Chess

by Rhonda Collins

Note: This story appears in slightly altered form in the fanzine,LEGACY OF LOVE. Rhonda Collins has been writing Beauty and the Beaststories for over seven years, and she's written both Classic and3rd/4th Season, although most are 3rd/4th Season.


Diana sat staring at the chessboard with such intenseconcentration that Vincent thought perhaps she was trying to bore ahole through it.

It had been so long since she had looked up or said anything, thatVincent finally asked: "Diana? Have you fallen asleep?"

"Hush. I'm thinking."

Vincent smiled ruefully. When Diana thought, life could getcomplicated. He sighed, waiting for her to make up her mind. Therewas no way she could get out of the trap he had her in, but she wasdetermined. He knew she hated to lose, and truly, she did hate chess.As Diana continued staring at the board, Vincent thought back overthe last few weeks. He had been so depressed for so long that itseemed a natural state of being by now. Catherine. The name hung inhis mind, along with her image constantly. Only the naming ceremonyfor Jacob had helped at all, and the visits he'd made to Diana'sloft. He sighed and let his attention wander farther and let go ofanything except his remembrance of Catherine. It was hard to pinpointwhat it was he missed about her the most. He missed all of her. Theaching emptiness that had replaced the bond was all there was. Itseemed she had been lost to him forever, for even before her deaththe bond had been lost to him. He had thought that losing theconnection was the worst thing that could have happened, then whenshe'd   disappeared he'd lost everything...except hisdesperation. Hope had fled as well, until Diana. Lost in histhoughts, Vincent was startled out of his reverie by Diana'svoice.

  "Damn. I give up." She sat back and stretched, her handslocked behind her neck. Their eyes met for a moment and she grinned."I hate chess."

  Vincent chuckled, a low rumble resembling a purr. "I know.I also know you only put up with it to keep me occupied. Don't youhave other things you should be doing?"

  Diana reached over with a forefinger and flicked his kingover. "Tons. But I don't want to do them any more than I want to playchess, and I'd rather be here. Avoidance can be an art form."

  Vincent sighed hugely once more. He knew about avoidance:he'd become an expert in that long ago. Avoiding Diana's gaze, herose sinuously, stretched, and wandered across the chamber to thecrib where Catherine's child, his son Jacob, slept. He stood lookingdown at the infant, hiding behind the fall of his chestnut hair as hebent his head in sorrow. When he looked back at Diana, she had turnedand rested her arm on the back of the chair. Diana's look waswatchful, but not pitying. She never pitied him: or, if she did, hewas unaware of it. He was grateful for that. Even in his distractionand sorrow, Vincent was still aware of Diana. He glanced back at her,noting the play of candlelight on her fiery hair. She had left itloose tonight. It is becoming to her worn loose. He was momentarilydistracted, caught in her beauty...for he had an innate appreciationof all beautiful things. Realizing what he was doing--that he wasstaring, he jerked his thoughts aside, and turned back to Jacob.

  Behind him, he heard Diana stir, but didn't turn. Finally,he heard her voice, soft as the darkness, behind him..and he turnedto her. He noted she had put away the chess set.

  "I'll take the set back to Father, Vincent. Perhaps we cantake a walk when I get back?" Vincent nodded silently, eyes shadowed."Perhaps."

  * * * * * * * *

  Father looked up from his reading and smiled when he sawDiana in the doorway. "Well? Who won...as if I don't know."

  Diana smiled, but not enthusiastically. "He did, of course.Chess just isn't my game. Don't know why; I understand it wellenough, and I like puzzles. I guess I'm just not enough of astrategist. I feel things instead, and chess isn't about feelings."She placed the chess set on the desk in front of Father, then thrusther hands into the pockets of her sweatsuit and wandered the room.She obviously wasn't ready to leave. She walked from bookshelf tobookshelf, sometimes craning her neck to read titles on books setupside down or sideways.

  Father put aside his book and patted the seat of the chairnext to him. His years in the tunnels and his role as father to somany children had given him a sixth sense when it came to knowingwhen people needed to talk. "Come sit down, my dear. What is it?"

