of a few groups of men gathered to heckle on the sidelines, for the most part there’s no opposition, just the hastily-cleared roads stretching out before them, the atmosphere electric.

As darkness falls, they rally in Bryant Park to hear multiple feminist speakers; Betty Friedan, who spearheaded today’s march, gets the loudest applause, and Beth remembers sneaking Alma’s battered copy of The Feminine Mystique from her bookshelves as a teenager. She thinks of Alma, unwittingly trapped into the life so many around her are demanding an end to, and sinks her teeth into her bottom lip until her eyes clear.

Everyone starts dispersing when the speeches end; some are heading out to nightclubs and bars, some going home to husbands and children left to fend for themselves for the night. Christine closed the chess club for the night but has invited them back for an afterparty, a beer or two; the thought sort of made Beth want to slink home, but she’s still fired up from the speeches, still wonderfully overwhelmed from the sight of so many determined women in one place, so she takes the packed subway back with their little chess group that is also so much more.

Beth’s not the only one who needs to use the club’s telephone; it’s almost ten when she calls the apartment, and Benny picks up on the second ring.

“I’m fine,” Beth says, “I’m at Christine’s place, but I won’t be home late.”

“Take your time,” Benny responds, a smile in his voice. “I’ll see you when you get here.”

There’s coffee and Christine’s weird choice of herbal teas and, yes, a few beers when Beth rejoins the others; the closed sign is up on the locked door and they sit toward the back, talking about everything and nothing, everyone’s voices still overexcited and proud. As they all start to calm down, Beth can recognise the fire seeping out of her, the flattened feeling she used to get after a definitive victory that ultimately left her hollow, trying to pack the space left behind with tranquillisers and sometimes alcohol. It was an imperfect method, but it usually distracted her enough from the absence of adrenaline, the bottomless pit she was left peering into when everything else peeled away.

Beth looks at a couple of cans of unopened beer on the table, forces herself up, goes to hide in the club’s little green-tiled bathroom. She splashes cold water on her face, closes her eyes and takes several deep breaths. An exhaustion is crawling in, and with it the sour thought that she doesn’t deserve to be here, amongst all the others with their placards saying things like End Human Sacrifice – Don’t Get Married. So many have stayed standing, while she chose to capitulate.

When she finally steels herself to leave the bathroom, Christine is waiting for her, a gentle smile on her face. “Come on,” she tells Beth softly, and leads her into the tiny back office where she does her paperwork; there’s a neatly organised desk and a wall covered in photographs. Some are official press images of Christine in her younger years, while others are more candid shots: Beth catches sight of other highly-ranked female players she recognises. There are more pictures taken in this club, clippings from newspapers of all kinds of games; she spots a photo of herself and Benny at a tournament years ago, leaning over to bump fists from their respective boards. She swallows hard, and looks away.

“Do you want to talk about it?” Christine asks, sitting in the chair nearest the wall. There’s barely room for the other chair, but Beth sits in it and crosses her legs to stop their knees knocking together.

Beth opens her mouth, closes it again. “I don’t know how to,” she admits at last.

Christine gives her warm, gentle smile; there’s a burst of laughter from the women in the club, a cheer of some kind. “Start at the beginning,” she offers gently.

So Beth tries to. She tells Christine about the way people have always talked about her, how it got worse as she got older and the hook that interested people was no longer her youth but merely her gender, the snide magazine articles and the way people looked at her, and the letters, the constant letters that said the same things over and over and over. Christine nods and doesn’t interrupt; when Beth dares to look at her she finds an understanding sadness on her face, someone who has experienced so much of this for herself. This gives Beth the courage to continue, to talk about Albert Stone, the way the fear flooded her to such an extent, and, finally, the way Benny offered marriage, offered castling.

Christine nods thoughtfully. “I see.”

Beth wonders if she really does. “It’s all lies,” she blurts. “I didn’t want any of the harassment anymore, so I married a man because I knew it would protect me from the worst of it. I went out there today chanting for women’s rights but when it came to myself I gave in like a coward.”

Christine leans forward to take her hands. “Beth. I don’t think choosing to marry Benny was cowardly. You made a difficult decision about what you needed, and that’s all anyone wants for themselves or others. I hate that the world forced your hand, but for what it’s worth, I don’t think everything about your life is a lie.”

“It feels it some days,” Beth admits, twisting her mouth.

“I’m sure it does,” Christine agrees. Her hands are cool, her touch reassuring; she doesn’t try and pull away and Beth is glad. “I read all your interviews, you know, and I’ve watched plenty of both of you on television, and when you’re here.” She frowns a little, like she’s picking her next words carefully. “I think, if you remove all references to ‘love’, then nothing that you have said to the press is a lie.”

She doesn’t say more, gives Beth time to think about this. For a moment, Beth can’t understand what she’s talking about, but then she tries to think about the lines she usually spouts for the media: that she and Benny make logical sense, they make each other better players, they keep each other sharp. A lot of it sounds like the list of reasons that Benny gave Beth in the first place way back in that Washington hotel when she wore the imprint of Albert Stone’s fingers around her wrist and Benny wore the impressions of defeat in his eyes, in the shape of his mouth.

“For what it’s worth,” Christine adds quietly, “I think the two of you make each other happy, whatever your motivations were. Either that, or you should both look into acting professionally.”

Beth tries to smile for her. “It’s more complicated than that,” she admits.

“It usually is,” Christine agrees.

Because she’s come this far, Beth gives in and tells her about Ohio, about how she finally defeated Benny and took the title and how he gave in gracefully, watched her in a bar with a hangdog expression and offered to help her.

“Wait,” Christine says, stopping Beth for the first time, “you’d met him maybe three or four times and he’d upset you on every single one of those occasions and you agreed to go live in his apartment for several weeks?”

“It was… it was a complicated year,” Beth offers helplessly. It’s not an excuse; god knows she’s spent enough time looking back on her adolescent choices and horrifying herself with them over and over.

“You know I care about Benny,” Christine tells her, “but you didn’t know him, how could you have known it would be alright?”

She doesn’t sound like she’s condemning Beth; more like she’s retroactively worried for her, wants to reach into Beth’s past and rearrange the pieces for her. Beth knows better than maybe anyone that that doesn’t work, and what was it Benny threw at her in Paris? You can’t take back a move once you’ve made it and you can’t recolour the past to make it sit better.

“I knew,” Beth says, with a certainty that surprises herself. “I just… I knew that we’d be okay.”

Christine looks a little dubious still, but neither of them can change the past, can stop that Beth from diving headlong into what’s coming. After a moment, Christine squeezes Beth’s hands, silently asking her to continue.

Beth pulls herself together and tells Christine about the five weeks in New York: the studying, the cohabitation, Benny’s grungy apartment that began to feel homely after a while, the hours a day they’d spend in silence but in total coordination, the way Benny pushed her and pushed her until she could feel herself improving, understanding things she hadn’t before. She doesn’t go into details about their sexual life, but doesn’t hide the fact they weren’t entirely platonic.

“And then I went to Paris,” Beth says. “And I fucked up, and I flew home to Kentucky, and I never went back to Benny.”

Christine is chewing her lower lip thoughtfully. “Why?” she asks.

“I was scared,” Beth confesses, though it’s taken her years to realise this, to even admit it to herself. “Benny saw this version of me, of what I could be, and I wasn’t ready to be that woman yet. So I ran where no one could expect anything of me.”

Christine nods, and gently lets go of Beth’s hands. “Were you scared of Benny?” she asks, tone neutral.

“No!” Beth exclaims. “No, he was… well, he was only ever mad at me when I refused to see him and then asked for money to go to Russia anyway.”

“That wasn’t what I meant,” Christine says, “although I’m glad to hear it. You say you were scared of the woman he thought you could be, but was that all you were running from?”

No, Beth thinks.

“Yes,” she says.

“Okay.” Christine smiles. “Well, I’m glad you finally got over that fear and became that woman anyway.”

When Beth finally leaves, Christine gives her a long hug; there’s something maternal in it that makes Beth want to cling to her, but she forces herself to let go, to promise to drop by next week and walk away. She hails a cab, sits in the back with the streetlights cutting stripes through the car, and thinks about what counts as a lie these days anyway.

Benny is sitting in the same place he was when Beth left earlier, but he’s wearing one of his robes now and there are dirty dishes in the sink, so she assumes that he’s at least fed himself.

“Have fun?” he asks.

“I did,” Beth replies. “Did you?”

Benny waves the book he’s reading at her. “Don’t I always?”

They haven’t discussed what happened last week in the same way they haven’t discussed what Beth did in Lexington, but Beth is aware that both occasions underlie their every interaction. They’re not tentative, but there’s a knowledge that there are things they shouldn’t – can’t – touch too close to the surface right now. At least Benny seems to be okay: when he was sulking around hungover, Beth finally asked: did your circuit breaker work? He looked at her, eyes bloodshot and overcaffeinated. Yeah, he allowed at last, it did.

Beth puts on her pyjamas, goes to the kitchen to make a cup of late night coffee.

“I’ll have one if you’re making one,” Benny calls.

“I’m not supposed to be making you things,” Beth calls back. “We’re fighting for oppressed wives everywhere.”

Benny appears in the kitchen a moment later. “In that case I’ll make you one,” he says, hip-checking her away from the machine.

Beth goes to sit on their couch, pushing Benny’s notebook of increasingly crazed-looking analysis aside to curl up her legs. Domesticity is something they were good at, right from the beginning: she anticipated awkwardness, uncomfortable patches like she had with Harry when they were figuring each other out and coming up with the wrong conclusions, but she and Benny never had that. They spun around each other easily, planets on interlocking orbits; they clashed on the surface from time to time, scratches and scrapes, but underneath everything worked perfectly, so well she stopped noticing it after a while, the way she no longer noticed breathing or blinking until attention was called to it. So perfectly that Beth knew in the Paris airport that if she went back to New York then she wouldn’t leave again.

Benny brings her her coffee and sits down beside her, cradling his own cup in his hands. It’s almost funny, really: that Beth put so much effort into running, into destroying everything that those five weeks taught her was possible, and yet almost all of it caught her up anyway. Maybe if she hadn’t tried so hard there wouldn’t be a careful amount of space between the two of them on the couch, Benny would be looking at her and not a magazine in a language he doesn’t understand, but, as Benny himself told her a long time ago, maybe is a loser’s word.

-

Benny arrives home late one afternoon; Beth listens to the familiar set of sounds that mean he’s hanging up his hat and coat – reinstated despite the early September warmth the city is enjoying – and toeing off his boots.

“Is there a reason Christine asked me if I make a habit of asking teenage girls to move in with me?” he asks, dropping into their armchair.

Beth, sitting on the sofa reading through a Swedish tournament pamphlet from last year, does not let herself hunch her shoulders or look in any way guilty.

“What did you tell her?” she asks instead.

“That you already hate sharing a bathroom with me, I didn’t think you’d like it if I brought anyone else into the apartment.”

“That is true,” Beth agrees.

She keeps reading through the game report and becomes aware that Benny is watching her; she raises her head and finds that he’s got that thoughtful look on his face again, the one that makes Beth feel like one of Wexler’s chess problems.

“What?” she asks.

“Why did you agree to come to New York with me?” Benny asks.

“You’re about three years late to that question,” Beth responds. “And I really did like your hair.”

“That’s what it’s for,” Benny agrees, but his expression hasn’t lightened.

Beth sighs, but Benny has given her more honesty this year than she would have believed he possessed and she can give him some in return. “It was what you said to me,” she offers.

“That you’d be washed up by the time you were twenty-one?” Benny asks, dubious.

“No,” Beth says, “when you came to see me that day when we knew we’d be playing the final game.”

She remembers that whole conversation with the weird, sharp clarity that she recalls certain moments in her life, so bright she could close her eyes and be right there, sitting on the bench in the sunshine watching the college students wander around, laughing and chatting and lounging on the grass, close enough to call out to but feeling a million miles away from her. And then Benny sat beside her and his voice was softer and he didn’t have an audience and wasn’t trying to get anything from her, and for the first time Beth saw a sliver of someone in there she might want to actually know, a hint that there was more to Benny Watts than an infuriatingly sharp mind and a smug drawl.

Benny smirks. “Because I told you that you were the best player in the competition?”

“Because when I asked if you played through entire games in your head, you said ‘doesn’t everyone?’ like that was the obvious response to the question,” Beth tells him. “I’d never met anyone who saw chess like me,” she adds. “It felt… it felt like I’d been stranded on a desert island for years, and then someone raised a sail on the horizon.”

It’s a bit of an overblown way of putting it, and Beth’s not sure that it’s entirely right; when she thinks the moment over, there’s a fleeting other emotion in there too, one she can’t pinpoint and name. Beth sees things the same way I do, Benny had said the night before, but that was the moment when she actually believed him.

Benny is watching her, his expression thoughtful. “All that effort I went to to be nice to you, and it was a piece of throwaway truth that got you.”

“There’s a lesson in there somewhere,” Beth tells him, making a face at him when he rolls his eyes. “And you didn’t go to that much effort.”

“Do you know how many rivals I’ve tried to get to know over the years?” Benny asks.

“I’m assuming none,” Beth replies.

“Exactly,” Benny tells her, as though this proves some sort of point. Maybe it does.

Although the weather doesn’t reflect it yet, the summer is over and suddenly there seems to be a hell of a lot to do. Beth isn’t trying to scrape her finances together this time but there are so many calls to make, things to arrange, people to speak to. She and Benny split the list of the organisational calls, take it in turns to sit on hold with various departments and travel agents, arranging visas and flights and a hotel room. The government insist on sending someone with them again, still claiming that it’s for everyone’s safety and not using the word “babysitter” at any point, even though they both know better.

“I went out of my way to give mine the slip,” Benny recalls fondly, lying on the living room carpet with one arm tucked behind his head and a cigarette between the fingers of his free hand. Beth can hear the hold music burbling tinnily out of the handset tucked under his chin. “I didn’t even want to go anywhere, but the minute they said I couldn’t…”

“So it’s your fault if they send a team of heavily armed agents to make us stay in our room,” Beth says.

“You’re the one who missed your flight home so you could play chess in the park with a bunch of old men,” Benny shrugs. “All I did was go briefly missing and come back with vodka, I didn’t send a whole department into a defection panic.”

“We don’t know that I did that,” Beth protests, even though Booth had been furious with her for a number of hours when he finally got her back to the hotel, made her sit in his eyeline while he made several calls. Beth hadn’t minded, curiously at peace even when Booth kept asking her increasingly weird questions, like a KGB agent had infiltrated the elderly chess players and brainwashed Beth in the course of an afternoon.

“Well, there’s a reason the state department keeps putting me on hold and going off to consult each other, and I don’t think it’s me they’re worried about,” Benny tells her.

“You’re the unpredictable one out of the two of us,” Beth reminds him.

“Ah,” Benny replies, “but I’m an All-American boy, just look at me.” He gives Beth a wink and exhales a plume of pale smoke while she scoffs at him.

“Is that what the cowboy hat is for?” she asks.

He lifts a shoulder. “It doesn’t hurt,” he says, and then sits abruptly upright as the call reconnects. "Hi, yes, did you get that confirmation...? Uh huh.” He drops his cigarette into the ashtray near him and grabs up a pen to start scribbling in the notepad they’ve had to start keeping all the details in. “Okay. Okay. Okay – no, I get that.”

Beth leaves him wrangling with whoever he’s been transferred to and goes into her room, where her outfits for Russia are starting to take up most of the available space. It’s her usual balancing act of appearing smart and sombre while reminding people that she’s still a young woman who can wear what she likes. She’s found the perfect blood red wool midi caped coat to wear, styling herself more as an avenger returning to see if she can capture her crown again than the young ingenue, daring everyone to underestimate her. Her outfits for indoors stick to mostly dark colours and clean lines, nothing to distract herself or anyone else with. It’s not technically time to start packing yet, but Beth wants everything organised, to know that she has everything she needs and that it looks exactly how she wants it to look. There’s a lot about Russia that she won’t be able to control, but this is something that she can.

She doesn’t know exactly what Benny is planning to do, if he’s going to stroll into Moscow in his usual array of fading jeans and barely-buttoned shirts; when she asked about it he responded with keep your hands off my wardrobe, fashion harpy and she had to let it drop.

A few days later, Beth sits in an actual photography studio, trying not to blink too much as a woman meticulously applies several coats of mascara to her eyelashes. Beth is wearing a chunky grey felt suit and platform boots, with a chequerboard cravat foaming at her throat. It’s not a look she’d pick for herself but when she sees it all together in the mirror, her eyes looking enormous and dark, hair curled differently, she doesn’t hate it at all. Vogue are doing a feature on intelligent women – Beth has a suspicion it’s going to have a title like Smart Is The New Sexy, or something irritatingly similar – and she is one of the people they’ve asked to participate. There seem to be people everywhere: a scientist and a mathematician are also having their pictures taken today, separated from Beth by racks of clothes and screens, and there are huge blinding lights dotted around. A record player in the corner blasts Edwin Starr’s latest chart topper, and Beth is still trying to work out if she can recreate this look for her own hair at home when an assistant comes to grab her arm and the next thing she knows, she’s stood in the white box they’re using as a backdrop and the camera’s eye is on her.

