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Life and Love

Chapter Text

”Close your eyes.”

 

Beth hears her mother’s words and sees something in her eyes that frightens her. It’s the same resignation, the same emptiness, she has seen at times before. Like the day her mother dove into the water of that lake and stayed under so long she thought she had become an orphan. Or the night she had taken her out for a walk along the cliffs and stepped so close to the edge and just stood there for so long Beth thought she had turned into a statue.

 

Then, she sees the approaching truck and in a moment of complete clarity, the young girl understands what is about to happen. She screams for her mother, but the woman she has depended on, but also not depended on, for all her life, only turns back to the road and faces the same sight. The same inevitable fate she has only moments before decided to steer herself and her daughter headfirst into.

 

But survival is still fighting to win in the young girl, even if the woman has, at long last, given up, Atropos’ shears already fraying her thread. A small body throws itself to the floor behind the passenger side of the front seat just in time to let it stop her from flying out through the windshield and end her life on the front of that grey truck. The mother never learns of her daughter’s escape from her own end.

 

The world both stands still and speeds her by while she lies on the floor of the car, seeing both only white and the world spinning around so fast she feels sick at the same time. But her mind, it stays perfectly still, because on some level she knows that the worst pain of her life awaits her as soon as she lets herself realise where she is and why the world has just turned on its head.

 

An indeterminable amount of time has passed when the first new impression intrudes upon the small space she has reduced her world to. But even if she has no idea where she is, the sound of sirens is unmistakable. And that sound is never a harbinger of good news.

 

Suddenly, the thought that she has arrived at this place with her mother intrudes upon her and she hurriedly squeezes her eyes shut to keep it at bay. Nothing but misery awaits at the other end of it.

 

The sirens come closer and she wonders why she lies down. Should she not be sitting up in the back seat, like she always does? And why are they standing still? Did they reach their destination? Her mother never told her where they were going after they stopped by at that man’s house. The man her mind tells her must be her father, but her heart feels no attachment to.

 

A car stops outside, tires screeching a little as if it had driven at a very high speed. Car doors opens and slams and even pressing her hands against her ears can no longer keep the world at bay.

 

She hears voices. Male. But even if they are close, and getting closer, she cannot make out the words. Then, a face appears in the window, and she realises she has opened her eyes again. The man looks at her and she looks back. Not until she blinks does he react, and the word make sense again.

 

“There’s a girl back here! She’s alive!”

 

All of it comes rushing back. The crash. Her body’s instinctual reaction to try to save itself. The scream that her mother ignores. The realisation of the significance of the approaching truck. Her mother’s last words.

 

“Close your eyes.”

 

They pull her out of the car. No, the wreckage. Places her on the side of the bridge. Then they pull out her mother. No, the body. She does not have a mother anymore. And with a father that does not count, she realises she is now an orphan. Yes, all alone.

 

Turning away from what up until not even an hour ago was the most important person in her world - in most ways the only person in her world – she silently watches as more cars stop, people getting out of them and staring. At her. At the wreckage. At what used to be her mother.

 

No one dares to talk to her after one of the men in uniform asks who she is, who the body was – though not with those words – and if she remembers what happened. She lies on the third question.

 

Then, a dark car pulls up and the woman who exits comes to her after talking to the uniformed men. She introduces herself, says she has come to take her to a new home. Beth wonders at the word home. She knows what it is, but somehow she has never felt it. Her mother has never made her feel safe enough in any place for her to associate it with the word. She knows the technical definition, but has never felt the attachment. Just like with her father.

 

Homeless. Fatherless. And now, motherless.

 

An orphan.

 

She is first taken to a temporary place, where she gets to sleep in a small bed in a small room. The woman lets her know they are arranging for a more permanent place for her. A new home. Hopefully, she can go there in a few days.

 

When the woman tells her the new home is a place for orphans, she does not contradict her. She does not protest that she knows her father is still alive somewhere, with a new wife and child. She can still remember the night he chose to walk away. Young as she may be, and ignorant of the world, she respects that decision, and nothing would ever make her try to run after him. It is clear that this time it was he who did not want to be found.

 

Mrs Deardorff welcomes her with a smile. The woman has not even reached the end of the stairs at the entrance and the car has not come to a full stop and still she smiles already.

 

Beth is expected. Despite this, she cannot smile back. There is a distance in the woman’s eyes. Her smile might be welcoming, but her eyes are evaluating. Not that she feels the welcome is false or that Mrs Deardorff does not care for her. She simply does not care like a mother cares for a daughter. Something even her own mother was capable of. In her own way.

 

Barely a word crosses her lips while she is first shown around and then treated like a doll. Her hair cut and her clothes changed. She traces her name one last time. The name her mother has given her and embroidered on her dress. When Mrs Deardorff takes it from her, she does not resist. Her life is not her own any longer. Not that it ever was.

 

Meeting Jolene for the first time does nothing to prepare her for the friendship they will come to share in the future. In that moment, when Beth is still overwhelmed by this efficient introduction of her new place in life, the older girl’s words and questions feels like nothing more than an added burden.

 

After she once more denies the continued existence of her father, wondering if she is going the path of Judas and damning herself, she is unintentionally, but forcefully, thrown back into the worst moment of her life.

 

“What’s the last thing they said to you before they died?”

 

Beth can barely breathe.

 

“I ask everybody that. We get some really fun answers” Jolene continues, ignorant of the hurt she has caused, and Beth manages to keep her in the dark. She says she does not remember, but those fateful three words are suddenly on repeat in her head.

 

“Close your eyes.”

 

“Close your eyes.”

 

“Close your eyes.”

 

The pills are hard to swallow. They are big and almost get stuck in her throat. It is not long after that she is overcome with a strange sensation. In a way, it feels like when she laid on the floor in the car. The world has both stopped and ran away. She is detached. The world is detached. Everything is both muted and highlighted.

 

When night arrives, it is impossible to sleep. Her mind has sharpened, and she remembers a time in the past where she has seen those green pills before. The night her father came by the trailer her mother told her was home. They were in a small glass container and her mother threw them on the floor. She had not taken any of them and the next night they lit up the open area outside with a fire. A fire in which they burned many of the things that used to be inside. Papers, books and even clothes. She saw her mother’s name on one of the books, but that did not stop the woman from feeding that to the flames too.

 

She is also kept awake by another reason. She does not want to shut her eyes. Because darkness no longer awaits on the other side. The inside of a car does. A car her mother drove as she talked about a problem. The problem of what she would do with Beth. Her own daughter. And the terrible decision she had made. The approaching truck. The crash. Her life up to that point coming to an abrupt and painful end. And the words that haunt her with the short and useless pleading they had offered her. The last words her mother said to her.

 

“Close your eyes.”

 

.oOo.

 

Jolene is as close to a friend as she gets. The girl, despite being enough years older than her to make it a significant difference at their age, is helpful and her smiles reach her eyes. She introduces Beth to her new life in a much more useful way than Mrs Deardorff and she starts to feel like she has landed on her feet after all. Her advice about the green pills is especially useful and she has soon learned how to deal with them.

 

The first night she has saved the pill and takes it after lights out, it helps her to forget why she does not want to close her eyes. It makes the world crisp and the pattern the tree outside makes on the ceiling is distracting enough to keep her mind occupied until the true darkness of sleep – with no car or terrible words to be had – takes her.

 

She enjoys the lessons. Learning new things has always attracted her and now that her mother is no longer around to dictate the boundaries of her world, she is eager to take advantage and expand it.

 

Most off all, she enjoys math. It is easy for her to see the patterns in the numbers and symbols, making the equations allies rather than enemies. On one level this scares her. She remembers all the papers with numbers and symbols in the trailer. The ones her mother burned the night after her father came by and gave up on them. What if she is like her mother in other ways than liking math? What if she too would be capable, in the future, to drive herself and her own child right into the front of a truck?

 

The thought that gives her comfort is that she takes the green pill. The one her mother decided to throw away. Besides making her feel good and see the world much clearer, it also keeps her safe. So long as she takes the pill, she does not need to fear the world.

 

It is unexpected, but perhaps also fitting, that it is her proclivity for math that has her stumble upon the one thing that will change her life forever. Well, not strictly speaking the only thing, but the others are still years away and without this beginning none of the other bricks in the game of dominoes of life would topple either. But that is so many years in the future her mind is not capable of perceiving even the smallest of hint of it. For now, green pills are the core of her world. The foundation on which she stands.

 

When Miss Graham sends her down to the basement with the erasers after she has finished the practice sheets early, she is curious about what the place looks like. The girls never go down there unless assigned this specific task and this is a first for her. It feels like a different world down there and it is a welcome, even if short, break from the monotony her life has fallen into. An adventure almost.

 

She finds, however, that she is not alone down there. The custodian, Mr Shaibel, sits in his own little space down in the world that is his domain. She has seen him before, going about his various chores, but never exchanged a word. She does not intend to break that silence now, but then, when he does not look over to her even when she noisily claps the two erasers against each other, creating a cloud of wiped away numbers and symbols, she gets curious. What could possibly hold his attention so strongly?

 

Leaning over a little, so she can peer around the shelf that obscures his table, she discovers a most curious sight. A board of some sort lies there, filled with light and dark squares in a perfect pattern. On some of the squares, no more than one in each, are small figurines. Pieces that match the light and dark of the surface they stand on. A large, worn hand moves the pieces, one at a time and alternating between the colours, and even if she only watches a short while and a few moves, she instinctively feels that there is a pattern to those movements as well. That board is a little world of its own, governed by rules she does not know yet, but rules all the same. A world even smaller than the one she experienced on the floor of the car. A world that requires you to keep your eyes open and it might be yours for the taking.

 

When Mr Shaibel looks up she is pulled out of that tiny world she has already dived into and runs away. He holds the key to full submersion, but she is too afraid to ask.

 

Even so, the thought of it follows her through the day and into the night. The patterns and rules beckon her and in the darkness after lights out, the branches transform as they move in the wind, showing her that world, full of so many promises.

 

The next day is Sunday and all she can think about is those squares. When she has to stand up in the chapel and sing, she barely remembers the words and she knows she has to go back down there now. She has to learn. That is where her salvation lies. Not up here with silly songs not even Miss Lonsdale seems capable of mustering up any real enthusiasm over.

 

Wordlessly making her excuse, she hurries down the stairs, down into the dark and quiet realm of Mr Shaibel. He sits at the table now too and she asks him before her courage has time to fail her and ignoring it when he tells her she ought to be elsewhere.

 

“What’s that game called?”

 

He does not answer her, instead insists she should not be there. She insists right back, and he gives in.

 

“It’s called chess.”

 

“Will you teach me?” she asks, feeling a crack in the door keeping her out of that world. But the crack refuses to give way, she is denied entry, has the word strangers thrown in her face, and she has to leave. Feeling like a failure. Feeling empty. Somehow also feeling betrayed.

 

During the following weeks, she continues to get her math assignments done early, since she knows Miss Graham will always ask her to go and clean the erasers when that happens, having nothing better to offer her. Their education is for blending in, not getting ahead.

 

She does not fell brave enough to try the leap across the chasm that is the word strangers. Another terrible word added to her world. However, she does give herself a few moments each time to watch the custodian those times he is there, always playing chess with himself when he is.

 

As she makes out more and more about the rules that governs how the pieces are allowed to move, she starts to picture them on her board at night, moving them around to get a better feel for them. Even without knowing their names she starts to get to know them. Soon, they are no longer strangers.

 

Despite the progress she manages like this, she knows she can only get so far without guidance. Without a teacher. And eventually, she takes the leap once more, hoping that her stubbornness might just take her across the void.

 

It pays off and for the first time in her life, Beth is allowed a taste of the world that is a chess board and the power and control it can give her. Something life has denied her so far and she finds she desperately longs for. This one small taste and she finds herself addicted. It does not matter that she only manages three measly moves before something called the Scholar’s Mate puts a jarring end to it. But not in the way the car came to a loud and abrupt end. It is not the end of life as she knows it. Merely a first taste of what is yet to come.

 

But when her opponent refuses to explain how he did it, how he moved the pieces to stop her, she experiences her first withdrawal symptoms, even if she does not know it, abruptly turning annoyed and angry. It is the most she has felt since her arrival.

 

It is not until she has left that she realises what he actually said. He did not turn her away permanently, like he tried to last time. He simply invited her back another day and now she has two new significant words in her life. But this time they do not frighten her. Instead, they are full of promise.

 

“Not today.”

 

They echo in her head that night, after she takes all the pills she has saved and plays through her defeat again and again until she understands it. Understands where she went wrong and promises herself to do better next time.

 

From then on, she sneaks down into the basement every opportunity she gets, which are mostly on Sundays, and more often than not, Mr Shaibel is there, waiting for her, board and pieces ready. She gets to learn through trial and error and things go well until one day the price for a mistake is so high she leaps headfirst into withdrawal and the anger it brings, when she finds it unfair.

 

Why would she have to give up when they had not finished? Every time they have played up until now, they have never stopped until checkmate and she cannot understand the difference. It is far from the first time she has lost her queen.

 

Then, for the first time ever, it is she herself that adds a terrible word to her life. One single word is all it takes to close the door of her new word in her face, both literally and figuratively.

 

She knows she should not say it. She knows better. But like every time Mr Shaibel shuts her down and keeps her from learning more about chess, fury rises inside her. And with it comes that one word. The word she had heard all the way back on her first day there. The word Jolene had shouted and Mrs Deardorff and Mr Fergusson had reacted to in such a way as to let her now it was not acceptable, even if she did not understand it. But all that fits in her head right now is the desire to hurt Mr Shaibel back in any way she can, because he hurts her over and over. Her being a child life has so far been unkind to is the only excuse for why she projects her own unreasonableness onto him and feels justified in taking that one giant step too far. It is a paltry excuse.

 

“Get out.”

 

Two words to cancel out “Not today”. Two words to send her into despair.

 

She copes. Because she has to and because the pills keep her calm. They also keep her playing and she now has another mistake to learn never to commit again. But playing on her own is not the same and the door to the basement stays locked. She stole the names and rules of the game with her into exile, but it can never replace being inside that world, living and breathing its very essence.

 

Eventually she in desperate enough to try to find out just how bad that one word is and when she finds herself alone with Jolene, she asks. But not before the word cracker is added to her vocabulary. She is not entirely sure what it means, but her friend says it with enough warmth that she puts it in the good category.

 

The answer to her question is unexpected and requires some additional research on her part. The picture at the back of the health book is most illuminating and she begins to understand what exactly is wrong with the word. But before she has a chance to do much else about it, the basement is unlocked again, and Mr Shaibel shows himself to be more forgiving than she feared and lets bygones be bygones. The gate to the world of chess is once more opened wide, and she is so eager to use it she sneaks away so often she starts to get the feeling that she misses some important things in their lessons. But it is impossible to care since whatever is being taught above stairs could never ever compare to downstairs. And downstairs is the only world that truly matters to her.

 

Then, she gets to learn the name of the squares and that world opens even wider. There are even books about it, and she continues to ignore her regular education in favour of her secret one, reading them in class. Because that is her life now. Green pills and a world made up all in black and white. Her hunger for more is insatiable and she observes and absorbs everything she is offered.

 

Her eyes have never been so wide open.

Chapter Text

Beth is taken aback when she goes down into the basement one day, intent on another game with Mr Shaibel, and finds him waiting for her with another man. Mr Ganz is his name, and he holds the key to the next door in this world. A door she had not been aware of until now. The proof that the world of chess exists outside the realm of the basement and has more citizens than herself and her teacher. There are even clubs and school teams, which tells her she has so much left to discover. So much left to learn. So many new people to defeat.

 

Playing Mr Ganz is both different and the same. Different because his style is not entirely the same as his friend. More refined somehow and she guesses this is because he lives a little bit closer to the centre of the world made up of sixty-four squares. But by how much she does not know enough to say. The same because she still wins. There is even some joy bubbling deep inside her at the surprise on his face he tries to hide while she demonstrates the end of their first game to him.

 

Then, he is different again because he does not know her like Mr Shaibel do. He has brought her a gift and while she hopes, if only for the short moment before she sees the shape of the package, that she is to get a board of her own - a world of her own in a way – she discovers he has come here thinking her just a girl. A girl like countless other girls who prefers dolls to the very thing he has been invited to see her play.

 

The anger does not, however, surface this time. The doll is not really keeping her from chess, only a motivation for her to do better. To never let anyone else give her a doll again. It is enough that she has no more power over her own life than a doll has in the hands of its owner.

 

A look from Mr Shaibel reminds her to thank his friend for the gift, even if she can see that he sees her true feelings about it. But with that ritual out of the way, she quickly asks for another game and is granted one. Politeness clearly has its uses at times.

 

Before she knows it, she is not only playing both men at the same time, but she also plays them while not at the boards. Just as when she lays in bed at night, the green pills sharpening both her mind and her world, merging the chess world with the real one, she can picture the game without seeing the physical pieces. It is as much a part of her as the very air she breathes now, and it is exhilarating.

 

Before he leaves, Mr Ganz takes a picture of her and Mr Shaibel. It feels both odd and comforting to place her hand on his shoulder and for a moment she feels a real connection. A hint of belonging. A whiff of home. It is soon gone when she has to leave the basement, doll in one hand. She has barely returned to the normal, boring, world before she discards it. The doll has no place in either part of her life. Too much a reminder of herself and the severe limits on her.

 

When they next watch one of those movies made to make them conform to what most people seem to think a girl and then young woman ought to be, Mr Ganz has made a new move to invite her through the door he guards. She barely listens as the two girls and two boys talk with such scripted politeness she thinks there is nothing to learn about real life from them, when Mr Fergusson comes to fetch her.

 

Going to Mrs Deardorff’s office, she finds the woman herself and Mr Ganz inside. There is something new in the former’s eyes. A new level of scrutiny while she recites what the latter has told her about Beth. For some reason, she feels it is not approval. Maybe because she does not conform to what the two girls in the movie were doing. She has never been especially engaging to begin with, and rarely showing more politeness than necessary. But now she has added another point against her. She is gifted with something Mr Shaibel taught her at the very start is something only boys and men are supposed to do.

 

She does not care.

 

The promise of even more opponents to play makes her more excited about something than she has felt in a long time. She will never tire of playing Mr Shaibel, but she also knows she must find new and better players if she is to grow. If she is to move even further into the world of chess. There has to be a centre somewhere, even if she has no idea what it looks like at the moment. But the players already dwelling there must surely be something special and she longs for the day she will be able to play against them.

 

Despite the disapproval Beth guesses at in Mrs Deardorff’s eyes, the woman puts up little resistance to letting her go to the High School, only securing a female chaperone before giving in and a date is set. Just like in the instructional movie she was just spared the end of, as a female, she is apparently forbidden male company without the presence of another female.

 

But she does take her revenge before allowing Beth to go, only waiting until Mr Ganz has left. This time it is not Mr Shaibel locking the door which will keep her out of his realm, but the words of the person who has the last say on everything at Methuen. Though, Beth is unsure if the woman truly means it as a punishment. To be sure, she does care for the girls in her charge, and in her mind allowing Beth to play upstairs is most likely a kindness. And while it is a better gift than the doll, it still makes her feel like one, the hand of her owner simply moving her from one room to another in the dollhouse. But maybe, just maybe, all it has to mean is being more careful when sneaking down to Mr Shaibel. For if she cannot play him, only the other girls, she thinks she might lose her mind. She would become teacher instead of student and subsequently be chained down to the level she is at now, denied further progress.

 

Disaster strikes not long after. It begins like any other day, with her waking up in a bed that is a replica of all the others in the dormitory. At least she herself is far from a replica of the girls who occupy the other ones. Chess sets her apart. Even more so now that it is no longer a secret.

 

But when she stands in line for the pills for that day, only the orange one greets her at the bottom of the paper cup. Something must surely be wrong, and she turns back to Mr Fergusson to point out his mistake.

 

“There’s one missing.”

 

“That’s it” is all the reply she gets, and she can hardly believe it.

 

Looking behind the orderly, she can see with her own eyes that the big jar, nowhere near empty, stands right there. But when she points this out, expecting him to realise his mistake and give her one of the green pills, he simply destroys her world. People more powerful than him, even more powerful than Mrs Deardorff, have decided she can no longer have them. She has never felt more powerless in her life. Not even when she sat in the car, hearing her mother asking her to close her eyes. At least she could do something then. Throw herself to the one part of the car where she could be saved.

 

As is usually the case, Jolene is the one to explain to her what is going on. Withdrawal is a new word in her life and she does not like it. Likes experiencing it even less. However, she does not connect it with her reaction to being denied a further step into the world of chess. The restlessness is the same, but not the anger.

 

Jolene might be able to explain and sympathise, but she cannot help her remedy the problem. Cannot help her when the world grows both noisy and silent at the same time. When her body turns numb and her skin grows itchy. When, at night, it is suddenly hard to forget the reason she does not want to close her eyes and no board or pieces appear on the ceiling to take her mind away from those terrible words.

 

“Close your eyes.”

 

There are moments when she wonders if she will turn into her mother now. If she will become just as erratic and lose sight of reality when the world grows to heavy, or difficult, or elusive, or whatever it was her mother experienced. But the longing for the fuzzy clarity the pills bring her weighs the heaviest on her mind and ironically helps her forget. Just like the high itself, withdrawal is more powerful than fear.

 

By the time Mr Ganz, along with the promised Shirley Munson, comes to pick her up, her mind is in disarray. She has promised to play the simultaneous and knows the expectations not only Mr Ganz has on her, but that he has forwarded to the students at the school she is going to face. It is impossible to back out, even if she wants nothing more. Wants nothing more than to run up to her bed and hide under the covers, just like she used to do when her mother sometimes got strange and would stare into nothing for hours or scribble in her notebooks until it got too dark to continue.

 

It is a terrible feeling to not want to take this next big step. To be denied further learning and growth in the only subject she truly cares for by men in suits she has neither met nor even seen. She is only a doll in the world of grownups and the power they hold. And now they have taken away the only power she has managed to carve out for herself.

 

Her feet feel as if they have turned to lead when she walks toward the entrance, Miss Munson talking about her favourite strategy and she is nothing but annoyed. Even this girl, whom she will not be playing, seems to have a better grasp of the game than she does in that moment, and it is a most bitter sensation. She has not lost in a long time by now, so if she is about to lose to a dozen young men, she feels as if her life might just be over. There is no longer anything for her to return to that is worthwhile. Nothing else at Methuen that gives her meaning. Her entire value as a person is now so tied up in chess, she fears what will happen if it is snatched away from her.

 

“Wait!”

 

One word heralds her rescue as her saving angel arrives, in the form of Jolene. Her friend and now also protector it seems. Though in a far-off part of her brain she knows her friend would resent being called such. No angel would ever have her vocabulary.

 

“Can I talk to Beth?”

 

Mr Ganz and Miss Munson stop on the stairs and turns around to see who has arrived so unexpectedly and halted their departure.

 

“Just for a second, wish her luck.”

 

No objection is made, and Beth has no idea what her friend is about when she clasps her hand with both of her own. Not until Jolene lifts it up and presses a kiss to it does she feel the small object that is passed to her. She wants to express her gratitude but knows it will only draw attention to what has transpired. Something which must be kept a secret. But she can see that her friend understands when she smiles as she lets go of her and turns away, walking back the way she came as if she has not just something both forbidden and extraordinary.

 

She manages to slip the pill into her mouth in the car, during the drive, when Miss Munson is busy discussing the King’s Gambit with Mr Ganz after Beth herself has continued to ignore the topic. It is not the first time sitting in the backseat has saved her and she idly wonders if life will throw her other unexpected blessings in the future.

 

The High School is a foreign world. Not that she is a stranger to people of that age, but never has she seen so many at the same time. The orphanage now seems such a small place, after having felt so large in comparison to the tiny world consisting of her and her mother. It is a taste of what the world has to offer, but will remain closed off to her while she resides at Methuen. Beth knows herself well enough to not hold out much hope for being adopted and her one path to reaching beyond her current limitations is chess.

 

Her two escorts take her to a classroom where many boards are set up on tables placed in a u-like formation, chairs only on the sides closest to the walls. She only has a few minutes to look around before a jarring bell rings, followed by the sound of countless students leaving their classrooms. Of these students, twelve – of which all are male – make their way to the doorway she only just came through. They all stop there, in a group, looking at her with defiance. She has now entered through Mr Ganz’ gate and they stand inside, ready to try and stop her from moving further. Self-appointed guards who refuse to take a girl seriously, despite what their teacher has said about her and invited them to do that day.

 

Beth wonders if they are sure that their defences will hold or if they are secretly scared that their own insignificance in the world of chess is just about to be proved to them. Unlike Mr Shaibel and Mr Ganz, they might not be mature enough to handle such a loss. In fact, it seems certain that are not, she decides when she finds the eyes of Charles Levy – the best one of them apparently – when he is asked to take the first board and finds ill-disguised contempt aimed at her.

 

They all quickly find a place, chairs scraping as they sit down and their bags making a noise of their own as they are placed on the floor. Then, it is time to begin. And with her playing white in every game, she needs to start them all. Mr Ganz explains that they are not allowed to respond until she has completed the entire first round and she feels their eyes on her. All of them looking to see what her opening moves will be and still confident in their abilities to best her. But that self-assuredness means nothing to her. It will not affect her playing and inevitable wins. This is the one place – in front of a board – where she is not a doll, and her actions are entirely her own.

 

When the games progress, the eyes are less and less on her and more and more on the boards as her opponents, one by one, have to admit to themselves that she is good. Dangerously so. But by then, Beth has already defeated most of them in her head. She knows what moves are to be played and has seen the inevitable conclusions. Charles Levy is not even the one to put up the best – if still futile – fight, but his face holds the same expression when he is forced to resign as when he entered the room. Only the disbelief lurking in his eyes lets her know his true feelings.

 

A small crowd of other students, curious about the girl playing their school’s chess team, has gathered long before the hour and twenty minutes that it takes her to win every single game are at an end. She basks in the admiration she glimpses in some of them. It is easier to be happy for someone that is winning when you are not the one losing.

 

Beth has no idea that they will all feel different soon enough. The blow she has just dealt the entire team has crippled enough confidences that they will not perform as well as they did previously in competitions and suddenly it is the whole school’s loss. Mr Ganz feels it too, but Beth will soon experience the next tragedy in her young life and forget to wonder why he never returns.

 

The present she receives this time is much better than the last, even if she has to continue waiting on owning her very own chess set. The chocolate is among the best things she has ever eaten, and she quickly makes her way through most of them when she has been returned to Methuen and sneaks down into the basement to tell Mr Shaibel about her experience. He listens attentively and she feels heard and respected. She feels as if she once more has a connection with someone. Someone who might just understand her. When she is done talking, she leaves him the chocolate that is left to show her gratitude, never having truly learned how to show it with words when she genuinely means it.

 

In one way, the blow that lurks around the corner, just waiting to pull her firmly back down into inconsequentiality, is something she should have seen coming. Because, when has life ever given her a break long enough for her to get comfortable. To even find her footing.

 

The yearning for the green pills grows stronger and stronger. At day, she feels inside out and at night her mother’s last terrible words echo in her mind, while the shadows are nothing but branches. Jolene no longer helps her and after her initial anger she transfers the blame to the right people. To Mr Fergusson, Mrs Deardorff, and most of all the faceless politicians who have decided to ruin her life.

 

Eventually a plan hatches in her mind. She has seen Mr Shaibel’s tools down in the basement and after looking at the window and cabinet that separates her from salvation, she knows just what she needs to get past them.

 

She waits for when the next movie is to be showed, with that being the only time she knows where everyone will be and more or less for how long. She stays longer than she had planned, afraid any of the adults in the room will know what she is up to the moment she gets up and makes her excuse. Surely her guilt must be apparent.

 

The boring lead man has just been confronted by the emperor about his Christianity when she can no longer endure the suspense of waiting and she stands, after looking around one last time to make sure no suspicious eyes are on her.

 

Mr Fergusson only tells her to hurry up when she asks to go to the bathroom and as soon as she is out the door, she heads straight for her goal. Unscrewing the hinge from the window takes a little time, but she manages without alerting anyone. The cabinet itself is not locked and after climbing in through the window with the help of a chair and small table, the pills are at long last in her hands again.

 

Not wanting to waste what time she has left she grabs a handful of them and shows as many as possible into her mouth. Again and again until she almost chokes on them and starts to fill her pockets instead. There is still time left when she crawls back out and for a moment she is about to hurry away from there, somehow thinking they will not put two and two together and know it was her, but the huge jar beckons her and she turns back and grabs it.

 

That is the moment she is discovered and the sound of a woman calling her name just as the pills truly start to kick in has her thinking it is her mother. But just as the jar does after slipping out of her hands, her world comes crashing down when she turns back around, expecting to see that flowing red hair and only finding the conservative updo of Mrs Deardorff. She barely hears the second time her name is spoken, this time in anger rather than shock, as the world turns too sharp and then too unfocused between one second and the next. She is halfway off the chair before she even feels the shift in gravity. Her marionette strings have been cut and there is nothing to stop her from ending up in a discarded heap on the floor.

 

She wonders if this is the darkness her mother wished to bring her along into when they sat in the car, heading straight for the truck. This time she feels no fear. The green pills have taken that away from her, and for the first time in what feels like forever, Beth is happy to close her eyes.

Chapter Text

Time passes unrelentingly. Mrs Deardorff has punished her in the worst way, by forbidding her to play chess. Her little stunt was not received well and after surviving a visit to the hospital, she comes back to Methuen at the bottom rung of the ladder. She knows this the moment she meets Mrs Deardorff’s eyes and the plea to be granted re-entry into the world of chess dies on her lips. She has been forcefully evicted and locked out of that wonderful place.

 

Hoping against hope that she might change the woman’s mind, Beth dedicates herself to becoming the perfect Methuen girl. She always does as she is told, eats every last piece of food with not only a lack of complaint but with a smile, quietly does her best in class and even volunteers to assist Miss Lonsdale with chapel. For nothing is more important to being a Methuen girl than godliness.

 

The only thing to keep her sane, except for Jolene, is the book Mr Shaibel gave her. He has not said a single word to her since the incident, but whenever their eyes meet she can see the same pain in his that she knows must be in hers. A shared grief over the loss of their games. And the withdrawal from this loss is worse than the one from the green pills. The shadows of branches are all that remains on the ceiling at night and closing her eyes is a struggle, but seeing the way he looks at her before he turns away is agony.

 

There are times she fears she will lose herself in the nothingness of it all. In the absence of anything to ground her or make her feel even a hint of control, only conforming as best she can to the expectations of others, she is less and less Beth and more and more Elizabeth. Jolene keeps her alive with her different view, genuine friendship and by calling her Beth and making sure the other girls do too.

 

Nearly six years she lives like this, until she is forgiven enough for her transgression to be given the chance to be adopted. It is extremely rare that a couple comes by asking for an older girl and she is even allowed to lie herself two years younger to better fit, encouraged even.

 

She does not understand what is about to possibly happen when she is called to Mrs Deardorff’s office, even if she and Jolene witnessed the couple’s arrival. It is not until Mr Fergusson hands over that small diadem with flowers on it that she realises. For it is tradition that every girl who is about to be taken away to a new home is given this gift of farewell. It better prepares her from the required lie and the disinterest in Mr Wheatley when she asks if she is Elizabeth or Betty. She hopes she can reclaim Beth.

 

The moment all the paperwork is put through she starts packing, but is distraught when she cannot find her most prized possession. ‘Modern Chess Openings’, Mr Shaibel’s gift to her – well, at least he has never asked to have it back, so she has taken it as such – is nowhere to be found and there is no time to search more than her own little area in the sleeping hall. Jolene says she has not seen it and then tells her to forget about it. She will not need any books where she is going. Only smile and be thankful, is her advice for future happiness now that she will have a family again.

 

Beth frowns. Her friend knows her better than that and the advice is out of character. Something she might tell any of the other girls, but not Beth. She can sense that it means her friend is upset at being left behind, even if she denies it, and refrains from asking for more help when Jolene turns her back to her. The book will simply have to be left behind and no doubt end up back with its original owner. Since she has written her name inside it might be seen as a parting gift from her to him. To thank him for what he has taught her, even is she destroyed her chance to use it.

 

When she leaves the next morning, she can confirm what she has always suspected; despite its name, Methuen Home has not been a home for her. It has been no more than a place for her to exist while the rest of the world ignored her. Leaving her friend does hurt and she wonders if she will find someone new to talk to wherever she will live now. However, the most painful part about leaving turns out to be when she spots Mr Shaibel at the top of the entry stairs just as Mr Wheatley starts the car. They have still not spoken a word since chess was forbidden – Mrs Deardorff no doubt having spoken to the man about it to make sure he did not assist her in breaking the rule – but he is still important to her and she timidly raises her hand in farewell. The hurt comes when he not only keeps his own hands down but also turns away from her. Maybe she imagined the hurt in his eyes. Maybe she overestimated how much she meant to him. Maybe she is a burden he is happy to be rid of. No more shared pain or regret.

 

Had she known it was the last time she would ever see him, she would have asked the Wheatleys to stop the car, leave it, run up the stairs and hug him, no matter how he felt about it. About her. Tell him how infinitely grateful she is for the invaluable gift he has given her. It was not he who took it away from her after all.

 

But she does not know, and so she stays where she is and allows Mr and Mrs Wheatley to take her away without a word, cautiously hopeful something good might be waiting for her at their destination. Tries to appear happy and not feel unsettled by the look Mr Wheatley gives her in the mirror in a moment when her smile falters. It gives her the feeling that she has encountered another man in her life she cannot trust, and she finds that it does not surprise her. It only reminds her of her mother’s advice about men and not relying on them.

 

The house is blue on the outside and by no means lacks flowers on the inside. Mr Wheatley goes directly to an armchair, where he sits down and reads the newspaper while Mrs Wheatley is left to give her the tour. His disinterest in her feels comforting. That is something she knows how to deal with. Her adoptive mother is more difficult to get a read on.

 

There is an air of nervousness about her. As if she feels just as unsure in this situation as Beth does, but shows her insecurity with too much excitement and a strained friendliness instead of turning silent.

 

It is a nice place and when she is told she is to have her very own room, she begins to think that this might just become a home. Her bed not only has a canopy but is also almost twice as wide as the one she had at Methuen. There is more furniture meant only for her and she feels how few things she has to her name when she unpacks her small suitcase and there is so much empty space left. At least she can lock the door. Being alone was a luxury rarely afforded at Methuen and more circumstantial than obtained by design.

 

Yes, Beth will be able to live here while Elizabeth can stay behind.

 

She sleeps surprisingly well and the next morning has an unexpected talk with Mrs Wheatley. The woman has made breakfast and sits at the table, waiting for her, when she comes downstairs.

 

“Come, sit down dear.”

 

“Yes, Mrs Wheatley” she replies in the way she has learned to address all grown women and does as she is asked.

 

“I have a question for you and I want you to know we will not be sending you back no matter what you reply.”

 

Suddenly afraid of what the woman has to say, Beth still nods. What else can she really do? While she has come closer to freedom, her life is still in the hands of others.

 

“When we first met, you were about to protest that you were fifteen, not thirteen, right?”

 

She stares at her, a rushing noise in her ears as the implication dawns on her. The lie did not go undetected and despite the assurance that she will stay no matter what, life has not given her reason to be so hopeful. Still, she can detect no resentment or disappointment in Mrs Wheatley and decides to be honest. If they do end up sending her back over it, she would not have been able to find happiness here anyway.

 

“Yes. I was born in nineteen forty-eight” she confesses.

 

“Is your real birthday the second of August?”

 

“No, the second of November.”

 

“Good. Then that’s settled. We need to enrol you in school, and I needed to know for sure which year you should be in.”

 

Beth blinks, caught between disbelief and relief at the calm reply to the confirmation that she has lied. There is not even a hint of anger, only acceptance. Then the fact that she will go to a real school sinks in and she knows her age puts her in high school now that the truth is known. Maybe there will be a chess team she can join. The idea of once more accessing that world makes her feel lightheaded and it takes an unusual amount of time for her to clamp down on that feeling and find her way back to the calm she has forced herself to learn in the absence of the green pills.

 

The next morning, she hears raised voices from outside when she wakes up. This does not seem to be the peaceful Christian home Jolene predicted and neither of the adults are fully satisfied with her humble and almost quiet gratitude, even if Mrs Wheatley is more accepting. Not that she had many or high expectations to begin with, but it seems things are not going to be as she had imagined anyway.

 

It appears that the man is leaving, going away on yet another business trip, and it is easy to see how it affects Mrs Wheatley, being left behind once more by her husband. Beth thinks the woman might have been happier if she had been married to a poorer man so long as he loved her better. Not that she would want to go back to living in a rundown trailer, but she can see herself living in a small flat if she could share it with a genuinely good man. Provided they exist. Even Mr Shaibel, who is her best example so farm, would probably be difficult to share a space with fulltime. At least Mrs Wheatley will have Beth now, just as Beth cautiously hopes she will have Mrs Wheatley.

 

When she arrives downstairs, Mrs Wheatley sits by the piano, playing a sombre melody with surprising skill. Intuitively, Beth thinks the instrument could have been to the older woman what chess is to herself. Or maybe, she might end up just the same, with her true calling in life something she can only perform in her own home, all the doors and gates leading deeper inside its world barred to her. Without Mr Shaibel, or even Mr Ganz, she has no idea where to find the keys if whatever school she will attend cannot help her.

 

It is difficult to be hopeful even now.

 

First day of school turns out to be quite the disappointment. Even before she sets foot, or rather her ugly brown shoes, inside the building, she knows she will not fit in. As far as the eye can see, every single girl is dressed in a skirt, a knit polo shirt or a sleeveless blouse with a cardigan on top, all in a wide variety of colours. And they all seem to wear the same kind of black and white shoes. The colour combination is what makes her the most jealous. It is far too long since she was allowed to have it in her life. Methuen is grey, grey, grey.

 

However, she also realises she envies the girls for their pretty clothes. Not that that specific combination stirs her heart, but a longing for finer things of her own is awakened. Having her own room has clearly given her a taste for more. Maybe Mrs Wheatley will soon suggest they buy her some new clothes and then she will finally be able to leave her last tie to Methuen behind. The few simple pinafore dresses she owns belongs in the previous decade, if not further back, and while she would never dare complain, she is suddenly eager to put them away for good.

 

Her first lesson – which so happens to be math – confirms this. The girls sitting just in front of her barely takes the trouble to lower their voices while they criticise everything she wears and her hairstyle. It too belongs in the past.

 

Those girls in their colourful clothes make sit perfectly clear she is not allowed to sit with them during lunch without uttering a single word. The disdain in their eyes are clear enough for Beth to take the hint and redirect herself to a table that is empty except for a lonely boy at the other end. Another lonely person, this time a girl, soon sits down in the other side, but far enough away that no one can mistake them for friends.

 

Seeing her first chance to talk to one of her fellow students, Beth tries to get her attention by clearing her throat and when that does not work simply goes straight for her question.

 

“Is there a school chess club?”

 

“What?” the other girl asks, clearly surprised to have been talked to.

 

“Is there a chess club here at the school?” Beth repeats, hopeful she might get an answer this time.

 

“Oh. Um…” the girl begins, seemingly less used to conversation than Beth. “I don’t think they have anything like that.”

 

She feels her heart plummet down into some deep and dark pit as her one and only hope is put out of its misery. Going back to her food, thinking the barely a talk over now that she has her answer, Beth finds herself faced with eagerness all of a sudden. Apparently, her question was enough of an invitation to open the door to other topics.

 

As it turns out, she gets a brief introduction to the much more advanced social hierarchy in high school, compared to that at Methuen. Apart from cheerleading – which she had no interest in whatsoever – there seems to be only social clubs available to the girls. She has no idea what they do in those, except apparently not baking pies, and subsequently will not think about them more than how they explain which girls are on top and has the right to bump into her in the corridors.

 

When Mr Wheatley returns, it is unexpectedly he who suggests that Beth needs new clothes. Her enthusiasm barely survives their entrance into a store where only women of Mrs Wheatley’s age or older seem to shop. It gets even worse when they head upstairs to the bargain section and she is thrown back in time, to the day she arrived at her former non-home. The sensation of being treated like a doll, dressed in clothes she would never choose for herself and having no agency to say no, is almost suffocating her until the flickering of one of the lightbulbs distracts her. Even the store itself seems to be cheaper in that area, mocking the customers that cannot afford better.

 

They also leave without a chess set and saving up to buy one herself, with forty cents each week, will take an eternity. Her fingers itch as they long to feel and move the pieces, giving her back a semblance of control. It is horrible to have an itch she cannot scratch. Just like when her withdrawal was at its worst.

 

The new clothes do nothing to help and she is bumped into by her locker the first day she arrives in her new coat. At least the trip to the store has done something for her. It has reminded her that there are books about chess and maybe the school library has some. The librarian introduces her to the concept of Grandmasters and for the first time in too many years, the first door creaks open just a tiny bit. The hinges screech in protest after being unused for so long, but budges enough to let a glimmer of light through. It feels like life returning to her.

 

The book is where it should be, but something else distracts her. The sight of her main tormentor, Margaret, being intimate with a boy. It is clear they are both enjoying what they are doing, and she cannot help but wonder what it feels like. It must require some form of connection between the two people involved. She might just try it out herself, but she is too shy and also knows that even if there was a boy at school she would like to do that with, she was far too unpopular for them to want to participate. Or they would do it only to turn around and destroy her reputation even more. Only the most popular girls can get away with this kind behaviour without it ruining them.

 

When Margaret spots her, she is mortified. Not only because she was caught looking, but also because she rightly identifies the store where her shoes were bought and uses it to insult her. The most popular girl at school would never be caught dead at Ben Snyder’s, and Beth might as well be socially dead now that she has been.

 

She takes back her previous thought about Mrs Wheatley being happier with a wealthier man. Despite their house being quite lovely it is clear they do not have much money to live on. Or at least Mr Wheatley does not leave them enough to live comfortably. Either could be true. But money can buy some measure happiness, or at least afford one the avoidance of humiliation.

 

At least she found the book.

 

Not long after, she stumbles upon a key. One much more potent than the one Mr Shaibel or even Mr Ganz provided her. Mrs Wheatley asks her to go over to Bradley’s for her to buy three packs of Chesterfields. It is in that little corner shop that she learns that the world of chess is large enough to have its own magazine. On a shelf ‘Chess Review’ stands, beckoning her over. On the few pages she has time to see before she is forced to relinquish the treasure, she becomes aware that there has been a USSR championship and that a man who shares his first name with the author of the article won.

 

Vasily Borgov.

 

It is the first time she sees the name, but at that time it gives her nothing more than the passing thought that he must be talented. And maybe it is a good thing she remains unaware of the monumental impact on her life the man behind the name will have, starting in just a few years, or she would probably have been too distracted to reach his orbit in the first place. To find all the keys to unlock and walk through all the doors to the very centre of the world of chess where he resides. For now, this first connection to that centre passes her by without notice and the name simply lands in the back of her mind and is allowed to rest there and take root, ready to grow and bloom only when the time is right.

 

It is not the first time in her life she steals something. It is, however, ironic that it was her first theft that closed the gate to the world of chess to her, while the second is what opens it again. The list of tournaments holds the specific key she needs, but it is powerful enough to open more than one door, she is sure. She only needs to get her hands on the five dollars she needs in order to reach up to the lock.

 

Mrs Wheatley is no help and even doubts the importance of chess. The only way out she can think of is to appeal to the man who opened the door for her the first time. The fear that his turned back inspired in her lingers, something prickling at the back of her eyes, forcing her to blink, as she thinks of that scene, but she still writes and sends him a letter as soon as she can, hoping for the best.

 

The same day, another part of her past makes a reappearance. Mrs Wheatley has become ill and she is sent down to Bradley’s once more, but this time to fill a prescription for her. The image of another man who will greatly impact her life in the future, though nowhere near the level that Borgov will, greets her on the cover of ‘Chess Review’ as they youthful face of Benny Watts looks out at her before green pills are once more a part of her life.

 

She can hardly believe it when she turns back towards the counter after hastily putting the magazine back, not even having opened it, to find the bottle there. It is the easiest thing in the world to commit her third theft and take half the pills before handing over the rest to the older woman who still lies in bed when she comes back.

 

“Why do they only fill these bottles half full?” Mrs Wheatley asks and Beth silently takes a deep breath in relief before smiling at how easy it was to get away with it.

 

That night she makes a hole in the canopy of her bed and is once more able to see and feel the world go crisp and watch her beloved board reappear up on the ceiling. It is a feeling of coming home, which, while being new to her, is easy to identify. And in that moment the blue house goes from a potential home to actually being one. It does not matter that the untrustworthy Mr Wheatley is barely ever there or that Mrs Wheatley is sad in his absence, though still making some effort to connect with her.  For the first time she can remember, Beth has a place where she feels safe and connected to. Hopefully, it means her luck is about to change.

 

The green pills have returned to her, giving her the tranquillity they are meant to, and only a measly five dollars separate her from the world of chess. Yes, things are most certainly about to look up.

Chapter Text

Mr Shaibel does pull through. There is not even a note enclosed in the envelope, only the five dollars, but she knows. Now she has both the key and the means to reach the lock. Her fingers are itching at the prospect at handling those sixteen pieces and march them across those sixty-four squares in bloody but triumphant battle once more.

 

The day before she can finally unlock and open the door, she finds out that the green pills might once more be beyond her grasp soon. Mrs Wheatley’s prescription will not last forever and she knows of no other way to get more. At least the tournament will be held long before that happens. Still, it might be wise to try to ration the pills. To first try without and see how it goes. If she finds herself slipping, she can always take one.

 

It is late by the time she arrives back home from her errand at Bradley’s to find Mrs Wheatley in front of the TV. The woman asks where she has been, but as usual, seems barely interested in the answer. They are both simply going through the motions of being part of the same household, hesitant to attach themselves too strongly. At least the older woman is there and not constantly off on another work-related trip and Beth still feels some hope, but is reluctant to take the first step herself.

 

Even so, Beth feels compelled to forewarn that she will be late the next day too, explaining that she has something to do after school. There is a note of interest in Mrs Wheatley’s voice when she asks if she has joined a club, but it quickly disappears when she mentions the tournament.

 

Beth is reminded of Mrs Deardorff then, being faced with what society expects her to be if she is to be accepted. Dancing or making friends with other girls her age. Girls like Margaret.

 

It pains her to do so, but she ends up questioning her guardian on what she did at her age to socialise and then hurries up the stairs before the look on the older woman’s face can cut too deep. The absent man of the house is already making her feel lonely and inadequate and there is shame in adding to it. But the door beckons and she cannot risk stumbling now and miss her opportunity to get through. The possibility of another chance is too small.

 

Henry Clay High School seems so much different than Fairfield. Then again, that might be down to the fact that the corridors are not filled with students between classes or that she does not need to worry about the next time she will feel a shoulder bump into her. Even her own spectacular bumping into Margaret and some of her cronies, along with her brave words, has not put a stop to the sport they make of her. At least she’s giving bruises as well as receiving them now.

 

What can only be identical twins sit at the registration table and she discovers that they are another set of self-appointed guards, set on trying to keep her from advancing. She has to argue her way into the serious section of the tournament, and it is only because there is no rule they can fall back on to block her passage with that she succeeds. They scoff at her for being unrated, while she mentally scoffs at them for their presumptuous ignorance. But since she does not have to play against them, she cares little in the end.

 

Walking inside the gymnasium she feels lost, but then quickly locates the board where the pairings for the first round is set up. A man is just putting up her own name, right at the very bottom, when she reaches it. It is a steep climb they force upon her, but she feels confident she will reach the top by the end. Another man, most likely a fellow competitor, already stands there and after glancing at him, taking in his handsome face, she dares to ask about how the names are sorted, curious to see how he will react to her.

 

“Are the matches played at random?”

 

“Not at all” the man begins to reply, but then pauses after turning to look at her. He is clearly surprised by both her gender and age and she fears this will be another guard. The world of chess seems painfully overpopulated with them. But then he goes on, without so much as a hint of disapproval or hostility in his voice. “Uh, they arrange it by ratings on the first round. After that, winners play winners and losers, losers.”

 

She hardly knows what to say or do in the face of this unexpected kindness and tries to flee. However, when she turns around to walk away he surprises her again by wishing her good luck and meaning it. She quickly wishes him the same, surprising herself with remembering to be polite in such a situation, before finding her place and sitting down. Still, she cannot help watching him as he finds his own, feeling a bit foolish at the interest he has awoken in her and allowing herself to be swept up in it. Her own opponent shows up and interrupts her thoughts, briskly shaking her hand and introducing herself as Annette Packer.

 

The young woman, who is not a guard either, then gives her a brief lesson on chess clocks and the meaning of touch move before it is time to start the game. Beth soaks it all up like the starved person finding a genuine oasis in the desert she is, eager to learn every tiny little detail available to her now that she has finally opened the door again. And without Mr Shaibel there to guide her she is on her own and the risk to stumble greater. But not now. Despite only playing in her head for so many years she proceeds to be the first one to win. Annette looks shocked at first, her eyes scanning the board she completely lost control over, but then smiles.

 

“Thank you” she says.

 

“What for?” Beth asks, unable to comprehend the response to a loss. She herself has never been gracious in defeat.

 

“Well, you can see all the men in here and how they put us together even if they shouldn’t. If you can beat me this good, I’m sure you’ll be able to do the same to at least some of them too.”

 

Not having a reply to that, even if she does feel flattered, Beth simply nods and then heads out in the entryway, where it gives her some additional satisfaction when she gets to witness the twins’ incredulity at her success. It gets even better when the handsome young man from before shows up soon after and gives her a small smile when he sees her win laying there before his own. She hopes her joy is not too obvious. It is a new thing she has learned, that a smile can make her pulse race and mind scatter. She will have to watch out if she has to play him later.

 

With almost all games still going on, she takes the opportunity to go into the area sectioned off for the top players and she arrives in time to watch Beltik, the State Champion, win his first game. She even gets to exchange some more words with her only male supporter in that place, making her feel a strange fluttering in her stomach, even if it costs being told off for disturbing the players.

 

He comes to her rescue in her next game, when the cocky man she plays, so sure of his win, offers a draw when she turns the game on him with a single move. The sensation of power this gives her is intoxicating. The slight shake of his head when her eyes find him standing a bit behind her opponent makes her mimic the motion and win. He even compliments her - sort of - on his way out when the day is over and she is almost home by the time her blush has retreated fully.

 

The sensation makes her remember Margaret and that boy in the library and she wonders what that feels like. What it would feel like if someone did that to her. Maybe it would not be impossible to find out after all.

 

She feels frustration the next day and she is still not up against any of the top three players. The identical guards let her know they still think her to be in over her head. The exasperation is clear on their faces when she approaches them after looking at the pairings and the frustration lingers when they explain how to acquire a rating, no doubt thinking she never will. In the end, though, they unintentionally point out another door to her. The door that leads to the national level of chess and her goal is now to get there. And it is a much worthier goal than where she is now, and at the other end of it, she thinks the gate to the international level might be found. The one where people from all over the world gather to play each other if they are good enough. Players such as Vasily Borgov.

 

First, she must play Townes, the handsome young man who has helped her from the start. He seems delighted to go up against her. Not because he thinks he can beat her easily, but because he has recognised her competence and looks forward to the challenge. It is exhilarating. But his easy smiles also fluster her enough that she forgets that she plays black and needs to start the game. It only makes him smile more, but with nothing but kindness when he needs to point this out, just as she had to do with Miss Packer the day before.

 

He continues to smile often, at least at the start, and she shyly smiles back. There is no doubt that he is good, but as the game goes on, she starts to wonder if it is only because of this fact or if there is a part of her that simply wants to be able to sit there, with him, for as long as possible. It is the first time she has enjoyed a game in this tournament, and it is hard to let go of that. Even harder to let go of his company.

 

Their game attracts more and more attention when those around them finishes their own ones, but Beth hardly notices. Only the board between them and Townes himself registers in her mind, but when he takes her pawn with his rook she knows the game is over. She moves her king to threaten it and he retreats, making her follow.

 

“He won’t have to suffer much longer” she replies when he accuses her of humiliating his rook in a surprisingly mild-mannered way. Just like Miss Packer, he seems capable of taking defeat graciously. Even when it is a girl he loses to.

 

After they exchange another set of small smiles, Beth does look up and notices the audience that has gathered to watch the end of their game. It is a pleasant feeling to get such recognition, small as it might be, but they are still nothing compared to the thrill of playing a good opponent. Or at least an opponent who truly respects her.

 

One more move each and he sees what she saw a short while ago. He circles her name on his game sheet and offers his hand in resignation, still no hostility in sight.

 

“How old are you?” he asks, and she is unsure how to take the question, but hopes it is meant in admiration, but he continues before she has a chance to reply. “Never mind. Don’t answer that, it’ll just depress me.”

 

She decides to give him an out and repay his kindness with some of her own.

 

“I’m 36” she says, barely believing her own courage at telling such a teasing joke to a young man she met for the first time just the other day. But he rewards her with a small chuckle and a ‘thank you’ and she has to press her fingers to her moth to stop herself from grinning stupidly and really show how young she is. She is somehow prouder of her interaction with him than the result on the board.

 

“You really are something, you know that?” he says next, and she can easily see he means it as a compliment this time.

 

Then, sudden pain flares up in her midsection and she feels unequal to stand up and follow him out to the entryway to leave their game sheets there together. It would have been satisfying to see the twins’ reaction, but the restroom becomes her immediate destination, where she makes a terrifying discovery. Blood runs down her leg and at long last she comes face to face with the reality behind one of the instructional movies they showed at Methuen. Fiction was clearly not enough to prepare her for this.

 

Miss Packer comes in shortly after, wanting to congratulate her on her win and compliment her play, but is derailed into trying to help. But the thing she hands over is entirely foreign and Beth cannot fathom putting it where the young woman delicately hints it should go. A wad of toilet paper will have to suffice.

 

“Hey, Beth. Beat him, will you?” Annette says just as she is about to exit and go to her next game.

 

“I’ll try” she replies, encouraged by the sincere words. At least she has two people rooting for her.

 

In spite of her handicap, Sizemore’s ranking of 2050, and his annoying habit of taking out a comb and pulling back his hair with it every other move, she wins. And if she can win under such circumstances the door to the national level seems a lot closer and the key already within her grasp. Only one more opponent to go.

 

When she arrives back home, Mrs Wheatley sits at the piano, a soulful melody masterfully flowing from her sure fingers. She seems sadder than normal, but still offers up the necessary help when Beth tells her about her predicament, informing her where she can find pads and asking her to bring her the bottle with pills at the same time.

 

“My tranquillity needs to be refurbished.”

 

The words speak of some sort of calamity that must have befallen the woman since she last saw her the same morning, and the state of her bedroom further confirms this. The bed is in disarray and the phone sits on top of the still rumpled sheets, an insistent beeping sounding from the dislodged receiver. When she comes back down, she cannot help but ask about it.

 

“I’ve received a message from Mr Wheatley” the woman replies, after downing the pills with some beer. More than one can adorns the piano.

 

The mention of the man makes Beth uncomfortable. He has seemed off somehow since the beginning and appears to bring nothing good into his wife’s life, but even so, she is unprepared for what the man has done this time.

 

“It seems Mr Wheatley… “Mrs Wheatley goes on but pauses momentarily as if collecting herself before uttering whatever terribly truth weighs so heavily on her. “…has been indefinitely detained in the Southwest.”

 

The woman tries to smile, but it is so brittle it almost breaks in the short time she manages to keep it up.

 

“Somewhere between Denver and Butte.”

 

While Mrs Wheatley is somewhere between agonizing and philosophising over the matter, Beth only has one thought in her head. Not just anyone is allowed to adopt from Methuen. All the girls she had seen leave before her had always done so with a couple. A husband and a wife. What would happen if one of them would disappear?

 

“Can they send me back if you no longer have a husband?” she asks, despite the additional pain it will cause. But she does not want to return to that place that is not a home. Not to her. No, she cannot. She has finally set one foot inside the door and when playing Beltik tomorrow, and winning, she will be fully inside once more. There is also the fact that this blue house has become her first home and she is unsure if she would survive leaving it. Leave the only person she has the potential to call family.

 

“Close your eyes” her mother said, and this time she might.

 

The few seconds of silence before Mrs Wheatley answers is agony and her first reply does little to assuage her fear.

 

“You put it concretely.”

 

A longer silence follows, and Beth feels as if the distance between her and her guardian has never been longer. Never more fraught with uncertainly and potential damning incomprehension of each other. It was not Mrs Wheatley’s idea to adopt her and while she has pulled the load, in her role as housewife, caring for Beth since she got there, it has always been more out of obligation that genuine attachment. What will she do now when she has a way out of it? A way out of the extra expenses and the presence of another person in her home she cannot connect to.

 

“They won’t if we lie about it.”

 

Elation runs through her, but Beth remains cautious. It is not settled yet.

 

“That’s easy enough” she replies carefully, keeping her eyes lowered a while longer before looking up, only to see Mrs Wheatley smile at her. Not widely or even happily, but with enough emotion behind it that Beth realises that this time, she will not be abandoned.

 

“You’re a good soul, Beth.”

 

She feels unworthy of the praise, looking back down, and they risk sliding right back into their usual motions when she is asked to go and heat up their dinner. But there is still something that needs to be done. Something that has been delayed by the news of Mr Wheatley.

 

“I don’t know how to put these on” she confesses, awkwardly making a small gesture with the hand still holding the pad.

 

Mrs Wheatley rises from the piano before she speaks again, and her voice is stronger now. It seems she has come to some sort of conclusion. Decision even. Bordering on acceptance.

 

“Though I’m no longer a wife, except by a legal fiction…” she starts before trailing off shortly. Her voice is more brittle again when she continues, but there is conviction there too. “I believe I can learn to be a mother. I’ll show you how… if you promise to never go near Denver.”

 

She can only nod in reply, the moment being far too significant for anything else. Because she feels it now. Mrs Wheatley has just transformed into Alma. Her guardian into her mother. Chosen obligation into sincere support.

 

Naturally, her previous mother makes herself reminded that night, keeping her awake long after she has switched off the light.

 

“Close your eyes” she hears her say, calling on her from beyond the grave as if she is not willing to let her daughter go to another woman. Is not willing to let her daughter have the life she miraculously managed to pull out of her mother’s hands just as she was about to throw it away along with her own. She longs to reach out to the bottle hidden under her mattress, pull out some pills and kill her anxiety with them. But with her last and most important game tomorrow she cannot risk ending up in the slump that comes when the clarity has muddled into the mundane when she plays it.

 

The emotions still rattle in her soul the next day, made worse when Beltik show up late for their game. An extra cup of coffee is his excuse, but it does not measure up. Maybe he is afforded special treatment due to being the state champion, but Beth does not care. If he cannot show proper respect to his opponent, or even the game itself, he does not deserve to hold on to that title and she is determined to take it from him. Rip it out of his hands and watch the cocky assurance disappear from his eyes.

 

She shows only the barest amount of civility when he offers her his hand and introduces himself and then they start their game. But his disrespect continues. He yawns repeatedly, showing his crooked teeth, distracting her. It makes her emotions bubble up to the surface and to her utter humiliation, her eyes start to tear up when she cannot find a way to turn the game in her favour. Desperate, she excuses herself and runs to the restroom where she wastes no time in taking a pill. The first of the tournament. It was clearly a mistake to try without. At least when so much is at stake. The key is so close she can feel it with the tips of her fingers and to lose it now… Unthinkable.

 

She takes the moments before the effect kicks in to berate herself and then the board and pieces appear on the ceiling and she soon finds her way out of her predicament. The crisp calm of the world follows her back into the gymnasium and it is satisfactory to see Beltik look taken aback at the new focus in her. There is no more yawning now.

 

It is even more gratifying to quickly play him into a corner. He tries to protest, saying he can play his way out of it, but she knows it is a foregone conclusion. Eventually he sees it too and resigns. But the frown or even anger she had expected does not appear on his face. Instead, a smile does. And it is that smile that will allow him back into her life a few years later when she risks spiralling out of control yet again.

 

There is a small picture and tiny article about her win in the newspaper the next morning and Alma sounds equally surprised and proud when she reads it aloud. The wide smile is an expression of the latter. Then she lifts up the cheque of a hundred dollars and the former returns, as if she cannot fathom the existence of so much money.

 

Beth asks for help with opening a bank account. She has a few years left until she is of age and able to do such things on her own, but since their understanding yesterday she now knows that won’t matter so much. At long last she has an adult she can count on and trust. So she does not mind when Alma stays on the topic of prize money a little longer. In fact, it seems to be the best thing she can do when the woman – who has lived short on money for years now – hears about other tournaments with higher amounts and suddenly finds chess a highly interesting topic. There is no risk she will emulate Mrs Deardorff and shut the door in her face now. Instead, they will go on a hunt for new keys together.

 

The moment she has her own money – and plenty of it too – Beth returns to Ben Snyder’s and picks up not only a chess set, but several books on the topic as well. But when she stands at the cashier, ready to pay and already counting her money, she remembers the beautiful dress she noticed on display that one time Alma took her to shop for clothes. It is still there and Beth leaves with two bags instead of one.

 

Her mother’s newfound eagerness is on display when she returns home. She sits in the armchair Mr Wheatley always used the few times he was in the house, reading ‘Chess Review’. She has gone through the tournament calendar and found something very promising in Cincinnati. And not only that, but she has also planned the entire journey for them, and all Beth has to do is say yes and they will go. Alma will even report to the school that she is home sick during those days. Another lie to add to the one keeping them together, but so long as they do not lie to each other, Beth is only happy to encourage the deception.

 

Cincinnati turns out to be the door into the national level of chess. Perhaps far from the most prestigious, but Beth does not care. Winning against Beltik gave her the key and she does not want to waste any time in using it. Competitions with higher stakes will come along, but she will probably need to get herself a ranking before she can reach the top. Winning state championship is sadly not enough.

 

The Gibson Hotel is well worth the 22 dollars a night and Beth hopes future tournaments will allow her to experience such luxury again. It also feels empowering to wear her new dress when she goes downstairs to register, and a part of her mind thinks on all the other clothes she will be able to buy once she has won there. But best of all is the eagerness of the man who sits at the registration table when he realises who she is. He is no guard, rather an usherer.

 

She goes exploring after that and runs into a man she has seen on the cover of ‘Chess Review’. The baby-faced Benny Watts sits with a few other young men around him, having everyone’s attention while he goes through strategies. The Caro-Kann Defence in particular. She wants to show off to him, but only leaves feeling smaller, younger, and knowing she has a lot more to learn. Not everything is pure talent.

 

At least she runs in two familiar faces – or maybe it is more apt to say one – before she can take proper hold of her new mood and spiral with it. The twins, Matt and Mike, have quickly converted from guards to acquaintances after her win against Beltik. They have showed that they were made of sterner stuff than the boys she played when she was nine and were humble enough to recognise when they were in the wrong. Now, they are nothing but happy to see her and even happier to not be playing her. She has always liked sensible people.

 

She plays a Master in the final round and leaves as a winner once more, and before they return home, Alma approaches her with the question she has felt coming since before they arrived. Her mother has made no secret of the fact that it is the money that motivates her, along with a growing desire for her daughter’s happiness, and she is happy to make a counteroffer of fifteen percent to the suggested ten. Alma has given her a steady place in the world and now enables her to get the same in the world of chess. She is worth financial comfort in return.

 

Pittsburgh is their next stop and Beth gets to fly for the first time. It feels amazing, like she has never been freer in her entire life. Her win there comes almost as easily as in Cincinnati – she had to play a grandmaster this time - and on their way home, her mother reads another article out loud about her. This one is longer than the first one in the local newspaper. People are starting to take notice of her.

 

From there it continues along the same tracks. They decide on a tournament, Alma plans the trip, calls the school to report her sick and then Beth wins. Their finances steadily improve, as does their bond. Alma also grows more and more happy, finally finding a purpose in life again, though the alcohol remains as present as ever. It is the support Mr Wheatley ceased to give her at some point and that a child cannot compensate for.

 

One day Beth comes home from school to find her mother dancing to a tune on the radio, her eyes closed, smiling widely, and a can of beer in one hand. It is not one of the more classical tunes she performs at the piano, but something upbeat and her movements channel that feeling.

 

“There you are!” she exclaims when she opens her eyes and sees Beth in the entryway and extends her free hand out towards her. “Come. Join me.”

 

She feels unsure of this happy and carefree mood but complies. Not that her mother has not been happier since they started traveling for chess, but this in new even for her. Still, it is infectious to see her so and Beth does her best to imitate her. However, her feet are awkward and almost stumble over each other as she tries to move along, bumping into Alma when she almost topples over after a too daring turn. Eyes the can of beer her mother holds in her other hand, she guesses she is simply too sober to be able to perform.

 

“Well, that won’t do, dear” Alma says and tuts at her. “We can’t have you all left footed and graceless. Come, I’ll teach you.”

 

After putting the can on the coffee table, Alma pulls her in close and assumes a dance pose. Beth feels her eyes widen at the implication and tries to protest.

 

“I’ll have no need of dancing” she explains, sure this is true.

 

“Nonsense. What young woman doesn’t have use of dancing. You might be all about chess now, dear, but one day you’ll discover a man you’ll want to do more than sit down at a table with and you’ll regret not being prepared then. Just make sure he’s a good man before doing more than dancing.”

 

Just then a new song starts and her mother takes the choice away from her by starting to move them while directing her on how to move her feet. She gives in and follows along yet again and they spend the next three hours dancing and giving each other sore toes. But laughter is never far away and Beth feels unexpected but welcome contentment as the bond between them tightens. Sharing a bit of silliness with someone you trust is surprisingly fun.

 

Not long after, they are off to Houston. Growing up with first a mother who turned away from reality more and more until even the illusions became unbearable and she decided to leave the world behind, and then as an orphan, Beth has never cared much for Christmas. It is the holiday that above all represents family and the reminder has been painful for many years. Being able to play chess instead of pondering over her loneliness - though Alma has done a lot to remedy that lately – would be a welcome distraction. So welcome, in fact, that she does not object to her mother’s plan of them spending time in the beauty spa.

 

The next step in their relationship is taken then, right there on the plane, with Alma reaching out and enfolding her hand in her own. Beth accepts the gesture, even if she has to abandon the game she is playing her way through on the small travel chess board, but despite being reluctant to delay her training, she is also pleased at the connection. Physical touch has always been a rarity for her, and it is hard to maintain the lie that she does not care for it when it is offered.

 

The spa turns out to be much more pleasant than she had thought. She is even able to bring the latest issue of ‘Chess Review’ with her and read it while the beauticians pamper her. Turning another page, she is suddenly faced with a headline she has seen before. She can still remember the few glimpses she stole that first time at Bradley’s before she stole the whole magazine. And the first article she had found then was the one about the USSR Chess Championship. His name had stood out in the text then, being the winner, and this time there is even a picture. He has won once more, and she can well believe it. The face is stern and gives away nothing, yet his eyes gaze out of the page in such a way she feels as if he can see her. As if he is issuing a challenge to her. Leading her towards the door to the international level. Towards the centre, where he resides. Waiting for her.

 

It is not the first time she had read about the mighty Russian grandmaster since that first time to be sure. Everyone worth anything in the world of chess know about him. But with that picture looking up at her, demanding not only her attention but that she also makes place for him in her life, Beth decides it is time to start preparing for whichever door that will lead her to him. And if the Soviet players are the best in the world, well, she had better learn their game, starting with their language.

 

“I should probably learn how to speak Russian” she blurts out, not caring about who other than her mother hears. The Cold War be damned, she will not let paranoia over communism hinder her from reaching the top.

 

Alma barely bats an eye and simply asks if they teach that at her school. Beth already knows they do not. A high school that does not even have a chess club will not offer Russian on the curriculum. That only leaves one option easily available.

 

“I’d have to take a night class at the junior college.”

 

For some reason this is what makes Alma frown.

 

“The kids would all be older than you” she says. “And by kids, I mean boys.”

 

Beth does not reply. She knows it will not stop her mother from letting her go. The allure of the tournaments in Europe they have begun to talk about is too strong. And she is also mindful of Beth’s happiness. Besides, after offering her a taste of her drink on the flight over, she has already established herself as a more understanding and allowing mother than Beth assumes most are. No need to break that track record over some harmless lessons in Russian no matter who her classmates will be.

 

It does not take long for her to spot the difference between a journalist from a local newspaper or chess magazine and one from a broader publication. The woman who comes from ‘Life’ to interview her in her room, while a photographer tries his best to blind her, seems to be more after a sensational story than to understand her for real. She even tries to suggest that, because she’s an orphan, she sees the king and queen pieces as surrogate parents. Beth finds the idea preposterous. Besides, it was the board she connected with first. And it is always the board that gives her control and power. Which pieces she uses to do so is changeable.

 

Luckily, her mother comes to her rescue before things can get truly awkward.

 

The more general media coverage attracts a lot more attention to her, even at school. Some fawning boys start a chess club, but she has no interest in joining. No, she only had the one encounter with the world of high school chess, and she is not about to return to it now that she has passed through several doors beyond that level. It is just like back at Methuen when Mrs Deardorff wanted her to play above stairs. Beth is not interested in being a teacher to others. She is on her own trajectory and picking up dead weight will only slow her down.

 

Surprisingly, another club also invites her. Margaret – of all people – approaches her and tells her she is welcome to the Apple Pi’s pledge party that Friday after all the other members have insisted on it. Even her main bully is sensitive to peer pressure when it is strong enough it seems.

 

The eagerness she feels is unexpected and she prepares with care on the night in question before she walks over to Margaret’s home. Most of the girls are kind and some even show genuine interest in hearing her talk about her experience in the world of chess. But the ever-prickly leader of their little club is clearly not comfortable with allowing Beth her moment to shine and interrupts to change to topics to boys, ensuring to make fun of her in the process. Beth is back on the side-line, feeling unsure how to tackle this social situation and mortified at the use of rooks to make an inuendo. Chess is so full of boys and men anyway that she had hoped this gathering of girls would have allowed her to ignore them. She should have known better.

 

The only good thing that comes out of her brief visit is that she makes off with a bottle of alcohol she uses that night to sharpen her world and play chess on the ceiling. The green pills are still available, Alma’s runaway husband ensuring her doctor continues the prescription, but she is not averse to finding an option that is more readily available.

 

After a missed opportunity the year before, Beth finally reaches Las Vegas in 1966. Only a couple of days after her arrival she runs into Townes at the hotel and she feels the old spark between them at once. They have met a few times since their first meeting at various tournaments, but it has been quite a while now. Over a year, in fact.

 

With less than a year until her eighteenth birthday, Beth starts to think that maybe it is time to act on her attraction. He has been of age for as long as she has known him and subsequently out of reach, but that matters less and less each passing day. She is no longer so unpopular that intimacy is impossible for her to find, but this handsome and kind young man now once more in front of her has always been at the back of her mind and edges of her heart, making her keep a distance to everyone else.

 

When he invites her up to his room, for pictures and chess, her heart flutters and she hopes she will find more once they are alone. There is already a chess set on the bed when they arrive a few minutes later, a game played halfway through. She feels a little bit disappointed when he goes straight for the camera but is soon made to laugh by his effortless charm.

 

She ends up by the bed, moving the pieces while he continues to take her picture. Then he moves closer to her and the conversation turns from professional to friendly. Maybe even something more.

 

“You’ve grown up, Harmon” he says and snaps another photo. “You’ve even gotten good-looking.”

 

He looks up at her after that last part, sending more flutters into her heart and she wants to make it even more personal. Wants to know more about him just as she is prepared to share more about herself in return. The privacy of his room seems the perfect opportunity and everything, except her heart, is calm enough that she can forget the world outside. It is only them.

 

“I don’t even know your first name.”

 

“Everyone calls me Townes. Maybe that’s why I call you Harmon, instead of Elizabeth.”

 

“It’s Beth” she informs him after the camera clicks yet again, immortalising her trying to connect more with him.

 

“I like Harmon.”

 

That feels like a retreat on his part, making her feel unsure. She looks away to keep him from capturing the expression head-on, but then he moves closer once more, leaving barely an arm’s length between them. Both unsettled and exited by it, she keeps her eyes on the camera, afraid to show him too much while desperately hoping he will close what little space remains between them.

 

When his hand reaches out, pushing away her hair from her face so gently she can barely feel his touch, her eyes slowly rise to look at him. He looks straight back at her, some kind of intent in his gaze and she thinks that this must be it. She is about to be kissed for the first time.

 

The door burst open, ruining the moment, before the young man who walks inside ruins her life. Or at least one of the connections she had hoped to build. The bewilderment at how the two men interacts slowly recedes and before the stranger leaves, she has drawn the inevitable conclusion. Townes is forever unavailable to her, no matter if he is seeing someone else or not. She wants to close her eyes and just disappear, but he offers her a game and she stays, hoping to save their friendship, while at the same time feeling more and more unsure about if her heart can survive having him remain in her life.

 

She stays longer than planned, but they barely exchange a word. The mood is tense and quickly growing tenser, and the game dragging on as it does is a clear testament to the state of mind they are both in. Neither of them is really down there, on the board, but up in their heads, trying to figure out where they can go from there. What they can even say to acknowledge was has happened. What did not happen.

 

Alma sits reclined in her bed, watching tv, when Beth gets back to their room and when she asks her where she has been for so long, Beth lies. Not directly, but there is so much she does not say that she feels just as bad as if she had said she had gone to the moon and back. But as much as she has learned to depend upon her mother, sharing a broken heart is still too intimate.

 

Even so, Alma does her the unexpected favour of helping her to deal with it all, or maybe to forget, by offering her a beer. Beth already knows how alcohol can aid her with such things and eagerly accepts, downing the hole bottle in one go after a first sip. Her mother looks at her with concern initially, but soon they each have a second bottle.

 

The tournament starts and she continues her winning streak. Then, she runs into Benny Watts again, along with mind games that go far beyond crooked teeth or hair combing. Not that she realises it until they reach the end of their game in the final round. And when she looks out over the board, her possible moves having steadily diminished, Mr Shaibel comes back to her. He and the worst three word he had ever said to her.

 

“You resign now.”

 

She does.

 

Later, she takes her anger and frustration out on her mother, desperately hoping she can somehow feel better if she can make someone else feel worse. No one else is available, because despite the world of chess widening, her connections do not increase. And after being denied the one she wished for the most just days ago she feels even more raw. Losing is the worst thing ever. It is too close to losing someone. To closing her eyes.

 

It does not matter that she ends up co-champion. Nothing but her defeat fills her mind and her heart. She ends up walking away when her mother does her best to try to comfort her and give her some perspective. Only white noise rushes in her ears and it is much more comfortable to listen to than reality.

 

The next morning, after she once more jeopardies her continued friendship with Townes, leaving with things left unsaid between them, she is at last able to own up to her behaviour. To recognize the withdrawal symptoms from her childhood. The anger and frustration she would experience when she was denied advancement in the world of chess. It still hurts and she reached out, taking her mother’s hand, in her first active search for comfort from another person in her life. Being dependent on someone is not the worst thing in the world.

 

Later, on the plane, she glances through an old issue of ‘Chess Review’ she has taken to always bring with her as a reminder of her ultimate goal, trying to distract herself. As always, she ends up on the page with the article about the USSR Championship. It is the only one that matters. Borgov is still there, looking up at her and daring her to try to reach his level. To come and challenge his might.

 

It centres her again. Reminds her of the international level, the next door she wants to open and walk through, which her co-champion status might just unlock for her. Yes, she has lost, but she has also taken a step forward. Now, she needs to do even better. Resolve hardens within her once more. She has bigger fish to fry than Benny Watts.

Chapter Text

After having retrieved the key to the next door despite her defeat, Beth throws herself fully into her Russian studies. She even does well and this time it feels more like a wall crumbling than a gate opening. Every evening, before going over to the junior college, she picks up the issue of ‘Chess Review’ she keeps in the top drawer of her nightstand, opening it to the page she has read countless times already and the picture she has spent what must surely amount to an eternity looking at.

 

The face of Borgov, the Russian as she calls him, is ever challenging and pushing her forward. ‘Soon, I will understand you’ she thinks, ‘soon I’ll have conquered your language and then you’re next.’ She does not think about why she uses the term of conquer rather than defeat. The implications of what one or the other tells of what might happen after is too complicated.

 

When the opportunity arises some time later, she uses it to get another learning experience out of her new class. In fact, she comes out of it with two. One of the young men in class clearly fancies her and she plays along. He is handsome in a way that does not remind her of Townes and clearly decently intelligent since he studies Russian too. When he invites her to a party, she accepts.

 

Drugs is the first new experience she makes. They make her feel so elated, like she’s flying on clouds. It is not the crispness the green pills or even most alcohol give her, but it is still good and helps with shutting out words and even some faces from her past. The pain is less, nearly gone, during those hours.

 

The second one is sex. The young blond man is much more affected that her by the time a stupid candle of all things leads to them both in bed. They keep almost all of their clothes on and she winces when he enters her the first time, but she is too disconnected to feel more than a little initial discomfort. Her detachment combined with his high as a kite brain and the effect it has on his body, means it ends in disappointment. He moves awkwardly against her, making her wonder if either of them might end up motion sick. It does not take her long to come to terms with the fact that she would get more or less nothing out of it, but when the boy – because she can no longer think of him as a man – gives up and pulls out before finishing, she feels vaguely insulted. She has allowed him to rut and grind against her for the better part of ten minutes and he cannot even give her the satisfaction that she was enough to get him off. As for herself, well, she has never had much cause to expect good things in that, or any, department. What is one more pleasure denied to her so long as she still has chess.

 

On the upside, he grants her a weekend to herself in the apartment and the taste of independence is everything last night was not. Being able to just relax and be herself, smoke the weed he left her and drinking how much alcohol she likes without Alma questioning it, is everything. Maybe she has learned to not depend on a man for satisfaction – other than when she defeats them on the board that is – but she has also come away knowing she is fully capable of making it on her own. Not that she wants to. Not yet. Alma is someone she can and does depend on now and she fears straying too far, even if it would be possible. Genuine bonds are more addictive that anything else she has come across. They also seem much harder to find than pills or alcohol.

 

Graduation arrives and she is nothing but delighted with leaving the world of high school behind. Now, she can immerse herself into chess even more. And the soon to come international tournament in Mexico City. The next door. She feels more than ready to step through and defeat the next set of opponents. They will surely fall as easily as everyone but Benny Watts have done.

 

Another string is tied between her and Alma when she gifts her a beautiful gold Bulova watch, with the text ‘with love from mother’ on its backside. Something durable to always remind her that she is no longer alone. It takes Mr Shaibel’s book’s place as the best gift she has ever received. Somehow, she had never thought anything could top the first chess book in her life and the impact it had on her, the lifeline it was during those years Mrs Deardorff kept her from all other aspects of the game, but it is a relief to be proven wrong. However, it is a little rattling to find that she values a bond with another person more than the lifeblood that chess is to her.

 

Two days later the letter with the final information about the Mexico City Invitational arrives. It includes the list of participants and Beth almost chokes on her lunch when she sees the name Vasily Borgov among them. Not in her wildest dreams did she imagine that she would have a chance to play him at her very first international tournament. So sure there would have to be at least a few more doors for her to go through before reaching him, but apparently not. And as soon as she has coughed up the pieces of potato she swallowed too quickly she feels a strong thrill shoot up her spine and cause goosebumps to spread all over her.

 

Alma gives her a questioning look, but she just excuses herself from the table and runs upstairs with the letter still in hand. When she arrives at her nightstand it is impossible to tell if her breathlessness is due to the sprint or something else.  She opens the top of the two drawers and pulls out the magazine that has started to look a bit too well read by now and lets it fall open to the only spread that matters.

 

Holding it in one hand she slowly reaches out with her other and lets a fingertip rest just beside his face. A face she will see for herself before the month is up. For the umpteenth time she wonders what colour his eyes are. The black and white photo can tell her that his hair is dark, but his irises are a different matter. Will they be brown like her own or something else? What will it be like to sit across the board from him and look into them? What might she see? Will it be the same challenge as in the photo, or will he show her something else when she is there, in front of him, in person? The possibilities seem endless, and her mind quickly flits from one to the other, unable to settle on which one she thinks to be most accurate, but she hopes to see surprise, followed by admiration, when she shows him how good she is.

 

Her bond with Alma is put to the test two weeks later when they go to the tournament she has looked forward to for so long now. The last two weeks in particular. They sit on the plane, Beth as usual taking the opportunity to use the time reading in preparation for what is to come and Alma enjoying her alcohol, while trying to make some small talk and feeling mostly content despite it being rather one-sided.

 

“Beth” her mother says, and despite the change of tone in her voice, she gives it no more attention than anything else said before.

 

“Mhm” she responds, eyes still on her book.

 

“I have a confession to make.”

 

Beth does not react. Still does not sense the momentousness of what her mother is trying to say.

 

“Do you know what a pen pal is?”

 

“Someone you exchange letters with” she replies while reading on.

 

“Yes, exactly” Alma says and there is now excitement in her voice.

 

One of the stewardesses interrupts their mostly one-sided conversation, arriving with the beer Alma asked for earlier, but it is only a short pause. Her mother is now eager to get it all out once she has started.

 

“Well…” she goes on, only hesitating briefly, “when I was in high school, my Spanish class was given a list of boys in Mexico who were studying English. I picked one, and I sent him a letter about myself. We corresponded for a rather long time, even when I was married to Allston.”

 

By now, Beth has started to realise the importance of what her mother is saying. And the implications. The book can no longer hold her attention while her mind prepares for the blow that is to come. Can words give you a concussion, she wonders before the momentum of the moment gathers even more speed and hurtles further out of her control.

 

“We exchanged photographs” Alma continues and Beth feels compelled to look towards her now, only to come face to face with the picture of this Mexican boy who is now a man.

 

She supposes there is a level of soulfulness in his eyes and expression, but she can feel no connection. Only a risk of the man severing some of the strings that attaches her to her mother. Strings she has grown fiercely possessive over. Beth and Alma have both been each other’s world for so long now that this sudden introduction of a new person feels like an invasion, but the joyful anticipation in her mother’s voice renders all defences useless. There is nothing Beth can do to keep him out. To keep the status quo.

 

“His name is Manuel. He’s meeting us at the airport.”

 

If only Manuel was nothing more than another chess player, Beth thinks. She could keep him at bay then. Defeat, crush and annihilate him to her heart’s content. But this man has entered her life through the only person she is bound to, leaving her powerless and needing to play along. It is an unwelcome distraction that is sure to sour their entire stay there. She had hoped that Borgov would be the only new person of note to enter her life in Mexico City.

 

“Have you ever met him before?” she asks, making the effort to try to appear interested in a supportive sense.

 

“Never” her mother replies, sounding positively giddy. “I have to say, I am really quite thrilled.” And then she giggles, and Beth knows for sure there is nothing she can do to steer them clear of this stranger of a man. The battle had been lost long before she was even aware of there being a need for it.

 

When they sit in his car while he takes them on a short tour of the city on the way to their hotel, it takes all of five minutes for Beth to give up on trying to be proven wrong for her mother’s sake and is fully convinced that Manuel will not end well. She never met Mr Wheatley before his and Alma’s marriage had already reached the end stage, but she can envision how he would have been the same when they were young. Showering Alma with attention and blinding her to his less desirable traits with constant compliments and empty words about love and life. She would never fall for a man so lacking in substance.

 

She tries to use these extra days Alma’s desire to spend more time with Manuel has given her to prepare even more, spending more or less every waking hour with her nose in a book or head bent over a board. Soaking it all up and sharpening her attack strategies until she starts to dream of the despair in her opponents faces. Funnily enough, Borgov’s face is never among them, even if it is the one she knows best. The only one she could easily pick out in a crowd.

 

Finally, her mother notices her singlemindedness and on the day before the tournament is set to start, and she will be playing an international grandmaster almost twice her age, she decides to persuade her away from it.

 

“You know you could come along to the folklórico” Alma says after talking about her own enjoyment of the city – or more like Manuel – for a while. “I understand the costumes alone are worth the price of admission. And it’s such a beautiful day.”

 

Beth cannot help but mentally roll her eyes at that last part. Alma is truly blinded by her infatuation. Or maybe the undivided attention that is lavished upon her, which she is tragically unused to. Some guilt over this gnaws at her, but she ignores it in favour of her frustration over not receiving it herself these days.

 

“It’s been raining the last two days” she cannot help but point out. A part of her wanting to burst that bubble, even if she would feel terrible if she succeeded.

 

“Has it?” Alma asks, sounding genuinely surprised and Beth does another mental eyeroll. “I hadn’t noticed.”

 

“The tournament starts tomorrow. I need to work on these endgames” she protests. Not willing to attack her mother’s happiness, but also not wanting to ignore her own reality. If she is to see that admiration in Borgov’s eyes, she must be at her absolute best.

 

“You know, perhaps, Beth, you have to work on yourself. Chess is not all there is.”

 

This is a new side to Alma. Never before has she tried to pry her away from chess like this. Not for any length of time at least, and now it seems she wants her to give it up for hours. But it is Manuel she resents for this change and once more she wishes she could crush him on the board and send him packing, tail between his legs. To show him what a mighty foe she can be and that she will not let him toy with her mother’s already traumatised heart.

 

“It’s what I know” she reminds her mother, hoping it will be enough to silence the topic before it can become an argument. But Alma is not done.

 

“My experience has taught me what you know isn’t always what’s important.”

 

“And what’s important?” Beth wonders, not being able to think of anything other than chess and Alma herself. And the latter of those two is not giving her the same comfort and reassurance she is used to, so what else than chess can she rely on?

