The closer she got to returning to America, the more Beth couldn't ignore her twisting stomach. The last few hours had been a blissful adjournment. Chess with old men and women who smiled when she checkmated their Kings and who made her smile as they welcomed her to their boards.
But now, her old continent was upon her and like in chess, she'd sealed her next move in her mind so there was no backing out. When she got to New York, she wasn't making a flight connection – at least not yet. She hadn't agreed anything with Benny, but she supposed it was her move. She just wasn't sure how to win.
Considering his last move, considering their phone call, she might have expected it to be easier. But even though they'd spent hours going over the Borgov game only that morning, it was possible to talk for hours and never touch on anything resembling emotion.
Benny had clearly forgiven her enough to call her in Russia, but just how much was that? Would he be happy to see her if she turned up at his basement? Did he want to see her? Or was he just being a good coach and helping her beat Borgov like he'd promised? And what was she hoping for from seeing him? What would be enough to class as victory?
At the New York airport, Beth split from her government escort and grabbed her luggage, barely registering her surroundings. Then she hailed a taxi cab like she'd planned in her head and far too soon, she found herself outside familiar iron railings, peering down a grey staircase.
Harry and Matt and Mike might still be here, but she'd planned for that. She'd planned for everything she could – trying to think three moves ahead. Though people weren't as easy to control as chess pieces. Three moves ahead with people wasn't as rock solid as three moves ahead in chess.
She had blind spots.
With a deep breath, she started down the stairs. Her body felt as heavy as her suitcase and her mind felt fuzzy like when she'd played Borgov in Paris. But she wasn't drunk this time.
At the apartment door, Beth paused and listened. The apartment beyond was quiet. But she'd accounted for that possibility as well. If Benny wasn't home, she would sit on the stairs until he got back or she had to get a hotel and when he showed up, she'd let him take the upper step.
For now though, she knocked. Expected to be waiting on the steps.
But then...Footsteps. Bolts clicking. Keys turning.
Like a chess piece without a player. His blonde hair was as nice as always, his scent familiar coffee and earth. And he was wearing one of his black shirts, rolled up at the elbows, tucked into belted jeans, like a perfect memory.
A memory she didn't want to forget.
"Hello Benny," said Beth. Her throat was dry, her palms moist.
"I thought you'd go straight back to Kentucky," he said.
Beth swallowed. She hadn't expected him to get to the heart of the matter so quickly. He'd just cut through all her plans and now she had no moves ahead. Now she was playing like the children of the local high school she'd beat at Methuen.
"I missed you," said Beth. A pawn offered in sacrifice.
Benny's throat bobbed. "Do you want to come in?"
She nodded and he retreated into his basement, ruffling his hand through his hair. The basement was much the same as when she'd been here before Paris. Sparse, grey, full of chess stuff. But the table was now laid out with a chess board tracking her game with Borgov up to the adjournment. Before he'd offered a draw, before she'd forged ahead determined to win.
Harry and Matt and Mike were either gone or out.
"You can put your suitcase down wherever," said Benny so Beth set it by the armchair. Her airbed was still nestled by the sofa like Benny had been expecting or hoping for her return. Or maybe he'd got it out for Harry or Matt or Mike. Her chest ached.
"Thank you," said Beth. "For calling me in Russia."
Benny shrugged. "I'm sure you'd have won anyway. Coffee?"
He put the kettle on, then glanced at the airbed. "Where are you staying tonight?"
"I don't have anywhere to stay yet," said Beth and she didn't like to contemplate defeat. "But I'll probably check into a hotel later or book a late flight."
Benny's muscles tensed. "So you are going back to Kentucky," he said.
Not if she could help it. She wasn't sure what she'd do if she had to go back to Kentucky. She hadn't planned for that in her endgame.
The kettle clicked off and Benny poured the boiling water into the cup. Beth watched the steam rise. Like she used to watch the steam rise when Benny was in the shower. There were chess pieces on the ceiling. White queen to B4. Black king to C8.
"Do you want me to stay?" said Beth.
Benny stirred their coffee. His first, then hers, then his again like his mind was elsewhere. "When have you ever done what I want you to do?" he said.
"If I say I want you to go back to Kentucky, will you stay here with me?"
"So you still want me here?" said Beth.
"Well, if you've got nowhere to stay, I have an airbed."