This isn’t like posing for Townes, not even that first fragile time in his hotel room, and it isn’t like any of the shots the press or the chess magazines take. Beth is momentarily disconcerted, and then thinks about the way she walked into every tournament as a teenager, the way that she still has to walk into some of them now: shoulders back, head high, no hint of her anxiety on her face or in her eyes. The photographer yells at her periodically over the noise and the music, demands and adjectives that she can barely understand but does her best to follow anyway. It must work, because a few minutes that feel both like seconds and hours pass by and then she’s being told that she’s been perfect, that’s the shot, and does her best to return to the station she was sitting at without turning her ankle in the boots.

Later, back in the sheath dress and loafers she arrived in, Beth sits with an interviewer and a cup of coffee and tries to sound coherent. The questions aren’t anything particularly new but they’re for a different publication, and she talks about what attracts her to chess, about Mr Shaibel teaching her when she was a child, about how men’s assumptions about her are frustrating but they make her want to win more. She talks about women’s chess, carefully mentioning Christine’s name, about the lack of recognition that female players receive. When they ask her which women inspire her, Beth talks about Jolene and about Alma, about family that can be found as well as given.

The interviewer nods and smiles and makes her notes as Beth speaks; Beth has no idea what will make it into the article and what won’t, how her words will be interpreted, but she does her best to talk coherently about what matters to her in the hope something like the truth will come through.

“And lastly,” the woman says, glancing down at her notes, “you chose to get married this year, and to a fellow chess player. What has that been like?”

Beth opens her mouth and then closes it again, thinks about Christine reminding her that she stopped lying a long time ago. She licks her lips and then tries again. “Marriage to anyone can be difficult,” she says. “It requires patience, and honesty, and compromise, and a lot of hard work. What you have to do is marry someone that makes it worth all that. I’m lucky because my husband sees the world the way that I do: the same things matter to us, and he knows me better than anyone. It’s been an interesting year, but I don’t have any regrets.”

The interviewer gives her what seems to be a genuine smile, shakes her hand and thanks her, and then apologises as she needs to talk to the scientist upstairs next; Beth waves her off and waits until she’s alone in the room to play her own words back to herself. They sound fine, the kind of thing any person happy in their marriage might say in response to a similar question; except that Beth hadn’t prepared the statement beforehand, hadn’t planned it out.

It’s been ridiculous how many people have told her lately that she looks better, brighter; that she’s been staking a claim on her life instead of letting it drift past her; that she just seems happier. Maybe that’s what this is, Beth thinks, maybe this is her realising that they’re right.

When she gets home, she finds their living room surprisingly crowded, the coffee table pushed underneath the window for space. Wexler and Levertov are there, along with Christine and a couple of guys from her chess club that Beth recognises but can’t recall their names. Benny is seated on the floor, simultaneously playing three people, and Beth stands in the doorway and watches him, watches his hands dance across the boards, the constant clicking of clocks and pieces. She can’t see the centre board properly but he’s most of the way to a victory on the left board; it’s the right board she thinks he’s miscalculated, until he sacrifices a rook and oh, there’s the discovered attack, skewering his opponent’s queen. Within four moves he’s checkmated across all three boards, sits back, rubs his hands together. Beth can’t see his face, but knows the smile that he’s wearing anyway.

“Beth,” Benny says, pushing himself to his feet and turning. “You’re in.”

“I haven’t even taken my coat off yet,” Beth replies.

Levertov, Christine, and one of the unknown men are already setting the boards up again. Benny crosses behind Beth, eases her coat off her shoulders. “There you go,” he says, and then, taking a good look at her face: “wow, that’s a lot of mascara.”

“It looks good,” Beth replies, making a face at him.

“It does,” he says, and disappears into the hallway.

For a moment, just a moment, Beth wants to order everyone out of her apartment, lock the door behind them, be left with just her and Benny. And then- and then that’s the problem; Beth doesn’t know what she wants to happen next. Does she tell Benny that he’s right, that this marriage was a good idea after all? That she’s happy? No, that doesn’t work. That isn’t what she means. But she doesn’t know what she does mean.

“Beth?” Christine asks. “Are you ready?”

Beth blinks her heavy sticky eyelashes twice, and nods. “I’m ready,” she says.

-

September seems to slip away the more Beth tries to clutch at it. Half the time she’s studying, constantly immersed in that liminal space where she is both the players, the board and all of the pieces too, everything an extension of her own body. The rest of the time still seems to involve too much admin: she and Benny go on Phil Donohue, say the same things that they always say, this time with a little extra patriotism for show. They hold hands for most of the interview, and Beth only notices afterwards, untangling their fingers. Beth plays most of the members of Christine’s chess club, together and separately, and later half-watches Benny do the same thing while she reads through the notes on her games, circling anything she’s unhappy with in red ink. Various publications from around the world call the apartment, wanting to speak to one or both of them, the questions the same and the answers more or less interchangeable; there’s only so many ways to say well, I want to win in Russia, and yes, so does my husband, so we’ll see how that turns out.

When the worst of the panic turns up, Beth calls Jolene in the evenings and Jolene reads to her from her law textbooks until Beth can breathe again; she understands all the separate words but once you put them together they become something else entirely, something Beth can’t parse at all, and there’s something soothing in that. Other nights, Jolene rants about other students in her classes, assures Beth that she’s crushing all of them, or they flick through matching copies of fashion magazines and debate the styles they like best. It reminds Beth a little of the preparations she made for Russia the first time, playing squash with Jolene in the hopes of tiring herself enough to sleep. Now, she fights not to play chess on the ceiling when she goes to bed, tries to just lie as still as she can until she finally drops off.

Eventually Beth finds herself still awake at two-thirty in the morning, and she can’t bear to lie in bed any longer, the sheets too warm now, tangled restlessly around her legs. She gets up, thinking about water, about warm milk, about gin, about little green pills. Benny is on the couch, still fully clothed, hair a mess and brow furrowed. There’s a stack of books on the floor in front of him, all marked in various places with slips of paper, and he’s squinting down at his notebook, pages of his own opinions. Even now, he’s adding things to the margins in different-coloured ink.

“Are you writing ‘I should get some sleep’ in any of those notes?” Beth asks quietly.

“I’ll sleep in Russia,” Benny replies, but he does at least put the cap back on his pen. “Why are you awake?”

Beth shrugs, and comes to sit beside him. The nights haven’t turned cold yet but they’re cooler than they were, and she wishes she’d thought to grab her housecoat or a cardigan before leaving her room.

“What was Russia like for you?” she asks.

Benny placed third the last time he attended the Moscow Invitational; the highest of the non-Soviet players that year, but Borgov and Laev proved too much. Beth’s played all the games from that tournament multiple times, initially annoyed to see that Laev had prepped far more for Benny than he had for her, and then darkly amused that it was so easy to beat him because of that. Benny held his own against Borgov far better than Beth did the first few times she met him, but he crumbled in the end. Beth doesn’t know if she’ll win against Borgov this time around; she hopes that she will, but it’s not as vital as it once was, now she’s not afraid of him anymore. Borgov is as human as she is, both a blessing and a curse.

“It was… cold,” Benny says at last. Beth makes a face at him, and he laughs. “It was probably a lot like your trip,” he tells her. “I stayed in a swanky hotel, I had a government agent keeping an eye on me, I wasn’t supposed to go anywhere or talk to anyone, I didn’t drink much vodka but Weiss drank enough for both of us, frankly.”

“Why did you take Weiss?” Beth asks. “I mean, couldn’t you have taken Levertov?”

“I wanted to,” Benny shrugs. “Great man, Arthur Levertov, mind like a steel trap, goes to pieces under pressure. He refused.”

Beth frowns. “How has he made it to grandmaster status?”

Benny shrugs. “I was there for most of it and I still don’t know how. So, Weiss it was. He’s… there’s a half-decent mind in there somewhere, and the rest of the time he was willing to sit there while I talked at him.”

“That’s your favourite quality in a person,” Beth agrees, dry.

“Exactly,” Benny agrees, a half-smile curling his mouth. “Also he was raised Catholic or some shit like that, the Jesus people were fans.”

That was something that occurred to Beth. “Why didn’t the Jesus people make you give some kind of public statement about Christianity and Communism?”

“They tried,” Benny replies, “there’s a reason they only paid for part of my trip.”

Beth laughs, even though it stings a little. Of course Benny got away with things she couldn’t; because he’s a man, because he knows which lines to cross and which ones not to, because he’s Benny Watts.

He nudges her shoulder gently. “What was Russia like for you?” he asks.

Beth’s stomach drops a little, but it was two years ago and she won anyway and now she and Benny sit here on their couch, in their apartment. It’s weird, the way things turn out.

“I missed you,” she says quietly. Benny opens his mouth and Beth holds her hand up to stop him. “You were right to tell me to leave you alone,” she adds. “And if you’d come to Russia we’d have fought the whole time and I’d have done something I didn’t mean and I’d probably have lost. I wasn’t… I wasn’t ready to go to Russia with you then. But I still missed you.”

“Are you ready to go to Russia with me now?” Benny asks, and when he turns his head to look at her Beth realises just how close together they’re sitting, close enough that she can see herself reflected in his eyes, feel it when he exhales.

“I am,” she says.

For a moment, she thinks that Benny’s going to kiss her; she can see that for a moment he thinks he is too, and then he half-shakes his head and shifts a little so they’re not sitting staring at each other. They don’t kiss in the apartment, Beth thinks, not in this space they’ve made their own. The only time Benny ever kissed her here was when she was leaving for Kentucky, and he’s not said it but she thinks he was sure that she wasn’t coming back.

If they kiss here, it makes it real, not a game, not a press opportunity, not a momentary flare of that attraction they’ve strung between them for more years than either of them will ever admit to. And this marriage isn’t a real one, not like it would have been if Beth’s pride and Beth’s courage and Beth’s exhaustion had let her crawl back to New York after Paris, when Benny still loved her and Beth knew what they could be, what their potential held in its shaky cupped hands. It wasn’t enough, or it was too much, and the only thing Beth knew how to yearn for was a fucking drink.

Wanting something that you didn’t want before isn’t a weakness, Jolene says in the back of her mind, a sigh in her voice.

“I should try and get some sleep,” Beth says at last, trying to make it sound natural. “And so should you.”

“I know.” Benny’s smile is soft. “I’ll think about it.”

Time carries on running downhill, away from them. Beth packs everything and then finds herself unpacking it all, changing the footwear and packing it all back again. She even finds Benny organising and folding clothes one afternoon, using an actual suitcase and not his usual battered duffel.

“That looks suspiciously like a real shirt,” Beth remarks, hovering in the doorway to his room. “And I don’t think I realised you owned an actual pair of pants that weren’t made of denim.”

“Out,” Benny orders her. “I told you, I’m handling my own clothes for Russia.”

“Fine,” Beth says, stepping back, and then leans in again. “Do you own a pair of cufflinks for those shirts?”

“I’ll improvise,” Benny replies, giving her one of those rakish grins that used to irritate her.

“I can’t believe all those Russians in their impeccable suits are going to see that I married you,” Beth complains loudly on her way down the hall.

“Your next husband can be a Russian,” Benny calls back. “He can buy you a dacha to practice chess in and everything.”

“You can help me pick him out in Moscow,” Beth responds, and Benny laughs before his bedroom door closes.

With two days to go before their flight, the phone starts ringing at nearly midnight. Wexler and Levertov were over earlier, something that wasn’t a good luck party but wasn’t not one either, but they went home at a vaguely reasonable time because even Benny is trying to get some sleep these days, for better or for worse. Beth stumbles half-awake out of bed, makes it into the living room just before Benny does.

“If it’s Argentina, I’m dead,” Benny tells her groggily, and goes back to bed.

Beth tentatively picks up the still-ringing phone. “Hello?”

“Harmon.” It’s Townes.

“Are you okay?” Beth asks, something panicked jumping in her. “Did something happen?”

“No,” he says quickly. “No, don’t worry, everything’s fine. But I do need to speak to you.”

Beth clutches the handset to her ear and sinks into their armchair, heart still beating too fast. “It’s late,” she says; her voice sounds thin and still weirdly scared.

“I know,” Townes replies. “And I’m sorry if I scared you. I wasn’t going to call at all, but then I realised that I have to.”

“You’re not making this sound less scary,” Beth points out.

“I’m sorry about that too.” Townes sighs, long and slow. “Look, I had dinner with Jolene yesterday.”

There’s that sudden weird punch in her gut again, like the one Beth got when Benny and Townes went for beers without her; the slippery sinking feeling, as though the people she cares about will suddenly decide that she isn’t worth it, will leave with each other instead. She swallows hard, and reminds herself that that’s paranoia, she has no evidence for it at all. “Is she okay?” she asks instead.

“She’s good,” Townes assures her. “It turns out we were both thinking about the same thing, and, well, I guess that’s why I’m calling.”

Jolene hasn’t called for a couple of days; Beth wonders if that’s significant or not.

“Townes-” she begins.

“Do you like being married to Benny?” Townes asks.

Beth puts a hand against her ribcage like she’s been hit.

“Yes,” she says slowly, wondering if somehow this is a trap, if the world is about to be ripped out from under her feet yet again. “Yes. I do.”

“Okay,” Townes murmurs, sounding like he’s talking half to himself. He clears his throat awkwardly. “Then I need you to listen to me very carefully.”

His serious tone isn’t helping: for a second, Beth thinks about just hanging up the phone, walking away from whatever is or isn’t happening right now, getting some sleep. They fly to Russia in two days. She already has so much to concentrate on.

“I’m listening,” she replies.

Townes inhales, and then says: “I don’t know how you feel about Benny. I mean, I see that you care about him, I see that being married to him is good for you, I see that you’re making the effort to build your life together. I just don’t know specifically what you feel, and neither does Jolene, and that makes me think that we can’t tell because you don’t really know. And that’s okay, but… you do need to think about it.”

Beth stays silent, heartbeat too loud in her ears.

“Benny loves you,” Townes tells her. “I went to his room like you asked me to before you got married, and he was a wreck because he couldn’t back out but he’d realised that he wasn’t as over you as he’d thought he was, had realised he probably wouldn’t ever be. I hate that I’m the one telling you this, but I don’t think that he ever will. I’m not telling you that you have to reciprocate, or feel things that you don’t feel, but you’re aware of what Russia will be like. Only the two of you know what happened in Vegas, if you can stop that happening again, but the pressure in Moscow will be worse. And I think you need to be very careful if you want to come back from Russia still married, because you could easily break him without even meaning to, Harmon.”

Beth blinks, and her eyelashes feel wet. “Right,” she says, dragging up the word from a long way away. Her hand is curled so tight around the phone that her fingers hurt, clenched rigid.

“I thought things might be different, that it was more pre-wedding jitters than anything else, but when I came to New York I could see that nothing’s changed for him. I took Benny out in case he wanted to talk and what he really wanted was a drink. So, yes, I helped him get drunk, and I realised that I had to talk to you before it was too late.” Townes is still talking, so gentle, so earnest, and it’s all Beth can do to hold onto the shreds of her composure.

“I see,” she manages, the words falling out of her mouth with no real input from her brain.

“If you two need a second, I can help,” Townes adds. “I’ve got savings, the visa is tricky but I know someone in the department who could probably rush it through, if you think it would help to bring another person-”

“No,” Beth interrupts him. Her voice is still too calm, too steady, like it belongs to someone else. “Thank you, but we’ll be fine.”

“Harmon,” Townes says, “Beth.”

Somehow, that stings something in Beth that she didn’t even know could sting.

“I’m okay,” she tells him, “thank you for calling.” She sounds stiff, polite. “I’ll see you in Moscow.”

Beth hangs up before Townes can say anything else; she sits in the dark and listens to herself breathing, in and out, in and out, while underneath it all, uneven and terrified, thumps her too-loud, inconstant heart.

-

“There’s coffee,” Benny offers. His hair is wet from the shower and he’s wearing his untied robe over his fading blue jeans, the pair that look like they’re minutes away from ripping open unexpectedly.

Beth blinks, looks away. “Okay,” she says, and goes into the kitchen.

She takes her time getting her coffee together, the tinkling of the spoon too loud against the cup. She didn’t sleep well last night – how could she have done – and everything about her feels like it’s on high alert, raw and exposed as a nerve ending. Finally, she goes back to the living room, perches on the couch and tries not to look at where Benny is sprawled in their armchair, easily taking up twice as much space as he actually needs.

“You okay?” he asks; Beth can feel him looking at her, but doesn’t look back. “Who was that last night?”

Beth shrugs. “You can’t have been that worried, you went straight back to sleep,” she says, trying not to sound too sharp.

“I figured you’d come wake me if someone was dead or something was on fire,” Benny replies easily.

Something hysterical in Beth’s brain screams that everything is dead and on fire before she gets herself back under control. “It was just Townes, he forgot what time it was and wanted to check some details about Moscow.”

She doesn’t look up to see if Benny believes her. It doesn’t matter whether he does. Things have… slipped, that’s what this is, that’s all this is. Sure, they can drink coffee together in their living room in their respective nightwear, but it doesn’t have to mean anything. It doesn’t have to be more than that. This marriage was a business transaction, meticulously plotted as such, and that’s all it should be. Everything else is static, background noise, a distraction.

“You sure you’re okay?” Benny sounds actually concerned now, and he comes to sit beside her on the couch. Beth forces herself not to shift away, to try and calculate how much distance is too much, how much is not enough. “Are you getting sick? I told you that you needed to drink more orange juice.”

“I’m drinking plenty of orange juice,” Beth replies. “And you’re the one who was supposed to buy more of it and didn’t.”

Benny leans over to put the back of his hand against Beth’s forehead; it’s tender and reminds her of Alma in a way that makes her swallow too hard. “You feel a little warm.”