  Diana shrugged, but obeyed somewhat meekly, which surprisedFather tremendously. Diana didn't seem like either the meek...orobedient sort. For the short time he'd known her she had alwaysseemed extremely independent and strong-willed. He watched her alittle critically. When Diana sat, she still said nothing, and didn'tquite meet his eyes. She twisted a strand of hair abstractedly whilecontinuing to run her eyes over the room. Finally, Father cleared histhroat and asked: "Is it Vincent?"

  Finally, Diana raised her eyes briefly and nodded. Shesighed. "I don't know what to do to help, Father, and I can't bearit."

  Father shook his head somewhat mournfully. The general airof depression that had settled over their world since Catherine'sdeath was almost overpowering to Father at times. He knew it onlymade things worse on Vincent, now that his empathic powers hadreturned with Jacob's birth. Vincent's depression added to thecommunity's as a whole, and he then picked it up empathically. It wasa vicious circle. Father blessed the fortune which had brought Dianainto Vincent's life when he most needed a friend. "There is little wecan do for him, Diana...and little he can do, except bear it. Thiskind of pain can only be endured until it passes. We can only be herefor him, and you are doing that." Father paused a moment and watchedthe changing emotions on Diana's face. He had learned to read herfairly well past that mask she presented to the world. At least, hefelt he could. "I do, however, get the definite impression that thereis more you are not telling me."

  Diana seemed to pause a moment...even opened her mouth tospeak, then snapped her mouth shut, shook her head slightly andsmiled. "No. Nothing. Don't mind me, Father. I guess I'm just used tobeing able to grasp a problem and wrestle with it until I solve it. Ifeel...helpless...is all. Guess I don't like it much." She roseawkwardly, all long legs and angles, her long red hair down in herface, and brushed the dust off her arm. She grinned at him then andoffered: "I could get Mary and we could give this place a goodcleaning for you..."

  Father looked alarmed. "Don't you dare!"

  Her face softening, sobering a little, Diana tapped thedesk with her fingertips and glanced up at Father once more. "Thanks.Gotta go. He's taking me for a walk...or I'm taking him. I'm not surewhich. Could you keep an eye on Jacob for him? I know he won't wantto leave."

  Father rose and picked up his book. "Certainly. I'll comewith you just to be certain he does."

  As they walked back to Vincent's chamber, Father commentedto Diana: "You know, chess is a great deal like life, Diana. A lot ofthings take you by surprise, but there are rules to be followed...anda proper time for everything."

  Diana's huge eyes lifted to his and she smiled a slightlydepreciating smile. "I know...believe me...I know."

  * * * * * * * *

  Entering Vincent's chamber with Father, the sight ofVincent's tall, lithe form took Diana momentarily by surprise. Eachtime she saw him it was both with expectation and a momentary awe.She felt his pain over his loss of Catherine like a blow. Sometimesit was muted, but it was always there. Diana had begun forming anattachment...a bond of sorts with him almost before she met him, asshe immersed herself in Catherine's life. Once she'd actually methim, the bond had grown steadily stronger, more insistent, and she'dfought to keep him from knowing. He needed a friend right now, not awould-be lover. She shivered. And would I ever.... Vincent turned toface them when they entered, his red-gold mane tousled and gleamingfrom the candlelight. When he turned those incredible azure eyes tohers, though, she looked away. There was an awkward silence as no onespoke. Finally, Father broke in, "I came with Diana to watch Jacob soyou could go Above for a walk."

  Vincent glanced once more at his son, then smoothed thesmall quilt with one long-taloned hand. "I hate to leave him,but...thank you, Father." He glanced up at Diana. "It would be morepolite to escort my guest at least partway home."

  Hurt a little by the implication that Vincent only wishedto be with her for politeness' sake, Diana commented a littlecaustically: "I hardly need an escort, Vincent. I'm a big girl now,but the company would be appreciated."

  Vincent sighed, walked to his desk and lifted his mantlefrom the back of the chair and swung it over his shoulders, then heldout a hand for Diana...which she did not take. He dropped the handback to his side and shrugged. Diana noted the shrug and sighed aswell. She knew Vincent had become used to the fact that she did notlike to be touched...at least by him. She knew he wondered at times,though, if it were just his differences. She wished she could makehim understand that it was not for that reason, but that would revealtoo much about herself, and she wasn't ready to do that...wasn't surehe was ready to hear, either.

