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The Line that Cannot be Crossed

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It took two days to get back to a semblance of normal. Two days for Benny to stop giving her hurt looks and for her own resentment to fade under the surface.

It was comfortable.

Almost.

It was like it had been before.

Almost.

Except at bed time.

The first night, Benny had lingered in the kitchen as she'd got out her air mattress. All he'd spoken about was chess, but he'd spoken about it until two hours past his usual bedtime.

The second night, he'd paused in his doorway as he headed to bed and given her a very particular look. But when she'd asked him if he wanted something, he'd just muttered something inane about being careful with her king-castling late in the game.

"I'll bear it in mind," Beth had said.

Then Benny had lingered a second longer before retreating into his room and closing the door.

That door kept them apart and Beth was grateful for it. Beyond that door was a no-go area. A pawn guarded by a knight, a bishop and a queen. Virtually impregnable.

Foolish to even try.

So she tried not to think about him once the door was closed, preferring instead to occupy her mind playing chess on his ceiling as she fell asleep.

But occasionally she got errant thoughts. Occasionally, she wondered what might have happened if she'd waited for him to wake up before leaving the room. Occasionally, she wondered what might have happened if he hadn't started talking immediately about chess.

But contemplating the idea that she might want him more than he wanted her made her body feel hollow. It felt like Methuen all over again, standing next to other orphan children in identical uniforms, watching couples pull up on the front drive in different types of cars.

Every time, she and Jolene would say they didn't care. Every time Beth's stomach hurt as her mind ran away with imagining a new home. And inevitably, they'd leave her disappointed.

Until Alma.

Beth shook her head. Benny was not her Alma.

And that was why she had to draw a line in her head. A line she could not cross. She would focus on Paris and she would not go into Benny's bedroom. Not to speak to him, not even if he asked her to get him something.

And she kept to her word more or less for a week. Even when he called her in to help him find a pamphlet on the European tournament ten years ago, she stayed in the doorway.

"I see you don't actually intend to help," Benny said, rifling through his shelves. If it were anyone else, she'd have thought the 'help me look for something' line was a ploy, but it was Benny and he was looking for chess pamphlets.

So she just shrugged.

"You're doing a fine job by yourself," she said. "I wouldn't want to get in your way and annoy you."

"You could never annoy me," said Benny. Their eyes met and Beth could feel the line of his doorframe burning the tips of her toes.

Methuen, she reminded herself. Think of Methuen.

"Well maybe I'm just lazy," said Beth and retreated into the living room. Benny didn't come back out to play chess for another half an hour. and Beth congratulated herself on maintaining the line.

But the next day was more difficult. Benny had to sort out the parking fines he'd accumulated in the last few months - really he had an obscene amount of fines, but he liked parking outside his flat - and he would be leaving her behind to watch base and practice chess.

"It'll take an hour, maybe two max," he said. "Depends how much the person at the desk likes pirates."

Beth tried not think about whether she liked pirates. Or cowboys.

"I'll leave the Borgov v. Fine pamphlet here," said Benny. "You should play through it whilst I'm out."

"Right," said Beth. She'd played so many of Borgov's past games now and yet she still wasn't sure she could win.

But at least chess was simple. At least chess had clear rules. With chess, she didn't have to worry about showing up at the board only to realise her opponent didn't care as much as she did and hadn't bothered to show up.

Benny always showed up for their chess games.

Beth grimaced.

"You'll be fine," said Benny, misinterpreting her expression. "You've got this."

He placed a hand on her shoulder and every nerve ending in her body seemed to migrate to his fingers. It was unbearable. Burning. Cold.

Aching. Deep in her core.

And she thought she might be sick.

But then his fingers were gone and he was retreating up the stairs and out of the apartment.

Beth listened to his footsteps slowly getting quieter as he ascended to the New York Streets, then she shook her head and turned her attention to the pamphlets. She needed to stop stressing about Benny's chess-obsession and focus on her own game if she wanted to win in Paris.

Sighing, she set out the pieces, then noticed one of them was missing. It must have fallen out when Benny had moved the chess set. She glanced around the room, grey walls and bare furniture.

And then she saw it.

A lone pawn just over the threshold of Benny's room.

Her heart beat harder in her chest.

And she scowled at herself. It was just a chess piece. Benny wasn't even here.

Pushing back her chair, she felt the way she'd felt when she'd first been called to see the Wheatleys.

Which was ridiculous because Benny wasn't here and she didn't want anything from him.