“I’m fine!” Beth snaps, realises that she’s snapped, and pulls away from Benny as naturally as she can, sure that it probably still looks like a flinch. “I didn’t sleep great last night,” she adds, quieter.

“I know you’re just had your coffee, but I think you should go back to bed,” Benny tells her. “See if you can get some more rest.”

Beth risks a look at him; the twist of his mouth, the gentle concern in his eyes. She feels like a monster.

“I think I will,” she says, putting her half-empty cup on the coffee table, standing up quickly enough to force Benny to sit back. “Thanks,” she adds, vague, and all but flees back to her bedroom.

Within the four walls with their lilac floral paper that Beth doesn’t even notice anymore, she finally lets out a long breath. Her bed is a mess, pillows and blankets flung about as she tried to sleep last night and failed, and she sinks down to sit on the edge. The room is dim, the drapes closed but morning sunlight creeping in around the edges, and Beth covers her face with her hands.

We have to get divorced, she thinks with horrible sharp clarity, an idea that’s been floating since she hung up on Townes finally crystallising. It’s an awful thought, scoops the stomach out of her, but she can’t think of any other alternative. How can Beth stay married to Benny knowing that he loves her? Beth knows that she’s hurt people in the past, but most of that wasn’t deliberate: she doesn’t think that she’s a naturally unkind person, has never wanted to be. She knows what she did to Benny before, how badly she fucked all of that up, but that was born more of something selfish, something caught up in addiction and desperation, not out of any real desire to actually hurt him. The truth is that she was barely thinking of him at that point, was trying too hard not to think of anything at all.

But Beth isn’t cruel, and surely this is cruel. Beth has no idea how to go about loving someone, not in a real way that would be enough for anyone. She loved her mother – both ¬her mothers – and lost them, loved Jolene and has only just got her back, and whatever she felt about Mr Shaibel and the gifts he gave her, he’s gone now too. Beth thought that she loved Townes for a time, but that was an adolescent crush, a desire for his handsome face and the promise of a different world in the way he smiled. The truth is that Beth has never been in love, doesn’t know what it’s supposed to feel like. Maybe she’s not built for it, her brain and her heart wired to care about chess more than anything else, to the detriment of personal relationships, to the detriment of her own life. And maybe that’s okay, that can be enough for her.

It isn’t fair, though. When Beth could believe that she and Benny were in the same position, friends and rivals and occasional lovers; well, that was one thing. Now, every touch, every kiss, every moment in the darkness feels different, feels like Beth has been tormenting Benny unknowingly. You could easily break him without even meaning to, Townes said, and maybe Beth is halfway there already. She knows so many things that Townes doesn’t, so many things she wishes that she could take back now. What felt normal and natural in the moment wasn’t, because surely everything that Beth does makes everything worse. The last few weeks play back behind her eyelids in bright, sticky technicolour, and it leaves Beth feeling nauseous.

How could Benny just let her behave like that, is he trying to cling onto anything that Beth can give him, trying to scrape up any hollow affection that she shows him? And yet how could Benny have stopped her – Benny has never successfully stopped her from doing whatever she wanted, not in the whole time they’ve known each other. Beth thinks about calling Benny from the airport in Paris, him saying: what if I said “go ahead, get drunk”? Would you come then? Benny, who wanted Beth to come back to him so much that he’d compromise on anything. And she still wouldn’t give him even that.

Beth forces herself to breathe as her ribs feel tighter and tighter, every breath she manages sounding shaky. Her throat hurts and she thinks that maybe all she wants to do is scream, but then if she does Benny will come to check on her, and how can Beth face him anymore, what can she say to him other than I’m sorry, if I knew how to love you I would, I would try for you. But Beth can’t give him what she doesn’t have, and while she’s never pretended that she could, it feels worse now that she knows Benny would want her to be able to.

She won’t tell him before they go to Moscow, Beth thinks, trying to construct something concrete to concentrate on as everything crumbles around her. If she starts now, Beth should be able to rebuild her composure for the Invitational, and she doesn’t want to throw Benny off. This competition means a lot, and Beth wants both of them to come out of it as well as they possibly can. When they come back afterwards, then she’ll talk to Benny. They can claim that they realised they care more about chess than a romantic relationship, that it threw their respective games off. Perhaps the press will crucify Beth afterwards, call her heartless, an automaton; it won’t be easy but Beth will take it anyway because they’re probably right. She’ll go back to Kentucky, back to that enormous empty house; maybe she’ll join Susan’s chess club. And Benny… well, he can’t afford to live in this apartment, but she’s sure Wexler and Levertov will find somewhere with manageable rent. He got by before Beth showed up; he’ll get by fine without her. And he’ll be able to get over her, maybe find someone else, someone better for him. Beth doesn’t know what she’ll do exactly, but at least Benny can be with someone who loves him back. He deserves that much.

That conclusion finally steadies Beth: if she does this it might hurt them both in the short term but in the end Benny can find happiness. Maybe in the end they’ll be able to be friends, perhaps when he’s in love again and realised that his love for Beth would only ever have been unsatisfying; Beth would hate never being able to play chess with him again. She likes to watch his mind at work, the way he can still take her by surprise even when she thinks she’s got him mapped out. Benny’s never been wrong about how playing together sharpens them both: sometimes Beth thinks about that first night they played speed chess in the student union in Ohio, the way she returned to her room burning with fury, indignation and humiliation and frustration overwhelming her so strongly that she was shaking, incoherent. It was awful, but it was also the most alive she’d felt since she’d found Alma’s body. That fire Townes talked about, perhaps: uncontrollable and often painful but not always bad.

Beth lets herself fall sideways, curling up on the cool sheets. Her head hurts, her eyes and throat feel tight and sore, and she can feel her heart beating too fast, too hard. She wants to crawl under the covers and wake up in Moscow, games laid out ready for her to play. That’s the only part of her life that makes sense right now: everything else is too difficult, too complicated, too unbalanced. But she has a plan, however wavery and uncertain and terrible it feels. And it might not be soon but one day, in the end, Benny might even thank her.

-

There’s an old romantic movie on the television, a comedy that’s not quite funny, the gender politics a little dubious. Alma would probably have enjoyed it, Gibson or three in hand, revelling in the escapism more than the specifics. Beth has been sitting in front of it for well over an hour and couldn’t tell you a single thing about the blandly attractive main characters, not even their names. They move around and talk and very occasionally kiss – very primly and properly, not an ounce of real passion – and Beth lets it all wash over her, blinks every ten seconds. Benny went to bed a while ago, claiming exhaustion, though Beth doesn’t know if he was actually tired or just tired of her, of her inability to sustain a conversation or look him in the eye. Beth doesn’t know how she’s supposed to act around him anymore.

Beth woke earlier from a tangled, claustrophobic sleep to find that she’d kicked all the blankets onto the floor. She reassembled her bed slowly, caught sight of herself in her mirror and flinched at her pale face, the dark circles around her eyes, the mess of her hair. I bet Benny doesn’t love this she thought, sharp and wry, and then remembered what she must have looked like when he came to Kentucky, drunk and wavering and incoherent. And when she woke up the next morning, ready to vomit red wine for an hour; she wouldn’t let Benny watch her like that, and when she finally made it downstairs, guilty and embarrassed and wretched, all the glass was gone from the kitchen floor, wrapped in newspaper in the trash, and the chess game she’d left scattered out was gone too. Benny gave her two glasses of water and then coffee and dry toast until she felt a little more like a human being, at no point told her that she’d brought all of this on herself, smiled at her with something gentle in his expression that felt good at the time and hurts in hindsight.

Venturing out of her room this afternoon, Beth found a note from Benny saying he’d gone out for cigarettes and orange juice, read the handful of words over and over while she assembled a sandwich for some kind of lunch. She thought about Lexington, where she’s never had to leave a note with her whereabouts because there’s no one to care, about how no one will ever use the last of the milk without her knowing, and when she wakes up in the middle of the night it’s just her, no strip of light underneath someone else’s door to remind her she’s not alone.

Beth ate her sandwich and it tasted of nothing, cardboard in her mouth.

She blamed her listlessness on pre-Moscow nerves and Benny let her, maybe because they’re both trying to be careful at the moment, Las Vegas and all its failings on their minds. Beth tried to read through a magazine she’s already read multiple times, focus entirely shot, while Benny lay across the couch reading The Master and Margarita. If he looked at her at any point, Beth can’t tell, because she took great care not to look at him. She didn’t know what she’d say to him if she did.

And now Beth sits curled up on the couch and watches and doesn’t watch this love story unfold in front of her, stirring music and misadventures, and whenever she blinks she can see herself telling Benny that she wants a divorce. His reaction changes every time she imagines it, some of them better than others: the worst one is probably relief. Beth can acknowledge that she doesn’t want a divorce, but she can’t think of any way for the marriage to function anymore. Townes himself said that Benny had realised he shouldn’t go through with the wedding because he cared too much for Beth, but he couldn’t back out. Beth owes him enough to make all of this end; there’s a lot that she can’t give him, but she can let him go.

You keep longing for something that’ll never happen, and you never have to deal with the kind of man who could want you back was what Jolene told her, months ago now. Well, Beth has had to deal with the kind of man who could want her back, the same man, twice, and both times what she’s managed to do is hurt him because she couldn’t love him. She doesn’t know how. Beth thinks back to that night after she won in Ohio, the two of them sat side by side in a bar, how she watched him handle his defeat with grace, that something she’d felt stringing between them throughout the tournament finally sparking. In truth, Beth knows that what she really wanted Benny to do was take her back to his presumably equally uninspiring dorm room and fuck her; her experiences with sex thus far had told her she’d probably be disappointed by the whole thing but she wanted it anyway, wanted to kiss that mouth with its wry smile and run her hands through that golden hair. Really, it would have been better for their story to end that way: one awkward night to break the tension, Beth creeping back to her own room in the early hours of the morning, blouse buttoned wrong, shoes in her hand, overtired and unsatisfied. At least then that would have been that.

In her imagination, Beth tells him: I can’t love you, and the latest version of Benny, this one more confrontational, sighs and says: well, who the fuck asked you to, anyway?

Beth sighs and shifts and on the television screen the heroine laughs too high and too loud, and it’s fine for her, she knows how to fall in love, the writers gave her all the right lines and the right emotions, put the two people in the right places with the right lighting and it all snapped together like a jigsaw, like a beautifully wrought Sicilian. Beth’s experiments with desire have only ever ended one way: the sound of the closing door, the phone hitting the cradle. People realise, by the end, that there’s nothing inside her. That’s why she can be so brilliant at chess, because she was hollow, full of empty space for the strategies to fit. Cut her, and she bleeds notations. Make her cry, and her tears run with cheap beer and other people’s medication. That’s who Beth Harmon really is, and you can take the girl from the board but you can’t take the board from the girl. People went wrong when they looked for more from her than a solid checkmate.

In the end, Beth gets up, turns off the stupid television and its lying little movie. She feels unsteady on her feet; sober, damnably sober, there are no other options these days, but still shaky and adrift from reality. She doesn’t mind. Beth doesn’t want reality right now. Reality is full of truths she can’t bear to look at, endless choices that don’t end well. This is when you tip your king, when you resign. Beth wants this marriage, wants this life they’ve somehow created despite their mutual stubbornness, but not at the expense of what it would do to Benny. There was a time when I thought you were a brat who chewed people up and spat them out when you’d gotten what you wanted was what he said about the first time they were together, and Beth doesn’t want to do that anymore. She doesn’t want to be that person, not accidentally, not deliberately.

I can’t love you, Beth tells Benny, but I still want you. He looks at her with those dark eyes, the corner of his mouth tugging a rueful smirk. Well, that and a dollar will get me a cup of coffee.

That’s for after Moscow, though. First, Beth has to return to Russia, has to play the best chess of her life to show the first win wasn’t a fluke, has to act as Benny’s second to keep him doing the best he can. It won’t be like Vegas – they won’t be able to forget who they are, where they are. It won’t be easy, but there’s a thread of relieved self-preservation in that too: there’s no chance to blur their lines anymore, not if they want to do well, not if they don’t want to ruin their reputations for good. Benny wants to play chess for the rest of his life, and Beth will not be the reason that he cannot. She’s already done enough.

It hurts more than she would have expected it to, given how many times in the last six months this precarious marriage has almost fallen apart on its own: how many arguments they’ve had, how many frustrated times Beth has just wanted to let the whole thing capsize itself. Even if Benny has been in love with her the whole time, he’s been just as volatile as she has: neither of them have allowed this to be simple. They’ve spent half the time caught up in their own lies, their own grudges, their own history. Beth thinks about the Open, the mess they made of the final, the hotel room, each other; tangled up in their own lie of a real marriage, in the bright scrutiny of the lights and the tension of their mutual ambition. And that night at Max’s, well, if they weren’t drunk from the fug of alcohol in the air they were drunk on the anonymity, the music, the atmosphere. Dressed up, playing at being other people.

It’s this thought that finally propels Beth to leave the living room, to step into the hall and look at the light spilling under Benny’s door. It’s late, but he’s still awake. He’s still awake and Beth is still awake and there are nearly eight million other people in this city but none of them are here, in this apartment, in this moment. There’s the two of them, no press, no audience, no friends, no opponents, no one to see, no one to know, no one to care.

Benny’s head snaps up when Beth walks into his room, closes the door behind her. The lamp beside his bed is on, illuminating some of the space, leaving everything else shadowy. Peripherally, Beth can see his neatly-packed suitcase, a half-played game on his desk, a stack of books on the floor. She doesn’t look at any of it, just at Benny, lying on top of the covers with a magazine cracked open in front of him.

“Beth?” he asks uncertainly, and when he sits up the magazine spills to the floor. Beth doesn’t blink, and he doesn’t reach for it.

“Don’t speak,” Beth says. “Don’t say anything unless you’re telling me to stop or asking me to leave.”

She watches his brow furrow, his mouth opening and then closing again. Is this cruel? Maybe this is the worst thing that Beth has ever done, worse than the opponents she’s left crying, worse than the sadness in Harry’s expression when he left that final time; this is what it felt like, standing on that stool cramming pills into her mouth, greedy and insatiable and glad about it, that she could want and want and want and finally have.

Beth meets Benny’s stare and doesn’t blink, doesn’t look away as she shrugs off her cardigan, throws it away into the darkness. She maintains eye contact as she undoes every button on her pyjama top and lets it fall to the floor, eases the pyjama bottoms over her hips to pool on the rug that she chose for Benny’s room, steps out of them. She watches him, drinks in his expression, the agony of his indecision, the way he can’t stop his gaze dropping from her face to her breasts, dragging it back to her face again, down to the triangle of auburn hair between her legs, her breasts again, her face. His mouth opens, and he doesn’t try to say anything at all.

Finally, Beth holds out her hand; a command, a plea. It takes a long minute – Beth can hear her heart, already beating too hard, hear the harsh rasp of Benny’s breathing – and then he gets off his bed and comes to her. Beth can’t look away from his expression, from those dark eyes pinned to hers, as the floral kimono slips off his shoulders, as he bends to remove his underwear. They’re close enough to touch, close enough that when Benny exhales Beth feels it, and she doesn’t know what her expression is doing because Benny’s gaze rakes back and forth across her face like he’s looking for something, and she doesn’t know if he finds it or not. They stand and stare at each other, more shadows than light, and Beth thinks she’s prepared for anything until Benny pulls her to him, wraps her in his arms and just holds her. His skin is warm in places and cool in others; he buries his face in her neck and Beth puts her arms around him too, slides her hands down the sharp wings of his shoulder blades, clings to him as tightly as he’s clinging to her.

If Beth has to let Benny go, if she doesn’t get to keep this, then she wants them to be themselves together, just once, just so she knows what it’s like. When she has other lovers, when Benny finds someone who actually loves him, Beth wants to know that she did something right, that not everything was a lie of omission, an accident of proximity. Something she can look back on without wincing.

Beth curls her fingers into Benny’s hair, his breath spilling out against her collarbone, while her other hand explores the inch-long scar on the small of his back that he doesn’t talk about. She’ll never know the story now, never his version of it, presumably glorified and tidied into something amusing for pillow talk. Maybe it’s different when it’s not Beth, maybe his other hook-ups get a selection of flirtatious stories, real and imagined, but then maybe they only get Benny Watts, the camera-ready grin and the blindingly bright ego. They don’t get the way his mouth twists in defeat or the momentary tremor in his voice when he second-guesses himself. Other girls wouldn’t know to miss those things, but Beth would, and Beth does.

They’re still half-curled into each other when Benny turns his head to press his mouth to Beth’s. It’s soft, careful but not tentative, and he pulls away before Beth can demand more; his eyes are glitter and shadows. Beth skates her left hand up his spine, the steady bump of bones beneath the skin, and he finally loosens his grip on her, arms sliding away and leaving warmth and chill behind them; he cups Beth’s face with gentle hands as her palm finds the back of his neck. For a second she’s disconcerted: they’ve never been cautious with each other, have always flung themselves together with reckless bruising abandon from that first night in Benny’s apartment to that bathroom stall at Max’s. They’ve always been a blazing fire, passionate and furious and competitive on a chess board or a mattress, and Beth doesn’t know what to do now, the only sound their mismatched unsteady breathing, starting from scratch and not that deep shared well of violent delights they normally keep between them.