 

“Living and growing” Alma replies, as if it’s God’s given truth. “Living your life.”

 

She stands up from the vanity and walks into the closet, the stinged beads that acts as a flimsy barrier being noisily pushed aside on her way.

 

“With a sleazy Mexican salesman” Beth adds, but quietly enough that her mother does not hear. She still hopes to keep this from becoming an argument.

 

“Treating yourself. Adventure” Alma continues. “You haven’t visited Bellas Artes, or even been to Chapultepec Park. The zoo there is delightful. You’ve taken all of your meals in this room, you’ve had your nose buried in a chess book. Shouldn’t you just relax the day before the tournament? Think about something other than chess?”

 

Feeling the anxiety growing inside her, Beth just listens as her mother lists all the things she apparently misses out on. It is too much of a reminder of the truth of those words. She is well aware that she is not like other girls or young women. That she never will be. But she had thought Alma knew, understood, and respected that. Fully supported her in the choice she had made to be all about chess. To dedicate herself to the one true gift life had given her. The only advantage she had. The only way to distinguish herself, to make something of herself, she had available.

 

“Mother” she begins with in frustration. Wanting the older woman to understand. To see the pressure she is under. The consequences of her losing, which goes far beyond her own ego. “Tomorrow, at ten o’clock I play black against Octavio Marenco. He’s 34 and an International Grandmaster. If I lose, we’ll be paying for this trip… this adventure” she adds to remind Alma of her own stake in this journey, “out of capital. If I win, I’ll be playing someone even better than Marenco in the afternoon. I need to study my endgame.”

 

For about one second she thinks that that has been enough to convince her mother to finally drop the topic. But whatever part of her maternal instinct this might be that has chosen now, of all times, to appear, Alma simply changes tactic and goes on.

 

“You’re what they call an intuitive player, are you not?”

 

“Yes, I have been called that before” Beth admits. “Sometimes, the moves come to me.”

 

“I’ve noticed that the moves they applaud the loudest are the ones you make rather quickly. And there’s a certain look on our face. Intuition can’t be found in books.”

 

Starting to feel her defence crumble, Beth gives her mother a look that is half exasperation and half pleading before she turns away.

 

“I think you just don’t like Manuel” Alma says then, showing how well she knows her daughter after all and that she has been paying attention.

 

“Manuel is alright” she replies, not wanting to cause a rift between them over such a worthless man. “But he doesn’t come by to see me.”

 

“That’s irrelevant” her mother says, but is unable to keep from smiling over the implication of who he is there to see before she turns more serious again. Determined to convince her daughter to leave the room and find some enjoyment in life other than chess, no matter if it is just for a few hours. “You need to relax. There’s no player in the world as gifted as you are. I haven’t the remotest idea what faculties a person needs in order to play chess well, but I am convinced that relaxation can only improve them.”

 

Beth finds herself at the zoo her mother mentioned earlier, walking around alone in the rain and wishing nothing more than to be back at the hotel with her books. At least they will never abandon her for a sleazy salesman.

 

Walking by a stand that sells beer among other things, she decides to try her luck. She has a few months left until she is of age, but the man does not ask for any proof of her majority and simply accepts her money in exchange for the full cup.

 

The words of Mr Shaibel suddenly pop up in her head. Talking about the price that inevitably comes with her gift and she thinks that she has discovered it at long last, holding it in her hand. Familiar guilt gnaws at her once more, but she simply drowns it in the beer and then hurries to buy a refill do push the unwelcome feelings even further down. The rush the alcohol gives her seems a small price to pay for her chess abilities.  Barely a price at all really.

 

Wanting to get out of the downpour, she walks inside the house where they keep various monkeys and sits down on a bench, watching some of them while consuming her second cup much slower than the first. But maybe the dreary weather has affected these primates too, despite being indoors, and their lack of any interesting activities can do little to hold her attention and soon her gaze drifts. Or maybe, she will think much later, it was simply the man that drew her eyes to him like a magnet. She, powerless to resist the pull.

 

Borgov.

 

The Russian.

 

She knew he would be there, in Mexico City, and that it was only a matter of time before she laid eyes on him, but to see him in real life for the first time not across a board, or at least sitting at one, is nearly overwhelming. Utterly unprepared to see him like this, in such a normal setting, which has never occurred to her before, she hardly knows what to do. For how can he possibly exist outside the world of chess when he is the king of that realm? A near mythological creature, only revealing himself to those deemed worthy enough to challenge him.

 

Her pulse throbs in every artery and vein and her breaths grow shallow while she takes him in, her eyes hungry to spot every single little detail about him as if she expects him to disappear in a puff of smoke any second. He is tall, but not so much so that he would tower over her, his dark hair is combed back in the style of countless men that has left their rebellious youth behind, the dark suit he wears fits him well, and his black shoes are shined to perfection. But the one thing she is most curious about is beyond her. The distance between them is too great for her to determine the colour of his eyes.

 

The elegant woman and young boy standing in front of him are clearly his family, and all at once she envies him even more. Yes, he is the ruler of the world she wishes to conquer, but to find that he has reached that position while still making bonds with other people, even such intimate and meaningful ones, gets under her skin, making it itch, and she is unable to stay. Especially when he leans forward to interact with his son, she can watch no longer as this little moment of domesticity plays out and makes her heart hurt.

 

Beth has turned around and started walking towards the exit before Borgov himself turns and sees her red hair. But she does feel a tingling going up her back and nestling just where her neck and head meets. It is too much and not enough at the same time and she does not dare to do anything other than keep on walking. To escape. To flee. Just as she was not prepared to see him like this, she is neither prepared for him to see her this way the first time. It is too far from what she had imagined. Too far from expectations. Too far from her dreams. Too real.

 

Preparations take up the rest of the day and she makes sure to go to bed early, only to be woken up when Alma comes in late, coughing and sniffling while her heels click-click their way across the floor. When she bumps into something, Beth decides to let her know she is no longer asleep. No need for her mother to hurt herself unnecessarily in the dark.

 

“You can turn on the light. I’m now awake.”

 

“I’m sorry” Alma says after turning on the lamp on her nightstand, then sits down on the bed. “I seem to have caught a virus. I don’t know if I’ll be able to watch your match in the morning.”

 

“It’s alright” Beth replies, but it hurts more that she is prepared for.

 

“You’ll tell me all about it?” Alma asks of her.

 

“Sure.”

 

“Every move” Alma insists, possibly sensing her daughter’s distress, and it is enough to comfort.

 

“Of course” she says and places her hand on her mother’s shoulder to comfort her right back. Showing that it is each other they need. Not some unreliable men who only takes and takes and takes before they flee the moment there is nothing left. Better to flee themselves before it gets to that point. Before they can have their hearts crushed by another man walking through a door.

 

But her sleep has been truly interrupted now when her emotions have been disturbed and after Alma quickly falls asleep Beth gets up, dresses in her swimsuit, and goes to the pool, not caring that the rain is still pouring. It only matches her mood and she intends to get wet either way.

 

She finds the twins there and is happy with the support they offer in the form of their friendship. They have no Mexican salesmen to distract them from chess. No, they always have each other, and that is the one thing Beth envies them for. Closing her eyes after she dives into the water and sinking so she floats just above the bottom, the scene at the zoo flashes before her mind’s eye, filling the warm and calm embrace of the water with conflicting emotions instead. Where she had hoped to find peace there is now only turmoil, like the one the rain makes of the surface above her. But before she has a chance to get lost in that, there is a splash on either side of her, immediately followed by the force of displaced water, and she welcomes the distraction her friends have given her. It is only a matter of time before she will not see them at tournaments any longer and she will miss them when that day comes. For now, they can play and have fun. The one thing Alma sent her out to find earlier.

 

Better late than never.

 

Disappointment returns the next evening. She has won both of her matches during the day and replayed them for Alma - but leaves out the hand on her shoulder and words whispered in her ear she could not understand that Marenco felt himself entitled to - just as she asked. But when night falls, her mother, who has spent the day in bed and missing her games, finds the energy to party with Manuel once more. And it is not the only day this happens.

 

She starts to imagine that her opponents are all Manuel and enjoys defeating them as harshly as possible. Particularly memorable is the look on Austrian player Diedrich when he simply stood up and walked away. He seemed almost scared of her.

 

Beth keeps winning and along with enjoying the faces of her fallen foes she is also revelling in how everyone seems to agree that she plays flawlessly. It is enough to make her forget what she expected of the sleazy salesman and when she comes up to their room one afternoon and finds Alma still there, and in her nightgown and robe no less, it is painful to be proven right. Perhaps she was envious of the attention her mother gave to a man, but she did not want to see her get hurt over it. Alma deserves so much better. Still, it feels good - right even - to be back to just the two of them, supporting each other.

 

The next day she runs into a roadblock of her own. This time it is truly a surprise to her, and a new sort of envy awakes inside the murkier part of her heart.

 

Georgi Girev is only thirteen years old and despite this is deemed good enough to be part of this tournament. The Soviets might have their faults but keeping prodigies from realising their full potential is not one of them.

 

When Beth was that age, she was in the middle of the years Mrs Deardorff kept chess away from her and it is bitter to think of what could have been. If she had not had a birth mother who lost her mind and then her life. If she had grown up in a stable home where she would have been free to play and explore life as any girl should. But then, there is no guarantee that she would have found her way to chess in such a situation. She might have been gifted with nothing but dolls. Despite the place’ many flaws, and the price needed to be paid in order to end up there, had she not arrived at Methuen she might very well have been unable to connect to and enter this one world where she feels she truly belongs. It is not much, but a comfort nonetheless.

 

It also hurts when Borgov walks past just as his countryman – countryboy really – arrives and ignores her, or worse, not even taking notice of her presence, while giving Girev a short but meaningful nod, wishing him luck. Why can she not have someone like that? Someone truly important in the world of chess to help guide her along. Not since Mr Shaibel has she felt such a presence in her life. But then she reminds herself that she works best on her own and is able to convince herself that it is true.

 

“Good afternoon” the boy greets her in an accent that is clearly Russian, before sitting down opposite her. “I am Georgi Girev.”

 

“Beth Harmon” she replies and offers him her hand.

 

“I’m honoured” he says while taking it then moves his pieces into perfect alignment before starting her clock, and their game with it.

 

He might just be the fastest opponent she has ever played, and he makes his moves at the same rapid speed as her. Soon they are taking piece after piece from each other, and Beth reluctantly finds herself impressed with the boy. Behind his too polite and stilted manners there is a chess genius lurking. Possibly one as gifted as herself.

 

For the first time in her life, Beth has to adjourn a game. This boy is able to counter her every move and while she does not allow him any advantages either, the hours tick by and her sharp mind slows with fatigue. The effect of the pills has started to wear off and she is in danger of making a crucial mistake in the slump that will follow.

 

Making one final move, Girev then suggest the adjournment and makes it happen by calling the director over to them before she can say anything. Not that she truly objects to the idea, other than resenting having to do it in the first place. Not since Benny Watts has she been up against someone this difficult.

 

The boy does not let her just storm off like she wants and in his awkward English he asks her about drive-in movies of all the things in the world. He even makes what she sees as a small pass on her and that is more than she can handle. His head start in their shared world does not qualify him to be her equal in the one outside. And the next day, her anger makes her resort to what she has avoided so far. Mind games.

 

The urge to crush this boy has taken over, but she is careful to keep her head cool enough to follow the strategy she found last night. His bafflement and mounting frustration are soon apparent as she moves about, alternating between ignoring him and tapping her foot against the floor while staring him down, all the while remaining calm enough to see his defeat. When he offers her the honour of resigning by tipping over his king, she finally forgives him and even stays to talk a little.

 

“I’ve never been to a drive-in either” she confesses as a peace offering, but the boy’s mind is still on the game and cannot appreciate her honesty.

 

“I should not have let you do that. With the rook.”

 

“No” she agrees and sits back down, giving him the respect of restoring being on the same level and having only the board between them, along with a sense of equality. “But you won’t let the next one that tries it.”

 

He only looks at her, and the emotions she sees in his eyes, the deep attachment to chess she has seen in no one else than herself before, compels her to dig a little deeper.

 

“How old were you when you started playing chess?”

 

“Four” is his dead serious reply. She believes him. “I was district champion at seven. I will be world champion one day.”

 

“When?”

 

Her question is more challenge than curiosity.

 

He raises his head in both pride and self-assurance before giving his answer.

 

“In three years.”

 

“You’ll be sixteen in three years” she points out. It is a year younger than she is now and she has only just entered the international level. Can his early start really give him such an advantage compared to her? And then another thought strikes her. “If you win… what will you do next?”

 

The boy is clearly confused by her question and does not shy away from letting her know. The stoic façade he has put on even in defeat falters while his mind tries to come to terms with the concept she has alluded to and fails.

 

“I-I don’t understand.”

 

Pity is what she feels then. Pity, because he is just a boy and thinks of the entire world, not just that of chess, in black and while. In absolutes. He has yet to mature enough to see its many nuances. Its many pitfalls too. Maybe, growing up in the USSR has something to do with it. They have recognised his talent and made sure to keep him focused on nothing else, making his entire life about proving himself on the board and elevating himself, and them along with him. She tries to give him a hint. Maybe plant a seed in his mind so that he might better cope with whatever his reality will be three years later, or five, or ten.

 

“If you’re world champion at sixteen, what will you do with the rest of your life?”

 

There is still no recognition in his eyes as they stare blankly and uncomprehendingly at her. He takes a short while to mull it over, though, trying to make sense of what she is saying. In the end, he comes up with nothing.

 

“I don’t understand” he repeats.

 

Maybe it is to early – too young – for him to comprehend, so she resolves to give him something else before she leaves. Something he can value.

 

“You’re the best I’ve ever played.”

 

But it backfires on her. Not that Girev intended it to be so, but when she walks away from him, she cannot help but overhear what he meant to says only to himself.

 

“Until you play Borgov.”

 

A sense of dread, of predetermined and inevitable doom, races up her spine and then spreads out through her entire body, leaving no nerve untouched. She walks over to the game the Russian won last, the pieces still where they were left after his victory. She studies the frozen moment of his opponent’s defeat and cannot help but wonder if she is to experience it herself soon. Sit there, across from him, have that challenging gaze directed at her in real life, and watch as he – one move at the time – slowly corners her. To silently and helplessly observe when he makes his final move, pushing whichever piece it will be to the game’s conclusion and she will be unable to find a way out.

 

Standing there she also realises something else. While she might be mature enough to ask the questions she did of Girev, she honestly cannot answer them herself. What does lie beyond reaching the top? Would Borgov hold the answers maybe? Being on that elusive top already he must have given some thought to what will come next. No sane player wants to mimic Alekhine and die with the title, because in the world of chess that is not possible to combine with growing old. There will always be newer, fresher, and sharper minds ready to take your place as soon as you give them the slightest opening.

 

Her mother comes to her rescue. The soft notes of a piano reach her, and she recognises Alma’s talent. The emotions in the notes she creates and weaves together into spellbinding music. She finds her sitting at a piano by one of the bars, a crowd already gathered around her to hear her play. And she is so happy. Not a single trace of Manuel in her face when she smiles widely as soon as she spots her daughter and invites her to join them all. Beth stands opposite her and feels the music wash over her as Alma ends the piece and she enjoys the talent her mother possesses, but that the world kept her from. At least that will never be her own fate and she loves Alma all the more for being able to support her in that despite her own misfortune. Maybe not being able to play chess all her childhood was not the worst thing after all. Better to have this bond to rely on now than sit alone, a stranger to anything outside those sixty-four squares.

 

There is also a healthy glow to Alma, as if she has shaken off the taint of Manuel, and Beth is happy to celebrate the moment, just the two of them, and suggests they go out and eat. But a mother is always a mother and when they turn around and find the board, proclaiming for all to see that tomorrow she will play Borgov, Alma takes her upstairs to their room and does not protest when she spends most of the night reading chess books.

 

Tiredness has returned the next morning. Beth can see it in Alma’s eyes but is persuaded to get going anyway while her mother will come when the match starts. Feeling exited again about the game to come, Beth agrees and leaves the room, giving her mother a last smile on the way out, before walking over to the elevator to get down to the first floor. With her mother back to silently cheer her on, she feels ready to take on the king of chess.

 

Ending up in the corner after a few others joins her on the next floor, Beth remains unseen by the Soviets when they enter two floors below. Borgov is one of them and the two men who flanks him are also players. They are talking about her and the sight that greets her on the other side of the wall she has managed to crumble with her late-night class is unexpectedly ugly. There are no chess secrets waiting for her there. Only a twisted mirror.

 

“In Moscow, she’ll be jet-lagged. We can destroy her then” one of them says and she hardly registers that he talks about her playing in Moscow as a certainty, only that they are talking about ways to bring her down. “She’s getting better. Have to deal with her here or in Paris before she gets too strong.”

 

“There’s talk she’s a drunk” the other man says and the tentative pride she had started to feel when they first let her know they were starting to consider her a threat evaporates and opens the floodgate of shame on its way out. “Her game is almost all attack. So she doesn’t always watch her back. When she blunders, she gets angry, and can become dangerous.”

 

It is almost a compliment, but then the first man speaks again and lets her know it is nothing but an insult.

 

“Like all women.”

 

And so, it has all circled back to that. She is a woman in a world for men. Her anger cannot be seen as purely strength, but must always be tainted with the emotional imbalance men like to paint women in. To reduce them to less than themselves with. Build themselves up by pushing others down.

 

“She’s an orphan. A survivor.”

 

It is the first time she hears Borgov speak, and she finds his low baritone soothing. It pulls her in, and out of nowhere she wants him to turn around and talk to her. To ignore those two idiots by his side and give his full attention to her. But he only continues, his words laying her bare in a way she has never experienced before. Because they show an understanding on his part. That he can see beyond her weaknesses and strengths to her very core and what drives her.

 

“She’s like us. Losing is not an option for her. Otherwise, what would her life be?”

 

It hits her right in the gut – and in her heart – and the words weigh so heavily on her that she is only able to turn her gaze away from him when he turns around and sees her. She does not understand how he could possibly have noticed her presence, but somehow, he did and now his attention frightens her rather than entices her. During less than one second their gazes meet, before she instinctively turns away and breaks the contact, hindering anything from being read from her eyes. Despite keeping her secrets, her heart is hammering hard against her ribs. The briefness of their shared glance also kept her from registering the colour of his eyes and a sense of disappointment lurks somewhere in her chest, dancing around the thrashing movements of her heart and refusing to get crushed.

 

The Russians exit first once the elevator reaches the first floor, while Beth stays rooted to the spot, trying to swim back up to the surface, only making it in time to leave long after everyone else. Whatever magnetic powers Borgov has, which only seems to affect her, reactivates and she is compelled to continue her observation of him. The twins join her and gives her a much-needed sense of support. The game waits just around the corner now as she has never been more certain of anything in her life than that she will have to reach a new top in her skills if she is to come out victorious. But knowing she has people actually cheering for her, and not just as comrades, does help. And this time her mother will finally come and watch her play again.

 

She is the first to arrive, already sitting at the table when Borgov makes his entrance. For whatever reason, it takes her by surprise when he offers her his hand to shake. But maybe it has something to do with finally seeing the blue of his eyes. Just like the rest of him, they give nothing away, yet she can sense a depth in them that is both alluring and frightening at the same time. She imagines that he has seen even more of the horrors this world has to offer than her but has learned to hide it. Or she selfishly and cruelly wishes it to be so because the alternative, that he is simply empty, is much worse.

 

He proceeds to adjust his white pieces into perfect alignment – making her guess this is where Girev got the habit from - before looking up at her, but she has already lowered her eyes to the board, scared to meet his gaze. Because, if he could read her so well before they had even met, what truths will he be able to find in such close proximity? Even so, she offers him a few seconds of eye contact before she starts his clock, but the emotionless façade she is met with once she braves a glance gives her nothing in return. At least she knows – or hopes – it is only a front. Because she has seen hints of feelings there before, when he was unaware of the presence of one of his opponents. When he thought no one but his family – along with what she now knows to be the ever-present KGB agents – could see him.

 

Then he makes his first move and his eyes never rise from the board again. He calmly leads her into an opening they are both well acquainted with, but it has barely begun when he does something unexpected, throwing her off completely and leaving her out in deep waters when she had both her feet firmly planted in what she thought was nothing more than a shallow pond the moment before. She is sucked down into the coldness and even the pills cannot help her see clearly enough.

 

She remembers his board the day before and wondering if she would experience him making that final move against her and she would look at their pieces and find no way out. Never could she have imagined that he was capable of making that move on his third turn and force her to play through an entire game after or lose everyone’s respect forever.

 

Not that she believed it would have been impossible to get out of her predicament, but she just knew that it was not within her power.

 

Not now.

 

Not yet.

 

Still, she plays on, knowing she would not get another chance to face him again for a long time and also not entirely willing to admit the inevitable defeat. She looks at him from time to time, somehow knowing she will not risk meeting his eyes. He is so calm. So sure of his victory. She gets the sense that he knew it was his the same moment she did and all he has done since is to play her right into the very corner she now finds herself in.

 

Glancing to the side, she sees the still empty chair she asked Matt and Mike to keep for her mother and the sense of loneliness and cold abandonment is what finally breaks her. Mr Shaibel appears before her, telling her with this echo of his action of so many years ago, that it is time to resign. She has lost too much on both the board and outside it to go on.

 

She gives him the honour of toppling her king more out of stubborn spite than anything. Her frustration of playing against the wall he has put up between them, along with finally arriving at this moment – her defeat - they have both known would inevitably happen for more or less the entire game, is too much and she leaves as soon as she can. The moment their handshake is over, her eyes firmly beside his face rather than on it, she is gone.

 

Finding herself back in her and Alma’s room, she can vent her feelings, pulling off her clothes as she does so, wanting to be rid of everything that can remind her of the ordeal she has just been put through. Losing to Benny, while a hard pill to swallow at the time, was nothing compared to this. Benny had deployed mind games, which lessened the pride he could feel over his win, and she had still been an active part in their game until the end, while Borgov had cut her off at the ankles and not so much as looked at her while he did it.

 

He had made her feel invisible.

 

Insignificant.

 

But not worthless.

 

His words in the elevator, spoken without knowing she was there to hear and understand, have given her a glimmer of hope. He has seen some value in her. Something more than an emotional woman. Something more than a liability to both herself and others.

 

Alma’s silence does not register with her while she continues her rant, laying out her defeat in all its gruesomeness. It is not until she sits down on the bed, where her mother lies, saying she’s happy, in the end, that Alma was not there to see it – and almost believes it herself – and puts her hand on her leg that she feels it. Feels the unresponsive stiffness of what is now nothing more than a body that lies behind her. She is hesitant to turn around and confirm her suspicion, so afraid it will be like the first time she saw a body that used to be her mother.

 

How could it possibly have happened again? Why did not one but two mothers leave her alone in the world?

 

She does turn around, approaching the face that is obscured by the shadows and turns on the light. It is worse this time. When she was nine, she was too young to fully understand and kept far enough away by the men in uniform to register more than the body and know who it used to be. This time, she gets to stare directly in those empty eyes and take in the full meaning behind them. Life and soul have left Alma.

 

Mother. Why have you left me? I don’t want to be alone.

 

Chapter Text

Mr Wheatley is less than useful to put it mildly. He does not hesitate to show how little he cares about what has happened and how eager he is to dump the entire handling of it in Beth’s lap. A teenager asked – more like told - by her adoptive father to arrange the entirety of her mother’s funeral. His indifference will at least let her continue the lie that she’s living with a married couple long enough to reach her eighteenth birthday at the beginning of November and be fully free at long last. No more being a doll. No more fathers that leave. No more mothers that die. Only Beth. All on her own.

 

Why is that not a comforting thought?

 

The doctor who comes to the room to examine Alma’s body unexpectedly gives her a piece of information she is sure to take full advantage of before her journey home. How could she not. Feelings are exhausting and there are too many of them swirling around, out of control, right now. Going down to the pharmacy in the hotel, she buys as many green pills as she can, then stays in her room until she can return home, Alma making the journey in a coffin while she sits next to an empty seat, trying to cope.

 

She is alone and she wants to close her eyes.

 

At least the hotel has pulled through for her, though, and helped as much as they could with arranging everything, including locating that family spot. By the time she boards that new flight, it is all set for her to travel there directly. She spends the night at a local hotel, where she stays until closing time in their small bar, doing her best to drown her sorrow and dull the terrible ache in her heart.

 

It is no one but her and the minister at the funeral. Them and the two grave diggers that stand off to the side, one of them leaning on his shovel, ready to fill the gaping hole in the earth that has swallowed her mother whole. If only the rift in her soul could be filled as easily. Or at least be hidden. No matter how much grass that will grow on top, it will always and forever be a grave. The final resting place of Alma Wheatley and a part of Beth’s heart. Eternally bound together in their loneliness.

 

The rain appropriately pours when she gets back to the blue house. It feels hollower than a home now, as if something vital is missing, and she is desperate to fill it with something. Anything. She herself is not enough. Because she has not loved or been loved enough in life to be able to turn a house into a home on her own. And now she has no one left to love. They have all left, one way or the other.

 

She remembers her first mother in that moment and what that woman thought of fear and loneliness. Alice had told her that someday she would find herself alone and that only the bravest people could handle that and keep everyone else, who would be eager to tell them what to do and how to feel, at bay. Beth does not feel brave. She feels overwhelmed.

 

Before she can break down over the coffee cup left on the table in the living room, Alma’s lipstick still on it as if she had just put it down instead of forgetting it there in their haste to get to the airport, the phone rings. Tired from travel and grief she moves slowly into the kitchen to pick it up, half hoping whoever it is will hang up before she reaches it so she can remain alone, and the other half hoping someone waiting to save her from herself waits on the other end.

 

“Hello?”

 

“Beth Harmon?”

 

She does not recognize the voice and fears it might be some reporter, overeager in interviewing her on her loss to Borgov, or, God forbid, the death of her mother. Not that the latter ought to have become common knowledge so soon, but who knows.

 

“Yes.”

 

“Uh, this is Harry Beltik. Uh, from the Kentucky State Tournament.”

 

“No, I remember” she replies.

 

And she does. How can she ever forget her first big win, after all. The win that unlocked and opened the door to the national level for her. No, she will never forget the people who gave her the keys required to move further and further into the world of chess. Mr Shaibel, twice, Harry Beltik, and in a way even Benny Watts, because her tie with him did give her the latest. Borgov… well, he had kept on to his key and she had no idea if she would ever be able to wrestle it from him now. There is still too much pain to think on the matter clearly. Planning ahead is impossible.

 

“I hear you dropped one to Borgov” Beltik continues, unaware that he is poking her still open wound, threatening to make it start bleeding again. She is already too close herself to make it fester. Only the lack of vindictiveness in his voice keeps her on the line. She is that desperate for human interaction. Also, the fact that he sounds entirely sincere when he continues. “I wanted to give condolences.”

 

“Thanks.”

 

She takes it to mean for Alma, her mother, even if she knows that is not his intention. The confession of what happened after – or rather during – the game is at the tip of her tongue, begging to be shared with someone beside Mr Wheatley, but he is the one to break the silence, derailing her before she could even start.

 

“What were you playing, white?”

 

Straight back to chess it seems. But maybe it will be a good enough distraction, she thinks and goes along.

 

“Black.”

 

“Oh, it’s-it’s better that way. I mean if you’re gonna lose.”

 

“Suppose so” Beth replies, neither her heart nor mind really in the conversation.

 

“What did you play?”

 

“Closed Sicilian.”

 

“Rossolimo? Really?” Beltik asks and she can her the surprise in his voice. He is so expressive despite her monotone.

 

“I let him do it to me” she confesses, eager to finally get at least part of it off her chest to someone who might understand. Or at the very least listen. Since her mother’s death, she has had no one to really talk to and no matter the calmness the green pills or alcohol can give her, she now feels how short they can fall when compared to the warmth of a human being. Being alone feels less and less like the strength her first mother promised. More a weight than a freedom.

 

“That’s a mistake” he says, entirely superfluously. Of course, it was a mistake. She already knew as much as soon as he had made that move and torn down her hours upon hours of preparation. “Uh, look, I’m in Lexington for the summer, and I thought maybe…”

 

“Maybe what?” she asks when he trails off. Had her victory knocked the cockiness out of him so well he still has not regained it? She can still remember his dismissively late he arrived to their game which very nearly unnerved her enough to lose because of it. But there was also his smile after her victory. That meant something. Still does.

 

“Would you like some training? I-I know… I know you’re better than me. But if you’re gonna play the Soviets, you need help.”

 

This has her intrigued and suddenly she wants to talk with him in person, not just over the phone. She needs human interaction, and this is her chance. The fact that she had no one beside Alma is made so stark now that she is gone and she needs to soften the blow and blunt the edges before her heart is completely destroyed.

 

“Where are you?”

 

When she asks for it, he agrees to come over directly. As soon as she hangs up, she dashes back into the living room, picks up the cup, and goes into the kitchen to wash it before she has time to really think about it. The tears blur her sight when the last remains of colour disappear, washed away and never coming back, swallowed whole by the swirling water at the bottom of the sink and forever gone, gone, gone, but she manages to keep from outright crying. There is no time for such things now. Hopefully, the green pills will be enough for it to never be time for it again.

 

He drives an old dark car and has a box full of chess books in the trunk he brings with him inside. She has read most of them and from their ensuing conversation, while she fixes sandwiches for them, he lets her know how important he thinks they are. That going only by intuition is not always going to work and that learning from the past, knowing how others have responded to various situations on the board, can be what gets her out of a tight spot. Even intuition needs inspiration.

 

It bothers her when he brings up her game against Watts, it still smarts even if she has got over the worst of it. Maybe if she had won against Borgov she could forgive her co-champion fully. But she did not. And she will not.

 

Maybe, she realises with a sour taste in her mind, that is why she attempts to diminish the giant that is the Russian when she says she is convinced Capablanca would have won every game against him. Because she is much more reminiscent of the old grandmaster’s style and if he could do it, surely so could she. With a little practice that is. And by building herself up mentally so she can survive the cold fortress that is his façade next time. Beltik in not prepared to play along in her fantasy. At least not all the way and only agrees that he would have won most. But what does he know?

 

He’s lucky he shows her that potential sequence in her old game or her friendliness might have come to an end. Even if he did get it from a book. She still does not take defeat well and despite knowing how unfair it is to take it out on someone else, it is hard to resist and a petty part of her enjoys the sense of power it gives her, no matter if it is an illusion.

 

When he leaves, the house is once more hauntingly empty. She tries distracting herself with some TV, unequal to facing spending the night in her bed, knowing the room across the hall is empty. She does not want to close her eyes any longer. She wants to keep them wide open. Forever. But the show that is on is so reminiscent of what Alma, the mother that counted most in the end, used to enjoy and it is hard to keep the re-emerging tears away. Soon, her cheeks are wet without her permission while Alma’s laugh is only heard in her memory.

 

Beltik comes back the next morning, helping her to forget again. They play five games, and she beats him every single time. Still, it feels good to play without the whole world of chess on her shoulders and surrounded by so many people who will talk about her and analyse her game once she is done. Once she has triumphed yet again or at long last run into a guard capable of blocking her way. She cannot tell which they enjoy more and only started caring once the option emerged after her winning streak came to an end.

 

He starts asking her about her strategies then and she cannot think why they are so important when he, who uses them, still loses to her, who does not.

 

“I’m a master” he says then, “and I’ve never played better in my life.”

 

“So modest” she interrupts, not able to hide her amusement. Or maybe it is glee.

 

“But I’m nowhere close to what you’ll face in Paris” he goes on, unperturbed.

 

“I could beat Borgov with a little more work” she insists, determined to keep building herself up. To make herself believe the illusion. The lie.

 

But Beltik is no longer interested in playing along. Not even a little.

 

“You can beat Borgov with a lot more work. Years more work. Borgov’s not some Kentucky ex-champion like me. He is a world champion who could have beaten both of us when he was ten” he says, sending her crashing back down to earth.

 

She knows some of his words come from his own playing. His own level. He could not fathom beating someone like Borgov without that much practice. Maybe even never. But it also whispers to that truth at the back of her mind she so desperately tries to push away. She needs to feel on top of the world right now, because her true feelings are too painful. She needs to feel that she lost by such a small margin that she can easily catch up. She needs to feel that the world is hers for the taking because she has nothing left. Nothing but that world consisting of sixty-four squares and they are all that keeps her eyes open. But her hands are so empty, with no mother to grasp hold of any longer. She needs to fill them with something, but pills and bottles seem to be her only options at the moment.

 

“Do you even know his career?”

 

“No” she admits.

 

“Read it” Beltik says and hands her a book she has not read already. Not that she was unaware of it. More that it had scared her. That he had scared her.

 

And there he is. That stern and impossibly collected face, looking straight at her. Intimidating her. Challenging her. Drawing her in. Opening that book feels like opening up his mind and she is afraid of what she will find inside. They had been joking, her and the twins, when they said Borgov might just be a machine, but she realises that is how she has thought of him. Despite that glimpse of humanity at the zoo, and when he defended her in the elevator, he has always been the Russian to her. More an object than a real person. And that book, it will tell her that he did not start his life on the assembly line in some Soviet chess factory. That he was once a small boy who turned out to be a prodigy and dedicated himself to it.

 

Just like her.

 

However, Beltik then goes on to urge her to read about his games. Because to Beltik, who has never played or even met the man, that is still all he is. An object to be studied and learned from. Somehow, it makes it easier for her to accept to book. To decide to read it. Maybe she can skip the man too, and only focus on how to beat him.

 

He leaves to go to the bathroom and suddenly the book burns her, as if only his presence was capable of keeping its danger dormant. Eager to distract herself, she puts on the radio and when one of her favourite songs starts, she begins to dance. Maybe she can get Beltik to join her. Like Alma had her join that one time. The tears burn at the memory and she blinks rapidly and dances with more abandon to dispel them. But when he reappears, there is something in his eyes. A seriousness that was not there before and she has no idea what to think about it.

 

“Radio’s a little loud, don’t you think” is all he says.

 

“Come on. I’ll turn it down after this. I just… I love this song” she says and tries to entice her into joining her with what she hopes is an alluring movement of her hips, but he simply remains standing where he is.

 

She tries a different strategy then and sits by the chess board. Surely there must be some way to remove whatever is in his eyes.

 

“My mother died” she blurts out before her brain can catch up.

 

Even if he already stood still, she can see the difference between that and him freezing at the spot. She has no idea how long he stands like that and she sits equally still, her confession locking them both in place. Eventually he slowly blinks and exhales for so long she almost expects his lungs to come out of his mouth at the end.

 

“I’m so sorry” he says after a second blink, this one faster. “I had no idea. I though… maybe she was away somewhere.”

 

“No. She’s dead. Died while I played Borgov. I came back to our room and managed to tell her all about it before I even noticed. It was all so stupid.”

 

Beltik looks like he wants to say something but cannot put the words together. He even makes a small movement as if to walk over to her but aborts it before he has even lifted his foot off the floor. It is that uncertainty in him she has felt from the start. A hesitancy as to how to approach or even talk to her as soon as they stray outside the safe and familiar topic of chess. It is a trait she recognises in herself, she realises, and it makes her loath him, if only for the moment. She wants him there to help her forget. Not as a mirror.

 

As if he can see the sudden shift in her emotions, he looks down at the floor, mumbles something about seeing what they can make for dinner and beats a hasty retreat to the kitchen. It makes her feel awful. Guilty. Like a burden. All familiar feeling.

 

The rest of the afternoon and evening she does what she can to make it up to him. But never by apologising. For how can you apologise to someone for how they made you feel, even if it was unintentionally? He says he is sorry for her loss again just before he leaves but does not ask about it. About what happened when her heart got ripped in two. About how it feels to be seventeen and all alone in the world. About her plans for the future. About if she has any at all. Nothing.

 

She takes possession of the master bedroom that night, but needs such a distraction from what it makes bubble underneath her surface that she picks up and starts reading the burning book. It takes barely a minute for her to be swallowed whole by it and sink down deep into the life of her greatest adversary. She picks up the habit of smoking at the same time. Maybe because she wants to feel closer to her mother or maybe because if the book burns so much it will be made easier if she’s burning along with it. Maybe, it is both.

 

What ends up sticking to her the most is something mentioned by the great Luchenko, who has written a preface. Not that the fact that the two men clearly know each other – might even be friends – is not interesting in itself, but the fact that the former World Champion discusses Borgov’s given name, making him more human and more object at the same time, is what makes its way into both her mind and her heart. Vasily means king, and just like Luchenko writes, she finds it so fitting. He is the king of the world of chess and has complete mastery of the board and the pieces around him so that he can protect himself. Keep the game that is his life going. Keep everyone else praising him while they envy his riches. Keep her wanting to reach him. Play against him. Win against him. Conquer him.

 

Beth, on the other hand, aspires to become a queen. She prefers the mobility and the endless possibilities of attack it affords her. She could never be stale on the board, always relying on the other pieces for survival. And sooner or later, the queen will reach the king and it will be mate.

 

Beltik comes by the next day again, playing through games he has read about and talking about those games and the people who played them at the same time, while she fixes their dinner. He makes an awkward joke, which is so is keeping with the rest of him, and Beth barely manages a smile. She thinks she has figured out why he has sought her out after all these years, yet his shyness and sweetness keep him from taking that final step. Because his reason is beyond chess.

 

Even so, when he tells her this is their last day, because the next, he is moving into his apartment and will be busy with other things, she panics. He is the only person in her life now and without him the house will be empty all the time, not just during the nights.

 

She offers him to move in and he responds by leaning in and kissing her. It takes her completely unawares and for a short while, she has no idea of what to do. The fear wins out and she leans into it. Decides to give him a chance. Maybe, just maybe, this sweet and awkward young man might be what she needs.

 

It is not, though. She finds this out not long after, in bed of all places. His hesitancy follows him in between the sheets, and it all ends the way she had thought her first time would go, with her partner finding completion and leaving her without. She cannot even muster up a façade of enthusiasm when they are done and he asks if he should stay or go. Instead, she silently picks up Borgov’s book and hopes he will take the hint. At least the book makes her feel something.

 

Beltik goes back to what used to be her room and she stays with the Russian.

 

As if they have somehow all agreed to get in line to meet her, another person from her past she had no expectation of ever seeing again makes an appearance the next day. She has gone over to Ben Snyder’s in another hunt for distraction when Beltik continues to offer only chess as a palatable option.

 

It is funny how she always seems to seek out the places that will remind her the most of her mother when doing this. At least spending money always makes her feel powerful and in control.

 

Looking around in the lingerie section, she is interrupted by a voice from behind.

 

“Beth? Beth Harmon?”

 

She cannot place the woman who pushes a daughter somewhere between a baby and a toddler in a pram in front of her, though she is vaguely familiar.

 

“Margaret Neil” the woman reminds her, and it clicks. She guesses that it might be seeing her in a shop she not all that long ago swore she would not be caught dead in or that silly hat on her head that made it so hard to recognise her old tormentor. “Well, Margaret Johnson now. Fairfield High?”

 

“Margaret. Right. Hi” she responds, completely at a loss as to how to handle the situation.

 

“Mike and I tied the knot right after graduation” Margaret continues, maybe to explain her new name. Maybe to explain why she already has a child.

 

“Congratulations” is all Beth can think of to say.

 

“Not long after, we were blessed with this little one” the woman in the pink barely-a-hat says and Beth reads between the lines. Alma never had reason to worry about her daughter, but it seems Mrs Neil had.

 

“What’s her name” she asks, happy to go along with this line of conversation since children are easy enough to talk about when they belong to others. There is a whole range of acceptable questions one can use without looking like one is grasping at straws.

 

“Jean, after Mike’s grandmother.”

 

Beth never had a grandmother. Or a grandfather.

 

“I read about you” Margaret goes on, pulling all those lovely questions away, along with the rug. “The chess and the traveling. It must be exciting.”

 

“It is.”

 

Especially so when a single trip has her losing to the one person she wants to beat the most, as well as losing her mother. She must deflect now, or she might just end up crying in front of Margaret. And she would rather die than do something like that.

 

“Being around all those boys is a real thrill.”

 

This time it is the other young woman who looks perplexed and Beth who needs to explain herself. Why could they not have stayed on the topic of children?

 

“You wanted to know what the boys were like, if I dated any of them.”

 

Still no reaction, and Beth just wants to get out of there. Preferably five minutes ago.

 

“That time I came over to you house with the Apple Pis.”

 

Finally Margaret remembers, but any chance of a friendly conversation is now gone. Probably was not a possibility even at the start.

 

“Oh! Gosh! That seems, uh… like a million years ago, doesn’t it?”

 

It feels like an insult. Like Beth has been hung up on that night and their dynamic in school while Margaret has moved on. But then she hears the tone in the young mother’s voice when she talks to little Jean and the clinking of bottles when she moves the pram, and she sees the truth. Margaret is the one who obsesses over that now gone time. The one where she was on top of the world and the future must have seemed so bright. Instead, she is stuck as a housewife – only realising it is not as fulfilling as she had dreamed of – while the girl she saw as beneath her back then has gone on to make a national name for herself. Is still rising. Still on her way to the top. A much higher top.

 

It all ends with a ‘it was nice to see you’ and ‘you too’ and even if she uttered one of them, Beth is still not sure if they were sincere or not. Either of them.

 

Beltik further sours her day that night when he starts talking about the madness some young chess players in the past fell victim to. He’s too graceless, too filled up with names, dates, and games to successfully hide what he’s really talking about. Or rather who. And when he wisely drops the topic, he unwisely exchanges it with one even more prickly.

 

Townes.

 

Townes, the pictures he took of her, and wondering if they were… No. Best not to think about that.

 

She quickly shuts that lane down, but he is not done. Instead, he seems bound and determined to make this day worse and worse and she can feel her precious hold on patience slipping out of her hands, like water. The greasy and soapy dishwater that his hands were just immersed in. Impossible to hold on to, but not leaving her clean either.

 

“Truth is… I was waiting for you to come back. You’re the reason I got my teeth fixed.”

 

No. This is too much. He simply cannot do this to her. Unload this on her and expect her to carry it. To carry him. Yes, he is sweet and kind and will probably make some lucky woman a good husband one day, but that can never be her. Because he is too sweet and too kind for her. She would crush him with her inability to reciprocate and growing resentment. No, she must have someone who can be firm with her, not back away and make excuses when she tries to lash out. Or even worse, when she tries to flee.

 

The only thing to do is to stop him right now before he can take his sweet and kind confession any further and damn them both beyond salvation. So, she tries to bring back his previous words, pointing out that there were young genius players who did not go mad. She can see the disappointment in his eyes, but also the acceptance. He is not even going to try fighting for her, futile though it may be. Maybe he is cleverer than she gave him credit for.

 

She tries to flee his company then and the only thing he can do to stop her is suggesting they play chess. It is enough for the time it takes her to beat him a few times. It will never be enough for longer.

 

Her third meeting with a person from her past, though not so distantly, is initiated by herself when she goes over to Bradley’s to buy two packs of Chesterfields, having run out of what her mother had left behind. It is not hard to see that he recognises her, but she had never expected that he had known, for all those years without saying a word, that she stole that first magazine. That first ‘Chess Review’ that reopened that world for her. At least he takes it in good humour when she leaves her change with him to pay for it.

 

Then comes the moment both she and Beltik realise he has nothing more to teach her. His ability to read the boards is nowhere near hers and they have talked and played their way through all of his books by now. The ones he deemed important enough at least.

 

“You’re too sharp for me” he admits, but not in good humour. Not with any sweetness or kindness. It is the last time she sees him that day.

 

She sees him one last time the next morning, before he leaves. And for whatever reason, he finds his courage to stand up to her just as he is about to walk out the door, telling her that he does not think she might end up like Morphy, but that she has already become him, driving home the point so hard it actually hurts her. He ends with the revelation that he knows about the green pills and asks her to be careful.

 

It does not stop him from leaving. Probably more reason than deterrent.

 

Watching a man walk out of her life is nothing new. She can even derive some satisfaction in thinking about him as a boy instead. But it is a hollow victory that tastes bitter.

 

Somehow, she survives on her own until it is time for the championship in Ohio. At least his words help her keep away from both the pills and the alcohol most of the time. But not always, and less and less.

 

She takes the time to read the few books Beltik introduced to her she had not yet found on her own and even manages to get a hold of Watts’ own book before it is time to go.

 

The tournament is to take place at a university and the contrast between the lecture hall and Las Vegas is stark to say the least. Watts, after they meet inside the disappointing hall, even comments on it, after making sure to remind her of her loss to Borgov. He is still up to his mind games it seems. She is better prepared this time.

 

“Highest-rated players in the whole fucking country, and yet here we are at some second-rate university, playing on cheap plastic boards with cheap plastic pieces.”

 

She shares his sentiment but is careful not to let him know. Better he thinks her comfortable in this environment and worry about the advantage it will give her.

 

“You should see the places they play at in the Soviet Union” he says after belittling the audience, barely making sure not to be overheard by them.

 

“I’m planning on it” she is quick to reply.

 

“You have to get past me first” he delights in reminding her.

 

“I’m planning on that, too” she says, not even looking at him before walking away.

 

Mind games can go both ways.

 

It is inevitable that they meet in the final game. But what few people are aware of - at least of those in a position to report on it in newspapers or magazines to let more people in on the secret – is that they play a number of games the night before. Games of speed chess. When taking a break from her preparations she walks to a cafeteria on campus, where he already sits with two other players she has a niggling feeling she ought to remember. Turns out she beat both of them the day before.

 

Watts asks for her to analyse what move to do next in his game against on of the others. She has already forgotten his name again. Then he talks her into playing speed chess. And play for money no less.

 

She loses every single one, but she has a surprising amount of fun while doing it. It reminds her that the game is not always life-and-death. It can be amusing at times, make her feel more alive than she has in far too long, when her future does not depend on it. And as paradoxical as it sounds, it makes her feel like she has created a bond with her still co-champion.

 

Besides, this time she does win when it counts. Her co-champion status turns into that of a lone victor.

 

The audience is the largest it has been during the tournament, maybe a fifth of the seats in the front half filled with the other players, a handful of journalists, and the rest being curious students, some of whom might very well play chess for the university.

 

She plays black and takes the time to stare him down for a few second before starting his clock.  He starts in a way that she is sure he thinks will surprise her, but she is ready and makes her move without hesitation. The game progresses at the same pace for the next ten moves and the board is set for the bloodbath to begin.

 

Her opponent still looks like his usual cocky self and is seemingly oblivious to the way she has placed her bishop. Not until three moves later when he has just moved one of his pawns and opened himself up for attack does he see it and for the first time she gets to see apprehension flicker in his eyes.

 

They take piece after piece from each other, she even lets him trade queens at one point to keep him blind to her real strategy, and it pays off. In only thirty moves his position is so hopeless he has to give up. Going on at that point would only seem petulant, and that is a look Benny Watts would wear even worse than his stupid cowboy-pirate getup and no doubt rather die than be seen in. Beth can sympathise, even if she has shown it herself. When she lost to Borgov. But it only drives home the point that she never wants to be seen like that again.

 

Benny, as she feels comfortable to call him now, and not just as a sassy reply when he grants himself the freedom to call her Beth, proves the bond of last night true when he, despite his repressed frustration, invites her to a local bar to talk over beer.

 

“What are you gonna do about Borgov?” he asks her in an obvious attempt to steer the topic away from his loss after a few minutes of discussing their game.

 

Somehow it feels so strange to hear the World Champion’s name in Benny’s uncaring American drawl. It is a name she is used to hear with a level of reverence. Even when she speaks it in her own head. To also be reminded of her defeat just after her big win that day is threatening to unbalance her. Steal her joy and send her straight into memories of the other thing she lost that terrible day.

 

“I don’t even have a passport. Or the right clothes. I hear it’s pretty cold in Paris that time of year” she replies, trying to make light of it, but also give herself excuses. Excuses for why she might lose. For why she might not go at all. For why she should just stay home and continue losing her battle against alcohol. Though it is not much of a battler when she is so eager to feel her head buzzing with it.

 

“Oh no. I’m not talking about Paris. I’m talking about Moscow.”

 

That gets her attention.

 

“What, do they not deliver mail in Kentucky?” he asks, and she cannot determine if he is just joking or making fun of her for not knowing.

 

“What’s in Moscow?” she cannot resist asking regardless.

 

“The Moscow Invitational. The US winner gets invited. You didn’t know that?”

 

Now she definitely feels like he is mocking her, and she turns away from him to order more beer before she feels equal to face him again. She asks him about how to get to Moscow, but her drinking habits have somehow entered the conversation too. He clearly disapproves of them and echoes Beltik’s prophecy of her burning out tragically young if she keeps on her current path.

 

But then they get back to Paris when he asks her how far into the future that tournament is. And, in an almost ridiculously circumspect way, he offers to train her until she has to leave. The condition: she has to go with him to New York, where she will sleep in his living room. Also, sex is apparently off the table.

 

Beth finds it acceptable.

 

The journey goes by car, but despite the many hours it requires, boredom never enters the picture. They play chess without a board and she is thrilled to be with someone capable of it. And between games she teaches him some Russian, even if he forgets the words even quicker than he learns them.

 

The only problem she sees is that she has trouble to separate this bond of friendship Benny has offered from her hope that it will become more. His sharp mind, more or less on the same level as her own, attracts her. It also does not hurt that he sees through her bull and calls her out on it too. Beside their shared interest in chess, he is the opposite of Beltik and just what she needs. No doubt about it.

 

Right?

 

Chapter Text

When Benny shows her his apartment, she cannot help but think him a little hypocritical. He complained about the university they just played at while living in a tight space in the basement that is as far from glamorous as she has ever seen. Not that it lacks style. Well, his style anyway. The inclusion of every ‘Chess Review’, or other magazine, he has been on the cover of is also not entirely surprising. It goes so well with his flamboyant persona, always wanting to call attention to himself by his manners, his clothes, and his relative fame.

 

The inflatable mattress on the floor does make her pause, but she knows it is a price she is willing to pay in the end. The placement of the shower almost makes her walk out the next morning, yet she still stays.

 

Playing through games of the past with Benny is different from doing it with Beltik. He is able to read the board in the same way she does and she can learn something new from a topic she thought had been exhausted.

 

Not that she always feels excited over it. So many of the masters and grandmasters they echo play so dry, unimaginative, and bureaucratic she has avoided them in the past, but now she has to confront them all. Benny helps her through it, though, and she starts to grow, one boring game at a time.

 

It does surprise her when they become more bearable, and she can start to see the merit - sometimes even beauty – in their meticulously calculated moves. Maybe it is simply her growing and maturing. Worse things have happened.

 

He also lets her in on a fact her lessons in Russian could never have taught her. The way the Russians play. Not their dry, unimaginative, and bureaucratic style, but their teamplay. For someone who has been on her own most of her life, all of her bonds turning out to be fleeting in the end, it is a revelation.

 

Envy flares up in her. For all the friends and acquaintances she has made since entering the chess world the second time, not once has she felt her playing being supported by any of them. Well, Beltik did his best but fell short in the end, and maybe by Benny now, but it is still too new to count. Too new to feel confident it could last.

 

To find such companionship in chess seems a dream.

 

“Did you ever play him?” Beth asks one day while they take a break to eat lunch.

 

“Who?” Benny asks before taking another bite of the simple spaghetti with tomato sauce she managed to scramble together for them. Cooking has never been her strongest point, even if she is proficient enough to survive with some variations in flavours.

 

“Borgov” she clarifies, only playing with her food now, too anxious about the topic to focus on anything else.

 

“Twice” he replies. “First time in… lets see… 64, in Belgrade, about a year after he took the title from Luchenko, and the second at the Moscow Invitational in 65. Beat me quite badly both times. Luckily, I haven’t ended up at any of the same tournaments as him outside of that since I refuse to take part in the stupid Olympics.”

 

“Did he… did he look at you while you played?”

 

“Hm?” he asks, mouth full of spaghetti and she cannot help but smile at the sight of it. How his cheeks balloons while his lips are pressed tightly together to keep it from escaping when he makes that small sound.

 

“During your games, did he ever look at you once it started, or did he only look at the board?” she repeats her question to give him the time to chew and swallow without choking.

 

He tilts his head to the side, eyes drifting up towards the ceiling in thought while he ponders the past. It annoys her that he cannot recall such a thing more clearly and makes her feel silly for asking. At least he does take it seriously, even if the topic seems to be outside of what he finds interesting.

 

“You know, he didn’t. He just shook my hand, moved his pieces into some damned perfectly straight line and then started my clock. Didn’t look at me a single time the entire game. Made me feel quite insignificant. At least the first time. Second time I was more prepared. What, did he do that to you in Mexico?”

 

“Yes. Do you think it’s a tactic or that he simply does not care who he plays against?”

 

Once more, Benny remains silent in thought for a while, yet this time he looks at her, as if searching for the answer in her face rather than in his own mind. Uncomfortable under such scrutiny she fidgets on the chair before taking a forkful of spaghetti, just to have something to do.

 

“You’re worried he’ll do the same in Paris and that it might psych you out.”

 

It is not a question.

 

“Yes” she finds herself admitting, after painfully swallowing the food too quickly.

 

“Then just ignore him right back. He’s not the end all be all of chess, Beth. There have been other World Champions before him, and there will be others after. Heck, as much as it pains me to say, you might be one of them. Sure, his title does give you some extra prestige if you win, but it also lessens the blow if you lose. It’s really a win-win situation for you while all the pressure’s on him” he explains, poking the air with his now empty fork to underline his point.

 

“I guess” she agrees reluctantly.

 

What he says is true, but it is also not her point. To her, Borgov is not just another player or problem to be solved. She has glimpsed his humanity and after that his cold indifference hurts. She wants him to see her as a human too, and not as just another opponent. What he said in the elevator indicated that he did, but his demeanour during their game spoke of the reverse. It is difficult to not know which speaks most faithfully about his real character. But it is clear Benny will not understand, so she drops the subject and asks him what game he intends for them to play after he has helped her with the dishes. He frowns at the last part but raises no objections other than that. All the while, she tries to think of a way to startle the World Champion out of his impassiveness.

 

Then comes the night that will end up destroying her in Paris, undoing all the hard work she has managed with the help of Benny over the past days and the days to come.

 

He has invited a few friends over, two of them chess players and the third person something else entirely. A wildcard that will open the door to self-destruction for her. Not push her through, no, she walks through on her own, but still present her with the choice.

 

Hilton Wexler and Grandmaster Arthur Levertov enter first, both of them carrying two bottles of alcohol. The three young men interact in a way that displays the friendship they obviously share while they move around in the small apartment in that dance called camaraderie Beth has never been invited to join, leaving the third guest to make introductions on her own.

 

“Hello, Beth” one of the most elegant women she has ever seen greets her with in a mild French accent that only adds to her instant charm. Without hesitation she goes in for following up with kissing her cheeks in that way Beth has heard they do in Europe but never found out if it was true or not, until now. “I’m Cleo.”

 

“Hi” is all she manages, a bit flustered by the woman who seems to be everything she sometimes wishes she herself could be.

 

Wexler interrupts by asking her to take a look at a chess problem and she can move past the moment Cleo unintentionally just left her stuck in. She solves it easily, impressing the man opposite her while her thoughts on such things are reaffirmed. Cleo then asks if she wants a drink and it is hard to say no, but she does, glancing over at Benny and seeing his approval. It means more now than when they play chess, but she is still reminded of the increasing physicality his approval has taken since they got there. The occasional hand on her shoulder and the one time he even let it linger there, after she had found a particularly clever move. For a man who said there would be no sex before they set out on their journey, he has given her many mixed signals by now.

 

Helping Cleo make the food while the guys are up to their own devises gives her the chance to get to know her better. Hoping for a good conversation starter, she asks which of the two male guests she is there with. The answer is somewhat innocent and somewhat not, but mostly vague. Enough to encourage a continuation.

 

“How do you all know each other?”

 

“A sad story” is the surprising reply, “involving me, a bad breakup, and a walk through le Jardin du Luxembourg, where those two stopped me from killing myself.”

 

Being startled is the only way to respond to such a tale, short as it is, and Beth looks up at the other woman, trying to see if it could possibly be true.

 

“Like I say, a sad story” Cleo confirms, but still manages to smile. “But as I walked past, Arthur and Hilton were having a violent argument over a chessboard, and I became mesmerized by their passion. Well, that’s how they tell it, anyway.”

 

Beth finds the twist at the end utterly charming and for a moment she can enjoy sharing a laugh with her elegant companion before the accurate story makes its entrance and an entirely different feeling than joy takes over.

 

“No, the truth is Benny was there, and I became mesmerized by Benny.”

 

Cleo easily sees the new emotion in her and is quick to reassure her.

 

“Over and done.”

 

Still, Beth is anxious to change the topic.

 

“What do you do?” she asks. It is a safe enough question, though she suspects there are many things that are usually safe that Cleo can turn dangerous. If only she had remembered that in Paris.

 

“Guess.”

 

The answer has been there ever since the woman entered the apartment - at least in Beth’s eyes - for how could someone be so elegant, chic even, and not be involved in fashion? Once more, Cleo takes her belief and turns it on its head, letting her know that the life of a model is not some lofty lifestyle worth aspiring to. At least if one’s head is already filled with talent. A model must be an empty canvas that a designer or photographer can paint their picture on.

 

She is challenged to a simultaneous the moment she places the food on the coffee table in front of the men, who have sequestered themselves around it. She agrees so long as they make is speed chess and even bets money on it to entice Benny into agreeing.

 

This time, it is she who wins every game, even though they have the advantage with longer time to consider their moves. She feels like she is on cloud nine and the rest of the night passes by in a blur, despite her being sober.

 

Then, the guests leave, and she is alone with Benny once more. The bond between them has grown heated and full of sparks, slowly over the time she has been there, but accelerating that evening. He pulls away at first when it spills over into action, but then changes his mind before she has time to do the same. And this time. This time she finally gets to finish and feel the natural ecstasy run through her veins and tickle every nerve.

 

Once she comes down from the high, she does not pull away or push him off. She just lies there, content in the moment and the closeness they share. Maybe she has finally found a bond that will last. That can ground her. She is not even aware that she speaks her one dominating thought out loud before the words are already out her mouth.

 

“That’s what it’s supposed to feel like.”

 

But, as always, she ought to know better.

 

Despite being almost as skilled in bed as he is on the board, Benny cannot let the latter go even when he’s sharing the former with a woman. When he does not reply to her unintentional compliment, she tries to make contact with him, wishing to know he’s in this moment with her. Feeling the weight of it. Taking hold of it. Sharing it.

 

“You should play the Sicilian.”

 

Never in her life has she had such a cold shower. Not even at Methuen on a winter day when she was last in line. Inside, she is utterly drenched, shivering from hypothermia, and feeling bereft. Outside, she remains calm, like always, because it is either that, lashing out or fleeing and she lacks the energy and willpower for the second and third options. Even so, it is impossible to remain quiet and let him get away with the hurt he has caused.

 

“What?”

 

“In your game with Borgov, you should play the Sicilian.”

 

The unexpected and confusing advice halts her retaliation but does not extinguish it while she follows her curiosity. Only lets it simmer in the background and one strong gust of wind would be enough to turn it into a roaring beast. Or rather one wrong word, or anything else to indicate that he has thought about chess strategies while they had sex.

 

“Why? It’s what he’s so good at.”

 

“It’s also what you’re most comfortable with. You should always play your line, never his. You play what’s best for you.”

 

“Thank you. Anything else?” she asks, hoping he will let go of chess and acknowledge their moment. Because surely it is their moment and not just hers. It must be. She has opened her heart to him, to the possibility of them, and so far he has only placed his booted foot over it and she must believe it is nothing but a feint, or temporary ignorance before he will realise what he nearly destroyed. She is not one to give second chances. Her heart might not survive such generosity.

 

“One more thing. They never say ‘check’ at the big tournaments.”

 

She feels foolish for hoping.

 

“Are you serious?”

 

“Yeah, very. They never lay their kings down either.”

 

He truly is. And so clueless.

 

“I meant, are you serious? This is what you’re thinking about right now?”

 

The young Girev pops up in her mind. She remembers the way he could not comprehend her question about what he would do with the rest of his life if he reached the top at sixteen. In a way, Benny is just the same. He is so saturated in chess that he cannot let it go, even for this moment. To him, she is a distraction, even if a pleasant one, not an investment.

 

And with that realisation comes another. In spite of him having the superior chess skills and ability to challenge and stand up to her in comparison to Beltik, he is just as incompatible with her. Well, he might be a little closer to whatever it is she is chasing, but what he needs is a woman who is completely unconnected to chess. Someone he cannot talk to about it. Someone he is forced to give this moment because he would never imagine this is what they would want to hear.

 

She stays in his bed, because there is no way she will get up and pump her mattress now. But she makes it clear their intimacy is over, shrugging him off and keeping her back to him. It will not be the last time they share his bed, because despite his inability to connect emotionally with her, it still feels good. But it will forever be his bed, even in her mind. Never theirs.

 

It does not occur to her in that moment the irony – or maybe it is better described as providence – that it is Borgov that comes between them. Then again, how could she. It is too soon for that. She is yet to acquire all the facts, and some of them have yet to be brought into existence.

 

Paris is the fashion capital of the world they say, and it is time to leave skirts and blouses behind. But not until she is there and can buy the substitute on site. She has enough pretty clothes to survive a day or two without seeming unfashionable. Not that her opponents will care much. Or rather when they do care, she wishes they won’t, because then she might get a hand on her shoulder, presumptuous words whispered in her ear, or worst of all a patronising look as they take her in just before the game starts. No, she dresses the way she does for her own sake first and foremost. Because at least she can be pretty even if she cannot be loved.

 

Arriving two days early to give herself time to shop, but also make sure to counteract any jetlag that might have sneaked its way past her surprisingly helpful long nap on the way over, she is the first of the competitors there. A part of her hopes to catch a glimpse of Borgov when he arrives, but she does not see so much as his shadow before the tournament begins.

 

It all starts with a press conference, which is new to her. Maybe it is the combination of the prestige of the tournament and the relatively low number of players. The fact that there are many reporters is a somewhat thrilling sensation. She counts them and finds that the players are outnumbered four to one. Along with the elegance of the hotel, Beth can feel how much more respected chess is there. Maybe it is valued the most in the USSR and the closer you get geographically the more valued it becomes? Well, so long as she does well here she is sure to get invitations to many more tournaments outside the US and find out on her own.

 

With no title other than that of National Champion, but a stellar ranking, Beth is the third person to be called into the hall where the press waits for them all and she sits down on her designated place. From the door they enter she has to walk almost across the entire short side of the room and on her way she reads the names on the place cards of the other players. She already knows who they are, of course, but has not paid any attention to their rankings. On the table in front of the spot that will be filled last, she finds the name that matters the most. Not just at this tournament, but at any. Not just for her, but for everyone in the world of chess.

 

Vasily Borgov.

 

She had finally caught sight of him when he, his wife, and his two KGB shadows arrived in the waiting room a few minutes ago and watched as the elegant woman stood just in front of her husband and made sure his tie was perfectly straight. After her recent experience with Benny, it was too much to watch a couple so comfortable with each other and she quickly looked away, only to feel a tingling sensation at the back of her head. Something she had not felt since Mexico City and she knew what it meant, but her nerves deserted her and she dared not turn back to look.

 

Once everyone is seated the director of the tournament says a few words of welcome, introduces the players, and then invites the journalists to ask their questions. Naturally, Borgov gets the first and she keeps as still as possible, her face as blank as possible, while he speaks, not wanting anyone to realise she can understand him. The new way she styles her hair helps to hide her face and any small expression that might slip past her defences. But waiting for his wife’s interpretation before reacting is difficult as she is already busy analysing his words by then.

 

She envies him for being able to start so young. His book had already told her that he was but four years old when he played his first game, which is less than half her age when she did the same. But she is also filled with joy at the prospect of him still feeling passionate enough about the game to continue playing. Not that she has ever seen him passionate, or with any clear emotions at all, but she still believes him. And dying with your head on a chessboard does not seem such a terrible fate. Preferably after making your last move and checkmating whoever your opponent is. It would be the ultimate victory in a way. Death is even more inarguable than conquering those sixty-four squares.

 

Despite being fourth in ranking, they turn to her next. Maybe it is because the anomaly she presents by being a woman, and the first question seems to confirm it, pointing out the way she dresses and does her hair and makeup. As if it would, in any way, have any kind of impact on the way she plays. Instead, they should be grateful that she adds some flair to the world of chess, that is only made up of suits as far as the eye can see otherwise. Well, maybe the odd tweed jacket thrown in too.

 

No. Wait. There is actually one more exception to be found, but somehow, she doubts Benny would ever be asked about his getup in such a manner. No one would dare presume that his style is any detriment to the image of the Chess Federation. And compared to him, she is the epitome of grace and stylishness. That thought makes her angry, but she holds back from replying that if anyone has a problem with the way she looks they can just go and shove it up their ass, and instead comes up with something more acceptable, since the criticism is lesser and the witticisms more prominent.

 

“I would say that it’s much easier to play chess without the burden of an Adam’s apple.”

 

Her second question is much more appropriate. Alec Berglund is another young player, though older than her by at least five years. He has the same kind of eternal youthful face as Benny does, though has managed to grow a more convincing moustache to better hide it. She can see why they would ask about how she feels about playing him. The four others are all in their thirties, or possibly early forties in the case of the dour looking Mr Malovicz from Yugoslavia sitting on her right – between her and Borgov – and if there is one thing she has learned about journalists, it is that they love to pit people against each other. Especially if they have something in common.

 

When she turns towards to the Swede it is the closest she has come to look directly at Borgov since she first saw him there in Paris and her eyes betray her and takes a moment to focus on him, only to see he is looking down at the table, seemingly uninterested in whatever she has to say. The anger in her builds. The smile and little wave Mr Berglund directs her way when her gaze does reach him adds even more to it. There is also the barest twitch in his eyebrow, as if he wanted to waggle the both of them at her and she is proud of how calm she sounds when she lies through her teeth and says she looks forwards to playing him.

 

Then, after another question about the Swede, comes the question she cares about the most. Not that she knew in what form it would arrive, but the answer has not only been on her mind, but prepared, for a long time.

 

“Miss Harmon, do you feel good about rematch with Grandmaster Borgov?” one of the journalists asks in an accent she cannot place. But that does not matter. The only thing that does is that he has provided her with the perfect opening.

 

“Very good” she replies before going straight in for the kill. Letting Borgov know that she knows. “I slept on the plane, so I arrived in Paris with no jet lag. I’m very well rested. At night, I stay in my room and study Mr Borgov’s old games.”

 

“Including the one against you in Mexico City?” another reporter asks.

 

It is a good and even natural follow-up question, yet she feels as if it is a personal attack, designed to get under her skin and weaken her. But despite the ever-mounting anger in her, she stubbornly remains focused. Or maybe not entirely since she decides to give away her big secret for everyone to hear. Just to let them all know that she is so much more than they could ever imagine.

 

“Especially that one” is her short reply.

 

In Russian.

 

The tingling sensation starts on the side of her face immediately and she knows she has finally caught Borgov’s attention. The victory is so sweet she cannot regret her lapse in judgement in any serious fashion. In fact, she starts to hope it might even prompt him to seek her out for a conversation, now that he knows it would be possible for them to talk directly.

 

However, she still does not dare to turn and look at the man she has just spoken more or less directly to, but she can sense his amusement, and the smile that makes it through his façade, even if he soon manages to fight it back down. His positive reaction is much more satisfying than the negative one she had expected. After all, she knows how she would feel if she found out that someone had been listening to her conversations while she thought they could not understand a word. Not that she has overheard much, but it is the principle that counts. His reaction speaks of a maturity that is foreign to her and she would like to know more about it. About him.

 

The press conference lasts for about an hour and a half, with every player getting a number of questions. They are mostly about how they feel about the tournament and each other, but some of the more audacious reporters ask such things as what they do to entertain themselves when not playing chess and Beth feels her face heat when she cannot reply immediately because the first things that come to mind are the pills and the booze. She ends up shrugging and replying that she likes to dance, hoping her smile is convincing enough to make everyone believe that she has a social life.

 

After they are done with the journalists they are shown to the hall where the games will take place by the director and asked to sit down while he goes through the tournament. But Beth hardly pays any attention, because almost as soon as she has sat down she realises that she is sitting directly opposite Borgov. Trying to distract herself, she looks back to the director and listens to what he says, making the best use of the little French she learned after being invited. But once more she catches Mr Berglund smile and raise an eyebrow at her, since he has placed himself perfectly for her to see him. Beth fears it might have been deliberate.

 

Then her face starts to tingle.

 

Taking a deep breath, she slowly turns her head, as if giving herself the option of backing out – of fleeing – for as long as possible, until she meets those blue eyes she saw so little of in Mexico City. But now… now they are on her without hesitation. He steadily meets her gaze, unapologetic about having been caught staring at her, and looking more like that first picture in ‘Chess Review’ than she has ever seen him in real life before, though perhaps a bit less intense and more pensive. Like he is waiting for her to do or say something. As if his lips could either bend down into a frown or up into a smile and his eyes could either harden or soften. She has no idea how to cause any of them, but she wishes she did.

 

The best she can do instead is to meet that gaze just as steadily and even bleed some challenge into her eyes. Maybe it is her imagination, but she feels almost certain there was a twitch in one corner of his mouth when she did. A hint of humanity and it thrills her to have conjured it. She happily stares him down the best she can while the director keeps on talking. She already knows the rules. They were provided in the invitation, after all, and this is more or less a formality. No need to give her attention to someone else. He seems equally unbothered, appearing as if he is ignoring his wife while she interprets for him.

 

Beth feels stupidly proud because of it. That she can hold his focus like that. And she cannot wait until she can try to do it again. Though, next time with a board between them once more. She wants to have the progress she has made acknowledged. That she is no longer a scared little girl but a strong young woman, here to collect more names. As merciless as Robespierre, but without his fate.

 

It is hard not to think about the difference between Paris and Ohio. Paris seems to her the very height of the chess world, with its old and almost royal design in everything from the hall they play in, the furniture and decorations which fills it, the focused and almost reverent audience, and the polished and expensive wood of the chess sets. Never has she felt the gravitas of chess back in the states like she does here. That this world is more than its relatively few consequential players, a handful of reporters, and a large host of amateurs.

 

Despite chance dictating the order, it seems fate has once more intervened and placed her game against Borgov on the last day. Not that she is unhappy about or overly impatient to get through the other players, they all come with their own credentials and challenges, but it is not the same. She has no connection to them, even if Berglund seems to want to change that.

 

His defeat comes on the fourth day and, in his defence, he is not opposed to lay down his king for her and the hopeful look he gives her when they shake hands is far less presumptuous than it was before. He does not stand a chance against her, either on the board or outside it, and he seems to have realise this irrefutable fact in the end.

 

When the tournament director approaches her afterward, while she stares at the remnants of Borgov’s match of the day, only to tell her she will face him tomorrow, she almost laughs. Because of course she will. Even if they he had not told them the order on the first day, she has played all the other four men, so who else is left? She decides to take it as just another display of his enthusiasm over it all and his diligence in performing his duty. He clearly has a love for the game, even if he does not play himself - at least not at this level – and she can hardly fault him for that.

 

She moves over to the board to study the game even more closely, tracing the pieces back to their starting positions. Having studied every game of his she could get her hands on by now, it is easy enough. He is not one for surprises and only the one move with his queen appears out of character, yet still highly effective.

 

 Once she is done with that, she heads up to her room to study her notes on her formidable upcoming adversary. Benny has helped her lay the groundwork and now she only needs to sharpen her attack so she can get a strong enough position by the time the endgame emerges. Borgov is a god of endgames and if she is to have even the smallest chance to win, she needs a good enough lead or he will catch up.

 

The phone rings.

 

“Hello?”

 

“What, you thought you could sneak into town without me knowing?”

 

Beth thinks the voice seems familiar but cannot place it.

 

“Who is this?”

 

“And now you insult me?”

 

Maybe it was due to being in Paris, hearing the French accent out of almost everyone around her capable of speaking English, that confused her, but now she recognises the voice.

 

“Cleo?”

 

“A very sad Cleo.”

 

The laugh is genuine, just like her joy at being sought out by the other woman like this. It is such a rare occasion, especially these days, for something like that to happen. Or maybe Alma’s constant presence before her death merely hid how rare it has always been.

 

“I’m sorry. I was just… where are you?”

 

“Downstairs.”

 

“Here?” she asks and is suddenly less thrilled. She needs her practice, sobriety and early bedtime and Cleo promises nothing but distraction. No matter how much she wants it, she needs to stick to her priorities.

 

She almost succeeds.

 

Changing into a red dress to be able to compete at least a little with the chic model, she soon finds herself downstairs at the bar. She is still convinced she can get away with just the one drink when she sits down and they start chitchatting. It is so easy to talk to Cleo. Even more so now when Benny is no longer an issue. The two of them can get back together for all Beth cares.

 

By the time she confesses her love for the city, how she could easily envision herself living there, she has already passed that one first glass. It clouds her mind to the point that she even admits to her feelings for Townes, which is something she likes to think of as little as possible. They still linger and hurt. Prodding at the barely healed wounds in her heart, put there by everyone. To lament something that could never be is a bitter pill to swallow.

 

When Cleo invites herself to the two men sitting close by and Beth goes along, she has fully committed to doom.

 

Humiliation is the only feeling when the incessant knocking on her door wakes her up – in the bathtub of all places - and she find the director outside, telling her she is late to her game. The only one that truly matters. Or it would have been if her hangover had not put a fog in her mind or she had not been so stressed while she runs around to get herself presentable, enough. It will claw its way through a little later instead and consume her then. By the time she gets back to her room, she will be buried in it.

 

She pulls on her newly bought favourite dress. The one she has planned to wear for this game from the moment she first laid eyes on it in the boutique. She wanted to look her best, make an impression, but with all her other defences in tatters, it hardly matters.

 

When she makes it downstairs, the unexpected camera flashes nearly blind her, but she resolutely continues on her path to the table where Borgov already sits. With her playing white and the time the match was set to start behind them, her side of the clock is already ticking away, giving her yet another disadvantage, while the board remains untouched.

 

“I’m sorry” she apologises but has no idea if Borgov’s English is good enough to understand.

 

He has already raised his impenetrable façade and does not move so much as a single muscle in his face when he rises briefly to shake her hand, so there is no way for her to tell. Then, before she starts the game, their eyes meet briefly, and she hopes, when his goes down to the board, that she can get them back up again. A hope that will soon be turned inside out.

 

Making her first move is easy, but as soon as she has let go of the pawn the fog closes back in and slows her down. The brief clarity her mad dash to get there afforded her is already spent. Her throat is parched, stealing almost all of the attention she retains. Pouring herself a glass of water, she quickly gulps it down, ashamed of her desperation yet unable to resist what little help is available. Her eyes are on her pieces, frantically trying to decide on a strategy, but when she feels a change in him, she looks up. He is looking at her, but no longer facing exactly straight at her, but a tiny bit turned to the side. It is an unexpected, though miniscule, crack in his impassive façade. Probably unnoticeable to anyone but herself, who has spent so long studying his likeness head on and is familiar with every last line of his face. But she soon realises the cause of it. The state she is in and that he has started seeing through the poor, barely even there, mask she managed to put on during the most frantic minutes of her life. A thin layer of makeup and a new dress is all that stands between her most inner self and his discerning gaze.

 

When she pours herself a second glass, his gaze strays to the motion and while his eyes are not yet hard, his lips are closer to a frown than a smile. She cowardly does not look at him while she tries to fight off the dehydration this time, but feels the heavy weight of his gaze on her, like a millstone tied around her neck and she is sure she is as damned as the Bible says such people are. But she has not tried to lead someone else astray, only herself. No, pride seems to be her major sin, but it is all she has left.

 

She becomes more and more unsure of her moves, sometimes almost not daring to touch a piece and commit herself. Even through her fog she can see that he has the upper hand, but it obscures her own options and has turned all the training Benny put her through into gibberish. The memory of her time in his apartment remains, but on mute and she cannot focus on the board he motions to enough to gain any insight from that either.

 

After she moves her queen next to his, his face has taken on a hint of disappointment. He even drums his fingers once on his arm, not leaving his typical pose with his arms on the table yet not as impeccably as every other time, and she can no longer pretend that she has a chance to get out of this without losing his respect. She tastes bile in her throat and quickly empties another glass of water.

 

For every time she meets his eyes it hammers home the fact that she is now lesser to him. Her self-inflicted weakness is there for all to see, and he has never been blind. The nail – though it feels more like an old, rusty, and blunt bolt – is driven deeper and deeper and she starts to fear it will soon tear her heart to pieces. A heart that has no business being on display for such a cold machine man, yet has emerged out from under her carefully built defences all the same. The bitterness of the moment is so strong she starts to feel nauseous.

 

He barely looks up when she has to ask the director to fetch her more water so she can have another glass, his expectations have already sunk so low. The first tingling of approaching tears is upon her at the sight and she has to look at something else. Anything else.

 

Her eyes inadvertently end up on two people who sit by the window behind her opponent. His wife and son. The prim and proper little family all together to support the husband and father.

 

Looking out at the rest of the audience, she catches sight of Cleo arriving, taking one of the few seats still available. It is of no comfort at all, just as the twins’ presence was of no consequence when the chair between them was empty.

 

She has no family.

 

She has no one.

 

Turning back to the board, she tries to focus on the game but can see no way out and only agonizes over the position of her rook. Something must be done and she reaches out, but stops before she makes contact, her hand hovering above the piece while she makes a last desperate attempt to reason herself out of her predicament.

 

With a number of glasses of water she has lost count of already behind her, she has to signal the director again for more. Borgov barely glances at her this time, and she fears the picture she must present by now. Only the dress is in the shape she wishes all of her could be and even the relative calm she had managed to project when she arrived has dwindled away. Sweat has long since started to erode her makeup and unless something changes drastically it is only a matter of time before tears join in to smear the rest.

 

She ends up moving the rook before the refill arrives and the moment she has, she feels the disappointment in Borgov. But she has no time to dwell on it when his hand enters her vision immediately and with a decisive move, he has her perfectly pinned.

 

In Mexico City she had wondered if she would experience it. That final move that would make her realise she has lost. It had come so early then and while a part of her wants to find some solace in congratulating herself on holding it off for so long this time, the rest of her recognises that she had made that move herself. Off the board. Last night. The game was a foregone conclusion before it even started and there was nothing short of a miracle that would allow her to walk away the victor this day.

 

It does not lessen the pain, however, only increases it, and she can feel the nail pushing all the way into her heart and leaving it in the same state as her defences.

 

She has lost.

 

Again.

 

No water in the world is going to save her now and when she looks up and once more meets his eyes, she can see that he knows it too. But she can also see that he takes no joy in it. Her failure is reflected in those blue depths, and she regrets ever wanting to see emotion in his face. The reality of it is soul crushing.

 

Desperate to make it go away, to see the smile on his face she sensed during the press conference – why did she not look then, when she still had the chance?! - she allows herself one last glance down at the board. There must be a way out somewhere she tries to convince herself, but it is all vain hope made out of smoke and mirrors that disappears the moment she tries to reach for it, her hands grasping nothing but air. Even if she had been sober and well rested, she is helplessly trapped with no way out.

 

Close your eyes.

 

She does.

 

It does not stop the tears from coming and she can feel the first one run down her cheek while she senses his eyes on her. How they move over her face and the beginning of concern in him. That is more than she can take, because it means she has lost outside the boards as well as on.

 

She needs to get away.

 

Now.

 

“I resign.”

 

Looking up at him one last time, his face is almost back to the way it was at the end of the briefing not even a week ago. He does not frown or smile. Neither are his eyes hard or warm. But something lurks in them. It might be the concern she just felt, or it might be pity. If it is the latter she wants to die.

 

She is up on her feet a moment later, striding away and hoping against all hope that the rest of her tears will wait until she is back in her room. In her haste to get away, to flee once more, she neither sees nor feels his sadness.

Chapter Text

Benny calls the next day. Beth’s original plan had been to take this one last day in Paris, before the prize ceremony, to do some more shopping, but she has yet to manage leaving the bed. News of yesterday’s game has reached him, and she can hear a bit of frustration but mostly concern in his voice as they talk.

 

It seems her less than sober state has indeed been reported on, but she can hardly fault the journalists for including it. It must make for a sensational story, after all, the volatile female prodigy sabotaging herself with her usual poison just before she had the chance to get revenge on the king of chess. Was she weak? An addict? Someone always doomed to fail? The lone woman in a world of men finally having her sex catch up with her? The issues must be flying off the shelves.

 

He wants her to return to New York. To him. She is too crushed to deal with that. There is possibly not the strength left in her to stay sober and even if he says he will let her get drunk, she thinks that would be worse. He would be unable to hide his disapproval and she would be drowning in guilt as much as in liquor.

 

Her head is pounding, like a full orchestra made out of only drums and the occasional cymbal, after she searched for amnesia at the bottom of a bottle, or two, or three, the night before. Since she had already messed up once she felt no compunction about doing it again. The prize ceremony was not until the afternoon anyway. As runner-up she was still taking some money with her back home and despite her state, she was not unsensible to the need of them. Flying to Paris and staying at such a fine hotel for about a week had not been cheap. Not to mention all the clothes she has bought.

 

With a groan she tries to get up from the position she had collapsed into after the phone call, but her head swims and her belly lurches and she is stuck between laying back down on the ruffled sheets and running for the bathroom. She ends up on the floor, her legs sprawled inelegantly and refusing to comply while she only has time to take hold of one of the pillows, drag it to her, pull open the edge and empty what little is in her stomach inside.

 

The acidic liquid is quickly soaked up into the fabric, but luckily nothing seeps through and down on the floor. The stench is revolting and with her fuzzy yet unprotected senses it makes her stomach turn again, but this time she only dry heaves. But it takes a minute for her body to reach enough exhaustion to stop the involuntary retching and her eyes are bleary and cheeks smeared with tears and mascara by that time. Now her throat aches to and the inside of it feels like sandpaper.

 

A long line of swearwords leaves her in quick succession as she leans her back and head against the bed, trying to muster up some strength so she can get to the bathroom. She needs to soak the pillow and take a shower herself. Soaking herself in a bath might have been preferable, washing and scrubbing yesterday away from her skin, but she fears what might happen if she places herself in so much water. It was a miracle she had not filled up the tub more the night before the game. As utterly miserable as this morning is, she prefers it to yesterday never having happened at all. At least not for her.

 

If not for the ruined pillow in her hand she would probably have foregone whatever dignity she might have left and walk on all four, or even crawl, her way to the bathroom, but that would risk the contents escaping. A single ruined item is one thing, but to force them to clean up the rug due to her weakness seems one step too far. Even for her. She is not one to rely on others. No, she fixes her own messes. Or at least endures them.

 

Maybe it is half an hour later, maybe a full hour, she has no way of knowing, when Beth stands on shaky legs before the basin, the mirror above slowly fogging up due to the steam from the hot water that is pouring, drenching the pillow she has pushed and wrestled down into it. First, the light fabric simply turns dark when the water hits it, then it starts to absorb it, turning it wet and squishy. The noise it makes when she pokes it with a finger making her feel uncomfortable. On edge. It soon blocks most of the drainage and before long it is one big puddle and she barely managed to turn the faucet off before it spills over and turns the floor into a pond. It is possible to drown in ponds.

 

She stood there for a long while, simply looking at the slowly discolouring water, wondering if she is cleaning or dyeing the pillowcase. She might never know what the final outcome will be since she returns home the next day. But it would be fitting if the bile of her body had ruined it, painted it in a different irrevocable hue, just as alcohol had done the same to her. Because she can feel it in her very bones. This has changed her. Steeped her so deep and long in shame that there is no recovery. No one in the world of chess will ever take her seriously again. She has proven them all right.

 

Everyone.

 

Except Borgov.

 

The memory of his defence of her in that elevator in Mexico City returns unbidden. The way his two teammates had belittled her. Calling her a drunk and too emotional. But not him. He had allowed her to be a person. Someone more than the sums of her flaws. And now, she has let him down. Made him a liar.

 

Fresh tears start pouring down her cheeks and she doubles over, hands gripping the edges of the basin in order to make more of a slow descent to the floor rather than a crash landing, knuckles white until she can release it and lay her arms tightly around her middle. Embracing herself since there is no one else there to do it. No one back home either.

 

“I’m sorry” she whispers, hulking for breath and rocking back and forth with her upper body. “I’m so sorry.”

 

Tilting to the side she is once more lying down, this time on the cool tiles of the floor. After she has cried both her eyes and heart out, that coolness helps to calm her down. As it seeps into her bare arms and legs, her eyes staring up at the white ceiling, a spark of focus returns in her exhausted and scrambled mind.

 

There is one last chance for her to find some forgiveness. If she can pull herself together enough to act responsibly and graciously at the prize ceremony, she might regain some respect. Not much. Maybe nothing. But it is something to take hold of. Something to give her meaning for the next few hours. Something to keep her eyes open.

 

A shower, a sturdy meal, lots of water,  and three green pills just to keep a strong enough lid on her emotions later Beth stands before the mirror, dressed in a pretty yet simple grey dress. It is respectable yet will not attract undue attention. This is not about her.

 

She does her makeup as usual, but only because not doing it might have people talking or seeing too much. The same with the hair, styled to perfection in her new look. There is barely any red left in her eyes and after a deep breath she nods to herself before leaving the room.