Trying to suppress the fizzing in her stomach, she walked over to Benny's room. But she stopped at the line.

She could feel it again. Burning the tips of her toes.

It's just a stupid chess piece.

But it was more than that. It was a line she could not cross. Like how at Methuen, she never asked the names of the couples who came looking for children.

Because she had to put limits on herself, floodgates so she wouldn't get swept away by her own foolish desires.

Maybe the line is actually that I can't enter his room when he's here, she reasoned. If she entered his room without him knowing, maybe it didn't matter so much.

Though of course, the couples never knew whether she asked their names.

Shaking the thought away, Beth took a tentative step over the line.

Nothing happened of course. Nothing changed. The fizzing in her stomach was still there, and otherwise she was the same.

She snatched up the chess piece, then turned to leave, but her gaze caught on the bed. On the bedside table she remembered staring at in the moments after they'd stilled when she'd felt like she'd finally found a home without Alma. And maybe a soulmate.

And she remembered the cold too. When she'd realised Benny was still thinking about chess.

She meant to leave then. But she wandered over to the bed and sat down. The sheets were ruffled because he never properly made his bed. But they smelt like him.

Then, ignoring the voice that told her this could only hurt her, she lay back into the pillows and stared at the white ceiling.

She could see chess pieces against the paint, but she could also see Benny, feel the ghost of his fingers on her skin.

You'll be fine. You've got this.

She refocused on the chess pieces. Borgov v. Fine. Set it up. Think it out. As Benny liked to say.

Typical pawn to D4, followed by the Sicilian defense to start.

But her mind wandered.

She was playing Benny. No they weren't playing, he was holding her. He was whispering to her.

Whispering that she was home.

She forced her eyes open, heart racing. At some point, she'd closed them.

What the hell was she doing?

She gripped the pawn in her hand until she could feel it imprint her finger bones. Sharp. Aching pain.

This was reality. This grey, empty room. This bed where he'd basically told her she was less important than chess.

This was why she couldn't cross her lines. She needed floodgates.

And then she heard footsteps. Keys.

Her heart beat faster.

Had it already been an hour? What the hell had she been doing with all the time? She should get up.

But she didn't. She just stared at the ceiling where Borgov v. Fine began to play out again on the board.

She heard the front door open.

'"Beth?" said Benny. His footsteps hurried down the steps and in her peripheral vision, she saw him check the living room first before his gaze settled on her.

And then his footsteps were slow. Careful.

"Beth?" he said again. "You alright?"

On the ceiling, Borgov moved his knight. He really was an excellent tactician.

"What are you doing in here?"

Benny leant against the doorframe himself now. Like he could sense there was a line there too and they had to stay on opposite sides of it.

"Playing Borgov v. Fine in my head," said Beth. Her voice came out suitably monotonous. Like when the girls at Methuen would throw out off-handed remarks once the couple of the month had left with a different girl.

"In my bed?"

"It's more comfortable and I didn't want to blow up the air bed."

Benny nodded, then he stepped into his room – over the line – and sat on the bed by her knees.

Stupid nerve endings shifting around her body again. She felt like she couldn't breathe.

"They liked pirates then?" she said as casually as she could, noting the time on his watch. Barely fourty minutes.

"Yeah," said Benny, with a small grin. He was staring down at his ring. "Beth, I–"

"Don't."

"What?"

"No sex," said Beth. "Remember?"

Benny winced, running his fingers through his hair. Stupid beautiful hair. Stupid fucking pirate.

"Are you still angry about the chess talk?" he said weakly.

Beth breathed out slowly. She didn't know how to respond to that - not without revealing the depth of what she wanted and there was one thing Methuen girls did not do – reveal the depth of what they wanted. Not to their teachers, not to each other, not even – if they could help it – to themselves.

"I said I don't want to talk about it," said Beth.

"Sorry," said Benny.

Beth tried to refocus on her game, but he brushed her hair away from her forehead and she found she couldnot look anywhere but his eyes. His brown, brown eyes.

If he kissed her now she was in danger of being swept away. She was in danger of trying to give him her heart when he had no hands to hold it.

She was in danger of attaching herself to every couple who came through the doors of Methuen Home.

But he didn't kiss her.

Merely slid his fingers to her hand and unpeeled the chess piece from her aching palm.

She stared at him. Chess. Still chess.

"Good luck with the game," said Benny. Then he went to the kitchen to make coffee.

And Beth vowed never to enter his room again.