Benny kisses her again, chaste and slow, and her heart thuds in her chest; she tries to follow him as he leans back, both hands tangled in his hair, and there’s a hint of that smile, a tease. She acquiesces for now, lets him steal brief brushes of mouths that make her toes curl, the scrape of facial hair against her upper lip there and gone again. She pictures Benny at a bar, magnanimous in loss, dragging out a bottle of beer in slow sips like he wants to make it last or just punish himself. Beth isn’t sure which category she fits into, maybe both, and when he next kisses her she clenches her fingers and pushes forward, opens her mouth against his. He inhales, sharp, and Beth stills for a second before he kisses her back. Benny is still taking his time but she can feel the tremble in him now, and she matches it, tries to show him without words and without sound how much more she needs from him. She leaves one hand knotted in his hair, maybe she’ll never be able to let go, and slowly draws the other one down his face, fingertips to his cheek, thumb to the corner of his mouth where it touches hers.

When Benny steps away Beth is left breathless, suddenly grasping at air. Without their proximity she realises how cold she is, October filling the room in every space they’re not touching. She’s pebbled with goosebumps and she can see them mirrored on Benny’s skin; he’s the one to hold his hand out now, to pull her with him back to his bed. Beth slept here not all that long ago: woke up to find herself curled protectively around Benny. He was still drunk and sleeping, and Beth told herself to get up, shower, be ready with coffee and wry sympathy, but she closed her eyes instead, stayed where she was for a couple more hours. Now, the sheets are cold when she pulls back the covers but she drags Benny in on top of her. The chains around his neck pool against Beth’s chest when he leans down to kiss her; they’re a little cool, not enough body heat left to warm them, but she stops noticing when his tongue touches hers.

What was it Beth was thinking about banked fires, about restraint? Benny kisses her like he was never trying to hold himself back, and Beth kisses back viciously, brutally, like she’s trying to steal every kiss she’ll never have again from him right now, to steal all of his kisses so he’ll have none left for anyone else ever again. No, no, Beth is trying not to be selfish, Benny deserves better than her, better than this, he deserves real love not lust dolled up in confusion and camera lights, Beth can’t give him anything but she can take and take and take. And then there will be Moscow, sleeping without touching in a bed with nicer sheets than this one has, and however the pieces fall they’ll come back to America but they’ll never come back here again, to the way Benny’s mouth looks as sore as hers feels when they have to part to breathe, watching each other as though daring someone to be the first to blink; to the sound Benny makes when he finally kisses her again, friction-raw lips and nothing short of desperation.

It’s a relief and a disappointment when Benny presses his mouth to her throat, tasting her pulse, a brief measured scrape of teeth: there’s no time for marks to heal, and the Invitational is too important to turn up with each other’s bruises. Best behaviour or something like it, even if part of Beth wants to leave herself all over him, render herself unforgettable. Claw her nails down his back hard enough that he’ll have another scar to explain away, leave him saying oh, that was Beth every time he takes off his shirt for the rest of his life. But she can’t do that, you can’t be possessive over something you’ve resolved to give up, and now she’ll always be his ex-wife, a shadow he’ll never be able to shrug from his shoulders. That can be enough. That will have to be enough.

The temptation is to close her eyes, surrender to touch and to sensation, but she can’t, she has to watch every moment that she can and file them all away, bright and bold in her mind the way some of her memories are, ones she can unfold later and step into. Beth wants this memory later, every part of it, from the ugly wallpaper she can barely make out in the lamplight to the almost laughable mess she’s already made of Benny’s hair to the slightest trail of sensation from his necklaces against her skin before he takes one of her nipples into his mouth. Beth gasps and Benny’s eyes flick up to hers, dark and bright all at once, and she thinks there might be a hint of a smile on his face before he turns his attention back to her breasts, to a slow methodical worship that Beth wants to tell him to stop and wants him to continue forever. She can hear herself, the urgent little sounds she can’t stop letting out as Benny licks and suckles and nips and occasionally bites, knows all the best places to touch her, learned them years ago and then only built on the foundations. What his mouth doesn’t cover he caresses with his hands, with his long sure fingers that indifferently play the piano but that shake on Beth’s skin.

Benny looks up at Beth again, a question in his eyes like he’s asking for permission; she nods, thinks she nods, does something affirmative that has him sliding down the bed, pushing her legs further apart. Beth shoves the covers aside, not caring for the cold if she can’t see him, can’t watch as Benny presses his mouth to the curve of each hip, the crease of her thigh. He gently repositions Beth’s leg before kissing the inside of her knee, a moment of tenderness, a tease. Beth thinks that maybe she shouldn’t have stipulated no talking; it solves one set of problems but creates another, something Benny fully takes advantage of as he trails his lips slowly, painfully slowly up the inside of her thigh. Beth is panting, her pink-flushed breasts rising and falling erratically as she watches Benny take his time, knowing she can make no demands of him. And yes, Beth wanted this to be something to savour, something to keep holy and secret inside of herself until the wanting somehow stops, but she’s too impatient, too needy, too desperate for him to touch her.

Benny bites the inside of her thigh, just too hard to be playful; it speaks to the dark hollow places in Beth that want to leave him marked, leave him forever stained from her, the flash of bright real pain a jolt that makes all her nerve endings sing. She gasps, gunshot, and Benny looks up at her through his fucking eyelashes and gives her that grin, the one he’s developed specifically to rub salt in the wound of every last opponent he’s crushed, teeth white but the blood is implied, a wolf, a shark, a tiger. It makes Beth reach out, run her fingers through his already ruined hair, where the tips shine blond and the rest is darker, the man beneath the golden boy, the champion she brings home with her for the way his performative smiles drop into something softer, less sure, less antagonising. She finally scrapes her nails across the nape of his neck, thinks about the way his hair curls onto his collars and how it always distracts her. I like your hair she told him once, a little graceless and naïve perhaps, but it wasn’t a lie: in truth Benny’s hair has always been an obsession, from finding it affected and smug to finding it attractive, too attractive; what is his hair even for anymore if not for Beth to pull it, to run her hands through it, to lay claim to her own ground.

Beth thinks she could just crack apart into pieces when Benny finally lowers his head, purses his lips to blow a stream of warm breath against her. Her toes curl against the sheets, her stomach clenches in anticipation, and she fights not to be too eager because she knows that then he’ll just go back to teasing her. Even so, he takes his time, dotting gentle kisses on her stomach and thighs and finally around her cunt without ever going close enough to the slick waiting core of her; she wonders briefly if Benny’s read her mind, if he knows that this has to be the last time they do this, or if he’s just taking advantage of the fact they have time, nowhere to be tomorrow, a full match to play and not just the hasty rush of blitz. She pushes herself up on her elbows, thighs sliding further apart against the sheets, watches the shift of muscles and bones in his back in the halo of light before the rest of him tapers into the darkness of the rest of the room. Not that she’ll ever tell him, but he’s as much a master here as he is when faced with a board; perhaps this is also the result of diligent study but she doesn’t want to hear about it. Maybe if the two of them had just stayed good at chess and good at sex they wouldn’t be here now, the world brought down to this single moment, everything and nothing all at once.

Her head tips back when Benny’s mouth presses to her cunt fully, running his tongue leisurely from her clit to her entrance and back again, slow sweeps designed to leave her shivering from sensation. Beth’s nails scratch against his scalp in a vaguely similar rhythm; she learned years ago he prefers a sharp tug on his hair to a gentle stroke, enjoys sex with an edge of something that messily skirts real pain. When they first fell into bed – literally, really, Benny’s cheap bedframe complaining in a way that made Beth briefly wonder if it would collapse beneath them – they were still rivals enough that every scrape and bite and bruise made a kind of reasonable sense, and now it’s perhaps the only way to vent their emotions, the bloom of tiny injuries that Beth uncovered across her body in the hours and days after Las Vegas, each one a war wound, a badge of honour, a guilty secret to press her fingertips to over and over in a house that yawned and creaked around her with the weight of history and solitude. In some ways she’s still alone here but then she will never be alone, not with her legs bracketing Benny’s body, not with his mouth dragging out a glorious, aching need from her, exploring every last inch of her, every fold of skin, everywhere that makes her breath stop, spill from her like absolution. He chases every sound she makes, does whatever it was that made her gasp over again, harder, worse, until Beth is arched up from the mattress, arched to his mouth where his lips form shapes or the lyrics to the last song they heard together or every one of his favoured openings, all of the above or none of it. She looks back down when she dares, to her white-knuckled grip in his hair, his closed eyes with the lashes a streak of shadows on what’s visible of his face, the slightest graze of teeth over her clit because he knows she can take it, wants to take it.

One day, somebody else will do this to Beth. She may not have a heart that works like real people’s hearts do but she has a body that functions well enough and there are plenty of other people in the world with lips and tongues and long quick fingers: she will find one, or two, or six, and it will feel good. No one will care who you fuck, Benny told her when they were organising her marriage, and perhaps she’ll retain some of that as a divorcee; and if not, well, Beth is bored of trying to behave, of trying to be enough for people who don’t know her or like her or owe her anything. Maybe, when Beth has had half of Kentucky between her thighs, it will exorcise this moment: Benny’s tongue inside her, flickering to the beat of her pulse in her chest and her throat and her ears, his fingertips digging into the tops of her thighs to keep her where he wants her, each point of a pressure a tiny light that tingles like a struck match. Maybe she’ll no longer need to keep his hair brushing against her legs and tangling around her clutching fingers, the way he hums right there, at the centre of her, a swift vibration that tips her over the edge before she’s ready for it, before she’s prepared: something raw rips out of her throat and she falls back into the pillows, all of her trembling and full of something unnameable, unknowable and blinding along with it. Other people will make Beth come and it won’t feel like something magical, Benny easing back with tender slow kisses that shiver and sting and prolong her orgasm into something unbearable and right. This will be one night among many nights, one regret among many regrets, and she’ll be able to look at it with some perspective and know it for what it really is.

Benny is still mapping her body with his fingers and his mouth when Beth can finally construct a coherent thought, or something enough like it to drag his lips from the underside of her breast and roll them over, a clumsy tangle of limbs. Now Benny’s the one sprawled in his sheets, eyes widening as Beth leans down over him to kiss the slickness from his face, the taste of herself from his tongue. His cock presses eagerly into her stomach, his hands restlessly caress her back, her hips, her ass. She can picture herself mirroring him, hands and knees and the spill of her hair as she takes him into her mouth, the broken sounds escaping his throat, trying to watch until he no longer can. It’s good, even the thought of it makes her heart twist, her cunt pulse, but she wants more than that, wants everything he can give her, it’s been too long, so fucking long. Beth slowly undulates her body, feeling the wet smear of his pre-come against her skin, drinking the breath from his lungs, mouthing at his jaw, his throat. He doesn’t say her name but Beth watches him fight not to, steals a last kiss before she crawls off him.

The contents of Benny’s nightstand haven’t changed much in the last months: Beth shoves aside a copy of Franny and Zooey and two packs of playing cards to unearth the condoms exactly where she last saw them; something sharp and pleased in her notes that there are the same number there were last time. If Benny is surprised that she knows where to look he doesn’t show it as Beth tears a packet from the strip; she finds herself gratefully and ruefully reflecting that at least she didn’t let her spiteful fury poke a hole in them all, that would have been a difficult conversation to have. She drops the packet on the mattress and is about to shuffle backwards when Benny sits up, pulls her to him, gives her another one of those searing kisses that makes Beth’s brain stop functioning, his hands caught in her hair, her hands tangled in the chains around his neck. Beth drags herself away, all but falling out of his lap into a heap on the covers while Benny scrabbles for the condom, rips the packet open, heavy dark gaze flitting between putting it on and just gazing at Beth.

I’m not afraid of him, says teenaged Beth, thinking of the chess pirate with his sycophantic entourage and smug plastic grin. And she’s not afraid of him: she’s mad at him in a whole range of ways, of colours and furies and spikes. He’s less a real man, more of a cardboard cut-out of a grandmaster, the only thing genuine about him his skill on a chess board and Beth has played skilled men before.

Now, years later, Beth is scared of no one but Benny. Scared of how he reads her, the pieces of her he’s taken that she’s not sure she can ever get back. Scared of missing him – of knowing that she has no choice but to miss him. Beth has missed Benny in a variety of ways: in the toppled king of an unworthy rival, between her splayed legs on a drunken anonymous Lexington night, in the expectant dial tone before she recalled his demand to leave him alone, in the space and silence left behind where she’s become used to seeing only him. Beth has forgotten how to be alone, to enjoy her own solitude and not to feel isolated and trapped by it. She will be left to peel the recollection of laughter from the walls, to press her hands to her own heart to remember that the beat means she’s still alive, to assert the fact she lived for years with just her own mind, her own touch, the sound of her own breathing, and no one died of it. She made her own coffee, smiled her own smiles, wrapped her own arms around herself, and she survived day after day. She has done it before. She will do it again.

And that is the last fear, the worst and most secret one: of the way Benny looks at her changing, of his gaze going back to being sharp and cool and calculating, the fastest draw in the West ripping the skin from your bones and the defence from your game, looking at Beth and seeing her without knowing her. Or, worse, looking at her with faded nostalgia, like he’s recalling a song he once knew all the words to but can no longer remember the tune.

Beth blinks, and swallows, and draws in a sharp breath, and Benny is here, now, here, watching her with bright eyes and flushed cheeks and his mouth bitten raw, and there’s nothing of that man who so efficiently destroyed her in Sixty-Six, nothing of the arrogant champion on the covers of so many magazines. Here he is Beth’s, still, hers and no one else’s, and it’s that fierce realisation that propels her into movement. Benny reaches for her and Beth falls into his hands, plants her knees on either side of his thighs, lets him steady her with his sure perfect hands that fit now as they always have. She closes her eyes a moment, centring herself, and she’s used to the warm band of his signet ring pressing into the skin of her right hip but the warm band of the wedding ring on the left side is new with no clothing in the way, a strip of metal that means nothing but that mirrors the one on Beth’s left hand where it’s clenched into Benny’s shoulder. The rings they exchanged for a wedding that was a terrible idea from the start and that Beth agreed to not because she had to or even because she actually thought it would help but because she wanted to, God help her, afraid to even think the truth too loudly, but she wanted this.

Benny’s breathing is fast and shallow and Beth’s isn’t much better; it takes a moment of fumbling and searching for angles but it’s a relief when everything lines up and she finally, finally sinks down on his cock. Something perilously close to a whimper spills out of her mouth: she’s not had anything more than fingers – some of them Benny’s, most of them hers – inside her for so long that it takes a moment to adjust. Benny holds her, his lower lip caught between his teeth, but he doesn’t push for more and Beth shifts and keeps dragging in slow breaths and it gets easier, gets better. She rocks, careful and deliberate, and takes more of him each time until at last she’s fully seated, watching Benny’s Adam’s apple bounce as he swallows compulsively, hands shaking on her hips, holding still for her like it’s breaking him apart.

His lips form her name but he doesn’t make a sound; it’s been a long time since they did this and it feels the same as it ever did and yet completely different. Beth clenches experimentally and watches Benny’s eyes flutter closed in response; it’s like she’s drunk on the way it feels to have him inside her, how hard he is, how hot he is, how full she feels. The Beth of three years ago took this as her due, learned the many different ways their bodies could fit together, counted how many ways Benny could make fireworks shoot up her spine, assumed this would always happen whenever she wanted it. But then it didn’t, and now it’s not the same, nothing is the same: not the way that this feels, not the way that they want each other, none of it. Beth reaches out, suddenly frightened, suddenly overwhelmed, suddenly tender, and cups Benny’s cheek, runs her thumb over a flushed cheekbone. He turns his face, kisses the palm of her hand, and part of Beth wants to wrench herself from him, run from this room and this apartment and this marriage and this life, but she doesn’t, and when Benny opens his eyes they’re raw with want and it’s easy to surge forward to kiss him, to bite at his mouth and tilt her hips and oh, she remembers how that feels too.

It’s too fast, too much, too hard, but Beth can’t slow herself down and doesn’t try to, hands braced on Benny’s slim shoulders as she works herself on him, pulling back and plunging deep, the rhythm erratic and frantic and so good it’s almost blinding, Benny’s nails biting into her hips as he moves in tandem with her, thrusting up hard enough the sound of their skin smacking together is louder than his bedframe creaking, louder than their tight broken breathing. Beth can feel it building in her, a liquid heat that runs throughout her body, tingles in her fingers and her toes, burns sweet and urgent in the glorious stretch every time she takes the full length of him in her cunt. They should have done this before, but how could they, how could they have carried on with everything else and not just done this over and over again, every day, let every other aspect of their lives collapse around them.

They said no sex in Moscow, weeks ago now, less a real conversation and more a sheepish exchange of rueful laughter. Maybe that’s what this is, maybe that’s what Benny believes is happening here: a way to exorcise that lust neither of them has ever been good at hiding, burn it down to ashes before they have to play prestigious chess, chess too good for this, for this raw animal mingling of teeth and skin and sweat and breath that has no rules and no lines and no endgame. There’s no art to this, no strategy, and yet Beth knows what sex with amateurs is like and it’s not like this, doesn’t leave you broken and helpless before it, swept under and drowned by a wave of your own making. It’s nothing like the way Benny bares his teeth before he pushes Beth over onto her back, knocking the breath out of her as she falls beneath him, the rise of his body blocking most of the light. He braces himself on one arm while his other hand presses into her lower back, helps her tilt her hips to a new angle as he slides deeper, and Beth cries out, wordless and needy and lost.