 

Having given herself plenty of time the descent to the hall they played in is a lot slower than yesterday’s mad dash and she is the first of the players to arrive. Not even the full audience is there yet, though the reporters sit ready in their section. As luck would have it, the director is there and intervenes when they try to ask her about her performance. All of it questions meant to open up the topic they are really after.

 

Borgov, his family, and the KGB agents are the last to arrive. The last two place themselves by the door, standing out since most people likely know who they are, yet ignored, because most people likely know who they are. The World Champion walks all the way up to the front line, where he ends up on the other end from her in the only seat still available, while his wife and son sits just behind in the seats kept for them.

 

After witnessing their entrance, Beth resolutely does not look at him again, merely senses his presence. Like the sensation of someone being in the same dark room as her. Yet, that darkness is welcome because the only thing she fears is to meet his eyes and find disappointment in them. Or even revulsion. Her stomach ties itself up in knot after knot at the thought of it and for one horrible moment she thinks she might get sick again.

 

Not a minute later the director addresses everyone, thanking them for their participation in the tournament, be it as players, commentators, or spectators. He thankfully keeps it brief and soon the prizes are to be awarded. There is only two and Beth is called on first.

 

Her legs are steady when she stands up and walks over to him. A pretty woman has come forward from her previous position at the side of the room, holding a bouquet of expensive looking flowers and an envelope. What they expect her to do with the former she has no idea, but she smiles when the latter is presented to her. There is a cheque inside, she knows, of 5000 francs, which she had calculated was about the equivalent of 1000 dollars after she had read the information in the invitation. It is not a complete loss by any means, yet not close to the cheque of 15000 francs Borgov will receive. Or rather about 3000 dollars.

 

There is not a single tournament in the US with such prize sums and while she knows this one is not a perfect representation of the international circuit – the sums being about half of this in Mexico City - she briefly imagines the kind of money she will make when she starts to get more invitations. That is, if she will ever be invited again after her disgrace. Being the US Champion can only take her so far and doors might be kept locked, and keys hidden from her, no matter how hard she bangs her fists on them or begs on her knees to be let inside.

 

When they applaud her, she turns around to the audience and smiles. It might not reach her eyes, but since no one is frowning at her she seems to have them fooled.

 

No.

 

Not all of them.

 

Unable to let her eyes skip him, she briefly looks at Borgov where he sits at one end of the front row, face almost unreadable. Almost. Because there is something there. A hardness around his mouth yet a softening in his blue depths. He inclines his head towards her ever so slightly and she has to wrench her gaze away from him before she loses her composure. She remains standing in front of them all, like some perverse theatre performance, for another minute. They all know the truth of what she did and yet they smile and applaud. But underneath that oily layer of mummery there is the sensation of his eyes on her. Like fingers ghosting across her skin, not fully touching yet irrefutably there.

 

She twists her legs into a little curtsy and then takes her seat again, looking resolutely no higher than his knees when Borgov is called forward to receive his price. His even grander bouquet and grander cheque.

 

Could they have been hers? If she had not gone down to the bar, but stayed in her room, could she have won? Could she, in spite of Beltik’s words, have beaten him without years of practice? She will never know for sure, but the lead weight in her soul says it would have been unlikely. Not impossible, but nearly.

 

The ghost of his gaze on her registers for a short moment, but he can hardly allow himself to focus on her now that he is one the stage. The recipient of more honest praise from the people next to and behind her. Her hands move mechanically as she chimes in with them, but her eyes remain lowered.

 

When the ceremony is over Borgov is the first to leave, and as she watches his back just before he disappears through the doors, wife and son next to him, KGB behind, she wonders when she will see him again. Will she dare look him in the eyes then? If so, what will she see?

 

Despite this, or maybe because of it, she manages to keep from drinking on the flight back home to the States, but as soon as she arrives back to the blue house, the physical evidence of her loneliness hits her hard.

 

The grass in the front yard is so overgrown it would likely reach above her ancles, if not higher, and despite the number of newspapers crowding the porch, there are few enough that she thinks whoever delivers them must have given up at some point. Just as the people giving out parking tickets in New York had eventually given up on placing any new ones on Benny’s car.

 

She is barely through the door when the phone rings, heralding even more trouble.

 

Meeting Margaret all those months ago seems like child’s play compared to this visit from her past. Mr Wheatley, whom she has not heard a word from since their one phone conversation after Alma’s death, has decided that he not only needed to do his worst to ruin his wife’s life, but he must now try for a repeat performance. Whatever fleeting compassion he might have felt back before he walked out the door for the final time is long gone and the pathetic greed that has taken its place is an ugly thing.

 

He wants the house.

 

The house she has made the payments on ever since he promised she could keep it.

 

And he wants to sell it. To take this last piece of stability in her life away.

 

It hurts her more than him to refer to him as her father, even if she adds the word ‘legal’ in front to lessen its meaning and drive home the point that only his signature on a piece of paper has earned him the title. At least she can hurt him in return by wearing Alma’s robe. He is a person who only seems capable of taking, never giving. Not in a lasting way at least and going back on his word as soon as he can get some profit out of it. No, he will never be a father to her.

 

Even her birth father counts more than this parasite. At least he tried for a while after Alice must have been the first one to leave. Only leaving himself after being denied one too may times. Not an excuse. More of an explanation.

 

Her lawyer turns out to be rather useless – seemingly more on Mr Wheatley’s side than hers - and she ends up solving the situation by accepting the overpriced offer. The only positive thing to come out of it is the assurance that she will never have to lay eyes on the man again. Along with the look on his face when she states that she will subtract the cost of the funeral. Whatever shred of decency there is left in him is enough to keep him from protesting.

 

Why could it not have been him dying, instead of Alma, she thinks as she watches him exit the house and walk over to his car. Making sure to see that he leaves her property, never to be allowed back. The world would have been such a better, fairer, place without him and Alma still able to play on her piano and hold Beth’s hand.

 

With the house officially in her possession, she decides on a full makeover. Or at least the first floor. Going through everything from top to bottom, throwing out a lot but putting more into storage, she then goes out into town in search of all the things needed to replace them with.

 

The place looks liberatingly different once the dust has settled and she finds that some of the shadows in her life has gone. Power over her own life and circumstances is so uplifting it is akin to drugs and she is in love with that part of independence. The loneliness that seems to come with it is far from a strength, though.

 

Chess re-enters her life, after a brief vacation, in the form of a letter from the Christian Crusade organisation, offering to sponsor her trip to the Moscow Invitational. After her second place in Paris, she has little choice. Even so, a call to Benny is needed to understand the politics of it all, but he sees no problems with accepting the money. He did when he went over.

 

“Take their money. They’re loaded” is his immediate response after she explains the situation, no hesitancy at all.

 

“They’d pay for my ticket to Russia?” she asks, almost incapable of believing they would be willing to spend so much money on her. With the exception of Alma’s graduation gift, no one ever has. She glances down on the gold watch that always adorns her wrist. The only time she takes it off is while she sleeps or takes a shower or bath. Apart for the house, it is the main thing she has left of her late mother.

 

“More than that. If you need to play another match before, they’ll back you, and if you ask them, they’ll fly me out there with you” Benny explains and it warms her heart to think that their friendship is not ruined. That he would be willing to come all the way to Moscow with her just to help. For a man with his level of pride, that is far from nothing.

 

“Separate rooms, of course, considering their views” he goes on and she feels a hint of the same cold shower he put her under in New York, though this time for the exact opposite reason. She is no longer interested in anything sexual with him and had thought he held no further desire for her either. And it had been him who was against it at first.

 

After Paris she simply cannot fathom having his hands on her again, feeling how they do nothing but seek pleasure and offer only the same and no comfort in return. The same with his eyes, looking at her with appreciation and lust, but lacking true warmth and affection. She was made too raw in Paris to be able to handle such intimacy again.

 

“Why would they pay so much money?” she asks, hoping to steer the topic away from any pitfalls or dead ends.

 

“Are you, uh… coming to New York?” he asks after explaining the Christian group’s views on communists and seeing any victory against them as a victory for Jesus.

 

A few choice words, that would no doubt have those same Christians running for the hills, pass through her head when he returns to the subject she had hoped to avoid. Why could he not go back to outright stating that there was no chance of any sex between them instead of sounding cautiously hopeful when indirectly inviting her over.

 

A small part of her is flattered at his attention. She is only human in the end. But then she remembers their first night together and how he talked of nothing but chess and strategy the moment it was over and how jilted it had made her feel. Small. Insignificant. Irrelevant.

 

“I have to stay in Kentucky a bit longer” she replies and talks of all her commitments that prevents her from just taking of for weeks at a time again. “I’m fine, Benny, really” she adds to make it sound like she assumes he is only thinking about her struggle with alcohol when asking her to come. “How are you?”

 

There is a pause before he responds.

 

“I’m managing.”

 

Then there is an even longer pause.

 

“I miss you.”

 

The iciness of the shower returns and this time she says nothing, hoping that silence will be answer enough. He is an intelligent person, so he ought to be able to pick up on her mood and feelings on the matter.

 

“Study the game pamphlets from the last Moscow Invitational” he says at last, and she knows he has understood. There is a prickle of guilt at refusing him, since she was the one eager before, but there is simply not enough left of her to share with him now. To risk another moment like that one after their first time. He got his chance and he destroyed it. While chess is the most important thing in her life, she selfishly cannot settle for playing second fiddle in the eyes of her partner. At least not in intimate moments. And she would give the same in return.

 

For a while further she manages to stay on the narrow path, focusing on chess now that the house no longer takes up all her time. But it is easy to stumble and finding the fridge empty of anything useful to eat for dinner one night, she heads out to a local restaurant. And she is painfully close to making it, asking for a coke when the waiter wants to know if she would like a drink with her appetizer. He has even turned around and started walking away from her when she halts him and changes her order to a Gibson.

 

It is impossible for her to say why she did it. Why she gave in to the craving at this of all moments. Maybe it is the redecoration of the house that has made her miss Alma even more without realising it. Maybe it is the low light and feeling of privacy the establishment offers. Maybe there is no rhyme nor reason at all. Maybe it is simply her clandestine instability growing bored with staying passive and coming out to play a game called failure.

 

She stops by Lex Liquors on the way home, making it just in time before they close for the night. The first bottle is already open and partway drunk by the time she enters the blue house. She has barely taken more than ten of fifteen steps inside when she turns and looks at Alma’s piano. On top of it stands all of her trophies from all her tournaments. She wonders what her mother would think if she saw her now. Would she scold her daughter for this not so small stumble, or would she just nod knowingly, well acquainted with the religion that is alcohol and the devotion it could instil in a person?

 

Harry Beltik calls that very moment, no doubt wanting to console her after her second loss to Borgov. Maybe he also wants to make sure she is alright since he knows more about her addictions than the papers speculate on. She is not in the mood to let him and simply hangs up. Or she would have if the wine had not made her miss, but she lets the receiver lay where it landed. Beltik will simply have to hang up on his end. It is no longer her problem. Maybe it should stay there, to stop him from calling again.

 

Once she finally gets into bed, her thoughts return to her mother, and Alma’s cold hand takes her and follows her into sleep, appearing in her dreams, turning some of them into nightmares. Nightmares in which she sees those terrible unseeing, unblinking, uninhabited eyes again. Her first mother told her to close her eyes, while her second will be forever staring.

 

In the morning, she has wine for breakfast. The tv is turned on to shut out the memories of Alma, but the music only reminds her of one in particular. Of her mother dancing alone.

 

Uncaring that she only threw a cardigan on top if the clothes she slept in, Beth starts to move to the music. There is no one there to see her anyway. Now it is she that gets to dance all lonesome, thinking of all the potential partners she has lost either through death or abandonment. Her only partner now is a bottle of wine and she holds it firmly in one hand while she moves and spins her way across the floor, treating the living room as a dance floor where she occasionally bumps into the other dancers.

 

She giggles when she apologises with a bow to Mr Coffee table after kicking one of his four shins. Laughs uproariously when she elbows Miss Armchair, thinking she deserved it for being so uptight and in the way. Sobs when Mrs Couch gets a leg between her feet and trips her over, and promptly stays on the floor until she is all puffy eyes and blotched cheeks. It feels too much like Paris, the day after the final game. But this time she has no prize ceremony to help her pull herself up and together. No Soviet chess player with blue eyes she fears meaning less than nothing to.

 

It is only Beth and her ghosts.

 

Pills and alcohol fill her days. She is good enough at pretending they do not to be able to go out and restock when necessary, but other than those brief moments, she flies high and crashes hard. Over and over and over again.

 

Another phone call interrupts her life, though less devastatingly so than the one from her lawyer. It reminds her of the tournament she signed up to a long time ago. It’s the next day and they want her to come in early for some pictures for the press. It takes her a moment to realise that it is the Kentucky State Championship. Played at the same high school as always. She is meant to defend her title against mediocre players and is incapable of feeling a single spark of excitement at the prospect. The creative use of makeup she has to apply to hide the worst of the state she is in is more of a challenge than any of those players will ever be.

 

It is at the end of that call that she sees something devastating. At some point during her drunken haze she has smashed the glass on her Bulova watch. The pieces are all still there and in no danger of falling out, but only about a quarter of the clock face is visible, rendering the watch unable to fulfil its purpose. The ghost of Alma has never felt closer or further away than in that horrible moment and nothing but the number of tranquilizers in her body is enough to stop her from screaming in despair.

 

Annette Packer is there the next morning, as the latest instalment of the underwhelming and intrusive art display her past has set up, constantly adding new pieces, and so eager in expressing her gratitude over Beth’s accomplishments that she hardly knows how to reply.

 

Just like Beltik, the twins, and Townes she has left chess behind. At least she was never a friend that could leave her behind as well, as they all go on to do normal things. Such things that Beth is sure is beyond her. The line between the normal world and the world of chess is so blurred for her now that they seem one and the same. Those sixty-four squares, thirty-two pieces, green pills, alcohol, and painful memories have all mixed together in some brand-new metal alloy that has encased both her mind and her heart. But it is a brittle kind and the moment it breaks it will hurt her the most when those jagged pieces implode and robs her both of her mind and her lifeblood.

 

Needing a cigarette to calm down, she has to go outside, since no smoking is allowed inside the school. She struggles to light it and the focus it takes from her means she misses the young man in the parking lot as he exits his car. Only when the door slams shut does she look up and sees him.

 

Harry Beltik.

 

Initially, she tries to do small talk, but he is no longer prepared to let her flee. Or flee himself.

 

“I’m worried about you.”

 

“What on earth for?” she replies in a mocking tone, not wanting to be pinned down. After Paris, she never wants to be pinned down again.

 

“I’ve seen you once or twice at the supermarket.”

 

“You following me?”

 

She would not put it past him after his admittance that he has come by the house after she refused to talk to him on the phone.

 

“I work there.”

 

“What?” she asks, genuinely surprised.

 

“I’m Assistant Manager, so I’m usually in the office.”

 

“You’ve never said hello.”

 

“Well, you didn’t seem… you know… approachable.”

 

And there it is. His critique of her. His judgement of her lifestyle. Because maybe he can survive outside the world of chess, but she cannot. She has no one there to catch her when she stumbles out. Or maybe she has already ended up on the ground, her king tipped, and her mind too far gone to have noticed.

 

“You need help.”

 

No. She will not let him do this to her. Not again.

 

“What kind of help would that be?” she asks, injecting sarcasm into her voice and wanting nothing more than to hurt him, just to make him go away. She has already stumbled and fallen. What right does he have to come by now and preach? He was the one to leave. “Help with my chess? Because we tried that-“

 

“That’s not what I’m talking about” he interjects, but she is not prepared to listen.

 

“What are we talking about?” she shots back.

 

He just looks at her for a few moments before making it even harder for her to ignore him by sharing more of himself with her than she could ever reciprocate. It seems he has grown braver than her.

 

“My dad drank. He wasn’t mean or anything. He just got quiet and fell asleep in his clothes.”

 

“Okay” she says, being drawn in despite herself, the past tense of his short story tickling her mind with foreboding darkness.

 

“You smell just like he did. Your eyes are just like his eyes, and you skin is-“

 

Whatever spell it was it is already broken, and she retreats back behind her well-worn defences. Throwing all of her remaining pieces between them in an attempt to strengthen them. Rooks, bishops, knights, and pawns. There is almost none left.

 

“My skin?”

 

“Like I said… I’m worried about you.”

 

But she is not ready to be worried about. It feels too much like pity, which is much worse than anger. She would rather die than be pitied, no matter by whom. Not by Borgov, not by Benny, and certainly not by Beltik.

 

“Sounds more like you’re feeling a little sorry for me” she accuses.

 

“I didn’t say that” he defends, but she will not give up her attack.

 

“And I’m not the one supposed to be in college, not working in a supermarket.”

 

“I’m doing both” is his calm reply, refusing to take her bait. “You know what? Yeah, I like working there. It’s a good job, and the people are nice.”

 

They are interrupted by the tournament director and when she is distracted, Beltik returns to his car and only wishes her good luck before he leaves.

 

She is happy to see him go, she hopes.

 

But with him goes what feels like her last lifeline. Benny will likely not be interested in helping her a second time after she refused his offer after Paris and then again when they talked about the church money, and there is not a single other person she can think off. At least no one that has been in her life the past few years. She is alone. So alone. She can already feel the outline of the bottle in her empty hand, her fingers convulsively gripping after it but only finding air.

 

Close your eyes.

 

She follows her birthmother’s advice and even if there had been a way out, she can no longer find it. And this seems to be it. The moment when the little girl no longer decides to throw herself to the floor of the car to save herself. Instead, she does as she is told. Shuts the world out and waits for it to end.

 

But why can she find no peace in that acceptance? Why is there still a tiny yet stubborn part of herself that longs for that spot on the floor. For salvation. For life.

 

For more.

 

But more comes in the form of more days spent drowning in pills, drugs, and alcohol. At least until the first welcome person from her past suddenly stands on her porch. When the doorbell rings she assumes it is Beltik, returned to provide her with more judgement, but when she pulls the door open Jolene stands on the other side.

 

Despite all the years since she last saw her, she recognises her friend instantly and hopes that word still applies to them.

 

Beth invites her inside without hesitation and they make some weighty small talk while Jolene looks around and she prepares some refreshments for them. Her friend only waits until she reaches the kitchen before dropping the bomb she has come by to deliver.

 

“Mr Shaibel died.”

 

Beth’s body freezes and her mind goes numb. The memory of the last time she saw him, when he turned away when she was taken away by her mother and Mr Wheatley, returns to her, but despite the thought that he did not care for her she can feel how much she cared for him. This blow feels almost as hard as when she lost her mother and has caught her even more unaware.

 

“There’s a funeral day after tomorrow. I thought… we could go together.”

 

She is still incapable of answering when she walks over and hands over one of the cups. But when Jolene looks around and then proceeds to dress her down with two words and the look on her face, denial escapes her.

 

“God, Beth.”

 

“Yeah. I know.”

 

Her old friend seems to be the perfect antidote to the deep and dark spiral she has tumbled down. She takes absolutely no crap and have that tough love approach to confronting Beth. The one needed to keep her from lying or fleeing.

 

After spending the rest of the day together in the house, and she has finally recovered from the news, Jolene charges headfirst into the topic of green pills, but without crowding her or straight out pinning her down. She simply lets her know that she knows about them and then shots down Beth’s excuses and deflections with a healthy helping of humour on the side.

 

“Well, maybe it’s in my blood. My mother went crazy.” Beth eventually says, pulling out what she considers her ace. The one she has not dared play against anyone else, because she fears the response.

 

“Went crazy or always was?” Jolene counters with, making her pause.

 

Thinking back on what she remembers of her first nine years, looking for clues to either alternative, it is difficult to reach any certain conclusion. It is also too hard, and still too painful, to dredge it all up.

 

“I don’t know.”

 

“She drink or any such?”

 

“No, never” Beth says, realising it is true. Alice Harmon never touched booze.

 

“She gone. Quit thinking about it. It’s not doing you any good.”

 

It is easier said than done. Especially these days when her addictions have pulled her nothing but down instead of letting her fly. But she will try, because she misses the sky - the real one - and that has to count for something.

 

“Besides” Jolene continues, switching back to smiling again, “I got you a present.”

 

Happy to let the heavy topic of her mental state slide, Beth finds herself curious as to what her friend, whom she has not seen since her adoption, might have brought for her.

 

“It was me all along” Jolene confesses after throwing the old book to her.

 

‘Modern Chess Openings’ Beth read on the cover and instantly understands, and forgives, even before hearing the explanation.

 

“I was pissed at you for being adopted.”

 

“What about for being a white trash, cracker bitch?” she retorts, eager to share in the levity of remembering and talking about the things she had that she could actually be happy about while growing up.

 

“Who could forget?”

 

They share the bed. It is wide enough for two, after all, and it helps Beth to feel the presence of someone next to her after they switch off the lights and her last thought before falling asleep is neither of Alice nor Alma. It feels much better than when she shared Benny’s bed with him, even if there is no physical contact now, because with Jolene there is true understanding and acceptance instead of carnal desire. She cannot help but wonder if she will ever experience both at the same time.

 

They leave early so they have plenty of time to get to the funeral before it starts. They plan to stop by Methuen on the way and indulge in a little more of their shared past. Maybe even find some closure.

 

Beth learns more about her friend’s life and what she is up to these days while on the road. There is some jealousy at how easy it is for Jolene to create bonds with others and even have them thrust upon her. She has never had someone just gift her a car – and a nice one at that – or be prepared to leave their wife for her. Then again, it must be some pressure to get that kind of attention and she hopes Jolene is genuinely happy with this Rick person. Though, judging by the smile she wears when she talks about him, Beth guesses she must be.

 

Their first stop is at the trailer she lived in before being orphaned. It is so strange to see it again after so many years. For whatever reason, standing there and knowing she escaped that life, even if it was on a difficult and costly road, makes it easier to talk about that time in her life. But not all of it.

 

Visiting Methuen on the other hand, has the opposite effect. The wounds she suffered there are still too fresh. Or maybe it has more to do with the man whose funeral they are heading to next. Methuen without Mr Shaibel seems less than worthless. More of a haunted house, bereft of anything truly alive.

 

With barely any mourners – none of them from Methuen – present, Beth feels a bit disappointed. Mr Shaibel, though a quiet soul, was an amazing human being and he deserves to be missed by more people. However, she barely listens to the minister while he talks. He clearly did not know the deceased and has not talked with anyone who truly did either. If she had not remembered the ten dollars she still owed him and shared that little piece of information with Jolene, she might have grown angry over it.

 

 The disappointment makes her change her mind about his now former workplace. It also helps to hear about the fate of Mrs Deardorff. That the woman who kept her from chess for all those long years is now a bitter cripple.

 

Entering Methuen is like taking a step back in time. The girls wear the same drab pinafore dresses, Miss Lonsdale still sings with them in the chapel and the furniture is more or less the same. Mrs Deardorff, however, is indeed not. She looks to have aged more than twice the years that have passed and when viewed from behind as she stiffly uses the cane to make it down the entrance stairs, she might as well add twenty or thirty more. But it is good to know that the woman no longer has any power over her. She is her own person now. Fully Beth, with no Elizabeth left to be seen.

 

The basement is not the same either. The absence of Mr Shaibel has robbed the place of its magic and she can now see the rundown space, with its pipes, wires, and various object in all their glorious decay instead of the secret realm of her childhood.

 

But that all changes the moment she spots the collection of newspaper clippings pinned to a bulletin board. They are all of her, some just text and some with pictures, covering every major occurrence in her chess career. There is even the letter she sent him, asking for those five dollars, and incurring the debt of ten she will forever be unable to repay.

 

And then she sees it, partly hidden behind some of the articles. The picture Mr Ganz took of them when she was nine and tentatively put her hand on his shoulder, hoping to create a bond – an important bond – for the first time in her life. She did not get to choose her birthmother and her Alice kept her away from everyone else. Mr Shaibel had more or less saved her life when he agreed to teach her chess, even if he did it in his own, sometime infuriating, way. He was her first chosen connection and the closest thing she would ever get to a father. The weight of her loss slams into her and all at once the basement shrinks in on her from all sides and she cannot breathe.

 

The irrefutable proof that a turned back did not mean he did not care for her is a sledgehammer to her centre, to her very soul, and it seems nothing will ever be the same again.

 

After taking the old photograph with her, she returns to the car where Jolene waits for her. As soon as she gets inside, she quickly loses the battle against not only her tears, but also her emotions. She is devastated and can do nothing else than cry and be held by the only person who cares for her after she has either lost or pushed away everyone else. The lack of the pills in her body sharpens her grief, but the arms of someone who truly cares for her around her soothes the added pain.

 

In the wake of dealing with her initial grief, she lands on both her feet for once and discovers a sense of equilibrium. Not that breaking off with Christian Crusade and their money could be seen as the wisest of decision, but Jolene has rubbed off on her and she is not willing to take their crap any longer. Not when they want her to preach their message for them in Moscow of all places. Her own uncertain belief aside, she finds their condemnation of a whole nation – and a pretty large one at that – just because of the political ideology of the people in power so petty and ignorant. And from what she remembers about bible studies at Methuen, was the big message in the New Testament not that of love and forgiveness? Did not Jesus preach about sharing and rich people having a hard time getting into heaven? If so, is not communism – at least in its theoretical form – closer to the word of God? Not that the execution of it seems to have gone over too well in practice, though.

 

Or maybe it just boils down to her not wanting to utterly insult the nation that has produced so many amazing chess players and treats the game with utmost respect.

 

Turning down further payments and writing them a cheque for what they have already given her does leave her a bit underfunded. Not that she regrets her decision, but it brings a huge problem with it.

 

First on her list of things to do in order to salvage things is to call Benny. He makes no secret of what he thinks of her new course of action, but what truly hurts is when he seems to cut their bond. She has so few left that every single one she loses feels like losing a part of herself.

 

The government is equally unable to help her. All they do is promise to send someone with her for protection, as if that would make any difference if she cannot get hold of the money somehow and go in the first place. But it is not like she has ever learned to trust in the help of politicians. They cut her off from the green pills as a child and now they are not willing to sponsor their national chess champion in a vital chance to upstage the Soviets.

 

Jolene takes her playing squash to cheer her up and while neither of them is more than good enough just to keep the game going, it is a lot of fun. It also helps her forget it all while they laughingly run around, chasing a small rubber ball instead of dreams.

 

When their legs – or at least Beth’s – protest any further physical activity too much they end up sitting next to each other on the floor with Jolene, as always, listening to her troubles.

 

“I shouldn’t have bought the house.”

 

“Or all those dresses. Three thousand is a lot.”

 

“It’s expensive to go to Moscow” Beth needlessly comments, thinking of all those pretty dresses she bought in Paris. And for what? The mint green and black one she wore when she played Borgov hangs in a bag at the end of her wardrobe so she will never have to lay eyes on it again and the rest somehow seem too fancy for the tournaments in the States, with only a few exceptions. The money she could have saved by not buying them might not have covered all she needs now, but it would have gone a long way.

 

“I’ll give it to you.”

 

At first, Beth is sure she has misheard.

 

“What?”

 

Then she sees the sincerity in Jolene’s face.

 

“No, you just said it’s a lot of money.”

 

“I have it and more. I’ve been saving.”

 

“You need it for law school” she continues her protest.

 

Borrowing the money from Benny would have been different. He is as deep into the world of chess as she is and fully understands what awaits in the capital of the enemy. He has already obtained that key and opened that door. Jolene, on the other hand, has all her money tied up in her own promising future.

 

“I do” her friend acknowledges. “And you’ll give it back when you win.”

 

“What if I don’t win?”

 

“It’s still worth it.”

 

Tears prick at the back of Beth’s eyes. Not because Jolene is certain she will win, but because she cares for her enough that she is willing to risk so much on her.

 

“Or you can give me the black dress” her friend continues, never far away from humour, unless tears are involved. “Or the purple one. I like em both.”

 

Perhaps, Beth is not the only one who has trouble handling important bonds with other people in the end. Everyone simply deals with it in different ways. The humour is to Jolene what anger or fleeing is to Beth. But they both know each other too well to let it come between them.

 

Then the tears come because she realises that Jolene has just let her know that while she has lost a father, she still has her sister. It might be the first time she has cried out of happiness.

Chapter Text

Mr Booth, the man the government sends with her, is so cut and dry Beth has a hard time taking him seriously. When, after telling her to stay in her hotel room at all times unless in his company, he tells her that she cannot answer her door or the phone unless it is him, she finds the whole thing downright ridiculous.

 

“How will I know it’s you if I don’t answer it?” she simply has to ask, pointing out the impossibility of his demand.

 

He just ignores her and goes on to forbid drinking. Not that she has planned on it after what happened in Paris. Repeating mistakes is something she hopes to avoid from now on. But then, his talk does become interesting.

 

“Let me know if any of the Russian players tries to speak with you.”

 

If only he knew how much she wished they would. One especially.

 

“In particular, Vasily Borgov.”

 

Oh dear. Can he read her mind perhaps? What is the government up to these days anyway? It cannot all be about the space race, can it?

 

“He sends a signal in any way, or sends a note, I wanna know immediately.”

 

Not on your life, she thinks. If she is ever in the position to get a note from Borgov, she is sure to keep it to herself. Because now that she has mostly recovered from Paris, she is once more eager to see behind his façade and that would be near impossible if she can only look at him over their game for whatever number of hours it will take, and not say a single word. Notes, any note really, would be most welcome.

 

“What exactly would a signal look like?”

 

Might be good to know so she does not run the risk of missing one should it be sent her way. Mr Booth seems to be something of an expert, and she can hardly ask him about it later without raising suspicions.

 

“Could be anything” he says with such a straight face she has to fight to keep from grinning. “He could do it in one of your matches.”

 

They will only have the one game, but still. Fingers crossed.

 

“How?”

 

“I don’t know. I don’t play chess. Just be on the lookout. I’m told they may wanna talk.”

 

Beth desperately hopes she does not look as hopeful at that little piece of information as she feels.

 

Besides, does the state department truly not have a single person who know something about chess? Could it be that this is the first time they send someone along with the US champion to the Moscow Invitational or had Benny, and whoever went before him, had to deal with an equally clueless protector? What good is he really if the fear is that the Soviets would somehow approach her through their chess players, but he has no idea how the game works? Maybe all that shows is how little her own government values her.

 

She would bet anything that at least one of the two KGB agents that follow Borgov around is required to know at least the basics of chess. And ironically enough, from the way the twins had presented it, the Soviets seemed more concerned with their grandmaster running off than trying to send signals to players of other nationalities, trying to recruit them.

 

When they exit the customs area, a Russian driver is there to pick them up. Apparently, he has been assigned to her for the duration of her stay. He speaks Russian with Mr Booth and does not seem to know she can understand. She has already learned that her shadow, as she has decided to call him, speaks Russian, but it is clear he does not know that she does. The state department has clearly not done their homework properly, further underlining her insignificance to them.

 

They are taken to a hotel, where Mr Booth accompanies her to her room before retreating to his own. His comment about her room definitely being better than his tells her that he has gone on at least a few trips in his line of duty before and that the government is not as generous to their employees as Jolene is to her friends. He also reminds her to stay in the room until he comes and gets her in the morning. She tries to make a joke about it, suggesting a knock pattern, to see if there is any appeal to be found in the man, but he merely replies ‘good one’ and she knows his dryness extends to his humour in the worst kind of way.

 

It is not the most glamorous room she has stayed in, but she guesses that by USSR standards it is probably on the same level as her room in Paris. Almost everything goes in beige and black, with the carpet, and a few other textiles in a colour that she can best describe as an earthly blend of brown and pale wine red. She misses the vibrancy of Mexico City and the timeless elegance of Paris but has no other reason to truly complain. She is here on a very specific mission and living standards is far from her top priority.

 

When she is taken to the place the tournament will be held, she cannot help but wonder if the building is used for such occasions exclusively. They sit in comfortable armchairs and couches in a large hall just outside the one they will play in, listening as the director goes through the arrangements and rules. The staff has offered them something she guesses is a traditional Russian warm brew and after ascertaining it has no alcohol in it, she accepts.

 

Her eyes travel across the room, taking in her competition. They are some of the best players in the world, yet she feels nothing but anticipation. She has studied them all while honing her own skills and after Paris she really has nothing to lose and everything to gain.

 

At the thought of her French disaster her gaze travels to Borgov. He sits in his own armchair on the other side of the large couch she somehow has ended up sharing with the former World Champion, Dmitry Luchenko, calmly sipping on the strange yet not unappealing brew while listening to the director. He looks the same as always in his dark suit, a tie she disagrees with, hair neatly combed, and unreadable face. He might as well be bored as interested and with his eyes hard to see from her position she cannot say which.

 

Only once does she feel his gaze on her and not for long.

 

Before the first round is to start, they are introduced to the audience one at a time and applauded while they walk inside and take their places. She goes first, ending up on one end. Borgov, who gets the loudest greeting by the onlookers, is last to enter, meaning they are separated by the other six players. She will have to get through them all before she reaches him, and the vast hall impresses on her the momentousness of that task. But she still feels no fear.

 

She is the first to exit too, soundly beating her first Russian opponent in only twenty-seven moves, which is three less than her sweet win against Benny. At least he takes it well and is quick to offer his hand in resignation once he sees that all paths forward are blocked to him.

 

Outside the building waits a few civilians, one of them even asking for her autograph. Something which has not happened since Paris and the fact that chess is taken more seriously on a broader level in Europe is once more apparent.

 

The evening is not over yet, however, as the director and all the players and their spouses, if they have them and they are present, are invited to a dinner. It amounts to no more than two wives of Russian players, one of which is Mrs Borgova, and the tournament director at one end, opposite the reigning World Champion, with the rest of them in-between. A fairly small but lively group.

 

Beth sits next to the director, meaning she is as far away as possible from the two players she would most like to talk to, since Luchenko sits next to Borgov, opposite his wife. She glances over from time to time, not talking much with those closest to her, and sees how the three interact.

 

The preface Luchenko wrote for Borgov’s book was indeed indicative of their friendship and despite the numerous years which separates the two grandmasters, it is easy to see that they treat each other as equals. Mrs Borgova – Beth still has no idea what her first name is and stubbornly keeps herself ignorant for reasons she would rather not examine too closely – is clearly no stranger to her husband’s friend and adds to the conversation from time to time.

 

Beth has to look away when Borgov, leaning in towards the woman, smiles at something his wife says. It makes her feel stupid because she has known for years that he is married. Even the first time she ever saw him he was in her company. Hers and their son’s. He has a family, and it is not right of her to envy the subtle show of affection between husband and wife just because she does not have anyone to do the same with. It is also best to overlook the fact that the other couple present does not affect her in any way despite acting even more affectionate.

 

However, looking back at her plate does nothing to help her morose mood. The guidebook she read before coming to Moscow allowed her to identify the dish as borscht the moment it was placed in front of her, but the beet heavy vegetable soup is not at all to her liking. Casting her eyes about the table, she sees few things to tempt her more. The USSR might be able to produce some of the world’s best chess players, but in her mind, the reverse could be said of their cuisine.

 

Muddling through the whole meal she manages to eat enough to survive until morning, but not a bite more. The company also remains lacklustre and she almost misses Berglund from Paris. Sure, he was something of a nuisance with his flirting, but he would never have ignored her in the way she feels ignored now.

 

The Swede present at this tournament, Hellström she thinks his name is, is as different from his countryman as night and day. Where Berglund was all ease and friendliness, in quite large doses, Hellström is cold and distant, even if the occasional sudden gesture hints at a temper beneath. He has barely even looked at her so far and she is curious to see how he will react when she beats him.

 

On the second day she spends the morning in her room, doing nothing but preparing by reading through two of the books she brought and playing a few of the games in them. She goes on to win in the afternoon, once more finding herself resigned to graciously. Duhamel might start out with the confidence she sees in so many of her opponents the first time she plays them, only to crumble in one way or another, but the smile he gives her when he resigns is small but genuine.

 

She has just passed the other tables on her way out when she hears the sound of a chair scraping against the floor and when she looks back it is to see that Borgov himself has walked over to her board to study it. Her heart starts beating faster at the sight, her blood pumping at an increased speed and giving her a feeling of lightheaded elation.

 

Paris is forgotten in that very moment because there can be no disappointment to be found in him now if he takes time from his own still ongoing game to get the chance to look at her win before they reset the board.

 

Maybe, just maybe, she has earned his respect.

 

Hoping she can stay to see how long he will afford himself to analyse the board she just left, maybe catch his eyes when he turns back around and see something in them, she only ends up with a few short but precious seconds before Mr Booth reaches her and pulls her along outside. Knowing better than to argue with the man, she follows without protest and pulls on her coat before going outside to greet a crowd of admirers that are more numerous than the previous day. There are now several of them who wants her autograph.

 

The next day, she goes for a walk before the third round starts in the afternoon. Booth and the Russian driver - though she doubts he is only that – walks a short distance behind her, like the detached shadows they are. After a while, she spots something that not only makes her smile but also warms her heart.

 

Despite being winter in a country notorious for being brutal in this season, there are numerous old men sitting on simple chairs at simple tables, playing chess. There are no chess clocks in sight, only the occasional radio, and an atmosphere of such calm she almost wishes she were playing there instead of in the tournament. She has so few opportunities to play just for the fun of it – just for the beauty of it – and that seems to be all those men are there to do.

 

In fact, has she ever played a game that was not in some way meant to teach, train, or prepare her in some way? The closest she can think of is Mr Shaibel, who refused to push her or set up and go through specific moves, unless they had stumbled upon them the previous time. She feels a stab of longing for those times spent down in his realm in the basement, where chess itself was the only thing that mattered and neither of them had to pretend.

 

Well, there was that one game with Townes in Las Vegas, in his hotel room after Roger had left. But she was too dazed after that revelation for it to count as anything else than her simply going through the motions while the truth lay as a heavy wet blanket over the both of them, smothering what had once been their friendship and her hopes. It is something of a surprise when the memory is not as painful as it once was. Her infatuation seems to have come to an end at long last, without her noticing it, and the regret she feels now is not about what she could not have but about the bond she lost.

 

On the third day of games, she learns that Hellström does indeed have a bit of a temper to him. Their game was challenging, but she was never in any real danger. When he has no choice but to resign, he does so by standing up and storming away while she remains in her seat, waiting for the director to come and shake her hand. After her own exit in Paris, she would be a hypocrite if she got angry over it and with another win to her name, there is really nothing to get upset over anyway.

 

Instead, she remains for a short while. Enjoying the fact that she is at the table closest to the one at the top, where Borgov has remained throughout the tournament, being equally unbeaten. He plays Luchenko in this round, which only adds to the allure, and she would like nothing better than to join the audience and watch the end of their game. But the rules do not allow for it and soon she has to leave.

 

That evening, there is another social occasion for the participants in the tournament. It is only the players this time – though a few shadows sit in the back - and they are gathered to enjoy a concert. It is a young but highly skilled string quartet and Beth finds herself fully drawn into the music. It might be the Soviets showing off their best and brightest, but she still feels a connection to them. Music is to them what chess is to her. They are what her mother might have been if given the chance.

 

Thinking of Alma is less painful now. She can think back on all of their good times together and less on that last terrible moment when she was, without knowing it at first, alone. Sitting there, the music washing over her, it almost feels as if her mother is sitting in the seat next to her, smiling wide in appreciation, about to ask her if she enjoys it too at any moment.

 

There is no opportunity to interact with any of the others. A short time for small talk was given before they were shown into the concert hall, but Mr Booth made sure to keep her away from anyone Russian, and since the other three European players did not have this disadvantage she was left on the side. Even so, there are two things she got to enjoy before the music swept her away.

 

When Hellström tried to talk to Borgov, the Russian just gave him a cold look and remained silent. Not aware of anything that might have happened between the two men, her traitorous heart whispered that Borgov had done it for her. That he was displeased with how the Swede treated her in his defeat and repaid him in kind.

 

It was not helped when they started to move into the hall, and she ended up next to the World Champion and their hands brushed against each other. The sensation of his fingers gliding over her knuckles sent a tingling spark up her spine and she sharply looked up at him, but his gaze remained firmly ahead with no indication that he had noticed what happened, and she had to stomp down the hope that it was no mere accident. Still, it being the first time she had touched him outside of game related perfunctory handshakes, it was precious nonetheless.

 

The quartet and tangible sense of Alma then has her so enthralled she is not fully aware of the prickling at the back of her head for a short moment during the third piece of music, or the fact that only Laev and Borgov sit behind her.

 

Back at the hotel, she falls asleep smiling and with a heart that feels lighter than it has in a very long time, the tear tracks on her cheeks already washed away.

 

Her second Russian is defeated on the fourth day. It is an even stronger victory than against her first and Shapkin is clearly having trouble processing it all, showing more emotion than she has ever seen from any of his countrymen before, but never falters in his courtesy. He even bows down over her hand after holding it rather than shaking it. If there was ever any distinction she could enjoy by being a female player this might be it, and she would not mind if more of the men she beat did the same. Hopefully, in a few short days, another certain Russian might have the opportunity.

 

Up next, is a man she has admired since she was nine years old. She is so excited about the game that it takes surprisingly little willpower to say no to the vodka she is offered at lunch in the hotel restaurant. Not that there is not a part of her that longs to accept and try the preferred poison of the Soviets, but the thought of having Luchenko look at her with disappointment is a much stronger deterrent than the liquid is an invite and in the end she barely hesitates.

 

The former World Champion makes an almost late entrance and has only just time to sit down before the director walks past and starts their clock. They play themselves to her first adjournment so far and despite being near exhaustion, she is exhilarated. The game is so imaginative, taking all of her skill and mental faculties to keep up, and she forgets everything outside the tiny world made up of sixty-four squares, thirty-two pieces and two humans she is in.

 

When she has returned to the hotel she goes straight for some food before heading up to her room for an early bedtime. However, while she walks down the corridor, an open door at the end catches her eyes and inside she sees not only Luchenko hunched over a board, where their game is probably set up, but also Laev and Borgov.

 

Benny’s words about the Russians playing as a team, especially in adjournment, comes back to her and for a moment, her self-confidence falters. They have clearly gathered to go over how best to defeat her while she has no one to fall back on for help.

 

Deciding to make up for this a little, she quietly walks over to hear what they are saying, hoping to snatch up some of the strategy they are discussing. It is hardly her fault that they have left themselves open like this. Luckily, she learns of the pin they intend to put her in, and she can spend the night planning how to best avoid it, along with finding her own way forward. The move she sealed earlier will also be of help. If she gets distracted once or twice by the memory of Borgov without his suit jacket on, shirt sleeves folded nearly up to his elbows, she resolutely pushes it to the side and forgets about it.

 

Luchenko’s reaction to being defeated exceeds all her expectations. Forget Shapkin, this is the way to make her feel not only strong, but on top of the world.

 

“Excellent. What a brilliant recovery” he says while there are still a few moves open to him before the inevitable end and then stops the clock. “I resign with relief.”

 

First taken aback by his actions, she soon transfers to joy and cannot help but return his compliment by admitting how much she looks up to him, and by extension, how much this game means to her.

 

“I’ve played your games since I was a small girl. I’ve always really admired you.”

 

“You are how old again?” he asks, but then interrupts her when she tries to answer, just like Townes did all the way back at her very first tournament. “Oh, no. Don’t tell me. It will only drive a stake through my heart.”

 

A small laughter bubble out of her. She is so jubilant in this unexpected moment.

 

“I went over your games at this tournament. You are a marvel, my dear” he goes on to say, the sincerity in his voice enough for her breath to catch. “I may have just played the best chess player of my life.”

 

Considering he has been around long enough to play against both Alekhine and Capablanca, that is saying something.

 

On her way out she casts a quick look at the game Borgov and Duhamel are finishing up. The Frenchman has put up surprisingly good resistance against the World Champion, but it is clear it is fast becoming a losing battle by now. And with her playing Flento and Borgov playing Hellström next they both ought to arrive at their own game undefeated. Just like in Mexico City and Paris. But this time it would be different. This time she would win. She had to.

 

Mr Booth follows her out to the car as usual, her constant shadow, but it is the driver who does more to help her find a way through the crush of people vying for her attention and autograph. It seems so surreal that they are all there for her. Annette Packer showing up at the latest Kentucky State Championship to greet her had been the closest her home country had come to make her feel so appreciated as a chess player. Even in Paris she had felt it more, with strangers asking for her autograph, such as that enthusiastic waiter. Maybe she had not fully understood the importance chess has in the Soviet Union until now. It had been an abstract concept before. Something she knew existed but not the scope of. Just like it was more or less impossible to comprehend the vastness of the ocean until you saw it with your own eyes.

 

While she climbs into the car and they drive off she entertains the idea of defecting, if only for a few minutes. The way it would feel to be so adored by so many. To have her name, or at least their version of it, chanted after every game she won. To be able practice with the other USSR players. To be able to tease young Girev and soak up the almost grandfatherly warmth of Luchenko as they sit with a board between them and can play for nothing but the pleasure of it.

 

She would also be able to play against Borgov a lot more than the current once each year. Be able to learn his style and learn from him in a way playing through his old games never could. There was also the chance of seeing behind his façade. Aside from helping her with knowing what strategy Luchenko would use against her, last night had also shown her that Borgov could indeed be somewhat relaxed in more private company. More human. Was it wrong of her to want to be on good enough terms with him to be privy to such moments without lurking unnoticed in a doorway?

 

The fantasy ends when they reach the hotel and she once more has to face strangers. Strangers that remind her that not everyone in Moscow was outside the hall and waiting to cheer for her. Many of them have no idea who she is and the people in power would no doubt only see her as a political tool. Or maybe a trophy. Something to be exhibited only when it suits them and they would not be happy to let an American, even if she denounced her birth country, ever defeat their own grandmasters in any meaningful way. Chess would be lost to her even as she got closer to its very centre. That last key forever kept beyond her reach.

 

Mr Booth accompanies her to the hotel restaurant for a meal, then makes sure she reaches her floor safely, as always, before letting the elevator take him to the one he is staying on. While she walks down the corridor towards her door she looks further down, to the one that had been open last night and allowed her that glimpse behind the curtain. A look at the actors between the scenes, when they still had the costumes on but did not have to play their parts. It is closed now, yet for some reason she finds herself drawn to it.

 

Looking behind her to make sure no one is around to see, she walks up to it as quietly as she can, aided by the red carpet. It is the same dark wood as her own, and every other door, is made of, but she has no idea what kind it might be. Hoping it is not something too solid, and more in keeping with the flimsy quality the US propaganda assures her most USSR products are made of, she leans in and presses her left ear to the smooth surface. At first it is silent, and she sighs in disappointment, but then the sound of a voice she would recognise anywhere reaches her. It is muffled by the barrier between them, but she can still make out the words.

 

“She never even gave you the chance to pin her, old friend. That was a clever strategy.”

 

“My position wasn’t the greatest even when we adjourned. I had hoped that having more time at my disposal would give me the edge I needed, but I feel no resentment in being proven wrong.”

 

“Yes. I do not know whether to wonder at you for losing or her for winning. But I can see you were lost the moment she moved that rook from c7 to h7. All you could do after that point was to delay the inevitable collapse.”

 

“It was truly beautiful to see, though. I am happy she has recovered. The world of chess needs more players like her, that can discover paths still untrodden.”

 

“Are you calling the rest of us boring old men?”

 

“If that’s how you want to describe us, so be it.”

 

Beth feels her heart warm when Luchenko then laughs. His praise of her earlier had been genuine and not something said just to secretly make fun of her. He had no idea she could hear what he had to say now and no reason to say such a thing to Borgov unless it was his true opinion. If only the World Champion would say what he thinks of her too. Though she feels equal amounts of fear and excitement at that prospect.

 

“You’ll play her again soon, my friend. How do you think she will compare to your previous games?”

 

“From what I have seen so far, she will do better, but seeing that it is close to two and a half years since our first game and then the state she was in in Paris, I find it a debatable comparison. Besides, no matter the outcome, I am off to hell for two weeks directly after.”

 

“Ah. The in-laws. Comrade Volkov eager to see his daughter and grandson then.”

 

“And insisting on me accompanying them this time, as if we do not hate each other with equal fervour.”

 

An involuntary gasp escapes Beth at that last part. Even through the door she can hear the thick emotion that enters Borgov’s voice and she knows he means every last word. For whatever reason, he does not get on with his father-in-law and calls spending time with him hell. It might be what she would have felt for Mr Wheatley if she had not had the money to buy herself free of him. Purchasing the house allowed for her feelings regarding him to simmer down into a cold disdain, more on behalf of Alma than herself. With time she thinks it might even pass into indifference, with only a hint of resentment.

 

“Do you really think this is the right place to bring up such things?”

 

“Everyone involved with keeping an eye on me is told the story, so I don’t see why not. And they all know you already know too. After what he did… There are some things you simply cannot forgive. Sometimes I wonder what he might do the moment my talents are no longer enough to keep me beyond his reach.”

 

Behind her, the elevator makes that sound that indicates it has stopped and the doors are about to slide open on that floor and Beth has to abandon her little dabble into espionage. She makes it back to her door just in time to see a middle-aged couple walk out, but luckily turns down the other way and does not notice her. Still, it was too close and she dares not go back to listen more, even if she burns with curiosity. This night has given her a lot more to think about than the previous.

 

It is no wonder when she finds it difficult to sleep that night and tosses and turns while the conversation is on repeat in her mind. The joy of playing the eccentric old grandmaster, the pride and relief at finding her way around his intended pin, and last but certainly not least the delight of his warm paise after he resigned is almost forgotten in the face of Borgov’s words. It reinforces her earlier idea that defecting to the USSR would bring her more misery than happiness. If even the current World Champion is so limited in what he can do and say no to while in his homeland, what would it be like for her? But the emotion in his voice is what stays with her. The knowledge that he is capable of feeling so deeply, even if it is just in hatred. She hopes he is capable of more.

 

Only one opponent remains before she has played her way up to Borgov once more. Flento puts her through a gruelling match, but by the end of the day, she remains as undefeated as the man she is to face on the morrow. But the weariness is not only in her mind but seems to have seeped into her very bones. And with a nigh of lacklustre sleep already behind her, it is harder to bear.

 

In her tired state, her birthmother has easier access to her mind and the woman’s last day alive plays in her head as clear as if it were a movie rather than a memory. The first ride in the car to a house she had never seen before, but a man she recognized lived in with his new family. The argument he had with Alice, refusing to help just like he had promised he would not the last time he had come to them, and the empty look in her eyes when she returned to the car. The second ride taking them out of the city and then the way her birthmother failed to explain to her what had just happened because the demons in her head were too busy planning what was about to. The resignation. The tears. The resolution. The truck coming towards them.

 

“Close your eyes.”

 

She flushes all of her green pills down the toilet before she can change her mind. It does not matter if her birthmother went crazy or always was, Beth has her own struggle to keep sane. In Paris, she learned bitterly what can happen when she relies on substances instead of her own powers. If she goes down that same path again, allowing herself to fall just before facing Borgov, because it is easier to lose with an excuse, she is not sure she can come back from it. Not again. Not ever.

 

The first time she lost her pride and her mother. The second time she nearly lost herself. What is left to lose now other than her life? She has gained so little in life filled with loss.

 

Her nerves catch up to her not long after and she calls down to the front desk, asking how to get hold of more. Luckily, those green pills are not available in the Soviet Union and she dares not try something new, even when they offer to find something for her. Mr Booth might be cut and dry, but his constant words of caution have not gone wholly unnoticed by her. She might not care for politics, but that does not mean she is entirely naïve.

 

The crowd has never been larger than when she arrives the next afternoon. Countless people clamour for her attention, and she indulges a few of them to relax some of her anxiety. So much rides on this game and she has to be at her very best, or she will lose. Again.

 

With it being the seventh and final round, all the other players have played their games earlier in the day, and now sit in the audience, leaving the two still undefeated contestants to face off on their own.

 

Borgov already sits at the board when she walks in, his back to her, but when she comes up to the table and turns back towards him, there is an openness in his face she has not seen before. And if she is not mistaken, she can see some of her own apprehension reflected in his eyes. It remains there while he stands up to shake her hand, but an intensity is added when their hands clasp each other.

 

They sit down and just look at each other while they wait for the director to come and start the clock. Does he feel the weight of the moment the same way she does?

 

She plays white and starts the game. After that they each offer up and declines various openings and the game moves into territory that might just be new to them both.

 

On and on it goes and just like with Luchenko, nothing else exist for Beth than the board, the pieces, and the two of them. If only her world could remain like that forever. And if only they sat playing in that park. No clock, no spectators, no pressure. Just the two of them and the game they both love above all.

 

Borgov is the one who calls for the adjournment and it breaks the spell for her. She has looked at him from time to time since she sat down, sometimes meeting his gaze and others not. On those occasions, when she raised her eyes from the board, she never saw all the people sitting around them, but now they are suddenly back. Invading her private little kingdom and shattering the illusion. The director comes and hands him a small notepad for him to write down his move and then he leaves, not looking at her, before she has time to fully wake up and react.

 

This time a host of reporters are waiting for her in the entryway and Mr Booth has to convince her to talk with them rather than run back to the hotel for some much-needed rest and preparations. She agrees but refuses to talk propaganda. And at long last, she thinks the reporters might actually include Mr Shaibel in their articles. Not that he can cut out such an article any longer and put it up down in his basement, but it is long overdue that he receives the recognition he deserves even so.

 

Happy to have that accomplished, she begins to leave, but a voice she has not heard for too long stops her.

 

“Excuse me, Miss Harmon, I’m with the ‘Lexington Herald-Leader’.”

 

And there he is, back in her life at the exact time she needed it most. For two terrible seconds she believes that she must have imagined his voice. That her thoughts about him from only a few days ago had twisted her lonely heart and talked her poor brain into hallucinations.

 

“Our readers back home in Kentucky would like to know if it’s true. That you’re here all by yourself.”

 

She understands his real meaning and wastes no time in hurrying up to him and hugging him as fiercely as their winter coats will allow. It is another little moment to get lost in.

 

He goes with her to the hotel and her room, making small chitchat while she orders some refreshments for them. She can barely look away from him all the while, eager to make sure he is not just a mirage her lonely heart has created for her. But he is real, and he has come all this way.

 

“How did you even get a visa so fast?” she asks, remembering her own ordeal with that process, and she had an invitation to play in the tournament, not just report on it.

 

“The newspaper helped me. I’m an associate editor now.”

 

She has never been happier that he gave up chess and got into journalism. And he’s clearly good at it. A good photographer too, as she already knows.

 

“And the Moscow Embassy.”

 

“Really?” she asks, not able to see why they would do such a thing.

 

“Yeah. I’m guessing they thought I’d distract you.”

 

Now, when she can indeed confirm that she is over her romantic feelings for Townes, she can see the humour in the Soviets’ presumption.

 

“If they only knew” she comments, but it is not only in reference to her friend, but also the man who would have every possibility to distract her if he only decided to try. But just like the clueless Soviets, Townes only takes half her meaning. Not that she minds in the least. Their own conversation is long overdue and involves no one else.

 

“I know you were angry with me. And I’m sorry. I should’ve told you the whole story.”

 

“No. I’m sorry. I should have let you.”

 

“I will admit… I was a little…” he begins, looking down as if trying to figure out how best to say it before looking back up at her, “confused. You really are something.”

 

Feeling a bit unsure how to take such a compliment, Beth is now the one to look away, not finding any words to reply with that feel right. How do you respond to such a thing anyway?

 

“But, um” he continues, “what I really wanted was for us to be friends. And you kind of broke my heart.”

 

That is more familiar territory, she reflects as Beltik’s face appear in her mind. Getting her own heart broken, but also breaking other’s.

 

“I have a way of doing that” she admits, before turning back towards him and reaching out to take his hand in hers. “Do you forgive me?”

 

He puts his free hand on top of hers, gives it a little squeeze, and glances around the room while amusement finds its way into his expression.

 

“Clearly.”

 

And with those honest words, the hurt between them is laid to rest and they emerge as the friends the both of them now wish to be. Finally in sync. The reforging of this bond she had thought to be lost, but now even stronger, makes her laugh in pure relief and joy. And it would have been enough, but Townes is determined to be the best of friends and refocuses their conversation.

 

“Consider me your second. What do we need to do to help you beat Borgov?”

 

“Well, what I need are…” she pauses, thinking about how honest she should be with him, but quickly decides to go the whole way. He has offered his help and it is now up to her to tell him what exactly it is she needs help with. “…the pills. The booze. I need my mind cloudy to win. I can’t visualize the game without them.”

 

“Really?” he questions her. “You think that’s what brought you here?”

 

“I think that’s what I’m used to” she replies, laying her addiction out in the open for him to see.

 

With the same supportive steadfastness and charm that drew her to him in the first place, he talks her around and she is content, in the end, to agree with him. The pills and the alcohol are an addiction, not what makes her great. And after they go over the game together for a while, she is able to fall asleep peacefully. She has a friend with her. Someone to help her through her weaknesses. Someone to sit there tomorrow and watch her play.

 

She is not alone.

 

Maybe that is why she sleeps in so late the next day. Well, that and the exhaustion from a week full of some of the most challenging games she has ever played. Townes is still there, waking her up and offering her a cup of coffee when the phone rings. He answers it for her but holds it out for her after a few words, not letting her know who is on the other end.

 

“Hello?” she asks once she has taken it, still groggy from sleep, but the answer wakes her right up.

 

“If he goes for the knight, hit him with a king rook pawn.”

 

Looking over at Townes and seeing the smile on his face he can no longer hide, she dares to believe what she has just heard.

 

“Benny?”

 

“If he goes for the bishop, do the same thing, but open up your queen file” Benny goes on, as usual going for chess over emotions. She finds it is more comforting that he is his usual self rather than trying to be something he is not. All she asks for is his friendship.

 

“How do you know?”

 

“It’s in the Times. It’s seven am here, but we’ve been working on it for three hours.”

 

“We?”

 

“Hi, Beth.”

 

It’s Beltik.

 

No, he deserves better.

 

“Hi, Harry.”

 

And after him there is Matt and Mike and then Hilton and Arthur. They have tirelessly and stubbornly gone over the game for her and are now ready to give her all the possibilities they have found and her world has expanded, along with her heart. Townes helps her on her end, taking notes and moving the pieces on the board next to them to try it all out. There is genuine hope now.

 

When they resume their game, Borgov lets his surprise at her moves show through his façade, telling her she is getting to him. Even so, he is still able to keep up with her and before she knows it, he has made a move none of them predicted. Borgov might be experiencing some frustration, as shown by the entirely uncharacteristic jerky movement he makes with his arm afterwards, but it has not taken away his brilliance.

 

But she will not let it stop her. This is all or nothing for her and she must find a way to push through. Taking a deep breath to fight off the rising panic and instead centre herself, she lets her eyes wander up to the ceiling, only lingering on Borgov’s once more impassive face for a few seconds on the way, and there, despite being utterly sober, her board and pieces appear. She can feel the pieces in her very soul and the ease with which they respond to her instruction is nothing short of beautiful. She plays through variation after variation until… there! She finds her way out and only then looks back down and moves her bishop.

 

She turns it around and after a few more moves Borgov offers her a draw. It is incomprehensible. He never does this, and she feels the honour of the moment, almost tempted to accept. But no, she would regret it for the rest of her life. And out of nowhere, words the man himself spoke in that recorded interview she managed to find when reading his book for the first time, come back to her.

 

“Attackers may sometimes regret their moves, but it is much worse to forever regret an opportunity you allowed to pass you by.”

 

She shakes her head.

 

No.

 

Something is clearly going through his mind after that. Something that appears monumental and exists outside the little world they currently cohabit. A realisation of some kind, but not yet acceptance and his eyes fall down to the board.

 

It all ends when Borgov tries to manoeuvre around her with his queen to attack her king, but she evades him and moves it out of the way, leaving him in a spot where she has both of his most important pieces more or less pinned down. Her hand lingers on her king while her eyes sweep the board, looking for any way he might counter her, finding none. When she lets it go, she looks up at him. He is looking right back and even gives her a small smile before he speaks the three most important words in her life up to that point.

 

“It’s you game.”

 

He looks calm now, and accepting, as if he has found peace with himself. It feels profound somehow and Beth can only continue gazing at him, their little world still not broken. Then he picks up his king and holds it out to her, only half smiling but eyes so warm.

 

“Take it.”

 

For a moment it seems that the black piece is instead a glimmering golden key, but the vision is gone as quickly as it appeared. In this very moment Beth is no longer interested in unlocking any more doors. She has finally reached the king and he is offering her a gift beyond measure. Not a piece of wood but a true look into himself. No façade. Only him to only her.

 

She wants to cry.

 

She is elated, ecstatic, relieved, moved, overwhelmed, euphoric.

 

And so very much in love.

 

She reaches out and takes his hand, the resigned king between them, but not enough to block out the feel of his large hand gripping hers. His thumb moves on top of her fingers and he bends his hand a little, pulling her own in deeper.

 

Just as the audience starts clapping for them, he smiles again, because this moment is still theirs and not just hers. But this time it is a wide smile that fills all of his face and lights up his eyes. It is impossible for her to look away. All she wants to do is remain there, their hands grasping each other, and eyes locked while he smiles and smiles and smiles at her like she is the most important thing in the world.

 

He does her one better.

 

Pulling her up to her feet he draws all of her in and embraces her, both of his arms around her and maybe even feeling the shiver that goes up her spine, where his hands rest. She is too taken by surprise and still too affected by the swirling emotions inside of her to grasp him back as tightly before he steps back. He does not release her yet, though, not fully, as his hands move up to her shoulders, steadying her but also giving them a gentle squeeze while his smile lingers.

 

Then the crowd around them becomes impossible to ignore when he relinquishes even that contact and joins them in their applause, transforming it from their to her moment. And then she can see them. All of the people who have witnessed her triumph, even if they are only aware of the one on the board. Mr Booth sits there, genuine appreciation on his face and she dares to believe it is not only due to an American winning over the Soviet World Champion. Luchenko smiling and nodding at her. And Townes, a bit further away, but happy enough for her she can see his eyes shining with unshed tears.

 

Everyone wants to greet her and as applause gives way to handshakes, she loses sight of Borgov. Every chance she gets, she tries to find him in the sea of faces surrounding her, but not once does she manage to locate him. But she understands. He wants to give this to her. Everyone’s undivided attention.

 

Besides, this is not the end. Other tournaments will come where she will see him again. Where they will see each other. Play each other. And in that euphoric moment she is brave enough to hope for more.

 

Since she is flying out tomorrow already, she uses that as an excuse not to celebrate. There is a risk she will be unable to say no to alcohol in her emotional state so best not take the chance. Drinking before her game with Borgov in Paris and ruining any chance she had to win was bad enough, but this would be worse. Because, if she got wasted now, it would taint the precious memory of him smiling at her, holding her hand, and embracing her.

 

Retiring to her room after a quick and light dinner, she takes a shower to help her relax and then crawls into bed, pulling the cover all the way up to her chin and staring up at the ceiling. It remains empty, but in that moment, it is nothing but comforting. In that moment, it would be nothing more than a distraction for the pieces to appear once more. She has no more games to go through at the moment. Only recent memories.

 

The last thing on her mind before she falls asleep mere minutes later, is his smile and the feeling of standing in his arms. Hiding behind his façade was not the machine she and the twins had joked about, but a real, warm, and giving man.

 

Not Borgov.

 

Vasily.

Chapter Text

The reception at the White House and Dinner at the Russian Chess Club in Georgetown would have to wait. Lyndon B. Johnson and his checkers and all those prominent dissidents could survive without her for an extra day or so. If she has to meet a person one-on-one it was no American that came to mind if she got to choose the company herself, and as for a whole group of chess playing Russians, well, she could think of one right there in Moscow.

 

A speech, or rather talking points, have been prepared for her, stressing the importance of having beaten the Soviets at their own game. She takes the note Mr Booth hands over to her, but barely looks at them. While the situation is vastly different, she has suddenly remembered the feeling of being a doll. An inanimate object fully in the hands of someone else. But this is much more serious than having someone decide her clothes for her. This is asking her to take on values she does not care for. To become nothing more than a mindless mouthpiece for a government that did not care to help her in her hour of need, but still expects her to do as they say without question the moment they could get something out of her.

 

After handing the note back she asks the driver to stop the car and he obliges. Shutting the door in her shadow’s face is highly satisfying and it is made even better when the car drives away before he has time to follow her. The driver is sure to give her enough time that their flight will have to be rescheduled, for whatever reason he might have. She is under no illusion that he does it for her. Not strictly.

 

The park is just as she remembers and this time she walks in among the tables, the old men, and their games, instead of staying at a distance and only wishing to take part. She has made it to the middle of their little area before one of the men does more than look at her with disbelief. He breaks the floodgate with his greeting and then they all want to talk to her. At first, she fears it will be the same crush of bodies as she experienced outside the building where all the games of the Invitational were played, but they leave her more than enough room to move around and shake their hands, one at a time. They are not interested in whatever celebrity status she has just achieved in Moscow, but the chance to meet and play someone who has excelled so at the game they all love.

 

There is only one man who does not leave his seat to come and welcome her. A brave soul indeed he seems to be, facing the Moscow winter without a hat, even if the weather has been described as unusually mild. Instead, he catches her eyes and silently invites her to play.

 

In that moment, she would like nothing more.

 

This is the group of Russian chess players she wants to spend time with. The ones still living in their homeland, steeped in their culture, and capable of helping her understand it better. Helping her understand Russian chess in a way no book can do.

 

It feels so much like the first time she sat down with Mr Shaibel in the magical realm of his basement and had her first taste of the world of chess. But it is simultaneously enormously different. This time she is the master and most important of all, everyone is smiling. Even her.

 

She sits down in the offered seat, feels the welcome wash over her again, and after putting their pieces into order she looks her opponent straight in the eyes. There is something familiar about him and at first she cannot say what it is. He looks nothing like anyone she has ever met with his lined face, straight white hair, beard, and moustache, but then something shifts in his eyes and she knows. While his face remains mostly passive, there is a joy bubbling underneath that surface she might not have recognised if it was not for another Russian man. While not exactly the same, his ability to express so much with so little is so reminiscent of Vasily that she cannot contain the smile her fluttering heart demands of her.

 

“Let’s play.”

 

The tongue-lashing Mr Booth gives her when she returns to the hotel at dusk is impressive to be sure, but her day has been too harmonious and joyful for her to care.

 

During the hours she had spent at the park she played most of the old men, all of them delighted when they inevitably lost, being able to go up against her more important than the end result. Not one of them asked her about the tournament, even if she let on she knew Russian, and it was the most freeing thing ever. There was no pressure, no eyes looking at her in a search for weakness, and no expectations. Only chess.

 

“So, are we leaving tomorrow then?” she simply asks once Mr Booth has finished the vocal part of his fury. It is the most emotional she has ever seen him by far and in a strange way it is comforting to know that he is capable of such things. The man sags in front of her, dragging a hand over his face and then just sighing.

 

“Yes. We are leaving tomorrow” he replies in a voice so tired she almost feels sorry for him. Instead, she goes to the hotel restaurant for a late dinner before curling up in bed and dreaming of being back in the park, but with a man opposite her that might be older, but not old. The darkness of his hair still intact, only a few small lines added to his face by age, and the smooth skin of his wrinkleless hands occasionally brushing against her own as they trade moves in quick succession. They are both smiling, now that she knows what his looks like.

 

Next morning, Mr Booth knows better than to heap appointments and various responsibilities on her while she still has a chance to get away. The note with talking points never re-emerges. In fact, he barely speaks a word to her during the whole flight and makes his escape the moment he can hand her over to the White House staff. She only has time to see him be greeted by a man in glasses off to the side before she is swept away.

 

She is mentally prepped for the media circus, having faced flashing lights and insistent questions before, but President Johnson is an entirely different matter. In the end, she feels lucky the press is there the entire time she is, never leaving her alone with the man, or she might have grown concerned.

 

With his imposing height, he uses it to his fullest advantage and make sure to tower over her, even if her own measurement is not on the short side. He presses her hand just a tad tighter than necessary when they shake hands and the brief look of warning in his eyes keeps her from reacting to it. He is not amused by her snub of him the day before and even if her victory in the Moscow Invitational means he cannot show open hostility, neither will he let her walk away feeling too good about herself.

 

They sit down by the chess set prepared for them, all the journalists to one side, taking pictures and asking questions. Once in a while a piece is moved, and Beth skips the opportunity to perform a scholar’s mate the president so readily hands her. No matter what happens on this board, it will not determine if she comes out the winner or loser from this situation, but to anger a man that powerful even further is definitely unnecessary.

 

Beth hates politics.

 

Keeping the game going until every person present has sated their curiosity about her grand American triumph, she can finally pin the president down and then just reach out her hand to thank him for the game. It is clear he had not seen his defeat until that gesture and once more she is treated to crushed fingers.

 

If she had been able to, she would have smiled at the irony. The leader of her own country, who should be nothing but happy with her after her monumental achievement, treats her hand as if it is Russian, while Vasily, her own main adversary, had treated it with such tenderness.

 

They make a show of him thanking her for her service to the country once more before she leaves, getting away with using none of the talking points they had tried to force down her throat so she could regurgitate them at the right moment. When the reporters had asked, she had simply said that she respects all chess players, no matter where they came from and was not politically minded at all and therefor had nothing of substance to say on that topic, but made sure to keep her eyes wide and smile innocent while doing so. They all bought it. Even a chess prodigy was bound to have their weaknesses.

 

Another government car waits outside, ready to take her to the second destination they have decided for her, but when she enters the backseat she finds she is not alone. When she hesitates the person holding the door open for her simply makes sure she continues all the way inside, with a careful yet firm nudge, and shuts it before she can ask what is going on.

 

It is the same man she saw Mr Booth meet earlier. The glasses, wavy hair in a typical back slick, somewhat prominent nose, and impeccable suit all pointing to someone of importance, but the black and red tie is more garish than anything she has seen on Vasily.

 

“Please have a seat, Miss Harmon. I only want to have a few words with you before we reach the club.”

 

The way he says it makes her wonder if reaching the club will end the conversation or if they will not reach it before the conversation is over. He has the look of a man that could easily make the latter happen. Nothing too remarkable about his looks but a surety in even the smallest of his gestures that hints of a man who has no doubts about being obeyed.

 

She sits down beside him and puts on the seatbelt before looking at him again, raising her eyebrows in silent inquiry.

 

“Ah. Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Henry Kissinger and will be working for Nixon when he is sworn in in January. I’ll be in charge of foreign affairs, and I must say your win against not only Mr Borgov, but all of the other players, have caught my interest. We sorely need every opportunity we can get to compete with the Soviets in a less aggressive way, you know, to balance everything else a little better. We must never risk ending up with another crisis on our hands like we had with Cuba in 62, which requires finding some common ground.”

 

“And you think I can help with that?” she asks faintly, not at all liking where this seems to be going.

 

“Exactly. I am currently looking into a great opportunity for you to be able to face off against the best Soviet players again very soon, but I need to know that you feel confident that you can beat them. At least most of them. No crushing defeats  at least, since that would rather undermine your recent performance.”

 

Wracking her brain for any tournament that might provide her with an opportunity to play against a large number of USSR chess players, she comes up empty. Currently, she is not even invited to any further international tournaments, which is most likely due to what happened in Paris. And while that is surely about to change now that she has not only beaten Vasily but also been granted the title of Grand Master because of it, there are few competitions that gathers more than a few of the Soviets. They do not seem to like to let too many of their players leave the country at the same time unless absolutely necessary, such as at the Chess Olympics.

 

Well, they should be granting her the title early next year due to her winning the Moscow Invitational in addition to her second place in Paris, despite the debacle she made of the last game. But it feels so much better to think of it as achieving that level due to her finally beating Vasily, and in Moscow of all places.

 

“And how would you make this happen?”

 

“You just leave that to us. Just say you’re ready to take them on and I’ll do my best to have an invitation dropped in your mailbox as soon as possible.”

 

Unsurprisingly her mind jumps straight to Vasily, and the pleasure she feels at the opportunity to meet him again comes as no surprise. A chance to maybe even talk to him now that he has more or less invited her to do so with his warm congratulation at her win over him. Hopefully, her cheeks are still a bit red from the cold so the heat she can feel in them now will go unnoticed. The man next to her, despite looking so relaxed and unassuming, feels much more dangerous than the President towering over her. The people who do not feel the need to flaunt their power are the ones to look out for.

 

“Yes. I believe I would be able to repeat my performance and win again.”

 

“Excellent. Then I hope you will enjoy you evening, Miss Harmon. I’ll contact you again at a later date.”

 

It unnerves her that the car stops just then, and the same stoic man that had more or less pushed her inside earlier now opens the door for her and helps her out. Such timing sends a chill down her back, and not the good kind she felt in Moscow, when she experienced the best hug of her life. Why is it that American politicians are so much more frightening than even the KGB?

 

The answer comes to her not even a minute later, while she is ushered into the club. Power. The KGB might want to exert power over her, but they can only do so much. Her own government on the other hand, can do with her pretty much as they like.

 

Fuck politics.

 

Not much later, as she sits down for the dinner, she is more interested in practising her Russian than comparing nations as soon as the journalist have left after the initial welcoming in the entrance hall. Despite having stayed nearly two weeks in the country, she had got awfully few opportunities to use the language. She had decided on arrival to not use it when Mr Booth was present, to avoid letting him in on the fact that she could understand everything he and the driver said. Problem was, he went everywhere she went, leaving the only true opportunity her time spent in the park yesterday.

 

After the dissidents came to realise she is not the normal communist-fearing American, they start to be more open with her, talking about the things they miss about their country of birth and not just why they had to leave. She is told of the beautiful wild nature, the silence over the ice-covered lake next to someone’s little home village, the spiritual tranquillity another always experienced in the Russian orthodox churches, the extra warm summer days when a third always ran to the river near the farm he grew up on to cool down in the clear water, or just the general sense of comradery among the hardworking but warm inhabitants of various places.

 

It all makes Beth wish she had been able to stay longer and sneak away to explore the real Russia. Not the few glamorous parts her role in the world of chess afforded her access to, but the side streets, the small shops and cafés, the surrounding countryside and villages. She also knows just who she would want for a tour guide.

 

Maybe it should feel strange how often Vasily is on her mind now, but somehow it just feels natural. He is no longer some distant opponent she had to conquer in order to prove her worth, the holder of the final key, but a real man whose warmth she has now both seen and felt. Her mind constantly goes back to the way he had smiled with such honesty when she won, the feeling of the black king clasped between their hands, and the sensation of being pressed against his firm chest while his arms embraced her and held her close.

 

Yes, it is indeed natural. She has finally realised what has simmered beneath her own surface, while she remained unaware, for so long. Or maybe it had been denial because the reality of it is unarguably complicated. And it is so different from what she had felt for Townes. That had been the hopeful fluttering of first love that never got to bloom, the buds cruelly plucked by the greedy little hands of disappointment, while this feels more like a steady river. Or at least the start of one. There is enough self-awareness in her to acknowledge that while she is in love, she does not feel actual love. Not yet at least. She might have come to understand him a lot more than she did when she first read his name or saw his picture, but it is not a strong enough foundation to make such claims. But she wants the chance to find out if it could deepen into that. Desperately.

 

It is the first time she has felt the potential.

 

After spending the night at a hotel in the capital, Beth goes straight to New York. She has some exceptionally fine friends there she needs to thank in person.

 

When she arrives at the basement apartment, they are all still there. Apparently, most of them have slept there, the three guests not living in the city on an inflatable mattress each in the main room while Benny characteristically hoggs the bedroom.

 

It is the former American champion himself who opens the door not long after she knocks on it and he is not late in smiling at her and pulling her into a hug before urging her down the steps so the others can give her the same treatment.

 

None of them compares to the hug from a few days ago.

 

“Wow, Beth” Benny says at last when everyone has sat down, rather squished together, around the coffee table, laying his hand on her shoulder and pressing it just as he had done after a particularly inspired move on her part when he trained her.

 

This time she feels nothing. At least not beyond friendship.

 

“That was some amazing playing” Harry chimes in. “We went through the second half of the game yesterday and I still can’t believe how you managed to get out of that unexpected move he pulled with that pawn to d5.”

 

“That’s because you lack her unconventional creativity” Benny responds for her, but without any real heat in his voice. It seems he has grown more tolerant of those less gifted than him. With some luck it might even extend to people not connected to her in time.

 

“As if you could have done it” Arthur objects. “Admit it, Borgov would have had you beat, old friend.”

 

“Er. Right” Benny says, not really replying, but at last letting go of her shoulder.

 

She remembers his plea for her to come over after Paris and his anger when she called about money for Moscow. She has suspected for some time that he might be too emotionally involved and would have to be careful now until she can ascertain if she is correct or not. Chess has kept her so busy she only has three lovers under her belt - and the first one barely counts - and she has never been in an outspoken relationship with any of them. She has no idea how to turn down the advances of a man that was not a stranger, and has far too few real friends to want to risk losing one in the process. It does not help matters that Benny, as Cleo had put it, has a love for himself that no woman could compete with. Or at least he has a love of chess that no one could compete with.

 

“How did you come up with it? Bishop to c5, I mean” Matt asks, leaning forward in his eagerness to find out what they are no doubt all curious about.

 

“I used my special powers and visualised the game on the ceiling of the hall we sat in and played through numerous sequences until I found one that would work” she replies in such deadpan that no one believes she is serious. She is happy to keep her secret without having to lie, and Townes, as the only person in the know, would never betray her. Well, Vasily and some people in the audience might have guessed, but they cannot know for sure.

 

“Alright, keep your secrets” Mike replies and tries to lean back against the wall between his brother and Harry, barely making it into the tight fit and Beth is happy she ended up on a chair. It is still beyond her how Benny can live like this.

 

“But honestly” Arthur cuts in, “please walk us through the game. It’s not the same to read the moves in a newspaper as hearing them from the victor herself.”

 

The others are all keen on encouraging her too and she is happy to comply and takes them all the way up to the adjournment before they have to break for lunch. Luckily, Benny is prepared and has filled his fridge with things to cook and for once Beth gets to remain seated while others labour in the kitchen. She fears it might affect the quality of the end product, but Harry, assisted by Hilton, surprises her with his skill.

 

“Wow” she remarks after her first bite, “if I’d known you were this good when you trained me, I’d have you do the cooking and me the dishes.”

 

“I… I’ve picked up some tips from Nancy” he replies, a blush staining his cheeks.

 

“Oh, Nancy huh?” she asks.

 

“Yeah. Ever since she started working at the supermarket about a year ago and we sort of… hit it off, it seems we like each other more and more” Harry explains, reaching up and rubbing his neck in a nervous gesture, though his smile is genuine.

 

Beth has never seen him this flustered, not even during their brief time together, and she is happy to see that he is in a relationship he is so emotionally invested in. Lord knows she did nothing to encourage him beyond that one time and very awkwardly - and slightly disingenuously - at that. If only Benny could find some nice chess-unrelated girl willing to put up with his obsession she would have all three of her most important chess boys happily settled.

 

She would save the man for herself, she thinks and leans her head forward to hide her smile behind the curtain of her hair, only for it to morph into a frown at the unwelcome memories that reminds her that he is married. Not to mention living across the world in a country that is in a cold war against her own. And constantly tailed by KGB agents when he travels. Not to mention that it will all come to nothing anyway unless he feels strongly enough about her to go against all of that. The stakes are much higher for him.

 

“Hey, you okay?” Benny asks and proceeds to almost fall off his own chair when he leans over to bump his shoulder against hers. It is lucky he has just put his empty plate back down on the table or it would surely have ended up in a thousand pieces on the floor when he undignifiedly has to wildly flail his other arm until he regains his balance.

 

“Fine. Just tired still is all.”

 

“Do… do you have a place to stay tonight?”

 

He has lowered his voice so as not to be overheard while the others have started arguing about who should clean up after their meal. After her still fresh triumph Beth feels entitled to opting out of that battle and no one objects.

 

“Not yet” she answers honestly.

 

“You… you could always stay here, you know.”

 

She looks around in the apartment, her eyes landing on the three still inflated mattresses leaning against the wall in one corner. Seems they are unwilling to go to the trouble of emptying them and pumping them back up every day. It is not unexpected to see Mike and Matt being lazy about it, but she is surprised about Harry, who has always been so proper. Maybe he succumbed to peer pressure?

 

“I don’t think you could fit another mattress here without one of us accidentally kicking someone in the face while we sleep.”

 

“No, I-“ he pauses to take a deep breath, steadying himself and she knows what he is about to offer before the words leave his mouth. “My bed’s still good enough for two.”

 

Damn.

 

“That’s very kind of you, Benny, but I don’t think that’s a good idea. Besides, I’m in need of a bath and I’m not in the mood to use your facilities with so many people staying here.”

 

His gaze slides away from her, the hopeful expression tightening into a grimace of disappointment he is unequal to hide. Well, they are both blunt people when they have to be and have both hurt each other before, so she refrains from trying to soften the rejection. Anything that might give rise to hope must be avoided or there will just be more hurt later.

 

She also wants to shut the topic down before he tries to get an explanation out of her. As if she needs a reason other than not wanting to in order to reject him. And if he presses too hard it might be impossible for her to lie convincingly. She can hardly state that she is in love with an unattainable man - with Vasily Borgov of all people, though she would never mention his name - without being emotionally unable to make light of it. And if Benny knew, he might just focus on the unavailability part rather than the love part and argue that she should not waste her time on such a man and that she ought to just try to get over him and move on. Or rather, move back, to Benny.

 

He would never understand that she does not need to have countless conversations with the man to get to know him. She has studied him since she was fifteen, she has seen him play and played him herself, finding him among the pieces on the board. She has also looked at him over the board and been seen in return. And she had felt a bond being created between them while they clasped a king between their hands. No, she is not about to give up on Vasily without giving it a try, despite all the obstacles life and the world has seen fit to throw up between them. She is nothing if not resilient.

 

For all other opponents, she needed to beat them to learn more about chess, but with Vasily, she needed to beat him to learn her heart. To be able to see beyond the intimidating façade of the current ruler of the chess world, despite the few glimpses she had managed to catch in both Mexico City and Paris, and find the warm and generous heart that lay at his core.

 

When he offered her the game and then his king, it had felt as if he was offering her the world and her heart was still waiting for him to fulfil that unspoken promise, despite the protests her logic listed. She was unsure if it would ever stop waiting.

 

“You sure?” he asks, surprising her with a second attempt.

 

“Yes, Benny. I value your friendship a lot, but I don’t feel-“

 

“That’s alright” he interrupts her with feigned nonchalance, but she can see the inch he unconsciously leans away. “Where will you go then?”

 

“I’m sure there must be some kind of hotel to be found in town, right.”

 

“I thought you were short on money” he replies, the bite in his tone a reminder of their phone call a while back and she has to swallow down her hurt and remind herself that she must give him some time to come to terms with her rebuff of his attraction, lust, feelings, or whatever it may be.

 

“I just won a big tournament” she reminds him in as soft a voice as she can manage, not wanting to appear to be gloating. The money might not have come through yet, but she still has enough left of the money she borrowed from Jolene to afford herself this luxury.

 

“Ah. Right. Good” he replies then stands up and walks over to the kitchen area to help the twins with the dishes, an uncharacteristic rigidness in his spine and shoulders.

 

Biting the inside of her cheek to keep from calling after him, she turns back to the three people who remain at the table with her. Harry catches her eyes and raises his eyebrows in question, while Arthur and Hilton are studying the board in front of them. It still holds her game since she demonstrated it along with her tale and they are discussing why they think Vasily – or Borgov as they refer to him – called for an adjournment at just that time.

 

“I’m fine” she mouths to the first champion she ever defeated.

 

He raises his brows even further, eyes flitting over to Benny for a moment. Remember, I don’t take your crap any longer, seems to be his meaning.

 

“I’ll be fine” she corrects, and he nods.

 

The afternoon is spent with her showing the second part of the game and then discussing it until she is too tired to think clearly. The pressure of both Moscow and Washington finally catching up with her. They all wish her an early goodnight, and only Benny’s smile is strained, before she goes out to find a cab that can take her someplace comfortable.

 

She checks into one of the fancier hotels in New York that night with a clean conscience and pays for a whole week in advance. Taking some time off, spend some of it with her friends and some of it just relaxing on her own, is something she has earned. Besides, there are a few months until her next grand tournament and even if she is going to do her utmost to stay sober, that does not exclude other kinds of indulgences.

 

It is noon when she wakes and she is blissfully rested, but stays in bed a good hour anyway, turning on the television and just whiling the time away before ordering lunch. While she waits, she walks over to the window and looks out, enjoying the way Central Park is stretching out in front of her. She decides to go for a walk later.

 

The food is the most American thing she could find on the fancy menu since she is still trying to wash away the Russian palate. Not that she found it all distasteful, with pelmeni, beef stroganoff and chicken Kiev all making a favourable impression. Then again, at least two of those dishes are already moderately popular in America, so she is hardly surprised at that. It is mainly the soups or when they cook the meat or fish in some strange way that she eats the bare minimum required to be polite. Even now, days later, she feels nauseous at the thought of kholodets, and the memory of borscht still makes her shudder.

 

When she returns, she orders for her clothes to get washed since she has gone through most of them by now. The front desk lets her know they will send someone up to collect them right away and have them washed over night if she wants, to which she agrees. Best to get it over with.

 

Unpacking the rest of her two suitcases, not having bothered with more than her toiletries and pyjamas the night before, along with a set of clothes for the day this morning, she hurries to put everything that needs washing on the bed while she hangs up or folds the few items that are still clean in the closet and chest of drawers.

 

Almost.