Beth gave him an unimpressed look.
"Of course I want you here, Beth," said Benny. "I love you."
Beth blinked, heart racing like the first time they'd played. That was definitely not what she'd been expecting. A move to check this early after she returned from adjournment. Maybe even a move to checkmate, but wasn't this what she wanted? Why did she feel like she was losing?
"I should have said it after we had sex," said Benny. "I definitely should have said it before you went to Paris. But I was afraid."
"Benny Watts, afraid?" she said, raising an eyebrow. She needed time to recalibrate, get on the same playing level. Get out of check. Get into check?
"I'm always afraid, Beth. Why else would I carry a knife around with me?"
"I thought it was for your public persona," said Beth. "To add a little mystery."
"Benny Watts – man of mystery," he mused.
"Except you're as transparent as your endgame," said Beth.
Benny snorted. "Glad to see International Grandmaster hasn't gone to your head."
"Why were you afraid?" said Beth.
Benny sighed and looked up at the ceiling. Maybe he was playing chess in his head as well. Maybe he was playing chess with her like she was playing chess with him. Maybe he knew he had her cornered, maybe he didn't. The rules were blurrier in real life.
"I've never been in love before," said Benny. "And I always try to keep my thoughts clear so I can focus on chess, but you take up so much space in my head, I worry I'll never be able to focus the same way again."
"You take up a lot of space in my head too," said Beth.
Counter-check. Or something... And it hadn't stopped her defeating Borgov.
"Are you still angry with me for thinking about chess after we had sex?" said Benny. "Was that why you wouldn't come back to New York? Because you thought I cared more about chess than about you."
Beth glanced at his trophies, the spot on the table where he usually kept the 'Sports Illustrated' magazine with his face on the front, but it had been replaced with a 'Chess News' magazine with her face on the front.
"Because I wasn't thinking about chess," said Benny. "Well I was, but mostly I was thinking about you. About helping you. I'm always thinking about helping you. It's infuriating."
He gave a weak laugh, then met her gaze for the first time since he'd started making coffee.
"You told me not to call you anymore," said Beth.
Benny stared down at her coffee again. Knight takes queen. Mate in three.
For a brief moment, Beth was back on the day she'd told him about turning down the stupid Christian money. First you don't come back to New York, then you basically tell me you'd rather be a drunk than be with me and now you pull this crap. No, you can fucking well go alone. She felt cold, even now. That had been at least a rook loss. Maybe a queen. At the time, it had felt like checkmate.
"I didn't mean it, Beth," said Benny. "I was just frustrated. I wanted to be there for you. I wanted you to come back to New York. I wanted to go to Russia with you. I wanted to help you beat Borgov. I wanted to see you again and I'd built Russia up in my head as the place where I'd finally get to do that. When that was pulled out from under me, I snapped. I'm sorry."
"You could have come to Kentucky," said Beth.
"I didn't want to push you," said Benny. "Things were heavy for you with your mum and a second loss to Borgov and your dad trying to kick you out of your house. I thought you'd come back when you were ready and..."
"And what?" said Beth.
He looked up, his mouth slightly open, his brown eyes large.
"I wanted you to come back because you wanted to, Beth. Not because I came to collect you."
Her throat hurt. Because she wanted to. But she'd had no idea what she wanted before. She'd needed an adjournment.
"And now I'm here," said Beth.
"Now you're here," said Benny.
His chest rose and fell, his breathing audible even against the background of New York streets.
"I didn't stay away because you were thinking about chess," said Beth. "Or because I didn't think you cared. I stayed away because I knew if I came back, you'd convince me to be sober like you did before. You'd convince me to live in reality and I didn't want to live in reality."
Benny nodded slowly.
He'd always understood her the way few others did.
Outside, cars passed. Inside, the clock on the wall ticked, like a chess clock counting down to the next move, but she wasn't sure whose move it was now. She wasn't sure what winning meant.
"You haven't said it back," said Benny at last.
Beth looked up. Now he looked like she'd check-mated him after all.
"No," she said.
Benny breathed out heavily. "Okay," he said.
Defeat? Victory? Maybe it didn't matter. Maybe what mattered was what she felt in this moment.
"My hair not doing it for you anymore?" said Benny with a faint smile – light, graceful in defeat.
"I still like your hair," said Beth. "But it's not why I love you."