Benny is a man possessed, fucking her hard enough for it to hurt, ripping control away from Beth and leaving her stranded, unable to do anything but lock her legs around his waist and keen, demanding everything that he has and then still more. He’d slow down or stop if she asked, all it would take would be a single word, and that knowledge is enough for Beth not to have to, to watch the shadows spill across his face and the gleam of half-light off his chains. Her hands roam aimless and desperate across his back, his ass, keeping him as close as she can while he hisses deliciously every time she digs her nails in. Benny shifts her hips again and this time when he thrusts in the base of his cock catches her clit; it sends sparks skittering through Beth’s stomach and he presses closer, grinding determinedly slow and deep until she falls to pieces for him, devastating sensation flooding her whole body, losing her in the undertow.

She tries to watch Benny, what she can see and what she can’t, but it’s all too much, broken sounds tumbling in fragments from her lips. A tear trickles down her cheek and Benny presses his mouth to it, bending Beth almost in half and she clenches around him, demanding, begging him to come for her, his pelvis still close enough to set her clit on fire every time he moves. Beth is weak from overstimulation but he doesn’t stop and she doesn’t want him to; she’s still wound so tight, so desperate, and she can tell from his breathing that he’s close. She claws at his arm until he lets her back drop to the mattress; she links their sweaty fingers, squeezing tight, thinks, let go, I have you, and holds onto him tight, tight until a frantic groan breaks out of Benny, his head dropping, hair falling in his eyes, and he comes, hips snapping erratically into hers. He all but collapses onto her and Beth thinks that’s it, it’s over, it has to be, but he manages to roll them onto their sides, slides the hand not entwined with hers between them to clumsily but efficiently work her clit. You bastard, Beth wants to say, whatever point you’re proving, I’ve got it, but he doesn’t stop, keeps rubbing her and gently rolling his hips until she comes again, a wreck of incoherent oversensitivity around his softening cock.

It takes time for them to finally draw apart, the cold returning to the room as Benny bites into his lower lip and carefully pulls out. Beth gasps, thought she’d be prepared to be left empty and isn’t, and Benny staggers off the bed, disappears down the hall; she hears the bathroom light snap on, the sound of running water. Beth closes her eyes and opens them and tries to work out what she’s supposed to do now, if she should gather her clothes together, if she should go back to her own room, if she should prepare herself for Benny asking questions she doesn’t have the words to answer. Instead, she stays lying prone, every inch of her tingling and exhausted; maybe she’s supposed to flee but she’s honestly not sure that her limbs work anymore. When Benny returns a minute later he’s carrying a damp washcloth; Beth takes it gratefully and summons enough strength to run it between her legs, the tops of her thighs. Everything stings and sings and she lets out a slow breath; she glances at Benny when he takes the cloth back and he’s got one of those half-smiles on his swollen mouth, the kind he wears when he’s won a game of blitz against her: half-proud, half-guilty. He goes back to the bathroom and Beth forces herself to sit upright, to at least move enough to be lying the right way on the bed, head on the pillow.

Benny says nothing when he comes back into the bedroom, shuts the door behind him. He makes no effort to claim either of their clothes, still scattered on the rug, and instead goes straight to the bed, shakes out the bundled heap of the blankets and covers Beth, gets in beside her and then leans over to turn out the lamp. It’s too simple, too easy, too perfunctory for what’s just happened, for the way Beth feels like she’s floating, not a pill in sight. Benny sighs beside her, and then she feels him roll over, wrap himself around her. She swallows and her throat feels tight but she relaxes into him, his warm sticky skin, the brush of his mouth at the top of her spine. His hand spreads over her ribs, five fingers and one metal band, and the matching one Beth wears clicks against it when she puts her hand over his. He exhales, shaky, and Beth thinks what are you doing but Benny doesn’t ask and she doesn’t tell.

Sleep is creeping over her, humming in her lax limbs and behind her eyes. Part of her is already there, lulled from exertion and orgasms, but that mind of hers that’s never been good at drifting off is still spinning to itself, pinballing from thought to thought, moment to moment. Every move that ever brought her here, every exchange of queens, every tip of a king, every capture, every check, every discovered attack. Some of them were more metaphorical than others, and she glides through a series of hotel rooms in other cities, in Las Vegas, Paris, Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Moscow. But that’s not why she’s here, and once again she’s on that bench in the sunlight, college students wandering a foreign planet she’ll never inhabit, and beside her Benny Watts tries to apologise and she takes pity on the twist of his mouth and asks what she’s always wanted to ask another player: do you ever go over games in your head? When you’re alone, I mean: play all the way through them? And Benny looks at her, but not like she’s stupid, not like she’s weird, not like he doesn’t understand what she’s talking about, and says: doesn’t everyone? And Beth feels it, that glimpse of a kindred spirit, that sail on her empty horizon, and something else, something so quick it’s there and then gone. But Beth now, she’s almost asleep, ghostly footsteps in her own memories, and she reaches out a hand to take that feeling, to smooth it flat like crumpled paper to examine. She’s felt it before, just the once: in a basement in an orphanage where everything is terrifying and lonely and wrong, and then there’s a board with black and white squares and specifically designed pieces that move like clockwork in carefully designated roles. She doesn’t know what it is yet, doesn’t understand it, doesn’t know what role it will play in her future, but she sees it and thinks yes, and a hook somewhere in her stomach catches on and says: mine.

-

The daylight is trickling into the room at the wrong angle, and realising this is what finally drags Beth into slow wakefulness. Her mind feels muddled, sluggish, and her body is sore, the muscles twinging and aching. None of it’s a bad feeling, though, and she knows that she’s smiling, satisfied by the soreness in her thighs, the curl of her toes in the sheets. It would be easy to roll over and go back to sleep, and she briefly considers doing it: there’s nothing much to do today, nowhere to go, the flight to Moscow isn’t until tomorrow.

Moscow. Ah, there’s the final shove into consciousness, and Beth lets out a breath as a gateway opens somewhere in her brain and everything rushes through like a waterfall, memories and realisations and conclusions and resolutions, a great torrential roar of them to foam around her feet. She’s tempted to pull the covers over her head and hide from all of it but she can’t for a number of reasons, the most pressing perhaps being that these aren’t her covers and this isn’t her bed. Benny’s no longer beside her, she’d be able to tell that even if she couldn’t hear the shower going, but when she reaches out a hand the pillow is still faintly warm on his side of the bed, and the blankets have been tucked carefully around her. Something about that thought makes her stomach swoop and then lurch.

Beth knows that before she fell asleep she was on the edge of something, there was a sort of understanding that made perfect sense to her, but maybe that was just exhaustion and a succession of good orgasms. It wasn’t even that long ago that Beth was scoffing at Benny on the phone as he said, you can’t look at me like you’re in love but if you can look at me like I’m helping you find God three times a night we might just get away with it. Beth has no idea how she looks at Benny anymore but she remembers thinking that three times was excessive and then the bastard actually fucking did it. Lying here in the cool October morning light, Beth is torn between stomping down to the bathroom and dragging Benny back to bed, and swearing that she will never need to have sex ever again. And maybe Jolene has always had a point that Beth should play more squash or something similar, because she feels like she ran a marathon and isn’t sure her spine is ever going to go back to normal.

The water snaps off and Beth contemplates pretending to be asleep, contemplates scrambling for her pyjamas; there are no good options and she ends up grimacing at the ceiling in the moments before Benny walks back into his room, towel around his waist, wet hair several shades darker and dripping onto his shoulders. He stoops, straightens up again with his robe in his arms; when he turns to put it on, Beth notes that despite her vaguely good intentions there’s a raw-looking scratch on his back. She didn’t break the skin but it’s still an angry, slightly swollen red.

“Did I hurt you?” she asks. Her voice comes out scratchy, hoarse, like she’s been screaming even though she hadn’t said a word.

Benny shrugs. “Ah, what’s another war wound?” he says, and grins at her. Beth knows that grin: it’s Benny’s favourite cowboy one, the easy jingle of bullets and spurs, kicking his boots beneath a different bed every night. It looks great on camera, plenty of teeth, and it’s not a real one. Benny fucked her halfway insane last night and now he won’t even smile at her.

Beth doesn’t deign to answer him; she doesn’t know what she wants to say, if there is anything that she can say, but she refuses to try to make meaningless small talk with Benny Watts. She didn’t enjoy it before she knew there was someone else in there, and she enjoys it even less now.

If Benny notices her annoyed silence he doesn’t mention it as he rummages for clean underwear and scrubs the towel over his hair. “I’m making coffee, if you’re getting up,” he says, and walks out again.

Slowly, her muscles complaining in unexpected ways, Beth manages to get herself off the bed. Even the soles of her feet hurt. Her pyjamas are still crumpled on the floor, and she puts them back on, the silk feeling rough against her skin. She finds her cardigan on Benny’s desk where she threw it; a few magazines fall when she picks it back up but there aren’t any more wedding photographs waiting to ambush her, and she ends up leaving them on the floor. The bathroom is warm and steamy, the mirror still fogged up; even not able to see her expression clearly Beth can tell her hair is a mess, a nest of tangles. She could get straight into the shower, maybe then she wouldn’t be able to still feel Benny’s touch on every inch of her raw skin, but that seems like a level of effort that her body just isn’t ready for yet. Instead, she pees, brushes her teeth, splashes her cheeks with water, and hopes that Benny was serious about the coffee.

Benny sits at their kitchen table, the shoulders of his robe damp from his wet hair, drinking black coffee. When Beth walks in the corner of his mouth flicks into a smile, and then he tucks a cigarette into it before he turns his attention back to the pamphlet he’s studying. Beth goes to get herself some coffee, tips in cream and an extra spoonful of sugar because she’s pretty sure that she needs it, and then sits down opposite him. Benny doesn’t look up, and maybe that’s for the best because Beth honestly doesn’t know what she’s supposed to say. Her experience with this kind of thing is not exactly wide-ranging, but Beth is beginning to come to the conclusion that she might have just had a one night stand with her husband.

Her husband, fuck, and there’s that thought that goes round and round like a carousel that won’t slow down and doesn’t ever stop. Benny is her husband now, will be her husband in Moscow, but he can’t stay her husband after that. He just can’t. Now their marriage is a finite thing, their clocks ticking down, Beth is more willing to look at it for what it is. She’s been so caught up in it all, in the little details, the individual moves, that she couldn’t see the bigger picture, the overall game plan. It’s unforgivable in a player of her calibre, really, to be bogged down in the minutiae; she sips her coffee and sits back in her chair and for a moment almost expects to see pieces moving across their kitchen’s orange ceiling, each pawn labelled with a moment, a journey, a smile, a touch, a kiss. But there’s nothing there. Beth has been thinking about anger, about arguments, about worry and guilt and independence.

Years ago, Harry sitting on Alma’s couch: okay, tell me, what was your endgame? What was your plan? Beth laughed at him then, but he was right, she was improvising, relying on her own skill to breeze through. Harry and then Benny taught her how to study, to really look dozens of moves ahead, to turn the board into a map to traverse with her pieces, the journey already plotted. Beth told herself when she returned from Moscow the first time that she would no longer improvise with her life, leap from thing to thing, searching for distraction, for anything that filled the voids inside her without her having to look too hard at them. But all she’s done this year is focus on each individual move, no destination in mind. Now, it’s like that morning in Vegas when she returned to the adjourned game to see the mess they’d made of it, the scattered remaining pieces beyond any hope of a strategy to corral them.

People have been telling Beth for months how happy she is: they could see things in her she couldn’t see in herself, couldn’t let herself see. Everyone from her closest friends to casual acquaintances have noticed her change in mood, her demeanour, and Beth was so busy counting her mistakes she couldn’t see what she got right either. She couldn’t let herself be happy, perhaps too afraid that if she noticed it she wouldn’t let herself remain happy, would have to deconstruct it and destroy it.

But then, what is happiness in the scheme of things? Beth drinks her coffee and watches the ash grow on Benny’s cigarette because it’s easier than looking at him, at his clever fingers, his knowing mouth, his sharp eyes, the tips of his hair drying into soft spun gold. Happiness is something intangible, unmeasurable, won and lost like the cash Benny throws so easily into every game anyone will let him bet on. Back when Beth was selling her soul to anything and anyone in exchange for the ability to be the best, to beat Borgov, happiness was never on her list of desires. Strength, yes; perseverance, intelligence, focus, determination: these were the things she wanted, the things that she needed. Happiness was negotiable, negligible.

So Benny makes Beth happy, makes her happy even when he’s making her angry, makes her happy even when he’s cutting her to the bone with unrepentant truth, makes her happy even when he’s confusing her. Beth was so sure last night that she couldn’t love Benny, but then what is the definition of love anymore. Maybe her love doesn’t look like another person’s, maybe no one else would call it love, but it might be there in her respect for Benny’s mind, in the way she’s meticulously learned everything about him from the stories he doesn’t tell other people to the details of his body language, in the ease with which she can’t stop herself touching him, and now, of course, this ridiculous reluctance to let him go.

It doesn’t matter, of course. It can’t matter. Beth was once terrified that she’d erased her own brain with drugs and booze and her own sense of spiralling misery and madness, hidden away in Kentucky too scared to touch a chess board in case it fell apart in front of her, just wood and splinters. She dragged herself out of that, hand over hand, step by step, and her mind was still waiting for her when the pills and the alcohol were gone, fragile and unsure but whole. Beth wouldn’t let unhappiness take her brain away from her, so why should she allow something so pedestrian as joy to do it? Happiness is a distraction: love or lust or affection or whatever the fuck she’s calling this tore the US Open from her hands. How can she possibly stay feeling like this? Beth has spent years realising that she doesn’t want to be like everyone else, she cannot be like everyone else: so what makes her think that she can have this?

Benny has said that they were made to keep each other sharp, and in a lot of ways that has proven to be true, but if this marriage is a real marriage then Beth can’t see how it could do anything but blunt them both, dull them, flatten them. She has spent half her life in a furious constant focus – well, except for those months when she tried something different and all but killed herself – and that has got her to where she is now, one mountain peak climbed and several larger ones to go. She is a chess player first and everything else second, and anything that demands she prioritise something else – even her own heart, treacherous and plaintive – cannot be sustained. It is too much, to feel this way, to want this way, to sit at their kitchen table and watch Benny not look at her.

But then the way that Beth feels about Benny has never been proportionate. He’s annoyed her from the second they first met, that patronising afternoon in Cincinnati, and it’s only ever grown worse over time. The way he beat her in Las Vegas the first time, casually tangling up her brain with hurt pride and anger until she’d stumbled into his trap. And of course that night in Ohio, when he took all of her cash and left her feeling so furious she felt explosive, unsure if she wanted to scream or to cry or to punch a hole through the cheap university accommodation wall, her body flooded with adrenaline and humiliation. With hindsight, Beth knows now that that was the first real thing she’d felt since she found Alma’s body: she’d been swimming through a strange hazy sea for months, hadn’t realised how bad it was until it was blasted away by fucking Benny Watts and his pirate grin, the flick of his hands as he offered: again? When he reached out to her later as someone else, someone kinder and smarter and more real, it cracked Beth open, and of course she agreed to move to New York with him. He’d lit something inside her, and she was afraid that if she went back to Kentucky it would die, she’d be back to that constant numbness. She was a lot of things around Benny, but numb wasn’t any of them.

Benny crushes out his cigarette, drains the last of his coffee and stands up, flipping the pamphlet closed. Beth grits her teeth to stop herself from saying something, still with no idea what she’s supposed to say. Maybe this is the answer that she needs: that last night was cruel, and now Benny feels used by his indifferent wife. She doesn’t know how to explain that that wasn’t it at all, because they still have to file for divorce after Moscow. Beth doesn’t know what she’ll tell Benny: the awful truth or the slightly more comfortable lie. She drops her gaze back to her cooling coffee, vaguely nauseous. She should shower, she thinks, scrub off all of this, leave it as a set of memories that hopefully she’ll be able to look at one day for better or for worse.

“Beth.” Benny pauses in the doorway, tapping his fingers against the frame. He looks conflicted; it’s the first time this morning that he’s really looked like himself.

“Benny,” she says, and waits.

“Look,” Benny begins, but he stops himself, mouth twisting. He sighs. “We’re okay,” he tells her finally. “So don’t- don’t look like that. It’s okay.”

His bedroom door closes a moment later. Beth stays sitting where she is, head in hands, and tries to convince herself that even if she did go after him, there’s nothing she could say.

-

The state department send a grim-faced man who introduces himself as Agent Peterson. He has thick salt and pepper hair and his shoulders are easily twice as wide as Benny’s; Beth has no idea what he was told in his briefing or what files he read but he clearly decided long before he arrived that he doesn’t like either of them and nothing that’s happened since they met has changed his mind. Benny has facilitated this by referring to him as Mr Government, frequently to Peterson’s face, and Beth is still trying to work out if there’s room in his smart suit jacket for a shoulder holster. Peterson is passive-aggressively demonstrating his displeasure by calling Beth nothing but Mrs Watts, despite the fact that his files must have said that Beth mostly still uses her maiden name, particularly in a professional context. If Peterson notices that Beth and Benny are both a little shaken every time he calls Beth that, he doesn’t let on, and he doesn’t stop either.

Beth has the middle seat in their row on the plane, and has the funny feeling that she’s supposed to be mediating something. It’s a night flight so there isn’t much to see; Benny’s drawn the blind over the window and is hunched in his seat reading a battered second-hand copy of Valley of the Dolls, something which seems to personally offend Peterson, sitting on Beth’s other side with his arms folded.

“Are you reading this one for the gripping chess scenes?” Beth asks dryly.

Benny smirks. “Sometimes it’s nice to read something that doesn’t tax my brain,” he replies.

Beth is reading a Capablanca biography on the flight, but also has several magazines in her bag; she’s willing to concede the point.