 

There is one dress, despite having been used, that goes into the closet. The off-white dress she wore for the second part of her game with Vasily. It was not the dress she had intended to wear when she hopefully won against him, but with the adjournment she could hardly come back in the preferred black piece of the day before.

 

Sha had worn her favourite dress, a simple but chic black number, for her two most anticipated opponents. Luchenko and Vasily. But since those games were the only ones she had to split up, maybe it is not a lucky one. No matter, it is no longer her favourite anyway.

 

Men could get away with not rotating their clothes, but not women. Especially women who were known for dressing glamorously. So, she had to make use of the dress she had packed more as a backup than anything, it being a more understated dress, less elegant, than the other ones she had brought. Despite that, she had won wearing it, and she had been embraced by Vasily wearing it.

 

Leaning in, she can still smell his cologne on the fabric, and she would neither wear nor wash it while that scent still lingers. That and the black king are the only mementos of him she will have until whatever point in time they will meet again and she can make sure to somehow get her hands on something more. Her heart beats harder at the thought of adding to her depressingly small collection when that happens, various possible scenarios flitting through her mind and every new one making her feel giddier than the last.

 

She meets with her friends at a restaurant Hilton had recommended that evening. Harry, along with Matt and Mike, has to return to Kentucky the next day, so it is the last chance for all of them to see each other for some time. She makes sure to end up in the seat between Harry and Arthur, with Benny next to the twins on the other side and not in a good position to talk to her.

 

Even if it does make her think more of Vasily than she would like when not on her own, she is happy to listen to her friend talk about Nancy and the hopes for a shared future with her he has started to harbour more seriously. Arthur is also highly pleasant company. Happy to talk chess, but not as overenthusiastically as Hilton tends to tackle the subject, and they discuss the merits and drawbacks of a few openings between the main course and dessert. Surprisingly, he has some interesting insights to share with her and when she takes a cab back to the hotel she feels as if she has come away learning something new.

 

With only Benny left in the apartment he tentatively invites her to stay there once more on the phone the next day, but she declines as politely as she can, saying the hotel is already paid for and she has no wish to pack all of her things again just to stay less than a week somewhere else. She only visits his place twice in that time, and both times making sure Arthur and Hilton are also there. Except for another dinner at a restaurant, she keeps to herself and feels a sense of calmness return to her that she has not felt in a very long time.

 

Sure, there are a lot of things in her life that are unsure, but at least they are mostly positive. Her sobriety continues to hold with little effort as the giddy feeling of new love buzzes in both her heart and mind and even if she has no idea when she will see Vasily again, she is not discouraged. Mr Kissinger might be a scary person, but it also means she has more confidence in him being able to pull off what he talked about, with helping her face off against some Soviet players again and possibly quite soon.

 

On the last day before she flies down to Lexington, she goes on a shopping trip. New York is full of places where she can buy elegant clothes and after putting so many of her dresses on display in Moscow she feels a need to add to her wardrobe. People might like to call her vain because of it, but she simply loves the feeling of being fully in control of her life. And how she looks is a huge part of that.

 

With four shopping bags in her hands, she is on her way to the curb in order to hail a cab when her eyes are drawn to a lady in a bright red coat that is just passing a newsstand only a few yards away. Doing the calculation in her head she realises a new issue of ‘Chess Review’ should be out that very day and she heads over to see if they sell it.

 

The picture on the front is of her outside the entryway of the building the Moscow Invitational was held in after she had just won the game against Vasily. She is smiling, but seemingly unaware of the camera as her eyes have something of a distant quality to them. As if her mind was elsewhere. Such as on the man she had just managed that magical win against. She pays for an issue and tucks it into one of the bags to read when she gets back to the hotel.

 

Dealing with the packing first since it is an early flight the next day and she does not want to have to deal with anything unnecessary in the morning, she then sits down with the magazine only after she has ordered dinner through room service and goes straight for the article on Moscow. The praise of her is unsurprisingly glowing with the American chess community overjoyed about her triumphant perfect score. Little is mentioned even of Vasily, much to her chagrin, and what little there is seems to focus mostly on his uncharacteristic lack of calm during that last part of their game. At least they mention his pawn to d5 that nearly had her undone. An inspired move on his part and she hopes he will come up with many more in the future.

 

Unlike with more or less all other players, she feels no desire to leave him behind. To always be able to defeat him now that she has managed her first, like the shift between her and Benny. Vasily is the best there is and she wants to continue playing him like that, so she can continue to learn and grow. Her heart longs for them to do it together.

 

When she turns the page to see what else has happened in the world of chess she is met with an unexpected headline. Due to old age and recently developed health problems the long serving President of FIDE has announced his resignation. Folke Rogard had served with distinction since the year after she was born and been a highly important background character in the world of chess, preferring to steer the organisation he presided over with humility mixed with a rigorous moral code and quiet determination.

 

Talks were that none other than former World Champion Max Euwe would be elected as his successor. The only man to take the title away from Alekhine himself, since the man had died with it after reclaiming it. She hopes it might lead to her meeting the man at some point. The only other player she has talked to that has played the late chess legend is Luchenko and she has no idea how much he remembers from that game due to how young he was when it took place. She also did not have the opportunity to ask him about it since the only time they had to talk was a few minutes after their game.

 

Seen from an international perspective that is most likely more newsworthy than her win. It is indeed rare for the post of President of FIDE to change hand. In fact, it is only the second time and there is no doubt that the topic is widely discussed in many places around the globe. Even Beth feels inspired by it and decides to go over the two matches between Euwe and Alekhine if he is elected, or possibly either way. She has a much higher appreciation of all kinds of chess now, but the latter has always held a special place in her heart, along with Capablanca.

 

Another article talks about the match for the title of World Champion that will be held during the second half of summer next year. But only the fact that it talks some about Vasily is what keeps her attention to it since it mostly deals with the logistics of it all. For her, that is of little consequence since she is not involved. She hopes to be able to get all the way to that match that is the very pinnacle of chess, in three years. She also hopes Vasily will remain World Champion until then so she can challenge him for the title. Playing her way through twenty-four consecutive games against him seems like the perfect dream and she will not rest until she can see it through. Maybe, just maybe, she can come away with more than a title from such an encounter.

Chapter Text

The blue house looks as it always has when Beth returns, and she smiles at the feeling of home it gives her. Perhaps it is only her living there, but it is her place. Her property. Her sanctuary. She is free to do as she likes within those four walls. Free to dance around to her favourite songs. Free to make her neck go sore with hours bent over a chess set or book on the topic. Free to sit down at her mother’s grand piano, tentatively push the keys to produce what can barely be described as music and cry.

 

Her fingers, so adept at pushing pieces across a board seems nothing but fumbling and utterly uninspired pieces of stale flesh when the black and white of chess is exchanged for the black and white of a piano. There is a degree of regret in her then, wondering why she never asked Alma to teach her to play. Chess had kept her busy, but not to such an extent. It could have been something for them to share. Her trying to learn and understand her mother’s passion just as Alma had tried to understand her own.

 

Swallowing down the bitterness and blinking away the tears, she closes the lid and stands back up, looking for something to distract herself with. It is too early to start dinner and not having gone to the supermarket yet, there is nothing but tinned food in the house anyway since she cleared everything fresh out before leaving for Moscow. After the relative filth she had ended up living in when she had gone on her nosedive down to the bottom of the barrel she had promised herself to never be embarrassed by the state of her home again.

 

Half an hour later, Beth finds herself strolling down an isle with spices on one side and various bottled sauces on the other, trying to find something to use with the chops of pork that already rests in her cart. Alma had been a fan of tv dinners, even if she cooked at times too, but Beth was still a novice, knowing barely more than what she needed to survive with some variation. Jolene had taught her some when she stayed over, and had suggested it being a good way for her to distract herself from the desire to drink her meals. It seemed as good a strategy as any and Beth had decided to give it a go if Moscow had been enough of a success. She doubted she would have been able to stay on the narrow path if she had failed there like she did in Paris, and then the manner in which her food was cooked would have been the least of her troubles.

 

She has also promised herself to take up her Russian studies again. She knows enough to have simpler conversations and understands more of what others says than she can say herself, so there is a lot of room for improvement. She still has the books, and now also a lot of time along with a brain that she needs to keep busy.

 

When she exits the supermarket and turns towards the bus stop, a full bag in each hand, she is briefly struck by the thought of stopping by Lex Liquors before going home. Simply take the bus in the other direction, further in towards the city centre, and add only about forty minutes to her trip. Since it is winter, her groceries would surely survive it. There is undoubtedly some kind of wine that would go well with the dinner she has in mind. And there is no one at home who would see. No one to find out. No one to share her meal with. Those four walls would protect her secret. And did she not deserve a little something for having been good for so long?

 

As luck would have it, the bus that will take her home turns a corner and up the road just then and she is running in order to catch it before she knows what she is doing. She is slightly out of breath after the relatively short sprint and after paying for her fare she slumps down on one of the seats, placing her shopping bags on the one next to her.

 

Physical exercise was another suggestion Jolene had given her. To lose herself in movement and turn it into a healthier addiction than the ones she has already laid at her own feet. A brief image and sensation flits through her mind then, of a very particular physical activity performed with a very particular man. She still remembers the way the three boys she has been with felt like, but pairs the skill of Benny with the sensation of a more solid body against her own. One she already knows what it is like to be pressed up against.

 

She almost chokes on her breath and ducks her head after a gasp escapes her, mortified at the possibility of having been overheard by any of the other passengers. The thought is promptly pushed to the back of her mind, but not discarded. Simply saved for later.

 

But playing out that scenario is what would be a real treat. Not pouring alcohol down her throat and ruin whatever tiny chance she hopes she has of seeing it come true. If she ever allows a repeat of Paris, she has no doubt that Vasily will lose faith in her and discard her as another wasted talent in chess. One that fell even before she could reach zenith. There would be no more smiles. No more kings clasped between their hands. No more being held in his arms, feeling the tentative bond she knows has formed between them. It is a sobering thought and one to hold on to.

 

The dinner turns out well enough and she feels she might be on to something. There is even enough left over for at least two more meals, which is a blessing. Cooking once or even twice each day might be a good distraction, but she would likely soon go spare over having to come up with new things to try so regularly or turn herself off the effort entirely by repeating a few recipes so often she will come to hate it all. Tins still had their uses, as well as home delivery.

 

Deciding to go to bed early after her long day she has her pyjama pants halfway up her legs when her eyes fall on the black king standing on her nightstand and she stops pulling them up and instead lets go. Stepping out of the puddle of fabric around her feet she fetches a nightgown while at the same time discarding the shirt. The mixture of memory and fantasy that came to her on the buss is back at the front of her mind now and she needs easy access for what she has decided to do. With the real thing out of reach, there is only one option open to her.

 

Mere minutes later she lies in bed, head turned to the side so she can see both the king and the cover of Vasily’s book she has placed there in a standing position, easily imagining the gaze of the real man on her as her hands travel her already heated and eager body. It is harder to transform her thin fingers into his masculine ones, but her release comes far too soon anyway, the fantasy of him, along with hope, enough to drive her over a swift edge.

 

Tears over her loneliness threatens to fall once she has come back down from the high and turns her head to the cold and empty side of her bed, but instead she ends up laughing at the absurdity of it all. Of how she has fallen in love with a man that seemingly has a list of things that keeps them apart that is longer than the one with things she knows about him. At least only the one list is set to grow.

 

She lifts her hands up above the cover, spreading the fingers on one and ticking them off, one after the other.

 

“He is married. He has a child. He is a Soviet. He is an important enough Soviet that the KGB seems to keep extra tabs on him. Far too many idiots would think him too old for her.”

 

It seems an impossibility when all put together like that, but then she starts over.

 

“He might be unhappy and wants to seek his pleasure elsewhere, or maybe even a divorce. I wouldn’t ask him to give up his son. We could see each other at tournaments. Maybe he feels too watched by the government and wants to defect. I don’t give a fuck about what those idiots might think.”

 

There is a level of wishful thinking involved, she is well aware, but neither is any of it outside the realm of possibility. Would a man that was fully in love with his wife or blindly devoted to his country give her, an American, such a hug at such a moment?

 

Having invited Townes and his partner to come and spend Christmas with her, Beth starts to prepare for the holiday when it draws closer not long after. She has scoured the cooking books Alma had left behind for good recipes and is in the process of writing a shopping list a mile long. A great deal of it might honestly be beyond her skill, even if she has improved some since she started to actually make an effort, but she knows that John has cooking as a hobby and excels at it. At least that is what Townes had said when he told her of his, to her, new partner over the phone.

 

Even if she no longer has any romantic feelings for her friend, it is still a relief that he had ended things with Roger not all that long after Las Vegas, since she associates him with a most humiliating experience for her. John also seems to be the kind of person she could get along with, but that might be her bias speaking. She will simply have to make her own judgement when they arrive in a few days.

 

It is strange to think they have lived in the same city for years without her knowing. All because her petulance and awkwardness after getting her heart broken. But before she can become morose over it the phone distracts her. Placing the second paper of her shopping list in the recipe book to not lose her place she heads over to the ringing device and picks up the receiver.

 

“Beth speaking” she says, expecting to hear her friend on the other end.

 

“Miss Harmon. Wonderful to talk to you again.”

 

Both fear and excitement claw their way up her spine as she recognises the voice as that of Mr Kissinger. Could it be that he has already found a promising tournament for her? There will only be a handful prominent international ones during the spring and then nothing of note during summer since most of July and all of August would be when Vasily tries – and hopefully succeeds - to defend his title of World Champion against his countryman, Viktor Korchnoi.

 

It makes her briefly think of Georgi Girev and his goal of claiming the title at the age of sixteen. At least he had succeeded in becoming the youngest grandmaster in history since he had placed well enough at the Sousse Interzonal and qualified for the Candidates, which automatically granted him the honour. But while he had managed to edge out a win against Svetozar Gligoric in the quarterfinals, Korchnoi had beaten him in the semi. Still, it was an impressive feat, showing that he has surely come a long way since she saw him two and a half years ago and she very much looks forward to the next time their paths will cross.

 

“Likewise” she replies, hoping he will give her a reason to make it true.

 

“I’ve called you with an update on the topic we discussed last. You remember I trust.”

 

“Very much so.”

 

Even if it had not been so recent, she would never be able to forget. Neither the man himself nor what he had presented himself as capable of achieving.

 

“Excellent. I’ve been in contact with Andrei Gromyko, that’s the Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs as they like to call it, for some time now as we’re both eager to see ways for our two nations to interact in ways that won’t risk us ending up with a nuclear war and we’ve come up with an intriguing idea. Or rather, I came up with it and he agrees with it. So, I want you to keep May free, alright. If everything goes according to plan, your country will need you then, Miss Harmon. Can I count on you?”

 

“Of course” she replies immediately, intrigued by the notion that two high ranking politicians on different sides of the Iron Curtain could be on amicable enough terms to do something chess related. No matter what it is, she would not want to miss out.

 

“Good. I’ll call again once I’ve managed to confirm the whole thing so you’ll know a day or two before the press, alright. But it won’t be until Nixon is sworn in, mind you. Can’t be seen as stepping on Johnson’s toes, you see. The man’s in a foul mood as it is over the fallout over our little war over in Vietnam.”

 

“Thank you.”

 

“Then I wish you a good day, Miss Harmon.”

 

“Good day” she replies, instinctively knowing he is the kind of man who prefers as succinct answers as possible, and then the call is over.

 

Outside of when she forces herself to continue the preparations for Christmas, all her mind is capable of focusing on are two things. Buzzing about what Mr Kissinger and Mr Gromyko might be up to and being fried almost every night – and some mornings – as she imagines sharing her bed with Vasily. The initial embarrassment she had felt at the frequent repeats of the activity has faded by now. Her longing for the real thing - for his company in any capacity really – only expands further and further by each day that pass by in loneliness and there is no longer any place for anything that can lead to regret. Her feelings are still complicated and brings with them a host of tempestuous thoughts when she allows the notion to widen beyond his person, to his family and the cursed political climate of the world. But there, within the four walls of her house, or at least the confines of her bed, she allows herself the luxury of letting her imagination run wild.

 

Only the arrival of Townes and John breaks her out of the cycle and she is able to focus on something else. She has just put the lasagna – which she is very proud of having managed to put together - in the oven when the doorbell rings and she rushes to welcome them, more than ready to have some real company again.

 

“Townes!” she exclaims the moment the door is open and then wastes no time in embracing him.

 

It is such a balm to have him with her again. Out of everyone left alive in her life, only Jolene would be able to say she knows her better.

 

“Harmon. Wonderful to see you again” he replies and returns the hug before letting go and taking a step back so she can see the other young man on her front porch. “This is John Parker, successful accountant by day, master hobby chef by night and always amazing boyfriend. John, this is Beth Harmon, always top-notch chess player and recently once again great friend.”

 

Beth barely has time to even begin extending her hand when she finds herself engulfed in another embrace. It is so warm and effortless she finds herself melting into it, despite it being a stranger she shares it with. Townes gives her an amused look at her easy acceptance, and she pokes her tongue out at him before allowing John to decide when to end the hug.

 

“So happy to finally meet you, Beth. This one has talked about you for years I’ll have you know. You should have seen him when he found out you’d gone alone to Moscow and the earful he gave that Watts character when he called him to ask about it.”

 

“Hey, let’s not go into that now” Townes interrupts, “we’ll let all the heat out of the house if we stand here much longer.”

 

Beth agrees, but feels herself filling with warmth at John’s revelation, despite having been outside for a few minutes in insufficient clothes. She had no idea who had instigated the help she got with her game against Vasily, but now it seems it was her oldest chess friend. A young man that cared for her enough that he had travelled to the very heart of enemy territory in pursuit of her. So, as soon as they are inside, she steps over to him, rises up on her toes, and presses a kiss to his cheek.

 

“Thank you” she whispers, and he nods in return with eyes serious enough that she knows neither of them takes his action lightly.

 

Giving them the short tour of the house, she then leaves them to unpack in the master bedroom while she goes and makes sure the lasagna does not end up a lump of indistinguishable charred remains. She had decided to sleep in her old room, since that bed is smaller, when she issued the invitation, and had moved enough of her clothes over to make space for theirs. The bed linens were also fresh and most important of all, the black king, Vasily’s book and that old issue of ‘Chess Review’ with his picture in it are safely tucked away in her old room where neither of them can stumble upon them. They might mean nothing to John, but she has a feeling Townes would be able to draw some conclusions far too close to the truth for her liking.

 

As the day progresses, John continues to give a favourable impression, with a smile always lurking at the edge of his face when not on it, a joke never far away from being delivered at just the right moment, and a truly remarkable skill in the kitchen. Townes had not exaggerated when he praised the man’s abilities. His looks are unassuming, though leaning towards handsome, with light brown hair, green eyes, facial features that lend themselves to his frequent smiles and a body that tells of someone who works out to a moderate extent but also enjoys eating the results of his hobby. And the next morning he gives her one very distinct reason to like him even more. He does not burst in unexpectedly when she and Townes has a private conversation. In fact, he seems to go out of his way to avoid it.

 

The exchange happens after breakfast, with her and Townes sitting in the kitchen while John has excused himself and left the house to go and buy a lastminute Christmas gift. Maybe she should have suspected something was coming, but she somehow remained clueless. Instead, she simply makes a cup of coffee each for them before taking the place next to her friend on the barstools by the counter. They remain silent for a little while, sipping at the still too warm brew, before he asks her how she is doing.

 

The question itself could be seen as innocent, but the way he looks at her when asking is what gives the heaviness of the topic away. From there it does not take much for her to understand that he has sent his boyfriend away to give himself the opportunity to talk to her and she loves him all the more for it.

 

“I’m doing well” she responds, putting down her cup so she can focus fully on her friend.

 

“Are you sure?”

 

“I believe you looked through the bathroom cabinet both down here and upstairs last night” she points out with a smile to show she is not mad at him over it.

 

“You could be hiding your little pills in other places too” he replies in the same amused tone and shrugs his shoulders, letting her choose a lighter mood for their conversation.

 

“They’re not so little I’ll have you know. But no, I don’t have any in the house. I got rid of all of them when I got back from Moscow and New York. The alcohol was already gone since Jolene visited and even if I’ve been tempted a few times, I haven’t restocked.”

 

“Then I’m proud of you. And you know, if you can beat Borgov of all people without all of that shit, you can do anything.”

 

“Thanks Townes” she says and leans in to rest her head on his shoulder, both to bask in their friendship, but also to hide her face from him when he mentions Vasily, afraid of his ability to read her.

 

“You’ve come such a long way Harmon, never forget that. You’ve made it through a broken childhood home, an orphanage and then entering the chess world with nothing but a supportive but topically clueless mother to lean on, who you lost far too soon. Yes, you had some stumbles along the way, but you never stayed down for long. I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone stronger than you.”

 

“Maybe. But I’m not sure I’d be here still without my friends. Jolene in particular. If she hadn’t showed up after Mr Shaibel died…” she trails of as the tears arrive and drags a lump up her throat with heavy chains that threatens to choke her on their way. That latest death in her life is still fresh enough to cut too deep. “I… I feel so… so wretched he had to die in… in order for me… to live.”

 

“Hey. His death didn’t have anything to do with you. Never think that. That’s just the way life is. Sometimes people die and there is no rhyme or reason in it. For whatever reason, his time had come and there’s nothing you could’ve done to prevent it.”

 

He places his arm around her, pulling her in closer, and then sits still, silently lending her his support while she cries. After the stressful year she has had, it is heaven to once more be able to release some of the pressure and have someone to both literally and figuratively lean on while she does. Someone who would never let her slip from the narrow path she has found her way back to.

 

The smell of coffee remains with them while they sit in silence, the cups almost untouched and too cold to drink by the time they are remembered. It matters little in the grand scheme of things and she washes them out without refilling them once her tears have calmed down and she trusts herself with the task of walking them over to the sink. She also splashes some cold water on her face once she is done and uses the still damp tea towel to wipe herself dry. Townes makes a mock grimace at her action, but is laughing only a moment later when she chucks it at him, hitting him squarely in the face to both of their surprise.

 

Christmas day is full of good food, thoughtful gifts, and excellent company. John cooks a small turkey to near perfection and prepares most of the other dishes too. Beth is sure the only reason Townes has kept his fit figure is because he does not share an apartment with his partner and has to cook his own food a lot of the time.

 

With bellies full and a little sleepy while their bodies try to handle the excessive eating they have indulged in, they move to sit by the coffee table, her in the armchair and they on the couch. It is such an everyday scene Beth cannot help but smile. She is unused to normality and while she has only longed for some aspects of it, it leaves her feeling content now.

 

“Urgh. Why do you have to be such a damned good cook” Townes groans after plopping down and going straight into a reclining position that leaves him somewhere between sitting and lying down and carefully rubs his abdomen.

 

John just laughs and swops in for a kiss to the cheek before sitting down himself and pulling his boyfriend’s hand into his own.

 

“I’m trying to fatten you up so much, dear, you’ll never be able to leave me” John mock confesses.

 

“I knew it. It’s impossible to meet any good men these days. You all have some hidden agenda” Townes shots back, but his inability to do more than turn his head without groaning pitifully does more to take the sting out of his tone than his fond smile.

 

“Then if I’m so terrible, maybe I shouldn’t give you any gifts this year.”

 

“Or maybe you’re the one not getting any. You haven’t forgotten that Santa doesn’t come for naughty children, right? Maybe all you’ll find inside that pretty wrapping paper is a measly old lump pf coal. Would only serve you right.”

 

Beth smiles at the couple as they tease each other. It is so rare for her to witness a functional relationship that she simply has to take as much of it in as possible while she has the chance. Maybe get some pointers for future use.

 

That thought makes her sober up. There is every chance she would never get to experience that kind of effortless affection with anyone. Gosh darn it all to hell! Why did her heart and mind have to get so tangled up that the only people she feels drawn to shares chess with her, but also has to connect with her emotionally? A very rare combination to say the least and one she has only felt with one man. One man who is the definition of unattainable. There is probably a picture of him in the dictionary to go with the entry and women and men all across the world would see that picture and perfectly understand the meaning of the word.

 

“Hey. You okay Harmon?”

 

Looking up, she finds Townes gazing back at her, a concerned frown on his face.

 

“If… if we make you uncomfortable, we can stop” he offers, glancing down at his hand that is still holding John’s and trying to hide his fear at what an affirmative from her would mean.

 

“No!” she protests loudly. Too loudly. Clearing her throat, she tries to explain, without giving away too much. “I… I don’t mind you two together. Honestly. I find you rather adorable really.”

 

John shots her a grin, but Townes knows her better than that.

 

“So, what has you looking so sad on Christmas day?”

 

Oh. They are having this talk in front of a man, that even if she already likes him, she has only known for two days. Her friend seems to read her thoughts and gives her a rueful look, trying to apologise without words.

 

“I guess I’m simply a little envious of you. Of what you have together” she adds to make sure there are no misunderstandings. She has no idea how much Townes has told his boyfriend about her. About their past. “While I don’t mind being on my own most of the time, it can sometimes be… well… lonely.”

 

“I’m sure you’ll find someone before you know it” John says, a seriousness in his tone that makes her think he has picked up on at least some of the subtext. “Look, I might not have known you all that long, Beth, but from what I’ve seen, and the things Townes has told me, you’re an amazing person and any man or woman would be lucky to have you.”

 

“Thank you.”

 

“Right. Time to cheer us all up with the gifts I think” Townes says then, changing the topic for her, and makes the herculean effort of getting to his feet to fetch the colourful packages from their perch beneath her largest cactus. It stands between the TV and the bookcase in the corner and has been decorated with a garland of glitter in place of a Christmas tree. They are booth green and prickly, so it is close enough in Beth’s mind. It is also the only kind of plant she can manage to keep alive with the combination of her long trips for tournaments and complete lack of green thumbs. She briefly muses on whether or not it says anything about her that only desert dwelling plants are capable of surviving her company but decides that it is pointless to read anything into such things. Especially when they are about to unwrap their gifts.

 

With them all sharing a taste for expensive things, there are not many gifts, but they are all happy with what they end up with. John receives a gold watch and a silk tie – which seems to be some kind of private joke between them – from Townes and gold cufflinks with a simple engraving forming a keyhole from her.

 

Townes finds himself with two custom-made fountain pens in a leather etui – his name engraved on all three items – and a cooking book aimed at children – which is the gift bought the day before - from John and cufflinks matching John’s from her, but with a key on each instead. Those first two gifts along with a book on nature photography that she also gives Townes had been bought in New York. The latter had been purchased with the intention of being a future birthday gift at the time, but once plans had been made for the holiday, she could not wait to give it to him. And with more international tournaments being a certainty now she will have plenty of new and interesting places to find him something else in.

 

Her own three gifts contain a beautiful chess board in light and red sandalwood, a box in the same materials containing the matching pieces and a gold chain with a small white queen pendant made from marble. It is without a doubt some of the best gifts she has ever received, and they get to share the fourth spot. Mr Shaibel’s book is now in third, having been knocked down from second by the black king now resting in a drawer in her old desk. The Bulova watch her mother gifted her holds on to first place by the sheer force of the bond it represents, which is still the most important in her life.

 

Boxing day is the last full day they can keep up their bubble of uncomplicated love and friendship. She knows Townes and John are careful with their relationship, both of them having respectable jobs in a conservative part of the country. It seems Roger’s increasing unwillingness to respect her friend’s desire for this, feeling he was put in second place – which Townes confided in her he fears might have been correct - is what ended their relationship. So, they live in separate apartments and are careful to never show more than friendship when together in public. The walls of her house have allowed them a rare opportunity to just be themselves around the clock without leaving Kentucky, or the whole South truly. She feels sorry for their predicament, but really, she has it worse. A marriage, an ocean, a continent, and a Cold War stands between her and the man she longs for.

 

They go for a walk in the neighbourhood in the morning then spends the whole afternoon and evening inside, whiling away some time by the tv and some just talking. After dinner John makes them hot chocolate and then sits and watch while she and Townes play a few quick games of chess. He is not even close to winning and they both smile knowingly every time he makes a show of tipping his king over. It feels so familiar and safe, yet new at the same time. Playing just for the fun of it is still a novelty to her.

 

They are set to leave after lunch on their last day and John, assisted by Townes – who is relegated to making the salad - stands in the kitchen, preparing something of a goodbye feast apparently, as if they have not gorged themselves enough already. They have packed their things and the bags stand in the hallway, ready to be carried out to the car once the dishes are done and whatever today’s topic of discussion at the table would be has been exhausted.

 

Beth is busy moving back the stuff she had brought with her across the hallway and putting everything in order. The sheets her guests had used are already in the washing machine and she has made the bed again with her own. She is almost done, just putting away the last of the clothes she has not used in the wardrobe when the floor creaks a bit behind her.

 

She drops the blue dress she still holds, one end of the hanger a mere inch from painfully landing on her right foot, and swings around, taken by surprise. It is only Townes and she laughs at herself while she holds a hand over her pounding heart. Maybe it is her newfound closer relationship to politics that has made her so jumpy.

 

“You scared me” she admonishes him.

 

“Sorry” he says, but does not look at her. Instead, his eyes are on the black king with the white top on the nightstand he stands next to, a thoughtful expression on his face.

 

She swallows hard.

 

“This is the piece Borgov gave to you, right?”

 

The inflection indicates a question, but she is unsure if it really is one. Or if it is a guise for the one he really wants to ask. With her breath lodged in her throat she does not dare to do anything other than take him literally.

 

“Yes.”

 

“They let you keep it then?” he continues, allowing her to set the tone for now.

 

 “Well, obviously” she quips, unable to follow up with a smile. Her heart is beating even faster now, and she can feel her pulse uncomfortably in her throat, while she is fully aware of what has just happened and what is about to happen. Townes has taken a step right to the edge of her secret and waits for her permission to cross the border.

 

He knows.

 

Or suspects.

 

Strongly.

 

“You also keep his book close at hand” he goes on, leaning down so he can brush the top of his fingers against the cover. “It seems well read.”

 

“Of course. I’ve tried to beat him for years, so the more I know about him the better.”

 

“And now that you have?”

 

He is gentle but unrelenting.

 

“Now…”

 

When she quietens, unable to outright lie, he finally looks up at her, nothing but warmth and understanding in his eyes. Damn the man and him being such an earth shatteringly good friend now that she has let him. At least there is no pity. Pity is worse than anger. Worse than disappointment. Worse than disdain. Because all of those she can justifiably and openly be resentful of in return. Pity is the numbing of her body and death of her soul.

 

“Come here” he says, holding out his arms in invitation and she is inside them in seconds, the tears signed Vasily she has held at bay without knowing it since Moscow at long last pouring out.

 

They just stand like that for she knows not how long, her hands gripping his shirt, one of his stroking her back while his other arm holds her tight against him.

 

“You’re a horrible guest, you know. That’s the second time you’ve made me cry” she jokes after calming down, voice muffled in his chest. She can feel the dampness of his shirt against her skin when she moves against it. A stain of tears and possibly some snot she has placed there.

 

“Yeah, I know.” He pauses. “Do you want to talk about it?”

 

“Are you sure you want to listen?”

 

“If it’ll make you feel better, of course I want to. I do know a thing or two about how troublesome love can be when you don’t fall for the kind of person everyone expects you to.”

 

A wet and wobbly laugh escapes her at that. She had been thinking something similar so recently.

 

“Is that a yes?”

 

Slowly unfurling her by now slightly stiff fingers from the fabric of his shirt, she nods against him. If he is already aware, it might do her some good to get it off her chest. A burden shared is a burden halved, or so they say.

 

“Right. Best get comfortable first, and I must say I’ve rather enjoyed your bed these last few nights. Maybe I should get myself a new one.”

 

With them both sitting in bed, backs to the headboard and her curled up against his side with his arm around her, she is at long last ready to unburden her heart.

 

“In a way I think it started the first time I saw a proper picture of him” she begins. “I was at a tournament in Houston, mother and I flew in a little early so we could use the spa at the hotel. I remember it as if it were yesterday. I sat in a chair, some horrible green stuff on my face and getting a pedicure while I read ‘Chess Review’. And when I turned yet another page, there he was, looking straight up at me with a challenge in his eyes. I had been aware of him much longer of course, and even seen photos taken while he was playing, but never close or a portrait like that, and knew he is the best. But in that moment, it really sank in, you know, and a little bit of an obsession started I’m ashamed to say.”

 

“Well, he’s not entirely unfortunate looking. Just strip him of that severe Russianness and he might even be attractive” Townes interjects, eliciting the smile from her he aimed for.

 

“I’m going to pretend you did not just say that. You have your own man, so hands off mine.”

 

She wants to laugh, but it gets stuck in her throat and comes out in the form of a strangled cough instead. Vasily is not her man. He belongs to someone else. Two someone, in fact, and if she ever did more than fantasise about him, she’d officially be an aspiring homewrecker. In truth, she already is.

 

“Beth?”

 

Slumping even further into her already hunched position, she tells him everything. About the first time she saw him, and his wife and child, at that zoo. About his façade, about the elevator, about not looking at her while crushing her that first time they played.

 

About Paris, where he did look at her, but she wished he would not. About his family being there, to watch and support him and her having no one. About her second defeat.

 

About her slowly becoming aware of her growing feelings for him, but unable to admit to them. About crashing straight down into a seemingly bottomless ocean of pills and alcohol. About Jolene coming to tell her Mr Shaibel had died and saving her life in the process, even if he already knows about that part.

 

He holds her closer then, and nearly twists his back off when he manoeuvres himself so he can press a kiss to her brow and saying how he wishes he could have been there for her before they lapse into silence. Tears fights to make their way to the surface, but she resolutely holds them back now. She has cried enough for one day.

 

The faint sound of John moving about downstairs reaches them, along with some faint whiffs of a delicious smell, signalling that the food must surely be ready. But despite that, Beth feels incapable of leaving her little cocoon of emotional safety and go back into the world. Even if that only includes her own kitchen right now.

 

“And you must introduce me to this Jolene sometime. Sounds like quite the character” Townes says a few minutes later, breaking the spell.

 

“Oh, she is. You two are the best people in my life, you know.”

 

“I’m honoured.”

 

“You should be.”

 

She looks up at him and he looks back. The impasse barely lasts long enough to be called one before they burst out in chuckles at the same time.

 

Friends – true friends – are such a balm to the soul.

 

“And then… Moscow. And by then, the illusion of me seeing him as nothing more than my main rival had dwindled until it was paper-thin. That last bit crumbled when I won and he smiled at me. I felt everything and nothing when he offered his king and we held hands.”

 

“Then he pulled you up and into his arms” Towns prompts her when she falls into a silent goofy grin at the memory.

 

“It was still just the two of us then. I was aware of nothing else. Not until he let me go.”

 

“I noticed.”

 

“You did?”

 

Her cheeks heat and she wonder if anyone else did. What if Vasily did?

 

“Calm down, Harmon. No need to worry. To everyone else you looked as if you were nothing more than overwhelmed by your win. I simply know you better than that. I mean, sure, you were affected by the game too, but I have seen the way you look when you are deeply moved emotionally because of a person.”

 

“When you broke my heart” she says, thinking back to that day in his hotel room in Las Vegas. When Roger had burst through the door just when she thought he was going to lean in an kiss her. With her heart now engaged by another man and John in the picture instead, she can view the memory more objectively, but it will never be a positive one. The heart is run by emotions, not logic, and even a later acceptance – even forgiveness – might not always be enough to heal a scar, no matter how small it might be or unintentionally given.

 

“Yes. So, when I watched your eyes while you still sat down after your win, I saw how they were connected to him, rather than distant, as they would have been if you had the game on your mind.”

 

“But what do I do?” she asks and pulls away enough so she can look at him.

 

“For now, nothing outside your head. Well, or your bed or shower, or wherever you prefer” he comments, throwing a pointed look at the king and book on her nightstand.

 

The blush is inevitable even if what he alludes to is nothing new to her. In fact, doing without that for the duration of his and John’s stay is now the unusual thing. His undignified teasing still needs to be punished, however, so she reaches back, grabs one of the pillows and swings it in an arch around her so it smacks into him with some speed.

 

“And then?” she demands after he has finished spluttering.

 

“You wait until you meet him the next time and talk to him for once. If nothing else, you might become acquaintances or possibly even casual friends. Your nationalities won’t allow for much else the way things stand now. Unless he offers you some benefits on the side, then I think you ought to go for it” he replies, clutching the pillow harder to his torso to keep her from using it again when she tugs at it.

 

His last words take her aback, though, and it is a good thing she was already looking at him or she might have wringed her own neck.

 

“Do you really think he might?” she asks, then cringes at the eagerness in her voice and hurries to add something to make it seem less important than it really is. A lie, but made impotent by the lack of conviction in her tone. “But it doesn’t matter. He’s married and I wouldn’t want to come between them.”

 

“If he offers, it’s on him.”

 

“That’s never how the world sees it when such things come out. I’d be labelled a hussy or worse.”

 

“Then be careful. Maybe you just need to get him out of your system?”

 

“Yeah. Maybe” she replies, the doubt in her voice unmistakable.

 

“Okay, I admit that wasn’t the most tactful thing of me to say, but dear lord if it’s not more complicated for you than it’s ever been for me. But I’ll always be here for you if you need to talk about it again, get advice or a shoulder to cry on. Heck, if he crushes your heart just come and tell me and I’ll go and beat him up for you.”

 

“Right. I’m sure you could do that” she drawls, but keeps her eyes warm to make sure he knows that she appreciates the offer. Not that she would ever take him up on it even if it was fully in earnest. The KGB agents would most likely get to him before he could land a single punch.

 

John, in his infinite tactfulness, has kept their meal on low heat in the oven and sat himself at the already laid table with a newspaper. He also ignores the obvious creases and stain on Townes’ shirt and her still red eyes, and begins talking about a book he read recently as soon as they all sit down. There is no doubt in her mind that even if he might never become what Townes is to her, she has come away with a new friend.

 

New Year is spent in Louisville with Jolene and her beau. Rick is exactly as her friend had described him. A few years into his forties, of average height with a fit body – he does love to play a lot of squash after all - black hair and at least some colour to his skin tone, but not so much that anyone would ever doubt his English heritage. His features are sharp and give him a sort of resting stern look, which hides his kind nature and disappears completely when he smiles. Beth guesses he makes good use of it when in court. His eyes are almost the same colour as her own, only a few shades lighter.

 

Rick is also a chess enthusiast and is thrilled to finally meet her, unable to stop himself from talking about how he has helped Jolene follow her career and explain what the different tournaments meant and the brilliance of her games. Her friend stands a little to the side and simply rolls her eyes, but with a fondness in them too and Beth starts to truly believe that she is genuinely happy with this recently middle aged white middleclass man living in one of the posher suburbs. He is not as easy to like as John, but still makes good progress during her few days with them and when she goes back home, she can honestly say she looks forward to seeing them both again. Part of that is of course that she has asked Jolene to ask Rick to maybe talk a little bit less about chess next time. Her oldest friend is her chess free zone, or so she had thought.

 

Beth and Jolene also agree that she will repay her debt in a few large instalments during the year to not put her once more healthy bank account under undue duress. More money is sure to come her way now that she will start to compete in earnest again.

 

Her first invitation to an international tournament finally shows up two weeks into January. It is not one of the absolute top competitions, but still respectable and a good place to start. Whatever is going to happen in May, she knows it will only do her good to have another win on the global stage to take with her. Consequently, she will spend two weeks in Zaragoza in Spain during March, competing for what should be around 1500 dollars, which are provided by the rich businessman that has bankrolled it.

 

Life Magazine has also offered her a tempting sum for an exclusive interview about her experience in Moscow. Not that it has not already been covered in many news outlets, but they want a more personal story. She only agrees after getting assurances that she will be allowed to read and have to approve the final draft before it goes to print. They will also make sure to send someone who will not ask if she sees the pieces on the board as a surrogate family. It feels good to have leverage enough to make some demands and have them followed.

 

It is the 28th of January when her phone rings and Mr Kissinger is on the other end again, finally ready to tell her what he has planned. She stands leaning against the wall, nervously playing with the cord, while they go through the normal pleasantries. The words feel large and ungainly in her mouth, twisting up her tongue the way alcohol barely could, and she has to repeat that she is happy to hear from him again because what came out of her the first time sounded more like hippo and her cheeks are burning with mortification. This guy needs to think her competent or he will drop her like a hot potato and find some other tool to use in his political machinations.

 

She should feel disgusted with herself for allowing him to use her like this, but it is simply a means to an end for her too. Their goals are different, but so long as his only helps to further hers, there is no reason to back out. There are too many obstacles in her path to turn down such useful assistance.

 

“There will be a tournament in the middle of May, just a few days long, that will be called USSR vs the Rest of the World. They will have their ten best players there, plus two reserves, going up against the same number of the best the rest of us have to offer. They only went with it because it’s a sort of win-win situation for them, though only tentatively so. If they win, they can claim to be the undisputed best chess nation in the world, while if they lose, they can claim that it took everyone else joining together to beat them. Everyone will be assigned a board and play four games against the same opponent unless a substitution is used for whatever reason. The team with the most points by the end will win.”

 

Beth feels a bit conflicted at the prospect of such a tournament. While only having to play one opponent instead of trying her mettle against all of the Soviet players is a disappointment, the odds of Vasily being there are very high. It is still enough time left afterwards for him to prepare for the World Championship match and Korchnoi would probably be there too, equalising whatever small detriment it might end up being.

 

“I have no idea which of them you’ll end up playing. Max Euwe, the newly elected President of FIDE, and who’s very excited about the whole thing by the way, is going to be the captain of our team and decide who plays at which board, but I’ve made sure you’re in the team and not as a substitute. I trust you to perform in a way that won’t make me regret the political favours I’ve had to spend on making this happen.”

 

“Of course not” she replies.

 

“Good. And as an extra incentive, the government will pay for half of all your expenses related to international tournaments as long as you perform well enough. I don’t expect perfect scores all the time, since I know enough about the game not to be that naïve, but as close as possible, Miss Harmon. Do we understand each other?”

 

“Yes, sir. Perfectly.”

 

And that is that. After telling her to expect the invitation soon and the story to hit the news in two days, Mr Kissinger hangs up and Beth is left alone in her kitchen, receiver still in hand and staring numbly at it.

 

During the coming week her mind harbours even more fantasies than usual. She barely remembers signing up for a few national tournaments during spring, to bring in even more money and improve her image, among all the imaginings of her playing four consecutive games against Vasily. It might only be a sixth of the number of games she will hopefully play against him in three years when she might challenge him for the title of World Champion, but it is still a dream. And dream she does. Most every night she is looking at him across a chess board, with him not only looking back at her, but with that same smile he gave her in Moscow. Sometimes they are in other settings. More intimate ones, as her waking fantasies make their way over to her sleeping hours with more frequency, building up her anticipation even more.

 

Then, the invitation arrives, along with a short but personal letter from Mr Euwe himself. He explains that Beth will play fifth board and everything comes crashing down around her like a landslide come to bury her alive and sweeping away her dreams in its murky and suffocating torrent.

 

Only one logical conclusion from what she has just learnt bounces around in her head like a ricocheting bullet, killing all other thoughts. If Vasily takes part, he will no doubt play first board. Anything else would be cause to question what the USSR team is up to. But since Mr Kissinger had not guaranteed herself the same, she simply will not join him there. Not play those four games against him, but some other uninteresting and inconsequential Soviet player.

 

It is a hard pill to swallow, much more so than the green ones, that while she might be a swiftly rising star, she has only just received her GM title and has far too little experience on the international level for Mr Euwe to place her at the top. In fact, she can admit to herself that it would be folly to do so. She might have won against Vasily once, and recently, but that could be nothing more than a fluke. She is still largely untested and with her debacle in Paris part of the global chess news, many are likely to still doubt her. What if they are right?

 

That thought frightens her.

 

What if she is unable to repeat her monumental achievement? What if the next time they play he will beat her as easily as he did in both Mexico City and Paris, not matter if she I stone cold sober, or has her mind clouded by a night of utter lunacy. What if she has to go back to seeing disappointment in his eyes instead of warmth?

 

The sound of a strong gust of wind rattling the windows is what eventually brings her out of her morose thoughts and she places the letter back down on the table, her hand lingering against the pristine paper for a few moments - imagining crumpling it up and throwing it away - before she manages to let go and turn around. Somehow it surprises her that the kitchen looks exactly the same as it did before she read those world-shattering words. The dark cabinets. The patterned wallpapers. The little painting of flower hanging over the countertop. All the same. Unlike her.

 

To finally be so bluntly confronted with how far she has yet to go in the world of chess has landed on her like a massive albatross, placing itself around her neck and squeezing uncomfortably tight. She can still breathe and move forward, but the sense of soaring Moscow left her with is gone.

 

How could she have been so foolish to think that one win against the World Champion – the king of chess himself – would be the same as having reached his level. Her ranking might be good these days, but it would take a lot of hard work to catch up.

 

Before she knows it, she sits on the buss, watching as the local supermarket passes by with no one either getting on or off at that stop. She tries to tell herself that she is only going to Ben Snyder’s to find a new cookbook, but is painfully aware of how flimsy the lie is.

 

Lex Liquors is a place she has not visited since before Jolene showed up on her doorstep and while she does feel acid shame burn all throughout her body, like itching fire, at standing only a few yards from the door and looking in through the huge front window, she does not turn around and walk away. Seeing all those bottles inside is like a siren’s call to her. The sweet beckoning song of the reds and whites weaving their spellbinding and cajoling her to step inside, like a sailor being lured to smash himself against the rocks and drown.

 

She is just about to take a first step forward when she spots something that makes her halt her movement and almost fall over as the motion she has started is nearly enough to push her centre of gravity outside of what her suddenly stiff legs can support.

 

A young woman with a pram has just reached the cashier and unloads several bottles onto the counter to be paid for. A young woman with brown hair, a fairly cheap looking dark winter coat, a tired smile, and even more tired dark brown eyes.

 

Beth turns around and flees.

 

The minute she is back home she cooks up a storm, making something of everything she has available, uncaring if the containers she has will be enough to store it all and that it means she will have to go shopping again soon to restock everything that goes into the pots and pans now. When the dishes are all done and she has cleaned the kitchen until it is spotless she sits down and eats far too much for dinner, because of course she has made way too much. She feels borderline sick when she drags herself upstairs after her meal and changes into her nightgown, hoping to find some peace in the oblivion that is sleep.

 

Before she turns the light out, she takes up the magazine from the nightstand and lets it fall open on the only spread she has viewed in it for the last few years. Vasily is staring back at her, asking her how she could have come so close to failure yet again. Does she care so little for herself and her opponents that she is willing to damage herself so? Does she not want to use her talents to their fullest potential and reach him for real? Does she not know he is waiting for her?

 

Tears start to sting her eyes and blur her vision as she reaches up with her free hand and hesitantly traces his face with her fingers. She knows it is not real, but she still feels sure she can glimpse the warmth in his eyes now that he had shown her in Moscow, and it gives her a measure of comfort.

 

“I’m sorry” she whispers. “I promise I’ll do better. Please wait for me.”

 

She shuts her eyes then, before closing and returning the magazine to the nightstand and turning off the light, so his face will be the last thing she sees and hoping he will follow her into her dreams despite the events of the day. At least it is a damned better last thing to have on her mind before oblivion comes than the fact that Margaret fucking Johnson was all that stood between her and a second tumble down the pit called ruin. Instead, she has a new promise to keep for the future and the memory of a smile and a hug pushes her to do better. To take on the world and show them all that she is indeed worthy of living in it.

Chapter Text

Beth still lies in bed when the phone rings. She has spent most of yesterday there, trying to keep herself from leaving the house and taking the bus downtown and buying alcohol. Her thoughts are in shambles after the conversation she had the previous morning and that terrible thirst she desperately wants to both quench and eradicate at the same time claws much more at her mind than at her throat. After the way they all pulled together for her while she was in Moscow and in desperate need of winning against Vasily she had thought that was it. She got Jolene back in her life before going, took Townes’ friendship with her home and gained John too, and the possibility that it all would not last had not entered her mind. But maybe she should have known. Good things did not seem to last in her life and why would this be any different.

 

Benny.

 

Someone she had thought was her friend once more had yet again put chess above her. Or rather his ego. Why did something so predictable hurt so much?

 

Max Euwe had decided to use the fairly new Elo rating scores to decide not only who would be asked to participate, but also who would play on which board, which was the first time it had been used in such a way. It was truly a fair way to decide things, but it had one major problem. With his more numerous international tournaments due to his longer chess career, Benny’s score was still a good eighty points higher than hers, and he should have been the one to play against Georgi Girev on board 5. But with Mr Kissinger’s interference he had been forced out to give room for her and tell everyone that he had given up his place to her due to her strong showing in Moscow, compared to his recent lacklustre performance. And with the world of chess eager to see more of her now that she had proven she is not a prodigy burned out before her prime, no one had questioned it, which only hurt him deeper. Neither of them had cared for the political aspect of chess and had been happy to be ignored by the government, but Moscow had changed all of that and it turned out that the gains she is making from it is his losses. It was not her fault, not really, but the blame was much easier to place on her than some politician who did not care about him and decided to turn it into a zero-sum game between them.

 

And yesterday it had finally boiled over for him when she had asked him to come and help her train. He had put on a polite mien when they played each other at the tournament in Philadelphia but been distant when they met outside the playing hall even if he still talked to her. She had tried to broach the subject with him, but he had quickly shut her down and forced the conversation into more neutral topics. Yesterday, however, he had erupted and said such things in his anger she had never thought him capable of. He had called her a traitor. A failure who needed smarter and more powerful people to help her get anywhere, because clearly, she was not capable of doing it on her own, and what had the payment been exactly for this latest intervention into her measly life? What did a politician at the top-level demand in return for placing her at the centre of the world stage in such a flashy way?

 

He never said it outright, but he did not need to. She knew exactly what he was alluding to, and it took her breath away that his mind would go there, even if it was only in his anger and bitter disappointment, neither of which are unjustifiable. But while she can understand his feelings, she cannot understand his capacity to use those words.

 

The ringing continues even as she lays motionless and wants the world to just go away and leave her alone, thank you very much. Because if something forces her to get up she is afraid of where her legs might end up taking her. But whoever it is is clearly insistent and so she crack open her crusty eyes, blinking away what she can of the dried-up tears and waits for the ceiling to come into focus before braving turning to the phone.

 

“Hello?” she croaks into the receiver, unsure if whoever is on the other end of the line could hear her.

 

“Hello Beth, this is Arthur. Arthur Levertov, from New York.”

 

That is a surprise, and she sits up without thinking, then has to lay back down when the sudden motion, coupled with her diet of water only for the last twenty-four hours, makes her dizzy.

 

“Hello” she repeats, unsure about what to say and what he might be calling about.

 

“Is this a bad time? Do you want me to call back later?” he asks, unsurprisingly having picked up on her less than stellar state. It would hardly take a chess Grandmaster do deduce such an earthshatteringly obvious thing.

 

“No, no. It’s fine” she manages to get out, casting a rueful look at the empty glass on the nightstand. It had contained water yesterday, but since she had remained in bed since then it is really no surprise that nothing is left. She is not the best at planning when her mind is in the place it currently resides in. The intersection of Life-is-shit Road and Misery Lane.

 

“I talked to Benny last night, or rather he had me and Hilton over for dinner and ended up a bit drunk and talked a lot and I thought you might need someone to call and ask how you’re doing.”

 

The unexpected care makes her want to cry again, but she fears she might genuinely shrivel up due to a lack of fluids if that happens and somehow manages to pull herself together. It does demand a few deep breaths however, and there is a new edge of worry in her friend’s voice when he continues.

 

“Please, don’t let him get to you like this. He’s not good at handling defeat, but not being given the chance to even play this time has hit him hard, but that’s not your fault. Look, I’m not blind to the politics that go into chess like the two of you dunderheads, and with your win in Moscow, of course they want you there. Benny plateaued about three years ago and has lived off of the fame he has built for himself since then, but he knows he’ll never reach the level you’re headed for. Clinging to his rating still being higher than yours was probably his lifeline without him being aware of it until now that it was cut off” her friend explains, in what is clearly a very summarised version of events.

 

“Is he… is he alright?”

 

Arthur sighs and remains quiet for a few seconds before responding and she knows it must be bad.

 

“No. But it’s still fresh. It’ll take him some time to work his way through this, and please trust me when I say he’ll be ashamed of his loss of control over his reaction when he comes around. But it’s probably best if you give him some space until that happens. He truly is a good person, just not very used to genuinely caring for others, or well… being rejected. You’ve upended his life in more than one way Beth, and I’m not saying you owe him anything or that you’re in any way at fault. I’m just trying to make you understand what he’s going through and ask you to please not to cut him out of your life completely.”

 

“I see.”

 

There is another little moment of silence while she tries to absorb what she has just been told. She tries to put herself in Benny’s position and is immediately filled with a helpless bitterness and jealousy. It is most likely that she would react the same, if not worse, to being treated the way he has. The main difference is that for him it is only a question of ego while for her it is more a matter of the heart. She absolutely must get access to the international arena as much as possible to have a chance of meeting Vasily and talk to him. Not that that would not hurt Benny too, judging by Arthur’s comment about rejection.

 

She swallows the budding lump in her throat at the reminder of how out of sync she and Benny have been. Her fumbling crush on him happened when he had little to no interest in her romantically and even when he seemed to have given in, he had let her down. Now, when her heart is attached to someone else, he is the one that wants more. Or at least as much as he is willing to give, and she is quite sure that even if her heart had remained untouched by Vasily it would not have been enough. Jolene and Townes have given her a sense of worth she has lacked since Alma’s death, and she is no longer content with only accepting what someone else deems suitable. She has demands of her own and anyone not capable of delivering will find themselves having to look for someone willing to settle for less.

 

“Anyway, if you still want someone to practice with, I’d be happy to come down for a few weeks. We’re at the research stage at the new project at work and I can read the books and papers down at your place just as well as here in New York. Hilton will keep an eye on Benny and you get someone better then Harry to train with. No offence to the guy, but he’s not exactly at the right level for this.”

 

“And you are?” she cannot help but ask, though more as a jest than true criticism.

 

“Much closer. I am a Grandmaster, after all, and have played many of the guys you’ll meet in Belgrade, though not little Girev, of course. He was only let outside the USSR after I retired.”

 

“Why exactly did you retire? I was never told” she asks, suddenly realising she has no idea why such a young Grandmaster would quit the world of chess in the practical area.

 

“Got the job offer of a lifetime, and work keeps me way too busy to keep up with chess in the way you need to in order to stay on top. But don’t worry, I love my job and am happy with my decision. But I do keep up with chess, as you well know.”

 

“Yeah. You were pretty fun to play.”

 

“Well, I’m going to take that as a compliment.”

 

After they hang up, she calls Townes at work. Her talk with Arthur has lifted her spirits enough that she feels strong enough to resist the siren call of her addictions even if she leaves the house and now that she has reliable friends it is time she makes use of the help they have offered.

 

She laughs when he answers the phone in such a business-like manner, which is so far from how she is used to hearing him talk.

 

“Hello Harmon” he says before she has calmed down. “To what do I owe this pleasure? Called to give me the exclusive rights to your story from Belgrade rather than Life, have you?”

 

“Oh, shut it, you. You’re not still sore about that, are you?”

 

“You know it, but if you’ve not called me in my capacity of journalist and associate editor extraordinaire, what can I do for you as your friend?”

 

“Can I come over this evening and then spend the night?” she asks, her voice growing smaller as she is reminded of the reason for this call. For her need of his uplifting company.

 

“Of course. I’d be happy to have you over. John’s out of town at a conference, so it’ll be just the two of us, though, so I recommend takeaway if you don’t want to leave the apartment.”

 

“Sounds good” she agrees, not feeling up to doing any cooking herself. “How do you feel about Chinese?”

 

“Very tempted. I’ll pick some up on my way home and come pick you up too. Sound good?”

 

“Yes. Thank you.”

 

“Anytime, Harmon. Anytime.”

 

They end up eating their food in front of the tv, watching some silly show that takes her mind off of yesterday’s call and allows her to relax and even laugh. Townes does not press her but is patiently waiting for the moment she will need him, and they barely make it through the dishes before she spends some of the numerous glasses of water she has emptied since she got out of bed in the forms of new tears. It is such a strange thing, she sometimes muses, that after having cried so little for so long, she now seems incapable of going too long without. But maybe it is simply because she now knows there is someone to catch and hold her when she breaks down. Comfort is no longer staring falsely up at her from the bottom of a bottle, or the numbness the green pills pull her mind into, but can be found in the warm and steady embrace of a person willing to get their clothes soaked.

 

The bed in the guestroom remains unused and when she wakes in the morning she is lying on the couch, a blanket tucked neatly around her. A glass of water stands on the coffee table, along with a note that says her host has gone to work but would be very happy if she wants to stay long enough for him to see her again after. He has even placed one of her favourite chess books and a set next to the glass in order to entice her.

 

It is a curious feeling to be so unceremoniously welcome. To know that someone wants her in their life without gaining anything but a returned friendship from her. She ends up staying another night, then only returns home to prepare the house for Arthur’s arrival the day after that.

 

Arthur is easier to train with than Benny was. He is also easier to live with, being a lot neater about the place and preferring to be fully dressed before coming down for breakfast. There is also a welcome absence of attraction and in a way it reminds her enough of Townes that she wonders about the true relationship between him and Hilton. Not that she will ask, since if it is so it is for him to tell her if he so chooses. The subject is quite delicate and with him having no idea about her already having two such friends he might be hesitant to be honest about it. Provided it is indeed true. Best to keep an open mind and not draw any premature conclusions that could end up hurting someone.

 

Harry comes by a few times, bringing Nancy with him twice for dinner, and giving his own input. He remains far behind her in skill, but his unassuming friendship is always a boon, and she is a lot happier to listen to him talking about the old masters now that he no longer compares her to any of them.

 

Matt and Mike also come by at one point while they are in town, visiting their parents. They have both ended their chess careers by now, but remains her friends and are still happy to talk about the subject and even more so to speculate about the upcoming historical tournament. The USSR team will not only have the current World Champion but also a few former ones playing for them, and her friends are envious of her meeting them all, even if it is not on the board. She can only smile and hope that she will indeed be able to interact with them outside the playing hall. One of them in particular.

 

By the time May rolls around Beth has won all the national tournaments she attended as well as the one in Zaragoza and her economy is looking quite stellar. And with the government paying for half of that trip as well as the one to Belgrade she is about to set out on, things are really looking up. Her ELO rating has also improved a little, even if she cannot justify her presence in the upcoming tournament solely on it yet. Her one regret is that no one of interest was in Zaragoza along with her. Well, there was Bent Larsen, the top-rated non-Soviet player in the world and the one who will be playing Vasily on board one, but he had not interacted with her at all outside their game.

 

Would she be considered a traitor if she hopes he loses against the World Champion?

 

While a few older photos of the Danish Grandmaster she had seen spoke of a fairly handsome youth, the years has caught up to him early and in a less than flattering way. Five years Vasily’s junior he easily looks to be at least five years his senior, with his too long hair in a back slick, thick glasses, and nondescript suit he kept unbuttoned. There is also a softness to his face that is lacking in Vasily’s sharper features, as if he has lived a too good life but not made up for it with enough physical exercise. If he were ever to hug her – which she truly hopes he will not – she is sure he would not feel as firm either. However, his genius was undeniable, and she came away feeling grateful she has not faced him earlier as she had had to agree to the draw he offered as an end to a long and gruelling game. The only reason she had won the tournament was that she repeated her win against Shapkin, who was the only Soviet player present, while the Dane had to settle for a draw.

 

But that does not matter now. Now, Belgrade is upon her and she needs to focus on defeating a more familiar face, though with three years having passed since she last saw him in person, it is much changed. There had been a picture of him in ‘Chess Review’ when he qualified from the Interzonal and then another when he won his first Candidate Match, so she is well aware of the changes time has wrought upon Georgi Girev. Now he is more a young man than boy, both looking older and younger than his sixteen years in some strange amalgamation of what should constitute a paradox. She has studied all of his games she could get her hands on and has found a steady improvement in his strategies as well as results. He would no longer allow her to undermine him with a simple rook and she finds herself looking forward to playing him again. After Vasily and Luchenko, he is the Soviet player she feels the strongest connection with, and this tournament had become a lot more exciting again after she found out who her opponent will be after the initial reality check it had been for her.

 

Her bag is already packed and stands down in the entryway, ready to be picked up and brought out to the taxi after lunch. The travel time is quite long, and she has luckily found a flight that will have her arriving at the hotel about two hours before her normal dinner time the day before it all starts. And since it all lasts for six days, there is no need for excessive luggage and she has carefully decided which dresses to bring with her, going for noticeable, yet modestly cut. She wants to gain Vasily’s attention, but not let everyone else know what she is up to.

 

The white one she wore when she saw him last still hangs in a bag in her closet, the smell of his cologne still faintly clinging to the fabric but languishing away and getting ever closer to the time it will cease to be. She can only hope that one of the dresses in her bag will be able to replace it when she returns.

 

Belgrade might not be in the Soviet Union but seeing the nature of the tournament and the high concentration of USSR top chess players, no doubt escorted by a number of KGB agents, Mr Kissinger has informed her that she will have an escort of her own. Yet again she will have to endure someone from the government coming along to try to babysit her. She might care little for politics, but she is not stupid and does not need someone to spell it all out for her. And while she has already reached her main goal of winning a game against Vasily, she has something else to keep her focused and sober now. A new goal. Though, why does talking to him seem so much more difficult than winning against him?

 

It is not Mr Booth who comes with her this time, but a surly looking Mr Adams, who is about the same age as his colleague, but a bit shorter and with black hair instead of dark brown, thought in the exact same style. The plane has barely taken off and reached the right altitude before he unceremoniously informs her of the rules, as if she does not already know them.

 

“You do not leave the hotel without me. You do not answer the door or phone unless it’s me.”

 

She refrains from pointing out the absurdity in rule number two. This man looks even less likely to enjoy her wit.

 

“You do not drink. And you must tell me if anyone Russian tries to speak to you or give you any notes or signals. The same goes if you see anything suspicious going on around you or anyone tries to make you drink any alcohol.”

 

“Why would they do that?”

 

“Because it’s your weakness” he says so matter-of-factly it hurts more than when Jolene made her face her addiction. “And they’re well aware.”

 

“And who are they?” she snaps, too hasty to respond with anger to his cavalier way of talking about something that has nearly ruined her life and she is still struggling with, though getting better.

 

People around them turn towards her at her outburst, the jostling of clothes and creaking of seats keeping the cabin from utter silence, and she ducks her head, hoping to make them go back to minding their own business sooner. It seems she is making a right mess of a first impression on a man she does not want to give a good reason to watch her too closely or forbid all interaction with the Soviet delegation.

 

“What do you mean?” she asks in a much quieter voice a minute later after a deep breath or three.

 

Mr Adams is still looking at her with disapproval and reaches up and corrects his tie before replying.

 

“After your little stunt after the tournament in Moscow last year, Mr Booth looked into your background a bit and stumbled onto something in Paris.”

 

“Paris?” she asked faintly, remembering her alcohol induced fiasco.

 

“Yes. After mapping out your moves while there he contacted French Intelligence and they provided him with some information connected to you. They always keep an eye on the KGB when they’re in the country and it seems one of the two agents accompanying Mr Borgov started taking a particular interest in you after your little stunt at the press conference where you let everyone know you speak at least some Russian” the man explains, disapproval clear when mentioning how she let everyone know of her language skill, which could no doubt have been very useful to him and their government if it had remained secret. It makes her nothing but happy to have pre-emptively thwarted any chance they had of asking her to use it to spy on the Soviet players. “He was seen observing your evening with a Mademoiselle Maillard and listening to your conversation, seeing just how easy it was to make you drink and ruin your own chances.”

 

Slumping back in her seat, her eyes having a hard time focusing on anything while her mind runs a marathon in record time, Beth processes what she has just heard. Her heart is pounding, white noise rushing in her ears, and it takes a conscious effort to keep her breath from going into hyperventilation.

 

Her mind quickly connects the few dots he has provided her with; politics, the KGB taking an interest in her before Moscow, her disastrous display of her weakness.

 

Cleo.

 

Did the young Frenchwoman know? Was she in on it? Was she in league with the KGB?

 

“Did… does… is Cleo one of them?” she asks so quietly he can barely hear her over the noise of the engines, afraid of the answer she might receive.

 

“The circumstances made us suspect so, but we investigated her thoroughly and found nothing. Even so, I’d recommend you stay away from her in the future. She’s a troubled young woman and will clearly bring you nothing but a share of her own misery. Mr Kissinger would be most displeased if you made a repeat of Paris.”

 

Beth can only nod numbly. She is relieved to hear that Cleo did come to the hotel that night just to see her and not to drink her under the table to sabotage her game against Vasily. But at the same time, Mr Adam’s words of caution about her friend - or maybe acquaintance would be a better word to describe their relationship – is not without merit. There has already been a number of times she has come close to giving in to her cravings and if she is to succeed going forward, she needs to recognise what and who has the potential to derail her and avoid that and them.

 

The young Frenchwoman had always appeared so worldly and as if she has her own beat to walk to. They are traits Beth envies, so when she got a second chance to bask in them by extension, she had grasped it with both hands, leaving nothing with which to hold on to her sobriety. The price had ended up being her second chance to win against Vasily and had summarily been claimed before she knew what would happen. But it had been no one’s fault but her own.

 

“Why did you tell me this?” she asks in the end. “It’s hardly conductive to my chances of winning to spring it on me now.”

 

“I only wanted to put you on guard. The stakes are even higher this time, and they are sure to try something.”

 

“But they didn’t try anything last time” she objects.

 

“Are you sure?”

 

At first, she thinks she is, then the doubt starts creeping in. True, there had been Townes’ remark about the embassy helping him get his travel documents through at record speed, hoping to get her distracted. She had taken it as nothing more than a joke at the time, but now she wonders. She had told Cleo about her unrequited love for him and if that KGB agent had listened to their conversation, it was very likely a deliberate move on their part. There is also the fact that alcohol had been presented with increased frequency to her, both directly and indirectly. The young man – still a boy really – who had pushed around a cart with vodka in the hotel restaurant when she sat there, two officers sitting nearby and accepting some, showing her it was acceptable to drink. The bottle that had been delivered to outside a door in the same corridor as her own room when she had returned from her adjourned game with Luchenko. Just left there and easy for her to tiptoe over and steal had she wanted to. Or at least inspire her to order her own.

 

“Maybe… I guess there were one or two instances that could fit into them trying to make me drink, but it was very subtle if so” she admits and then has to spend the next hour describing them and being told how to spot such traps and how best to handle a situation if someone is particularly insistent with trying to make her drink. Mr Adams finishes his lecture off with repeating that she must tell him if anyone from the USSR delegation tries to contact her in anyway and keep an eye out for signs. Even if she feels just as inclined to tell him as she did Mr Booth if such a thing were to occur, it dampens her enthusiasm somewhat, but by the time they land she has got some sleep and feels better again. Let the KGB try their best to undermine her. They have already failed once when she was unaware. This time she comes prepared.

 

Hotel Jugoslavija is a brand-new luxury hotel, and both the Rest of the World and USSR delegations will stay there, but on different floors. The tournament itself will take place at the Dom Sindikata, in the large domed theatre hall that can house up to 2000 spectators, and apparently the event is sold out. It is a huge building made in greyish-ochre stone slabs, more or less entirely lacking any ornamentation and seems to want to make up for that with the number of windows, which it is by no means lacking. The hight differences between some of the sections as well as the light bend of the building makes it more appealing than the boring box that is the hotel, though, which seems to be made in an otherwise fairly similar style. At least it is located by the river – the Donau according to her travel guide - and at an easy walking distance from the Dom Sindikata.

 

Her suite is more reminiscent of the hotel in Moscow that the ones in Mexico City or Paris but makes up for its lack of elegance with a surprising amount of comfort for the modernistic interior design. The bedroom is large with a bed that can comfortably fit a small family, the bathroom luxurious both in size and functions, and both of them are reached through the sitting room one enters first, where there is a couch set and a large tv, as well as a small dining table with two chairs by one of the windows.

 

The next morning Team World meets in the conference room they are going to use for practice during the tournament, the idea being that they will try to do as the Soviet players do and help each other when necessary. Once more it is driven home just how new she is on the international stage when she only recognises three of the other players from outside newspapers and magazines. There is, of course, Larsen, whom she met earlier that year, the Yugoslavia native Borislav Ivkov, who played in Mexico City, but not against her, who will be playing board 10 here, as well as Duhamel from France, who had been in Moscow, and is playing board 2. Only the latter of them – out of the entire team really – seems to be genuinely happy to see her.

 

“Mlle Harmon” he says after walking up to her and shaking her hand while smiling, his glasses not hindering her from seeing the sincerity in his eyes. “Pleasure to see you again. And between you and me, I’m happy it’s you and not M Watts here with us. We will have a better chance with you, I’m sure. So don’t mind what these other imbéciles might say or think, yes.”

 

“Thank you. It’s good to see you again too” she replies and means it. He had been one of the most accepting of her after a defeat she has played and his English is more than good enough to converse with. Despite him being French he only drops the very occasional h and seems to have little trouble with other sounds and pronunciations foreign to his own language. “Ready to get some revenge on those Soviets?”

 

“Unlike you, you mean, who have no need for revenge” he says and laughs merrily, “yes, I do hope to get one or two victories here, though I’m playing Luchenko, you know. Not the easiest man to go up against despite his age. And with Najdorf here on our team, he’s not even the oldest. I heard you’re playing young Girev, no.”

 

“I will, yes. It’ll be interesting to see how he’s developed since I last played him almost three years ago.”

 

“He did manage to make it to the semi-finals of the Candidates, no. No doubt he’ll be more difficult this time. I did play him once last year and barely made it to a draw, so don’t underestimate him, Mlle Harmon.”

 

“Please, call me Beth” she offers, anxious to find herself with at least one friend there.

 

“You honour me, Beth. Please call me Armand.”

 

Their little talk is then interrupted by Max Euwe entering the room and everyone not already familiar with each other is introduced before they get down to business with discussing their respective opponents and strategy. Beth listens enviously when Larsen describes his strategy against Vasily, wanting nothing more than to be in his place. But when he mentions something she recognises as a potential flaw, because Moscow had shown that the World Champion is still capable of surprising moves, she keeps her mouth shut. Maybe she selfishly feels that only she is entitled to win against him, when she should recognise that a lot more than personal feelings is on the line, but she finds herself unable to aid Vasily’s opponent as he drones on. Instead, she looks around to see if anyone else has spotted the potential problem, but nothing but a faint smile barely playing at the edges of Armand’s lips is evident. The Frenchman also remains silent, though, so she has no idea if he is ignorant or for whatever reason just as rebellious as her. Since he is the only other person present to have been there and watched the game in Moscow he would be the most likely to realise, but it is far from certain.

 

After a lunch together in one of the two hotel restaurants, Team World walks to the Dom Sindikata, enjoying the pleasant May weather, and arrives about ten minutes before the briefing. The director of the tournament is native chess player Božidar Kažić, a man approaching his 50s and past his prime in the world of chess as an active competitive participant but well respected and seen as fair enough that no one can protest his role. He waits for them in a large room where comfortable armchairs and couches have been placed in two groups, one on either side. The Soviet delegation already sits in one of them, talking amongst themselves but pausing to look up when they enter, so they go straight for the other. Beth makes sure to place herself so she can easily watch across the room, to the other group, without drawing too much attention to herself and alternates between watching them and Mr Kažić while he goes through the tournament.

 

Vasily is sitting in the middle, surrounded by his comrades, eyes focused fully on the director and seeming to listen most attentively, and not once even so much as glancing in her direction. Her heart beats furiously in her chest as suffocating disappointment slows the rest of her before she starts to berate herself for her foolishness.

 

What had she expected? That he would come up to her and smile while he said how happy he is to see her again? Hug her again? Of course he would not. Not only does he have eleven fellow Soviet chess players surrounding him, there is also the inevitable group of KGB agents lurking in the corner closest to them, and she logically knows he can do nothing in such company. But is it really too much to ask that he at least looks at her? Acknowledges her presence.

 

Still, she studies him as surreptitiously as she can and soon realises he wears exactly the same clothes he had on during their Moscow game. That brown suite with a white shirt, and the same black tie of the second day. It is perhaps not his best look in her mind, but even that suit cannot detract from his handsomeness. If only she could get him into something tailored and dark grey or black. Or maybe out of clothes altogether?

 

In the end, it is Luchenko that catches her eyes and gives her a little smile and when he looks to the side she sees Girev, who sits on the outskirt but also looks and smiles at her. It is some consolation to see that he seems to be the same enthusiastic person she met three years ago and playing him is even more of a treat now. She returns his smile before her gaze glides back to Vasily, only to be faced with his side profile once more. With a small sigh she goes back to focusing fully on Mr Kažić, hoping for more luck at the joint dinner that evening, because the press conference will hardly afford her any chances to interact with him since there are so many people involved.

 

It is without a doubt the most journalists she has seen at one chess event. Not that she has a lot to compare with, but as she counts to 63 while Euwe and Daniil Postnikov, the two captains, answer the first questions, she is confident that only the match for the title of World Champion would have a chance of receiving the same kind of attention. It is a somewhat humbling thing to be a part of something that has captured the public’s imagination in a way chess rarely manages. Especially when her ELO rating should have kept her out. Not by a huge margin, but still excluded. She can only hope it has not permanently cost her a friendship, even if she does hope it would put an end to whatever tender feelings Benny possibly harbours for her. But that is a problem for another day. She is there now and needs to focus on the tournament and the people around her.

 

Apart from the length of it, due to the high number of players and the uniqueness of the tournament giving rise to more questions, the press conference is fairly ordinary with only a few replies from some of the players standing out. It seems there are some mind games going on, trying to psych each other out, but nothing so grievous it would be outright frowned upon.

 

When asked about his view on sacrifices, Najdorf replies that when Mr Borgov offered you a piece, you could just as well resign right there, but when Tal – whom he is going to play against – sacrifices, you would do well to go on playing, as he might sacrifice another piece, and then… who knows. There had been some chuckling among most people present at that, and since the two teams sit diagonally opposite each other and the press Beth can easily see the indignant expression flashing across Tal’s face and the way both Vasily and Luchenko quickly hides their grins – one much more successfully repressed than the other - while turning away from their comrade.

 

This naturally prompts another reporter to direct a question to Larsen, who will be playing Vasily, regarding if he fears his opponent, whom his team member has just painted in such intimidating colours.

 

“If I were afraid of what could happen on the chess board, I would do something other than play chess” the Danish Grandmaster replies evenly and with a small nonchalant shrug.

 

“Mr Borgov, do you feel as calm about Grandmaster Larsen as he seems to do about you?” another reporter is quick to ask.

 

And it is only then that Beth realises something significant she wonders how she could have missed before. Maybe it is due to her wanting to ignore the woman’s existence, because of how it complicates matters for her, but Mrs Borgova is nowhere to be seen and it is instead Luchenko that leans in towards to World Champion and acts as his interpreter. There is that familiar thoughtful expression on Vasily’s face as he takes in the question and quickly formulates an answer that his friend then translates for most people there, though she understands the original.

 

“Only a fool would sit down at the board completely without fear because he, or she “he throws a quick glance her way, making her heart stutter” is about to go into battle. The important thing is your strategy and how you deal with whatever you feel as you enter the fray. It is not a lack of emotions, but rather a lack of control of them that will see you at a disadvantage.”

 

Luchenko’s delivery of the translation, while accurate, is admittedly not as elegant and engaging as Mrs Borgova’s style, but he also looks at her while including “or she”, but lingers longer and offers a smile, which makes it more meaningful. She hopes he too will be up for having a conversation with her before this is all over, no matter what topic might be offered.

 

“Miss Harmon” a reporter addresses her closer to the end of the press conference, “how do you feel about replacing Grandmaster Watts here even if there are those whose rating are above your own not present? Do you think it is fair that your nationality and not your score got you here?”

 

Beth can feel everyone, including her own team, turn their eyes toward her in various levels of curiosity. Some more benign while others are more hostile.

 

“I believe that there must be enough confidence in my ability for me to be here” she replies as calmly as she can. Mr Adams had given her this to say if the question were to be brought up, which was very likely, and she is happy to have something to fall back on. “There must surely be something to be said about taking recent achievements into considerations as well as a new, thought admittedly good, ranking system that gives an advantage to those that are older and therefore has had the opportunity to play in more important tournaments.”

 

With her perfect score in Moscow still fairly recent, along with her win in Zaragoza, no one seems compelled to offer a follow-up question to her answer and instead it is her opponent that gets the next one.

 

“Mr Girev, as the youngest player here, how do you feel about playing the second youngest? Do you fear your joint lack of experience will lead your games to be less interesting?”

 

The reporter is clearly not from a chess magazine since the question is more about sensationalism than substance and Beth bristles at the insult it presents, her nails digging to the palms of her hands as she clenches them into tight fists under the table. Girev, however, remains calm in both manner and tone when he replies.

 

“Since I reached the semi-finals in the Candidates Matches only last year, you can hardly accuse me of suffering much from a lack of experience. As for Grandmaster Harmon, it seems to me that her weak points in chess are a secret at this point. I expect nothing but great games against her.”

 

The teen looks at her and offers a friendly smile. There is still an awkwardness to him and his English, while improved, remains slightly stilted, but she is beyond grateful for his defence of her and resolves to make sure to thank him for it as soon as she can.

 

The second largest banquet hall at the hotel has been rented for the evening as the two teams have a joint dinner, where they are supposed to mingle some with each other as an extension of the official theme of friendliness this tournament has been given. The reality is of course much different, with politics and prestige on the line, but Beth is happy to be given a reason for Mr Adams not to hinder her interacting with the USSR players. The man is present at the dinner too but sits at the table reserved for those handlers the Rest of the World has deemed necessary to send along with their players. They are fewer than those at the KGB table, but still not an insignificant number. Then again, she doubts very much that all the handlers present for the tournament is in that hall at the moment. In fact, she is quite sure that Mr Adams is not the only one from the US, even if he is the only one she has met.

 

For the first two course of the meal they are seated with their own teams at a table each while the borders are meant to be transgressed during the third as coffee, tea, and cakes will be meant to be consumed while standing. She has ended up at one end of the table, with Larsen holding court at the other, but with Armand next to her it is not a repeat of the exclusion she felt at the official dinner in Moscow.

 

“I can’t believe some of the questions today” her friend comments shortly after the main course has been served in the form of Mućkalica, which she finds nice enough and will have no problem finishing. “You can tell there are some of them that aren’t used to covering chess, no. Bloody amateurs, asking if youth makes us play worse. As if someone yet to turn thirty makes them less skilled. They clearly have no clue. Do you, by any chance, think it’s against the law to kill a reporter here? Or if we’re sneaky enough about it we could probably get away with it anyway, no.”

 

With him being seven years older than her, Armand still falls below thirty, and she can feel and understand his frustration even if that question was more about her and Girev. Along with Czechoslovakian player Hort at twenty-five, there are only four players under the age of thirty present, with the second youngest Soviet one being Tal at thirty-three. And with the average age being higher for the USSR team, maybe it is an indicator that the future of chess belongs to the rest of the World. Maybe they will know by the end of the tournament.

 

“Maybe that’s a bit extreme” she replies, yet cannot help but smile at his joke. “But I’ve had much worse questions in the past.”

 

“Really? Do tell me, my friend. I long to hear what nonsense you’ve been subjected to.”

 

“Many years ago, I was interviewed for an article in a big magazine that has nothing to do with chess. The reporter, who was a woman mind you, asked me if I saw the king and queen as surrogate father and mother figures, you know, since I’m an orphan.”

 

Armand almost chokes on the piece of meat he just swallowed and has to cough for a few seconds before recovering, his eyes watering as he turns to her with clear disbelief.

 

“No. You are joking.”

 

She only shakes her head, pleased as punch over his strong reaction. It only intensifies when he lets out a long string of French curses after her confirmation, just barely keeping his volume low enough not to draw any attention from the others.

 

“Mon dieu! And she called herself a journalist you say?”

 

“Yes. The article did turn out mostly complimentary in the end, but a lot of it seemed to focus on me being a girl.”

 

“No offence, Beth, but I can understand you being a girl, or rather young woman now, was important to her, because, let’s be honest, it is to most everyone. Such is always the case when someone very unusual rises to the top of any field. But to insinuate that you being an orphan would mean you project parental figures onto chess pieces almost seems perverse. I doubt anyone has ever asked Borgov the same, no. He was not much older than you when he lost his parents.”

 

They booth look over at the World Champion, currently engaged in a, by the looks of it, engrossing talk with Tal, who sits on his left, while Luchenko, who sits on his right, is talking to Keres. His façade is mostly on display, but there is no mistaking that he listens out of genuine interest rather than politeness. When he rises his glass to take a sip of water there is a golden glimmer on his ring finger and Beth deflates. The apparent absence of his wife had given rise to some hope in her. Maybe nothing more than the cautious fluttering of a butterfly hoping to create a storm rather than be caught in one, but that golden band is enough to leave her wings in tatters and flying almost impossible.

 

“Yes. Such is the way of war. Those it does not kill will be left with less than before. Still, there is logic in that, harsh though it may be. My parents…” She is unable to go on. Both due to an incapability to formulate an explanation without telling the whole truth of what had happened and recollecting that though Armand is wonderful company, their friendship can only be measured in hours so far and that things like that are much too personal to share under such circumstances.

 

There is understanding and sympathy in his eyes when he turns them back to her and they drop the subject. Instead, he tells her about Paris – the real Paris, as he says – insisting on giving her a better understanding of the place where he has lived his entire life than her disastrous single visit to the city could have given her. Not that he ever mentions said incident, but she knows he must be aware. By the time dessert is announced he has even managed to extract a promise from her to go back there at some point, even if it is not for the sake of chess.

 

Beth has barely had time to pour a cup of coffee for herself and snatched a delicious looking little piece of cake when someone behind her addresses her.

 

“Miss Harmon. I am pleased to meet you again.”

 

“Girev” she replies after turning around, almost spilling some of the hot dark brew on her hand in her haste, happy that he has sought her out. “Wonderful to see you. Have you managed to get to any drive-in movies yet?”

 

“Sadly no. But I have not given up hope.”

 

“I’m happy to hear that. Let me know if you ever find yourself in America, alright, and I’ll try to help you. Though, I don’t drive myself, so I can’t promise too much.”

 

“You do not know how to drive?” he asks, sounding perplexed. “I thought this was something all Americans did.”

 

With being maybe an inch taller than her now Beth has to look up instead of down when talking to him this time, though the height difference is at least less and comfortably within the span she is used to when talking to others. She is tall, though far from overly so, for a woman, so even if the world of chess has a fair number of tall men, she rarely has to lean her head back to an uncomfortable degree when talking to anyone. There is also the fact that they all sit down most of the time they are interacting, which also lessens whatever difference there might be.

 

“I wish it was something we all learned automatically at a certain age, but I’m afraid I never got around to learning. But maybe you know and can drive us?”

 

“I do know how to drive, yes. And I bought my own car a few months ago from some of my saved prize money. It is nothing special, but it does give me some freedom to get around.”

 

“Then I’m happy for you.”

 

“I also got my own place to live now. A nice apartment in Moscow in a nice area. Not… not the very best, of course. Nothing like where Luchenko lives. But still nice and with room for more than me.”

 

“Is Luchenko the only one that has a truly nice place to live?” she cannot help but ask, diverting their talk away from his adorable little brag. “I would have thought that with him being the current World Champion, Borgov would have somewhere nice too.”

 

It is over so quickly, Beth cannot be sure if it was real or not, but she could have sworn there was a moment of irritation passing at the back of his eyes at the mention of Vasily. Maybe it truly was her imagination, but she also decides to keep an eye open for what could be a potential rift in the Soviet team. Not that she has any idea what could make such a thing happen. The young Grandmaster had given her the impression of idolizing Vasily in Mexico City, but with that being three years ago, she must admit that a lot could have happened since then.

 

“He lives in Leningrad with his family, in a nice house. I have only been there a few times when he helped me a little with improving my playing. His wife has made the place very comfortable. A very kind woman.”

 

“Oh, I see. I’m happy to hear you have such a great mentor.”

 

Is that another moment of irritation?

 

“I am old and good enough to be my own person and player, Miss Harmon.”

 

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to offend” she replies hurriedly, taken aback at the tone of his voice as he claims independence. At least his eyes are not on her but to the left of her, indicating that his strange annoyance is directed elsewhere. A quick glance over her shoulder shows Vasily, Luchenko, Najdorf and Euwe standing together and talking. The former World Champion seems to feel their eyes on him and turns his own to meet hers. His usual warm smile is readily offered, even if there is a faltering in it when he quickly glances at her company.

 

Unless her mind has gone into some kind of conspiratorial overdrive since Mr Kissinger entered her life, there would indeed appear as if something were brewing in the USSR camp. Mr Adams seems to be her best possible source of information on such things, but if he is aware in the first place and it would not just be her informing him of her suspicions, it is just as likely that he will be tight-lipped about it and not share anything of worth with her. In fact, he is probably watching her right now and taking note of her interactions with everyone else.

 

Fucking politics.

 

Girev stays with her for quite some time, engaging her in conversation that soon turns to chess when he has exhausted what he knows about US culture and asking her about some that he does not, such as her favourite song. Since it keeps her from trying to talk with Vasily she feels a frustration she had never hoped to associate with the young Grandmaster build within her. She is looking around for any kind of rescue while her companion expounds on what he perceives as the virtues of the King’s Gambit, momentarily transporting her back to when she was a child and on her way to play that simultaneous at the local high school and Shirley Munson had gone on and on about her limited understanding of chess, when it suddenly arrives in the form of Luchenko.