Peterson eventually gets up to use the bathroom, giving them both a significant stare before he leaves. What he thinks they’re going to get up to while he’s gone, Beth has no idea, but he’s definitely several steps up from Mr Booth.

Benny leans over to speak into Beth’s ear. “What would he do, do you think, if we were to fuck in the plane bathroom?”

Beth jerks away, heart thumping, breath caught. “We said no sex in Moscow!” she hisses, and hopes she doesn’t look as startled as she feels.

Benny rolls his eyes. “We’re not in Moscow yet,” he replies. “Anyway, I’m not suggesting we actually do it, it’s a hypothetical. Like one of Wexler’s problems, only actually fun. So: what would Mr Government do?”

Beth swallows hard and tries to regain her lost composure. “I think… I think he would demand that they turn the plane around,” she says.

“What about all these poor people who just want to get home to the mother country?” Benny asks, faux-shocked, raising playful eyebrows.

“They’ll just have to wait,” Beth replies, shaking her head in mock sadness. “If we’re too badly behaved, we just can’t be allowed to go anywhere.”

“Appalling of us, really,” Benny says. “I bet all those chess players in the media with their pocket squares don’t act like this.”

When Peterson returns a minute later Beth tries to keep a straight face but ends up bursting into giggles; Benny pretends to give her a scandalised look but starts laughing himself. The agent genuinely does look like he’s contemplating sending them both back to the States the moment they land. A couple of other passengers look around at them: this is not exactly a plane full of mirth, and Beth bites her lips together, tries to look chastened. The truth is that, ridiculous as it is, it feels good to still be able to laugh with Benny; even if things aren’t exactly tense between them at the moment, she knows that they’re not completely stable either. If this is the swansong of their marriage, Beth wants it to feel good, to feel normal. They both deserve that much.

The day’s been full of phone calls: a few from journalists, wanting last minute statements, but the rest from friends. Beth and Benny handed the phone back and forth, receiving good luck messages and an array of chess advice. It was better than two years ago, when her phone remained obstinately silent and she kept picking up the handset, dialling Benny’s number, and then hanging up before it started ringing. But Jolene hugged her and sent her off from the airport, and this time Beth had to make do with just talking to her. If Jolene and Townes collaborated on the call that ripped the floor from under her a couple of days ago, Jolene didn’t mention it, and neither did Beth. Take care of yourselves, was the only thing Jolene said that had anything to do with Benny, and for a minute Beth wanted to breathlessly demand advice but Benny was sitting in the armchair double-checking the books he’d chosen to bring and even if he hadn’t been Beth didn’t know what she actually wanted to ask.

The best way to kill time on the flight and to prepare for Moscow is probably to get some sleep; Beth abandons her book and tries to get herself comfortable in her seat. She’s a veteran of sleeping on flights by now, although for several years she was popping a couple of pills before take-off, which made the journey considerably easier and more peaceful. Eventually, Benny sighs, and shifts his posture so he’s not leaning against the window but is actually sitting closer to Beth. His shoulder is a little bony but it’s not uncomfortable when Beth rests her head on it; she closes her eyes and breathes in the scent of his cologne from the surprisingly soft black sweater he’s wearing, one that she hadn’t seen before and which fits him in a way that has been enormously distracting all day. After a moment, Benny’s cheek comes to rest against her hair, and Beth thinks about the flight to Paris, months ago now, the strange terror and serenity of her new husband asleep on her shoulder.

She’s half convinced that she won’t be able to sleep, not with the knot of excitement and anxiety about the Invitational that’s tangled in her chest, not with her sharp hopeless awareness of everything that Benny is. But Beth sits still and listens to Benny breathing, steady and familiar, the occasional whisper of him turning a page, and it lulls her under anyway.

-

In the car on the way to the hotel, Agent Peterson gives a lecture on what he expects from their behaviour in Russia, and Beth is forcibly reminded about trips into town from Methuen, the endless speeches from Mrs Deardorff they all pretty much ignored as soon as they were out of her view.

“You will not leave your room. You will not answer the telephone. You will not make phone calls. You will not socialise with anyone who has not been pre-approved.”

Benny, who has largely been staring out of the window at the dark misty streets, raises his eyebrows. “Wait, should I have been writing this down?”

“How do I know who has been pre-approved?” Beth asks. She’s thinking mostly of Townes, but it’s easy to widen her eyes, playing at confusion. “Are Benny and I approved to socialise? It might be difficult sharing a room if we’re not.”

“Oh, darling, we’re very good at not talking to each other,” Benny replies easily; there’s the slightest of edges in his voice but Beth knows that Peterson won’t pick up on it.

“If either of you break the rules,” Peterson interrupts, raising his voice a touch, “or if I become unaware of your whereabouts at any point, I have the authority to contact the embassy and have you deported.”

Now that’s a new one. Beth blinks a couple of times, processing this. “What if he breaks the rules and I don’t?” she asks.

“You will both be deported,” Peterson replies. His tone is neutral, but he seems pleased about this fact. Beth wonders how the Russians will feel if two players are abruptly pulled out of their competition, but maybe if it looks like she and Benny are winning they might be pleased about it.

“That doesn’t seem fair,” she says, and Peterson’s mouth twitches into something that’s almost a smile.

“You married me, love,” Benny replies, and the edge in his voice isn’t even hidden this time.

“Would you like to just lock us in our room?” Beth asks Peterson, trying for innocent, probably sounding annoyed.

“Do not tempt me,” he replies.

“I told you you sent them into a defection panic,” Benny says in a stage whisper; now it’s Beth’s turn to pretend to be staring out of the window.

The hotel is the same one that Beth stayed in two years ago, still as immaculate and beautiful as it was then. Peterson sees them to their room, reiterates his warnings about them staying put, and reluctantly leaves them their keys. Benny kicks off his boots and flops onto the bed: “think this place is bugged?”

“If you want to live out your espionage fantasy don’t let me stop you,” Beth replies. “Do you think Peterson has to vet room service if I call for coffee?”

“I think he has to test the coffee to check it’s not poisoned,” Benny replies cheerfully.

“Why would it be poisoned?” Beth asks.

Benny sits up, shrugging. “You did win last time you came here,” he points out. “Maybe Laev threw a tantrum.”

“They could have just not invited me,” Beth points out.

“There’s no melodrama in that,” Benny replies dismissively. “Anyway, don’t order coffee, the sleep on the plane should have helped steady your body clock.”

“And what about yours?” Beth asks.

Benny waves a hand. “I’ve evolved beyond the need for sleep, Beth, you know this.”

Beth rolls her eyes at him and starts unpacking, a little arrival ritual of Alma’s that she has inherited. It helps her make the space her own, not just another anonymous hotel room with sharp geometric wallpaper and a selection of artwork she’ll stop noticing in the next few minutes. She stacks her books on one side of the desk, placing her board carefully on top, stows her boots and shoes in the bottom of the closet, places her toiletry bag in the bathroom and then turns her attention to unfolding her clothes so they won’t be creased or crumpled. Beth is used to doing this alone; Benny prefers to just live out of his ubiquitous duffle, letting his clothes iron themselves on his body. But Beth wouldn’t have needed to be as hyper-aware of Benny as she has been lately to notice that he’s brought an actual suitcase to Russia, has been wearing a smart black wool peacoat instead of the leather duster, and now he’s unpacking actual pants and crisp shirts and hanging them up.

“Who are you and what have you done with Benny Watts?” Beth asks dryly.

Benny smiles. “Take me somewhere worthy of respect, and I’ll dress to respect it.”

Beth considers this. “No cheap plastic boards with cheap plastic pieces?”

“Exactly.” Benny hangs up his last shirt with a flourish.

“I don’t think you dressed this well for our wedding,” Beth observes.

“Our city hall wedding that we had primarily to make money and stop weird men proposing to you?” Benny asks mildly.

Beth bites the inside of her mouth for a moment at his casually flippant tone, but he’s not exactly wrong. “Yeah,” she agrees softly, “that one.”

She hangs up her last dress, something unexpected twisting in her chest at their clothes hanging together in the closet: everything elegant and neat, like they belong to a different couple entirely. She closes the doors and hesitates; Benny is sitting on the couch now, laying notebook and chessboard on the table, and Beth could just put her suitcase away with the small box hidden at the bottom still in it. She probably should. Instead, she retrieves the box, puts it beside Benny’s stack of books and sits down too. She’s not nervous. There’s no reason to be nervous at all.

Benny raises his eyebrows at her before he reaches for the box; Beth is tempted to blurt out several things but makes herself sit still as he opens the lid.

“I was pretty sure you weren’t kidding about improvising,” she offers when he doesn’t say anything.

“I wasn’t,” Benny agrees quietly.

As cufflinks go, they’re nothing particularly complicated: silver to match Benny’s other jewellery, solid enough to be a decent weight but not too heavy, simple flat disks so as not to be distracting. There were other types, other designs, but Beth doesn’t expect him to wear them very often: these are for playing serious chess with. They were harder to pick out than she’d expected, especially when she admitted to the polite, well-dressed salesman that she was shopping for her husband. He’d asked a slew of questions, none of which seemed to encompass Benny at all, and part of Beth had wanted to run away before she reminded herself that she was an adult, buying a present for another adult, something that she was more than capable of.

“I knew you didn’t have any,” Beth adds. “And… now you do.”

Benny nods, visibly swallows. “And they’re monogrammed,” he remarks.

Beth had almost said no to the engraving, and then thought again. “Well,” she offers, “whatever you’re wearing, you’re still Benny Watts.”

Benny laughs; it sounds a little thick. “Damn right,” he says. He gently lets the box close again.

Beth doesn’t know what she was expecting, what reaction she was aiming for, so she doesn’t know if this is an anti-climax or not. She scrapes together a smile as Benny reaches carefully to put the cufflinks back on the table, curls her fingers into her palms. It doesn’t really matter: one day, all of their interactions will be like this or maybe even worse. This was never a real marriage, but they can definitely have a very real divorce.

“Beth,” Benny says softly. He’s fidgeting with his signet ring, brow furrowed; his mouth works silently for a moment.

“They’re just cufflinks,” she says quickly. “I mean, you don’t even use buttons most of the time, it’s not a big deal.”

Benny sighs and stands up, holding out his hand to Beth until she takes it and he pulls her to her feet. There’s a moment when there are too many possibilities and neither of them know which to choose; finally, Benny embraces her, holds her close and says nothing at all. Beth keeps her face buried in that soft sweater, tries very hard not to think about how the last time they stood like this they were both naked.

“You know how much of my jewellery was bought for me by other people?” Benny asks softly.

“I’m assuming that all of it was from your many admirers,” Beth replies, equally quiet.

Benny laughs, a little rough. “Yeah,” he says, “yeah, that’s exactly it. Yeah.” He kisses Beth’s temple and lets her go with a wry little smile. “Well,” he says, “here we are. Back in the USSR.”

“Hey,” Beth protests, “you don’t even like The Beatles.”

“I know a good line when I steal it,” Benny tells her, and there’s nothing but relief in Beth’s laughter.

-

There’s a brief informal coffee session for the competitors the following afternoon. Beth remembers the one two years ago vividly: sitting awkwardly wanting both to take up more space, to be more impressive, and to disappear into the upholstery altogether. She felt intimidated, surrounded by legends whose gazes passed easily over her except, of course, for Borgov, whose expression was far more complicated. He wasn’t human yet in Beth’s mind; it seemed insane that the man who haunted her nights, haunted her games could just sit there calmly drinking coffee like a real person.

This year, no one’s gaze is dismissive, and no one is wondering why she is here. Luchenko shakes her hand and kisses her cheeks like she’s a favoured grandchild, asks after her health and teasingly tells her that she was missed last year. He’s equally courteous to Benny, who is perhaps the most polite and awed Beth has ever seen him in his response. She considers filing this away to laugh at him later, but it’s very sweet, so maybe she won’t after all.

Borgov congratulates her on her wedding in English before switching to Russian to raise an eyebrow and ask: really, him? with a teasing smile. Beth shrugs, replies he has his moments in Russian too. She wasn’t sure what it would be like, seeing Borgov again in person: she’s read all about his games, the international tournaments she hasn’t attended in the last two years but which she fully intends to now. At some point last month Benny mentioned that they could spend spring in Europe, and – but, no, they will not be able to do that, because they will no longer be married in the spring. Beth can go wherever she wants, play whoever she likes, but she will be going alone. Anyway, in the event, it’s good to see Borgov, to meet as equals or something like it, nothing caught between them but an ordinary, not unfriendly rivalry.

There’s no Swedish contender this competition – perhaps he couldn’t come, or perhaps by having two Americans attend a different invitation had to be rescinded – but it seems that Flento has proven himself the strongest Italian again; he shakes Beth’s hand with cool politeness and she responds in kind. The French competitor, Rancourt, turns out to be one of the men she drew against in the Jardins du Luxembourg; he’s friendly when he greets Beth and when she looks over later, he and Benny are engaged in a serious-looking conversation in rapid French she can’t begin to pretend she understands.

Beth is used to always being aware of Benny to a greater or lesser extent: he’s spent years making sure he’s the loudest, most ostentatious in any given room, and she watched him as a rival for years before she moved on to paying attention to him for anything else. In more recent months, she’s become accustomed to being able to pick out his laugh, the tone of his voice, even in a crowded space; it seems to have happened without any conscious effort on her part. There’s not many of them at this reception, sipping coffee and exchanging banalities while they wait for the officials to sit them all down and tell them rules and regulations that they all know anyway; of course Beth knows where Benny is, she knows where everyone is. But she can no longer dismiss it as something that simple, much as she wants to.

Benny isn’t exactly dressed like all the other men in the room, but he’s wearing actual pants with shiny black brogues and an olive green turtleneck sweater under his unbuttoned jacket. It’s a good look on him, informal but smart, and Beth’s eyes keep being drawn to him even when she’s talking to other people, a sharp flare of attraction in her belly when she sees this handsome stranger who turns out to be her husband. For once, Benny isn’t trying to show off, isn’t playing the arrogant conqueror: he has the same quiet, sure confidence that all of them have, because how could any of them walk into a competition like this if they didn’t, but he wears it comfortably, unobtrusively. He isn’t acting like he’s doing anyone a favour just by being here, and while Beth has reluctantly developed a soft spot for even the worst parts of the Benny Watts persona, this capable, poised man is far more distracting than Beth could ever have guessed.

Eventually, they all sit down with refreshed coffee to listen – or pretend to listen – to an official telling them about the tournament, how things will be structured, the specific rules of time and gameplay. Beth knows all of these already and in any case it’s a lot of quick, dense Russian; she lets her mind wander, watching the faces of the other players. Luchenko spots her looking and winks at her; in fact, the only person who seems to be attentively listening is Borgov, whose expression reminds Beth of the kinds of students who would sit at the front of the classroom and always had a hand up with the correct answer. Laev looks sullen, Rancourt a little overwhelmed, Flento a little bored. Sitting beside her on a brocade couch, Benny discreetly takes Beth’s hand. Somewhere around the time they agreed on their no sex in Moscow rule, they also agreed that there’d be no need to play up their relationship for the media. They’re both here as serious chess players, their marriage has nothing to do with this publicity; they’ll be seen together, and that’s plenty. There’s no need to show off for anybody here, and Beth realises after a second that this is a genuine gesture: either support or nerves. She squeezes gently, and Benny squeezes back.

After the reception, Beth tries to indicate that she might like some fresh air, maybe they could go for a walk, but Peterson unrepentantly shepherds them back to their room, tells them they can have lunch brought and that he’ll know if they set so much as one foot outside.

“Do you think he loses his job if he loses us?” Benny asks.

“You’re the one who went missing on your last trip,” Beth reminds him.

Benny shrugs. “I left them Weiss as a hostage.”

They eat while playing through two of Shapkin’s most recent games, and two of Laev’s; they’ve played through them before, but it’s good to keep the strategies fresh, since that’s who they’ll each be facing first. There’s a formal dinner tonight; Beth remembers this vividly from last time, biting her tongue every time the waiter offered her wine, lost amid the maelstrom of other people’s conversation, wishing for an ally, for a friend, for Benny. He’d said it would be tough to go to Russia alone and it was then that Beth really realised what he meant: that you didn’t bring a second just to discuss chess. This time, Beth knows several of the people that she’ll be dining with, has someone to sit beside her, and she’s more relieved than she thinks she could ever vocalise.

“Want to go again?” she asks when they’ve finished the fourth game.

Benny screws up his face. His hair was neat earlier, but he’s been running his hands through it in the privacy of their hotel room, and it’s got the slightly ragged appearance that Beth privately prefers. “I thought I might nap,” he says.

Beth feigns shock. “I thought you didn’t need sleep anymore.”

“Well, there’s not going to be much in the next week,” Benny responds on a shrug. “Get it while you can.”

She’d sort of been thinking about taking a bath with their hours of imprisonment, taking the quiet and the time to centre herself, get ready for tomorrow. But then she looks at the bed and thinks that a nap might actually be really nice, an equally good way to relax. Benny pulls the drapes, blocking out the winter daylight, and Beth swaps her smart blouse and slacks for her pyjamas, delights in crawling back into the soft cool sheets. Benny strips down to his underwear and t-shirt and gets in beside her. There’s plenty of room in the bed but it’s not as large as the one they shared in Vegas: Beth remains acutely aware of him as he turns out the light, gets himself comfortable, listens to his slow, steady breathing as a way to help herself drift off.

Beth wakes up a couple of hours later, momentarily disoriented in the darkness before she remembers where she is and what’s happening; Benny has rolled over and is curled against her back, and Beth can feel where she’s relaxed into his touch. It’s tempting to go back to sleep for a while; there’s an alarm set so they’ve got time to get ready, and even if there wasn’t she suspects that Peterson has their itinerary memorised and will be making sure that they attend absolutely everything, on time and impeccably presentable. You’re not to blame for anything that you do in your sleep, and Beth likes it here, Benny’s every warm exhale against her spine. But this isn’t for her to have or to keep, and she forces herself to get up without waking him, to go take a shower.

A while later, hair meticulously styled and make-up applied, Beth steps into her dress, a short Oscar de la Renta in dark brocade with a jewel-accented belt, with long demure sleeves and sharp pleats. It’s the sleeves that prove her undoing: she’s had years of having to handle her own zippers but it’s easier to contort her arms in a sleeveless dress, and after a minute or two of frustrating wriggling she admits defeat and goes to ask Benny for help. He’s in a suit for tonight, a shirt but no tie, and the look is magnetically attractive; he’s left the top button undone, and Beth catches the briefest flash of silver, the knowledge that underneath that elegant exterior the real Benny is still there. She swallows, and her voice is almost steady when she asks if he can zip her up.

Benny has undressed Beth enough times, particularly in those weeks in his apartment, but somehow him slowly zipping the dress up is enough to make Beth’s toes curl; frankly, all of this is ridiculous, embarrassing, impossible, exhilarating. When she turns around, hoping she doesn’t look too flushed, he’s smiling a little sheepishly: “now it’s your turn.”

It takes both of them to do up Benny’s cufflinks, although it’s possible that Beth’s fingers are a little shaky and clumsy. Something about their overlapping hands and the fiddly little links in her hands reminds her of their wedding day, the exchange of rings that almost undid them both, and she swallows hard. Beth likes how they look when finally situated, anyway: subtle, but a glitter of silver when he gestures, and anyway she knows that they’re there.

“Well, at least you won’t embarrass me too much in front of all those Russians in their suits,” Beth offers, taking easy refuge in teasing.

Benny smirks back at her, like he knows exactly the effect he’s having on her and is enjoying it. “That was the idea,” he replies, and she can’t tell if he’s joking or not as he helps her into her coat and puts a steady hand on her lower back as they walk out.

-

Beth faces Shapkin first, while Benny plays Laev. Shapkin’s play is stronger than the last time Beth played him; she plays the King’s Indian Attack and has his king neatly netted in thirty-six moves, a little over an hour. Shapkin looks a touch thrown but bows over her hand politely before he leaves, and Beth folds her notes neatly, smiling to herself. Two of the matches are still going, but one finished within half an hour; she didn’t dare look up to see whose, although there was a ripple of murmurs through the audience before they applauded, and it took all of Beth’s willpower to focus on her own game. Now, free to look, she sees that it was Benny and Laev’s game that ended so swiftly, and in Benny’s favour. The endgame is a glorious forest of Black pawns and a pawn promoted to a queen putting the final nail in the coffin.

“Seventeen moves,” Benny says when they’ve left the hall; he sounds euphoric, shaken. “I thought he had some fucking masterstroke up his sleeve but… he just fell to pieces.”

“You were incredible,” Beth tells him; she doesn’t know the specifics of the game yet but they’ll play through them later in their room. She pulls him into an impulsive hug, can feel him trembling, the adrenaline still high.

“So were you,” he assures her, “I saw the last half of your game, his bishop move was suicidal.”

“Well, he had to try something,” Beth shrugs, but she’s grinning at the praise anyway.

Peterson hustles them to their car, although there are people waiting outside, wanting autographs from both of them. Beth smiles and signs what she can, aware of Benny being far more polite and gracious with the Russians than he ever is with the Americans back home. It’s difficult to be shut in the car, not to be able to walk, to run, to shake off the thrill of playing and winning her first match here, and Beth sees a matching restlessness in Benny’s eyes. Peterson must see it too, because he agrees that they can at least sit in the hotel bar for the first part of their post-match analysis; he sits one table over and eyeballs their drinks periodically like one of them is about to produce a hipflask. In fairness, if Beth didn’t know Benny as well as she does, she probably wouldn’t put that past him, but she knows how clear he wants to keep his mind, and they both stick to coke. They get a few interested looks as they work through Benny’s game first, but when they keep stopping to analyse the moves people turn away again.

“I barely got to start my strategy,” Benny complains, “Laev was a fucking mess.”

“It’s a definitive victory,” Beth responds, “don’t complain about it.”

He still makes a face, undoes an extra button on his shirt. Beth swallows, and they set the board up again to work through Beth’s game, Benny playing as her, Beth as Shapkin. She finds a weakness he could have exploited in her middle game, and is a little annoyed – even if Shapkin didn’t catch it during the match, the others will catch it during their various analyses – but overall the game is strong, and she’s pleased.

They get dinner in their room, and by then the results and moves from the other two games have been delivered to them: they play through Borgov’s win over Flento first while they eat. Borgov clearly has the upper hand for most of the match, but Flento hangs grimly in there, and Beth can’t write him off too easily: she remembers the gruelling four hours that their game dragged on for in Sixty-Eight. She might be fairly sure that she can win against him, but she doesn’t want to exhaust herself doing it. Luchenko’s game against Rancourt is much more interesting: Luchenko pulls out a win in the end but there are at least two points when either of them could have called a draw with grace, and there’s plenty for both of them to discuss as they work through it.

“It was the rook sacrifice that got Rancourt,” Benny decides, turning a captured White pawn over in his fingers absent-mindedly. “In the end it wasn’t worth a knight and three pawns.”

This was what was missing when Beth was last playing in Moscow: not just the company, not even the sex they would definitely have had regardless of whether Christian Crusade put them in separate rooms, but having a mind like her own to talk over all the games with. She played them alone, picked out the strengths and the flaws, but there was no one to talk about it with, to argue about it with; Booth was kindly but distant and clearly had no knowledge of chess, even if Beth had managed to get him to sit in her room with a cup of coffee and her board.

“What?” Benny says, looking up when Beth doesn’t speak. “You disagree?”

“I don’t,” she replies. “I just… there’s a lot about Moscow that’s the same as two years ago. I’m glad that you’re the thing that’s different.”

After she’s spoken, she’s not sure that she should have said it aloud after all; it’s getting harder to remind herself that when they get home she has to call an end to this marriage. Caught up in their little Russian bubble, their cosy hotel room that looks almost exactly like the one Beth had before except that she’s not desperately lonely, it’s too easy to imagine that they could keep this, they could be like this all the time.

“I’m not the only thing that’s different,” Benny replies, but his smile is gentle.

It takes Beth longer than she’d like to fall asleep; her mind is still alight, still caught up in the games from today, the anticipation of games for tomorrow. Despite his claims to be beyond such mortal things as sleep, Benny drops off quickly, and Beth is left lying awake in the darkness, listening to him breathing, trying to find that quiet stillness in herself somewhere. She shifts restlessly, ends up thinking angrily and longingly of the pills, the soft green slide into unconsciousness; she even remembers where the nearest pharmacy is, you don’t need a prescription there. Peterson might not want to let her go, but maybe she could convince him her period started unexpectedly, or maybe –

Beth’s relationship with dreaming has always been a complicated one. Even from a young age, she was never one for remembering them the next morning, everything fading as she woke up. The pills at Methuen – and then afterwards – induced a dreamlike quality to everything when she was awake, but created a remarkably clean night’s sleep. It was difficult in the earliest weeks of withdrawal, but as Beth’s body has stabilised and her brain has grown used to sleeping for itself she’s mostly gone back to wispy dreams she can’t hold onto in daylight and that’s fine by her. The only exceptions are the dreams that aren’t dreams, are memories that she’s suppressed so hard that they can only express themselves by bursting unexpectedly into her subconscious. She doesn’t have them often, more at times of heightened emotion or stress, and she’s getting better at coping with them. She is.

But then she’s sitting in the backseat of the car, the soft worn cotton of her favourite dress under her palms, and the sun is too bright and the road ahead is empty and she sees her mother in pieces, in slices, her hunched shoulders, her drawn face, her shaky hands, the reflection of her eyes in the rear-view mirror, the slow drip of tears down her cheeks. Beth is ten years old, confused and helpless, and Beth is twenty-one years old and knows what is coming next, and she can’t move, can’t speak, can’t beg her mom to reconsider, to pull over, to breathe, to stop. There’s just the car going too fast and the truck coming for them and Beth is screaming and Beth isn’t making a sound, and her mom lets out this broken noise that no human being should ever make and there’s splashing red and – no, Beth didn’t see that, or maybe she did, and the collision shakes her to the bone, rips the world away from her.

Beth lurches upright, fighting to breathe, ears full of the scream of crumpling metal and broken glass. It’s dark, everywhere is dark, and maybe she’s dead too, maybe this is where they take little girls who can’t save their mamas, down into the darkness, and there’s blankets covering her, blankets like the one they covered her mom with, what was left of her mom with, and she kicks at them, isn’t ready to be covered in a blanket yet, not yet, let her go.

Beth!” Someone’s voice breaks through her panic, hands on her shoulders, in her hair, solid, warm hands, not phantom touches long gone. “Beth, you’re okay. Come on, you’re here, you’re safe.”

She drags breaths into her raw lungs, stops kicking at the bedclothes – that’s all they are, all they ever were – and slowly lets reality filter back in. She’s… she’s in Moscow. It’s night, that’s why it’s dark, and Benny is beside her, Benny Watts, that fucking pirate, and she lets herself slump weakly against him, something like a sob spilling out of her.

“It’s okay,” he whispers, wrapping Beth in his arms. She thinks fleetingly of him carrying her upstairs in Kentucky when she couldn’t walk, the strength he conceals in that wiry frame; he’s holding her so tight she wonders if she’ll have bruises in the morning but she’s glad of it, glad of him holding her together so she doesn’t shiver herself apart into nothing. Helpless tears run down her face, drip off her chin, and Benny doesn’t try to quiet her or stop her, just murmurs I’ve got you into her hair until Beth starts to feel like maybe it might be true.

“I’m sorry,” she manages, minutes or hours later, when everything has receded but the last vestiges of shock, of blood behind her eyelids. “I didn’t- it’s been a while since I had one that bad, I didn’t mean to wake you.”

Fuck, Beth,” Benny says softly. “I don’t mind. We can fucking nap later, it doesn’t matter.” He kisses her temple, her wet cheek, clumsy in the dark. “I love three in the morning, I was planning on waking up anyway.”

Beth laughs a little, the sound still close to a sob, and shifts out of his arms so she can rub the sleeves of her pyjamas across her face. The collar is wet with tears, but the thought of getting up and finding something clean and dry to put on is beyond her.

“What do you need?” Benny asks, his voice low and steady. “You wanna get up? We can find out if Peterson is actually sleeping outside our door like a guard dog.”

Beth smiles, even though he can’t see it. “We should try and get some rest,” she tells him. “We still have games to play tonight.”

“I’ve got Flento,” Benny says, dismissive. “He may cling like a mollusc but his strategy is bullshit, I don’t need sleep to beat him.”

“You should have some anyway,” Beth replies. “And so should I.”

And yet the thought of lying down again, closing her eyes, surrendering herself to her subconscious is terrifying. She doesn’t think she’ll have another nightmare, but then she hasn’t shaken this one off yet.

“Can you-” she starts awkwardly. “Or, can I-”

Mercifully, Benny seems to understand her. “Of course,” he says.

It takes a little manoeuvring but soon enough Beth is curled on her side, head pillowed on Benny’s chest, where she can listen to his heart beating, his breathing. His hand absently strokes through her tangled hair, fingers gentle, and though she was semi-convinced that she wouldn’t fall asleep again, it doesn’t take too long for slumber to pull her under again, into something mercifully free of dreams.

-

Townes is here in his capacity as a reporter for the Lexington Herald Leader, Beth is still a local girl made good, after all, but is also taking photos and writing reports for Chess Life. Beth finally spots him in the audience not long after she’s beaten Laev, who shakes her hand like he’s hoping to crush the bones; he gives her a wink and she smiles, but there’s an empty chair next to Peterson reserved for her and Beth sits in it to watch Benny finish dismantling Rancourt. It appears to have been an interesting game, one much more interesting than the one she’s just finished playing, and she’s looking forward to playing it through later in the hotel. It takes another twenty-five minutes before Rancourt resigns gracefully; he and Benny embrace by the board while everyone applauds. Borgov and Shapkin’s match has finished already, and it looks like Luchenko will have Flento pinned in a few more moves, so Beth feels fine about leaving now and isn’t surprised when Townes slips out after them, catches them up.

“Harmon, beautifully done as always,” he says, and she hugs him tightly. He turns to Benny. “Nicely done,” he adds, and they do one of those handshake half-hug things that Beth has never really understood.

“Always,” Benny replies, a flash of that cocky grin, but Beth thinks he’s earned it.

Peterson is not looking happy; Beth wonders if Townes is on their approved list, what exactly their approved list is, or if it’s just them and Peterson on it.

“This is Townes,” Benny tells Peterson cheerfully. “He’s a communist. He’s extremely communist, the most communist person you could hope to meet. Red from his heart to his underwear.”

“Mind out of my underwear, Watts,” Townes says mildly. He turns his attention to Peterson. “I spoke to the state department when I was getting my visa, I’ll be wanting to interview these two, I thought we could all grab a quick late dinner. Yourself included, of course.”

Peterson looks tempted to refuse but Townes simply takes Beth’s arm and starts walking her out to the car with a charming grin, like the idea of any other series of events happening is inconceivable to him.

“I don’t think we’re allowed anything that’s not bread and water in our jail cell,” Benny says drily. “If you take us to dinner, Townes, it might give us unrealistic expectations of better.”

Townes hands Beth into the car and lets Benny slide in next to her before he gets in himself, leaving Peterson to grumpily join them.

“Have they been like this all trip?” Townes asks.

Peterson’s mouth twitches, just slightly. “Overall, they’ve been worse.”

They eat in the hotel restaurant; an amount of the people around them also seem to have been watching the competition because they get quite a lot of recognition as they’re seated, there’s a polite smattering of applause. Beth smiles and ducks her head, and Benny looks pleased and surprised for a second.

While they eat their starters, Townes briefly interviews them about the tournament so far: it’s familiar, easy to talk about the games they’ve played, the games they’ve watched, the matches they’re looking forward to or are apprehensive of. Beth is aware that she and Benny are talking over each other, finishing each other’s sentences, and she doesn’t know how to stop. She glances at Townes from time to time and his expression is his usual professional neutral, but she can’t stop thinking about that late-night phone call. She excuses herself to go to the bathroom; Peterson looks like he’s tempted to come with her, but he can’t actually come into the restroom with her and ends up staying seated, glaring.

Beth splashes cold water on her face and her wrists and takes deep breaths. She looks at herself in the mirror, bright-eyed, hair still neat, fashionable in her wine-red sheath dress, cheeks a little flushed from the warmth, from the ease of friendly conversation. I think you need to be very careful if you want to come back from Russia still married was what Townes said, hopelessly earnest, and was this what he was thinking of? This easy perfect synergy of herself and Benny, similar to Vegas and yet nothing like Vegas, that feels too natural, too simple. Part of Beth wants to bring this feeling back from Moscow with her, wrapped up like contraband in her suitcase, but she can’t. She sat in New York and she thought about it and she concluded that it doesn’t matter if Benny loves her, if she- if she loves Benny, it isn’t sustainable. It isn’t enough.

When she returns to her seat, Townes and Benny are animatedly discussing a move of Luchenko’s while Peterson sits with that same neutral expression on his face. Beth slips into the chess conversation easily until she feels steady again, a momentary blip of emotion here and gone, as the waiters take their empty plates and the four of them wave away the offers of the wine list. Beth thinks that Peterson looks like he’d like the option to drink to still be available, but she doesn’t feel at all repentant.

Townes taps his pen against his notepad for a moment before finally says: “okay, one last question. How is it playing together as spouses, seconds and rivals?” He grimaces, and adds: “I did not come up with this one myself, for the record.”

Beth curls her fingers in her hem under the table, keeps her voice light as she says: “it’s going very well, we make a good team.”

Townes looks to Benny. “Anything to add, Watts?”

“Nope,” Benny replies in a tone that forbids further questioning.

When Townes has tucked his notebook away things go back to normal: they mostly talk about chess, gossip about the other competitors a little, share old jokes and new experiences. Townes has a go at drawing Peterson into the conversation a few times – Beth has a brief flash of what he’d be like as a husband, holding the greatest dinner parties in existence instead of expecting any guests who come over to cook for themselves – but Peterson is having none of it.

“We did try,” Benny shrugs, “but Mr Government is very focused on his mission not to let us do anything at all while we’re in Russia, and talking to us might distract him from that.”

“Only you would think it’s fun to antagonise an armed government agent,” Townes tells Benny.

“I only need my brain and my hands to play chess, as long as he shoots elsewhere I’m fine,” Benny replies breezily.

Beth watches Peterson’s lips press together, just slightly, swallowing down something that might be a smile.

“If he does have to shoot you to get you to behave he can’t admit to it,” Beth says. “He’ll have to say it was the KGB and that just creates a whole mess.”

“You’ve thought about this,” Benny grins, like dragging Beth into his nonsense is something he’s pleased about. “And, hell, I don’t mind being the spark that ignites the Cold War, I can take that as my legacy.”