 

“Please, Girev, I think Miss Harmon has heard enough about chess for one evening” the older man says after walking up to them, winking at the young man to take the sting out of his words, “why don’t we entertain her with something else before the hour grows late and we all have to retire.”

 

The young man’s face falls anyway and a faint blush stains his pale complexion while his eyes, the moment before so eager and enthusiastic, starts to dart around.

 

“Good to see you again, Luchenko” she says.

 

“Please, call me Dmitry, my dear, and you will let me call you Liza, yes?”

 

Delighted laughter bubbles out of her at his endearing presumption and she is quick to nod her assent. His eyes sparkle in return and it is only when she turns back to Girev and sees his frown that she realises she has not given him the same privilege.

 

“That goes for you too, of course” she says, and he shines up, the eager puppy energy he sometimes lets slip past his Soviet façade making an appearance.

 

“I am honoured, Liza. Please, call me Georgi.”

 

“Thank you. I’d be happy to.”

 

“Now, my dear Liza, I heard from Shapkin of your triumph in Spain. It is sadly a country I have not visited, despite being a well-travelled man. Would you be willing to describe some of it to an old man who is not likely to go there in the future either, with most of his chess career behind him?”

 

She gratefully grabs hold of the new topic and company and launches into a tale of her exploration of Zaragoza. Georgi stays and listens, but apart from a few short comments remains silent, while Luchenko – because she has been too in awe of him for too long to use his given name in her head, and so far only Vasily is dear enough to her to overcome such a thing - is more engaged in making it more of a discussion than a monologue when the time is right.

 

By the time they break up, it is only due to the late hour and when she looks around, she realises more than half of the others have already left, including Vasily. She wishes her two companions goodnight and then leaves and goes up to her suite. Mr Adams, who has waited for her, follows her the entire way up, but remains blissfully silent the whole way and only gives her a nod after she opens the door and then stays until she has walked inside and shut and locked it behind her. He will apparently afford her some freedom, but there is still a framework he will not lightly let her tread beyond.

 

From that point on the two teams stay mostly to themselves when not playing each other. All ten games are set up on the big stage, framed by a blue curtain at the back and decorated with the large boards showing their progress to the huge audience. Not that she can see them with how well lit the stage is while the rest is in darkness. Apparently, there is even a big screen in the square outside showing the progress of the games deemed most important or interesting, with the streetlamps muted so the people who could not get tickets to the inside can see it better.  Over an hour of the last games will also be live broadcasted on Yugoslavian national tv. The scale of it all is somewhat awe-inspiring and once more does she feel a strong sense of gratitude for being a part of it.

 

Georgi has improved a lot and Beth enjoys the challenge he offers now. He is able to stop most of the advantages she tries to press and even declines a sacrifice she offers him, seeing the strategy she has lined up behind it. They have both developed a lot since their first game and he has closed the gap enough for her to miss the perfect score of 4. They draw the first game, then she wins the second and third before he makes a few surprising moves and wins the last. None of their games are adjourned and her two wins are quick enough that she can watch the end of some of the other games. First Luchenko’s draw against Armand on the second day and then Vasily’s win over Larsen on the third. With so many people watching, she dares no let her eyes wander from the board to the World Champion more than a few short glances, but he is so absorbed in his game that he does not appear aware of her presence next to him, so close he would be able to touch her if he only reached out long enough with his hand.

 

As the days progress and she ends up tied with Portish on 3rd board and Hort on 4th for the best result on her team, the others warm up to her more and more. Even Euwe, who is the only one she is sure knows the real reason she is there instead of Benny, starts to treat her in a friendly manner and on the fourth day of playing invites her to sit next to him during lunch and tells her of the time he took the title of World Champion away from Alekhine himself, though not about when he lost it back to the same man. She feels completely in awe after such a tale, as well as accepted.

 

The tournament ends so much closer than most had predicted with 19½ points for the Rest of the World and 20½ for the USSR, due to some surprisingly poor performances from a surprisingly high number of Soviet players. Vasily ended up being the player with the best score at 3 points against – what Beth pettily hopes is a humbled – Larsen’s 1, but other than that those two every other player had a more equal end result with either 1½, 2, or 2½ points. It is all bound to send some major shockwaves through the world of chess and have people question the USSR supremacy and how long it can last.

 

There will be a banquet the evening after the matches are over and with no adjournments they can all take it easy during the morning and afternoon. Beth takes the opportunity to sleep in and order a decadently late breakfast through room service. She feels certain that Mr Kissinger will be happy with her performance and continue to give her the support and financial aid of the US government and decides to use the next hours to go shopping. There is a small thought somewhere at the back of her mind that she is on her way to developing a new addiction, if she has not already done so, but so long as she continues to perform well the prize money will flow in and keep it from being a problem. At least if she does it with some modicum of moderation, and her closet back home is only so large.

 

She dutifully informs Mr Adams of her plan, and he accompanies her on the excursion. He frowns when she asks it of him but complies and ends up helping her with carrying the shopping bags while his eyes are constantly checking the areas around them. Even when they sit down for lunch at a lovely little restaurant that serves local food does he keep it up. He only stops for a short while when he reads the menu, a horrified expression on his face as he realises there is nothing on it remotely American. Clearly, he is not as cautiously adventurous as she is when it comes to food and grumbles after she refuses to find someplace else and orders what looks to be a vegetable soup.

 

“Have anyone tried to make you drink any alcohol?” he asks while they wait for their food to be served.

 

Thinking back on the previous days, Beth can think of no such instance. Sure, there had been both wine and beer served at the joint dinner and the waiters usually asked her if she wanted them to list the wine selection the other nights, but no one had protested when she opted for water or some other non-alcoholic alternative or tried to convince her otherwise. There had been no bottles lying around where she might reasonably stumble upon them either.

 

“No” she replies slowly. “No, there hasn’t been anything like that happening.”

 

“Hm” Mr Adams frowns, apparently as puzzled by this fact as she finds herself.

 

At least after her second win against Georgi they ought to have tried something if they truly intended to do anything, and the fact that they have not must surely carry some meaning of its own. In all likelihood something she should be worried about.

 

“Just continue to keep your eyes open, Miss Harmon, and tell me if you notice anything suspicious. And I do mean anything.”

 

“Yes” is all she says and finds herself strangely willing to follow up on that if needed.

 

It is late afternoon when they return to the hotel, the sun and warmth of most of the day being obscured behind a grey curtain of thick clouds coming in from the west just before they reach the entrance, and she has less time than she would like to make herself ready for the banquet. Having failed so far to even greet Vasily she is starting to get desperate, and this evening is her last chance for possibly a very long time. But when she enters the lobby and looks around she spots Luchenko sitting in an armchair that gives him an unobstructed view of the entrance and his eyes are on her while his expression goes from worry to relief. He then looks at Mr Adams, who has yet to notice him, and raises an eyebrow. The only thing she understands from his manner is that he wants to talk to her, and without the presence of her shadow. Trusting that he will understand her she mouths the floor number she stays on and holding up all ten fingers before quickly walking towards the elevator, hoping to prevent her handler from spotting the familiar - and to him no doubt highly suspicious – face, or hair.

 

After depositing the bags in her room, Mr Adams talks to her about the importance of the banquet and how she must be careful not to flaunt being one of the members of her team with a positive score and draw more ire form the KGB on herself. The political game she is now involved in is slow and steady and they do not want to deal with any more serious attempts to sabotage her than the occasional bottle of wine, or other kind of alcohol, being put in her path, even if they have been conspicuously absent so far. She only nods along and says she understands fully and promises to be on her best behaviour to get him out of there before the ten minutes are up and he will find Luchenko in the hallway on his way out.

 

Cursing herself for making it such a short time, things still work out in her favour as her Russian friend arrives fifteen minutes later instead and she quickly ushers him into her suite before anyone else can stumble upon their clandestine meeting. She offers him a seat in the living room and asks if he wants anything to drink, but while he accepts her first offer and claims an armchair, he waves away her second.

 

“No, thank you, my dear. I need to leave as soon as possible before I am missed. I have already spent long enough down in the lobby waiting for your return. There is something very important I need to tell you. Not that you are not already doing well on your own, but in matters such as these you can never be too careful.”

 

“What… what do you mean?”

 

He looks her straight in the eyes for a long while, seemingly searching her very soul, before continuing.

 

“Forgive me for being presumptuous, but I find it necessary. Yet, in honour of a promise I’ve made to a dear friend, I cannot be fully frank with you. Not yet at least. But I have watched you here and drawn my own conclusions, my dear, and have this to say. If there is something you truly want, you need to go after it. Do not hesitate, or it might be beyond your reach before you know it.”

 

“I… I don’t understand.”

 

There is so much warmth and compassion in his eyes as he reaches out and takes one of her hands in his, pressing it gently. She swallows harshly as she is overwhelmed with the sensation of being in the focus of a man who is both so alike and different to Mr Shaibel. There is the same care for her yet expressed so differently. This man knows exactly how to avoid her doubting that she is important to him, and it is his forced lack of words that is currently the problem, not his inability to express them.

 

“Tonight, at the banquet, I want you to make sure to talk to the person you truly want to talk to. It is very important that you do so. There are… well, things going on outside the control of most of us, but you can still have an impact, my dear. So, please, do not be afraid. Be bold. I know you have it in you.”

 

And with those words he leaves her and she can only sit and stare at the door he closes behind him on his way out until she has collected herself enough to realise she needs to hurry in order to not be late and rushes to the bathroom, already tugging at the sleaves of her blouse when she enters. There is only time for a very quick shower so she can dry and style her hair properly and give the necessary focus when applying her makeup. The last thing she does is to put on the turquoise dress, careful to not let it come into contact with her face or muss up her hair. The sleaves are long while the skirt barely reaches her knees, the silhouette modest yet formfitting enough to give a sense of the contours of her body. It is designed to catch the eye while not giving anyone not living in a religious institution – which would include Methuen, and she grins as she imagines Mrs Deardorff and Miss Lonsdale reacting to her appearance - reason to accuse the wearer of indecency.

 

The mood is somewhat solemn at the supposedly celebratory banquet, as if people have confused it for a wake rather than the end of a competition supposed to be held in the spirit of friendship. They sit in the same hall as that first dinner, but the win and the slim point difference work in opposite direction to both cheer and subdue everyone present and only a brave few keep conversations going while most pay more attention to whatever alcohol they have in front of them. Some USSR players – especially the ones who got below 2½ points, which is most of them – shoot occasional glances towards the table where the KGB agents sit, no doubt wondering what possible punishment that might await them back home. The only exception in that group is Luchenko, who ended up in an overall tie with Armand, with one win each and two draws. He ignores the representatives of his government throughout the whole meal and looks at her almost every time her gaze is drawn to him, an urgency where there is usually only gentleness waiting for her. But no one else has left their seat yet to mingle and she is loath to be the first to do so and draw everyone’s attention to herself.

 

Not until the dessert is served, just like last time, does she get her chance. She spots Georgi starting to make his way towards her not long after, and despite her fondness for the boy she does not want to spend the entire evening talking to him once more. So, she hurries in the direction she wants to go, yet had hesitated to move until then. As luck would have it – or maybe it is by design – she finds Vasily on his own after Luchenko intercepts Laev, who was also on his way to the World Champion, and engages the man in conversation.

 

At long last those familiar blue eyes she has only seen in black and white in photos or in colour in her mind for too long are turned towards her again in more than a rare quick glance that was over before she barely could register it. For a moment his expression reminds her of that time in Paris, during the briefing, while he looked as if he could either smile or frown at her at a moment’s notice. She holds her breath in anticipation of which he will go for now, needing him to give her some form of guidance on how to handle this situation that his friend has made her even more nervous about. At least this is what she thinks Luchenko was referring to, but as with most things concerning Vasily, she is afraid it might be nothing more than wishful thinking.

 

Then there is the smallest shift in his face, and she feels her entire body relaxing. Those blue eyes have become warmer and his façade has softened. She can breathe again and offers a small and tentative smile in return.

 

“Good evening, Miss Harmon” he says in much better English than she had thought him capable of, taking her by surprise.

 

“Eh. Good evening” she replies, unequal to call him Mr Borgov in that moment.

 

“Congratulation on your score.”

 

“Yours is better.”

 

“Only just.”

 

“I… I hope the score will also be in your favour at the end of summer” she offers after a few seconds of fidgeting.

 

It is a good thing she did not fetch any coffee before walking over or she would surely have spilled some and burned herself while she fights to keep her nerves at bay. She envies his apparent calm and wonders if it is possible to learn to be like that or if she is eternally doomed to fretting while in his company.

 

“Thank you, Miss Harmon. You are very kind. But I must tell you that it is a gruelling affair, playing so many games in such a short time. This will be my third time and maybe I will not have the endurance required this time.”

 

“Nonsense. Everyone knows you’re still the best” she blurts out before her brain can catch up to her mouth and feels a blush creep up her whole body at such candid praise escaping her, even if Luchenko had told her to go for it.

 

“Again, you are very kind, Miss Harmon.”

 

She nervously shifts her weight from one foot to the other, making sure neither can end up in her mouth, while her gaze falls down to the still full cup of tea in his hands. Is she keeping him from drinking it? Should she maybe make a retreat before she makes an even bigger fool of herself? What must he think of her?

 

But then she looks back up and there is still that warmth in his eyes, and is that a hint of amused fondness she detects lurking in their depths? It might be wishful thinking, but she collects whatever bravery she possesses and determines to stay and talk to him until he gives a clear indication he no longer desires her company. Luchenko’s words were indeed cryptic, but they have left her with a sense of urgency she cannot shake, along with a feeling that it is now or never.

 

The concept of never scares her. It is too full of emptiness, missed opportunities, and lost loved ones. This cannot be another one of any of those three.

 

Be bold.

 

“Your English is very good” she says, changing the subject before she can get too emotional.

 

“Thank you. I have studied very seriously since December. It was high time I learned to make it on my own at tournaments. I have studied some French too. Beautiful language, but more complicated.”

 

“But, your interpreter is your wife” she just has to point out, reminding herself of that rusty nail in her heart. “Would she not be with you anyway? I thought she would be here tonight. Or for the whole tournament really.”

 

“Larisa is away with our son, visiting her parents” is his reply, a coldness in his voice she cannot understand. Maybe they have argued?

 

She does not care if it makes her petty to feel so happy about the possibility. Here, in his presence, she is beyond caring about his marriage.

 

“I see” she replies, the strong urge to once more find something new to talk about making her tongue-tied.

 

They stand in silence for so long she seriously starts to contemplate just leaving anyway. Why on earth is it so hard to talk to him now that she finally can? The fact that he is not saying anything either is downright discouraging and she is well on her way to concluding that he wants her gone, but is too polite to say so, when they are joined by a third person.

 

“Vasya! What are you doing, standing about in this stupid manner and boring poor Liza” Luchenko says and with barely two inches shorter than his friend, easily slings an arm over his shoulders in what is clearly a familiar gesture since Vasily simply rolls his eyes in a, to her, uncharacteristic display of emotions.

 

“By all means, go ahead and barge in on other people’s conversations” Vasily says in a voice so dry it might have cracked but for the underlying humour.

 

Beth is nearly entranced seeing the two men interact up close. And is Vasya a nickname? A term of endearment only those closest to him are allowed to use? She wants to use it too, but does not think increasing their intimacy, even if it was only in her mind, is the best of ideas. At least not until she is on her own and can take her time with trying it out. Or maybe that is a privacy she must allow him to keep since she has already taken so many other liberties in her mind. There is some honour in her, after all.

 

“Conversation you say? All I saw was two silent people badly in need of a rescue. My dear Liza, do not be afraid to be honest and say if my friend bores you. He has been known to send more than one person to sleep while standing up when in a taciturn enough mood.”

 

“Hardly. And that one time with Keres does not count. The man was already so drunk he could barely stand up.”

 

“If you say so. But let us not make Liza your first victim if that is indeed true. I’m sure you can find something to tell her that will brighten her evening.”

 

“Dima” Vasily says in a warning tone. “You know just as well as I do that there are some topics best not discussed here. Some things that would only cause harm if mentioned now.”

 

Had she imagined it or did Vasily glance over at her for a second at the end? It might have been her imagination, fuelled by desperate hope, and she is so biased that she can no longer fully trust her senses when it comes to him. There is a very real risk of her reading more into his words and actions than is truly there, and she needs to protect her heart better, no matter how futile it seems to try.

 

“Or some chances might pass you by if you play too close to the rules, my friend.”

 

The current World Champion stills at those words, his eyes closing while his face seems to collapse in fatigue for the briefest of moments before he comes back to them. He rubs his furrowed brow before dragging his fingers through his hair and upsetting the perfect neatness, making her long to let her own hands go on the same journey and she has to stop herself from taking a step towards him and reaching out.

 

“Remember the promise you made to yourself” Luchenko whispers in Russian so quietly she can barely make out what he is saying, making his friend still once again with nothing more than his words.

 

But this time Vasily looks very different when he comes out of whatever kind of memory or introspection he had been sent into. Now, there is a sureness in him that makes her feel much better at ease than the strange uncertainty before. Yet, she still shivers when determined blue eyes finds hers.

 

“Miss Harmon, how would you like to attend the match for the title of World Champion? I have no doubt it will be some good practice for you to see it playing out before you no doubt participates more actively in three years.”

 

“You… you…” she begins, unable to decide if she ought to address the question or statement first and eventually manages to decide to tackle them in chronological order. “I would love to watch, if possible.”

 

“Since it is two Russians playing each other, our Federation and FIDE have decided to invite a number of foreign players to give it some international flair. As the defending champion, I should have some influence on who gets to come, and I am sure no one will object to having you there. As one of my seconds, Dima will also be there, but so long as you don’t bring anyone unsuitable, I can try to make room for a friend or two of yours as well. Would that be acceptable?”

 

“More than. Thank you.”

 

He finally gives her a full smile then and she basks in the glory of it, realising she must be grinning quite stupidly when Luchenko clears his throat, breaking the moment and drawing her gaze. She blushes once more, but the satisfaction and sparkle in his brown eyes stop it from reaching a critical level.

 

“Then I hope to see you in July, Miss Harmon. The invitation should arrive by mail in maybe two or three weeks if I can manage it. Good evening.”

 

“Yes, good evening, Liza. It has been a true pleasure to become better acquainted with you here in this lovely city.”

 

“Goodnight” she says and turns away after they do so and feeling as if she walks on clouds when she makes her way back to where most of her own team stands and talk, placing herself next to Armand and trying to listen as he discusses pawn theory with Uhlmann.

 

It completely escapes her that Georgi does not try to approach her again, but rather stays on the outskirts of the party, clenching his hands while he alternates between looking at her and Vasily. All she can think about is that the man she is utterly and stupidly in love with has invited her to watch him defend his title against Korchnoi, and that he thinks that in three years it will be her to challenge him. Because of course he will succeed so that it will be him she has to win that title from. Him that she must conquer. Him that she for the first time has genuine reason to believe is more than an impossible dream.

 

Are you waiting for me, Vasily? She wonders while she braves another look at him, unaware that she is not unobserved.

 

Chapter Text

Despite the numerous opportunities she has to do it, including a very long flight back home she only sleeps about the half of, Beth does not inform Mr Adams about her likely upcoming invitation to watch the match for the title of World Champion. The reason lies somewhere between wanting to keep it to herself for now and feeling it would be stupid to let the government know before it is a certainty. They are sure to want to meddle in some way and the less time she gives them to do so, the better.

 

Before they go their separate ways at the airport, her to find a taxi to take her home and him to wait for his connecting flight up to D.C., where he will no doubt give his report directly to Mr Kissinger, he gives her a card. It contains nothing but a number that goes to a secretary in the building his office is located in, who will put her through to him if she says the password he gives her on a separate piece of paper and tells her to burn as soon as she has memorised it. It makes her wonder about his role in the government in a way she never did with Mr Booth.

 

He also tells her that he will be the one dealing with all the communication with her from now on, unless Mr Kissinger has something particular he wants to talk to her about, and that she should call him when she accepts an invitation to an international tournament so he can decide if she needs him to come with her or not. At her indignant look, a vehement protest at the tip of her tongue, her tries to reassure her that only trips to the USSR, or any country they are closely allied with, are bound to require company. After some grumbling, she can accept that, even if that no doubt means he will have to come with her to Moscow when she had hoped to be able to go there with only a friend. She remains silent on the topic, however, even if meddling is now a certainty anyway. It is a secret she feels good having since it will be harder to fantasise about it after the seemingly unimaginative Mr Adams starts to set out the rules for such an event and most likely cutting off most of her chances to talk to Vasily.

 

Having been gone for about a week, not a lot of mail lies on the floor inside the front door when she enters her house and there is no need to water her cacti, who all look spikily cheerful and thriving in their perches around the place. Townes and John had offered to look after her home while she is away on tournaments, and for longer ones she plans to accept that aid, but she does not want to inconvenience them unnecessarily. The lawn is also neatly cut since she finally had the bright idea to strike a bargain for the whole season with the boy across the street, paying him a generous sum at the end of each month that he does it for her. His eyes had widened comically when she gave him the amount she had in mind before he nodded vigorously, and she could almost see all the candy and soda he planned to buy. Seeing as his father is a dentist, she wish him good luck with that.

 

After a quick lunch she starts to unpack her things, putting what needs to be cleaned in the washing machine or laundry basket and the few unused items in their proper places in her room. She casts a rueful glance at the bag that contains the white dress from Moscow, having returned with nothing to replace it with. Still, she will go back to that magnificent city soon enough and have a new chance. Hopefully.

 

Once her bag is empty and put away, she picks up the phone and calls Arthur, intending to ask how things are going with Benny. To call him directly this soon after the tournament she indirectly pushed him out of seems indelicate, just as she should have realised asking for his help to prepare for it had been. Her past experiences in life, painful outside the normal as many of them have been, can only go so far in excusing her bad behaviour. Her friends are back in her life now and it is as much up to her as it is to them to keep those bonds intact.

 

“This is Arthur speaking” she hears after four signals, his voice sounding somewhat breathless as if he had had to run to the phone.

 

“Hello, this is Beth.”

 

“Beth! Great to hear from you. Belgrade treated you well I’ve heard.”

 

“Not too shabby, no” she is happy to be able to reply, even if she knows they are not thinking of the same thing.

 

“You can’t have been home long, though, so what’s on your mind? Anything I can help you with?”

 

“How’s Benny?” she asks and then starts to fidget when it takes a few seconds for her to get a reply.

 

“Had a bit of a relapse last week, which I guess isn’t strange” Arthur says with a sigh, “and then Cleo showed up and well, let’s just say she’s done most of the comforting these last few days.”

 

“Oh. Well, I hope she can make him feel better then.”

 

“Mostly temporary, but at least it gives him some respite. I’m honestly thinking about suggesting he write another book to give him something more constructive to focus on, but I’ll wait a little while longer to see what happens first. I’m not going to lie, Beth, you should probably stay away from him a while longer. But feel free to call me, either for updates on him or just to talk.”

 

“Thank you. I will.”

 

“Good. Now give me some juicy details from Belgrade. I’m dying to know what happened behind the scenes there. Any attempted defections or assassination attempts?”

 

It is impossible not to laugh in the face of such eagerness over potential international political calamities, even if it is said in jest. By the time the call ends she feels much better and Benny weighs less heavily on her mind, though not forgotten. There is nothing for her to do but wait it out and she refuses to be brought low along with him over something she did not intend to cause. Her bottom lies a lot further down than his and she refuses to visit it a second time.

 

Townes and John come over for dinner the next day and then Beth goes to Louisville to spend a week with Jolene. Rick does indeed talk less about chess, limiting himself to only two discussions about it during meals and since one of them is all three of them talking about her recent experience in Yugoslavia she can hardly complain. The other is to ask her opinion on the upcoming match in Moscow and that is also a topic she is eager to discuss and soon becomes just as enthusiastic as he is about it.

 

“Well fuck me. Who knew I’d end up with two such chess obsessed people in my life” Jolene comments as she stands up when the meal is over and starts to move the dishes over to the sink. But she does smile fondly at them when she comes back for a second load.

 

“Here, let me help you with that” Rick is quick to offer and reaches for the pot there is still some stew left in, but she just swats his hands away.

 

“No, no. I just need something else to do while you two talk this out so I don’t have to listen to it again later, alright. So, why don’t you take this to the living room and I’ll make us some coffee when I’m done and join you” she replies and bends down and gives him a quick peck on the lips.

 

“Thank you, dear.”

 

“Oh, you’ll be making it up to me tonight, don’t you worry.”

 

Beth has to turn away to hide a grin at the interaction between her two hosts. There is such a relaxed casualness about them both that takes any sting out of any teasing or what could be seen as a rebuke under most circumstances. It is the ease of a stable relationship, strange as it might be in other areas. Her friend still has her own apartment and only spends some of her time living with Rick in his grand house and will probably not agree to settle down until she has her law degree, which she will pay for herself in full. Even as an orphan who did end up adopted in the end, Beth can understand the mentality of needing to make it on her own. The big difference is that she is not always the best at that and needs the support of good friends so she can avoid stumbling again, while Jolene has both a strength in and dependence on individuality Beth admires and fears in equal measures.

 

At least the continued and apparently deepening of the relationship between her oldest friend and the lawyer is a testament to Rick’s genuine feelings for Jolene and investment in making things work. Her sister in all but blood had confided in her last time they saw each other that she had agreed to start seeing him more as a pleasant diversion and not seen any future in it and felt sure she would grow bored with him in the end. But as the months passed, what had been mostly physical had had some sentimentality seep into it and by now she is at least contemplating what spending her life with him would entail. It had renewed her anger over the racial injustices of society when Jolene discovered that despite the US Supreme Court ruling laws against interracial marriages unconstitutional two years earlier, several states still have such laws on their books, including Kentucky. They are in effect powerless by now, but a very strong declaration of the opinions of the lawmakers who refuse to do the ceremonial task of removing them and the people electing them into office.

 

“But it is a bit funny, isn’t it” Rick says after they sit down in the living room, her in one of the two armchairs while he claims one half of the couch. “Apart from both being from the Soviet Union, they are both from Leningrad specifically and born just a year apart. Do you think Korchnoi’s strong counterattack style will help him get an edge despite Borgov’s notoriously strong endgames?”

 

“It’s possible, but despite them being almost the same age and having played chess for almost the same amount of time, I think Borgov’s stronger track record speaks in his favour. He has more tournament wins as well as becoming a grandmaster at eighteen, compared to Korchnoi’s twenty-four. Then again, I haven’t played Korchnoi myself so I can’t say anything about his style based on my own experience.”

 

“But you did meet him in Belgrade, right?”

 

“Yes. They were both there, though I played against young Girev.”

 

“And did really well.”

 

“Not as well as Borgov. He won three of his games.”

 

“And gave Larsen a proper lashing, didn’t he, the poor sod” Rick says and takes out a pack of cigarettes from a pocket, offering her one before taking one himself and then lighting for them both. “But that’s right, Korchnoi only won one of his games and drew one. So, if their performances at that spectacle are any indication, it does seem likely that Borgov will defend his title.”

 

“Yes” she agrees, after taking a long drag and feeling the comfort of the smoke rushing into her, swirling around in her lungs, before exhaling. “I’ve started to think that he is truly on the same level as some of the masters of old, such as Alekhine, Capablanca, and Morphy. It’s just that his style is less flashy, so it’s not as noticeable, but just look at what he’s accomplished so far. And managing to defend his title not only once, but twice, that’d be impressive to be sure.”

 

“You’re right. And do you intend to be able to count yourself among them in the future?” he asks after tipping his head back thoughtfully and letting out a large gust of smoke of his own.

 

“Of course” she says so matter-of-factly that he starts to laugh, though not maliciously so. Any man as in love with Jolene as he is knows very well the strength women can possess and not to underestimate them or think them foolish for claiming such things.

 

“I hear laughter. Does that mean the chess talk is over” her friend asks as she walks out from the kitchen, a tray with three steaming cups on it in her hands.

 

“Sorry, dear, but not quite yet” Rick replies and pats the empty space next to him on the couch. “But we have at least agreed on who we think will win.”

 

“You mean to say there’s anything more needs saying?”

 

“Well… maybe not” Rick agrees after a short pause and Beth shrugs.

 

It is likely that the conversation will develop into some sort of monstrosity if they do not stop now, discussing tactics, strengths and weaknesses, and possibly every game the two have played against each other in the past that either of them knows anything about. Jolene would murder them both before the night was over and then where would she be. Not in Moscow for the second half of summer, that was for sure.

 

Jolene did brighten her evening again before long, though, joking that she contemplates using some of her savings to give a donation to Methuen, provided the money goes to buy new clothes to the girls living there. Beth raises the stakes by saying she would offer $1000 that they can do with as they please so long as Mrs Deardorff is let go and they find someone with at least a half as long stick up their butt, seeing it would undoubtedly be too much to ask for them to find someone entirely without.

 

They are both laughing uproariously as they come up with more and more outrageous demands while Rick simply listens with a knowing smile. At one point, however, she catches a look of concern in his eyes as he looks at Jolene. It makes her wonder how much her friend has told him about their experience at that dreary place, not to mention all those years Jolene was there without her, both before her arrival and after her adoption. Years she has barely spoken of to her. Beth surprises herself when she finds herself happy that her friend has someone she might feel comfortable talking about such things with, even if it is someone else.

 

Four days after her return to Lexington Beth finds a letter from FIDE on the floor, along with a bill, when she comes back from the supermarket, where she had had the pleasure of a chat with Harry. She almost drops the whole carton of eggs in her haste to put all the groceries away in her eagerness to read it, which would have been a real shame since she intends to make an omelette that evening.

 

It is indeed an invitation to come and witness the second match of the year that has everyone talking. It also states that she is free to invite someone to accompany her if she intends to stay the entirety of the two months. It brings a delighted smile to her face when she compares her position now to what it looked like before her first trip to Moscow. Back then, only Jolene had come back into her life while she thought she had lost everyone else and had no one to come with her as a second. Now, she has numerous people she can ask. At least if she does not take their own responsibilities into account. Being away for so long will no doubt be problematic for someone who has a regular job and Benny, who is the only one this does not apply to, is still unavailable.

 

But just as her mind had gone to Townes immediately on reading the letter, it returns to him now. He might be an editor as well, but he is still a journalist, and getting the opportunity to cover the World Championship match might be enough for the newspaper to let him stay away for that long. He is, in the end, her best option regardless, as one of her two closest friends, knowledgeable about chess, and most important of all, aware of her feeling for Vasily. Picking up the phone, she calls him at work and invites him to come by when he gets off for the day.

 

In the few hours she has to wait, her nerves get more and more fraught as she goes over in her head what she is about to tell her friend and ask him to do for her. What if he cannot? What if his boss says no? What if he does not want to go? It would mean he cannot see John for a long time.

 

Her fingers are quickly working their way through the movements accompanying some rhyme or song her birthmother had taught her when she was young by the time the doorbell rings and she stops her pacing in the entryway so she can let her friend inside. His already concerned expression turns to worry when he takes in her state and wastes no time with meaningless pleasantries when she ushers him inside.

 

“Thank you for coming” she says and gestures for him to sit down in the couch. She goes for the armchair herself but has barely touched the fabric before she is back up on her feet, pacing once more.

 

“I take it something happened in Belgrade then” Townes comments after about a minute, stopping her short and reminding her that this is the first time they have been alone and free to talk of the part of that journey she has told no one of since she returned. Not even Jolene, because right now she cannot stand the thought of having both of her closest friends worry over her heart. Not while things are so uncertain and more hope than reality.

 

“Yes. I did manage to talk to him, but only for a few minutes and mostly about inconsequential things. If not for Luchenko… I honestly don’t think I would have managed even that” she says, feeling a tinge of frustration at how close she had come to miss her chance. How fear of her dreams coming to nothing had stopped her from approaching Vasily until she was pushed into it. Not that she had had all that many opportunities to do so, but the former World Champion had created his own chance by waiting for her in the lobby, so surely she could have found a way too.

 

“Luchenko? What does he have to do with what happened?”

 

“He talked to me. Urged me to do something. Well, not so much outright as indirectly since apparently he couldn’t tell me anything and urgh, this all seems so convoluted now that I’m retelling it” she says and reaches up and grabs her hair, the red tresses feeling unusually smooth against her fingers due to the lack of hairspray in it since she did not bother styling it that morning.

 

“Do you think it’s a plot or something?” Townes asks, sounding uncertain if he should tell it as a joke or be genuinely concerned.

 

“No. Well, there is definitely something going on, but I’m sure Luchenko doesn’t wish me any ill. Which means that neither does Vasily” she explains, unconsciously smiling when she can use his given name out loud without it being a whisper or gasp in the dark of night. “But at the end of our talk, Luchenko did join us and seemed to encourage Vasily to do or say something. Something to do with me. He ended up asking if I’d be interested in watching him play Korchnoi.”

 

Four cars pass by on the far from busy street outside before Townes has taken in what she just said, thought it through and formulated a reply. While she waits, she keeps herself as still as possible, not wanting to risk interrupting whatever track his train of thought is on at the moment, and only lets her eyes move around the room instead of her feet. Some dust has started to collect on her trophies on the grand piano and she makes a mental note to take the time to polish them soon, there is a glass standing on top of the desk she realises must have been there since before her trip abroad, a small but dark stain – most likely coffee – adorns the wall-to-wall carpet, having just missed the rug, but at least her cacti still look happy despite not being watered yet.

 

“Do you intend to go?”

 

The question breaks her out of her little inspection of her own home, and she looks at her friend. There is both a calmness and determination about him, his dark eyes so steady and steadying as they rest on her, his shoulders squared just enough as if he is preparing to go and do some great deed, while his hands are loosely held together in his lap.

 

“Of course.”

 

“Do you want me to come?”

 

“Would you?”

 

“Of course.”

 

The answer comes so quick and sure it takes her by surprise. It would appear she had mentally prepared herself for rejection and now when he has offered before she could even ask, she hardly knows what to say. Hardly knows what she might possibly have done to deserve having him in her life.

 

“It’s almost two months.”

 

“Yes.”

 

“John?”

 

“Will understand. And I can always buy some local spices and such and bring back to him to try.”

 

“Your job?”

 

“I have some time off saved up and besides, as a collaboration with ‘Chess Review’ they’ll be happy to let me go as a journalist. I can write about both the match and Moscow. The chief editor has wanted something big to feature for a while now that the election is well behind us and a series of articles about life in the Soviet capital seems as good a thing as any, wouldn’t you say?”

 

Her only reply is to go over to him and hug him tightly while the almost unbearable relief unravels all the coils her mind and feelings have twisted up in. She does not even recognise the uncomfortableness of her somewhat awkward position and not until a shudder goes through her body as the last spring snaps lose somewhere deep inside of her does she let him go.

 

“Thank you. This… this is even more than the last time you went to Moscow for me. So much more.”

 

“Us misfits have to stick together. And I’m pretty sure I’ve found the person to share my life with, so now we need to get you to yours. Who knows, it might not be Borgov at all, would probably be a lot easier if it wasn’t, but I think you need to get a chance to find out for yourself and get some closure if needed.”

 

“Yeah. It’s all so stupid, isn’t it” she tries to joke and bends her knees so they bump into his and forces out a chuckle.

 

“No, Harmon. It’s not stupid at all. This is your heart we’re talking about and that’s no small matter.”

 

Fucking tears.

 

For whatever reason, Mr Kissinger is apparently overjoyed about her invitation. At least that is the impression she gets from what little Mr Adams has to say on the matter when he gets back to her after their initial short phone call. Having better relations with the Soviet Union is apparently the thing right now and such a show of goodwill on their part is only encouraging. They have arranged both the flight and the hotel for her, the latter being the same as last time since the USSR likes to keep their foreign visitors herded together and easily located. No doubt to better keep an eye – and possibly an ear too - on them.

 

He can also inform her that her visa application is being handled at top speed, as well as Townes’ – who will get one that permits him his journalistic work while there - and neither of them should have any problem getting into the country and staying there for the full length of the longest match the world of chess has to offer. There is no mention of his own, but she simply assumes that government officials travel on different terms and conditions to everyone else. And it is not as if she would complain if he could not be there the entire time. Lord knows it will be difficult to try to talk with Vasily with him acting as her shadow. Even talking to Townes about it all might prove difficult since she does not dare speak about too personal things in the hotel rooms should they be bugged, and Mr Adams will no doubt insist on accompanying her whenever she leaves the building.

 

And that is indeed one of the familiar rules he gives her on the plane, then sends her temper into boiling temperatures when he not only refrains from including Townes in those rules, but actually asks for her friend’s assistance in helping her follow them. Then again, the reason for this turns out to be, as the man reluctantly has to admit, that he is not invited to anything but attending the games, while there are a few social events where those people invited by FIDE will be welcome. Her not playing this time is actually an advantage, since it limits what her government can insist on having access to while in enemy territory.

 

Moscow in July is much more preferable to Moscow in November. The trees are all a rich green, many kinds of flowers are still in bloom and the sun is merrily shining down on it all. Maybe it is warmer than usual or not, but there is no need for any of the three thin summer and fall coats she has brough along. Because spending so long away from home means several large bags, filled to the brim with clothes she is still going to have to pay for the hotel to wash for her at least once. John is going to stop by at her house once each week to make sure her cacti survive, sort through her mail, pay her bills, and call her if there is anything in particular she needs to know, along with making a list of all the expenses he incurs so she can repay him later. He is doing the same for Townes, though she has a strong suspicion the phone calls between them will be much more frequent and longer, despite the hefty fee for international communication.

 

It is the same driver as last time that comes to pick them up and take them to the same hotel, giving her a slight sense of Déjà vu. The room is at least not the same, even if the decor is near identical. Mr Adams gives it a quick inspection before retiring to his own, which judging by the room number he tells her she can find him at is located two floors down. He is clearly displeased by this arrangement but can do little about the hotel’s handling of the situation and with the match soon to start, it seems more or less every single room is already booked, hindering any chance of asking for a change. At least Townes’ room is only a little down the hallway.

 

After the long journey, Beth goes to bed early, hoping to climatise herself as quickly as possible to the different time zone. Since she will not have a game of her own to focus on and keep herself alert with, but instead just sit for hours in the audience, she must minimise the risk of yawning, seeing as that would be embarrassingly disrespectful.

 

The very next day is the first social event, in the form of a lunch, where all the guests will be welcomed. It is held in a large banquet hall at the hotel, since that is where most people are staying, and she adorns a summer friendly beige and sky-blue cocktail dress before going down there with Townes. He is dressed in a simple yet tasteful suit, fitting in perfectly with the male dominated crowd milling around on the wall-to-wall black and beige carpet, most of which are carrying around a glass of wine in one hand and some a lit cigarette in the other. A good chunk of the crème-de-la-creme of the world of chess is present it looks like and many of the faces are of the variety she has only seen in magazines or not at all before. She guesses many of them are officials since the most people familiar to her are players.

 

“Ah, Beth. How lovely to see you again” a familiar voice sounds from her right and she turns to see Armand walking up to them. He does that European -or is it only French she wonders distantly – greeting with air kissing her cheeks before turning to Townes. “And you have brought a friend I see.”

 

“Yes, this is my very good friend Dean Townes, Townes, this is Armand Duhamel.”

 

“You seem familiar” Armand says, squinting his eyes as his gaze travels Townes’ face thoughtfully.

 

“I was there for the second half of Harmon’s game against Borgov last time she was here in Moscow.”

 

“Ah! Now I remember. Yes, you sat a little to the side in the audience compared to us players and congratulated her after she won so magnificently. But, pardon, do you refer to each other by surname? I though all Americans were so friendly and informal.”

 

“We usually are, but my friend here is used to being called by his surname and likes to do the same for most other people” she explains, having to bite her tongue in order to stop herself from adding that his boyfriend is the only exception she knows of.

 

“I see. Well, any friend of Beth I would be delighted to call a friend too, so do feel free to call me either Armand or Duhamel. I’ve come here all on my own, you see, and am in desperate need of some company. My dear Emelie could not get this much time off of work and will only join me for the last week, provided neither of them is so good the match is over before then.”

 

“Oh, is Emelie your wife then?” Beth asks, realising how little she knows about this man.

 

“Yes. We married three years ago after a short but passionate affair. She’s British actually and we met in Hastings when I was there for a tournament, and she was on holiday with her friends. We stumbled upon each other in the hotel bar one night and the rest, as they say, is history.”

 

“Is she the reason for you good English?” Beth cannot help but ask, causing Townes to chuckle at her impertinence.

 

“Why of course. You don’t get to this level with the help of our school system I can tell you. My English skills back then were questionable at best, and it was a good thing her French was a lot better or I’m sure I’d unwittingly insulted her somehow.”

 

They end up talking for a while, Armand telling them about his life before Townes talks about his job and former and fairly short chess career. Beth mostly stands there and listens, while her eyes roam the hall from time to time, hoping to catch a glimpse of Vasily among all the nondescript suits and mostly serviceable ties. It is not until Euwe himself calls for everyone’s attention and holds a thankfully short welcome speech before announcing that the food is ready and asking everyone to take a seat, that she spots him. Along with Luchenko and Laev he stands off to one side, a KGB agent close to them, but not part of the group. He is wearing a black suit, white shirt and terrible red and black tie that has some strange geometrical pattern, his hair combed in its usual style, and façade firmly in place. He leans over to his friend and whispers something to him before they all start to move towards the head table, where he sits down next to the president of FIDE. Korchnoi, flanked by Polugaevsky and Smyslov, has already sat down on the other side, his face equally fixed in blank politeness.

 

Along with Townes and Armand, Beth finds a place to sit that gives her a good view of that table and there is a moment of confusion when both of her friends attempt to help her into her chair before she simply does it herself while their hands hover uselessly behind her back. One looks sheepish and the other amused when they sit down on either side of her, shielding her from what looks to be some particularly boring middle-aged chess bureaucrats on one side and a dour looking Larsen on the other. She is surprised to see the Danish Grandmaster there after his performance in Belgrade, but maybe he is hopeful of seeing Korchnoi indirectly avenging him. Or maybe he is a more gracious loser than she is.

 

While a large number of waiters enters the hall to serve them the food, claiming the attention of most people there, Beth lets her eyes linger on Vasily and is rewarded by his blue gaze turning to her and remaining there while he gives her an almost imperceptible nod and barely visible smile. The colony of butterflies in her stomach flutters to life and she returns both gestures, then they both look away before attracting any attention. This is hardly the right circumstance to try to communicate with him, even through shared looks, because despite Mr Adams not being present, a lot of other people terribly capable of complicating things are.

 

Despite it being a lunch, there are three courses with the first being a small helping of Pelmeni, the main a generous quantity of Kotlety with boiled potatoes, a light sauce and salad, and lastly things rounded off with some Syrniki. All three offerings being things that Beth appreciates she feels quite full when the waiters come back for the third round of dishes. That also heralds the second round of mingling, and it seems like she has barely got up on her feet when Luchenko is next to her and engulfing her in a hug.

 

“Liza, my dear. So wonderful to see you back in my home city” he says in his usual jovial manner.

 

“Dmitry” she replies, grinning in the face of his open affection.

 

“Please, introduce me to you friend before I steal you away for a little while.”

 

“Er, this is Dean Townes” she introduces for the second time that day and experiencing the strange novelty of referring to him by his given name once more. Then again, it is the same with them both for her. “Townes, this is Dmitry Luchenko, former World Champion.”

 

“An honour” her American friend says and holds out his hand.

 

“Oh, please. The title has been out of my hands for too long for you to feel any sort of reverence for me, young man. But, please tell me, since you are not Liza’s family, are you here as a friend or journalist?”

 

Beth only smiles at the directness of Luchenko, already used as she is to his abhorrence to beating about any bushes. It has sent her friend wrongfooted, though, and she can see the confusion in his eyes as they move to her to seek reassurance before he replies.

 

“Eh, both.”

 

“Then the higherups will be pleased. They want everyone to be able to read about the splendour of our great city and the marvellous chess we play. You will be writing favourably about us, will you not?” Luchenko says, but witch such a teasing lilt to his voice that it is impossible to think any offence was meant.

 

“I doubt there will be reason for any negative publicity at such an event as this” Townes replies politely.

 

“Indeed, let us hope so. Judging by Belgrade, this might very well be the last time this turns out to be an exclusively Soviet affair and we won’t get to host it again.”

 

“You could always apply for hosting duties if none of the players are Soviets” Townes points out and Luchenko looks taken aback for a full three second before chuckling.

 

“Yes, yes. That day might also come at some point, but no need for such pessimism, young man. We’re here to celebrate the beginning of what we all no doubt hopes will be two spectacular months, not wallow in doom and gloom. But, Liza, dear. Come, I want to introduce you properly to the two main stars of this show.”

 

And without waiting for anyone’s approval of his plan, he simply links her arm with his and pulls her along towards the area to the left of the head table where a group of men in suits are standing in conversation. She nearly stumbles as first and he slows down enough for her to get her feet in order, patting her arm in approval when she manages the feat quickly and without attraction more than maybe one or two glances.

 

To her confusion Vasily is not among the people they are approaching. Instead, it is Korchnoi she is taken to first and when she gives her companion a questioning look all he does is shrug. It is not until five minutes later, after an introduction, followed by a few polite words that does nothing to test the limits of her Russian, have been exchanged that she sees his plan. With the challenger out of the way, there is a less strict time limit on how long she can spend with the defender.

 

“Vasya, please tell me you remember the lovely Miss Harmon” Luchenko says when they walk up to him just as he bids Keres good day and turns around.

 

“How could I not. I do hope you recall we were all in Belgrade not that long ago, or has age caught up to you so terribly, my friend?” Vasily replies in that tone of voice he seems to reserve for his predecessor then turns his eyes to her and extends his hand. “Miss Harmon, lovely to see you again. I hope you have had a good time since May.”

 

She eagerly reaches out and slips her smaller hand into his, feeling the warmth of his skin as it envelops her and sends a tingling sensation up her arm. All too soon does he let her go and leaves her reaching out towards him for a moment before she collects herself and she quickly tries to come up with something before her emotions can get the better of her while she retracts her arm.

 

“It’s been fine, thank you. But it’ll be nice to spend the warmest part of summer here instead of Lexington. Kentucky can become unbearably hot this time of year.”

 

“Moscow is not without some warmth, but I doubt we reach the same levels as your hometown, so I think you will be safe here” he replies, and she wonders how they have ended up talking about the weather of all things. Surely there is no need to be quite that inconspicuous. There is a glimmer of something in his eyes that makes her think he finds the topic equally absurd.

 

“At least it allows for some lighter clothes” she says, suddenly deciding to be bold, and smooths down the thin fabric of her dress, her hand lingering at the hem so as to draw attention to her long legs.

 

His whole body goes still for a second, but his eyes does follow her movement before quickly returning to her face. It is so impossible to smother her satisfied grin entirely that a part of it slips out. Sure, he is only a man and she knows she is not unfortunate looking, but still, such a slip in his normal composure has to count for something.

 

“Are you still confident I will win?” he asks, changing the subject.

 

“Of course. No offence to Korchnoi, but I imagine most people in here think the same” she replies, giving their surrounding a quick survey and spots Townes surreptitiously watching her while talking to a man she does not recognise, though that could be due to him standing with his back to her.

 

“I am less sure. Many of them might think it boring if I keep the title. I know my style is not the most inspiring” he says, tilting his head slightly to the side.

 

“Then they are fools” she shoots back, but unable to blush a little at the recollection that for a long time that had been her exact sentiment. Not that she had not feared his precise and calculated moves, but it had not been the games she had felt the most conductive playing through.

 

“Then I am happy you have changed your mind, Miss Harmon. I was told you had some strong opinions about less intuitive players you wrote about in ‘Chess Review’ at some point.”

 

Damn.

 

Had he read that old piece she had written one of the times she was on the cover of that magazine? Not that she had mentioned him by name, but plenty of other players of old that could be said to have a similar style to his, and it had not been complimentary. The Soviets truly did their homework.

 

“I was young and foolish” she says, knowing it is the truth.

 

“As opposed to now? Have you grown old and wise in the last three years?”

 

“Older and wiser at least. Enough to know better” she says and stubbornly holds on to his gaze despite the heat in her cheeks, wanting him to know it is true. Needing him to know it is true.

 

“Thank you, Miss Harmon. I am happy to know I have your good opinion.”

 

She says nothing to that, afraid she will say too much, but he also lets the silence linger as if waiting for her to decide where to go from there, face passive but eyes curious. It leaves her with a sensation of electricity coursing through her body, lighting up every nerve but never causing pain or destruction. A preparation for a leap. As if he has shown her that the ravine separating them is not an insurmountable chasm and that if she only has the right momentum she might leap across and join him.

 

But it will have to wait. They are not alone and their time together has apparently run out when Euwe comes up to them and asks to have a word with Vasily after giving her a short greeting, only then making her realise that Luchenko is no longer there. She takes comfort in the regret she sees flitter by in his blue eyes before the World Champion allows the president of FIDE to lead him away to where Korchnoi waits for them.

 

She circles the hall once, greeting some of the people she encounters on the way and ends up where her American friend stands in conversation with her French one.  They seem to be making a comparison on US and French journalism, so she simply uses them as a cover to shield her from interacting more with others and lets her mind wander while standing in place and absentmindedly digging the toe of her left shoe into the carpet. There is a restlessness in both her mind and legs after that failed jump before and she wonders when she might get a new chance. As one of the participants, Vasily is likely going to spend most of his time sequestered away with Luchenko and Laev and go over strategies and doing a lot of practicing, just as she had seen them together once before. The next social event she knows of that will include the two contestants is a concert next week, but that hardly gives her a lot of opportunities, and after that it is two weeks until an outdoor lunch in some park or garden, provided the weather holds up.

 

The hotel restaurant is almost full in the evening with foreign visitors. Both spectators and journalists, eager to discuss the event that is set to start the next day and debate the strengths and weaknesses of both Vasily and Korchnoi, as well as their seconds, guessing who will win and what the final score might be. Two journalists ask her for an interview each in the coming days and after Mr Adams gives her a hesitant nod she accepts. They are likely only wanting to get her opinion on the event and with only some tings kept to herself she would be happy to share it.

 

Armand joins them just as they get the menus, filling the last seat at the table for four and frowning at Mr Adams when he goes straight for the page with foreign food and proclaims that he will have the hamburger after they have been introduced. As it turns out, the Frenchman is a risktaker when it comes to trying out new food and boldly goes for a bowl of Shchi that contains some meet along with the traditional cabbage and some other vegetables. Beth plays it safe with Chicken Kiev and Townes copies her.

 

“So, how was the lunch?” Mr Adams asks while they wait for their food to be served, which will probably take a while.

 

“Nice. Mr Euwe welcomed everyone, since it’s mainly FIDE that organises the special guests part of this, the food was good and the company pleasant.”

 

“Who did you talk to?” her shadow demands to know and she decides it is best to keep as close to the truth as possible.

 

“Only these two before Luchenko dragged me away so I could meet both Korchnoi and Borgov and then I just said hello to some people before I went back to my friends.”

 

“Hm. Luchenko seems to have taken an interest in you, Miss Harmon. Has he said or done anything suspicious?”

 

Beth cannot even imagine the kind old man doing anything of the sort and even chuckles at the idea of him trying to give her some sort of sign in the middle of his infectious enthusiasm.

 

“No. He’s harmless. Just eager to become friends with everyone, I think.”

 

“Indeed” Armand agrees before Mr Adams can say anything. “I’ve played the man a few times and talked to him at some of those tournaments. He’s always happy to meet and talk to new people. You should have seen how he made poor Hort blush some years ago by pointing out the three blunders he had made in their game as soon as it was over and encouraging him to practice some more so he could avoid them in the future. It was all meant as encouragement, but Hort being seventeen at the time became terribly flustered and was uncapable of looking the man in the eyes again for more than a year. At least he never made those blunders again.”

 

“I see. But do tell me if he says anything strange, Miss Harmon. We cannot be too careful here in Moscow.”

 

“Fair enough” she replies, hoping their meal will be served soon so they can change the topic. Mr Adams might be terribly dry, but he is not stupid, and if she lingers too long on the subject of the Soviet players, she is afraid she will unwittingly betray herself.

 

Next day starts with the opening ceremony, which is held at the Moscow Television Theatre so they could broadcast the entire thing and let people all across the USSR see the spectacle. There had been less interest shown outside the Soviet Union in two of their best players battling it out for the title, but there were rumours that at least a few countries had bought the rights to show the footage.

 

Apart from the main players, a lot of people important in other fields – most of which were political – were present and a few of them even held speeches, most of which appears not to be written by the speakers themselves and seem to dwell more on the superiority of the Soviet Union than on chess. To many people’s surprise or even shock, their numbers include none other than Brezhnev himself, no doubt eager to have some of the glitz of the event shine on him too. Still, it is a drawn-out and tedious affair and Beth is happy to sit more or less in the middle of one section of the audience, making her disappear in the mass of countless faces and not have to work as hard to hide her boredom. At least she can keep herself busy enough to not start yawning by acting as a translator for Townes, with Mr Adams filling in the few words she does not know. He also explains who everyone is, Brezhnev being the only one Beth could identify outside of those related to the world of chess, because even she knows what the leader of the Soviet Union looks like.

 

The next day they are driven to the Estrade Theatre, which is almost across the river from the Kremlin, where the games will be held. As for architecture it reminds Beth a little of the Dom Sindikata in Belgrade, but more imposing as well as more detailed. The interior is a definite upgrade with lots of red velvet all around to go with the more elegant design and an impressively large stage that will only house two players instead of twenty.

 

Along with Townes and Mr Adams, she is escorted to the first row up on the balcony, from where she can see the game without obstruction with the help of the theatre binoculars she has brought, as opposed to down on the floor where many of the rows in the front sit lower than the level the chess board will be at. There is, of course, a large board in the background that they can all follow the game on, but Beth wants to watch the genuine thing. See Vasily’s sure movements as he pushes his pieces across the board. She has also brought scoresheets and a pen so she can write down all the moves as the game progresses, wanting to be able to analyse it either that evening or the next day.

 

The two players are introduced and applauded, along with Belgian player Alberic O’Kelly de Galway and Czechoslovakian player Miroslav Filip, who would act as chief and assistant arbiter respectively. They all take their places quickly after showing their respect to the audience and Vasily looks his usual calm self as he sits down to play white after shaking hands with his countryman. His face is impassive, his hands placed perfectly aligned in front of him as soon as he has made sure his pieces are the same, then waiting for the photographers that have been standing at a distance until then to come and take their pictures before O’Kelly starts the clock. A hush settles over the audience as they all wait along with him and after the sound of the cameras dies out Beth is certain she can hear the sound of it when the chief arbiter presses the button.

 

Vasily opens with his king pawn and Korchnoi replies with the Sicilian. On his third move, Vasily moves his queen pawn to make it an open variation and then they are off. It is a good game, but Korchnoi eventually gains the upper hand and claims the first point of the match. Vasily, as always, takes his loss in stride and is quick to offer his hand in resignation when his position requires it before they both stand up and faces the audience and their applause in a silent goodbye before leaving.

 

Beth blinks as she returns to the real world after being so absorbed in following the game for the last few hours. It is the first time she has watched one of Vasily’s games in its entirety live. Despite his eventual loss she still took delight in following his moves, anticipating what he would do next and try to decide what his tactic was. She can hardly wait for the next game and only wishes she could have the opportunity to talk about and analyse each game with him before the next. But seeing that she is not one of his seconds, that is sadly impossible.

 

On the days there are no games, Beth alternates between taking part in the unofficial games arranged in the banquet hall the welcome lunch was held in for the benefit of the guests that are players, and exploring Moscow as much as Mr Adams will allow her. Townes is a constant companion and Armand joins often too. The three of them sit together at the concert a week into the match, Mr Adams not being allowed there as he is not among the FIDE guests, but just as she had predicted it offers her no chance to talk to Vasily again. However, she can draw some comfort from Luchenko taking the time to detach himself from the large USSR contingent and seek her out for a few quick words, and the fact that his friend looks over at them for a short while as this happens and meets her gaze, offering her as much of a smile as is possible in such a public setting.

 

“Vasya is ever so busy with all of this. Everyone wanting to claim his attention in one way or the other and the only reason pressure from above isn’t higher being that he faces another Soviet player” Luchenko remarks casually and shakes his head, as if lamenting his friend’s busy schedule in general instead of explain his absence to her. Or she hopes that is what he does. “At least the lunch in two weeks should afford him some more time to socialise than sitting in the darkness for two hours while being lulled to sleep by too disciplined musicians ever could.”

 

Beth remembers catching sight of the former World Champion having fallen into a slumber at the small concert during the Moscow Invitational and having to be roused when it was over by poor Shapkin, who was the USSR player sitting closet to him. The memory makes her laugh and wonder if that evening will offer a repeat performance before she replies.

 

“Maybe he is more appreciative of the musical arts than you, Dmitry, and won’t fall asleep.”

 

“It is true that he is in possession of greater fortitude than myself and is unlikely to fall victim to the kind of rudeness afforded old men such as myself.”

 

“You’re hardly that old” she protests.

 

“It is the privilege of youth to trivialise the burden of age, my dear, but I thank you for your defence of me all the same. I shall be sure to boast to everyone of how the lovely Liza Harmon thinks 59 years is but a trifle and hope to have the chance to remind you of it when you have reached the same estimable age.”

 

His delivery is so unaffected and humorous that she cannot help but laugh in delight at his antics and giving him full permission to use her compliment as he sees fit. He takes her hand in his and bends over it to show his gratitude before taking his leave of the three of them.

 

“Goodnight!” she dares to call after him, garnering some strange looks from the people around them, but she could not care less. Instead, she turns back around to find her two friends trying to supress grins with little success, and it is probably a good thing that the call for everyone to take their seats sounds only a few minutes later and they are soon all submerged in darkness and music.

 

When the last note has faded, the applause come to an end and the lights are turned back on, Beth does spot Luchenko. He is indeed asleep.

 

The match progresses for another two weeks and nine games have been played, both of the last two ending in draws but with Vasily in a two point lead, when the outdoor lunch is performed under almost too much sunshine. Most guests can be seen sweating in their dark suits while Beth and the other few females present can weather the heat more easily in their dresses. Beth has put on a pink one she found in Belgrade that in theory should clash with her hair but somehow does not. Among the blooming flowers, growing in neat lines, she feels comfortable using the soft and feminine colour that might give the impression of weakness if worn to a game. She wears the necklace Townes and John gave her for Christmas on top. The white queen draws an amusing number of eyes to her chest before the men quickly look away, clearing their throats and trying to think of something chess related to say. Her mood is good enough to simply find it funny.

 

There is one set of eyes she hopes to draw and about an hour and a half into the event she finds her chance. Or rather, he makes one for them.

 

The meal is over and people are starting to make their way around the admittedly beautiful area to explore and he catches her eyes before moving down one of the wider paths. She follows a bit behind, allowing the large number of people going the same way to obscure her true reason for moving along those particular grey slabs of stone. Catching sight of him taking a turn to the left, down a slightly smaller path, she continues her pursuit and as soon as she has turned the same corner, she can see what must be their destination.

 

In an open area surrounded by large rose bushes there is a fountain spraying water impressively high into the air before it returns back down to earth and creates so many ringlets in the water that it is impossible to distinguish one from the other. As she leaves the chatter of the other guests behind, the sound of it grows louder and when he stops at the edge of the stone structure, but walks halfway around it so he cannot be seen by anyone out on the main path, her heart speeds up. She walks up to him, unable to look away from his still figure as he stands with his hands clasped behind his back and blue gaze steadily fixed on the water, expression a familial neutral.

 

“Miss Harmon” he says almost as soon as she has stopped right next to him, standing so close that if it had been winter instead of a warm and sunny summer day she would have felt the heat from him. His voice is calm and only loud enough for her to hear, while quiet enough that she guesses the sound of the fountain will keep anyone further away from hearing.

 

“Yes?” she asks in Russian, mimicking his volume.

 

“I am happy you came” he replies in English.

 

“What? Here?” she asks, switching to her native language along with him.

 

“Both here and Moscow in general” he replies and turns his head to look at her. “Our mutual friend has berated me endlessly for not being fully open with you, but that is not possible yet. There are too many people watching and until this match is over it is near impossible for me to talk to anyone in full privacy outside of my seconds. But I want you to know that I do want to talk to you and explain so many things. You might get angry at me for some of them, and justifiably so, but I have some reason to hope others will only make you happy.”

 

In complete contrast to the serene little area they are in, her body goes into overdrive, her racing heart sending blood to the surface in a spike of both adrenaline and hope while she starts to fiddle with her hands so as not to reach out to him. Even if they are alone for now it is only a matter of time before someone else comes down this way and she does not want either his acceptance or rejection of her to be witnessed by anyone else. The fountain might help drown out the sound of their voices if they speak quietly enough, but it cannot hide them from prying eyes she then realises might be found somewhere in the bushes. She hopes whoever possibly stands or sits there gets stung on the thorns.

 

“Dima will throw a small party to either celebrate my win or to try to cheer me up after my defeat the same night the match is decided, and you will be welcome. He will make sure you get a note with his address before then. Bring your friends if you like, but make sure your handler remains at the hotel. If you come, we can talk more freely. But until then we must keep all potential conversations light. Do you understand?”

 

“Yes” she breathes, so many emotions clogging up her throat she fears suffocation.

 

He gives her a more open smile, reminiscent of the one when she won against him, and turns fully toward her before his gaze drops. The white queen is what has drawn his gaze, but unlike the other men he lets it rest there.

 

“It suits you” he comments and then reaches up and lets a single finger trace the contour of the marble without coming into contact with the fabric of her dress. She holds her breath and contemplates moving forward to force some contact but before she can make up her mind he pulls away. “The piece best representing you. First to act and strong on attack as you rule the board.”

 

“Does that make you a black king?” she asks, and he tilts his head in question. “More confident to let your opponent move first, playing a strong defence and sitting the throne of this world of chess we both live in.”

 

His smile returns and had she not already forgotten the more or less public setting they stand in she would have at that moment. Despite his words of caution earlier, they are strangely close to a much more intimate conversation than they should allow themselves, but she can feel no remorse either then or later. Instead, she smiles back, feeling the momentum build up in her and once more preparing to take that leap.

 

At that point two things happen almost at once. She hears people approaching and turns around and spots a group of FIDE officials coming down the same path they took to get there while something soft presses gently against her arm. She looks down and finds it to be the fabric of Vasily’s suit sleeve as he has extended his arm towards her as if offering it after turning back towards the fountain without her noticing. The echo of their little moment whispers in her mind while also settling in her heart as a pleasant buzz while she stares at it with aching anticipation.

 

“Yes, it is a lovely thing is it not” he says, switching over to Russian and talking louder than before. “And the mechanism is surely a marvel for making the water reach so high. But let me show you the plants in the greenhouse, Miss Harmon. I am sure many of them will be new to you.”

 

Beth is a clever person – most of the time anyway- and has no trouble catching on to what he is doing and the offer of spending more time together it is, even if they cannot be more than polite rivals making an acquaintance for the remainder of it. She accepts his arm and quickly comes up with an answer that would seem like a reasonable reply in this made-up conversation.

 

“Thank you, I’d be happy to. My mother used to go on about rare and exotic flowers, lamenting she couldn’t grow them in our yard” she replies in the same language, unsure if any of the men approaching them understands a word of what they are saying or if their little charade is meant for someone else too.

 

It matters little as the men just greats them with little interest and goes straight for the fountain and uses its water to wash off their sweaty faces while Vasily steers her down a second path. She feels a little guilty at having lied about Alma, who had never in the too few years they got together talked about a plant not already in their yard or inside the house, but since she gets to spend the next hour on Vasily’s arm she feels no remorse. What she does feel is a constant tingling where her bare skin brushes against the fabric of his suit and the heat in her cheeks when she imagines what it would feel like if nothing separated them. Luckily, the greenhouse is warm and humid enough to explain away her blush in a perfectly innocent way and only his gaze lingers on her face long enough to make her suspect he has at least an inkling of the truth.

 

He surprises her, though, with the ease with which he talks of the various flowers he shows her, and she has no idea if he is simply a master of bluffing or if it is an actual interest of his. The mental image of him taking care of the yard back home, planting some unusual flowers that will make the whole neighbourhood green with envy, comes to her, but she shakes it away. He might be talking with her now and hinting at something going on he will tell her about as soon as he can, but that is a long way away from seeing him in her home.

 

Things go back to the normal routine after that. She watches the games from her usual seat through her pair of binoculars, play a few unofficial games against other guests and wins most of them, and continues to explore Moscow with Townes and Mr Adams and at times Armand too. The Frenchman has started to strike up some sort of rapport with her handler of all people – talking excitedly of the recent moon landing her country has pulled off that she considers meaningless - but since it keeps some of his focus off her when they are out and about, she cannot complain. Especially since it gives her more opportunities to talk about Vasily with Townes, which she is too afraid to do at the hotel and refuses to do while anyone else might hear.

 

“How are you holding up?” he asks once they have managed to put some distance to the other two so as not to be overheard – she has no illusions about Mr Adams’ fury should he find out she is in love with who he perceives as the enemy – while they are taking a walk in a park near the hotel and puts his arm around her shoulders, pulling her close.

 

It is the day after the second concert, and they are a little over five weeks into the match. Korchnoi had closed Vasily’s lead after the outdoor lunch and since then there has been nothing but draws, leaving them at eight points each after the 16th game. It is turning into a nail biter with the defending World Champion seemingly not quite at his usual level. Or maybe Korchnoi has simply prepared better, being well aware of the herculean task it must surely be to try to wage such a long battle against the king of chess.

 

“Nervous, but mostly good” she replies honestly, smiling as she thinks of last night and Vasily taking the time to walk up to her and greet her in the vestibule before the concert started. Luchenko had stayed back for a few minutes before following his friend, giving them a little time to themselves before cutting it short before it could give rise to talk. Townes had spotted the World Champion on his way to them before she had and simply excused himself to the men’s room and walked away before she realised what was going on. Of course, nothing important could be said, but his company was enough to think it one of the best nights there while barely remembering what music had been performed.

 

“I have to admit things are going better than I thought they would. He seems to be genuinely interested in you, though I find it hard to determine in what way. The man has an enviable poker face.”

 

“Aren’t you usually really good at telling what people are feeling?”

 

“True. But during my time here, doing some interviews for my articles, I have come to find that the closer people are to being important here in the USSR the more adept at hiding themselves they are. I think it is a necessary skill for them to survive this society and its power structure. We had McCarthyism in the 40s and 50s, but I think they live like that all the time and with the whole society rather than one person driving the hunt. Disloyalty is not tolerated and so they learn to hide their thoughts and emotions.”

 

“Luchenko isn’t like that.”

 

“Are you sure? Maybe his joviality is simply how he masks himself?”

 

It makes Beth feel cold and clammy to think of the readily smiling old man as nothing but a front. That his friendship is nothing but a front to put her off her guard and not look too closely at whatever he might be hiding. Has Vasily decided on a similar tactic, seeing how well it works? How she has opened herself up, thinking it was mutual, while only leaving herself highly vulnerable.

 

“And now you’re overthinking it” her friend interjects and reaches over with the arm not around her to flick her nose with it. “I didn’t say that means he doesn’t genuinely care for you, because I’m sure he does. I’m only saying that there is most likely more to him than that. And speaking of that fluffy mop of hair, I ran into him down in the lobby after breakfast and while a group of guests passed by, he handed me a piece of paper which turned out to have an address on it. Anything important you might know about?”

 

“Yes” she says, relieved that she finally has that vital piece of information within her grasp. Word had got around to Mr Adams about a week after the event about Vasily spending some time with her at the FIDE arranged lunch and he has kept an extra close eye on her while she comes into contact with anyone outside Townes and Armand ever since. He had questioned her at first and she still remains unsure if he believes her explanation of her simply having wanted to ask Vasily about that beautiful 5th game he had won, and that they had ended up discussing it at great length while taking a walk. Seeing that she does admire that game a great deal, she wishes her lie was the truth. At least Mr Adams has not brought it up again.

 

But now all she has to do is wait for the match to be over, and hopefully in Vasily’s favour because damn the man if he does not let her challenge him in three years, and she only needs to leave her shadow at the hotel for the night. She highly doubts any of the staff will try to prevent her from leaving and the KGB should be nothing but delighted to see her move around their capital without any oversight of her own government. No, the only people she has to worry about are other guests, that might unwittingly talk about her little insubordination where Mr Adams might overhear if they witness her escape. Not that it will stop her. In such cases as these, it is much better to ask for forgiveness - and provide some prepared lies - than permission.

 

Chapter Text

When they all sit down for the seventeenth game, Beth has a sense of calm she cannot explain. The match still seems to be able to go either way, but for her personally, things are finally starting to become clearer. Or there is at least the promise of them becoming so by the time this is all over.

 

It is Vasily’s turn to play white, and it does not take long for her to realise that it seems to be a repeat of the first game. The Kan Variation of the Sicilian opening is on the board, and it is not until the 9th move that Vasily changes things by moving a pawn instead of his queen. The game does end up almost exactly as long as that first one, however, with only two more moves. But this time, it is not the defender that has to concede defeat but the challenger. The long streak of draws is finally broken, and it is Vasily that has emerged with a one-point lead. A point that matters more than the one he lost that first day, because they are so much closer to the end now.

 

When they leave the Estrade Theatre, she is smiling. Nothing is sure yet, almost a leaf shivering in the still raging storm of uncertainty, but there is a sense of a shift having occurred. Of the momentum having picked a path rather than crash helplessly against indecision. More of her anxiety has left her and she thinks that the party at Luchenko’s place will be that of celebration.

 

The 18th game is another draw, but it does not dampen the sense that the outcome has become more certain. Korchnoi can still do battle, but less and less people think he will win the war. When she is asked to do an interview by a British journalist there are more general questions about Vasily than about the current match, as if he is trying to prepare an article delving into the mindset of the continued World Champion rather than ger her thoughts on the approaching conclusion.

 

And then the 19th game happens. It is the Najdorf Variation of the Sicilian Defence this time, and Vasily is once more showing his superiority with handling such openings. He sacrifices his pieces wisely and opens a line of attack towards the black king he can then exploit to end the game with such haste that it is no more than four moves past a miniature. Beth turns her binoculars on Korchnoi after Vasily moves his remaining knight to g5 and sees a curious mixture of awe and dismay play on his features. She only feels the former but takes pleasure in witnessing the latter and does not bother to hide her grin.

 

Then she studies the board, along with everyone else, while waiting to see how the challenger will react. Unless he takes the knight now it will be mate in the next move, but no matter if he uses his pawn or queen to take out the immediate threat, his other pieces are too tied up to be of any use and he would only postpone the inevitable. Vasily has created a beautiful mating net, and Beth can only admire his handiwork and the swift execution of it. Korchnoi undoubtedly sees the same thing she does and ends the game only a few minutes later.

 

24 moves, 23 pieces still on the board, 13 of Korchnoi’s and 10 of Vasily’s, and the champion claims yet another point, doubling his lead. It is sure to be a game people talk about for a long time and spend hours analysing. She knows she will.

 

Korchnoi, however, shows why he made it all the way to this match in the next game, winning it after 50 moves and a Queen’s Gambit declined at the start, but after his recent defeat, or rather Vasily’s spectacular win, it is hard for him to convince many people that he still has a chance. Not all battles won hold the same weight.

 

Emelie Duhamel makes her appearance the day after the 21st game had been won by Vasily, landing him on 11½ points and meaning Korchnoi has to win all the remaining games in order to claim the title. Not impossible, but highly unlikely. It was the talk of everyone, and she had seen the strain in Korchnoi's face when he had to concede, knowing all room for error was at an end. Vasily looked like his usual calm self, even if she had detected a barely perceptible smile for a few seconds just before he had made his final move.

 

The woman is four years older than Beth, but with her birthday earlier in the year she had already turned twenty-five. She has long light brown hair and a face that is pretty, but more in a sense that she is pleasant to look at once one noticed her rather than it attracting one's gaze in the first place. Though her brown eyes seems sharper and more intelligent than her distracted smile and bubbly conversation would make one think her to be. Dressed in a dark blue skirt and blouse with a discrete floral print, she furthers the impression of being nondescript, and if it had not been for that edge in her gaze, Beth would have wondered why her French friend had fallen for her.

 

"Oh yes, I must admit to not finding chess all that interesting, I'm afraid. I only caught the very end of my dear Armand's third game in Hastings by chance, which he did win, and it all seemed so frightfully exciting in that moment and I decided I wanted to talk to him. So, I approached him at the hotel bar that same evening, ditching my friends, who were none too pleased, let me tell you" the woman says with a laugh as she tells the story of how she had met her now husband in more detail than Armand had given.

 

"So, you took the initiative?" Beth feels compelled to ask.

 

"Oh, of course. I doubt he would have noticed any other females outside the queens on the board otherwise. I still sometimes wonder if he loves chess or me more, but somehow, I find it much more thrilling to have to compete with a game than other women, because he never pays attention to them, you see. No, I'll never have to fear anything on that account. His only loves are me and chess."

 

Beth casts a quick glance towards the man in question, who stands talking with Townes at a small distance from them and wondering if Madame Duhamel is simply teasing or uncommonly open. Maybe a bit of both, she decides as her gaze returns to the other woman who looks positively conspiratorial now.

 

"And I think that is one of the secrets to a happy relationship" she says, voice lowered and leaning in towards Beth as if she is about to impart something monumental. "It is best to be with a person who is so devoted to a thing or a concept that you know they have no room for anyone else but you. Even when he must stay away for as long as this trip, I know all he thinks about is chess and won't look at a woman with any level of desire."

 

Naturally, this makes Beth think about Vasily, wondering how it would be for them if they were in a relationship. They are both so devoted to chess, and when it comes to herself at least, she cannot imagine ever wanting to be with anyone else but him. It is tricker to consider his side of the highly hypothetical matter, because what she wishes for is to be the person that can be enough for him to leave the one he is already supposed to share his life with. But with so few female chess players at their level, they would be able to share chess in a way maybe no other couple could boast of. That has to count for something. Right?

 

Mrs Borgova, though, has not been seen at all during the match. Neither has their son. Beth was not present during the press conference, but Townes, who had been there in his role as journalist, had told her that Luchenko had acted as interpreter for Vasily, who seemed content to let the world continue in ignorance of his improved English. Of course, it might be explained with the fact that Luchenko was one of his seconds and would have been there anyway, but as first the days and then the weeks passed, Beth had started to wonder. Her absence at both concerts as well as the garden party had been the most noteworthy, but she is so used to suppressing any thought of the woman by now, she has not considered the matter. But here, faced with another wife of a chess player, who has come to spend at least a little part of the match with him despite Armand only spectating, it is impossible to ignore things any longer. Still, she would have to wait until Luchenko's party to ask him about it. But ask she will.

 

Emelie, which she soon insists on being called, is just as friendly as her husband and is making quick strides from acquaintance to friendship. She is a good distraction when Korchnoi manage to win the 22nd game, even if it barely puts a dent in the surety Beth feels that the outcome of the match is already assured.

 

Their little group of now five members goes out to explore Moscow some more the day after and the two ladies soon find themselves on a minor shopping spree while their respective best friend and husband saunters off on their own and Mr Adams has to once more carry her bags. She treats him to the best the menu has to offer at the restaurant they eat dinner at later that evening, allowing him to enjoy something more than the fairly restrictive budget the government has him on leaves room for. She even makes sure the restaurant has a nice westerns section on the menu before agreeing to go inside for his sake. It is quite a marvel what a good mood she is in to show such generosity. It can also not hurt to butter him up a little in case he manages to catch her when she sneaks off to Luchenko’s party.

 

There is a tangible sense of excitement in the audience as they all take their places before the 23rd game is about to start. Beth feels positively giddy when she watches Vasily walk out onto the stage and shake hands with Korchnoi before they sit down. They both make sure their pieces are perfectly aligned before taking their normal poses while waiting for the chief arbiter to start the clock. Vasily with his hands neatly folded on the table and Korchnoi with his arms crossed over his chest and the fingers of his right hand drumming against the fabric of his suit, as if eager to make his first move. The man is rumoured to have a bit of a temper and even if she has never witnessed such an event herself, Beth has heard a few stories of him sweeping all the pieces of a board after losing. At least he has behaved in a very genial manner during the match and only some moments of what seemed to be impatience had made their way through that calm.

 

“You think this is it?” Townes asks her in a whisper after leaning in, hoping not to be hushed the way he was last time they were in Moscow.

 

“Yes” she breathes and lowers the binoculars long enough to look back at him.

 

Despite him giving up professional chess many years ago by now, he also feels the thrill of this match, and is most likely even better than her at picking up on the charged atmosphere in the theatre. They are all collectively holding their breaths in anticipation of this being the last time they get to gather to bear witness to this war. There is still the prize ceremony, of course, but it will be held at the same place they held the opening ceremony, so it can be recorded. Being aware of the traditional laurel the winner gets placed around their neck and the immense size it usually has, she can barely wait to get the experience of seeing Vasily remain stoic while having to carry that literal burden.

 

But then O’Kelly crosses the stage and they both turn their eyes back to it and watch as he starts Vasily’s clock, and the game has begun. Beth hurriedly holds up her binoculars so she can catch his first move and write it down. She truly hopes he will either draw or win, because that means Luchenko will hold his party that night and she will at long last get to have that promised conversation with him. But before that, she will enjoy this role of spectator, for what will hopefully be the last time.

 

With his normal surety, Vasily takes hold of the king's pawn and moves it two squares before raising his eyes to his opponent in silent query of what he will respond with. For whatever reason, Korchnoi only takes a few moments before he moves the pawn needed to make it a Sicilian opening, which is one of the World Champion’s strongest plays. Maybe he hopes to surprise him and find a small opening to exploit with his slightly more versatile style, but Vasily is not known for making hasty decisions or blunders, but rather for keeping to his steady and dependable tactics.

 

At least Korchnoi changes things up a little when he makes it the Taimanov variation on his fifth move by advancing his own king’s pawn one square, changing the trajectory of the game from what they played in the 17th and 19th. Maybe he remembers the very first game, when he had won with a Sicilian opening, and hopes to pull off something similar. Or maybe he prefers being able to be described as brave rather than cautious when he loses.

 

The game remains even for a long time, with only a few somewhat surprising moves and a sort of lull has settled over the hall, but with the undercurrent of anticipation never fully going away. Beth calmly writes down every single one while her brain whirrs away, analysing what would be the best countermove and beyond. She also imagines what moves she thinks Vasily will make and ends up being right most of the time, but not all of them.

 

But then, it is time for the 18th move and O'Kelly has to gesture to the audience to quiet down after murmurs break out. The dependably careful and often defence-playing World Champion has performed a rook lift, pushing his kingside one up to f4. It is an unusually aggressive move on his part and even Beth, along with everyone else, wonders what he is planning. Though, none more than his opponent, who looks visibly taken aback for a moment before he manages to turn it into a somewhat neutral frown, his fingers drumming away against the dark grey of his suit.

 

The sense of anticipation rises closer to the surface and if Beth had cared to tear her eyes away from the stage, she would have seen the way people around and below her still lean in close to each other in order to be able to exchange words in hushed whispers. It is something possibly no one had anticipated, and it is yet too early to say if it will help or undo the World Champion.

 

Vasily continues to push his advantage and Beth feels as if she is sitting on the edge of her seat. There is still some restraint in him, but a fair number of his choices correlate more with what she herself would most likely have done than what she has come to expect from him. Korchnoi manages to hold on to the game, even if there seems to be a new hesitancy to him, but everything changes once more when the 26th move arrives, and the defender pushes his queen to the other side of the board in another uncharacteristic aggressive play.

 

There are enough pieces left on the board to have the game lasts for at least twice as long, but the endgame has already arrived. If Korchnoi does not accept the exchange of queens, checkmate is inevitable in just a few moves. Vasily had to trade his remaining bishop to open up the e-file, but now one of his rooks lands on the 7th rank, close to the black king. The material might be equal, but the pieces’ activity is what will make all the difference in deciding the outcome. And Vasily’s are much more active than his challenger’s. Adding to that, he is the strongest player there is when it comes to endgames.

 

Beth feels electrified watching this unexpected game play out, and it is only when the challenger, understandably, takes a lot of time to contemplate how to move forward after both queens have left the board that she calms down enough to realise that she is literally sitting on the edge of her seat by now. She has also forgotten to write down the last three moves and hurries to do so before using the binoculars to regard Vasily while they all wait to see how his attack will be met.

 

There is something of an edge to him. A sliver of emotion forcing its way through his façade, and she is certain it is fierce determination. He wants to win, and he wants to do it today. And not with a draw either. No. He wants to end with more than half the points available, just like he did three years earlier. Sure, twelve points will grant him the victory since he is the defending champion, but despite his graciousness in defeat, one does not simply become the World Champion in chess without a strong drive and need for victories. In that regard they are indeed alike, just as he said in that elevator in Mexico City three years earlier, unknowingly letting her know that he respected her even then.

 

Many of the following moves are more or less the both of them picking up pawns, one after the other, as well as exchanging a rook each along the way. But then they arrive at that pivotal moment when the difference in positions is no longer deniable. Korchnoi’s pieces are all spread out and can do little to help each other. They have a passed pawn each, but Vasily’s is much closer to crossing the board and because Korchnoi’s rook shares the 7th rank with his king, there is really nothing he can do to stop it from going all the way.

 

The man sits still for a long time, the audience equally unmovable as they hold their breath to see if he will try to somehow find a way out or if he will resign both the game and the match. Beth alternates between watching the expressions of the two players, because this must surely be the long-anticipated moment when Vasily retains his crown. He looks so calm and collected, not a single trace of glee or even joy, but he must know, just as she does, that the game is over. Korchnoi on the other hand has started to lose his tight control and a light sheen of perspiration has appeared on his forehead, made all the more noticeable due to the strong lights directed their way.

 

One of his feet starts to tap against the floor and might have resulted in a reprimand if the next move had not been his and so little of the game remains. He then makes a forward motion as if he is on his way to get up but stops himself at the last moment, letting his centre of gravity remain in the chair instead of taking him where he wants to go. No matter how eager he appears to distance himself from the game in front of him, he needs to remain where he is until he has either moved a piece or resigned. The possibility of an offered draw from either of them is so unlikely that the thought of it barely enters her mind. Vasily is out for a clean win and Korchnoi’s slowly appearing temper will hardly allow for such a diplomatic approach.

 

The minutes slowly ticks by and Korchnoi’s eyebrows are pinched closer and closer together in desperate though, his eyes darting across the board in a futile search for any small chance of a way out, and one of his fingers pushes inside his tie and collar in an attempt to loosen them. The hall is so silent the sound of a sudden lone cough from somewhere in the audience below her is the equivalent of a crack of thunder.

 

Before long, the atmosphere is so thick it feels entirely plausible that someone will buckle under the pressure at any moment and just call out and beg the challenger to just give up already. Considering the match they are all here to watch, most people present ought to be aware of the state of affairs by now and be eager to start to congratulate the winner. Beth knows she is, even if she sadly is much too far away to offer him a hug.

 

The silence that follows when Korchnoi’s foot stills is just as jarring as the sound of it had been, but when it makes her look at his face she sees that a rueful calm has settled over him. A moment later he extends his hand across his hopeless position. Vasily accepts the resignation and the silence only last for another few second before all the other people present has gathered their wits and a resounding applause breaks out.

 

A champion has been decided and Vasily will sit his throne for another three years. And in the light of his glory no one minds when the latest challenger to face defeat at his hands leaves the stage with quick steps. It would likely have been a noisy exit, judging by the force with which his shoes hit the floor, had it not been for the already deafening sound already ringing in jubilation as a lone person remains to accept their praise.

 

There is no end to Beth’s smile as all the lights in the hall are turned on and the audience stands up while they all continue to clap their hands. The match is over and Vasily will be the World Champion for another three years. It also means that there will be no 24th game and tonight she needs to make her way out of the hotel as unseen as possible.

 

Trouble is, with Armand busy with Emelie, there is no one there to distract Mr Adams and even if she and Townes does take a walk almost directly after returning to the hotel, they have no opportunity to decide how to act. They had discussed the issue before but been unable to reach any solution before their latest friend entered their lives and unintentionally put a stop to private talks since they dare not discuss such things in their possibly bugged rooms and Luchenko seems to have tried to keep the KGB in the dark about it all. The dilemma is how little they know about the variables at play.

 

The most important of them are Mr Adams, and the only things they know about her shadow’s nightly activities are that his room faces the street, and he sometimes sits and reads in the lounge connected to the lobby until late. At least he has done so on two separate occasions. The first time Townes spotted him there after coming back from a late interview with a fairly inconsequential local politician the government had at last decided to give him access too, while the second was Armand going down for a nightcap and ending up joining the man for a little while in conversation. It was pure chance the Frenchman had mentioned it a few days later during one of the dinners he had joined them at, remarking on the style of the hotel and asking for Mr Adams opinion on that very lounge and one of the paintings hanging there in particular.

 

On their way down to the hotel restaurant for the agreed upon time for an early dinner, on her insistence, claiming tiredness when her handler asks her about it, she leans in towards her friend while they wait for the elevator to arrive and say he will have to go down first to see if Mr Adams will be sitting in the lounge or not while she waits by the elevators. The man is not there to keep an eye on Townes, so his presence should not be enough for him to suspect anything if he is noticed. And so long as they walk close enough to the façade of the hotel once outside, he should not be able to spot them from his room if he happens to look out at that time. Their major fear is that he might take a walk before retiring to his room and catch them outside the hotel. She has already doublechecked that the packet of cigarettes and lighter she placed in the pocket of her summer coat are still there, because going out for a short smoke is the only excuse she has been able to think of. It is not enough to save her from his ire, but it should be enough to stop him from drawing further conclusions.