“Of course you don’t, Watts,” Townes says, shaking his head as he laughs; Beth grins and doesn’t look at Peterson’s glower.

When they’re saying goodbye, Townes hugs Beth and then stands and holds her upper arms and studies her for a moment. “You’re mad at me,” he says.

Beth shakes her head. “Not mad,” she replies. “You did something that you thought you had to do. I understand. But it’s still my marriage, at the end of the day.”

Townes looks a little thoughtful, a little sad. “If you say so,” he says.

In their room for the night, Beth yawns and slumps into the couch. “Want to start replaying?” she asks.

Benny drops down next to her. “Nah,” he replies, “we’ve got lots of time tomorrow afternoon. Best to just get some sleep, it’s not like we can go out all night dancing, we’ll be up early.”

Do they dance all night in Russia?” Beth asks.

“I guess they do somewhere,” Benny shrugs. “I didn’t see much of the city when I made my great escape last time; it was more about running away than running to anywhere.”

“I think this will be our first trip together where you haven’t taken me dancing somewhere,” Beth muses. “Well. I guess you didn’t dance with me at Mike and Susan’s wedding, but I danced.”

Benny’s mouth curls. “The view was just fine from where I was sitting,” he says, and despite his neutral tone something fiery clenches in Beth’s stomach.

Beth thinks about Townes’ careful expression, about Benny refusing to comment on their marriage to the press, about the night before last when he held her while she sobbed and didn’t once ask why. Something reckless flares in her and she gets up, navigates the table covered in books and chess pieces to the space of clear carpet; she turns and finds Benny is watching her, eyes dark and hot. No sex in Moscow! screams something inside Beth, followed by something else hissing you still need to divorce him. Beth ignores both of those voices and starts humming the first thing that comes into her head, sways her hips along and holds out her hands.

Benny’s mouth twists a little as he gets up and then he shakes his head and says: “your hold is all wrong” before he places one of her hands on his shoulder and takes the other one. There’s that same assurance in his movements as they start swaying in time, Beth has no idea what she’s doing with her feet but Benny leads her easily.

Beth breaks off humming to say: “you can dance.”

“And I was hiding it so well,” Benny responds, dry, twirling her under his arm with the same calm competence he collapsed Rancourt’s Four Knights opening. He picks up humming for her and Beth joins in. She’s been naked in Benny’s bed so many times over the years but somehow this feels like the most intimate thing they’ve ever done, slow dancing barefoot in a Russian hotel room. Beth’s not even sure what they’re dancing to, something with a bit of swing to it that Alma used to love and teenaged Beth rolled her eyes at, but Benny knows the tune as well as she does. He dips her easily and when she’s straightened up he’s grinning that self-satisfied grin of his, and Beth remembers the song: Call Me Irresponsible. Of course it is. What could be more fitting?

They finally sway to a stop but don’t let go of each other; there’s a long moment when Beth thinks that Benny is going to kiss her, or maybe she’s going to kiss him, but the moment stretches and finally snaps, and Benny steps away from her, shaking his head.

“What?” Beth asks, refusing to feel cold where he’s stopped touching her.

“I play all of your games, Beth,” Benny says quietly, “but I can’t play this one.”

“I’m not playing a game,” Beth replies, stung.

“No?” Benny sits heavily back on the couch. “Okay then. Would you like to have an honest and frank discussion about our marriage then?” Beth’s stomach drops, and something obvious must show on her face because Benny’s mouth twists into a smirk that verges on the cruel. “No, I thought not.”

“You can’t do this,” Beth tells him, angry now. “We’re in fucking Russia, this Invitational matters.”

“It does,” Benny agrees. “And we’ve both been playing very good chess and not driving each other crazy in this hotel room Peterson is keeping us imprisoned in until you decided to push it. This one is on you, Beth.”

“I didn’t push anything,” Beth protests, but it doesn’t come out with much conviction.

Benny’s expression is unimpressed. “You never learned to play poker,” he tells her. “You got through years of looking inscrutable because you were out of your mind on pills half the time, but what this all means is that these days your face is an open book for anyone who’s bothered to learn your language. You think you’re subtle, but I’ve been watching you mourn our marriage for days, before you’ve even had the courtesy to ask me for a divorce.” He sighs, rakes his hands through his hair. “I’m not stupid, Beth,” he bursts out. “I have sat here all fucking year watching you try and work out if you think marrying me was a good idea or the worst thing you’ve ever done, and I’ve let you, and I haven’t asked for a goddamn thing.”

“You’re asking for something now,” Beth points out, her voice sharp and cold, calmer than she is.

“I am,” Benny agrees. “Because the way you look at me has changed, that confused little expression you wear when I’m nice to you has gone. Yes, maybe I’m controlling, or demanding, or just an all-round asshole, but I will always do what I can to stop you sabotaging yourself with drugs or alcohol and now I’m going to try and stop you sabotaging this marriage.”

“Stop it!” Beth snarls. “We can’t do this, this doesn’t work. It’s a cute little fantasy that I might have bought into in Sixty-Seven but we’re adults, Benny, we know how this ends.”

“Do we?” he asks, eyebrows raised, and Beth considers slapping him.

“You were there in Vegas like I was,” Beth replies. “Your failure was my failure. We’re the best chess players in America, and we can be that, or we can be married. We don’t get both.”

Benny shakes his head. “We made one mistake,” he says, “and we’ve learned from it. I have no interest in humiliating myself on an international stage.”

“Then what the hell is this?” Beth demands. “You can’t pick a fight the day before I play Luchenko, now who’s trying to sabotage me?”

Benny stands up and slams his hand on the table; several books fall to the floor. “You know full well that when you’re playing chess you go into your kingdom and nothing touches you, you barely look at your opponent, you don’t notice what’s happening. The ceiling could collapse and as long as it didn’t fall on you, you wouldn’t care. You just fold away reality until the game is over. I’ve watched you do it.”

“What do you want from me?” Beth asks, glad her voice comes out hard because her throat feels perilously close to closing.

“I want you to win tomorrow,” Benny replies. “I want you to win against a top Soviet player the day after we fight about our feelings, and then I want you to come back to this room and I want you to tell me the truth.”

Beth swallows and doesn’t blink, doesn’t look away from him. “And if I lose?” she asks.

Benny’s mouth curls wryly, eyes a little too bright. “Then I’ll know that you’re a fucking coward, and I’ll have my answer.”

-

There’s fifteen minutes left on Beth’s clock and the silence in the hall feels absolute. The other three games have finished and she has no idea who won what, how Benny fared. Time is dragging on, but their audience hasn’t moved. Beth can feel their attention on her, but she doesn’t look up, doesn’t look away from the board. Her water glass is empty and she’d quite like another, but she pushes the lingering thirst aside the way she’s pushed everything else away, something to deal with once the game is over.

Beth is playing Black today, which feels fitting somehow. They’re edging toward fifty moves, the longest game she’s played in Moscow yet this year; thinking of fifty moves reminds her of Vegas, but that thought is far away, in a place far less hallowed than this, where the lie Beth told the press about love that turned out to be the truth. She lets out a slow breath, and surveys her remaining pieces. She sacrificed her queen early, taking one of Luchenko’s rooks, but she still has both rooks in play as well as a bishop, and her king is currently safely ensconced behind two pawns. Luchenko’s king is in the centre of the board; Beth uses one of her rooks to put him in check. She has a net in fragments and all she needs is to walk Luchenko into it. She can feel her heart thrumming in her chest, clenches her toes in her shoes.

Luchenko moves his king out of check and Beth bites the inside of her lip to keep a neutral expression; she thinks about Benny saying how well he can read her and forces that thought down, she’s so close now. She moves her other rook directly above the White king; if he captures, he puts himself in check with one of her pawns. Her net is closing, all she needs to do is hold her nerve.

It’s been a strange day overall. Benny offered to sleep on the couch after their fight last night and Beth told him not to be ridiculous, though it was weird lying next to him in silence, unsure if she was angry or terrified or strangely exhilarated, some complicated mixture of all of them. He was awake before her, gave her a sheepish smile over room service coffee, and they spent most of the day playing through yesterday’s games. Chess is something that they can’t take from each other, no matter how hard they’ve tried over the years. There was no real tension, but the comfortable ease was also absent. Benny didn’t say a word about his ultimatum and Beth didn’t bring it up because she didn’t want to start the argument again, because her chest got tight every time she remembered the way he said I want you to win.

Luchenko moves his king to safety once more and Beth reaches out to move her bishop, closing the net. He studies the board a moment longer and then smiles gently and nods, reaches out a hand to concede. The sound roars back into the room as everyone applauds; Beth shakes Luchenko’s warm steady hand and accepts his soft congratulations.

“It is always a pleasure to play against you,” he says.

“I feel the same,” Beth agrees.

She shakes the hand of the official who walks over and stands up on suddenly trembling legs. Finally, she dares to look at the audience. She spots Townes’ smiling face, Peterson already standing, and then her gaze lands on Benny. He’s still sitting, and the expression on his face is nothing short of naked relief. Beth reminds herself about dignity, about calm, about how they agreed their marriage didn’t need to play a part of any of the Moscow coverage, and then all but runs over to him; he stands up to catch her, wrapping her tight in his arms, and Beth clings back just as fiercely.

“I knew you had it in you,” Benny says softly, just the slightest shake in his voice, and Beth slowly lets him go, drinking in his gradually spreading smile, feeling its mirror on her own face.

They don’t talk on the drive back to the hotel, to Peterson’s visible relief. Beth’s mind, so carefully honed for the chess game, is in free fall now, possibilities tumbling over each other with every breath she takes. Benny can’t make her do anything, she thinks with a flare of heat, can’t demand anything of her. But then there’s Jolene’s voice again: wanting something that you didn’t want before isn’t a weakness. Or maybe it was something that Beth always wanted and didn’t know how to let herself want, so that even when she had it she couldn’t see it for what it was. Benny has always seen more in Beth than she could see in herself, and it used to scare her but maybe it doesn’t scare her anymore.

Beth closes her eyes and takes a breath and thinks about picking up the phone in Moscow two years ago and hearing Benny’s voice, the way it made her feel like her entire body was filled with light. In some ways, he’s never stopped making her feel that way.

Peterson definitely looks suspicious about how quiet they are as he wishes them goodnight, reminds them that they can’t go anywhere. Beth takes off her coat, kicks off her shoes, and walks over to the desk as she tries to find a good opening line. Over by the door, Benny takes off his own coat, takes his time hanging it up.

“I’m sorry,” Benny begins before Beth has pulled any real words together. “I… I told myself I wouldn’t let Moscow get to me but then it did, and I acted like an asshole, and I’m sorry.”

“I love you,” Beth says, instead of it’s okay, or whatever she was actually about to say.

Benny looked like that when she beat him at speed chess over and over and over, so shocked that he looked frozen.

Beth’s heart is beating so hard she can feel it, Benny can probably hear it, and she opens her mouth to mitigate what she’s just said, to change it or take it back or add a qualifier, quick, before the words are out there too long and the world changes as a result.

“I love you,” she says again.

If Benny hesitates any longer she thinks it might kill her, might break her entirely; he’s not doing anything, just standing there, not even fidgeting. Beth’s not sure she’s ever seen him so still.

At last, he lets out a shaky exhale. “I love you,” he tells her, and it’s all there on his face, open and vulnerable and honest and not a hint of that smug asshole Beth first met years ago and she’s glad, she’s so glad. And Beth knew, isn’t sure how long she’s known, but hearing actually spoken it is something different, and it’s like that phone call again, like thinking she was drowning until a hand closed around hers and it was Benny’s, like it’s always been Benny.

Beth realises they’re standing on opposite sides of the room breathing like they’ve each run a mile, and that seems ridiculous, seems insane that she has a husband, a husband who loves her, and she isn’t touching him. Benny seems to realise something similar: they meet in the middle and he pulls her into his arms and kisses her like it’s the first time, like he’s been waiting years to be allowed to touch her, and Beth kisses him back with the same frantic desperation. It’s not enough; she’s not sure it will ever be enough, this tsunami of want inside her demanding to be heard, gripping handfuls of Benny’s hair and his shirt, overwhelmed and relieved and terrified in equal glorious measure.

They have to pull apart at last, gasping for breath, staring at each other’s faces like they’ve never seen each other before. Beth kisses him again, clumsy, smiling and shivering, and Benny laughs into her mouth, clutching Beth tight enough that she hopes he’ll leave bruises.

“Beth,” he says, voice breaking on her name.

“I know,” Beth replies, and they murmur: “no sex in Moscow” in half-laughing, half-regretful unison. Maybe today Beth proved that she’s been wrong, that she can play chess and be in love and keep the two things separated enough, but lust is a ludicrous other thing, and if she allows Benny to take her to bed now they both know they wouldn’t want to stop, wouldn’t get the rest they need, wouldn’t be ready to play tomorrow. Benny gives her one last kiss before he pulls away enough to collapse onto the couch; Beth considers her options and then goes with what the thread of longing in her stomach demands, and climbs into his lap. Benny looks up at her, expression still a little dazed, a crooked smile spreading across his mouth.

“I think that might be cheating, Mrs Watts,” he says, soft, and while Beth still hasn’t made a firm decision about her last name she thinks she might not mind the way it rolls off his tongue. Maybe she’ll allow it, under very specific circumstances.

“Got all my clothes on,” she responds, faux innocent, and bats her eyelashes.

“You do,” Benny agrees, hands settling on her hips where they belong. He looks a little thoughtful, thumb brushing at the hem of her dress. “I mean, I’m facing Borgov tomorrow, I’m probably going to lose anyway.”

Beth kisses him, quick and hard, bites his lower lip. “Is that the sort of thing Benny Watts would say?” she demands.

“Benny Watts is currently a little distracted by having a lap full of his very beautiful and very frustrating wife,” he replies. “And you know that most games between grandmasters end in draws these days.”

“I do,” Beth agrees. She smiles a little. “I figured that’s what we might end up calling all this.”

“That could work,” Benny concedes. His mouth twists a little. “You know that I was always talking about both of us when I said ‘castling’, right? We can take it in turns to be the king, and to be the rook. It wasn’t… a blueprint for marriage.”

“I’m starting to realise that,” Beth allows.

Benny smiles, and doesn’t say anything, just looks at her. Ordinarily, Beth thinks that she’d be squirming under his attention, but right now she thinks she might like it, smiles back at him, lets him look. For once, she doesn’t care what she looks like, how tired or messy or adoring she is; it’s worth it for how Benny looks at her, that light in his eyes.

Fuck, I’m a lucky son of a bitch,” he says softly, almost like he’s talking to himself. He reaches up to gently tuck a lock of Beth’s hair behind her ear. “I’d almost given up hoping that everything would change for you.”

“I don’t know that anything did change,” Beth admits. “I think that we were always like this and it should always have been like this and I just didn’t understand.”

The look on Benny’s face is enough to make her duck her head and kiss him again, sweet and slow, and God, No Sex In Moscow is the stupidest important rule that they have to follow because she has to face Flento tomorrow and she may not need the brainpower but she does need the stamina. Beth draws back, groaning, tearing her gaze away from his tempting kissed-red mouth.

“I’ll make it up to you when we get home,” Benny offers. “We’ll have a second honeymoon, take the phone off the hook for a couple of weeks.”

“Do we have to go back to Paris?” Beth asks.

Benny grins. “I think it might be the kind of honeymoon where you don’t give a shit where you are,” he tells her. “We’ll have a lot of serious sex. Workmanlike sex. The kind of sex that is had by the best people in the world-”

Beth cuts him off by putting a hand over his mouth. “You are so obnoxious,” she says, laughing, “I can’t believe I love you anyway.”

The smirk Benny gives her when she takes her hand away is nothing short of smug, but Beth thinks he might be just a little entitled to it. She’s been smiling for so long that her face is starting to hurt with it; she’s not sure when she started or how she’s ever going to stop.

“Come on,” Benny says, “we’re chess players before everything else, remember? Do you want to play through your game first or mine?”

Beth climbs reluctantly off his lap; she has that weird floaty feeling again, like maybe she’s happier than she knows what to do with. Benny shuffles forwards, grabs the nearest chess set off the table and begins to set it up. Beth watches him for a moment, holding the view carefully so that she’ll never forget in the future what this felt like, this giddy insane rush of joy inside her, overwhelming but perfect at the same time. Benny’s hair is messy from her hands – the best possible option, as she’s always thought – and falling in his eyes as he lays out a neat row of pawns. He’s still wearing his smart white shirt and pressed slacks, a touch of formality despite it all, the cufflinks Beth gave him securely at his wrists. The light gleams off his rings, off the wedding band that catches Beth by surprise even after more than six months; she thinks it’ll keep taking her by surprise even years from now, and, oh, that’s a thought, that years from now Beth can still have this, can watch her husband set up a chessboard.

“I want to win chess matches against the world,” she tells Benny as she sits down at the opposite end of the couch, “but I want to play chess with you for the rest of my life.”

Benny’s hands still on the pieces; he doesn’t look at her, but she sees his throat bounce as he swallows hard. It’s enough to make Beth blink a few times herself: sometimes, that’s what the truth does to you when it sets you free.

“That’s not an answer,” he says at last, voice a little ragged.

Beth considers him as she tucks her legs beneath herself, hopelessly crumpling her elegant dress and so far beyond caring about it that it’s almost funny. Everything is almost funny right now, frankly, Beth’s chest is full of glee and, yes, well, love. Benny places the last pawn and looks up at her, raises an expectant eyebrow.

“Let’s play your game,” Beth decides, and pushes the first pawn.

end.