 

Townes gives her a small nod in reply. There really is nothing else they can do than hope for the best. She truly hates that feeling of helplessness. To be in the hands of caprice is not something she ever wanted to experience again and it feels like a cloying itch she cannot scratch. It is a sensation all too similar to her worst moments of weakness when she longs for the pills and the alcohol and all she can do is wait it out while she tries to find any form of distraction. But it has been long enough since it had last happened that it is all the more oppressive now.

 

With Armand and Emelie joining them and the hotel restaurant being quite crowded, they end up having to sit five people at a table meant for four. Mr Adams takes the extra chair placed at one end of it, which gives him a better view of the room and most people present. Beth also glances around while they wait for their food to arrive, which will no doubt take longer than usual, spotting several familiar ones in the myriad of smiling faces, but none of the Soviet players or officials. The atmosphere is a jovial and celebratory one with the match over and there is an uncommon number of bottles of various alcoholic beverages to be found despite the early hour.

 

Using her supposed tiredness as an excuse, Beth mostly listens while the others talk. Townes and Armand naturally discuss the game and she offers some input when she feels the need or want to do so while Emelie listens politely with an expression of equal amounts of incomprehension and indulgence on her face. She has not been to either of the two games that have been played since she arrived but will be found in the company of her husband at all other times, cementing her disinterest in chess.

 

The idea had struck Beth just the day before that she was very close to what she thought Benny needed in a partner. Someone he can get along with and love but who will not allow him to live constantly with his head filled with chess. From the topics of conversation she has heard the Duhamels talk about, it is clear that they have a fair number of interests in common and are capable of being supportive of each other’s passions without being swallowed by it.

 

And the one thing she takes most note of in their behaviour with each other is the ease with which they make each other smile with either humour or affection. Emelie will make some obscure or farfetched pun, making Armand grin at her or he will lean in to give her a kiss on the cheek when he has made her frown with a particularly complex comment on the game. It fills her with melancholy to see yet another functional relationship after she has witnessed so much dysfunction in her life. She does not know nearly enough about her birthparents to say who was more at fault for things ending up the way they did, but Alma definitely deserved better. She deserved to have someone who would pay her attention, who would smile and laugh with her, who would place his arm around her shoulders and pull her closer when dinner was over and they were walking up to their room. The one good thing she could say about Manuel was that he at least gave her a taste of that before the end.

 

Beth makes herself ready in what is possibly record time and yet Townes still knocks on her door before she has finished applying the eyeliner. She calls for him to enter and tells him she will be done in only a few minutes, inviting him to sit down while he waits. He goes for the chair by the desk, on which her travel chess set is still set up from her second analysis of the 19th game that morning.

 

“How do you feel? The match is over a game early and only the prize ceremony and FIDE dinner remains before it’s time to go back home. We’ve been here so long now it honestly feels strange to leave.”

 

“I know what you mean. This whole thing has been a little world of its own and it’s going to be a shock to my system to return to the real one.”

 

“You know you’re welcome to stay with me a few days when we get back if you don’t want to be by yourself” he offers with a meaningful look.

 

“No, I’ll be alright. Besides, I’m sure you’ll be quite busy writing a few articles and catching up with some of your other friends. You’ve given me so much of your time already, and I love you dearly for it, but you have your own life to live too. But I’ll be sure to call you if I need a dinner companion or just want to talk.”

 

“Anytime, Harmon.”

 

That is as much as they dare say on the topic, because how can she say out loud that her state of mind back home will very much depend on what happens and gets said this evening. Townes already knows and there is no reason to risk anyone else finding out. And any allusions to what he fears she might do if things go wrong need to be kept at a minimum.

 

After finishing her makeup and making sure everything is in place and not smudged, she goes and gets her light summer coat from where it hangs by the door before she places herself in front of her friend to get his opinion on her appearance. The green cocktail dress is more suited to an evening party than the pink one she had worn to that outdoor lunch, but with her preference for more formfitting garments than some of the fashion available offers, it is still enough to attract some attention. She wears the white queen he and John gifted her on top, hoping that Vasily might feel inclined to reach out and touch it once more.

 

“Perfect” he says after she twirls once.

 

“Do you have the note?” she asks when he rises from the chair and makes for the door.

 

He pats his breast pocket in reply and she makes sure once more that the package of cigarettes and lighter are still in the coat pocket. But just as she is about to follow him, her gaze drops to the set and in an act of impulse she reaches out and snatches one of the pieces before leaving.

 

In the end their escape goes well all things considered. Mr Adams is indeed sitting in the lounge, barely reading the book in his hands while spending most of his attention on his surroundings, and has placed himself perfectly in order to be able to watch the comings and goings in the lobby. It will delay them considerably, with that situation requiring Townes to distract him while she sneaks past and then having to wait for him outside, which might attract some attention. The lobby is their only way out without risking uncomfortable questions asked by people associated to their host nation rather than their lone American minder, but it made time a very delicate variable. Or it would have, if not for the rescue performed by their French friends.

 

They are on their way out for a stroll after dinner and arrives just minutes after Beth and Townes find themselves trying to look inconspicuous in the part of the lobby closest to the elevators, where they cannot be seen from the lounge. When asked about what they are doing, all they have to explain is that they want one night to move about the city without her minder stepping on their heels and Emelie delightfully declares that they will help distract Mr Adams so they can get away, before taking hold of Armand’s hand and pulling him along. The Frenchman gives them a shrug and a smile before turning around and following  before he topples over.

 

“Do you think she might’ve assumed we’re secretly in love?” Townes asks her, sounding amused. “I’m quite sure she would like to think of herself as a matchmaker.”

 

“Don’t know, and right now I don’t care either. So long as she’s helping us get away, I’m happy to let her believe whatever. I’m sure she’ll get the idea that we’re not at some point.”

 

When they get outside the imposing building, Beth feels giddy, like she is a young teenager sneaking out of the house for the first time and succeeding. Then again, this is her first time doing so in a way. There was never any sneaking at Methuen because the repercussions were too severe if one was caught. She learned that the hard way when she stole the pills. And Alma was never a strict enough parent to enforce such rules that meant she had a curfew and seemed mostly accepting, if still a bit concerned at times, of her ‘tell, don’t ask’ attitude about individuality. A part of Beth had loved that freedom, but another had wanted her mother to give her more rules. Now, the only people making rules in her life are politicians or their henchmen, so it only seems fair she breaks their boundaries instead.

 

They walk three blocks away from the hotel before they find a taxi and shows the address to the driver. There is no way she would ever have asked her official driver to take them that evening, since he is definitely reporting to someone on the Soviet side and was also in contact with Mr Adams enough to let him in on the secret.

 

The drive is long enough that she appreciates their mode of travel, but short enough that it would be doable to walk if she had been better acquainted with Moscow. Like with most European places she has been to, which admittedly are few so far, the streets are not always placed in those neat and orderly straight lines that are so common in the US and getting turned around and ending up lost seems like too high of a risk.

 

Luchenko’s apartment is located in a building that is more Russian than Soviet. The whole neighbourhood is full of them and she imagines moderately rich people lived there before the revolution. She remembers what Girev had said about his long chess career having afforded the former World Campion such a home and Beth wonders if Vasily’s looks anything like it. The young man has not been seen at all during the match, but she has been far too busy focusing on Vasily to take much notice to her mild shame. However, seeing how she has only talked to him a handful of times over the course of a few years and would not have appreciated having him eagerly trying to monopolise her time when all she wanted was an opportunity to talk to Vasily, like he did in Belgrade, her remorse is more than faint enough for her to survive with ease. She can always talk to him for a little while next time they meet, which two players of their calibre will inevitably do.

 

Their host greets them himself at the door after they ring the doorbell. Dressed in a comfortable looking smoking jacket, his hair as wild as ever, and his warm brown eyes twinkling at them he makes her feel at ease from one moment to the next. Something her poor chest needs since her heart has beaten hard enough to bruise it during the last hour of more.

 

“Ah! Liza!” he exclaims as soon as he sees her, takes her hand in his and bends down and places a kiss on it. “How wonderful of you to come. And your friend too. Please, come inside. Everyone else is already here and eager to meet you. They were so very excited when I said none other than the great Liza Harmon would attend.”

 

After ushering them inside and closing the door, he leads them into a spacious living room, where about a dozen and a half people have gathered. The atmosphere is that of a cocktail party, and not too formal suits and pretty but not too long or elaborate dresses adorns everyone. Despite this, there is not a drop of alcohol in sight, only coffee, tea and some other native thing Beth tried once but found too sweet for her taste and cannot recall the name of.

 

Among the guests, sitting at one end in one of the large couches, is Vasily. He looks smart in a two-piece suit that she thinks is a dark grey, but it is hard to say for certain in the light from all the flickering candles. Even though a very pretty brass lamp hangs from the ceiling, no electrical lights are turned on in either the hallway or the living room, giving the place a cosy feeling and all kinds of corners and shadows to disappear into.

 

The space in the middle is free, with a man he appears to be in conversation with lounging at the other end, and she would like nothing more than to go over and sit down in it. But alas, she has learned to be more polite in these kinds of situations, so she lets her host make the round with her, introducing her to all his other guests. Not that she has turned completely incapable of throwing convention to the wind, but she cares enough about Luchenko not to want to embarrass him like that.

 

To her great relief, there is not a single chess player among them, but they are all various intellectuals who seem to be good friends with each other. Most of them are Luchenko’s age, or close enough, but a few younger faces can be seen too. Beth makes sure to note Mrs Borgova’s continued absence among them.

 

Roughly half of them speaks English well enough to communicate, much to Townes relief, and her friend has soon been drawn into a discussion about American literature Beth has a sneaking suspicion was somehow chosen on purpose. It is reinforced when Luchenko angles himself to block her from their little circle and stealthily gives her arm a gentle nudge away from them.

 

Quite able to take the hint, she turns around to find the company she desires the most and sees Vasily still on the couch. The other end is now unoccupied, so when she sits down next to him, it feels like they are alone. With no candles in their immediate vicinity, the weaker light also serves to isolate them.

 

“I am glad you could make it” he says, his steady pronunciation and improved vocabulary in full use now that he is away from the public.

 

“I’m happy to be here” she replies and dares to look away from the others to meet his gaze. “And I’m also happy you’re here too.”

 

He simply nods in return, but while most of his face remains like it was that time in Paris, somewhere between different possible reactions and an underlying message of expectation, his eyes are warm. Then they drop down to her lap, and without warning, but still carefully, he reaches out and takes hold of her left wrist and lifts it up closer to him. It is not hard enough to be a grip, more like her arm resting in the embrace of his hand, and she can pull free at any moment if she wants to, but she enjoys his touch too much and is curious about what he intends to do.

 

It seems to be the Bulova watch that has caught his attention and he slowly slides a finger over the glass.

 

“You are always wearing this.”

 

“It was a gift from my mother.”

 

This was hardly what she was hoping to talk to him about - or do with him – and she can feel the disappointment rush out into her body and slowing down her heartbeat from the racing the promise of this evening had driven it to. Not that she ever truly expected some kind of profession of undying love but discussing a wristwatch falls so far below even the lowest mark it makes her feel foolish. Maybe she has read far too much into this after all. Let her heart run away with her in a fashion she had thought it incapable of.

 

“Your adoptive mother?”

 

“Alma was my real mother” she objects, “my birthmother does not deserve the title.”

 

Blue eyes – almost as grey as his suit in this light – looks up at her and there is a heavy sadness in them.

 

“I am sorry. I cannot imagine the pain of having to make that distinction.”

 

“Thank you” she says, vaguely wondering somewhere in the back of her mind for a few seconds if he never found someone to take on a motherly role in his life after he was orphaned.

 

They lapse into silence for a while, looking back out into the room at the other guests and taking in all the smiles and happy conversations in front of them, but her wrist remains in his hand, resting on his leg now, and she feels no need to remove it. It is her only lifeline to her hopes and dreams right now. That jump she had felt build within her twice before refuses to materialise and her courage seems as skittish as a tiny little bunny alone in the forest. She is right where she wants to be at long last and her thrice cursed tongue stabs her in the back instead of forming words.

 

“You know” he says after a few minutes and pauses long enough for their eyes to meet again, “I have separated from my wife and the divorce should be finalised in a few weeks.”

 

She nearly chokes on the sharp intake of breath this revelation incites in her. Her heart is suddenly in her throat, making it equally difficult for her to breathe while her mind is running in all and no directions at the same time.

 

“Why… why are you telling me this?” she asks, desperate for one very particular answer.

 

“Because it seemed the best way to know how to move forward from this point” he replies before looking down to where he is still holding her, two fingers lightly pressed against the pulse point in her wrist, where he is sure to feel the accelerated rush of her blood.

 

“You… you knew?”

 

“I hoped, but needed to make sure before I could say more or risk it giving away too much.”

 

They sit there, just staring at each other for what must surely be an eternity. Beth’s breath rushes and calms in turn in perfect harmony with when her thoughts races to comprehend this new and near unfathomable reality or when she simply loses herself in his steady gaze. He seems to already be at peace with this and calmly and patiently waits for her to find her way to equilibrium. Once she has centred herself again, she wants nothing more than to lean over, close the gap between them, and finally kiss him, but when she starts the forward motion, he moves his head back a fraction and shakes it so infinitesimally she would have missed it if it was anyone else but him.

 

“Not now” he says, indicating it is not a permanent refusal. “I am an honourable man and while I am separated, I still regard myself as married until the divorce is completed.”

 

“I see” she says, wetting her lips with her tongue now that they missed out on feeling his against them. It is a poor substitute.

 

“Until then, I would like for us to talk. I want to get to know you better, Beth. To anchor what I already feel for you in reality and not just hopes and dreams.”

 

“I can do that” she replies, almost breathless after the way he said her name. She knows it is not made up of sounds natural to his own language, but even if it was not fully pronounced in the way someone more closely familiar with English would do it, it is clear he has practiced. Has said her name - her version of it – countless times to overcome the language barrier so well.

 

And now that she knows the rules, she can relax and enjoy the moment, leaning back in the deep purple velvet couch and just smile and smile and smile as she feels her poor heart do somersaults and cartwheels when he surprises her by pulling her hand to his lips and bestowing a lingering kiss on the back of it. His eyes never leave hers while he maintains the connection and only looks down for a scant few moments when he threads their fingers together and lets them rest in his lap. They sit in a room they share with enough people to call it a party, are fully dressed and one hug is the only physical contact, apart from perfunctory handshakes over chess boards, they have shared before and still it is the most intimate kiss of her life. She shivers in anticipation at what they can do in the future before smiling at being able to think about the future in such a way now outside fantasies. Who knew reality could taste so sweet?

 

“How long?”

 

The corners of his mouth twitch up in a little grin and there is mischief in his eyes when he replies to her question without need for clarification. For all he knows she has asked about the future, about when they can do more, but he knows, somehow, he simply knows that she is asking about the past.

 

“Paris.”

 

Please don’t tell me it was when I turned up hungover and disappointed the both of us” she begs, dangerously close to whining.

 

“No. Before then. At the press conference when you spoke Russian and then at the briefing.”

 

“Is that why you were looking at me like that?” she asks eagerly, pulling her legs up on the couch and folding them under her so she can turn more towards him.

 

The feeling of the velvet against the bare skin of her legs where the dress does not cover them is as close to a caress past her wrists as she will come that evening in all likelihood. He seems charmed by her movement if the slight tilting of his head and further softening of his eyes are anything to go by and he switches which of his legs lays over the other so he can reciprocate a little. He looks so much more relaxed in this pose than he does sitting by a board and Beth soaks up this image of him without his façade in place, wanting to burn it into her memory.

 

“Not that I had a mirror to look in at the time, but I would imagine so. You had caught my intellectual attention before Mexico City, with the reports I got on you showing a promising future, but in many ways, you were still a child then. An interesting player and more challenging than many, but still not mature and experienced enough to take me on.”

 

The truth of the words is hard to hear, even from him and after all this time, and she ducks her head to avoid seeing the matter-of-factness of his expression. They need to get to know each other outside the board now and for that to happen they must be honest, even if it chafes. His hand pressing hers for a moment makes her look back up at him and she is calmed by his steadiness instead. Before her first time in Moscow, and in some ways also her second, he was the dependable and ever-present goal in her life, always there and something to strive towards and give her meaning. Now, he is the same, but the context has shifted monumentally.

 

“In Paris…” he begins but trails off and shakes his head minutely, a fond smile passing over his face at whatever recollection halts him. “In Paris you had grown into a woman. The poise you kept yourself in, dressing like a true lady rather than a girl who merely wanted to be one and your more elegant and smooth hair that I wanted to, on more than one occasion, reach out and run my fingers through. But above all, there was a sense of confidence and deadly focus that had been missing before, and it drew me in in a way I was powerless to stop. The thrill that went through my body when you spoke Russian, the possibility that you might have learned it for my sake, and then followed by the intensity of your beautiful brown eyes and the fact that you were unafraid to keep looking at me… Yes, I was caught from those moments on, though it took me a while to admit it to myself.”

 

Beth discovers that she has leaned in closer to him while he talks, his confession of how dear she is to him like finding an oasis after blindly wandering the desert for days – or rather years. Irresistible. And she wants him to continue talking, to tell her every little detail about what they have shared and would share, but realises she is getting ahead of herself. This is hardly the right avenue for such talks. The time they can continue to spend on their own like this will only last so long before it is taken note of and most of her numerous questions will have to wait.

 

“When can we be alone?” she asks instead.

 

“My next tournament is in Nice in November.”

 

“That’s France, right?”

 

“In the south by the sea, close to Monaco and the border to Italy, yes. Should be warmer there than here at that time of year. Perhaps a walk or two down on the beach would be in order. The waves make it hard for others to overhear.”

 

“What? Out in the open? Will your little followers allow that?”

 

If they are to start this relationship, she had assumed it would have to be in secret, dodging his shadows at night or something and being thankful she only got one when she had a tournament in the USSR. Could it really be so simple?

 

“Now that I have won, which both helps and complicates mater, they will not mind me trying to recruit you.”

 

“Recruit me?” She cannot help leaning away from him a little, silently begging he did not just say what she though he did.

 

“Yes. In fact, now that I have retained my title, they are quite eager to get their hands on the woman they fear might take it from me next time it is up for dispute” he explains and starts to gently trace little circles on the hand he still holds, relaxing her. “And yes, some of it will have to be done where they can see. Especially in the beginning. Of course, they need not know that the recruitment I have in mind is quite different from theirs.”

 

There is something akin to smugness passing over his face, a mere ripple, but enough for her to catch it. Leaning back in, she gives a conspiratorial look she hopes she also manages to pull off as sultry.

 

“You have a plan.”

 

“Yes. For some time now. But we can discuss that by the sea. You will come, yes?”

 

“Nothing could stop me” she replies with surety, remembering John mentioning an invitation to a tournament in Nice a few weeks back when he talked her through her mail.

 

As she looks down at their intertwined hands, she notices the small bulge in her pocket he has made her forget about. It was truly good luck that her dress has pockets as well and she had transferred the piece into one of them while in the taxi. Using her free hand, she reaches into it and pulls out the white queen from her travel set.

 

“I have something for you” she says and holds it out. “It’s from the first set I ever bought.”

 

At first, he stills and so many emotions swirl by in his eyes she can barely count them, even less identify them. They are like the rings on the water in that fountain; too numerous to distinguish one from the other. The seconds tick by and she starts to fear she has done something foolish or, worse yet, childish. Him handing her the black king had meant the world to her, but maybe it had only been a common courtesy. Something he did for everyone who managed the almost inhuman task of beating him, not just in a game, but in a whole tournament, even if she had never read about it.

 

“Beth.”

 

Her eyes rise from the queen, to where they had dropped while doubt started gnawing in her. His eyes have calmed now.

 

“Thank you. I shall treasure this always.”

 

And when his hand reaches out, he does not take it at first, but takes hold of her hand and lets the piece rest between their palms in an imitation of last year, leaving both pairs of hands connected. She can feel his heart in that clasping of hands and it is such a precious thing. His eyes, in their steady warmth and so many promises, tell her that he can feel hers.

 

“And yes” she adds, “I did learn Russian mainly for your sake.”

 

“My English is mainly for your benefit” he confesses in return, “I will tell you the rest of it in Nice. I would rather not risk making you angry with me now.”

 

“I’ll never be angry with you” she states too boldly.

 

“Oh? I, on the other hand, hope I will have many opportunities to make you so.

 

In that moment she does not understand his full meaning, but she can comprehend the intent and feeling behind his word and that is enough. For now.

 

They re-join the other guests shortly after, not wanting to push their luck in remaining unnoticed, or at least excused. She is also sure that if she had stayed with him like that for much longer, no talk of his marital status would have been able to keep her from kissing him. Besides, this is his little party in the end and as guest of honour he can sadly not spend the entirety of it cooped up in a corner. Luchenko, the old fox, has given them what must be enough time for now.

 

Townes shots her a knowing look when she joins their conversation, which has now progressed to French literature and Sartre in particular. Having read ‘The Stranger’ during high school, Beth decides to stay, while promising her friend a walk the next day during which she will share some of what has just transpired.

 

They stay for another two hours, having a generally good time. She never speaks to Vasily alone again, but a few times they share in the same conversation, and every time she seeks him out with her eyes, his gaze is already on her. Sometimes it dips to the white queen hanging around her neck, which always makes him reach for his pocket and the similar piece she knows rests inside. Perhaps he did not touch it this time, but that does not matter. She has come away with so much better.

 

Inviting Armand and Emelie to join them the next day keeps Mr Adams occupied once more. Emelie winks at them no less than four times before they part ways back at the hotel and Beth feels exasperatedly fond of the other woman and her irrepressible mirth. The State Department man had luckily missed their absence the night before and there is nothing but the usual suspicion in his eyes, which is not directed at them, while they leave the hotel and move to the now familiar park.

 

“I saw some handholding” Townes comments as soon as he can do so safely, placing his own over the hand she rests in the crock of his arm.

 

“Yes, I’m sure you did. The journalist in you never misses a good story.”

 

“And is it? A good story I mean.”

 

“The absolute best, I think. It’s early days, but I’m hopeful. He separated from his wife a while back and said their divorce will be through soon.”

 

“I see. Maybe that’s part of why he kept a bit of a distance in Belgrade? He was clearing up his private life so he could pursue you, but wanting to get it all in order before taking action.”

 

“I like the thought of that” she replies with a happy sigh, the idea sending her mind in all kinds of pleasant directions and possibilities. The birds in the trees around them seem to sing just for her and the sun overhead shining to match the warm feeling inside of her. The whole world has seen her joy and is eager to rejoice with her. “We’re both going to the tournament in Nice in November where he will take me on walks along the beach and tell me of his plans, which I have a feeling will include me.”

 

“Sounds awfully romantic.”

 

“Hardly” she snorts. “It will be in late fall and the waves, he tells me, will be enough to make sure no one can overhear.”

 

“Ah. His little shadows” Townes says thoughtfully, tightening his hold on her a little as if the very idea of the KGB being an imminent threat to her makes them so. Then again, it would be naïve to think they are not. They will only be so patient with Vasily’s fake attempt to recruit her, so what will they do when they have decided he has failed? Will they still try to get her, but with more drastic measures, or give her up, forbidding him from interacting with her in any other way than the movement of chess pieces? More questions to save for the beach.

 

They talk a while longer, but Beth does not dare to divulge too much now. They have all of America to discuss the topic in, after all, and she wants to enjoy Moscow while she still can. Guiding Townes to a bench in the sun, they sit down, lean back with closed eyes, and just soak in the warmth. Russia in summer is deceptively wonderful.

 

Seeing Vasily get that huge laurel with its huge red ribbon placed around his neck, and whole upper body really, she feels nothing but pride. Pride that he has managed to defend his title once more. Pride that he thinks it might be her standing there next year. Pride that she is indeed the woman he wants to be with. He gets the little gold medal pinned to the lapel of his suit jacket and receives a check with an amount of rubles her mind quickly tells her ought to be somewhere around $2000. It is quite the paltry sum for such an achievement, but when the USSR has more or less monopolised the World Championship Matches for a long time now, it is little wonder the possible larger sponsors in the west stay away. When she makes it there she imagines there will be larger sums involved.

 

The thought of playing twenty-four games against him during two months is terribly exciting and, not for the first time she promises herself that she will see it come true. And that journey starts soon. The US Championship is not far away now and all she needs to do is place among top three in order to qualify to the Palma de Mallorca Interzonal next year.

 

One thing she feels no pride in, though, is his tie. It is black with little polka dots in various colours spread about. It is not the worst she has seen him in, thank goodness, but she will have to address this issue at some point. Maybe go shopping with him. Yes, that could be a lot of fun. Especially if she asked him to come along for her to try out some various items of clothing too.

 

The FIDE dinner is almost a copy of the first lunch before the match started. It is held in the same place and the tables are arranged in the same way with the number of chairs appearing to be about the same. But the tables have been decorated with more than a tablecloth this time, with some truly impressive flower arrangement and silver three-armed candlesticks. Since this meal takes place in the evening and the sun sets at about 7.30 pm, the long candles are already lit when the guests arrive, even if the electric lights are still on in full force as there will no doubt be one or two speeches held before the food is served.

 

Euwe once more holds a short speech, thanking the Russian federation for their hospitality and praising both Korchnoi and Vasily before they get to hold a short one each themselves. The defeated challenger takes the meaning of a short speech to a new level when he simply stands up, congratulates his opponent with a tight voice, and then sits back down. Euwe looks exasperated, but not surprised, and asks the winner to share a few words with them, his eyes silently begging for more eloquence.

 

Vasily keeps it short but good, mentioning how much chess has meant to him since his early childhood, how so many people along his way to the top has helped guide and shape him, thanking Korchnoi for a great match and ending with giving praise to Luchenko and Laev. He speaks Russian the entire way through, and Beth translates in hushed whispers for Townes, who takes notes, while many other guests are not lucky enough to understand what he is saying. Not until he has finished and Luchenko gives an accurate, but somewhat shortened translation. She catches his blue eyes while their mutual friend goes on, pulling everyone's attention away from Vasily and on to himself, and offers him a small but warm smile. The edges of his mouth move up in his usual subtle style and there is a promise of so many things to come in their future in his eyes before he turns them away, lest someone notices where they linger.

 

With such a huge audience surrounding them, there is nothing they can do, but the knowledge she now holds that his heart is engaged, just as her own, softens that disappointment. She can enjoy the food, talk to Townes and the Duhamels, and laugh and feel good while taking every chance possible to sneak a glance towards the head table when she feels the weight of his gaze upon her. If she, in her happiness, laughs more than normally at Emelie’s puns, no one comments.

 

All around, her fellow guests are celebrating and having a great time. There is no shortage of alcohol and as the evening progresses, many cheeks are flushing with both the building heat in the room as well as intoxication. She sticks to water and feels grateful that Townes does the same even after she tells him she would not mind if he wanted to indulge. He had simply given her a look before taking hold of the pitcher of water he had been reaching for when she interrupted him and fills his glass to the brim. In turn, she had ended up giggling almost beyond control when he spilled some of it on his shirt.

 

By the time dessert is brought in all levels of formality have evaporated and Euwe has even left his spot at the head table to join a group of FIDE officials. The candles are only burned a third of the way and for anyone interested, it could turn into a long night. The waiter has only just put down a plate with a slice of heavenly looking cake in front of her when she feels a hand on her shoulder. Looking up she finds herself the recipient of an apologetic smile from Luchenko.

 

“Liza, my dear. I am afraid I have come to ask you for a terribly large favour. With Euwe having deserted us a little while ago and Laev only just now being called away since his poor little boy has come down with a fever, Vasya and I find ourselves feeling quite abandoned. Would it be too much to ask that you lighten up our evening with your dazzling company?”

 

Not fully sure how to handle such an unexpected chance to talk to Vasily again, having been sure Luchenko’s party would be the last time before she left Moscow, she turns around to Townes.

 

“Go ahead, Harmon. We’ll survive without you for whatever time remains of this little get-together, alright. And I’m sure you’d die for the chance to talk to Borgov about both the 19th and last game” he tells her, providing her with the perfect reason to accept the offer.

 

“Since I’d do the same, I’d be very cross with you if you decline” Armand says while he shoots a wistful glance towards the World Champion. “And please feel free to share any insights he might impart to you with me if you have the time before we all have to return home.

 

Emelie simply gives her a smile and with not a single person being against this idea Beth is quick to stand up and follow Luchenko past some of the other guests, who barely glance their way.

 

Vasily stands to greet her when they arrive, shaking her hand in a formal manner for anyone curious to see. At Luchenko’s insistence, she takes his chair while he moves over one seat to where Laev sat, placing her between her two favourite Russian chess players.  They do end up talking about the games Townes mentioned and she listens with fascination when Vasily describes his strategy in the 23rd game.

 

“I simply wanted to win and felt the best way to do that was to take him by surprise.”

 

“You took us all by surprise” she says, “but in a wonderful way. It was such a great thing, seeing you go so strongly on the attack and manoeuvre yourself into such an advantageous position. We’ll have to play through it at some point.”

 

“Of course. I would be delighted to get your input, seeing how you were my inspiration.”

 

The compliment makes her blush, but in the reduced lighting of only a few strategically placed electric lights and the flickering shadows of the candles, no one further away than her two companions are likely to notice.

 

“It was a combination of your style and my desire to finally be able to talk properly with you. It was starting to make me distracted and so, I had to do something” he continues while reaching out and entwining their hands.

 

The white linen tablecloth covers the motion, and she would be happy to remain like that, but she has half of that delicious cake left. When she gives it a longing glance not long after she hears a huff leaving Vasily, which might or might not have been a suppressed laugh, and his hand lets hers go after giving it a gentle squeeze. She does not dignify his amusement with even a look and simply takes a large bite and hums in contentment when she feels the flavours hit her tastebuds. But only a few seconds later she runs the risk of choking on it when she feels a lone finger glide over her bare skin somewhere in the vicinity of her elbow. And the man dares to look innocently at her when she sends a glare his way, his hand back in his lap.

 

“Enjoying the cake, Miss Harmon?” he asks and tilts his head in that inquisitive way that has started to make her want to kiss him.

 

For one tempting moment she considers actually doing it. To not just wipe the smugness from his eyes but shock the whole world of chess. But that would most likely mean ruining whatever chance they have of making this work -not that she has much of an idea what that will look like yet - and one moment of gratification would not be worth such a crushing price.

 

The temptation returns the two times he repeats the motion, but at least he waits until she has finished her slice and the third time she takes hold of his hand, which only makes him even more smug, as if it had been his plan all along. Luchenko pretends not to notice what is going on and only adds enough to the conversation in order to maintain the impression that Beth is there as his guest and not his friend’s.

 

Being able to talk chess with Vasily is truly a treat on its own, but it is also a front, designed to hide their true conversation, which takes place behind the cover of the tablecloth. Their hold on each other is not too dissimilar to what it was when he handed her that precious black king, with his large hand covering her smaller one. But this time there is nothing held in-between, and she is able to feel all of his warmth, as well as the way his thumb stroking her heated skin sends delightful shiver up her arm and down her spine. Once more their hearts are in their hands, both in supplication and offering. It is not love yet, but the possibility of it. The promise of it.

 

She never wants to let go.

 

Chapter Text

Beth sits silently for most of the flight home when she is not sleeping. Mr Adams does not seem to mind and has his nose buried in a book and a general air of shaking of a heavy burden. To her, it has been two months spent observing some of the best chess on offer as well as having multiple chances to talk with Vasily, but to him it has been two months in the capital of the enemy, where he has been unable to look after her at every event. It is little wonder he seems so relaxed now that it is over. Townes does most of the talking when the man does feel inclined to have conversation while she rests her head against his shoulder and lets her mind wander back in time.

 

At first, she attempts to go over some of the games in her head, but soon gives up on trying to delude herself and allows her mind to wander to the sensation of her hand in his. When she had crawled into bed on the night after the FIDE dinner, she had tried to replicate it by clasping her own hands under the cover, but it had been a paltry substitute. Not only are his hands larger than hers by some margin, but they also feel warmer. Safe. Caring. Dependable.

 

What she refuses to think about is the conversation she had with her handler while on a walk that morning. Or interrogation more like. He had asked her all sorts of questions about her interactions with others, and the Soviets especially, during their entire stay, but the night before especially, having somehow found out about her sitting at the head table for the last part. Maybe he had been paying someone on staff to tell him about these things, or he had a friend, or at least contact, among the other guests. But since they had been chaperoned by Luchenko, she could easily claim that it was the old man who continued to be friendly and gave her a chance to talk about the match with himself and the winner. She ought to ask Vasily about some suitable gift she can buy for the old fox as a show of her appreciation of his expert handling of not only giving the two of them time together, but also providing them with such a good cover. The KGB clearly knows the truth already, so there is no reason to try to hide anything from them, other than the fact that Vasily is not actually trying to recruit her, but letting anyone else discover what she now feels confident enough to call a relationship could have severe consequences. Especially if her government found out and got involved too, since it, at the very least, would give Kissinger more power over her.

 

She ends up spending the first night at Townes' place. He has the next day free to deal with the jetlag before going to work and finish the articles he has not already sent over, as well as sifting through a large number of pictures he has taken. John also spends the night, and Beth cannot help but grin at them while they sit and eat his delicious lasagne for diner and the two of them try to restrain themselves while continuously making up for lost time with accidental touches and caresses as they eat. It is enough that she forgets that at the table for four they are sitting at, the chair next to her is empty.

 

The US Championship is only a few weeks later and held in New York this time, meaning it is home turf for Benny. Not that it will give him any advantages. Beth checks into a nice hotel close to the convention centre where a few rooms have been rented for the tournament, giving her easier access, with just a fifteen minutes’ walk, than he will have from his apartment.

 

The night before the first games, she meets Arthur and Hilton at a restaurant for dinner. Benny had been asked as well, but declined, and Beth is starting to lose her patience over his stubbornness, even if she knows it is still a fresh wound. And it has probably been made worse by her invitation to spend two whole months in Moscow, witnessing the World Championship Match live.

 

“Cleo’s back in town for a while” Arthur says when the food has been served, halting her with a forkful of grilled lamb halfway to her mouth.

 

“I see. Guess she’s with him now then.”

 

“Yeah, they’re sort of in a casual relationship it seems” Hilton comments before taking a bite of his own food and looking thoughtful. “At times I think it’s good for him, while at others it seems like a bad idea.”

 

“I hope she won’t distract him too much during the tournament at least” Beth says. “I would like to play him when he’s at his best.”

 

“I’m sure you will. He’s dealing with his own place in chess right now, which has perhaps led to a handful of poor decision, but he’s still passionate about the game.”

 

“Good. At least to me it seems to be more or less all that he has, and after having been in that position myself, I know how terribly lonely it can be. As much as we love chess and can distract ourselves with it, well…” she trails off, not wanting to end up in a cliché, no matter how true it is.

 

Only people and possibly some animals, are capable of loving you back, not inanimate objects or their rules. Perhaps what Benny needs is a puppy?

 

The connection she got with Mr Shaibel was a significant part in why she formed such a strong attachment to chess in the first place. Not that she realised it at the time. No, as with a lot of things in her life, she remained blind to them until his death and Jolene’s return. Alma’s death had given her a clue, but she had distracted herself with whatever she could, including pills and alcohol, to hide from that. First Jolene, then Townes, closely followed by six other young men, had made it irrefutable that she is in need of people to care for and be cared for by in her life. Chess might be her passion and drive in life, but even that fade eventually if she lacks the acceptance and love of other people.

 

This tournament is as smooth sailing as the last two. Though, her win against Benny last year had been far from a game for the history books, seeing how he was down with a severe cold, and she was still busy with her recovery and calling Jolene every night, because every night she felt an overwhelming need to drink. She had still been strong enough to defeat the others without too much trouble, but Benny remained close enough to her in skills to be a difficult opponent. But she had edged out after too many moves for comfort and retained her title. Now, she moves through each opponent with the precision of a surgeon wielding a scalpel and dissects them and their moves almost effortlessly. She thrives on the mixture of fear and awe in their faces while she tries to channel Vasily’s stoniness during the games, but always giving her defeated foe a smile when shaking hands after the inevitable end.

 

Her last game is against Benny. Following his cue, they have studiously avoided talking to each other so far, and his lips are pressed into a tight line when they sit down to battle it out over the title. She has half a point more than he does, meaning a draw is enough for her to win, but she is not so foolish as to take anything for granted. She has already learned that lesson once when playing him. But she is unprepared for the distraction she will be dealt not long into the game.

 

She spots Cleo in the audience while she waits when he takes some time to decide what to do with his 7th move. The Frenchwoman looks exactly the same as she remembers, with her dark hair in that fashionable bob, expertly applied makeup, and chic dress. It drags her mind, kicking and screaming, back to Paris. To when she had fallen so low and not only disappointed herself.

 

She barely registers Benny’s move or the click of the clock when he starts her side of it. Helplessly, her mind is back in that slow sensation it had drowned in during her second game against Vasily, and when she turns her gaze back to the board in front of her all tactics and intuition alike seem lost. She knows she had a strategy just a minute ago, but it has disappeared, leaving nothing but pain in its place.

 

A whisper in the back of her mind tells her that if she is feeling the effects of alcohol, should she not be entitled to drink some of it too. It might be tiny, but it is still there. Still beckoning. Still alluring. Much too close to irresistible.

 

Close your eyes.

 

Three little terrible words she has not heard for so long come back to her, turning her breathing ragged. Even if she is not focused on him, she can see his eyes snap up to her for the first time since the game started, having made a much better impression of Vasily than her that day, pulling all of his inspiration from Mexico City. She looks up just in time to see the tail end of concern before his shutters fall back into place.

 

Her 8th move turns out to be an inaccuracy because of it and she sees it the moment she has let go of her knight. Benny is quick to exploit it and for the next fifteen or so moves, she is fighting an uphill battle. No more mistakes but having lost the initiative it feels more like a game of tag she is somehow about to lose, being unable to catch up and her fingers only clutching at air instead of reaching all the way to tap his shoulder.

 

Another glance towards the audience has her once more back in Paris, feeling the loneliness of having no one there for her sake. All her friends not sitting opposite her – because she refuses to think of Benny as anything other than a friend – are busy with work and this time Cleo is not present due to her. Not that she had meant much two years ago, since her presence was the reason for Beth’s failure, and her arrival in the playing hall had felt closer to a slap in the face than a comfort to lean on.

 

She flexes her hand, wanting to feel another one grasp it, but there is nothing but empty space and poor options to grasp at. At least not until she takes hold of her other hand. It is still a poor substitute, but at least it helps her to remember more clearly. To send her mind to Moscow instead and feel the ghost of his thumb caressing her skin with such gentleness she still spends her nights imagining that sensation across other parts of her body until she cries out in release and her fingers fall away from between her legs.

 

She uses some of her time to regard the board, looking for ways out of her predicament. All the while her thumb strokes her other hand, calming her mind down and allowing her to focus. Eventually, she lets her eyes glide up to the ceiling and after moving the pieces over and over again on the board there, she spots it. It is not certain that it will lead her to victory, but it is the only chance she has.

 

When they shake hands for the second time, it is with their pieces frozen in a draw beneath their grasp. Benny seems angry to have had his victory slip out of his fingers, but he hides is well enough. Only she, and possibly the arbiter, is close enough to see the unnatural stillness he holds his features carefully locked into. She has successfully defended her title a second time, even if it was a near thing, and closed the gap between their rankings further, but it has probably cost her even more in terms of their friendship.

 

He proves this after the prize ceremony the next day, cornering her in the hallway on their way out and smiling pleasantly enough not to alert any of the people passing by to the storm brewing in his eyes.

 

“What was that about yesterday?” he near hisses at her in a hushed tone to minimise the risk of being overheard.

 

“What do you mean?” she asks, genuinely at a loss as to what she might have done to upset him other than retain the title.

 

“Something happened during the game and you made that stupid mistake all of a sudden.”

 

“With all due respect, Benny, that’s really none of your business. You’ve made it quite clear that you’re not interested in hanging out with me right now.”

 

His eyes widen before they narrow and the finger he pokes into her shoulder is painful.

 

“Listen here, Beth. Yeah, I might be somewhat pissed off with you, and, yes, I know it’s not all your fault. But… damn it! That doesn’t mean I still don’t ca-“

 

A heavy sigh leaves him after he cuts himself off abruptly, and he hangs his head and shakes it before taking a step back, putting some much-needed space between them.

 

“Forget it” he says and turns away from her and when Beth looks in the direction he now faces, she can see Cleo waiting for him at the end of the hallway, and something just snaps inside her.

 

“Fine. Just fucking run away again you coward. Don’t care at all that you’re hurting me by doing this. I never asked for you to be side-lined.”

 

Her fire reignites his and his eyes are once more a swirl of anger and resentment when they return to her.

 

“And yet that is exactly what happened. I have to pay the price for whatever perks your little dalliance with politics gives you. I had to stay at home when you got to play the Soviet team. I have to be left behind while the whole fucking world falls in love with you and enduring that more and more of the questions I get by journalists and fans these days are about you. Not only am I apparently not good enough for you, but I never imagined I’d lose everyone else to you too. To have to listen to Arthur, who’s been my friend for years, talk to me about giving you some slack while Hilton’s silence speaks just as loudly.”

 

“Well, at least you have Cleo to warm your bed now that I don’t want it, so don’t turn this into some pity party of epic proportions. And maybe Arthur’s opinion is not about the state of your friendship but the state of your attitude. Yeah, sure, I don’t expect us to best buddies and share all of our secrets, but at least treat me with some common decency while you deal with whatever you’re going through. I’ve done all I can to be patient and give you space, but it’s clearly not helping.”

 

“Oh, don’t you dare try to take the moral high ground on this. When politics gets involved it’s never just about chess, and either they expect you to pay a price or you have bought favours. So, which is it?”

 

He might as well have slapped her with that insinuation, made all the clearer by what he had said to her earlier in the year, and she staggers backwards until her back hits the wall. His face melts into regret, but before he can get another word out rage is pulsing in her veins and she points an accusatory finger towards Cleo, nothing but the brutal desire of a wounded and cornered animal to hurt and maim her way out of there guiding her.

 

“And what about you? Did you send your little fuckbuddy to Paris to ruin my chances or was that all her own doing? Well, no matter what, job well done. You got your wish. I lost to Borgov again and you could feel like you were back on top of your pathic little world yet again.”

 

The is only time to see the beginning of the transformation in him at her words before she takes off at a run, desperate to get away. The slackness of his features and paleness of his complexion both serving to worsen the shock and pain in his eyes.

 

She has barely left the building when a huge wave of regret crashes into her, making her stumble. Tears are prickling her eyes and she blinks furiously to keep them from ruining her makeup. A part of her wants to run back and apologise. To beg for his forgiveness and that they might try to be friends again, but the part of her that is hurt by his words is still in control and it is with careful steps and careful breaths that she makes her way back to the hotel. Once safely back in her room she collapses on her bed and cries before calling Townes and tells him what a despicable person she is capable of being. His words are as warm and soothing as ever, and even if he does not shy away from some admonishment, she ends up feeling better before they hang up. All she can do is give things even more time now, until they both have calmed down enough to own up to the apology they owe each other.

 

It has been a full day since she arrived at the lovely seaside hotel in Nice, but she has yet to see neither hide nor hair of Vasily, despite having repeatedly roamed the common areas, which are all sparsely populated due to the season. True, she had arrived two days before the tournament is set to start, hoping he would be early too so they might get some time together before the games will demand a lot of their time, but it seems it has been for nothing. Maybe she ought to have guessed the USSR players are not afforded such luxuries as idle days outside the borders.

 

Having just finished a tour of the lobby, lounge area, bar, and restaurant without any success she decides to forego the spa and indoor pool since she simply cannot fathom him in such places. Outside of her fantasies and dreams, it is impossible for her to imagine him doing anything without a suit on. That glimpse of him in just his shirt and tie her first time in Moscow, when he and Laev helped Luchenko with their adjourned game, had been the one and only time she had seen him without the full armour in brown, grey or black. Even at the garden party and Luchenko's little get-together he had worn the full piece the whole time.

 

Taking the lift up to the floor her room is located on, she slowly walks down the soft carpet which covers the floor of the hallway, the soft material making her feet sink down a tiny bit with each step, while keeping her progress quiet. Not until she pulls out her key from her little bag, the metal of the little number plate dangling against it, can she hear any noise beside the muffled sound of traffic and waves crashing on the beach outside the hotel - which her room affords a splendid view of - and it is jarring enough to pull her out of her miserable thoughts.

 

The waves only serve to remind her of what Vasily had promised they would keep others from overhearing and the longing for him aches in her very bones. Two months without him now that their affection has been mutually acknowledged, while there are still so many other things left unspoken between them, was nothing short of terrible at times. Especially with the added weight on her heart that was her row with Benny.

 

There is also the fact that his divorce would hopefully have gone through by now, even if she has seen no mention of it in any chess magazine or newspaper which might cover such things she could get her hands on. Townes has heard nothing either, even if he has kept an ear out for her. But if it had gone through, there would be nothing to keep him from kissing her, or more.

 

After fumbling with the lock in her distraction, Beth manages to get her door open, only to nearly fall flat on her face when one of her feet slides on the envelope lying on the floor just inside. It is a good thing she still held on to the door handle or she might have ended up much better acquainted with the blue and beige carpet than she had ever wanted or imagined possible.

 

Reaching down, she plucks up the no longer crisp paper, the imprint of her shoe creating a strange dent and pattern over her name, written in a bold but efficient style. For a good while, there is nothing she can do but just stand there, door still open, unknown message in hand and her heart racing. If she does not open it, it could still contain her hopes and dreams, but if she looks inside, she might find nothing but disappointment.

 

The sound of a door further down the corridor opening, followed by voices, snaps her out of it and she shuts her own before hurrying over to the armchair by one of the windows. She has a feeling it might be a good idea to sit down before she reads whatever hides inside.

 

With a deep breath she steadies her hands and pulls out the content. It is a postcard of all things, showing a beech in summer, the bright blue water glittering in the sunlight and the sand a pristine, almost white, beige before palm trees take over and a clear sky tops it all off. It is obviously not depicting France, but the short message on the backside makes its meaning clear.

 

'4 pm'

 

Looking at the watch on her wrist, which she now associates with Vasily almost as much as Alma, she sees that she has little more than half an hour until the appointed time and guesses the envelope had been slid under her door shortly after she had gone on her third search. Stupid timing.

 

Taking the time to put the card away in the little drawer in her nightstand, she hurries into the bathroom to freshen up. She smooths out her hair, repairs a tiny fracture in her eyeliner and is about to apply a fresh coating of lipstick when she stops, the red inches from her lips. Lips which she hopes will be kissed before the hour is out, or at least the day, and she has no desire to smear it all over him. Not his lips, or his cheeks or wherever else her fancy might take her. Not that the idea itself is not enticing and she can picture many places on his body she would like to leave traces of it behind, but they will be in public now as the demand for precaution is tremendous. In fact, he is cautious enough that it might just make him stop her once more. Instead, she wipes off what she already wears and lets the crimson stained paper tissue fall into the wastepaper basket, along with what she hopes is the only hindrance to at long last feel his lips pressed against hers.

 

Thus reasonably hopeful for some display of affection more intimate than holding hands she puts the lid back on and replaces the small cylinder on the middle glass shelf in the bathroom cabinet, among her countless toiletries. Stepping out into the main room she makes the necessary adjustments to her clothes, including getting her black coat and a dark blue scarf. She is already wearing one of the new dresses she had bought for this trip, a deep purple number with a modest enough neckline and sleeves that she can get away with the amount of leg it shows. Then again, it is late autumn, and she has to pull on some tights or risk having to cut their walk short to avoid ending up with legs matching her scarf. On top of that, the coat is longer than the dress, covering her up even more. She will just have to hope to be able to contrive some reason for him to see her inside later. Preferably in private so he does not need to censure his appreciation and she will be able to see his desire clearly.

 

The last thing to do before going outside is changing into her boots, which will survive the sand much better than her strapped flats ever could, and snatching up her grey gloves from the vanity. After locking the door behind her, she puts the key back down in her bag, which she in turn pushes down into one of the pockets of the coat. She wants both hands free.

 

Walking through the hotel to the large French doors in the lounge area which leads out on the seaside terrace, she spots a man in a dark coat and hat standing still close to the stairs which leads down to Promenade des Anglais, which is the only barrier to the beach. He stands perfectly still, head turned out towards the water, but when she comes close enough, he turns around and spots her. It is easy to tell that he is Russian by the severe cut of his features, and the way he holds himself passive but alert also identifies him as KGB.

 

The thought that this might be some kind of trap strikes down in her like a horrendous bolt of lightning. Maybe it was not Vasily who left her the postcard - she has never seen his writing up close before after all - but the might of the USSR wanting to take a closer look at her or maybe even scare her off? Her thoughts must show because he gives her an unpleasant grin, but then simply jerks his head in the direction of the glittering water.

 

“He is down there” he tells her in Russian and it fills her with dreadful unease to be so expected.

 

She does not ask who he means, only hurries on. If Mr Booth or Mr Adams saw her now they would undoubtedly drag her back inside and give her an earful, but France is deemed friendly territory and neither of them are there, leaving her alone to pursue this possibly foolish endeavour.

 

The beach, as it turns out, is made of pebbles, not sand. The less yielding but nosier material takes her by surprise when she first sets foot on it. Not having had time to go down there before, being busy looking for Vasily and unpacking, she had never questioned her assumption. Even so, the boots are still better than the shoes, which would have been too cold anyway. With the sun being on its last verse for the day, roughly an hour left of daylight, it does not provide much heat.

 

It only takes a moment to spot him and her steps crunch while she walks up to him where he stands close to the water and looking out towards the horizon. Even from behind he is as recognisable to her as her own reflection. She briefly entertains the idea of putting her hands over his eyes and asking him to guess who it is, but the noise she is making would take away the surprise long before she reaches him. Instead, she settles for sidling up to him as best she can, slipping an arm through his and leaning in. To have his solid form with her again is heaven and with him this close she can even find a hint of his sent among the salty tang of sea overwhelming the air. Small droplets propelled up into the air by the force of the waves and brought further inland by the wind catches the light occasionally and adds another layer of beauty to the scenery.

 

“Good evening, Beth” he says and looks at her.

 

“Good evening, Vasily” she returns, happy to be looked at.

 

“Vasily is it, hm? I cannot recall giving you permission to use my given name.”

 

“That’s fair then, because I can’t recall giving you permission to use mine.”

 

His smile is more brilliant than the sun and whatever that thing in her heart that belongs to him is, swells and moves her body forward on its own, aiming for the kiss she has dreamed about both awake and asleep. The utterly infuriating man uses his free hand to stop her, placing his leather glove up between them and halting her in her tracks, standing in front of him now, but their arms still linked.

 

“What now?” she complains. “Please don’t tell me you’re still married.”

 

“No. I would simply like for our first kiss to belong to no one else and right now, well, we have an audience.”

 

“The man on the terrace?” she asks, glancing over his shoulder.

 

“And the one leaning against the side of stairs you just walked down onto the beach, though the first one would have moved closer by now, I am sure.”

 

“Urgh. How do you stand it?” she asks in frustration and leans in without moving her feet, so she ends up with her forehead against his shoulder.

 

He disentangles his arm from hers then uses them both to pull her all the way in and she moves her head and nestles it in against his neck. His knitted scarf is warm and comfortable, and she can smell his cologne even better before the wind carries it away, happy to be back in her absolute favourite place in the world.

 

“I have missed you.” His voice is soft and only reaches her because his mouth is right next to her ear and despite the rush of air around them, she can feel his breath on her sensitive skin, sending a shiver up her spine.

 

“I’ve missed you too” she replies, gripping the lapels of his coat and using them to burrow deeper into his embrace.

 

“There is so much I need to tell you, lyubimaya, and so little time. Will you be good and listen now if I promise you a kiss before the day ends?”

 

Beaming at both the endearment and his promise she stays put where she is, because it is so wonderfully comfortable, and only nods her consent against him. He can very well talk where they stand since they are close enough to the waves to make use of their muffling assistance. Besides, if they start walking she will not be able to keep as close to him without risking tripping them both up. He never tries to move either, so she assumes he is of the same mind.

 

“Yes. Tell me what you have planned and if you have the time, some more about how you fell for me” she says, thinking back to their conversation on Luchenko’s couch.

 

“Setting aside the fact that you have told me next to nothing of your own fall, I would be happy to. But not now. Now, we need to talk of the future, not the past.”

 

There has to be a pause before anything more can be said when an old couple walks by. Beth is only made aware of their presence due to the sound of their steps in the pebbles, which is made louder due to the absence of Vasily’s voice. She leaves her hiding place just long enough to observe them with envy for a few seconds, noticing their wrinkly faces and linked arms. Is it too soon for her to wish that will be her and Vasily at some point far into the future? Being able to walk together out in the open without care for who can see or hear them after having spent decades together.

 

“By the time I realised the price for the government’s investment in me as a chess player, it was far too late to back out” he begins once the waves crashing in on land is all they can hear. “I found myself married to a woman who did not want to be my wife but had little choice in it due to the pressure her father had put on her to pursue me. A promising up-and-coming chess player who everyone was sure would one day be World Champion was a good prospect for his daughter, so he forced her to go after me. I believed her act, but we had not been married long before I could no longer ignore the more and more obvious signs that she held no love for me. Even so, our son came a few years later due to necessity and her wanting a child, but after having not touched her for all that time, I felt wretched having to be intimate again, even if it was at her request.”

 

He takes a deep shuddering breath, and she can feel the quivering of his very soul as he extracts such a dark secret from the depths of himself for her gawp at. It tears at her own to hear the pain lacing his normally strong and sure voice and even among all that misery she selfishly feels joy that he is sharing this with her. That he is easing her conscience by letting her know that she is not stealing him away from someone who wants to keep him. That he trusts her enough to leave the ugly truth exposed for her to see. That he wants her to understand the very foundation of him.

 

“We named him Boris for my father, who they say died a hero defending Leningrad against the Germans even as my mother and grandfather starved, to hide the truth. Beth, I have never been more afraid of myself than in that moment I held him for the first time and felt nothing. The cost of creating him had been too heavy for me and all I could see in his tiny innocent face was Larisa’s turned away and determined yet painful eyes while I obeyed her desire for a child, forcing myself to move while she lay still and dry. I always did my best to hide my lack of attachment, but children are no fools and there have been several times when I have seen his smile die when his gaze turns from his mother to me, or looked at me with uncertainty. I doubt he misses me more than I do him now that we live apart.”

 

The biting wind is nothing in comparison to the cold that bubbles up inside Beth at that confession. But it is not his incapability to love his son that leaves her numb, but the thought of how lonely he must have been for so long. Tied to a woman he could neither give nor receive love from, and then have a child he was denied the same thing with, while having to pretend to be a happy little family as soon as they were in company with others. And what a believable charade it had been, fooling even her who had desperately wanted there to be cracks in that picture.

 

“I’m so sorry” she says and holds him tighter, wondering when he last held someone like this. Or was held.

 

“Thank you. But I do not tell you this to gain your sympathy, only your understanding, lyubimaya. You see, the thought of defecting had been presented to me before, but it was not until about a year after Boris was born that I started to contemplate the idea in earnest” he says, and Beth’s heart skips a beat at the meaning that seems to lurk behind his words and hint at his plan. “But I was afraid of what that would mean. Of what would happen if I failed and even of what would happen if I succeeded. I would be all alone in a foreign country, bereft also of the few people and things I truly care about. So, I did nothing but make plans I never imagined I would follow through on. And then… well… Paris. A young woman so fierce and full of determination and daring to stare me down after speaking Russian just for my sake. Reminding me both painfully and joyfully of another young woman I had in my life for a short while a long time ago, which was the last time something besides chess could make my heart race.”

 

A stab of jealousy tears through Beth at those last words. Hearing his lack of love for his family – his ex-wife in particular – had been such a relief, but to find out about a previous love in his life is agony. Wretched selfish agony, because she ought to be generous and be happy that he got to experience love at least for a while since his marriage was such misery. But as with so many orphans, she is a hoarding dragon when it comes to affection, avariciously guarding those people she allows close enough to give her that. Maybe he reads her mind or just feels the way her body stiffens, but he is quick to expand the subject a little more.

 

“Her name was Nadezda and yes, I loved her, but apart from the same fire driving the two of you, there are very few similarities. Her passion had nothing to do with chess and it was almost more of a youthful rebellion that brought us together than anything that would have been able to last. She also did not have red hair, which I have come to learn is very crucial for me” he says and tugs lightly on a few strands, making her shiver in a much more pleasant way than the chilly wind should allow. “Besides, she died a long time ago. What I feel for you is not some shadow of what I felt for her, Beth. I have no trouble separating the two of you.”

 

He had carefully continued to tug on her hair until she was facing him enough that he could look her in the eyes before he was done talking and as much as his words calmed her fear, his steady gaze removed it completely. Just as her old feelings for Townes would never come between her and Vasily, whatever he had once felt about this Nadezda was also a closed chapter.

 

“I believe you” she says, and he gives her a grateful look before leaning in and pressing a chaste kiss to her temple before holding her close once more.

 

“You gave me the courage to start to consider those plans more seriously, but then you came to our game in that state, and I was discouraged and felt I had been a fool. If you could not stay sober for our game, how could I possibly dare risk everything for some strange uncertain future in another country. But after some time, I came to the realisation that your weakness was also a possibility for you to show immense strength and I promised myself that if you managed to win against me, I would act. Not that it did not terrify me and our game in Moscow was anguish for me since I both wanted you to win and dreaded it at the same time. I did all I could to defeat you and perhaps drew out the game for longer than I should have, but when there was no longer any denying that you were indeed victorious, I only felt relief. I finally had a strong enough incentive to do what I had wanted for so long, and looking into your eyes as you took in your win and then how you looked at me, it gave me hope that I was not alone in feeling something between us.”

 

“That’s when I realised how I feel about you” she confesses, voice a little muffled by his scarf, but not enough to make her unintelligible. “How much in love I am. But why were you so distant in Belgrade? Were you still afraid? I came there with such high hopes.”

 

She feels his sigh as it competes with the wind to ruffle her hair, but its warmth making it easy to distinguish. His arms also tighten around her, and she thinks she might not like whatever his answer is going to be.

 

“This is the part where you might be angry with me, and rightfully so, lyubimaya. You see, I needed a good reason to divorce Larisa since her father still holds some power, because I could never defect while still married to her. It would be unfair to either of us. And I also need to be in full control of my own finances as well as give the KGB something to focus on, which is where you, Beth, becomes a more active part in this story. I went to the officer in charge of the safety of all top Soviet chess players and told him I wanted to recruit you. That I wanted you for myself. That I needed a divorce in order to do so. So, you see, I have involved you in this without asking first. But I also want you to know that you can say no now, and I will leave you alone and you never have to speak to me again. I want to be your choice, Beth, and not force myself on you.”

 

Beth’s immediate reaction to his words is a strong desire to tell him that she does not mind. That she is thrilled to provide him with the perfect reason to put him in the best possible position to be able to leave his country as cleanly as possible. But after having been subjected to the decisions of others a good chunk of her life, there is a part of her that is indeed angry. It makes her think of the unreliable reality she lived in with her birthmother, her powerlessness at Methuen, or the initial neglect she felt after her adoption. She knows he made that decision based on what he had observed in her, but at Luchenko’s party he had also confessed that he had only suspected and hoped, not known for sure, until that moment.

 

“Of course, I want to help you” she begins, “but please don’t ever act like that without consulting me first again. I hate politics and I’m not going to lie and say having the attention of the KGB on me isn’t scary. Yeah, they had eyes on me before, but them treating me as a hostile entity is somehow much more comforting than them looking at me like a prize to win.”

 

“I know. And I’m sorry” he says, remorse in his eyes. “There was simply no way for me to ask you about it and the only reason I could talk to you as much as I did without any repercussions later was the fact that they had agreed to my plan. But there is also the fact that they would have tried to recruit you regardless. I was not the only one to approach them about it."

 

"What?" she asks faintly, her anger forgotten for the moment in the face of such unexpected information.

 

"I would normally not want to influence how you might view another person, but in this instance, I feel it is necessary. But come. We had better start our little stroll down the beach or my followers might wonder what we are doing or talking about."

 

It is with great reluctance she lets go of him, having to settle for only his arm again after having all of him for so long. The chilly wind is also much more biting when she no longer presses her front against his and she leans against him in a bid to regain some of it. The pebbles crunch beneath their heavy soles as they turn to the right and start walking with the wind mostly in their backs, the sound of traffic coming from one side while the waves crash on the other and the light of the rapidly sinking sun fractures among the constantly changing surface of the water. It is a beautiful evening, but neither of them has any attention left to spare on such frivolous things at that time. All they afford themselves to notice, which is more out of necessity and little to do with beauty, are the sounds and making sure they cover their voices.

 

"Girev has always been fixated on becoming World Champion, but a few years ago he started asking those of us who has already achieved it what we did after. What it is like to be at the top and what motivates us to keep on going. Of course, we all spoke about the need to have something important outside of chess to hold on to and cultivate. Something that can give happiness and fulfilment no matter what happens on the board. And I think he took hold of Dima's talk about the importance of having a good and loving family the most, because when I talked to that officer about recruiting you, he said that Girev had made the same request and that since he, while too young still for it really, is unattached and had caught your attention and liking in Mexico City, they would let him try first. I was not allowed to interfere in any way, including talking to you if I could at all avoid it. That was why I ignored you in Belgrade, even if I did not want to. And if they deemed that you responded favourably enough to him during those days, he would be given the mission instead of me, while I would remain stuck in my increasingly intolerable life."

 

His shoulders slump and there is a note of futility in his voice during those last words. Not once had she considered the possibility that he has led a life more or less as bleak as her own since he has always seemed so impenetrably constant. Always there with his façade and a goal for her to work her way towards. In her own misery she had neglected to discover his. Or maybe this is the first time she could ever have learned, because his defences are once more down now, but not to let her bask in his affection, but to let her understand who he really is.

 

While she will remain steadfast in that he needs to talk to her before any major decisions are made, unless he absolutely has to make one to save the plan of course, it is impossible to return to the anger she felt before. She knows all too well the feeling of being stuck in a terrible situation and the desperate longing for a way out. How a too hasty plan can land one in a worse state, like when she in her desperation decided to steal the green pills and ended up losing chess too instead. And while her situation is no longer that low, she thinks they can be that for each other. A way out. A giving as well as taking with neither ending up with more than the other. Partners. Confidants. Lovers.

 

Equals.

 

"Is that why Lu- Dmitry came and talked to me?" she asks, thinking back to those nervous days during the USSR versus the rest of the world tournament.

 

"He did?" Vasily asks in surprise.

 

"Yes. Before the final banquet. He told me I needed to be brave and seek out the person I truly wanted to talk to. So, I did."

 

"Then I must thank him even more. You ignoring Girev and coming to me instead is what made them decide. Of course, he knew what was at stake and is terribly angry with me now. Not only that he did not make it all the way through the Candidates, but that I, who already hold the title, would be granted you as well, giving me both of the things he truly covets."

 

Beth remembers those strange words and moods the young grandmaster had displayed while talking to her in Belgrade. How he had boasted about his apartment. About buying a car. The resentment he had showed towards Vasily. It all makes sense now and she wants to cry. Because by the sound of it, she might have started the young man down that road by pushing that question on him he truly was not old enough to handle. A question she herself has no answer to either.

 

It had nearly cost her dearly too. The thought of having a sixteen-year-old person somewhere in that grey area between boy and man, trying to make her defect to the USSR is both absurd and heart-breaking. She would never have given him a chance and most likely grown bored or angry, maybe even resentful, if he had persisted. No matter how adorable – and that was word she is sure he would hate to be called – she has always found him, he would never be able to compare to Vasily.

 

"I hope he gets over it soon. I hate to think of him being angry with either of us."

 

"Beth” he says in a terribly grave tone. “To tell the truth, I sometimes worry about the mental state of that boy. Not that I think him dangerous in any way, no, but he has always been extremely fixated on chess, and encouraged to be so by most people around him, and I believe that is a mindset he has now replicated for you. He has built up a picture of you in his mind, along with a picture of the two of you together, either not wanting to or uncapable of separating those from reality. He asked me some questions about you after both Paris and the Moscow Invitational and I could see some signs of it then but dismissed it as his usual exuberance and fascination with America until I learned of his request."

 

"You don't think he wants to defect too?" she cannot help but ask, remembering the way he had asked about drive-in movies and tried to use some very American words and phrases, which had only underlined his youth rather than make him seem older.

 

"I very much doubt it. Being part of the USSR team makes it easier to be among the best chess players with how we can train together and share ideas and he will not want to give that up. His life has been far from as complicated as mine, so he lacks a strong enough reason to want to risk such a thing. No, he would have tried to pull you permanently across the border, and just the fact that he thought he could succeed shows how little he knows the real you. And unlike me, I doubt he has the resources or patience to defect without having to leave everything not fitting into a bag behind."

 

"Patience? You are not going to try to run away here in Nice then?"

 

"No. I want to make sure I have as much of my future life in order as possible when that moment comes. A country that will welcome me with open arms, and give you enough time to decide if you want to join me in that future."

 

"Of course I want to. I can talk to my handler as soon as I return home about helping you, I’m sure my government would be more than happy to-"

 

"I'm not going to America, Beth. I refuse to exchange one country who would only see me in terms of political value for another. I do not doubt I would have many more freedoms in America, but they would always want to use me politically and as a weapon against the Soviet Union, making it much more likely that the Kremlin will retaliate against me."

 

It feels as if a part of Beth shatters under the pressure of his non-negotiable declaration of intent. His eyes are hard as he speaks of her home country, and she knows in the very core of her being that he is serious and will never back down. It leaves one glaring thought in her mind, however. Where does that leave them?

 

"Then, where will you go?"

 

"I believe I have already told you that I have studied French along with English. And I already have a contact in the French government who will help me prepare, defect, and provide protection after."

 

"Protection?" she asks numbly, not wanting to think of the terrifying meaning behind that one word. It casts such a long shadow it makes her scared of the dark.

 

"That is the main complication of me remaining World Champion. I am very valuable as a sort of figurehead and the repercussions of my defection will no doubt be worse because of it. But in an almost contrary way, it will also help keep me safer. It is easier to get away with punishing or killing a dissident the people on the other side cares little or nothing about. Besides, I have just retained my title and it is three years until the next time someone has a chance to take it from me and I cannot stand the thought of waiting that long now that things are already in motion. There is also the fact that they will not give me that much time to try to recruit you, seeing that the main reason for doing so is to stop you from being that someone.”

 

“They think I have a good chance then?”

 

“Not as much as I do. But Beth, there is one very important thing I need you do understand. What I am going to do will be terribly dangerous and even if my defection is successful, I am not completely out of danger even then. I might never be depending on who ends up in charge over what back home. So, while yes, I do wish that you would join me here in France and we could share everything, I am not going to accept any such promises from you now. I want you to be sure that you can love me before you commit yourself to such a thing and has thought it through carefully. I would much rather have an early rejection than see your regret in the future.”

 

“I thought you agreed to not make any decisions on my behalf” she points out, but without any heat, stopping in her tracks, which forces him to do the same, and places herself in front of him again.

 

“Do you feel ready to commit to such a thing now, Beth. Please tell me honestly.”

 

“I want to say yes, but I can’t. It’s all too new. I’m also not saying no, you know” she answers after a few minutes of thought. “I guess that means you’re right. I need some time to think about this, because it would change my life almost as much as it would yours.”

 

“Good. I am glad that we agree” he replies and reaches up to stroke her cheek. “And until you have reached a decision, I will try to convince you that it is a very good idea. I can only be so selfless when it comes to you.”

 

“Please do” she begs, then almost leans in for a kiss again before recollecting herself when a movement a bit further away she spots over his shoulder reminds her of their audience. The KGB’s presence is frightfully sobering, and she does not think she will ever struggle with her addictions again while they are near.

 

They turn back towards the hotel, the sun being low enough that they will most likely make it back just before it gets dark. But with their faces now in the direction of his handlers, they switch to inconsequential topics. Beth knows as much as she needs for now and is sure he will tell her more when she can give him a definitive answer.

 

With the heavy topics over, they can pay more attention to their surroundings and increase their pace because of it, finding themselves back in the spot they met at just in time to watch as the last of the sun disappears below the horizon in a glorious haze of pinks, purples, and yellows. She stands in front of him, her back to his chest and his arms around her, soaking in his warmth as he places his mouth just by her ear and tells her of a place on the outskirts of Leningrad where he sometimes drives on his own to watch the sun set in the water of the Gulf of Finland. Due to its location, Nice does not offer a view of the sun setting in the sea, but it is the closest Beth as come to such a sight and she hopes to see the actual thing with Vasily someday.

 

“How about we eat dinner together tonight?” he asks her when the last sliver of light has dipped down into the horizon.

 

“You mean room service?”

 

“No. In the hotel restaurant.”

 

“Won’t that attract attention?” she asks while having to fight the urge to glance towards the two men who only stands far enough away to give the illusion of privacy.

 

“I think you and I talked enough in public in Moscow for no one to think it strange if we share a meal while here. Not every night, of course, but maybe two at least would be doable. It will also make things easier if people believe we have some casual acquaintanceship going on. I would hate to always have to avoid you in public without Dima there to act as a cover.”

 

“That’s true. And I’d love to have dinner with you. A proper one with just the two of us rather than sitting at different tables in a room or garden full of people.”

 

“Then let us go. We will have to change our clothes first, though. At least my trousers have some saltwater sprayed on them from the strong wind.”

 

While they slowly walk back to the hotel, they talk about what summer there must be like. She mentions her desire to take a long walk along Promenade des Anglais on a hot summer say, an ice cream in one hand and his in her other, which he agrees is a wonderful idea. Though, he insists that the best ice cream is found in Italy and if they find themselves there it will be his treat.

 

When they take the elevator together, she thanks a god she does not believe in when he presses the same button she would have. They have rooms on the same floor. He raises an eyebrow in question when she does not ask for another floor, but then gives her a look that has her rooted to the spot and equally thankful the KGB agents wait for them in the lobby while they go to change into something not smelling of salt. The glances the two men had given them when allowing them to go up unattended was clear as day. They expect something to happen. For once, she wants them to be right.

 

The moment they arrive at the right floor she takes his hand and pulls him along to her door, wanting him to know where he can find her. He says nothing but allows her to drag him with her and then stands still while she fumbles with her lock, her hands too excited to fit the key until the fourth try. She pushes the door shut as soon as they are both inside, only to turn around and find he has walked further inside, looking around. Is it really so much to ask for a kiss the moment they are alone?

 

“More or less the same as mine” he comments after finishing his brief inspection. “But I prefer my paintings. They are of Paris.”

 

At the mention of the capital of the country they are currently in, Beth shivers. But not because a memory of a part of her past she would rather forget entirely if it had not been for the fact that it contained Vasily. She could never truly wish to forget a moment she shared with him, even if she was hungover and making an utter mess of the sixty-four squares between them at the time. It had seemed an endless distance then, the entirety of the world of chess, but now she knows better.

 

“Is that where you plan to live?” she asks, looking to both the paintings of some nondescript landscapes as well as the future and the happiness that might be awaiting them there if everything goes according to plan.

 

There are a lot of ifs in the world, and the thought of it scares her.

 

“Oh, lyubimaya” he says and walks over to her and pulls her into his arms, the kiss he presses against her brow not what she wants but what she needs. It, along with his embrace, grounds her and clears the heavy clouds from her mind. The clouds trying to obscure that promise of things to come should she reach out and take hold of them.

 

“I’m sorry. We’re here now, together, and I don’t want to ruin it.”

 

“Never be sorry for expressing how you feel to me” he replies, one of his hands traveling up her back and all the way into her hair where he strokes the red strands. “I know I have placed a heavy burden on you by telling you all of this, but since I do hope for you to join me there, and yes, it is Paris, where I will be closest to the people that will protect me, I can hardly keep silent. And we are equals, you and I, and that means we share things.”

 

They stand in silence for a while and since they have both pulled off their outerwear while he inspected her paintings, she is now close enough she thinks she can feel the beating of his heart. Or maybe it is her own drumming away at such a volume it echoes inside her.

 

“I hate that this is so dangerous for you, and I wish you could be in Paris already” she whispers a while later, giving voice to what is in her mind and heart, but pushing aside her conflicting emotions about the French capital for now.

 

“I will be, but it will simply take some time. Things will be messy enough anyway, but I want to mitigate it as much as I can, even if it will take some time” he replies, but his voice fades at those last few words, making them barely audible.

 

He lets her go and turns toward the windows, gazing out at the moonlight glittering in the unrestful water while standing perfectly still. Too still. She loathes being faced with his back, but the slump of his normally so strong shoulders catches her gaze before she can interpret the distance he has put between them as rejection. Truly, she ought to trust him better, but the fear of losing him is still too present after what he told her at the beach that it even bleeds into their bond. Yes, she might gain all of him, but she could lose just as much too.

 

Allowing him the moment of minimal seclusion he needs, she remains where she stands, patiently waiting for the onslaught of weariness in him to pass. Maybe the full scope of what he has set in motion has not dawned on him until this very moment.

 

“I am so sorry” he says after a few minutes, but without moving. Even if she wanted to give him privacy, to not see him in this vulnerable state, it had been impossible to look away. “Thinking about the time it will take to do this now that I have you here with me just makes it seem so unbearable. But, I cannot just give in and take the easiest way out, Beth, because it would only be easy for a short while. I need something of my own to escape to. Something of my own to offer you.”

 

The protest is at the tip of her tongue, frantically waving its arms to regain balance when she decides to hold it back and not spew platitudes at him. They both deserve better than that. Because while she would naturally love to have him defect right now, grab hold of his hand and rush out of the hotel and into a taxi before the KGB can catch them, that is not realistic. And she also understands his need to not leave emptyhanded. He is not impulsive or prone to take unnecessary risks. She knows how he plays his games, and that reflects him as a person. To try to say that she does not want or need that from him would be the same as an insult and a rejection. Waiting will be difficult, yes, and brings its own risks, but if they aim for the possibility of forever, it will be more than worth it.

 

Walking over to him, she slides her arms around his chest and presses herself against his back, taking a deep breath to inhale his sent in a gulp large enough to satisfy her thirst for him for now. Maybe her embrace will be as soothing to him as his is to her.

 

“I know. And I understand. You have thought this through, and I trust you.“

 

His head tips back until it rests against hers, and she angles her own so she can reach to kiss his neck. A shudder goes through his entire body at the intimate contact before his muscles relax and she knows the crisis has passed. They stand like that for another few minutes, breathing as one and drinking their fill of each other in the quietude.

 

And then, because this is the right moment, she lets him go and moves to the front of him before she rises up on her toes while pulling him the necessary inch or two down and gently presses her lips against his. Their hearts have both been laid bare and there can be no better opportunity to tie them even closer together. Because she wants to love him. Wants to give him her heart and be gifted his in return. Wants to share something with him that is strong enough that she will find a new home.

 

His lips are a little dry after their hour and a half outside and she assumes hers are too, but it only gives them more friction and stimulates more nerves, sending a tingling sensation out across her entire body. He is responding to her, but allows her to take the lead, and the trust he gives her by relinquishing control in this crucial moment rushes trough her like a triumphant roar. Her hands move up from their grip on the lapels of his suit jacket to lock around his neck, pulling him closer as the passion mounts and his arms snake around her waist almost at the same time, forcing her to bend her back backwards a little when he pulls her against him. But then one of them is raised so it lays across her back instead, waist to shoulder blade, in an offer of support, because he never wants to be something or someone she cannot lean on.

 

Some distant part of her brain not yet drowned in the utter bliss that is this moment tries to remind her that she needs to breathe, but it somehow seems so irrelevant. Why would she ever need oxygen when she has Vasily kissing her like there is no tomorrow? It is entirely incomprehensible, her increasingly lightheaded mind decides, too busy enjoying the feeling of her fingers diving into his thick dark hair. She is all sensations and no rationality.

 

They are both so out of breath when they do pull apart that they instinctively sit down on the bed, both somewhat dazed. She only remains upright for about five seconds before she falls over so she lies on her back, laughing in pure joy and exhilaration when she lands and bounces once before the soft duvet can cradle her. He lowers himself next to her and they afford themselves some time to stare up at the ceiling and just let the moment linger.

 

His hand finds hers and he pulls it up to his face where he presses his lips to it, and she can sense the words behind the gesture. The joy. The relief.

 

His heart.

 

Too soon, Vasily gets up from the bed and starts to leave to go and change his clothes, asking that they would meet by the elevator before going down together. Right as he is about to disappear down the little entryway area by the door out into the hallway, he pauses and looks over his shoulder at her.

 

“Thank you, by the way.”

 

“What for?” she asks, pushing herself up on her elbows so she can see him better.

 

“For not wearing any lipstick. It will make it easier for me now.”

 

“I’m glad you noticed. I don’t go without just for anyone, you know.”

 

“I am sure you do not, lyubimaya. And for everything else.”

 

“You never need to thank me for such things, Vasily” she replies sincerely, wanting him to know that he can lean on her too.

 

Once he is gone, she allows herself a few seconds to just lie there and let it all sink in, her fingers moving to cover her still tingling lips, where he has kissed her. Where Vasily Borgov has kissed her. Nice has only just begun and she is already feeling on top of the world. Who knows what might happen in the days to follow?

 

There are parts of French cuisine Beth does not care for, but most of it is to her taste. Sitting at a table for two in the hotel restaurant a short while later, Vasily across from her with his brow furrowed as he studies the menu while she already knows what to order, it is difficult not to let her shameless giddiness shine through. With the KGB just a few tables over from theirs and some other dinner guests as a potential additional audience, they have to be circumspect again. Pretend that she is only starting to have an interest in him for the sake of the former and that they are nothing but acquaintances – indifferent friends at most – for the sake of the latter. It is a fun game and agony at the same time and her lips are still tingling.

 

There is also the fact that she had pulled of her tights and been able to see him regard her legs with no small amount of appreciation as she walked towards him where he stood by the elevator, waiting for her. It might not have been her preferred setting, but she will take what she can within the confined limits of the time they can spend together on their own.

 

“Having trouble deciding?” she asks after another minute of hesitancy.

 

“I am unsure which hors d’oeuvres I should order. Normally I go for the vol-an-vent when in France, but since I have never been down here before I am considering something more local. Either the socca or something more seafood based.”

 

It is endearing to see him take such care with his order. Not that she doubts his main course will be something stew-like since he, along with so many of his countrymen, enjoys that hearty kind of food, but allowing for some cultural influence is never wrong. It would be terribly boring traveling around the world and only eat the same food one finds at home everywhere else too. Maybe one does not always like whatever local speciality is on offer, such as a lot of Russian cuisine to her, but it is still a worthwhile experience to try.

 

“I’m going for the socca, so you can have some of that if you’d like” she says and he shoots her a grateful look, appreciating her making the choice easy for him without having to miss out that evening.

 

He orders the shrimp canapés and promises her one of them, and for his main he has decided on bouillabaisse. Fish stew; a cultural compromise. Dessert ends up being gâteau St-Honoré as compared to her crème brûlée. There was never any question about them having a full three course dinner, since it would extend their time together as much as possible. Her main is a chicken fricassee, but she asks them to not add any wine to it. The waiter – or whatever he is called in France – gives her an odd look, but scribbles down her request without further comment. Not that any of the alcohol would remain after it had been cooked, but the taste might be strong enough to test her resistance.

 

Feeling an already familiar hand on her own, she looks back to Vasily and sees the traces of pride in his face. She wants to tell him that she has been sober for over a year by now, but the hotel restaurant is hardly the right place for such a confession. But she wants to let him know that he is one of the main reasons she manages it. That to see disappointment in his eyes again, no matter how much he would try to hide it for her sake, would in all likelihood undo her. And not in the good way.

 

For now, all she does is to turn her hand around so they can hold and support each other.

 

The round-robin tournament has her playing both familiar and new faces. In the States, Benny is the only one to truly challenge her, but over here in Europe, she can find a more varied competition. She is dangerously close to losing against an Italian player but finds inspiration in Vasily’s endgame in one of his games for the World Champion title and checks him just before his knight could take her rook, forcing him to move the piece into a defensive position and a few moves later she agrees to his offered draw. She has established herself well enough in the world of chess to accept them more easily now. Maybe she will even be capable of offering them at some point. But there is also her reinforced sense of self and self-worth since she won against Vasily at the Moscow Invitational and the joy she has felt thrumming in her veins ever since the end of his match for the title of World Champion and their conversation on Luchenko’s couch.

 

She makes use of another of his recent endgames when they play on the third to last day, and she can see the delight shining in his eyes when he sees what she has done. He is most gracious in his defeat. The confirmation that Moscow was not just a fluke and that she is still capable of winning, even if it is nail bitingly close, is a balm to her and that promise of being the one to challenge him in three years feels much more tangible because of it.

 

“You learn fast” he compliments her barely half an hour later during his second visit to her room, their audience too large during the game to say such things in the playing hall. Their agreement to retreat up there made with only their eyes.

 

“And you’re much better at losing than I am.”

 

“Perhaps I have simply won so much that being able to play a challenging player is its own reward. Or maybe I’m in need of a kiss to make it better.”

 

Rising up on her toes while pulling him down towards her, she feigns giving him a kiss on the lips, but pulls on him again and moves past them at the last moment, placing her lips against his forehead instead.

 

“There” she says after pulling back, tipping over onto her heels with the momentum of the motion before her feet are firmly planted on the floor again, “I’ve kissed your poor brain all better, so now I expect better next time.”

 

He shoots her a funny look, but then gives her minimal shrug and refuses to rise to her bait and she has to go in for the real kiss instead of being chased after. Infuriating man.

 

“How about we play a game now?” he asks, his eyes going to her new travelling set on the table.

 

“Now? Are you telling me you have the energy for another game after the one we just played?” she asks, feeling the pleasant but heavy fog in her mind swirl around in a sudden gust of wind at the thought. It is a different fog than the one the pills and alcohol give her and is a testament to a game well played rather than a loss to her weaknesses.

 

“I was thinking more of going over some game of the past. Choosing one from one of your books and entertain ourselves with the masters of the past. I’ll let you play the winning side if you like.”

 

“Then how can I possibly refuse” she replies and smiles widely at him before going over to the bedside table on which the books she brought with her rests. With her back still to him she picks up the one at the bottom, remembering a game in it she read a few months ago and found intriguing. “How about this game between Alekhine and-“

 

She interrupts herself when she turns around and sees the pain on his face he tries to hide, but not quick enough to avoid her detection. It is the first time she has seen him so upset over something and it makes her instantly alert.

 

“What is it?” she asks, still too shocked to close the distance between them.

 

“Alekhine is… ah… a sensitive subject for us Soviet players. Me in particular” he replies, eyes not meeting hers and the clear discomfort in his entire frame is enough to spur her into action. Dropping the book to the floor she is embracing him a mere moment later, feeling a shiver move through his body as she presses her own to it.

 

His arms are slow to move around her and she holds her breath until she is as secure in his embrace as she hopes he feels in hers. She frantically tries to find a clue in what little she has read about the life of the dead grandmaster and former World Champion that can tell her why Vasily is having this reaction to the mere mention of his name.

 

She knows Alekhine defected to France, just as Vasily intends to, but that is surely where the similarities end. The man had then got stuck with the Nazis during the war and died in Portugal shortly after its end. The only person to have the dubious honour of dying while still holding the title of World Champion.

 

“I would have believed your country would have been proud to produce such a chess player” she says, hoping to get him talking.

 

“He was more or less repudiated by our Chess Federation in the early thirties after he expressed some very strong and very vocal anti-Soviet sentiments. He had already lived in France for some years by then, so it was likely the last straw in an already existing animosity. However, it is his death that is unsettling.”

 

“How exactly did he die?” she asks, leaning back so she can look up at him.

 

“That is the strange part. Both asphyxiation due to a piece of meat having got stuck in his throat and a heart attack have been reported as official verdicts, though the photos of him as he sits dead in a chair in his hotel room that were published at the time does not suggest any struggle to stay alive. No reaction to choking or his heart giving up. It is of course not impossible that it was swift enough that he had no time to react, and it happened during a rather delicate time with the war over so recently, so it is only natural that people would suspect foul play if given half the chance. But it is still unnerving.”

 

Beth’s eyes widen and a shiver runs down her spine as dread settles in her heart. The implication of what he is saying is clear and suddenly she wants him to rethink his entire plan.

 

“A French death squad wanting revenge for the role he had to play during the war is one of the two most popular theories to explain it. The Kremlin is the other, in retaliation for his defection and criticism” he says, and his tone is so detached and matter-of-fact it makes her head spin.

 

“Then why are you trying to do the same?” she asks in her sudden desperation, the image of him lying dead somewhere coming unbidden to her mind. “Please, Vasily. I would much rather join you in Russia than risk you ending up like that.”

 

“No, Beth” he protests immediately and cups her face in his hands, then softening his voice before he continues. “I would never have you under the boot of the Kremlin or KGB. You are a free and impulsive spirit and I fear what it would do to you. Besides, I need to do this for my own sake too, not just for the potential of us. I have desired it for so long and I would rather fail in the attempt than let fear hold me back from even trying.”

 

“But I can’t lose you” she whispers and the last of the fervour in his expression subsides.

 

One of his thumbs starts to gently caress her unusually pale skin before he bends down and kisses her slowly and gently. She closes her eyes and allows herself to get lost in the sensation, feeling how her body relaxes, but this is not something only actions can make better. She needs words too.

 

“Have no fear, my dear” he says when they pull apart, pressing his lips to the corner of hers before raising his head so their gazes can meet again. “It is entirely possible it was simply a scary story told to make people think twice about defecting and I simply took it more to heart due to the person who told it to me, which was my now former father-in-law, who did not shy away from trying to control me at times. I might also be overreacting right now due to the circumstances. Besides, if Alekhine was indeed killed by the nation he was born into, it was under the rule of Stalin, who was known for using more drastic methods to get rid of people he did not like. Brezhnev, while closer to his style than Krushchev, does not go that far. Besides, the Soviet machinery has started to move slower since then, corruption running rampant. And there are some other things to be set in place and in motion to further hinder any sort of retribution once I am out, but I will have to hold on to them for now. I have already burdened you enough with this. But I promise you that when we are in Paris together, no matter if you are just visiting or we live together, I will play Alekhine with you as much as you like and tell you everything you do not already know by then.”

 

Beth takes a moment to look into his eyes, searching for any kind of lie or deception, but finds nothing. For now, it is enough that he has told her about his planed defection, her role in motivating him and his hope for them to make a life together in France once things have calmed down, even if he does not want her to commit herself to that future just yet.

 

“Then how do you feel about Capablanca?” she asks, signalling her acceptance.

 

“I would love to.”

 

The only reason they sit together at dinner that evening is because many of the players in the tournament have gathered for a joint meal in the hotel restaurant and they make sure to end up next to each other. They still have to be careful with how much they talk and what they talk about to avoid anyone getting suspicious, but it really is that final diner in Moscow all over again, but with the added complication of having more people at the table, none of whom are in the know like Luchenko was back then. Not to mention that Vasily is no longer hesitant about going further than her elbow and they are soon embroiled in a delightful game with high stakes and even higher rewards. Some things are still off limits, though, which makes her all the prouder when she manages to make him cough to hide something else entirely after a particularly deft hand movement.

 

Perhaps it is some form of petty revenge for the end of the conversation they had in her room earlier. She had wanted to skip this dinner, order room service, and make the most of the little time they have left before they both return home, but he was immovable in his denial.

 

They need to hold off on sex for now, he had insisted. It would be near impossible to hide from his shadows and they need to draw this out for as long as possible. Because, if she joins him in bed too soon, the KGB might start to ask questions about why she will not join him in the USSR equally fast and take matters into their own hands in one way or another if they believe he will fail his mission.

 

“Think of it as a courtship” he had said, keeping her hands still against the buckle of his belt, which she had just reached for “There are rules and steps to follow and for now our priority must be to get to that day when we are free to be together if we so choose and not risk it over temporary physical pleasure.”

 

“But kisses are still allowed, right?” she had asked, knowing this was one thing he would not back down on.

 

“Yes. I don’t think either of us would survive without them” he had replied before leaning down and placing his lips so tenderly against her own she had wanted to cry because of how close to the surface those words came in that moment.

 

That is an hour in the past now, yet her heart is still pounding against her ribs with such ferocity she thinks they might break. She takes hold of his hand under the tablecloth, entwining their fingers in a search for calm, while wondering how she is supposed to know the difference when her affection for him has deepened into love when her soul is already yearning for him with such violence.

Chapter Text

When the phone rings mere minutes after she has entered her home upon her return from Nice, Beth snorts at the absurdity. It seems whoever tries to call her always has impeccable timing. But it cannot be Harry telling her he is moving to town or her lawyer informing her that her adoptive father has returned to try to make her life hell, because apparently picking on Alma was not enough for the greedy bastard. Harry has lived in Lexington for a few years now and is happily engaged with Nancy, and Mr Wheatley has no more means to get money out of her.

 

The thought that it might be a journalist strikes her. While she and Vasily were careful to not show any affection in public during the tournament, they did still spend a fair amount of time together. The idea is to get people used to them interacting, but preferably without drawing too much attention to it. ‘Chess Review’ and ‘Chess Life’ have just merged into ‘Chess Life & Review’ and they would no doubt like a juicy story to put on the cover of the first issue and spend at least a full spread on. The top American and top USSR players striking up a close friendship – and maybe more- would no doubt send copies flying off the shelves.

 

“Hello?” she says after picking up when the ringing refuses to stop. Best to get it over with.

 

“Harmon!”

 

Well, it is a journalist on the other end, but more importantly, one of her closest friends too. Townes’ voice is instantly recognisable to her by now, not to mention his use of her surname being very much only his little habit, and her whole body sags with relief.

 

“Hi” she says more cheerfully.

 

“Good to have you back in the country. Did you just arrive?”

 

“Yeah. Walked in the door right before you called as a matter of fact.”

 

“Right” he says and now there is something in his voice. Uneasiness she thinks. “If you feel up for it, do you think you could come over? I’m at John’s so it’s a little closer for you than going to mine. He’s going to cook something foreign tonight I think and we’d both be happy to share.”

 

“Sure. Sounds good. I’ll just unpack and then head over. See you in a bit.”

 

“Great. See you.”

 

She slowly puts the receiver back after he hangs up, frowning at the device. Her friend had sounded excited but also apprehensive, which is an odd combination for him. Then again, if he has truly bad news for her, he would have asked to come over so he could talk to her in a more comfortable setting, where his boyfriend is not present and might overhear. After all, John is not fully that close to her yet and there are no waves to rely on to drown out their conversation anywhere in either of their homes.

 

While she unpacks, she takes the time to admire the three new dresses she has bought. Vasily had taken her for some sightseeing on the day meant to complete all adjourned games - with neither of them having any they could do as they liked - showing her the beautiful St Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral, which was within walking distance from the hotel. He had explained that it had been funded by Nicholas II, the last tsar of Russia, and consecrated a mere five years before his abdication, six before his death. It was in part in memory of a Russian prince, Nicholas Alexandrovich, who had lived in Nice for a short while before he had died at the tragic age of twenty-one.

 

Having just reached that age herself, Beth had marvelled at the way royalty were remembered, and even if many liked to call her the queen of chess, she knew no one would ever build something in her memory, let alone a whole cathedral. At least she had her very own king of chess now, she comforted herself with, before bursting out in giggles at her silly little notion. Vasily gave her a questioning look but simply shrugged his shoulders when she shook her head, the corners of his mouth twitching.

 

They had spent the entire morning there, admiring the colourful designs of the walls and inspecting the various religious objects, before finding a nice little place to eat. She had managed to talk him into go shopping with her directly after while they waited for their orders to be served. He had protested at first, saying she already had so many pretty dresses, surely she could have use for no more, but relented after sufficient cajoling, which ended up being less than she had feared. But she did not imagine she had convinced him with her words so much as he had realised the strength of her desire and not wanted to withhold something he could give her that early without any complications.

 

Just as she is about to close the closet her eyes catch on the bag at one end in which the light green and black dress she had worn when she played him in Paris hangs. She has still not worn it again and also never bought a dress, or any other piece of clothing, in the same green colour. Feeling both the resistance to and pull of the memory it is forged into, she slowly reaches over to it and pulls it out. Her fingers regain some of the shakiness they had had back when she wore it as they glide over the smooth fabric, but it is not only from remembrance, but also some anticipation.

 

Another memory has been added to it now. One which leans much more towards happiness. It had happened in the second boutique she had dragged Vasily into and he had seen a similar dress, asking her if she would not buy it since she had looked so lovely in Paris.

 

“Lovely?” she had asked, unable to keep all of the derision out of her voice. “I was hungover and breaking down in front of you.”

 

“And yet I found you beautiful and mesmerising. All of us truly talented chess players have our own kind of façade we show to the world and particularly our opponents. It was the first time I could see behind your anger through more than your eyes. Yes, I know you do not like to remember that game, but while there is pain in it for me too, I will always treasure it regardless.”

 

“But… but you looked so disappointed” she protested, remembering his face clear as day despite the fog which had besieged her brain at the time. “I felt as if I had permanently lost your respect and good opinion.”

 

“Clearly, that is not true and while I did feel some disappointment at first, it had soon turned into concern for you and then sadness at the missed opportunity for a great game. However, it did not take long before I manged to see beyond that situation as it related to me, and how it made me play worse than normal too, and could focus on you as a person, lyubimaya. And if it would not pain you, and I will understand completely if you say no, I would like to see you in that dress again someday, so I can make you smile in it.”

 

Damn that man and the smooth and effortless way in which he sooths her wounds, touches her heart, and fills her head with happy fluff so all she wants is to crawl into his embrace and never emerge again.

 

She wonders how she would ever survive the constant exposure to him if they end up living together. She also wonders if she would be able to survive without it.

 

It is John who opens the door for her. He wears an apron over his slacks and shirt, a smudge of something yellow on his cheek, and looks delighted to see her.

 

“Beth!” he exclaims, ushering her inside the apartment, “how lovely to see you again. Townes is in the kitchen, chopping the rest of the carrots for me so I could come see you before the two of you nestle down in the living room.”

 

“Good to see you too” she replies and hugs him as soon as her outerwear has come off and placed on the coatrack. “You look well. Is that a piece of the dinner on you face?”

 

“What?” he asks, looking flustered while he feels around with his hands until he comes across the yellow substance. “Oh. Yeah, we’re having curry tonight and it seems some must have escaped when I marinaded the meat earlier. Thanks for telling me, unlike Townes, the traitor. But come on, best get you to him before he does something to permanently scar his handsome face.”

 

“Like what?”

 

“Setting the place on fire.”

 

He winks at her before leading the way through the short hallway connecting all of the rooms. There is the kitchen, living room, two bedrooms and one bathroom. The second bedroom is where Townes supposedly sleeps when he stays the night at his friend’s, but unlike the neighbours, Beth knows better.

 

“There you are” Townes greets her when she appears in the doorway behind John. He stands with a knife in one hand and a cutting board with some unevenly chopped orange pieces on the countertop next to him.

 

“Really, how did you ever manage to survive before me” John says while he walks over and carefully pries the knife out of his boyfriend’s hand and stares dubiously at the mismatched fruits of his labour. “You can’t even cut vegetables without making a mess out of it. At least there are no pieces of your fingers in there. Right, I’m banishing you from the kitchen effective immediately.”

 

Shooing the two of them out of the room, John uses the knife to point at Townes and mock threatening him to keep away until he and Beth are done talking and declaring that dinner will be ready when they are. All the while Beth is laughing at the look on both of her friends’ faces as this grand play is being performed with practised ease. It is so much easier to witness their domestic felicity now that she has the potential of her own version.

 

“Tyrant” her friend grumbles, but intentionally loud enough for it to carry to the kitchen, after he places an arm around her shoulders and leads her to the couch in the living room. “Be careful with men, Harmon. They might look all calm and sweet but put the wrong thing in their hands and, bam, they turn irrational and lethal.”

 

“Sorry, but my man only turns lethal when you put chess pieces in his hand and seems completely devoid of irrationality.”

 

“Lucky you. But he is then, still your man I mean?” he asks and looks at her, eyes searching her face in preparation of either being happy for her or consoling her.

 

“Yes. Very much so” she is happy to be able to report. “Is that what you wanted to talk about?”

 

“It is. Ben Bowman over at the newly minted ‘Chess Life & Review’ called me the other day. We’re friends of sorts after meeting at a few tournaments we both covered, and he knows that I know you, so he asked, and respectfully so I must add, for information.”

 

“About what?” she asks, but is quite sure she already knows the answer. The look he gives her says he knows that she knows. “Right. What’s the word on the situation?”

 

“Nothing truly bad. The speculation is that you must have struck up a friendship during your second time in Moscow, where you were seen both in his and Luchenko’s company on a number of occasions. And Ben wanted to know if you had talked about Moscow with me or if I had seen something. I told him all I knew was that the three of you had parted on amicable terms and that you and Borgov look forward to the next time you will play each other rather than one of you merely spectating. I didn’t want to go into any kind of details before I had the chance to speak to you.”

 

“Did he tell you anything about Nice?”

 

“He did. You were seen eating together in the hotel restaurant a few times, sometimes in company with other players and sometimes alone, and that he seemed more talkative than usual, but that is all. And it won’t be mentioned in his article. What with foreign affairs being so focused on Vietnam right now he felt it was unnecessary to draw attention to what I assured him was simply two players who had started talking to each other about mostly chess but might face political heat if it is pointed out.”

 

Breathing a sigh of relief, Beth glides sideways until she rests against him. The velvet fabric reminds her of another couch she sat in a few months ago and she smiles while she gently slides her hand over the surface. She and Vasily must get a velvet couch in their potential new home once they get there, she decides. And it must be only for their use, maybe placed in their bedroom, so she can feel the friction against the naked skin of her entire back while he moves against her front.

 

“Then all is more or less as it should be. Though, maybe we need to be slightly more careful in the future. We need people not to be shocked by seeing us in company, but also not knowing the true nature of our relationship. Maybe not even for a few years.”

 

“But you do have an endgame in sight?” he asks her, and she loves him for the concern in his voice.

 

“We do. In fact, he’s had most of it planned out in hypothetical terms since a long time, but I came into that picture after Paris.”

 

“Paris? But… that was like the second time you met, right?”

 

“Yes. And we hadn’t really spoken a word to each other. But we both felt it, even if I had to wait until Moscow to realise” she says and picks up his hand so she can amuse herself with playing with his fingers while they discuss this heavy topic. “But we’re getting to know each other properly now, filling feelings and fantasies with substance.”

 

“My my, aren’t you the little poet.”

 

“Only for him” she retorts with a grin.

 

“Oh, you poor lovesick fool. Whatever shall we do with you, Harmon? Falling in love with a man who is not only your adversary but also the pride of our enemies.”

 

She lets out an embarrassingly indignant shriek when he pulls her closer and ruffles her hair, but no more than a few seconds later, which are spent glaring accusingly at him while trying to smooth her locks back into place, she gives up and bursts out in uncontrollable giggles when one of her hands gets stuck in a tangle. The two people in this apartment along with her are among the few she does not mind seeing her less than spotless and she would not trade that for any amount of perfection in the world.

 

They spend Christmas together once more, the three of them in her house, but no tear inducing talks are held that year. Not that there are no more things weighing on her mind, but there are no crises to deal with at the moment and there are simply some things from her past she does not feel ready to share with anyone yet. And maybe some she does not dare to. Now that she no longer drowns her emotions in pills or alcohol and she is secure in the knowledge that her feelings for Vasily are reciprocated and no longer spends a lot of time and energy on trying to figure that out, some other things have started to rise towards the surface. But they are still faint enough to easily ignore, and she does so want to have a fully uncomplicated celebration this year.

 

Only a few days into January two letters of high interest arrive. Both have foreign stamps that give them away as originating in Russia and she opens both and reads the signatures at the bottom before deciding which to star with.

 

   My dear Liza

You must excuse this old man taking the liberty of writing to you out of the blue like this, but since I rarely travel for chess outside of Russia these days, and would thus miss out on your delightful company, I thought I would take a chance and be a little impertinent. It is a harsh winter this year and it keeps me confined indoors much more than I would like. Would you help me alleviate some of this terrible boredom by starting a game of correspondence chess with me, my dear? I have no idea if you are familiar with the annotations normally used for such games, so I will allow you to play white and set the tone.

 

Things here are much as they have always been otherwise. I have a favourite teashop I go to every day the weather permits and take a walk in a nearby park where I can watch some of the people of this great city as they go about their lives, amusing myself with imagining where they will go once they leave, what their homes might look like or if they have any family if they are there alone. Sometimes, I am recognised by someone and talk with them a little while, making sure to find out if I was right or not while giving them some little anecdote about a tournament.

 

Vasya is here visiting me by the way. I doubt he told you that he has divorced and moved out of the house he shared with his family and into a smaller place while he makes up his mind about if he wants to remain in Leningrad or move to Moscow. He has been offered a place near mine and I will not lie and say I would not wish him to be so close since he is one of my dearest friends. And if you are ever here again, Liza, you could visit us both perhaps. It might not be the best representation of how most people here live, but I doubt you will dislike the higher standard. You are forever the embodiment of elegance, my dear.

 

And speaking of my friend, I have just convinced him to offer a correspondence game with you as well. It might be my impertinence guiding me again, but at least in my mind, you would not mind the opportunity to play against the current World Champion as well as the former. Do tell me if I have overstepped, but no matter how you feel about my terrible manners, please send a reply of some sort, would you. For this poor old man’s sake.

 

   Your friend

      Dmitry

 

Beth’s smile grows wider and wider as her eyes run down the lines and she can hear, clear as day, Luchenko’s voice in her head as she does so. He has written her in English, as opposed to Vasily who clearly wants to keep up the ruse of his poor language skills since she will possibly not be the only person to read these letters. No doubt they are looked through on the Russian side due to the foreign address, and maybe even her own side will want to take a peek after seeing the stamps. It is clear Luchenko has assumed so too judging by him talking about Vasily’s divorce as if she did not already know about it.

 

She dearly hopes she does not read too much into his seemingly lonely walks in the park or visits to the teashop. His wife died a long time ago, she knows, leaving him with a daughter who is an adult since some years now and probably has a family of her own. But she has never seen him alone. He has always been surrounded by people and been the life of any party when they have met, and she has never thought about what his homelife might be like despite having been there once.

 

His talk about wishing Vasily to move to Moscow so they can be close is painful to her. Because that is no doubt what he would want the most, even if he knows what his friend is up to and supports him. For a few minutes she imagines what that life might be like. Her joining Vasily in Russia instead of him defecting to France and them living only a few minutes from Luchenko, seeing each other almost daily and playing chess. Maybe there would be children in the future that he could be the grandfather to neither of her so-called fathers or Vasily’s dead one could ever be. It is far from unappealing in its microscopic glamour, but she needs only to remind herself of the politics surrounding it to recognise it as a heavily edited version of a potential reality. It would never be as easy as that all of the time.

 

Shaking her head to rid herself of the fantasy she places the letter on the table and picks up the other one. It takes much longer to read due to the Cyrillic script, which she has not kept up with as diligently as she should. Well, now she has been given a good reason to start practising again.

 

   Miss Harmon

I am writing this letter at the insistence of a certain friend we share. The man (he is standing looking over my shoulder right now, telling me to call him an old man, but I refuse to partake in his too silly notions) can be terribly insistent when he has decided on a specific course of action. And I, well, seem to be an obliging friend. (But I do draw the line at inserting myself into whatever private jokes the two of you might have developed.)

 

As I am sure he has already told you in his own letter, I am staying with him for a while. Some people (looking at you Dima) want me to move to Moscow now that I am divorced, but I have yet to decide. For certain reasons I will not mention here, closeness to my former wife and our son has little bearing on my decision. I will probably take some time, but you know enough of me to not be surprised that I am not one to do anything in haste. Maybe you could help me by sharing your opinion, Miss Harmon? I can have a new house of my own if I remain in Leningrad, or a nice apartment if I move to Moscow, very similar to the one our friend lives in, as well as close by. I am sure he would be happy to describe the place for you if you ask. (And he now tells me to tell you that the couch in his living room is of particular pride to him. Apparently, some very important people have sat in it he swears. I will also write my next letter before he seals his so I can keep it my own.)

 

I do hope this letter (and yes, yours too Dima, now stop trying to take over my letter please) reaches you before the tournament in Amsterdam. I am told you will be there and look forward to play against you once more. You have become a very good challenge, Miss Harmon, and I am interested to see which one of us will emerge victorious this time.

 

But if you are willing, I would be happy if you agreed to play a game of correspondence chess with me. See how our wits compare at such a slow pace. Dima told me to let you start so you can decide how to write down our movements and I have no objections to this. If this is acceptable to you, you can use the return address on the envelope to send me your reply. I wrote it in both Russian and English as you can see, which I advise you to do as well to minimise the risk of a letter getting lost on the way. (And Dima now begs me to ask you to do the same for him since he quite forgot to give you such directions in his letter, and he is just now rushing over to it to add the Russian version of his address. Truly, the man is still razor sharp when it comes to chess, but he is liable to misplace things or forget to say something important at the most inconvenient of times. I have a suspicion that his brain is reset every time he sleeps, and with his fondness for naps, that is far too often. But now I had better end the letter and seal it before he returns and can read how terribly I have abused him with things that are truly only partially true.)

 

   Yours sincerely

        Vasily Borgov

 

Beth cannot help but laugh uncontrollably at Vasily’s letter. It is all too easy to picture his put-upon expression as Luchenko hovers over his shoulder and commenting on his writing and deciding to include it in the letter in his own way. But it also allows him to write some things he would not have been able to mention otherwise, such as their friend’s couch. She doubts the KGB knows the particulars of that evening, only that she was present, and her side knows nothing at all about that party, because she is sure she would have been interrogated about it in some way if they did.

 

After that, she spends a silly amount of time tracing the steady lines of his handwriting and his signature at the bottom of the page in particular. It is neat and concise with no unnecessary flourishes that she can detect, but then again, she is not used to reading Cyrillic that is not printed and has little idea of how it compares. She will have to ask him to write a note for her in English when they meet in Amsterdam in only a few weeks to have a good sample to study in the future.

 

Mr Borgov, she begins her letter with, for no one’s benefit but the possible poor fellow at the US postal service who might have to read it. Then again, she is admittedly unsure if the KGB is aware that she addresses him by his first name, so maybe it is for their benefit too. It is a necessary but distasteful disguise since they both know it is not what she wants to call him, just like him addressing her as Miss Harmon in his letter. There is even a small twitch in her hand when she forces it to write the name like that, which is akin to the way she almost chokes when she has to say it out loud. Borgov is her past. Vasily her present and future.

 

I am happy to hear from the both of you, even if Dmitry has been my insistent friend for longer than you and I have been acquaintances. But after your performance while protecting your title, I am more than happy to take this opportunity to play a game against you away from the eyes of everyone that will undoubtedly observe all the other games we are bound to play in the future when we go to the same tournaments. So, unless it makes him insufferable, please thank our mutual friend for me for talking you into this.

 

I know how it feels to find yourself uprooted from a home you have known for a long time and understand you wanting to take some time before deciding on where to settle next. Either option has its advantages and maybe it depends more on what you see yourself doing with the rest of your life than how you feel right now. If you will only dedicate yourself to chess the apartment would surely be the best option. However, and please forgive me if I overstep, if you see yourself starting over, wanting a new family, maybe a house would be the better option. Then again, according to our friend’s letter, there is a park in that area, so if the apartment is large enough, maybe it won’t be much of an issue anyway. I think I might not know enough of the particulars to be able to make more specific recommendations at this point, though.

 

Amsterdam is on my mind a lot lately. I have acquired a strong taste for traveling to other countries and experience different cultures since my first time, which was in Mexico City, where you and I played our first game. Seems such a long time ago now but it truly has only been about three and a half years and so much has happened since then. Do you remember that tournament at all? Not that I doubt that you have an excellent memory, but you must have been to so many by now that you have to let go of some of them or something. Sorry if I’m not making much sense. It is just that even if I ended up losing to you, I was so excited to play you for the first time. With you being the World Champion I had read about you for years before then and to finally see you in person was such a memorable moment for me. And now here we are, about to start a game of correspondence chess. And no, I have not studied the annotations traditionally used for such games, so with the risk of appearing terribly pedestrian (a word I learned recently and feel very proud to find my first proper use of!), I will simply write this: e4.

 

    Yours sincerely

          Beth Harmon

 

 

The IBM Tournament in Amsterdam is set to start on the last Tuesday in January and go on for three weeks, meaning it will include Valentine’s Day. The girls at school always made such a fuss over it and Margaret and her gang had taken it as yet another opportunity to try to put her down before she got famous, snidely asking her if she had received any card while holding up their own and giggling behind them. She had never really cared about it, but she cannot help but wonder if Vasily is aware and might do something or give her some sort of gift. Then again, it seems like just the kind of frilly holiday the USSR would not want to take part in. Considering they apparently do not celebrate Christmas, such a minor one seems even more improbable. But she will at least ask him about it.

 

She spends most of the time leading up to the tournament practicing both chess and cooking, meeting her friends that live in Lexington for a few lunches and dinners, and calling the ones that live outside at least once. With the exception of Benny. Still unequal to interacting with him again, despite her remorse, she only asks about him once when she talks to Arthur and is told that he has recently given him the suggestion of writing another book but has little hope that it will be started anytime soon. He has not seen Cleo about lately and Benny seems to avoid mentioning her name too, which worsens Beth’s guilt. She did not mean to separate them if they were truly happy together or in any way good for each other. Instead, the former US Champion has withdrawn even more and has even turned down his own invitation to Amsterdam after finding out she is going to be there. Beth can think of nothing to say to that, and the call ends soon after, her mood soured. She spends the rest of the evening cooking up a storm and successfully smothers the desire to hide at the bottom of a bottle until the unpleasantness has passed. Thankfully, it is fully forgotten – or maybe repressed - when she lands at Schiphol International Airport and makes her way to the Dutch Capital and the Hilton Hotel, where she will be staying, and the tournament will take place. The building reminds her a bit about the hotel in Belgrade, but smaller and a bit less imposing overall. It is at least located next to water as well and her room does face that way instead of the front.

 

She tries out the bed before unpacking, sighing in contentment to find herself so comfortable after the journey, and allows herself the luxury of the fantasy of sharing the space with Vasily. She knows the second tournament since his little mission started is in all likelihood much too soon to do anything too intimate, but that does not mean she cannot imagine what it might be like. Or feel a particular kind of frustration while having to wait.

 

By now she has already met most of the players that will compete in the tournament. Especially the ones in the A group, in which she is playing along with fifteen Grandmasters and International Masters in a round robin. The B group consists of a mix of slightly lesser professional players and local enthusiast. The event is, after all, meant to bring a spotlight on IBM’s efforts with programming when it comes to chess, and it makes her remember the talk she had with the twins by the pool in Mexico City. About how white will always win when computers learn to play chess and play each other. They had also insinuated that Vasily might be a machine and while she will not entirely put it past the Soviet Union to have dedicated enough time and money to having already invented a chess robot, she very much doubts they would have been able to make him so lifelike, or included being a great kisser in his programming. It also makes her wish for a time when she might be able to introduce Vasily to two of her oldest chess friends – all of her friends really - and assure them of him definitely being made of flesh and blood. Blood that no doubt can run very hot if given the right incentive.

 

With a groan she pushes herself up from the bed and forces herself to start unpacking, hanging all of her dresses, blouses and skirts in the closet and refolding all the other items before placing them in the chest of drawers. The books are placed in a stack on the coffee table by the couch except for the one she is currently reading, which ends up on the nightstands that holds the phone.

 

She contemplates ordering room service and just make a quiet night of it, but her fingers have not even reached the receiver before she changes her mind. After Townes’ talk with her about his journalist friend, she does not dare to have dinner with Vasily on her first night there if he is present, since that might come across as too eager, but there are other people there she would not mind spending time with, such as Armand. But Uhlmann and Gligoric also, who she ended up getting along with in Belgrade by the end with both of them speaking English well enough for sufficient communications.

 

When she enters the hotel restaurant, she soon spots Gligoric at a table with a man she does not recognise but walks up to them anyway since it is a table for four and she hopes they are not expecting more than one extra person. Her former team member spots her when she is about halfway there and gives her a smile and wave, causing his companion to turn around. His eyes widens when he sees her and he quickly turns back around and seems to say something urgently.

 

“Good evening” she says, offering what she hopes is a friendly enough smile to overcome whatever has made the stranger’s shoulders so stiff and gaze barely able to look up at her.

 

“Good evening, Miss Harmon” Gligoric replies. “This is my fellow countryman and Grandmaster, Dragoljub Ciric. Ciric, this is Grandmaster Elizabeth Harmon.”

 

“Nice to meet you” she says and offers her hand, ignoring the fact that Gligoric has to kick his countryman in the shin under the table to get him out of whatever paralysis he was in and return the gesture.

 

“Yes. Nice to meet you too, Miss Harmon” he manages in terribly broken English and she thinks she understands his hesitancy. Not many people like to showcase such an obvious lack of skill and men in particular seem to have a hard time of it in the face of a pretty young woman. Only Vasily likes to pretend that he knows a lot less than he actually does, but it is all part of some grand scheme, and she has a sneaking suspicion that he rather enjoys the act. Especially when he had managed to get them seated next to each other at the second joint dinner in Nice the players decided to have on their own, claiming he needed her as his interpreter. They did have a new one for him. A nervous looking young man who was most likely fresh out of university and overwhelmed by the position he had found himself in. Judging by how he made himself scarce every time she and Vasily had a chance to interact, she also guessed he knew at least some of what was supposed to be going on. And in accordance with that rule had been no where to be found that evening and no one thought the World Champion’s request strange.

 

“Would you like to join us for dinner?” Gligoric asks and gestures towards the empty chair next to him in his usual charming way. He is quite the dapper gentleman and well liked with his easy manners and respect towards other players as well as people in general really, and Beth does not hesitate to take him up on the offer. “We are expecting M Duhamel to arrive shortly, so we will make up a nice and even little company of four.”

 

Armand arrives barely a minute later and shakes hands with the two Yugoslavian players while once more greeting her in that French way before sitting down opposite her. A waiter arrives with the menus after Gligoric signals for them and they start some idle chitchat while reading the extensive list of what is on offer.

 

Not feeling too adventurous that evening, more curious, Beth goes with the Slavink with mashed potatoes and boiled vegetables and does not regret it when the others are served with their Snert, Hutspot with rookworst, and Stamppot. Of course, they all chose some very traditional dishes, while the menu is a testament to the numerous international flavours to be found in a country with such a long and rich history in international trade. There is also a section of the menu that is a testament to the number of international guests at the hotel who likes to travel far but eat like home.

 

They talk mostly about the tournament, with the other three telling her about their previous experiences in it, but there is also some discussion about the city they are in and Beth comes away with a longing to explore it and its many canals. Vasily does not appear in the restaurant during the maybe two hours she spends there and there is also no note pushed in under her door waiting for her when she returns to her room.

 

She does not see him at all until the opening ceremony. The press conference before had only been for some staff from IBM while the journalists present will have to ask individual players for interviews later if they want to talk to them. After the tournament itself has been explained and the opening ceremony held, they are shown some mechanical inventions done by IBM and given explanations on how they work and even allowed to examine some closer, which includes handling them. There is also a short lecture on where they are in the progress of developing a chess computer that flies entirely above Beth’s head, but when she looks at Vasily surreptitiously, she can see him listening attentively to what the same interpreter from Nice tells him and even nodding along at a few points. Maybe he has some sort of interest in mechanics, or it is simply the concept of playing against a computer instead of a human that intrigues him.

 

The Mayor of Amsterdam, Ivo Samkalden, is there and happy to welcome and talk to the players after his short speech earlier and is the one to invite Beth to hold one of the many round objects she does not catch the name of that hang next to a strange thing that appears to be some sort of small mobile organ a street musician might pull along with them. It is a beautiful thing in its own right and she remains standing next to it for some time, trying to take in all the details of its decorations.

 

“Do you like it, Miss Harmon?”

 

Even if he had spoken in English instead of Russian, she would have known it is him just as easily. She is only surprised that she did not feel his approach before he made his presence known and she blames the jetlag that still buzzes around in her brain for it.

 

“I do, Mr Borgov” she replies after turning to him, longing to say his first name. Longing to reach out and take his hand. Longing to kiss him.

 

“Are you at all interested in such mechanicals things, or is it the aesthetics of it that has captured your attention?” he asks casually, and tilts his head a little, making her want to kiss him right then and there. At least the interpreter has repeated his main act and removed himself to another part of the room and left them to their own devices.

 

“How pretty it is for sure” she shoots back instead with a layer of sarcasm.

 

“You do seem to like pretty things, Miss Harmon.”

 

Oh, how she wishes she could give back in the way he deserves for such cheek. His eyes are shining with mischief while his face remains enviably passive but for the slightest of upturn of the corners of his mouth. Just he wait until they are alone. Or maybey not. She does not want to waste whatever time they can get on their own with petty squabbles. And there is a certain enjoyment in being teased by him like this, since she knows it is reserved for her alone.

 

“Yes, I guess I’m a rather simple creature like that. I like to win in chess and buy, wear, and look at pretty things. And you admire the mechanics then, I take it.”

 

“I admire both.”

 

“I see. How very diplomatic of you.”

 

They lapse into silence after that and after realising that they risk drawing attention by standing still and just quietly stare at each other for too long, she turns back towards the organ. Being tongue-tied around him is something she had thought to be a thing of the past, but it seems not. Or maybe it is a matter of having only things to say that are impossible to say with other people around that might accidentally overhear.

 

“I saw that Dmitry won’t be here” she manages to get out before either of them has to leave or draw attention by standing silently next to each other for too long instead. “And he mentioned in his letter that he rarely leaves the USSR these days.”

 

“No. Not since some years back. Only the really big events are usually enough for him to endure traveling by aircraft.”

 

“He doesn’t like to travel by airplane?”

 

“No. It terrifies him. He prefers to have both feet firmly on the ground. In the USSR he can travel by train or car to most places that host tournaments. But he will be at the Chess Olympiad later this year and with the limited number of great chess players your own country can boast of, I am guessing you will be there too.”

 

Despite the humorous undertone Beth knows she should feel indignant at his insult against her own country but ends up laughing. By Soviet standards, they do lack some quality when it comes to their players and can more or less only present a supposedly too glamorous young woman and a cowboy-pirate to face off against the near impenetrable wall of USSR suits. There are some others, sure, but despite her still limited time on the international scene she can boast of more won tournaments than most of them.

 

“Oh, you can count on me being there, and on first board this time unlike Belgrade, so you better watch out.”

 

“I can assure you I feel appropriately intimidated, Miss Harmon” is all he replies before giving her a small nod and walking away.

 

She only huffs at his impertinence, thinking he is a lot more similar to Luchenko than most people would guess. His brand of teasing and prodding is simply more subtle and its recipients much rarer.

 

With three weeks in Amsterdam, they need to be careful to space out the few times they can afford to interact in public, but that does not mean they cannot create private moments. One such happens the same night when she hears a knock on her door about two hours after she has gone up after dinner. She places her book open and upside-down on the nightstand and gets up from the bed where she has been lounging while reading about endgames. Another knock is heard, this one more insistent, before she reaches the door and the moment she unlocks and opens it she finds herself pushed back as Vasily forces his way inside and then shuts them in.

 

“Sorry, but the elevator stopped on this floor and the footsteps sounded like they were moving towards this corridor” he explains in English.

 

“How… how did you know which room is mine?” she asks, still unable to feel anything but bewilderment at his unexpected appearance.

 

“One of my handlers informed me this morning. My guess is that they want me to make good use of such information so, here I am.”

 

His back hits the door with a dull thud when he is unprepared for her next action of throwing herself around his neck and kissing him with all the longing she has felt since Nice. After the single second it takes him to catch up his arms go around her waist and holds her close, taking some of the weight off of her toes. With her in only socks and him in shoes, the height disparity is felt slightly more keenly and she is grateful for the help in alleviating it. In fact, the thing that forces their lips apart are not the lack of oxygen she experienced in France, but the need to gasp when his hands glide down to her thighs before taking hold of them and hoisting her up so he can help her place her legs around him, giving her a tiny heigh advantage instead.

 

“I’ve missed you” she confesses while she cups his cheeks, letting her thumbs stroke the still smooth skin before she closes the distance with the gentlest kiss she is capable of in that moment, then lays her forehead against his and takes a shuddering breath. “I’ve missed you a lot.”

 

His arms enfold her as he carries her further into the room where he sits down on the edge of her bed so as not to crush her legs against the back of the couch or the chair by the desk. Only then does he let he go so he can cup her face too, the tips of his long fingers diving into her hair.

 

“When not actively in them, you have never strayed far from my thoughts, Beth” he whispers, then starts to press little kisses along her jawline after moving his hands to her back and leaving a trail of fire in their wake as he lets them slide against her the whole way. “If you only knew what joy it is to have you in my arms again.”

 

“I think I have an idea” she responds before she gasps again when he starts his way down her throat. “Um. Vasily.”

 

“Yes, lyubimaya?”

 

“I- Please don’t start anything you’re not prepared to follow all the way through with. I can only take so much of this.”

 

“I thought we agreed kissing is allowed.”

 

With truly impressive willpower she leans away from him and uses her hands that are still resting against his face to turn his head back up so they can look at each other. His pupils are widened, shrinking the beautiful blue of his irises, but somehow it only enhances her appreciation of his eyes. To see the response she can elicit in him so plainly. There is one more response in him she longs to create, but to do so now would only end in her madness.

 

“And it is. Just maybe not take things too far? Especially now when we’re seeing each other for the first time in a while and both of our resistances might be at their weakest. I do long for when we can go all the way, Vasily, but I also respect that you know better how to handle this. But please, don’t make it too hard on me.”

 

It takes her only a moment to realise her unintentional inuendo, but he does not seem to react to it at all. Hopefully it is a language barrier so that he remains unaware of her unintended crudeness, rather than him trying to spare her feelings. His English is truly good, but still leans more towards a textbook than the everyday speech between native speakers.

 

“Whatever works best for you, lyubimaya. If all you want to do for now is to just hold each other, or talk, or play chess, or something else entirely, that is up to you.”

 

“How long can you stay?”

 

“Maybe an hour.”

 

“Then can we maybe move to the couch, and you can tell me about what it’s like to live with Dmitry.”

 

“Are you sure you are brave enough to hear such tales?” he asks her, a look of amusement calming down his eyes.

 

“I dare you to tell me the very worst of it. Besides, I have very fond memories of talking with you in a couch, so I’m sure I’ll get something out of it regardless.”

 

They end up with him sitting at one end and her lying down with her head in his lap and a cushion under her shoulders to avoid putting any strain on her neck, because damn he is muscular, and his thigh is both higher and more solid than what she prefers for a pillow. He holds one of her hands while the fingers on his other card through her hair in a steady and unending rhythm. It is very soothing and along with the soft timbre of his voice telling her anecdote after anecdote about sharing an apartment with Luchenko for some weeks, she soon finds herself so sleepy that her eyes have closed before she is fully aware of it. Only the terrible knowledge that instead of him simply carrying her to bed and crawling under the blanket to hold her throughout the night, he must leave her far too soon keeps her from fully giving in to sleep.

 

One thing of note she picks up on, though, is that despite his dislike of long distance traveling that cannot be done by land or possibly a short sea voyage, Luchenko likes to collect souvenirs and Vasily sometimes buys his friend something when he goes to a tournament outside the USSR. Maybe she can buy something truly American to give him at the Olympiad in thanks for all of his help, not to mention his willingness to give up Vasily in her favour. It is a level of selflessness she might never be able to reach.

 

They are set to share their first dinner on the fourth evening. The main reason is that Emelie has arrived to spend the weekend with Armand, and they are to go out for their meal. When not sequestered away in her room to practice, it is her French friend that Beth has spent most of her time with. His well-known status as happily married keeps him a safe option, while also being great company. They have ventured out to explore some of Amsterdam, with plans to repeat the experience next week, and have had lunch and dinner together at the hotel every day with a few other players joining them most of the time. His presence would therefor complicate matters, while his absence opens up for as good of an opportunity as they can hope for.

 

She meets the pair in the lobby when they are on their way out and she has gone down to enquire after any American newspaper the hotel might provide. Jolene had told her a little about the by now infamous trial against the so-called Chicago Seven from time to time for several months now and during their latest phone call shorty before the tournament, had mentioned that it is approaching its end. Beth’s interest has been piqued enough that she wants to see where it all ends up if it does indeed reach a conclusion before she returns home.

 

Husband and wife look very smart with Armand in a dark grey suit, pressed shirt and blue silk tie and Emelie in a matching blue cocktail dress and pearls both in her ears and around her neck, and Beth is sure they are aiming for some very fancy establishment. She talks with them for a few minutes before wishing them a pleasant evening and waves them off before one of the hotel staff approaches her with a copy of ‘The New York Times’. The trial is still going on.

 

Arriving before most others, Beth and Vasily request a table further in. Not one where it looks like they might try to hide, but one where they will be less noticeable from the entrance, in the hope to avoid detection from the other players. At least Armand would have been the only one close enough to Beth to approach them if he spotted them and the KGB are sure to keep Polugaevsky and Geller at bay if they are not already aware of the need for it, meaning no one will bother Vasily either. Beth does not even wonder about where the interpreter might be. The two nondescript men they will not be able to do fully without sit down at a table close enough to observe, but not within hearing distance after more guests start to arrive and most tables become occupied, filling the large room with the familiar murmur of many voices blending into one sound.

 

“I’m thinking we should try to do something on the last Saturday” she says after they have placed their orders.

 

“I think it might be best if we do not lock down any specific days or times that far ahead. Better to let the conditions as they change dictate when we can meet. It is hard to predict what things might look like in two weeks.”

 

So, he clearly has no idea.

 

“I take it you don’t celebrate Valentine’s Day in the Soviet Union?” she asks, not truly surprised but still disappointed.

 

“I have heard of it, but no, it is not part of our calendar and was not before the revolution either. It is a very western thing in my mind.”

 

“You don’t care for it then?”

 

“I have hardly thought about it at all, Beth” he comments before his gaze grows sharper. “But is it important to you?”

 

“I’ve never had anyone to celebrate it with” she says and shrugs her shoulders in the hope of appearing nonchalant about it, yet betraying herself instantly by looking down in her lap. It has truly not been an issue to her before, so that the memory of those taunts of old from her classmates should suddenly bother her now, years later, seems so childish. Like she wants to prove to them that yes, she can go to tournaments to meet boys, or rather men, or rather one man in particular, who is more than good-looking and that it is only a matter of time before she trades rooks with.

 

“Then of course we ought to do something. You tell me what I should do, and I will.”

 

Her eyes snap up to his.

 

“You don’t have to.”

 

“I want to” he replies calmly.

 

He even makes an aborted motion with his right arm as if he wanted to reach out to her but remembering himself before he could do something they cannot afford to be seen by anyone else than the KGB. None of the guests closest to them appears to have paid them any special attention so far and they need to keep it that way.

 

“A… a card” she manages to get out after gathering herself. “And flowers and chocolate are the usual gifts for a new relationship. But flowers would be too difficult to get away with, I think.”

 

“What about a longer relationship?”

 

“I don’t know. The only people I saw celebrate it were people in school. Alma’s husband never did anything like that before he abandoned us. But I have heard talk of some more expensive things given by husbands to their wives, such as jewellery.”

 

“I see. Something to remember for possible use in the future then” he replies and her heart stops.

 

There is no way around his implication.

 

There is no way around the warmth that spreads inside her.

 

There is no way around the images it produces in her mind.

 

“Vasily, I-“

 

“No, no” he says, cutting her of as if he already knew she has no more words to follow up with. “It is still too early for you to decide any such things, so there is no need for you to say anything now. Alright?”

 

She can only nod, but this time it is her arm that twitches in a desire to reach out to him. But he is right that it is too soon. And it is not the table physically separating them in that moment or the number of eyes present that might turn towards them and detect a hint of the truth that keeps her at bay. It is the absolute need to find the difference between instinct and conviction. Between longing and surety. Between being in love and loving someone enough that she is willing to sacrifice as much as they are in order for them to have a future. Neither of them can afford half measures when the stakes are so high and she will not say yes until she is sure she is willing to give all of herself and accept the same in return.

 

The second time he comes to her room in the evening they practice chess after an initial five or so minutes of breathless kisses. But even if he likes to maintain physical contact with her as much as possible, he never touches her in a way that might take things too far again. He caresses her face, holds her close in his arms or simply entwines their hands. It makes her feel so cherished and she reciprocates as much as she can, knowing he is even more starved for it than she is.

 

The rest of the tournament progresses in much the same way as that first week. She wins most of her games, with a few draws here and there. For whatever reason it the first time it dawns on her that she is playing against people who have studied her style and past games at length. Maybe the greater challenge she has experienced at these international tournaments is not only down to the overall higher quality of the players but also how they approach their competitors.

 

It is one of her proudest moments.

 

Vasily comes over to her every second or third night for about an hour. They spend most of that time talking, often repeating their pose from that first night or sitting so they can look at each other more directly. One of the nights she actually does fall asleep, and it is not until just after he wakes her up and then leaves that she realises he stayed almost half an hour past the usual limit, allowing her to continue her nap a little longer.

 

It has her smiling at first but then only makes the bed feel empty.

 

Their solo dinners are much rarer. In part due to Armand but also because of them deciding to be even more careful about it after she shares the story about the journalist from ‘Chess Life and Review’ with him. It also results in them not sitting next to each other during all the joint dinners. If another player who speaks Russian is present, Vasily sits next to them and ignores most of the others, including her. It makes her curse the slow pace they have to move in even more, because that leaves his visits to her room all the more precious, but he still does not dare stay for long. Not that it is in any way impossible to have sex in under an hour – rather the opposite in her experience - but somehow, she cannot imagine Vasily just drop his pants and take her against the wall. While lust is involved, it is not the main driving force between them, and she is sure his intimacy will be as meticulous as his chess. He will take his time, formulate a strategy, explore the board in full, and make every move count.

 

The thought of such a drawn-out seduction makes her shiver with delightful anticipation.

 

The rarest event they share during the tournament is, of course, their game. It is not the last one, but third to last, leaving a few days before they have to part ways once more instead of letting it dictate the mood of that goodbye. To no one’s surprise it is an even fight that offers some inspired attacks on her side and brilliant defence moves on his. But despite her reading up more on the subject, this time his superior skill at endgames shines through and she has to admit defeat after the 48th move. It is the first time she does so with grace against him, offering a genuine smile along with her hand instead of sullenly toppling over any pieces or fleeing the hall. Several cameras are there to capture the moment and the flashes help her remember that a handshake is not the same as holding hands and lets go before anyone can realise she did have them temporarily mixed up. They are both asked a few questions by the eager reporters and stay a little while to satisfy most of their curiosity about the game. One reporter is even brave enough to ask if their friendliness is a result of the increased détente between their two nations. She translates the question for him as with the earlier ones, his delight at their charade hidden in his eyes and it is close a few times that her own calm façade breaks in favour of a grin.

 

“We are simply two chess players who respect each other and have come to appreciate talking about the game with each other and not just play it” she reiterates his answer in English for him, happy for his measured and diplomatic reply, saving her from having to come up with something.

 

Luckily, no further questions are asked on the topic and they break up soon after, going in different directions after realising they were the last to finish. Then again, he reporters would not have been allowed taking pictures or asking questions if others were still playing. Armand quickly joins her, hurrying away from his place among the spectators.

 

“That was such a great game. Shame you lost” her friend says.

 

“Can’t win them all. Wouldn’t be any fun” she replies as they make their way towards the lobby. “Who did you play today?”

 

“Scholl, so it wasn’t really a great challenge. Arrived in time to see your entire endgame. He really is almost unbeatable at them, isn’t he?”

 

“Yes. But that just makes it all the more fun to play him and a win all the sweeter.”

 

“Says you who have actually managed it a decent amount of the times you’ve played. Think of the rest of us who are overjoyed with a draw against him.”

 

“At least the loss will sting less if you have such low expectations” she teases back and since they are outside the playing hall now, and away from the journalists, he lets out a laugh in reply.

 

“Yes. Without expectation there can be no regret, can there. How terribly sad. Now come and let’s go and explore some more. Emelie is returning for us to spend Valentine together and I still haven’t found her a good gift. I’m in desperate need of your help, Beth.”

 

“Then how can I refuse.”

 

Beth does find it amusing that Armand ends up buying a lovely golden necklace at a jeweller, proving her words to Vasily during their first dinner true. He takes some time trying to decide which to go with, asking for her input even if she only knows his wife a little, and she spends some time looking at the displays. It is not the most high-end establishment, but they still offer a good selection. Not that she is one to wear jewellery a lot. She has her white queen necklace and her Bulova watch and that is more or less it. But maybe she would start wearing such things more if she would be gifted some new items by a certain someone.

 

When she wakes up on Valentine’s Day, she finds that a card has been slipped in under her door. One side has a picture of a bouquet of red roses, making her grin, while the other holds a short message.

 

This is as close as I could get to the real thing. I will see you tonight.

 

There is no silly little poem on it or declarations of love, but it still means to world.

 

Beth wins easily against Langeweg in the afternoon then spends the following hours in her room, trying to decide what to wear after giving up on reading after finding herself staring at the same page for twenty minutes. It cannot be something too inviting, but neither does she want to look too casual. While it is a somewhat special occasion, they are both completely inexperienced in celebrating it and also unable do it outside her room, which limits them a great deal. It would have been nice to let that evening be the one they had dinner together that week - especially since Armand will be out to wine and dine Emelie again - but it could draw unwanted attention due to the date.

 

Unwilling to have to witness other couples enjoy being able to be seen in public she ends up ordering room service and has a quiet dinner on her own before settling on one of the two blue dresses she brought along, changes into it, and then tries to distract herself with a chess book until the knock comes. It goes very poorly, and she almost flings the poor thing across the room in her eagerness to let Vasily in when the sound finally breaks the silence.

 

Sweet man that he is he brings her chocolate. Apparently, he managed to talk one of his handlers into going out to buy the expensive looking box after explaining the significance of the day to them and the complication it might be if anyone recognised him doing such a thing. In fact, they had rather insisted on doing it after realising that it was of importance to her, and he had had to talk them out of the flowers since they would have been impossible to handle in secret. He had suggested them trying to find a card with flowers on instead. It only makes the pralines all the more precious when she knows that the KGB has been used to get them but with no fear of them having been tampered with in some way. It is still too early for them to try any such drastic methods.

 

“I promise to buy you real flowers in the future no matter if you join me or not, even if it would, of course, be a lot easier and happen much more often if you were with me in France” he says after explaining it all to her, then kisses her so she does not have to say anything in return.

 

The chocolate is delicious, - and indeed liquor free like Vasily had demanded - and they both end up eating a few pieces each during the first hour of the two he says they can have that night. They start out talking about the holiday itself, with her explaining it in more detail and the little contact she has had with it in the past. He listens attentively while she explains about her miserable time at high school, looking at her as if she is divulging some new brilliant chess strategy rather than talking about a very boring part of her life. Nothing that was not connected to chess had mattered much to her during those years. Her mother, her few friends, and her first love had all been connected and she is sure that was no coincidence.

 

“And then I finally graduated in ’66 and could leave all of that behind” she ends her story with, shrugging in an attempt to shake off the memories she prefers to not think about. She sits turned towards him in the couch, legs bent in front of her, thighs pressed against her chest, and her arms and chin resting on her knees while her toes, only clad in tights, are burrowed in under his warm thigh.

 

“And then we met for the first time not long after” he says and lifts the arm that has rested along the backrest of the couch so far and pushes her hair behind her ear before caressing her cheek.

 

“Yes, but we didn’t really say a single word to each other, did we. Well, you did talk about me in the elevator, but not to me. By the way, I don’t think I’ve ever thanked you for defending me that day when they said all those things.”

 

“I was only speaking the truth and they were way out of line. You do not need to feel you owe me anything for that. Besides, even if I felt your presence, I did not know that you could understand, even if a tiny part of me felt that you somehow had. Besides, that day was brutal enough for you, which I was also a part of.”

 

“So, you know that’s when my mother died? While we played” she cannot help but ask, bringing up one of her most terrible memories.

 

“I knew that she had died, yes, but not exactly when. I was told about it by my handlers before we left. One of them had seen the ambulance arrive and went to investigate. I was worried about you after that. While I was sure you were capable of rising above your weaknesses, such a hard blow in your life, yet again, seemed like the perfect thing to make you succumb and I did not want to have to read an update in your file about how you had put yourself out of commission. You shone so brightly with your potential even then and for the sake of chess if nothing else, I did not want to see that extinguished.”

 

“I was the one that found her.” She decides to go on and tell him about it all, including that feeling of guilt that has crept up on her since the pills and alcohol were no longer allowed to cover it up, and the last six months especially, after her worry over his affections had been put to rest. It is one of the feelings she has not dared to share with anyone else - not even Townes - because no one would understand, and she is afraid she will be given nothing but empty platitudes in return. But maybe, just maybe, Vasily would. “The room was dark enough when I arrived that I only saw that she was lying down in the bed. I thought she was just resting or something and went on about our game, my anger over both my defeat and the fact that she had not showed up yet again, even if Manuel had left, driving me. And then I discovered that she was dead and must have been so for some time since she felt cooler than someone alive should and her face was so stiff I could not close her eyes. And all that time I sat there at our game, becoming more and more angry at her while she died all alone.”

 

She bends her head down, resting her forehead instead of her chin on her arms as a few silent tears come. She had not expected them, because the actual grief is long since subdued, but it seems the guilt, along with the relief of finally confessing to it, is what drives them. His hand ends up by her ear due to the motion but soon moves around her instead as he tugs her to him. Unwilling to resist, she quickly ends up curled up in his lap with his arms wrapped around her along with his warmth.

 

“I was so angry with her during her last moments alive” she says, tucking her head in under his chin. “I was so selfish and didn’t see how sick she must have been. I was angry at her because she decided to spend time with Manuel instead of coming to watch me play, and yet I wasn’t there for her either, choosing chess over her.”

 

“You forget a very important difference, lyubimaya” he says while a sob makes her breath stutter. “She was the mother and you the child. It was not up to you to make sure she was healthy, or feel alright with being overlooked. Even I, who am incapable of loving my own son, has always made sure he is well taken care of and does not need for anything I could give him outside of my affection, because I am still his parent. And I will leave enough money behind for him to have use of while growing up and then to start his own life with when he reaches adulthood. It is the role of the parent to support and provide, not the other way around.”

 

“But still-“

 

“No. Would it have made a difference if you had noticed? Could she have been saved?”

 

“Not by the time Manuel had left at least, or possibly for some time before then, according to what I was told after the autopsy. And she was so happy the day before and looking so healthy. She even played on the grand piano by the bar in the hotel lounge. But then she noticed how it affected me to see that I was going to play you the next day and suggested we eat in our room instead of going out to a restaurant.”

 

“Which is what any good parent would have done, meaning that that is what she was despite some missteps, but we all make those. So, remember all those good times instead of dwelling on any regrets. No matter how hard it is to be logical about it, I do not want you to feel guilt due to wishful thinking. Saving her was not within your power and is not a burden you should bear. That is a realisation I had to reach as well many years ago.”

 

“What? But your mother died during the war, didn’t she? And you were just a child” she protests, unable to see how his situation could possibly compare with her own, where she watched Alma slowly drink herself weaker and weaker.

 

She pulls back from him a little so she can look at him properly. His eyes are sad, but without pain or guilt.

 

“A child who survived while she did not. I had been sent to go to school in Moscow, living with an elderly couple, before the war broke out, while she remained with my father and grandfather in Leningrad to continue her work in a factory. She had been given leave to travel with me for tournaments or exhibitions while I still lived at home, but the state wanted me to have the best education possible, so I was moved, and she was left behind. But what if I had insisted she come with me? What if I had remained behind and provided the family with one more ration ticket that terrible winter during the siege? What if my presence there had made her try to escape with me, dangerous as it was, instead of staying with my grandfather to starve while my father was part of the defences and killed in action? So many ifs in a boy’s mind in the face of such a tragedy, Beth. So many ways I could think of that I might have been able to save her.”

 

“How… how did you leave that behind?”

 

“I eventually confided in Dima after he started training me. Just talking about it helped, getting all of those ideas out there in the world so I could see the impossibility of so many of them myself in the harsh daylight. The rest we talked through until I could recognise them for the wishful thinking they were. And we did it many times, because sometimes one of those lies can suddenly seem reasonable again. But no one would have listened to me or cared if I had tried to insist she come with me to Moscow. An extra ration ticket would not have saved her as much as it would only have killed me too. Trying to flee Leningrad across a lake in the middle of winter, because that was the only way out, was near suicidal and again, I would most likely have died along with her. So, I learned to accept that she would rather have died there on her own than have me do the same next to her, because that was the only outcome I could have created.”

 

All thought of time disappears as Beth tells him of all the ways she should have seen her mother’s illness or had seen it but not taken it seriously. He listens with his usual patience then talks them all through with her until she has no arguments left to cling to. He does not pry her fingers off of them so much as gently guiding her to let go on her own while he holds her so she will not fall, but it leaves her exhausted all the same.

 

“Sorry. This isn’t really what I had in mind for tonight” she says before pushing out a laugh that her tiredness helps to make at least partially genuine.

 

“I would much rather spend a night like this with you, lyubimaya, than celebrating some honestly more or less meaningless holiday. I do not need a special day to show you how I feel or give you gifts.”

 

“You haven’t given me any gifts before” she points out, her head leaning on his shoulder and one of her hands idly playing with his tie. It is not his worst one, but also not one of the very few she has found acceptable. “Apart from the black king of course, which I admittedly love.”

 

“Would you like some more gifts?”

 

She takes a while to mull that over. There is a chance she might come off as greedy if she says yes, but on the other hand, he has more or less offered. And she would love to have some items, other than the black king, that he has given her. Because if his plan ends up failing… As much as she does not want to think about it, it remains a very real possibility and to have as many mementos to remember him by as possible in that scenario would mean the world.

 

“Yes, I would. But I’ll give you something too.”

 

“If you want to.”

 

“I do.”

 

So you will have something to remember me by too, should the worst happen, she silently adds in her mind. Not being able to see his face in her current position she has no way of knowing if he thinks the same.

 

The next thing Beth becomes aware of is waking up in her bed. She lies under the cover, but with her clothes from last night still on and thanking her lucky star that she had decided to not wear any makeup in the end. Not only would her tears have smudged her mascara and eyeliner, but to sleeping with them still on as well would have been a nightmare. The grittiness created by her crying is enough to have to deal with, and probably why she almost misses the note that sticks out from the book on her nightstand.

 

   Good morning, Beth

I hope you do not mind me taking the liberty of putting you to bed, but I did not have the heart to wake you up this time. The key should lie on the floor just inside the door. I made sure it fit under there before leaving without waking you. And do not worry about my friends. Since I smell of neither sex nor a shower, I will be able to explain this one long visit. See you in the playing hall later.

 

There is nothing to give away the identity of the author of the note to anyone but her since it is written in English and vague enough. But it could still be dangerous to keep lying around, which is no doubt why he put it inside the book instead of directly on the nightstand. Still, she does not want to get rid of it, since it is that very note she had intended to ask him for but forgotten about and a much better sample than the card, both in terms of length and content. Instead, she rolls it up as tightly as she can and then pushes the little roll into the spine of one of her other books, from where she will probably have to use a tweezer to get it out again. The card is simply hidden among the pages in one of the books, seeing as there are no incriminating references to sex on it.

 

Hawing drawn one game more than her but lost none, Vasily wins the tournament by half a point. It is still a good sum she can bring back home and use some of to find a gift for him before the next time they will see each other. The way things are looking now, that is in Venice in June in a round robin tournament with half the number of players they were up against there in Amsterdam.

 

To her great disappointment there is no chance for them to meet in private again before it is time to leave. During the evening directly after the last games there is a formal dinner arranged by the mayor that goes on long into the night and she and Vasily are not placed close enough to each other to be able to talk. Clearly, no one involved with the seating arrangement is aware of the acquaintance they show to the public and has placed the citizens of the two cold-waring nations almost as far from each other as possible. And with them sitting on the same side of the table, it is also impossible to see each other. Beth feels miserable all evening, with the cherry on top being the fact that the dessert is served at the table instead of allowing for mingling.

 

At the prize ceremony there are too many prying eyes present, and little more than the fact that she feels proud over her second place and is not hungover separates it from the one in Paris. All she does is to smile, accept her prize, and smile even more. No more, no less.

 

It is suffocating.

 

However, on the way back up she does end up in the same elevator as him. And his two handlers. She knows he will leave that same afternoon and it is the last chance she has to say anything before careful letters will be their only means of communication for months. But the presence of the KGB makes her unsure of what she can say, or if saying anything at all would be wise.

 

They reach her floor first and that normally insignificant chime that can be heard in so many elevators all around the world sounds before the doors slide open, showing the way into their separation. But then she feels his eyes on her back as she steps out and how his fingers carefully reach out just far enough to grace her own when she passes him on the way. It is enough to collapse her uncertainty and she stops and turns back around. The two agents regards her curiously, she can feel it but does not care. She has eyes for one person alone and she lets her gaze meet Vasily’s before she says all she can think of to say.

 

“Thank you.”

 

She hopes he will understand all that she leaves unsaid. The enormity of her gratitude for not only listening to her when she talked about Alma, but also hearing her. For sharing his own struggle. For letting her fall asleep in his arms instead of leaving her awake and alone.

 

For loving her.

 

The warmth of his unwavering gaze along with the small smile he give her before the doors close and take him away from her tells her all she needs to know.

 

She can breathe again.

Chapter Text

There is a domestic tournament in Phoenix up next when she gets back home. It is not of any real importance since with Benny’s continued avoidance of her there is not likely to be much of a resistance. Still, she has a few reasons for going. It is something for her to do rather than loitering around at home for that entire week, good for her national image to be seen playing on US soil, and lastly it will bring in some money. The last two have more to do with a potential future than anything else. Her image because while it is not something she would normally care for she does want to be in as good graces as possible if she is to leave her country of birth for a new one. The government is less likely to provide her with protection if the people are no longer aware of her existence or care for her.

 

Her win in Moscow and good result at the USSR vs the Rest of the World tournament has earned her a lot of good publicity and goodwill from the public, but if she only ever plays abroad, people might start to think that she does not care for them and has gone off to chase some lofty dream. If she is to move to Paris, she needs the people of the country she leaves behind to still care for her enough that the government will have to as well. It is politics and she hates it, but if it will help her future with Vasily if she goes down that rote, she is more than willing to do it. Kissinger will no doubt be unhappy about her changing nationalities, but even he cannot punish her if the public is on her side. Right?

 

As for money, it is always good to have. And since she has no idea how much Vasily has or how much of it he might be able to bring with him, it cannot hurt if she has even more, if she joins him. Paris in not a cheap place to live, she imagines.

 

However, that does not mean she have to enjoy the tournament. At least not on the inside while she acts politely on the outside. The defeat in her opponents’ eyes the moment they first spot her approaching their table is amusing for maybe the first two or three times before it quickly turns sour. It is yet another reminder that chess in the States is not chess in Europe, or some other parts of the world. Sure, there is enough people to keep their world alive and well, but not to give her the thrill of it. How can she appreciate a game when the person on the other side of the board has lost before the first piece is moved? At least she survived three moves against Vasily before that happened the first time she played against him.

 

And speaking of Vasily, it is hard for her to think of little else since Amsterdam. While she had felt that his affection for her runs deep even before, it was there that she had finally dared to name it as love. He might not have said the words yet, but she is still sure that he loves her. Most likely he wants to avoid putting any pressure on her by remaining silent, because a declaration of such feelings is not easily ignored or possible to take back.

 

On the long flight back home, Beth sits with a chess book in her hands for most of it, but only manages to read a few pages. Her mind is too preoccupied with other things to be able to absorb any chess theory, and her eyes stare blankly at the symbols of letters, numbers, chess boards, and pieces. She might as well be illiterate in that moment seeing how she can understand nothing of them.

 

Vasily Borgov, the World Champion of chess, with an imposing and at times intimidating outside and a warm and caring inside, loves her, Beth Harmon. It seems almost surreal, and that terrible voice that is Alice whispers of the cages men like to keep women in and that she should trust no one and promising that she will be all alone. But she has already been alone and without anyone to trust, and the two cages she has been in so far in her life has not been the making of men.

 

The first had been the making of Mrs Deardorff, who ruled Methuen in a way that would have made Beth into someone else if she had succeeded, and had taken chess away from her before she learned to hide her individuality better. The second was of her own making. Her spiral into addiction and how it had kept her from truly living for months and months. Men had abandoned her, but they had never trapped her. And Vasily, well, he is so anxious to keep her as free as possible it is starting to annoy her at times, even if she understands the rationale behind it. But she does not want to inspire logic in him anymore. She wants him to be so overcome with passion for her that he goes all the way. And while she does love to talk with him and get to know him better, that will not stop just because they have sex. If anything, she looks forward to finally having a good experience with pillow talk.

 

As for being alone, she has already been that too, and she never wants to go back to that hell. She has found reliable friends now as well as a potential future that promises a lot more happiness than strife with a good man. A man she can entrust herself to without fear of rejection. He might not have seen her at her very lowest, but he did see her in Paris. Stared right at her, into her very soul, and came away feeling sadness and compassion instead of pity or derision.

 

A man she respects.

 

A man she admires.

 

A man she loves.

 

The revelation is not so much a bolt of lightning from clear skies as an acknowledgement of something she has known to have grown steadily within her over a long time. It is not a dark room that with a flick of the switch is bathed in sudden light, but the slow change of night to day with all the hues of dawn and morning in-between. It has just taken her until now to realise it and see all the obvious signs for what they were.

 

Beth Harmon, orphaned twice over, chess prodigy still on the rise, lover of fashion, and much better at showing her need for support and acceptance now than she once was, loves Vasily Borgov.

 

It is surprisingly simple and terrifyingly complex at the same time.

 

Having been convinced she would have to wait to tell him until Venice in June, because her true feelings are on the top of the list of things she cannot include in a letter, she finds herself with the very best kind of news about a week after her return from Phoenix. There has been talk about the celebration of the Leiden Chess Club’s 75th anniversary for some time and the initial idea had been a match between Vasily, as the current World Champion, and Larsen, the top-rated non-Soviet player. But the latter had declined in the end, and the speculation was that he did not want to risk another embarrassing defeat against the former after their result in Belgrade. Instead, a match tournament had been organised, which will include four players that will play each other four times. Vasily is still included and after Luchenko had declined Mikhail Tal ended up being his fellow Soviet player. Armand, as the second highest rated after Larsen, is the third and the last is Dutch Grandmaster Jan Hein Donner, representing the Club.

 

But now it seems Armand has had to pull out, citing a personal matter, with only a month and a half to go and a letter has arrived to beg her to take his place. Her ranking has gone up a fair amount since Belgrade, but she is still only 8th, so she cannot help but wonder why the likes of Hort, Gligoric, or Najdorf were not asked. Or maybe they have been but could not accept on such short notice? Either way, it means close to three weeks in the same place as Vasily in April and May and she is not about to look a gift horse in the mouth. It also leaves her time for her planned visit to Jolene and Rick without having to change anything.

 

The letter containing her acceptance is written right away and then she takes the bus to the post office so she can get the right stamp for international mail, having nothing at home at the moment that will take it outside the US. She smiles the entire time, which earns her a strange look from the man at the counter, but it is of no consequence. Her happiness is too intense for it to be dimmed by anything or anyone. On the way back she stops at the supermarket where she runs into Harry and chats for a little while – mostly about his and Nancy’s wedding at the end of May to which she is invited - before she continues her journey home with two bags full of groceries, determined to try a more difficult but delicious sounding recipe that evening. She also decides to take on the expense of an international call once she has stowed every item away in the fridge or pantry, wanting to make sure Armand is well and has not pulled out due to something truly grievous.

 

“Allô” a feminine voice says on the other end.

 

“Emelie? This is Beth.”

 

“Good to hear from you, Beth. How are you?” her friend replies, switching over to English.

 

“Fine, thank you. But I just found out Armand has pulled out of the tournament in Leiden and got worried.”

 

“Ah, yes” Emelie say, her voice lowering and turning sad. “You see, his grandfather has just received a bad cancer diagnosis. The doctors think he only has a few weeks left to live and there is nothing they can do to help but give him some pills for the pain. He was the one who taught Armand to play chess and they have always been very close, so he’s taking it pretty hard and wants to be there with him until the end.”

 

“Oh. I’m so sorry. Please give him my condolences and let him know I’ll be thinking about you both. It must be difficult for you too, I imagine.”

 

“Yes. He is such a kind and loving old man and always accepted me fully despite being English. I hate that he’s leaving us and will miss out on our children.”

 

“You’re expecting?” Beth asks surprised.

 

“No. We haven’t talked much about it yet, but we do both want to have some at some point. And now they’ll only have the chance to meet their great grandmother on his father’s side in that generation and to be honest, she’s a stuck-up old biddy.”

 

An image of Mrs Deardorff as an old woman appears in Beth’s mind and she mentally gives her friend her full sympathy.

 

“Again, I’m truly sorry. I’ll simply hope to see you another time instead.”

 

“Yes. Unless it takes longer than expected I think he’ll want the distraction of the Olympiad later this year. You’ll be there, right?”

 

“Absolutely.”

 

Not knowing what else to talk about in the face of such a grave situation without coming across as flippant, Beth says goodbye not long after. And while she feels truly sorry for them, at the same time she cannot help wondering what it is like to have grandparents. For all she knows she might still have one or two, depending on what things look like on her birthfather’s side of the family. Alice always spoke of her own parents in the past tense, so she has always assumed they are dead. Luchenko is possibly the closest she will ever come, but to be honest, he feels more like an eccentric older uncle somehow. Maybe his strong friendship with Vasily despite the many years separating them makes it difficult for her to perceive him as part of the generation above.

 

Louisville is much the same, with only the season being different to the last time she was there. Jolene still has her little apartment while living almost fulltime with Rick, needing that sense of independence to handle being in a serious relationship. Having never been adopted, the concept of relying on someone other than herself remains new and must be handled with care. Rick gives her that space gladly, still a little in awe of his luck in gaining her affections, but always there when she needs or simply wants his closeness. In public he might be the intimidating lawyer, but in the confines of his home he is the soft and loving family man, even if he no longer has a wife and never had children.

 

The first time Beth had witnessed him coming home from work, the clash of his immaculate work attire with his grumblings over the stack of bills that had arrived had been jarring. Not to mention him then going over to her to kiss Jolene on the cheek after laughing about his own joke about suing the electric company for extortion. Luckily, she has long since got used to that period of contradictions before he sheds his suit jacket, takes off his tie, undoes the top two buttons of his shirt, and relaxes into his real persona. But during this visit she starts wondering what kind of habits Vasily has with his clothes and other little things. What does he do when he returns home after a tournament? And as hard as it is to picture the man without a suit on, even now, he could at the very least not sleep in them. Right?

 

“How was work, love?” Jolene asks Rick on the second day as he walks in through the front door, like the housewife she will never be.

 

“Brutal. That Monroe guy on the other team is a real stick in the mud. Wants us to go over everything again just because one of their arguments fell through on a technicality” he replies while he walks into the living room where Beth and Jolene sit and read.

 

“But you won’t let him, right” Jolene asks, looking up from her book on constitutional law and angles her head so he can reach to kiss her cheek.

 

“Not on my life. No, I’ll not have our client charged for hours of unnecessary work due to their mistake.”

 

“That’s my man. I left some food for you in the oven. Beth made some lovely pasta with meatballs and tomato sauce for dinner. Not a single thing came out of a tin.”

 

“Sounds tempting. Thanks love. And sorry I’m so late.”

 

Beth looks up over the edge of her chess book to see her friend and her beau sharing a look it almost feels indecent to witness. The goofy grin on Rick’s face, mirrored by Jolene’s smirk, heralds the not unusual second kiss, which is always a little more passionate, but never more than what would be deemed appropriate in front of their guest. Well, they do toe the line occasionally and are probably not whole aware of her presence in that moment, but she only drops her eyes back to an old game by Capablanca and raises the book enough to hide her smile.

 

She thinks that maybe she ought to play this game with Vasily when they meet in Leiden. They have only played through one of the legendary player’s games before, and under considerable time pressure, and she is eager to explore more chess of the past with him. His different style of playing makes those old games more interesting to her because he offers such a different perspective. In fact, she could probably listen to him talk chess for hours. His deep and steady voice has such a calming effect on her, and in contrast to her younger foolish self she now knows the value of his immense understanding of the game.

 

“I’m afraid I’ll have to go in tomorrow too” Rick says, recapturing her attention.

 

“But it’s Saturday and we are supposed to go for lunch at Mancinis” Jolene protests, frowning at him. “Beth’s only going to be here for so long.”

 

“And I’ll be joining you there at the booked time and spend an hour with you before I have to go back, which means you can have a girls’ day out around that, alright?”

 

“Sure. But you owe me a Saturday, got it.”

 

“I’m looking forward to when you’ll collect” he replies and waggles his eyebrows in a way that makes for one last magnificent clash with his still proper lawyer exterior of the full suit and tie before he goes into the kitchen to get his food.

 

“Want to go do some shopping then?” Jolene asks her once they are alone again. “Or has Europe spoiled you too much for such an American backwater like this?”

 

Beth tsks at her friend while she places her finger on the part of the page that shows the move she is currently analysing before looking up at her.

 

“I’m not that snobbish.”

 

“Could have fooled me with all those fancy dresses of yours, cracker.”

 

“If you’re so envious, just let Rick take you on a holiday and spoil you. You know he’d do it if given the chance. Paris is a lovely place in spring I’m told. Make use of that Saturday and make a whole weekend out of it.”

 

“Hm. You do make a half decent point. But first things first. Best get some shopping done here before I’ll allow myself to even contemplate getting corrupted.”

 

With Louisville being much larger than Lexington, there is much more on offer. They even have a shopping mall and Jolene drives them to Mall St. Matthews to spend some hours there before lunch. There is a proper department store which puts Ben Snyder to shame among many other shops, and she finds a nice pair of gold cufflinks in the men’s section she buys to gift Vasily. It is something he can easily use without anyone finding it strange and she wants to give him something he does not have to keep hidden. Something he can also easily take with him when he defects. There will be plenty of time for more personalised things in the future. Hopefully.

 

“And who are those for?” Jolene asks before she can start to think too closely about a possible failure, coming up beside her after she has pointed them out to the sales clerk behind the glass counter.

 

“I’ll tell you later.”

 

“Oh. Now I’m intrigued. Can’t be that Benny fellow if he still sticks to his, now what was it you called it… ah, yes, pirate shtick. Unless you’re helping him amass a treasure he can bury in Central Park.”

 

“More cowboy than pirate I’d say” she says flippantly, trying to hide her unease over talking about her fellow American chess player.

 

“Even less likely to be him then. Besides, you’re still not talking, right?”

 

“No, we’re not, and they’re definitely not for him, no” she says curtly, giving a meaningful glance at the clerk packing up her purchase for her, but slowly enough for her to guess that he is listening.

 

“Right. A walk in the park after lunch perhaps?”

 

“Sounds just the thing” she replies, unable to smile when it inevitably reminds her of all those therapeutic walks in the park with Townes in Moscow. Maybe Leiden has some nice parks to explore if she cannot convince Vasily to spend more than an hour at a time in her room?

 

Rick shows up right on time, almost jumping out of the taxi when it stops outside the Italian restaurant at the same time they arrive on foot but remembers himself at the last second and makes a more dignified exit. Out in public, he needs to act the lawyer, even when on lunch break. Jolene quickly raises one hand to hide her amusement but does not hide her smile when he leans in to press a kiss to her cheek. They booth ignore the scandalised looks a few passers-by give them.

 

“Had a good morning?” he asks.

 

“Very. Went over to St. Matthews and showed Beth what amazing shopping there’s to be found in the big city.”

 

“Oh. I thought she’d been to a few large places in Europe.”

 

“Yes, visiting all sorts of fancy boutiques” Jolene replies. “She needed some good American shopping before she goes back there in a few weeks.”

 

Beth spends most of their lunch talking about her tournaments in the east while Rick listens intently. It takes Jolene to remind them both that they are all supposed to eat for her to start in on her admittedly delicious pasta alla carbonara before it gets cold. Her friend has allowed the subject this time since she too enjoys listening to Beth’s personal experiences while finding chess in the abstract boring. Staying until the very last minute, Rick’s departure is as hasty as his arrival, but Beth and Jolene afford themselves dessert before leaving as well.

 

They head over to Cherokee Park and leaves their purchases in the trunk of the car. There they meander along the various paths in silence for a few minutes, just taking in the beautiful spring scenery and enjoying the sunny day before Jolene asks about what they had come there to talk about.

 

“So, who’s the lucky man then?”

 

“Do you remember what we talked about before I went to Moscow the first time?”

 

“We talked about a lot of things then, Beth. You’re gonna have to be a bit more specific.”

 

“About what happened in Paris.”

 

“What that French bitch did to you, you mean?”

 

An unexpected laughter bubbles up Beth’s throat. It is a very uncharitable description of Cleo, but still falls short of her own choice words. Maybe she ought to ask Arthur if he knows how to contact the Frenchwoman so she can apologise to her.

 

“I did that to myself” she replies and ignores her friend’s snort, “but, that’s part of it, yes. But I specifically mean what her presence ended up making me ruin for myself.”

 

“Some game with that Russian guy you went on to defeat in Moscow, right?” Jolene asks and then Beth can watch in real-time as the penny drops for her friend and her eyes widening in realisation. “Fuck me, Beth. You don’ mean… A Russian?”

 

“Yes. The World Champion of chess no less.”

 

“Wow, but you got yourself some high standards girl” she says and then breaks out in infectious laughter.

 

It takes a while for them both to calm down and the apprehension Beth has felt about this being harder due to Jolene’s lack of knowledge of the world of chess is exchanged for relief. It appears it has only made it less complex to explain it rather than more. Her friend can see it in the perspective of two people being in love rather than their titles and nationalities.

 

“He’s pretty great” she admits, “but him not only being Russian but also more or less an institution in chess by now makes things difficult.”

 

Jolene raises an eyebrow in question.

 

“Chess is kind of a big deal over there, in the Soviet Union. A huge deal in fact. He always has two KGB agents following him around when he’s at any tournament too far from Moscow.”

 

“I see. Makes it hard to get some quality time I’m guessing.”

 

A jogger appears up ahead rounding a turn in the path, which is lined with enough trees and undergrowth on both sides to make it qualify as a light forest. If Beth had not been aware before of how paranoid she is about the topic, she becomes so in that moment. The man barely looks at them while he passes, but she is still gripped with an irrational fear that he might be a Soviet spy and that it is utterly foolish to talk so openly about this with her friend.

 

“Hang on” she says and then remains quiet until they have walked far enough out into a more open area where she can be sure no one is close enough to hear and she can see anyone coming. Jolene looks at her with increasing worry but does not comment. “The KGB both is and isn’t a problem. They think Vasily’s trying to turn me to their side, so they won’t object to seeing us together. But it means we have to adapt our behaviour to keep them in that belief for as long as possible. But we also cannot let the relationship get out beyond that, since that would complicate things even more.”

 

“Damn. And I though me being with a white middleclass lawyer in Kentucky was trouble. I’ve got nothing on you. Cracker indeed” Jolene comments in an attempt at levity but links their arms together at the same time.

 

“But he has a plan. If all goes well, he’ll defect to France before his government finds out the truth.”

 

“Not here?”

 

Jolene seems surprised and Beth can hardly blame her when she had been the same at first. With her being a US citizen, it had appeared to be the obvious choice. True, a lot of his plan predates their first meeting even, but she had not thought switching destination would be that hard. But she quickly learned better.

 

“Because of the Cold War, him coming here would be too complicated.”

 

“Aren’t there lots of Russian dissidents here already though? I thought you met some of them after your win in Moscow.”

 

“Not ones who were so prominent as he is. Jolene, the top players over there are treated almost like royalty. The people adore them, and they are given many privileges. Vasily once told me that customs don’t even check their luggage most of the time when they leave or enter the country, only being asked for autographs instead. If he came here, it would be too political, and you can be sure there’d be plenty of politicians eager to parade him around. And they’d only be interested in him as a symbol and not care about him as a person and expect him to be at their beck and call. France, while still a part of the west for them, is much more neutral. Besides, he’s had a contact in their government for some time now. Someone who’s helping him prepare” she explains, trying to include all the points Vasily had brought up.

 

“And you’ll what? Join him there?”

 

“Yes. I love him” she replies without hesitancy, even if saying it out loud for the first time feels momentous.

 

A long breath leaves Jolene and her shoulders sag for a moment before she inhales and squares them again. Her friend with a spine made of steel is blessedly quick to re-emerge after the revelation.

 

“Seems I’ll actually have to let Rick take me on a few vacations to France then.”

 

Beth’s heart can barely take the warmth and love she feels in that moment. While it will not be the same as now, she will not have to pay the price she had feared for being with Vasily. She will still have all the friends that matters the most.

 

“We’d be delighted to have you” she replies, her mind somewhere in the future in that new home she now so desperately wants to find her way to.

 

Perhaps showing that she still needs some time to process this, Jolene changes the subject, and they talk about the resolution to the Chicago Seven trial for the rest of the walk. Everyone had been acquitted of most of the actual charges, but the judge had issued a record-breaking number of convictions of criminal contempt. And not only against the defendants but their attorneys as well. The sentences for those ranging from less than three month and all the way up to over four years. It is clear that that whole mess is not over yet.

 

Beth commiserates. Even if she finally knows for absolute sure where she wants to end up, things are still far from over.

 

Leiden might be the most beautiful place she has even been. At least the part she is in right now. In a way, it almost feels like traveling back in time when she walks along rivers, canals, and old houses with Vasily, the spring adding a lush green which is mixed with the various colourful stands selling tulips. It is the middle of the season for the beautiful flowers, and she looks at them longingly at first. He notices and whispers that he will buy her some in the future. With it only being the same morning as the opening ceremony, the day after their arrival, she has yet to tell him how she feels and that she intends to join him, so she does not say anything now either. It is not the right place for such intimate confessions seeing that they are not alone.

 

“I love it here” she says, leaning her head against his shoulder.

 

They walk arm in arm along one of the canals at present, a pleasant breeze in the air making their open light coats flutter a little, and admiring the architecture. It is so very European, Beth thinks with her American perspective. Vasily would probably chide her if she said such a thing out loud and give her a lesson on the various and very different styles found around his home continent, separated by both geography and time. He is a little of a history enthusiast and in contrast to her education in the States, he knows a whole lot about many other countries than his own.

 

“It is beautiful” he agrees. “The earliest recording of this place is from about twelve hundred years ago.”

 

Such a long time is entirely abstract to Beth. That far back her own country did not exist and would not do so for almost a millennium. And even so, it is still thousands of years from being the oldest civilisation in Europe or close by. Perhaps she ought to ask him to educate her some once they could start their lives together, seeing as she is going to become a European herself at some point. Hopefully.

 

“You are miles away, my dear.”

 

“Huh?” she asks inelegantly and looks up at him.

 

“Where did you go?” he asks, a wry smile twisting the corners of his mouth up just enough for her to see it and tilting his head.

 

“Thousands of years back” she replies, careful not to mention anything relating to their future while anyone might overhear. “It seems everything is so old here.”

 

“We’re the old world to you Americans, yes?”

 

“I guess so.”

 

“The grandparents to your rebellious teenager perhaps” he says, his smile turning teasing. “You know, they have a highly acclaimed university here. It is one of the reasons some of the architecture looks the way it does across town.”

 

“That so? Should we go and visit it before we leave then?”

 

Something pained passes over his face at that to her confusion and he turns away from her to look ahead. It is the look she has learned to associate with the restrictions the KGB has placed on him.

 

“They’d object to that?” she asks in a much quieter voice.

 

“Places with a lot of teachings that goes against their own are forbidden” he replies in a whisper, which she can barely hear over the boat with a loud motor that slowly approaches them from up ahead.

 

Seeing the opportunity this affords them to talk without being heard by the two agents tailing them, she takes a step in front of him, forcing him to stop so they stand face to face, and adjusting her arms to lay around his waist. The wind now comes from behind and blows some strands of red into her face and he quickly reaches up and pushes them away for her and then lets his hand remain there.

 

“Then you will return here when you are your own master” she says, the boat almost level with them, and nearly revealing herself prematurely by almost saying ‘we’ instead of ‘you’.

 

“Yes. I would like that” he replies while he lets his hands glide further into her hair before leaning down and kissing her with enough emotion her toes have time to curl in her boots despite it being brief. Damn that man and his kisses, always leaving her winded, dazed, or tearful. Lately also feeling loved.

 

“There are so many things I want to do when that day comes. Many of them with you if you want to” he says and caresses her cheeks with his thumbs, and it warms her heart to know that she will. But by now the boat has travelled too far to give them any further reliable cover. With her continued habit of not wearing lipstick when they meet, they can easily return to their former position with linked arms. They continue the walk and return to commenting on their surroundings while ignoring the flower stands, but Beth’s mind is mostly occupied with imagining them there another spring and the freedom they will then have to do as they please. Talk about whatever they want. Go wherever they want. Buy as many tulips as they want.

 

The opening ceremony is more or less as such affairs usually go. The main difference is that this time they are each given a small locally produced clay pot with a simple bouquet with local flowers in them as a gift. Of course, the flowers will be wilted long before the tournament is over, and Beth feels somewhat cheated that she is able to receive flowers from strangers and not from the man she loves. The brief frown she catches on his face while his eyes rests on the item in her hands reveals that he feels the same. She longs to give him a shrug and consoling smile, but all eyes are on them with the press still taking some photos, so she resolutely forces her gaze to move onward as if she is inspecting at all of her competitors.

 

There is a dinner held that evening for the four competitors, hosted by the Leiden Chess Club and where many of its members are present, which goes on for so long there is no chance for her and Vasily to meet without having to sacrifice precious sleep. They might be seated close enough to be able to talk, since the players are placed together at the head table, but there is no chance for them to say anything meaningful. All of the numerous men and few women around them seem especially in awe of having the World Champion present and keeps looking in their direction most of the night. And while there is mingling after the dessert, all the others are eager to get a chance to talk to them and all she can manage is a few longing glances his way and catching a handful of his in return.

 

The first round is held the next day and it is something of a surreal feeling to find out that they are playing at a local high school. An experience she had not anticipated to gain on this side of the Atlantic. Two tables have been set up on the stage in the auditorium and she gets to spend the next hours with her back against Vasily while she plays Tal, and he plays Donner. At least the hall is packed full and there is nothing to complain about the enthusiastic applause they receive when they enter the stage and move to their assigned seats.

 

Beth feels incredibly grateful to Vasily for thinking of warning her that Tal always uses his left hand when greeting people during their walk yesterday. Due to a congenial deformity he only has three fingers on his right one and prefers to draw as little attention to it as possible, and she can avoid any fumbling when they exchange the expected courtesies before sitting down. She can even avoid staring since she had surreptitiously glanced that way during last night’s dinner. He had had no trouble due to his hand, though, which really ought to come as no surprise since that is the way he has done things all his life, and she had felt a little silly for having thought otherwise. But she had been impressed when he seated himself at the piano placed in the hotel’s banquet hall, where the dinner was held, and proved himself to be highly proficient. She had had to blink away a few tears before his performance was over, since his skill and feeling in playing had reminded her so much of Alma it hurt. Even so, it is very encouraging to see someone be able to overcome what most people would think of as a difficulty to such an amazing degree. It gives her even more hope that she will be able to continue to battle her own addictions successfully.

 

As a player, Tal is very interesting. She remembers Najdorf’s comment in Belgrade about his frequent sacrifices, and it seems he truly does not shy away from them. It makes her constantly second-guess her own moves at first, thinking she must be missing whatever strategy he has and the game ends in a draw as a result. And with the lingering jetlag combining with those mental gymnastics, she comes down with a headache that evening and excuses herself early from a dinner with her three competitors in the hotel restaurant. Vasily gives her a worried look and it does not come as a great surprise when he knocks on her door much earlier than he usually does, no doubt not wanting to risk arriving when she is already asleep due to an early bedtime.

 

“How are you, lyubimaya?” he asks as soon as he is inside and the door has been closed.

 

“Feeling like I need to sleep twenty-four hours to be honest. I’m sorry, but I’m simply not up to anything tonight” she replies through the heaviness that sits like a tight helmet on her head, pressing in on all sides and making it difficult to think.

 

“They should have ended the dinner much earlier yesterday” he says. “I feel more tired than usual too and ended up with a draw today. I think we both need to go to bed early.”

 

“Yes” she agrees, but then contradicts herself by stepping closer to him in search of comfort.

 

His arms go around her without hesitation and she snuggles in against his neck where she takes a few deep breaths to inhale as much of his scent as possible. It is always so soothing to her, and she hates that he has to leave her soon. Despite it being an old building, they have proper thresholds here, meaning he cannot repeat what he did in Amsterdam and leave her asleep and able to lock the door on his way out without robbing her of the key.

 

“Can we spend the morning and lunch together tomorrow instead? Take a walk and then find some nice restaurant to eat at?” she asks after a few minutes of silence.

 

“That sounds like a very good idea. We can meet in that small park we saw yesterday on our way back.”

 

She only nods against him, then takes a deep breath before leaning back, mourning the loss of contact as his arms fall away from her when he puts up no resistance to the separation. When still concerned blue eyes travels her face, looking for any reason she might be suffering from more than normal fatigue, the confession she has been carrying for some time now is at the tip of her tongue, but she does not want to make it just before he has to leave. Instead, she swallows it down and goes in for a light kiss, trying to convey some of what she feels through the brief contact.

 

“Until tomorrow then” he says softly when he stands with his hand on the doorhandle a minute later. “Goodnight, lyubimaya.”

 

“Goodnight” she whispers back, wanting to ask him to stay and hold her as she falls asleep but knowing better.

 

But soon, she promises herself. Soon she will have him in her bed. She must, or she might just go crazy for real. She knows his mind and soul well enough by now to love him dearly. Only his body remains to be discovered.

 

It is an arduous affair to get ready for bed, but in the end, she can crawl down under the blanket and let her head rest on the comfortable pillow on one side of the bed. It is a room with a truly impressive double bed they have provided her with, which must surely be a sign. And as she falls asleep the other half of the bed does not feel empty at all. More like a promise.

 

Next morning, she wakes up feeling rested. Tal’s tactics no longer feel as daunting, and her mind seems to mostly have caught up with the local definition of day and night. A shower further helps her mind to sharpen back into its usual state and she is buzzing with anticipation while she dresses for her outing.

 

Eager to present him with her gift she puts the small box in her handbag before leaving her room. There is a desire to see him wearing them as soon as possible and very preferably the next time he comes to her room. However, since she is unsure if she ought to hand it over where his handlers can see or not, she will wait for a moment when he can make that decision.

 

It presents itself when they settle on a restaurant to eat at. It looks like a family run business with a cosy atmosphere and limited but promising menu, but with more than enough tables for them to blend into the crowd. As an added bonus, there are already many guests inside with none of the three still unoccupied tables next to each other, meaning they will get some privacy with two tables between them and his shadows.

 

They both ask for whatever the chef recommends, not wanting to waste their precious time on trying to decide since the menu is entirely in Dutch, and water to go with it. When the waiter has left them, she is about to reach for her bag to get his gift when he pulls what so clearly is a jewellery box from one of his pockets and pushes it across the table.

 

“For you, lyubimaya.”

 

Finding herself speechless, she can only look at the black velvet exterior of the box while slowly reaching out a hand to let a single finger glide over the soft surface. It reminds her of the couch at Luchenko’s house, as well as the couch she will insist on them having in their bedroom. When she feels the blush spread on her cheeks, she looks up at him. There is a look on his face she is sure means love, but this is not the place to either ask about or admit such things no matter how much she wants to.

 

“Go on. Open it.”

 

She works the lid open before her eyes fall back down, only to widen. It is a long and delicate golden chain with a black pendant in in some kind of stone, in the form of a king.

 

“So you can keep me close when we are apart” he says and it is so close to the topic she thought neither of them would approach here it makes her choke on her feelings.

 

“I love it” she manages to say eventually, but looks at him instead of the gift, following him in toeing the line, and getting the privilege to see him blink twice rapidly with a stunned look on his face before a slow smile spreads across it. “I will wear it always.”

 

The cufflinks bought at a department store now seems terribly inadequate and she resolves to get him something better as soon as possible, even if it is more complex for him to get something so personalised. Still, he is genuinely pleased with them and promises to wear them to their game in a few hours.

 

When they arrive on the stage in Rijnlands Lyceum’ auditorium she can see them glinting against the white of his shirt that is peeking out from his grey suit jacket. Her necklace is kept hidden since she does not want to share it with strangers, but by resting one hand against her chest, right between her breasts since the pendant rests snuggly in the valley between them, and giving him a meaningful look, she lets him know it is there. The fact that he understands her is only betrayed by his eyes as they take on a more intense look and the pupils widen, while everyone else probably misses his brief glance in that area. But it gives her an idea to use later, when they are alone.

 

Despite the tight rein on their emotions they both normally have, there is an undeniable charge between them now, even if they succeed in keeping their faces neutral. She can see his suppressed longing in the way his fingers linger on the white pieces after he moves them, as if wishing even an ounce of his heat can remain there when she might claim them. Her own is showing in that fraction of an inch extra she extends her fingers beyond what is necessary when reaching for her own, wanting to capture that heat and claim it for her own. It makes her more reckless than him, and in her desire to hunt him down and pin him to a corner, hers to do with as she pleases, she becomes blind to the way he is building up a stronger position than her.

 

After opting for the King’s Indian Defence, it does not take long before they are pushing pawns, with her trying to do so more aggressively in the hope to disrupt his defence, while also using some of her more powerful pieces to look for openings. They trade their dark-squared bishops but then she can barely believe her eyes when, only three moves later, he willingly offers her one of his rooks for her other bishop. He could have easily moved it out of the way of her attack but decides to move one of his knights instead. Beth does not hesitate to capture it, because when his second rook then avenges the first one she is still technically in the lead, with the exchange in her favour.

 

It only makes her all the more perplexed when yet another three moves later he offers her the other exchange in her favour, this time by capturing one of her knights with his remaining rook, which she can then easily claim with her own. It is so unlike how he has played against her before, and she starts to wonder what is going on. Not that he is not capable of turning a weaker position around with his renowned mastery of endgames, but this just seems wasteful.

 

Looking up at him, she finds him looking back in that familiar steady way. His face is set in a cast without any emotions, but she knows him better than that. She knows how to read him and can see the challenge in his eyes. He is definitely planning something, and she tries to get more of his pieces off the board before he can use them for that purpose, but he refuses to take her bait. It is much too late for her to do anything when she realises what exactly he is up to.

 

That white queen of his, which has been standing still near a corner for more than the last third of the game, is now utilised with devastating precision as he moves it across almost the entire board and places it right next to her black king. She would be forced to accept his sacrifice, as it is the only legal move, capturing it with her king. However, after that he will simply move in with his knight to take her rook and simultaneously put her in a royal fork from which there is no return for her.

 

It is a beautiful move, and she feels more honoured to have witnessed it so up close than she feels annoyed at having lost. Indeed, a truly impressive show of brilliance on his part and how can she ever be mad over something like that when his intellect is a large part of why she loves him.

 

But there is another level to the move only the two of them are aware of. She very much doubts he started the game with it in mind, but she is certain he has aimed for it for some time now. The questioning look in his eyes tells her so. He has placed the white queen, which they have both established is the piece representing her, out in a dangerous situation so that it might stand next to the black king, which represents him. And while the game is already a foregone conclusion by then, she could still have claimed it and taken it off the board before being cornered. Still separated them.

 

She does not.

 

Reaching out to offer her resignation, she tells him as much as she can without words and longs for the night to come so she might leave him in no doubt of her commitment. And when they exit the stage, that white queen and black king remain standing next to each other. Out in the open for everyone to see.

 

Having already decided to have dinner on their own that evening, they claim that they want to discuss their game when Donner asks if they should all eat together again after both games are over. Tal backs them up by claiming fatigue and wanting to eat in his room, and the Dutchman simply shrugs and expresses a desire to go out and eat at a local place he knows of instead.

 

They do end up talking mostly chess while still down in the public part of the hotel, only their gazes and occasional brushes of fingers hinting at the topic they both long for. But with the advantage they have by all four players having been placed on the same floor they can go up together as soon as dessert is finished without raising any eyebrows and then disappear into her room since the hallway is deserted. And this time there is no tiredness or headaches to put a stop to their passion. In fact, half the buttons on her blouse are undone before he recollects himself and lets go of her, somehow managing to put a bit of space between their heated bodies.

 

“Vasily” she says gently and reaches out and places a hand on his cheek. “I don’t want to hold back any longer. I want all of you.”

 

She pauses and looks him squarely in the eyes, finding the same longing there that she feels, along with that warmth she has named love. This is it. She does not want to wait any longer to let him know her heart. And she has already told him in every other way than with words.

 

“I love you.”

 

There is acceptance in his expression.

 

“I love you” he repeats the words back to her, but somehow also making them entirely his own.

 

Those three little words spoken out loud fills that emptiness between them and feels like a warm embrace and hit to her solar plexus at the same time. Three words that caries the weight of the world yet makes her feel light as a feather. Three words she has been so starved of all her life that she sometimes wonders how she has survived all this time now that she hears them for the first time she can remember. Tears spring into her eyes and she can see a shift in his. He understands.

 

“My love” he says, voice so soft her heart aches. “My Beth. My heart and soul.”

 

“I love you so so much Vasily” she whispers, a tear escaping down the side of her face, but his thumb is there to catch it. To catch her.

 

Finding herself back in his embrace a second later she lets herself just be held. Allows herself to depend on him in this moment. It is not weakness that she shows by doing so, but the strength she has found in being able to rely on others. It had been a hard lesson to learn, and she had rebelled for so long against it, but now she would not trade the people closest to her, the ones she can entrust herself to, for anything.

 

“I’m joining you in Paris” she says after a few minutes.

 

“Thank you” is his only reply, respecting her choice and not trying to play noble or self-sacrificing by attempting to talk her out of it.

 

“But I’m still not sure if I want us to live in an apartment or a house” she offers.

 

“I had a feeling you would pick up on that question, but there is still a lot of time for us to make such decisions. No need to rush into anything like that. I will get help from my contact to acquire either one some time after I have arrived, but for the initial period after my defection I will have to live hidden. Wait for the worst of the backlash to blow over.”

 

“For how long?”

 

“It depends on how the Kremlin reacts, so it could be anything from a few weeks to a few months, I guess. But if it ends up taking a long time, I will ask that you will be allowed to come and visit me.”

 

“Only visit?” she asks, frowning into the collar of his suit.

 

“To start with. I have been promised to be given citizenship quickly so as to uncomplicate my ability to play the World Championship match, and once that is over and you and I have played that match, we will get you there more permanently.”

 

“You don’t think they simply want to lay claim to having a chess World Champion before I take the title from you?”

 

She can feel the rumble of his almost silent little chuckle and smiles, pleased at having caused it. And now that she knows for as sure as she can while he still remains on the other side of the Iron Curtain that they will have all the time in the world at some point she dares to imagine more repeats of it than she could ever count. Maybe even make it an everyday occurrence. She also promises herself to make him laugh fully and without restraint once he is free, longing to see him so lost in happiness he forgets himself.

 

“If there is one person I would not mind losing my title to, it is you, lyubimaya. You would carry it with much greater style than I ever have.”

 

“Vasily” she says, suddenly serious again, and leans back enough so she can see his face. “When exactly do you plan to defect?”

 

“Whenever I can find a tournament outside the USSR I will be allowed to go to while you will not be there. I do not want you anywhere near when I defect since my handlers might take it onto themselves to involve you if they cannot get a hold of me. The likeliest opportunity for this would be during one of your Candidates games next year.”

 

“You speak as if I have already qualified from the Interzonal.”

 

“And you spoke as if it is a sure thing that you will win the title, my love.”

 

The utter joy of those little words washes over her again and she takes a few seconds to simply absorb them before she replies.

 

“Fair enough. But can you wait that long? How long will they give you with trying to recruit me before they do something on their own?”

 

A long sigh leaves him, and she knows it is a topic that weighs heavily on him and almost feel sorry for bringing it up. But it is an important one and to ignore it would be foolish. Now that she is all in, she needs to know what is going on, because it will affect her too.

 

“They have started to question my effectiveness lately, saying I am not making enough progress” he confesses and lets go of her and takes a step back. “They want me to…”

 

He trails off but she is sure she knows the answer.

 

“They want you to get me into bed.”

 

“To put it bluntly, yes.”

 

“You know I’m willing.”

 

“Yes, I know.”

 

“Then what’s stopping you?”

 

It hurts when he turns away from her, but the pained look on his face softens the blow and makes her understand. This is not about him not desiring her, but him being so starved for affection and intimacy that he is uncertain how to approach it. Closing the gap between them again, she quickly undoes the buttons of his suit jacket so she can slip her hands inside, letting them caress his sides and back. His hands rise as if wanting to stop her, but freeze midway, and when she looks up, she sees that his eyes are closed. Pain and contentment fight for control of his features.

 

“You deserve this” she says, hoping she is not overstepping. “I want you more than anything. I don’t care if you’re the worst lover in the history of mankind, I’ll still enjoy it more than anything since it’s you. Do you understand that Vasily? You have nothing to prove to me. You love me and that is all I need to be happy. And so what if it hastens your plans. I don’t want you to defect while I play a Candidates Match anyway. The worry I’d feel would risk ruining my victory.”

 

His eyes snap open at that last part.

 

“I had not considered that. But you are right. I still do not want you near when it happens, but yes, I think an earlier date might be advantageous. Maybe during the next IBM tournament. It would place me at an easy distance from France, but they might not like me going there without you.”

 

“Then we will give them reason to” she says after an idea hits her. “They are no doubt keeping some tabs on me, so what if I start to act as if I’m putting my things together in preparation of leaving the country?”

 

“Then they would definitely know you were in on it when I defect if so” he replies and despite the help it might provide them now, it is of no comfort to get it so unceremoniously confirmed that she is indeed being watched by his government to some level. Assuming is not the same as knowing. At least Kissinger’s patronage should keep her safe for now.

 

“As if they wouldn’t get it anyway. They’re not stupid.”

 

“Sadly not.”

 

They simply stand there just looking at each other for a while, letting the reality of what they plan to do sink in, along with the fact that it is less than ten months into the future. If all goes well, he will be in Paris by this time next year and so might she. It is a heady thought.

 

“Monday” he says eventually, breaking the silence. “Will you give me until Monday? There are no games then for us unless either of us has to adjourn tomorrow and I will be yours for the entire day.”

 

“Monday” she agrees, her hands still resting against his sides. His rise up to her cheeks to cup them before leaning in and kissing her.  There is still a small level of restraint in him, but its days are numbered now.

 

When Monday comes, Vasily arrives at her room after breakfast, carrying his own travel chess set and a book. She gives them a dirty look, but it only elicits that same little chuckle in him she had felt the other day.

 

“I said I would give you all day, lyubimaya, but I doubt either of us has the stamina to spend all of it in bed.”

 

It is an infuriatingly reasonable point, but at least he takes off his tie in preparation of a comfortable day as soon as he has placed his pack on the coffee table, mollifying her. And they do have the whole day, with room service just a call away, so she can be content to let him go about his business for a while, simply enjoying his company, before she insists on more. Not that she is above giving him some inducement to act sooner, since there is that challenge in his eyes, as if he is daring her to give in and beg. Two can play at that game.

 

He settles himself with his book in one of the two armchairs while she opts to place herself with one of her own and a set in bed. Lying on her front with her feet towards the headboard so she is facing him, she gives him a view of her cleavage through the top three buttons of her blouse she has deliberately left open.

 

As it turns out, she ends up being more distracted by his presence than the other way around. Every time she glances up at him, his eyes are firmly on the book he rests on his crossed legs with a thoughtful expression on his face. One hour passes by in such a fashion and she starts to grow weary with what is either his self-control or him having ended up getting cold feet. She ought to be able to do something about either.

 

Deciding to become a little more proactive, she starts another game and moves the pieces with more force and manages to make the felted bottoms sound louder against the wooden board than normal. Making an irregular rhythm out of it, she hopes to break his tranquillity and force him to react to her. After the tenth move she can feel the heat of his gaze on her and when a small but still satisfied smile escapes her, he breaks the silence.

 

Beth.”

 

There is a smoothness in his tone that sends chills all over her body and she hopes her gasp is less noticeable than her blush.

 

“Mhm?” she replies, eyes on her board, afraid her voice will not carry if she tries actual words.

 

“Are you feeling… neglected.”

 

Chills break out all over now. How can such a stoic man be so sexy and work her up with nothing more than a few words? This was supposed to be her seducing him.

 

There is still nothing in his face, except that challenge in his eyes, to back up the tone of voice he had just used, or the undoubtedly deliberate emphasis on the last word. Then she notices something that is not quite as usual. His lips are pressed just a tiny bit closer together than normal. He is trying not to smile.

 

Getting up from the bed she walks over to him. Slowly. His beautiful blue eyes follow her, but the rest of him remains perfectly still. She does not stop until her knees bump into his crossed legs and then slowly reaches out, giving him every opportunity to stop her if he wishes, and takes the book from him. He lets her.

 

Leaving it open and face down on the coffee table, so she avoids losing his spot, she then steels herself with a deep breath and moves forward again, placing herself astride his legs. Not until she rubs herself against him does he move, his hands shooting out to grab her thighs and still the motion.

 

“So little patience” he admonishes her.

 

“Only with you around” she replies before leaning in and kissing him.

 

He lets her.

 

When she comes up for air, he remains still, even if his chest is heaving more noticeably, like her own, and his hold on her has tightened.

 

“Please give in” she begs and goes so far as to pout at him.

 

“To what exactly?” he asks, as if he does not already know. As if he had not already promised her that very thing. As if he does not long for the same.

 

“I want to feel you, Vasily. All of you. Both on me and in me.”

 

“Do you now?” he replies and then uses the grip he still has on her to draw her in closer.

 

The friction against her core, with only her underwear for protection, since her skirt have hiked up indecently and her deliberately wearing stockings rather than tights, is enough for her to whimper. An electrical pulse shoots straight up along her spine from her core, frazzling her nerves, and she slumps against his solid chest, her body unequal to carry the mounting tension. The chuckle she hears from him, so close to her ear, is deliciously deep and reverberates somewhere wonderfully close to her heart.

 

“You truly do not want to wait I take it.”

 

“I don’t think I can. Not now. Now without combusting” she mumbles against his suit jacket.

 

“Hm. What to do, what to do” he ponders, but at the same time one of his hands glides along her thigh and down towards the juncture between her legs.

 

It sends little jitters through her body, but when he finally arrives and uses his thumb to stroke her sex, the soaked through flimsy fabric of her underwear the only thing separating them, she gasps, and her arms go up to take hold of him in order to steady herself. He does not let up, just keeps up the rubbing motion while his other hand keeps her in place, unable to press closer to him to demand more. The tension does build in her, but maddeningly slow and when did this all get so out of her hands and into his, quite literally? Her mind is too fragmented to come up with any clear answers, but she has a sneaking suspicion it was the way he said the word ‘neglected’. Well, she is not neglected any longer, so in the end this is really a win for her.

 

Not long after, he slips inside her underwear and locates her clit, taking full advantage of this new point on the map he is drawing of her and making she come. The swiftness of her release a testament to how much she has longed for this. Still leaning against him, the sound of his name as it leaves her is muted by his suit, but still enough to reach them both. She can feel when he bends his head down and lays it against hers, so his mouth is just by her ear.

 

“Next time I want to see your face when I make you come undone” he whispers and if she had not already reached ecstasy by then he would have pushed her over the edge with those words.

 

He moves his hand to her back then, starting to slowly stroke it and spreading her scent there no doubt even if he mostly uses his knuckles. It is a good thing she had not planned to wear that blouse to one of her games. Then again, his trousers are probably worse off, and she doubts he has as many of those as she has blouses and dresses.

 

After a few minutes of comfortable silence, she musters the strength to push herself back up into a sitting position, letting her hands stay against his shoulders even if she no longer needs the support. He tries to look sternly at her, but soon breaks out into one of his most expressive smiles so far.

 

“You are even more beautiful when you are this flushed and relaxed” he says and moves the hand on her back to her face to cradle her flushed cheek.

 

She quickly turns a little to the side so she can catch his thumb between her teeth, caressing it with her tongue before gently sucking and getting a taste of herself. His pupils widen and his bottom lip falls down enough to create a tiny gap and she knows she finally has him. Both logic and a strong mutual attraction has brought them to this moment, and she wants to savour it as much as possible.

 

“I’m just going to freshen up a bit” she says and gets back up on her feet, leaving him looking bewildered.

 

“Beth?” he asks and the note of longing in his voice almost has her resolve unravel right then and there. But she already has a plan, and she wants to see it through.

 

“Just give me a few minutes. I promise you you’ll like it” she says before sauntering over to the bathroom. Giving him a glance over her shoulder after opening the door, she sees him looking bemused, but also fond. She finds herself feeling the exact same thing when he picks his book back up, but his eyes remain fixed on one spot on the page, as if his mind is somewhere else entirely. She is curious to see what he will look like when she comes back out.

 

Standing in front of the mirror, she takes in her appearance. Eye makeup but no lipstick, clothes that are more comfortable and easy to get out of than elegant, and hair that is only styled for breakfast and not dinner or a game. There are only a few simple changes to be made and it is almost only eagerness that has her hands tremble slightly when she starts to undo the rest of the buttons on her blouse. There is an ounce of nerves, because this is a big step in their relationship and as much as she knows he will accept and love her no matter what happens between now and when he has to leave, she still wants it to be as near to perfection as is possible. She wants him to come away from this with a feeling of forever wanting more, because she is sure that is what she will do.

 

The skirt soon follows the blouse to form a puddle on the floor and she only checks over her eyeliner and applies a layer of lipstick before deeming herself presentable. Unlike when they are out in public, she feels free to leave as many marks on his body as she possibly can now that they have such a delightful amount of privacy.

 

Deciding to leave her stockings on, she only wears a lingerie set she bought just for this occasion in a boutique in Amsterdam, along with the necklace he gifted her. The black king that symbolises him rests against the lace of her bra and contrasts beautifully with the white material, competing with her hair and lips to be the focal point of her appearance while being the only option for her soul.

 

Her hand is a little unsteady when she grips the doorhandle, and she pauses long enough to take a deep breath to fortify her bravery before pushing it down and stepping over the threshold. His eyes carelessly glance up at her for just a moment before dropping back to the book, only for his entire being to freeze for a moment. When his gaze rises again, traveling slowly along her entire body, taking her in fully, she cannot help the triumphant smile that emerges. It doubles when he stops at the king and swallows hard. It is the first time he has been able actually see it on her.

 

“I’m ready” is all she says, but gives him a look that asks him if he is the same.

 

“Lyubimaya” is his only reply and the book falls forgotten to the floor as he rises to his feet and opens his arms in invitation.

 

It takes her two seconds to find herself in his embrace and be scorched by the passionate kiss they share. His hands, that she is so used to watch moving pieces across the board, are now splayed out over her near naked back and that along with the sensation of his suit against her front sends chill after chill through her body and she shudders against him. When their lips part, his start a journey down her cheek and jaw until he finds a spot just below her ear and she has to grip his shoulders tightly when her knees buckle.

 

“Careful” he whispers against her, and his breath against the cooled moistness he has left on her skin has her shivering. “Need support already?”

 

“Yes, please.”

 

His hands travel down her body until they reach her thighs where he takes hold of her so he can lift her up and help her wrap her legs around his waist. She locks her ankles together to make the position steadier and then takes advantage of the additional height it has given her by cupping his jaw, raising his face to hers and bend down to kiss him. It is such a novelty to be on top and she vows it will not be the last time that day.

 

“You are so beautiful, lyubimaya” he whispers and there is such love in his eyes that she would have started crying if he did not capture her lips once more and steals her breath away. That most intimate and wonderful of feelings is still so new to her it threatens to overwhelm her when she feels the force of it the most, but she takes comfort in the fact that she will be able to get used to it.

 

Not until she feels him lowering her does she realise he has moved them to the bed and the soft satin sheets make for a cool embrace for her heated skin. He rights himself and quickly divests himself of his suit jacket before she can protest.

 

“But I wanted to do that” she pouts and manoeuvres her way into a position so she stands on her knees in front of him and reaches out for the buttons on his no longer crisp shirt.

 

“Now, now. As much as I admire the view it provided me, you deprived me of the pleasure of unwrapping you, so this is only fair. You left me with no paper and only string” he says and gently works a finger in under the strap of her bra then peels it down over her shoulder and leans down and presses a kiss to where it has left a mark.

 

“Then I promise to give you the pleasure next time” she says and starts in on his shirt, happy he has already dealt with the tie himself since she only realises in that moment that she has no experience whatsoever in removing one. None of her three previous partners had ever been in the habit of such proper clothing.

 

Tugging his shirt out of his trousers after he nods his acquiescence, she soon has it open all the way and wastes no time in pushing up the undershirt and exploring him. He is surprisingly firm, and she realises the cut or style or whatever it is of his Soviet suits are not as flattering as they could be. She will have to make sure he buys himself a few tailormade ones as soon as their life in France begins. And they should be three-piece suits so he can walk around with a waistcoat instead of the jacket, since that is a look she finds highly attractive and would also make it a lot easier for her to admire his strong arms.

 

“I didn’t know you work out” slips out of her before she can catch what can easily be construed as an insult.

 

“I’ve kept up ever since my school days, but I must also confess to putting in some extra effort since Dima’s party” he confesses and takes hold of one of her hands in both of his and moves it so it lays over his heart. She can feel the accelerated but still steady rhythm of it against her palm and wants to make it go faster.

 

“One of the happiest days of my life” she says, remembering the understanding they reached while sitting in the half-darkness on a velvet coach, then moves their hands aside so she can reach to lean forward and place a kiss where they rested, smiling at the faint mark her lipstick leaves behind.

 

Not a minute later his shirts and socks lie on the floor and his suit trousers are in the process of joining them. He is as solid before her nearly fully undressed as he always is, never shying away and steadily looking back. It becomes her turn to sacrifice more garments and to her surprise he has no trouble working her bra and then he barely takes a moment to admire her bare chest before gently pushing her backwards until she lies on her back. He looks her over again and then slowly pulls her stockings off, one at a time, and the sensation of the flimsy material gliding along her skin is sinful enough to make her gasp. Her underwear soon follows, and pride fills her at the hunger that appears in his eyes as he sees her fully revealed and takes his time to take note  of every last inch of her body. Only after his eyes return to her own does he take off his own last piece before he crawls up in bed and places himself on all fours above her, the position electrifying her.

 

With the windows facing southwest, there is a warm light in the room now that they are approaching midday, the sun not yet shining directly at them yet still providing all the illumination they need. She can see a few dust particles lazily floating in the almost motionless air currents between them, adding a sense of magic to the otherwise still moment as their souls connect in preparation for the union of their flesh. Her breathing is slow and measured through her parted lips, knowing she would be overwhelmed if she breathes through her nose now when he is so close and his scent is all around her. Her body feels heavy as if he was already lying down on top of her, anchoring her with his weight and gaze, but at the same time light as a feather, as if she would float away if he did not surround her. For every moment that pass, the world around them grows more and more narrow until nothing else exist. There is no complicated global politics. No Cold War. No KGB. No plans. No tournament. No one else. Nothing else. Only them.

 

That is when she reaches up for him at the same time that he lowers his body and skin meets skin all the way from their toes to their lips. Her hands are on his back, gliding up his sides, caressing his neck, and diving into his hair and at all times pressing them closer together. One of her legs pulls free from under him so she can entangle it with his, holding him to her there as well. She thinks she has never truly understood greed until that moment.

 

His lips start to explore her body again, this time going further down, accelerating her breathing and when his mouth reaches her breasts it stutters. He stays between them at first, raising one hand to gently caress the king he has left on her, and she can feel the reverence in his touch, before he explores her two mounds, taking a nipple in his mouth and folding his tongue around it before sucking lightly. She bucks against him, the tension in her body soaring to new heights, but his solid presence keeping her from letting go too soon.

 

“Vasily” she breaths and tugs a little on his hair to get his attention.

 

“Lyubimaya?”

 

“I… I need all of you now, before I can’t hold on any longer. We have hours yet to take our time.”

 

He looks her in the eyes for a few long moments, making sure this is truly what she wants and not just a lust fuelled impulse, before he acquiesces. Switching over his weight to one arm again he reaches down and presses a finger in between her folds, making sure she is wet enough before parting her legs further. She can feel him clearly against her now, the smooth hardness rubbing against her in order to share her wetness before pressing inside.

 

At first, she cannot breathe when he slowly enters her. He is wide, but not uncomfortably so, and she can hardly believe how right it feels. This is a moment her body has waited years for without her knowing it and it is like coming home, because to her he is home now. When he is all the way inside, he gives her a little time to adjust and takes the opportunity to cup her cheek with one hand and bend down to kiss her. And then, with just enough space between them for their eyes to connect without feeling any strain, he whispers the three most beautiful words in the world.

 

“I love you.”

 

When he starts moving she is overwhelmed with sensations. The bond between them flares with their emotional and physical connection and she knows that once the heat has calmed down, hardened and unbreakable steel will be what remains. Their hearts have been traded and there is no going back. Only an insatiable desire to go forward together.

 

It is not the first time in her life she has felt overwhelmed, but this time there are no pills and no alcohol or drugs she needs to run to in search of shelter. Someplace to hide. No, now she has something infinitely better and more reliable in the solid form of the man she loves and is being loved by. And when the feel of him threatens to become too much she can simply cling to him and take some of his steadiness for her own. It is not stealing when he gives it freely.

 

The friction heats up her blood to near boiling and sends electricity down her every nerve, building and tightening the tension in her to ever loftier heights and at such an altitude she is soon gasping for breath. Apart from the occasional dip to kiss her lips, her jaw, her throat, or her shoulder, Vasily holds her steady with his loving eyes. Who knew blue could burn with such heat?

 

Her back arches up against him when he strikes against an extra sensitive spot deep inside of her and she closes her eyes momentarily to better see the sparks it ignites. She is torn between spurring him on by continuing to meet each of his thrusts with one of her own and simply cling to him. To devour the safety and comfort his nearness brings her, because she still has a deep hunger for such things. But the burning passion of their joining is blazing too hot to ignore and she feels as if she will be forever lost if they do not reach the white crescendo at the end and spurs her body on in the wonderful effort to get there.

 

Her own gaze meets his head on most of the time, but sometimes something else catches her attention. It is the movement of his shoulders, the muscles working in his strong arms, the smile pushing to make its way through his concentration, or any other little piece that makes up the whole of this precious moment. It is a strange thing to feel so seen by as well as connected to another person. It is not her lack of clothes that has left her bare to him, but just as she feels no need to hide her body, she also welcomes him into her soul.

 

When the end finally arrives and he sends her into a euphoric high the likes of which she has never felt before she does not fear falling apart because he is right there, ready to put her back together. She knows she will be more whole after he has done so than she has ever been before.

 

He pulls out just before he too comes not long after, his seed staining the sheets while a guttural sound leaves his throat before her name comes sailing out on his next exhale. Seconds later, he collapses against her, but she welcomes the weight, never wanting to be parted from him ever again. Both tears and laughter lurk behind her contented exhaustion, and the feeling of heavy weightlessness returns.

 

A few minutes later he takes hold of her and turns them over, so she lies on top of him, and she smiles at the recollection of her earlier promise to herself. Not that this is what she had had in mind then, but she is at least higher up and there is still plenty of time for the both of them to give and receive everything they could possibly want or need from the other. Right now, however, they are both too tired from their high climb and long tumble to seek anything more, and are fully content to simply enjoy this calm nearness.

 

One of his hands finds its way to her back where his fingers trace the squares of a board on her skin while the other finds one of her own, entwining their fingers. The steady rise and fall of his chest beneath her is alluringly soothing and soon her eyelids start to feel heavy.

 

“Vasily” she mumbles, not having anything particular to say but wanting to hear the sound of his voice.

 

“Please, call me Vasya.”

 

That makes her more alert, and she manages to gather enough energy to raise her head so she can see him properly.

 

“Dmitry calls you that.”

 

“And my mother before him. Along with a few other people along the way.”

 

“Your wife?” she cannot help but ask.

 

“Not my former wife, no. We never got close enough to afford such things. It is a name I prefer to reserve for those who mean the most to me. And I can see no reason to delay giving you that right now that we have come so far together. I love you, Beth, and I do not want to keep anything from you any longer.”

 

“Vasya” she says, trying it out and finding she likes it. A lot. It strengthens their bond even more, this piece of him he has given to so few and now included her in. The piece she had wished for some time ago but decided not to steal. To receive it as a gift instead makes it so much more profound.

 

The smile he gives her when she says it is everything.

 

Leiden apparently being a place for new experiences between them, they also have their first argument shortly after. With them intending to spend the entire day in her room her need for a cigarette has finally caught up with her and she reaches for the package on her nightstand without thought. She knows he does not smoke but he has made no comment when she has indulged in the habit when they are out walking or sit in a restaurant. Consequently, it takes her by surprise when he reaches over and snatches it from her lips before she has the chance to light it.

 

“No. Not in here” is all he says and tosses it away.

 

“What?!” she exclaims, astonished at his presumption.

 

“You know I do not smoke, Beth.”

 

“Yeah, but I’ve done it in your company before.”

 

“Only in places where the smoke can easily get away or a lot of other people do it too and I cannot escape it anyway. It is a vile thing, and I would be more than happy and grateful to see you stop.”

 

She tries to find any clue in his face to tell her that he is just joking, but he is dead serious. Glancing over at the cigarette that now lies forlornly on the floor over by one of the armchairs she huffs in annoyance, but then pulls out another one from the package and puts it between her lips, daring him to repeat his previous action.

 

“Beth” he says in a warning tone.

 

“What?!” she snaps. “This is my room and I want to smoke.”

 

“You do know it is bad for you, right?”

 

A shrug is all she gives in reply while reaching for the lighter again. The way her body is longing for the nicotine more and more by the minute by now makes her irritable and snappy, and why can he simply just not give her this? It is only one little cigarette, and she will be done in a few minutes. Would he rather have her leave the room for that time than have her near the entire day?

 

“Beth” he says again, this time more calmly and with a note of pleading, halting her anger before it can take root. “I am not going to try to force you to stop, but I do wish you would. It makes a lot of people sick or kills them. And the smell is terrible. Would you at least open a window and sit by it if you absolutely have to?”

 

Mollified by his more reasonable approach she relaxes and nods.

 

“Alright. But, if you don’t mind me asking, why is it that you don’t smoke? I’ve seen plenty of Soviets do it, so it can hardly be political.”

 

“Because it kills, Beth. As a young man in my early twenties I did start, but only a few months later it killed a king and I decided to stop. It took some time and a lot of determination, but I did manage it in the end.”

 

“Killed a king?” she asks, not knowing what he is talking about.

 

“King George the sixth of the United Kingdom. The father of their current queen. He was a heavy smoker and died due complications with his lungs. There was talk about lung cancer. I only found out about it because Larisa and I had just got engaged and her father was high up enough in the machinery to know more about it than that the king had simply died young.”

 

Looking at the white little stick after pulling it out of her mouth she feels a bit conflicted. Of course, she has heard some of the talk that tobacco is bad for your health, but she has not really cared. Alma had smoked and in some twisted way she had taken up the habit in honour of her then recently deceased mother. A way to feel less lonely. But Alma had admittedly done more than one thing that was bad for her health and now that Beth has an actual future to look forward to, maybe it is time she re-evaluates more things in her life than the pills and alcohol.

 

At the same time, the desire to drag that blissful smoke into her lungs aches inside of her, whispering seductively about how wonderful it will feel to give in. And she knows very well how difficult it can be to quit something that is strong enough to give her an addiction. She also knows how irritated and unfocused she usually becomes if she goes too long without a smoke, and subsequently a tournament is hardly the right place to try to do anything about it. But the knowledge that something that appears so innocent is enough to end the life of what she imagines must have been one of the most powerful and best protected men in the world - a literal king - is chilling.

 

“I promise to try to cut down at least. Once I’m back home. But I do need them now” she agrees to with a weary sigh. The thought of yet another battle to wage in her life weighing heavily on her shoulders, even if she now knows it is a good one.

 

“Yes. I imagine so. But if you want to wait until all of this is over and I have arrived in Paris, I will not complain, so long as you do not make me inhale that terrible smoke along with you more than absolutely necessary” he offers in return, his concern split between worrying what either continuing or quitting might do to her. “I do know that it works as a stress relief for many, and I think you will be in need of that for at least the next year. And after that I will be able to help you.”

 

“I’d like that” she says, relieved that their argument is at an end and that they have managed to reach such a good compromise. She has seen what might happen when people cannot do that. When they instead keep their anger and resentment bottled up until it either has them exploding or giving up. There is no way she will allow the two of them to go down that path. But it seems they are both rational enough to work things out amicably and she gives him a lingering kiss to show that she is happy with where they have ended up. “And in return, you’ll never pull one out of my mouth like that again. Deal?”

 

“Deal” he agrees, a slightly sheepish look appearing on his face, which she finds adorable. “And I apologise. I do believe I overreacted. However, while I do understand why you do it, I still dislike seeing you treat yourself in such a detrimental way.”

 

“I do believe you’re a much worse health freak than Jolene” she says, thinking of her friend who also likes to exercise a lot, but also indulges in some of the vices life has to offer, though with some moderation.

 

“Health freak?” he repeats slowly, clearly not familiar with the term.

 

“Means you’re obsessed with being healthy, dear. Oh, and I do look forward to you and Jolene meeting by the way. That’s going to be something to remember.”

 

“Hm. If you say so.”

 

“I do” she replies slyly and sends him a grin before crawling out of bed.

 

Pulling on a nightgown and securing it around her waist she walks over to the nearest window and opens it. It lets in a warm spring breeze and the sun has moved far enough now that it hits her face when she leans out over the frame. She closes her eyes and drags in a few lungfuls of the fresh air before she initiates the pollution and welcomes the calm it gives her.

 

“Oh, and Beth” she hears Vasya call to her. “I refuse to kiss you when your mouth tastes of smoke. You either eat something that will cover it or brush your teeth first.”

 

“As you wish, dear” she calls over her shoulder before giggling over how domestic this situation feels. Their very first argument out of the way and they are still going strong.

 

When only the butt of the cigarette remains, she carelessly stubs it out on the windowsill and tosses it out on the street below before returning to the bed. She is eager for a second round and Vasya is nothing but obliging. This time it is more about the physical aspect and less about the emotional level as she gets her wish and rides him. It makes her notice the very human elements of sex much clearer than she had before, when she was so entrenched in their love that it almost gave the whole wonderful thing a magical sheen. Now, she can see the perspiration that starts on his brow - and is no doubt present on her own too - and spreads to more parts of his body as they labour on in their love. The way he grits his teeth to stave of his own release when he approaches it faster than she does her own, the strain in their movements as energy runs low, the way his grip on her hips tightens as his impending climax pushes him closer towards instinct and makes him lose a bit of his gentleness, and how all five of her senses become engaged. It is a race against time, hoping to reach completion before exhaustion hits, and her thighs are burning with the effort by the time she comes. But as she lays panting on top of him in the aftermath, that burn lessens and she knows she will be stronger next time.

 

As soon as she has the breath for it, Beth laughs in delight after noticing the faint lines of her lipstick that can be found on various places on his body, but mostly on his chest, throat, and face. She doubts she has any left on her lips by now, and her tired mind has decided that such a fact is somehow hilarious. But it is a good laugh. An expression of pure happiness. Something that she has had cause for far too rarely in her life.

 

Arranging lunch becomes an interesting affair. They pull out the menu for room service from the drawer in her nightstand and look for what seems to be the largest dish on the menu, agreeing that ordering for two would be too risky. Even if he can hide during the delivery, the staff might still talk and if word reaches any of the reporters that Beth has company in her room things might get tricky when it is time for him to leave. They settle on a plate of Slavink with mashed potatoes and boiled vegetables, which is definitely Beth’s favourite Dutch dish, but also orders a big slice of Appeltaart for dessert.

 

Vasya stays in the bathroom while Beth handles the meal, both of them having thrown on enough clothes to be presentable, and then shares the food before returning to bed. This time for their very first, but not last, game of chess played in such a relaxed manner. And it is truly different to play as Beth and Vasya instead of Miss Harmon and Mr Borgov. They can take as much or little time as they want and try out variations just for the fun of it or out of curiosity. There are no stakes and no one to judge when either of them goes for a strategy that ultimately turns out detrimental. It also does not hurt that the winner gets to claim a kiss from the loser after each game, effectively rewarding them both.

 

It is both easier and harder to part after such a day spent together.

 

For their second game, Beth decides to be bold. She plays white and soon steers the game straight into an opening he is renowned for, wanting to challenge him on his home turf, so to say. He gives her a questioning look when he sees the direction she is taking them but then turns it into determination. While she has given him a potential advantage, she has also raised the stakes for him and lowered them for herself. Should he win after such a start no one will think it strange, but if she comes away victorious praise will be heaped upon her.

 

They castle on opposite sides, almost turning the board into a vortex as she presses the queenside and he the kingside, turning the pieces on an axis of sorts around the centre. But soon enough, the battle is fought all over the board when they both go all out, as if the passion of a few days ago is still alive and well between them and has made its way into their game too. They will spend the next free day together again, so in a way it can also be the mounting anticipation of that which has them pushing their pieces in such an intense dance.

 

However, helped by his expertise with the opening, Vasya’s still superior defence strategies pay off and he manages to close off the queenside with his pawns much more effectively than she can do to him on the kingside. And, on top of that, she really ought to have known better than to accept the rook he offers her in an exchange. She had remembered Najdorf’s words about Tal earlier but had somehow forgotten that he had also mentioned Vasya at the same time, warning about his sacrifices. The attempt to force him back into a more passive position with her knight had subsequently not ended the way she had hoped and there is little she can do to regain control after that, if she had ever truly had it to begin with.

 

By move 33, she pushes her queen up to check him, but knows it is in vain. His defence is too strong for her to dismantle, and it is not long before she has to retreat and watch as the rest of the game takes place in the area around her king, his black pieces moving ever closer. And when he sacrifices his knight to make her move her isolated pawn away from its position in front of her king, the last line of her own defence is stripped away, and she resigns after the next move.

 

But losing to him is no longer painful, and she simply stoves away what she has learned and promises to make good use of it in the future. And if there had been any hurt on her part it would have disappeared two days later when he spends a decadent amount of their time together offering comfort and worship with both words and touch. Telling her what a brave and marvellous game it had been while his hands coax sighs and moans out of her. She is quivering and pliant in his arms long before he enters her.

 

Learning her lesson, Beth plays to her strengths during their third game. Having studied his games for years by now, not to mention knowing him as a person intimately, she knows he prefers more streamlined positions, so she plays aggressively and complicates them as much as possible instead.

 

He tries to push back and punish her for her daring tactic, and for a while he manages to keep them on even footing. But even so, she feels in control the whole time and, before they have made it through 30 moves, she can see the opposite feeling start to appear in his eyes. He has begun to see the disadvantage she is manoeuvring him into and when she confidently retreats her knight not long after, after he has glanced at the clock and seen how much more time she has on top of everything else, there is a faint grimace that breaks through his façade. She thinks he might just have experienced what she did during their very first game. That feeling, close to conviction, that came over her that the game was already lost even if she had to play on.

 

That is when she swoops in with her bishop, almost crossing the entire board with it in a similar move that he had made with his queen earlier, though this time it is not enough to end the game. But it is only a matter of time now as she circles closer. The tell-tale agitation creeps into his movements as he feels the odds stack up high against him, but when he offers his hand in resignation, he is all calmness and smiles.

 

She is the one to offer unnecessary but still appreciated comfort their next day alone, while he still provides most of the worship. He whispers in her ear how cleverly she had turned the game to her advantage with only a few moves while he pushes in and out of her with slow strokes that soon has her begging for more. He ends his little monologue on her virtues as a chess player with an equally leisurely kiss before he lets them both to be swept away and drown in passion.

 

By the time the last round of games starts, it is already clear it will be either her or Vasya winning the whole thing. And it is good prize money too since the interested parties sponsoring the tournament are far from short on money. With the equivalent of 5000 dollars for the winner and 4000 for the runner up, and she is bound to get away with more than half the worth of her house no matter what. Even third and fourth place gets a more than respectable sum, but even if something very extraordinary happens neither Tal nor Donner will be able to catch up by now.

 

However, their fourth and last game ends up unlike anything she could ever have imagined. Vasya steers them into an extremely defensive opening, one she has never seen in any of the numerous books she has read, seemingly refusing to fight for control of the centre. Beth decides to try to wait him out and let him take the initiative in breaking the nonconfrontational strategy he has going rather than risk walking into some kind of trap.

 

It is not until the 26th move that he finally makes a more aggressive push and then, to everyone’s surprise, he actually makes a mistake on the 27th with his pawn to king 5. She is quick to push the advantage and the game is going in her favour after that point, forecasting an overall draw between them. And she truly ought to win. In fact, her position is eventually so good no one would question it if Vasya were to resign, and she is sure the only reason he continues is to let her play out her strategy and get a clean win.

 

But then she commits her own mistake, taking his queen when the opportunity arises before realising the vulnerable position her own is in. It falls to his pawn in the very next move and in one fell swoop she stares at a board where she has next to no chance to win. She even looks up at the ceiling and plays it all out, but finds nothing she can count on. The only way she can avoid losing is to force a draw by repetition, using her rook to corner his king over and over again and she feels humiliated having to do it. The victory was within her grasp, and she lost it all on her own. But that humiliation soon turns to frustration and anger at herself. She ought to be better than that. She is Beth fucking Harmon after all.

 

The only reason she eats dinner in the restaurant, asking the other three players to join her, is so that she will not risk ordering any alcohol with her food through room service. The volatile ire is simmering in her veins, throwing her back to the petulant girl she used to be, and she fears her resistance to her addictions will crumble along with her calm. Her foot is tapping away endlessly under the table and even if the sound of it is drowned out by the general noise of the crowded place, her three companions still shoot her questioning glances. She guesses it might have to do with the scowl she has a hard time pushing off her face and the way she keeps quiet despite being the one to bring them all together. Donner makes the most effort to get a conversation going, wisely keeping the topic away from chess as he brings up the subject of skiing, which is a pastime he is very fond of and takes him to the Alps every year. The topic of winter sports in general begins between the tree men, even if Vasya keeps half of his attention on her as she remains sullenly silent, afraid she will say something stupid if she opens her mouth. She has worked too hard to gain the respect she now enjoys to let it all go to waste in a moment of weakness.

 

When there is a knock on her door later that evening and she opens it to find Vasya standing on the other side she is not truly surprised. There is still concern in his gaze, but she still feels too raw over her mistake to be able to handle such things now, so she simply drags him inside, pushes him against the door to close it and attacks him. It is a mixture of passion and anger, her hands alternating between being open in caresses and fisted as she pounds against his body. He lets her.

 

“I’m so stupid” she spits out after a particularly unsatisfying and half-hearted hit against his shoulder. Because it is all such an inadequate outlet for her frustration since it is not his fault. It is her own.

 

“No” he says calmly and catches her hands in his own.

 

But she immediately tugs them free and turns around and walks further into her room, unable to let go of the destructive emotions swirling inside of her. She fists and flexes her hands over and over again, looking down at them as the traitors she feels they are right now, making that terrible move. As if her mind was not the real culprit and they merely did its bidding. A part of her just wants to scream, but the rest of her knows such a loud noise would be heard through the walls and attract unwanted attention.

 

When she feels his hand on her shoulder she spins around and slaps it away, glaring at him for daring to try to be understanding and comforting when all she wants is to tear the world down, and herself along with it. But her reprimand dies on her lips when she sees the furious passion in his eyes mere seconds before he goes in for a bruising kiss. There is none of his usual gentleness to be found as his lips press against hers and his tongue demands entrance. Her counterattack comes swiftly though, and her fingers show no mercy as they claw on first his suit jacket and then his shirt, needing some kind of outlet still.

 

In Amsterdam, she had not thought him the kind of man to take her against a wall, but now he proves her wrong. Her back hits the one next to the door to the bathroom, meaning they will avoid risking being overheard by anyone in the rooms on either side of hers. Her dress is hiked up all the way to her waist and her underwear lies in a ripped little heap on the floor, while his trousers rest around his ankles along with his boxers. A hiss leaves her as he pushes inside of her in one swift stroke and then sets up a near brutal rhythm that jostles her enough that she cannot form coherent thoughts. But that is just what she needs. To let go of her disappointment and self-recrimination and just be. All sensation and no mind. To entrust herself to him fully and forget everything else.

 

The memory of her mistake fades as the ecstasy she has discovered there in Leiden takes over and mounts and mount and mounts in her until she reaches that sweet breaking point. Only the initial notes of her scream are heard before he muffles her with a quick but gentle hand, ensuring that anyone who might have been close enough to hear could easily think they had imagined the sound.

 

Her body slump against him the moment the last strands of the high has ebbed out of her and she can both hear and feel that little chuckle of his as he catches her without effort. He slips out of her even if he is still hard and she whimpers at the loss but is too tired to do much else. The trek to the bed is a slow progress, what with him having to work his way out of his trousers first, but they do make it there uninjured in the end. He gently lays her down first, making sure she is comfortable, before joining her, but uses his hand to finish himself off while she watches in fascination.

 

“I could have done that for you” she pouts when he is done.

 

“We can save that for another time, lyubimaya. And I think you might be a bit too tired for anything more than just lying here right now.”

 

It is true. There is a heaviness in her limbs she is unaccustomed to. Most likely a result of the release of the negative tension that has been building in her body since their game. The anger and disappointment have not gone away fully but are more like a dull ache at the back of her head than the searing pain of before.

 

He turns on his side then and props his head up in his hand so he can regard her more easily, his free hand moving in slow caresses along the lines of her body. It is a comfort she is willing to accept now.

 

“You know, I made a similar mistake four years ago during the USSR Championship in a game against Dima. I had the upper hand after a long-fought battle and had his king more or less pinned down. All I had to do was to move my remaining knight to cut off his one remaining route of escape, but instead I went for his queen which was in the other direction. That ended in a draw too. And it is not the first time I have made such an error and likely not the last. It does not happen often, but it does happen, Beth. And yes, it will make you feel awful for a while, but there is no real shame in it. Simply a part of chess and something you will learn from. Just be happy like I was then that it was against someone who will not think less of you for it.”

 

“Still, I bet he teased you mercilessly after that.”

 

“Oh, he did. Though, never maliciously and he also played the game through with me to make sure I knew where I had gone wrong and to show me what would have happened if I had made the correct choice. He has never been fully capable of giving up on his role as my trainer and mentor. Not even after I took the title from him. We might not have time for the entire game now and I return home the morning after the prize ceremony so there is no other opportunity while we are still here sadly, but we can play through that last part if you want to.”

 

“Yes. I’d like that.”

 

He fetches her travel set from over on the coffee table then, completely unbothered about moving around in the nude in front of her and she happily takes advantage of this opportunity to study his physique in full, having only got a more closeup view before. He definitely has the muscle mass to back up his claim of being a very active person, but without making him bulky in that way she dislikes in body builders. There is more of a sense of endurance and grace in his movements than brute physical strength. And he is all hers.

 

They make their way under the blanket now that they are starting to cool down, with her pressed against his side and the board turned sideways and resting on his thighs. He quickly moves all the pieces into their correct positions a few moves before her mistake, relying only on memory, then invites her to repeat her 29th move to start them off. She already knows where she went wrong, but still feels grateful for being able to work it all through as is helps her let go of even more of her frustration over it. And it is downright cathartic when she gets to play the correct strategy all the way through and checkmate him. He makes a show of tipping his king over before offering her the kiss she has earned with her win.

 

Chapter Text

Dressed in a simple and modest wedding dress, Nancy looks radiant as she walks down the aisle on the arm of her proud looking father. Harry looks very dapper in a well-cut suit, perfectly ironed shirt, and red tie to match the classically red roses of his soon to be wife’s bouquet. He also looks about ready to burst with pride and joy. Beth sits a few rows back on the groom’s side, with Townes next to her as her partner for the day. Of course, it is impossible for her to bring the man she is in a romantic relationship with, and Harry does not even know about that part of her life yet. He, along with most people she knows will only find out after the defection since it would be too risky to let more people than those she relies on the most for emotional support in on the secret.

 

It is her first time back in a church as anything other than a tourist since Mr Shaibel’s funeral and she had been a little apprehensive ahead of the event because of it. However, the cheer of the day is more than enough to keep that memory at bay, and she is nothing but happy for her friend and the lovely young woman he has found to share his life with. With her pragmatic and sweet nature, Nancy is just what Harry needs and she feels sure domestic bliss will be the hallmark of their joint future.

 

It is also the first wedding she ever attends. Growing up with two separate mothers with a more or less non-existent social life and a long stint at an orphanage in-between, there had never been an occasion for it. And while she knew a lot of the girls she had attended the same classes as back in high school were married by now, she had not come away with any friends from that period of her life. No, Beth spent most of her time around chess players from all around the world, but apart from a few, she was not close enough to any of them for such an invitation. Not to mention that most of them were either already married or seemed to aim at lifelong bachelorhood.

 

Out of the friends she does have only a few were likely to have weddings of their own, with the twins sharing the top spot. Jolene might one day feel ready to marry Rick, or if life takes her in another direction with someone else, and consequently takes second place. Despite being friends with him for a few years now, Beth is still unsure about Arthur’s inclinations, but if it turns out that he prefers women she could see him tying the knot at some point. The same can be said about Hilton. Benny, on the other hand, will most likely need to find a very special someone in order to be persuaded to take that step. It is difficult to picture him with someone he would value about himself or chess, but not fully beyond the realm of possibility.

 

As for the man sitting next to her, she would have put him at the very top of the list if not for the prejudices of society making it impossible. The love between him and John is so obvious and pure, and she wonders how anyone could see them together and object. Maybe the world would be more understanding sometime in the future.

 

When it comes to herself, though, things get a bit more complicated. She has witnessed the collapse of two marriages in her life and after Mr Wheatly had abandoned Alma, she had thought she would never want to enter that supposedly elevated state the union of two people sanctioned by law constitutes. No, she had never wanted to be as reliant on a husband as Alma had been instead of making her own way and income and only enter a relationship more for the fun of it. But Vasya has changed that perspective. So long as it is him, she does not fear becoming a wife, because she knows he values her independence and sees her as his equal. They might have disagreements, but he will never belittle her, ignore her opinions, or try to push her down in an attempt to assert his own dominance. He would never ever see their marriage as a zero sum game, where he could only gain by taking from her or elevate her by diminishing himself.

 

Not that it could not be terribly amusing to see the moral outrage it might spark if she were to go off to France to live in sin with her communist lover, but it seems a stupid reason to avoid matrimony. Especially not when she imagines waking up next to him every day and being able to say ‘good morning, husband’ and be called wife by him in turn. Preferably in three different languages.

 

The ceremony is surprisingly beautiful, but even more so on its emotional level that the clothes or flowers, and Beth is especially moved when she sees the happy tears in Nancy’s eyes as she recites her wedding vows. She is more confused, however, when they exit the church, and she is given a handful or uncooked rice directly in her hand by who she thinks is the bride’s aunt, who walks around with a little basket full of the stuff. She glances at Townes in question, hoping for an explanation.

 

“We’re supposed to throw it at the couple when they come out” he replies.

 

“Why? Won’t that hurt them?” she asks, still bewildered.

 

“It’s a tradition. Just watch and see how the others do it and copy them. It’s quite simple.”

 

“Are there a lot of strange traditions like that?”

 

“A few. I’ll explain them to you as we go. They might not make use of them all.”

 

“Hm. Do different countries have different traditions?” she inquires, thinking that she would not want all of this fuss when it is her turn.

 

“Of course. Some countries are very similar, though. I can’t believe, for example, that France would be terribly different to us, but I could be wrong” he replies with a knowing grin.

 

Two traditions she really hopes are not part of a French wedding is the bouquet toss and garter toss. As one of the unmarried women present, she is ushered out onto the dance floor along with the others and supposed to want to catch the red roses Nancy tosses over her head towards hem. She keeps to the outside, careful to stay away from all the sharp elbows, and just waits for the spectacle to be over. As if wresting with a few other ladies over a few flowers would determine if she is next to get married or not. And she also swears that she will wear no garter to be tossed.

 

The food, however, is very good and there are more than enough choices when it comes to beverages for her to easily avoid anything with alcohol. The dancing is a lot of fun, even if one of Harry’s cousins is a bit too friendly and Townes comes and cuts in when she is too polite in trying to extricate herself, not wanting to cause a scene. He whirls her around with ease and has her laughing uproariously within a minute, completely forgetting about wandering hands. On the whole, she has a great day and falls asleep mere seconds after laying down in the bed in her friend’s guestroom.

 

Being the unquestionably better cook out of the two of them, Beth makes them breakfast the next morning, frying pancakes, while Townes is in charge of laying the table and finding the maple syrup he is sure should be somewhere in his crowded pantry. It is mostly things John has bought, because he is making more proper use of the space than the person who actually lives there.

 

“So, how was Leiden then? Apart from getting second place with a very small margin” Townes asks her after they have scarfed down most of the pancakes.

 

“Great” she replies, her mind going back to a few specific moments they had shared, most of which had taken place in her bed.

 

“Ah. That is a very smitten look you’re sporting there. Do I need to be worried? Has he defiled this sweet and innocent little maiden? Corrupted your pure thoughts with debauchery? Er… Plucked the proverbial flower?”

 

“Urgh. You’re terrible” she says, but grins back all the same. “But despite your ridiculous and mostly inaccurate analogies, yes, we’ve finally reached that part now.”

 

“Happy to hear it. You deserve as much joy as you can possibly get. And is he any good?”

 

“Townes!” she exclaims, somewhere between mock and genuine outrage. “That’s none of your business. You already have your own man. Hands off mine.”

 

She smiles as she is reminded of when she said something similar the first Christmas they spent together. Back then they had made her sad since she still had no idea that Vasya felt at least as strongly about her as she did about him, but now there is nothing but joy and satisfaction buzzing in her.

 

“If you say so. I had this great plan to write a more intimate expose on the current chess World Champion, but alas, seems I must make do with the boring stuff.”

 

At that point she cannot help but laugh at his absurdity and almost chokes on the gulp of orange juice she had hoped to get down before she had to make her next rebuttal. Sending a glare his way, she is only met with a kind of gleeful delight she thinks only an older brother would be able to produce. She picks up a paper napkin and dabs at the corners of her mouth, where a little orange liquid had dribbled out before she managed to swallow, further ruining her chances at getting away with righteous indignation.

 

“But Beth” he goes on before she can chastise him, suddenly looking serious. “You are taking precaution, aren’t you?”

 

“Precaution?” she asks.

 

“Yes, you know, so you don’t end up pregnant.”

 

She goes scarlet in the face at the thought of having to disclose such a thing, but is saved from having to reply.

 

“Yes. I’m assuming that you might have some trouble getting hold of either condoms or the pill as a young and unmarried woman here in Kentucky, but if he hasn’t brought any either, I could help you with the former. And Jolene sounds like the kind of person who could help you get in contact with a doctor who wouldn’t mind prescribing the latter for you. She is also in a relationship while unmarried, so I at least assume she would know how to get her hands on them. I don’t doubt what you feel for each other, but I doubt either of you would want a child as yet another factor in your current situation. And well, I’ve been told pulling out isn’t fully as safe as those other option. One of my colleagues swears by it, in fact.”

 

Townes has also gone a bit pink now and his gaze seems to be locked on his clasped hands in front of him on the table while his thumbs twiddle endlessly. It is clear he finds the topic equally mortifying but cares too much about her to let it just drop.

 

“I… I’ll keep that in mind. Thank you” she replies, already determined to talk to Jolene first. For, as much as she loves Townes as a friend, there are simply some things she will only feel comfortable discussing with a fellow woman. Or at least more comfortable.

 

Alma had given her a short talk about safe sex when she got home after that weekend she got to spend at those college kids’ place. But her first experience had been disappointing enough that she had not thought about repeating it and had soon forgotten the advice she had been given. Her one time with Harry had ended with him pulling out and while Benny had used a condom, she had not really thought about it or what it meant. She felt terribly naïve. But since Vasya had not brought it up, she had not reflected on it when she had been with him either.

 

The thought of a little mini Vasya, with dark hair, blue eyes, and red and chubby little cheeks, running around wherever they end up living is not an unwelcome mental image, but not something she feels remotely ready to deal with in reality at this point. They need to get settled in their new life before even starting to contemplate such things. At Methuen, they had preached abstinence to the older girls, warning them how improper and sinful any young woman was who did not save herself for her wedding night. It had also been taught as the main and best method at her high school, while the other options had only been mentioned briefly, but that is definitely off the cards. There is no way she will ever go back to not having sex with him now that they have finally started.

 

She calls Jolene the same evening and ends up making a short visit a few days later. Her friend takes her to a thankfully respectable looking little private clinic where she gets to meet a very respectable looking doctor. It is a man only a few years before 50, who looks at her with understanding instead of derision. She explains that she is in a committed relationship, but due to her partner’s busy work schedule for the next year, they are unable to tie the knot, but very much in love.

 

The note with the prescription on it is in her hand when she gets back out into the waiting room, where Jolene sits in one of the couches with a fashion magazine clearly aimed at white women. Beth is not surprised by the bemused expression on her friend’s face. They go straight to a pharmacy where Jolene assures her the staff is equally discreet, and by the time she packs her bags for the tournament in Venice, Beth truly has everything she needs for the journey. Including a small box she picked up at a specific store only the day before, the custom item she ordered not long after her return from Leiden finished just in the nick of time.

 

With them both arriving the day before the tournament starts, they allow themselves the luxury of spending the night together. He is pressing her against his chest and kissing her ravenously the moment they are alone in her room, and she melts into his arms with a contented sigh. This is her home.

 

And just as she had guessed at in Leiden, he is not shy about sating his hunger for her now that they have finally crossed that line and it takes them no more than a few minutes to divest themselves of every last shred of clothes. Only the black king is left on, resting snuggly between her breasts. His fingers and lips seem to be everywhere, and she does her best to respond in kind, eager to feel his warm skin beneath her hands again. She will never get enough of it or all the sensations they elicit in each other.

 

Their bliss is only broken when he tries to pull out of her but she refuses to let go, instead holding her legs around him, ankles crossed and locked together, even tighter. She wants to feel him come inside of her now that she knows it is safe, but in their haste to get to that point, she has forgotten to inform him.

 

“Beth” he grits out between clenched teeth, clearly trying to stave off his imminent release.

 

“It’s alright” she pants, “I’m… I’m on the pill now.”

 

The panic takes a few seconds longer to dissipate from him before understanding dawns and he allows himself to be sucked back into the moment and find his high. He only takes a few moments to gather himself before turning them over so she can ride him to her own completion.

 

“You could have told me” he says, carefully neutral, when she lies with her head on his shoulder not long after, one of his hands languidly tracing the contour of her spine.

 

“Sorry. Forgot” is she all she can manage in reply.

 

“I… I thought you did not have such things in America to be honest. The propaganda has always said you are so rabid in your religious beliefs that you would deny a woman her equal rights of deciding what happens with her body and that anything that might prevent pregnancy is forbidden. And since I do not dare trust anything I might get my hands on back home, since the KGB might sabotage it, I simply went for the old-fashioned way without asking. That was clearly presumptuous and stupid of me, and I am sorry.”

 

“We were both stupid about it” she says and waves away his protest with a lazy flap of her hand before letting it return to its former position on his chest. “But why would the KGB want to sabotage your protection? Wouldn’t that only complicate things?”

 

A heavy sigh leaves him, and she can feel how she sinks unusually low as the air leaves his lungs in such a huge quantity. Anything involving the KGB – apart from when he gets them to buy her chocolate and a card, of course – is a bad topic, but this time she cannot see their reasoning.

 

“If I get you pregnant it would be very close to a win win situation for them. It would give you a very good reason to want to defect, being promised a life with me in the USSR. Getting the family they are convinced that you crave, having been robbed of one for so much of your life, and be allowed to play some international chess. Though, never the USSR Championship, which would forever keep you from qualifying for the World Championship cycle. And if you would not defect, well, you would have a small child to take care off on your own and have no time for serious chess.”

 

“I have a family made out of a few great friends right now, but I do want one with you, somewhere in the future” she admits. “That is, if you would want one. I know how you feel, or rather don’t feel, about your son.”

 

“It would be different with you, though, lyubimaya. If we are indeed blessed with a child at some point in the future, I do not doubt I will be able to love him or her. But what I do know is that it is much too soon for us to discuss such things now. Once we are both in Paris, we can plan our future to our hearts’ content.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The tournament in Venice being placed in early June means it is still pleasantly warm rather than an oppressing heat. And with the worst of the tourist season yet to start, it allows them to explore the beautiful city in relative peace. They take full advantage of this, walking along the various streets and canals, crossing bridges, and admiring the old houses and their beautiful architecture. She buys some souvenirs to bring back home with her as gifts for her friends, a little ashamed she has not thought to do so before, but all those masks they sell to tourists are so beautiful the idea finally hits her.

 

All the while the two KGB agents trail a bit behind, giving them enough space for Vasya to, as they hopefully still assume, recruit her without the pressure of their presence being too noticeable and distracting. It is a little more leash than they have allowed before and Beth guesses they know that sex is now a part of the equation and that they are confident that Vasya must be getting closer to success. It is a heady feeling to be getting away with fooling the mighty KGB of all things, dangerous as it is.

 

She has her arm tucked around his and leans ever so slightly against him as they make their slow way around the city most mornings before the games in the afternoon. While chance is never out of the question, neither of them feel threatened enough by any of the other players to feel the need to read and practice on their own more than every other or third morning. Not that they do not go through games and strategies together, but it would be a lie to say that most of those games does not take place in bed while their minds are not at their sharpest. But until sometime next spring, the time they can spend together is too precious to not spend it together. The knowledge that it might be among the last opportunities they have to see each other is also at the back of both of their minds at increasing frequency and while they rarely talk about such a possibility it sometimes gives an urgency to their intimacy. Wanting to experience as much of each other as possible before it could potentially be too late.

 

Gentleman that he is, Vasya carries the paper bag with her gifts for her the morning she decides to turn their walk into a shopping excursion, but the one she has brought with her for him still remains in one of her bags at the hotel. It is a much more sentimental gift than the cufflinks and she wants to find a perfect moment to give it to him. Or rather remember to do it when they are alone together and not continue to lose herself in their games or his touch.

 

In the end, she persuades him to buy a gift together with her to give to Luchenko, choosing a mask painted in warm colours to go with his home. With what is to come, Beth is certain she will never be able to return to the place where one of the happiest moments of her life had taken place, courtesy of that adorable old grandmaster scheming to provide the necessary privacy to make it possible. Vasya only has a limited time to spend with his old friend remaining by now and she knows it is one of the steepest prices his plan demands of him. Depending on how severely the USSR will react, all contact between the two men might become forbidden.

 

Or the KGB would find out the truth in time to stop the defection altogether and she would be the one to lose him. To spend the rest of her life staring at the empty side of her bed, because how could anyone else ever fill it? How could anyone else than him move her heart to the degree it has now been moved? How could anyone else than him possibly ever feel like home?

 

She does love her life in Lexington and all the friends she has now, but she is already planning to leave at least the place behind for his sake. Would she not then be willing to do the same for the chance to spend her life with him even if it was in the land of the enemy. Maybe defect in exchange for a promise of the both of them being spared any retribution for the then failed plan. Then, they would be able to spend as much time as they wished with Dmitry, but all her other friends would be lost to her and that hurts a lot to think about. Just as losing him would hurt her beyond measure. She will simply have to hope never to be faced with such a choice.

 

“Beth?”

 

Looking up at her companion, she realises she has tightened her grip on him, but the fear of the possibility of being checkmated in this high-stake game Vasya is playing for the both of them is not easy to shake off. He sees her trembling smile for what it is and only nods before steering her towards the nearest distraction. The gelato he has already promised her truly is a wonder and far better than any ice cream she has tasted back home. Maybe they could make a yearly trip to Italy and enjoy it all, seeing how much closer it will be from Paris than Kentucky.

 

She has finished the top scoop of pistachio and started in on the pink sphere beneath when they find themselves with a few seconds to themselves after rounding a corner onto an empty walkway. Her progress is halted, however, when Vasya stops and gently pulls her in close and only a second later she gets to taste the chocolate and hazelnut flavour of the scoop he has just finished. She is sure he can taste the strawberry on her tongue.

 

It is another round-robin tournament, and they are scheduled to play on the second to last day. There is, however, another player from their shared past present, who is giving them some grief. Swedish player Alec Berglund seems to have rekindled some hope of wooing her since Paris and as she does not play him until the last day, she cannot give him the proper set down in time to stop him from trying to get her attention for almost the entirety of their time in Venice. He seems incapable of taking her barely polite manner in his company as discouragement and she is afraid of drawing attention to herself by causing a scene. Her ability to spend so much time with Vasya could become compromised in such a scenario. At least his room is two floors above her own and Vasya’s one below, meaning there is little risk of running into him outside the games and dinners.

 

It had been the second night when he made his first move. The first night had been a joint dinner for all the participants with the director and she had made sure to sit beside Vasya, while Hungarian player Lajos Portisch, who would be her second toughest opponent, ended up on her other. But having given themselves such public time together meant they had to wait a day or two before they could share a meal on their own and when this had her sitting alone at a table for two the next evening, Berglund had taken advantage when he arrived soon after.

 

Being engrossed with the menu, she only noticed his approach when he had already arrived at the table and were in the process of sitting down, making his question about if he might join her merely rhetorical. Not wanting to appear rude she had schooled over the instinctive frown and managed a small smile that was fuelled by coldness rather than warmth.

 

While he had tried to locate a waiter and gestured for a menu to be brought over for him as well, she had glanced to the side, where Vasya sat two tables away from her. Even if they could not share the meal, it did not mean they had to eat at different times or out of sight of each other. His mouth had been set in a firm line and his eyes slightly narrowed while they rested on the Swede, clearly not pleased with the situation. He could doubtlessly see her discomfort. She gave him a helpless shrug, followed by a reassuring smile, when his gaze moved back to her. Perhaps she is not as adept at communicating with minimal facial movements as he is, but she knew he would get the message. After casting a quick glance at her unwelcome table companion and finding him still trying to flag down a waiter she looked back and mouthed ‘later’ to him.

 

A movement from one of the KGB agents sitting even further away from her caught her attention then and she had almost smiled when she saw the dark looks they gave Berglund. By now they more or less view her as Soviet territory, making the Swede a hostile entity they might just treat as an invasion if he goes too far in his attentions. Invading Russia has rarely been a good idea historically Vasya has informed her, and she had briefly wondered if there might be some history between the two nations, seeing how they are quite close to each other, and if so, what the outcome had been. But as with most things outside the States, her education has left her mainly ignorant.

 

She had relied on polite small talk to make it through the meal. Topics such as food, Venice, and chess tournaments in general being the only topics she allowed and hoped it would be a strong enough hint. However, no matter if he thought her timid or was simply too thick to pick up on her reluctance, he had clearly not given up by the time she excused herself. She had even forsaken dessert in her desire to get away as soon as possible, having to postpone tasting tiramisù for the first time. Vasya had had it the night before and it looked and smelled delicious, but she could hardly ask to taste his piece with everyone else there.

 

Vasya had been possessive for the first time that night, and she had gloried in having such focused attention on her. Not that there was a huge difference in his touch to the ways she had experience so far, but a new level of fervour and lingering, as if he was reluctant to relinquish any physical contact between them, had been present. She, of course, told him how she disliked the younger man’s attention and how much she loved him, but even so he simply held her close for so long in the afterglow that she almost fell asleep.

 

The World Champion plays Berglund on the fourth day and destroys him. But since the Swede is unaware of their relationship – and rightly so - he naturally does not make the connection and continues his pursuit at the joint dinner the same evening. With her and Vasya arriving separately, he has time to claim one of the seats next to her and tries to monopolise her time, sadly unperturbed by his loss earlier. Or even the fact that the man he lost to sits on her other side and also tries to talk to her while pointedly ignoring him. Afraid to be too obvious, she gives them more or less an equal amount of her attention but seeks out her lover’s hand underneath the tablecloth as often as she can, or simply rests her hand on his thigh.

 

In the past it could sometimes be amusing to watch some players trying to flirt with her – so long as they did not try to touch her in any way outside the traditional handshakes and respected her as a player – but ever since she realised her feelings for Vasya, even those moments lost their appeal. In the time between then and Luchenko’s party those instances only made her wish it had been Vasya instead. Fantasizing about him giving her appreciative looks over the board or hugging her again after a game, or more. And ever since their mutual confession, she does not want any romantic attention from anyone else. Her vanity does not require that kind of flattery. No, the only compliment to her appearance outside of those made in friendship she wants can be found in a very specific set of beautiful blue eyes. The way they heat, widen, or the pupils dilate, is all the confirmation she needs to know that she is beautiful.

 

When there is a knock on the door not long after dinner is over, she nearly leaps over to it and pulls it open, sighing in relief when Vasya stands on the other side. He wastes no time in stepping over the threshold and then surprises her by kissing her before the door is closed. While it lasts, she is too caught up in the re-emerged possessiveness he displays through his tight hold around her and the intensity of his lips on hers, but once he calms down enough to give her the opportunity to breathe again, she raises her eyebrows in question. It is unlike him to risk them being caught in any way.

 

“Just to let them know Mr Berglund does not pose any threat” he replies after using his foot to push the door closed behind him. “Even if I do not like his renewed and unwanted attentions to you or my inability to do anything about it at present, I do not want him to have an accident.”

 

“What? You… you’re not saying they would kill him over this?” she asks aghast, not needing to ask who them are.

 

“No. Just make sure he is injured enough to have to pull out of the tournament and return home, or possibly spend some time at the hospital. A fall down some stairs would not be a new method.”

 

“So that kiss will be featured in their next report then?” she asks, smirking in challenge at him.

 

“I’d imagine so. But not this one” he replies before bending down to capture her lips once more and this time she goes full in, pressing herself against him and moulding her body to his. As always, it is a perfect fit. A puzzle with only two pieces, but all the more beautiful for it.

 

He then wastes no time and takes hold of her thighs and hoists her up so he can carry her to the bed. Perhaps he wants to spare Berglund being attacked, but she can still see and feel the possessiveness in him and the fire it lights in her is scorching. Trusting his hold on her, she pulls off her dress before he can lay her down and smirks when he looks both disappointed at not being allowed to do that himself and appreciative of the time she saves them. All the same, he retaliates by standing back up after depositing her on the crisp sheets and does all of his own undressing himself. He even swats her hands away the one time she tries to reach out and undo the last buttons of his shirt before he gets to them.

 

By the time he joins her in bed, she is panting with need and happily lifts herself up to help him get her underwear off as fast as humanly possible. He takes a moment to make sure she is wet enough and then goes straight for joining them before setting up a fast and hard rhythm that soon has her gasping for air. Her bra is still on, but he does not seem to care and only pushes it up enough to free her breasts and then exploring them with the hand he is not using to support himself with. His mouth dwells by her throat and jaw and when his lips are not in direct contact with her sensitive skin, he is whispering words in Russian. She catches a few, such as ‘mine’, ‘love’ and ‘queen’.

 

Berglund is clearly getting to him. Not that he doubts her devotion to him and dislike of the other man, but it is rather a symptom of his inability to do anything about it without jeopardising their plan. He cannot hold her hand, call her lyubimaya, or kiss her in public, to let the world know they belong to each other, so he will claim her more thoroughly in private instead.

 

After their shared inability to keep another man from trying to take a place in her life that is already filled, due to the world being such a messed-up place, she is equally in need of this raw reaffirmation of their mutual attraction and love.  Her arms are around him, exploring his bare back and digging her fingers into him whenever he pushes into her with extra force. She adores the sounds this elicit from him and revels in the urgent affection they both display.

 

Despite the heat of the moment, he has the presence of mind to not place a mark on her throat. Instead, once he nears completion, he moves his lips to her shoulder and sucks hard there. And when they have explosively transitioned into a period of recovery a little bit later, she catches the proud look in his eyes when he watches his handiwork and even reaches over and caresses the redness of her skin.

 

It is the first time he has ever left any evidence of his presence on her body that would last longer than an hour or so and she joins him in both marvelling over it and feeling inordinately pleased about its presence. Never in her life would she have thought to be so happy about being marked by someone in such a way, but it seems love does funny things to her. She will have to mark him too someday.

 

But for now, in the always pleasant aftermath, she finds herself in more of a teasing mood. She crawls up on him, only pausing shortly when he grunts due to the elbow she accidentally inserts into his side, and lays her crossed arms on his chest and leans her chin on them, looking down at him with a smile.

 

“Do you have me where you want me now then, Miss Harmon?” he asks. At the same time his hand starts to trace featherlight lines along her sides and back, making her shiver. There is that constant need in him to touch her now, and she feels very much the same about him, trying to make up for what they have both been without for so long in their lives.

 

“For now, at least. I can think of a bed in France that is yet to come into existence I’m going to prefer you in” she responds, the future after his plan being successful much easier to envision now that they are in their happy and uncomplicated little bubble.

 

“Then I will have to make sure to buy a really large and comfortable one, since I have a strong suspicion we are going to spend an awful lot of time in it.”

 

“Oh, absolutely” she replies eagerly and bends down to kiss him, because there is no way she will ever get enough of doing that.

 

He takes his time to explore her body after that, leaving her in no doubt of his feelings. Not that she had any left by that point, but her twice over orphaned heart will never tire of being loved and she can feel in his fervour that he knows this about her. Knows it and is willing to take whatever time and effort is needed to keep that past from hurting her while he softens her heart. It is such a fragile thing even now, after all the losses she has experienced, but somehow it still feels safe in his gentle hands.

 

He brings her to completion slowly but surely time after time, taking clear enjoyment in doing so and if not for the softness of his eyes she would suspecting him of teasing her a few times. But his love is ever present, in those blue depths, his lips and those blessed hands that never fails to steady and anchor her among the storm of fire and emotions they incite in her at the same time.

 

She has a sneaking suspicion that he enjoys being able to come inside of her, and how it allows him to lose himself in both the act and the ecstasy that is its payoff even more. She silently gives thanks to whoever invented the pill and allowed them this, but is soon so distracted from everything outside her room by him that her only gratitude is expressed in his favour.

 

They are many hours into the night before they feel that they will be unable to recover without proper sleep. She had a short nap almost two hours ago, dozing half curled up against him, with her head on his shoulder and his arm around her, but he has worn her out again and she silently promises herself to start training. Maybe she can ask Jolene for some more lessons in squash.

 

“How are you doing?” he asks after pushing himself up on his side so he can watch her where she lies on her back next to him.

 

In her exhaustion and delirious happiness, she starts laughing breathlessly and after he gives her a strange look, he shakes his head minutely and smiles fondly in understanding. It never ceases to amaze her how he, with a life so different to her own, can comprehend her strange and faulty mind so easily. Either his own mind is so unfailingly stable that he can look right into her abyss without fear of being pulled in or he has recovered from a fragmented mind of his own, giving her hope she might be able to do more than glue her own together well enough to last until the next earthquake topples and smashes her.

 

“You have such a lovely laugh” he says once she has managed to calm down, “I hope to hear it more often in the future.”

 

“Will I get to hear you laugh then too? Properly, I mean” she asks, half tempted to question if he even can, but the moment is too close to her heart to cheapen it with jokes.

 

“I’m sure you will.”

 

When they lapse into one of their content silences, she raises one hand to trace the features of his face. His advantage in years barely shows and there are close to no crow’s feet by his eyes to indicate a lot of past mirth. His life has been hard too, in ways both similar and contrary to her own and she looks forward to when they will be able to confide in and support each other fully and constantly. Her breakdown over Alma aside, sharing too much of their scars now only means burdening the other with something they can do nothing about for months, because things like that are absolutely necessary to leave out of their letters. But in this she can be patient.

 

“I like you best like this” she says, her fingers brushing his lower lip before the tip of her index finger traces the curve appearing in the corners. “All to myself and no need to pretend anything.”

 

“If you order an early wake-up call I can stay the night” he says, taking her by delighted surprise. “Not that it will be many hours of sleep, but I would much rather spend them here with you than alone in my own room.”

 

With the KGB already in the know, there is no other consideration to make other than to be sure he leaves before other guests start to get up and leave their rooms. She reaches over and dials the front desk to request the call and then buries herself in his embrace, an increasingly familiar feeling of home descending on her while sleep arrives. Her only regret is that oblivion comes so swiftly that she barely has time to savour the moment properly.

 

The insistent ringing of the phone wakes them far too soon and she curses, even if she would never regret the reason they fell asleep so late – or was it early? – for anything. It was a taste of all the time they should be able to devote to each other in the future, spending lazy mornings, days and nights together and not having to think or care about anything outside their bedroom. Or maybe some other rooms too.

 

An unusually audible chuckle leaves Vasya when she tries to stop him from getting up by clinging to his arm and mumbling about just a few more minutes and the sound is such a novelty it distracts her enough to allow him to pull free. The light from the bedside lamp is enough to let her see the expression in his eyes. It is fairly new, but even so it is not difficult to identify the sentiment behind it. It is him being fondly exasperated with her Americanness; unused to dealing with such a foreign exuberance of emotions but not wanting to begrudge her such genuine happiness. A man who loves her less would most likely have turned grumpy over it, but he has an endless amount of patience with her it seems.

 

While he gets dressed, she remembers his gift and decides this is the perfect opportunity to give it to him. Getting out of bed, she hurries over to one of her bags and opens it. After rummaging inside for a while, she locates the box, pulls out the item inside and hangs it around her neck before she stands up and walks over to him.

 

He has just pulled his suit jacket on, brushing off the sleeves, and is more or less ready to leave. Still fully in the nude she reaches up and lays her arms around his neck so she can pull him down for a kiss. Then she takes a step back from him and watches while his eyes drop to the new item she wears.

 

“For you” she says, but makes no move to take it off.

 

His hand reaches out to touch the oval golden locket hanging on a simple golden chain. There is no inscription or even decoration of any kind on the outside, because that will have to wait until they can show their love openly, but he is quick to open it. One side contains a few locks of her hair woven together and the other a photo Townes had taken. In it she wears a simple white dress, his black king resting on her chest, and she has a soft smile on her face.

 

“Thank you” is all he says, but she can hear the depth of those words in the uncharacteristic unevenness in his voice.

 

There is reverence in his movements when he slowly pulls his gift off of her, puts it on himself and tucks it in under his shirt, keeping it hidden from the prying eyes that might await him on the other side of the door.

 

When they decide to have dinner on their own in the evening, they both let their hands briefly touch their chests, showing the other that they are wearing their gift. She finally gets to have her tiramisù as well, having decided to wait until she only has him for company so she does not have to hide the appreciation she is sure she will feel.

 

It is truly delicious and a whispered Russian curse word escapes Vasya while he crosses his legs after she groans in pleasure as she tastes her first bite.

 

She deals Berglund an equally humiliating defeat to the one Vasya gave him when it is their turn to play, and she can see that he takes it less well from her. But with it resulting in him now avoiding her, it is nothing but