  They walked side by side quietly, not looking at oneanother. Vincent's dark leather and wool cloak swept against Diana'slegs and her arm brushed against his leather sleeve briefly beforeshe drew back. She was feeling so flustered, it took her a fewminutes to calm herself and build that mental barrier between them.Once her barrier was built carefully between them, and it was safe totouch him, Diana reached out tentatively to take his hand, and whenhe felt the warmth, the softness of her hand in his, he stopped andgazed at her.

  She smiled briefly at the confusion she felt from him. Shewas so unlike anyone he'd ever known...aloof, alone...quiet. Becauseof the barrier she kept carefully between them, he felt none of theemotions that were such a painful presence to him down Below, andhe'd told her that the peace he felt in her presence was comforting.She knew that to others she seemed so independent that it lent almosta fierceness to her aspect, which kept people at a distance. She knewwhat Vincent thought of her...when he did think about her at all,which was only intermittently. He was still looking down at her withthose intense blue eyes, and Diana finally smiled a littleself-consciously. "What is it?" She couldn't sense him, when theblock was up, either.

  He shook his head, looking puzzled. "I don't know. You justpuzzle me, Diana. Sometimes I wonder why you bother with me at all. Iknow I must be a terrible trial to you. I must depress youunutterably...yet, you keep trying to cheer me up."

  Diana swallowed through a throat made dry with emotion."I'm a Helper now...remember? Helpers help. Besides, that's whatfriends are for. Now shut up and let's go for our walk." She smiledto take the sarcasm from her comment, and squeezed the hand she stillheld.

  They walked for awhile, and Vincent asked her about hercurrent case. Diana's cases both interested and perplexed him. Hecould never understand how she knew what she knew: there never seemedto be enough information, yet she always seemed to know. Diana smiledbriefly when Vincent finally asked, "Are you working tonight?" Atleast she had his interest.

  "Yeah. Have to." she answered. "I still can't figure outwhat's going on. I know that the warehouse owner was doctoringrecords, but I still haven't found any clear indications of whokilled him. Too many people had reason to want him out of the way."Diana sighed, then cocked her head, taking in the sight of Vincentstanding there, leaning against the tree. Looks like some damnmythological hero standing there, the moonlight making his hairsilver instead of gold. All he needs is a sword and a sidekick. Healready has the cape. She pictured herself dressed as he was, both ofthem with swords at hand, horses ready to go.... Easy Bennett. Timefor a reality check.

  Vincent shifted uneasily under her gaze. He seemed to befighting some kind of battle within himself. Diana temporarilydropped her block to see what she could sense, but strangely feltvery little from him. There had been many times in recent weeks whenher sense of him had all but disappeared temporarily...always aftersome deeply painful memory...or after or during those intenselysexual dreams she'd picked up on. Those, she'd tried to blockagainst, embarrassed to be so drawn into his private thoughts, butwhen she slept she had no control, and the dreams came whether shewished it or not. The images were mixed...mostly Catherine, but moreand more frequently she, too, was involved. I wonder if that is hisdoing, or only mine? Diana's mind sought answers. Something wasbothering Vincent. It wasn't just the grief over Catherine's loss. Itwas far deeper. She had an inkling of an idea...more than ahunch...less than a fact. Are the dreams the key...or are they onlysymptoms of the problem?. He rarely spoke of anything personal, onlysurface ideas, polite table-talk type of stuff. Except for when he'dbeen with her in her loft after the explosion on the Compass Rose.Once he'd begun speaking, he'd talked almost compulsively until hereached a certain point. Then, one other time, he'd made theastounding statement that he could not remember when Jacob had beenconceived. The desperation she'd felt before he'd broken off and leftabruptly, was intense. He needs desperately to talk to someone, toshare his pain, but the door to that pain is tightly closed andlocked against the world. Before now, Diana had no idea how to turnthe key to that lock; how to get him to look beyond that door to facewhat was inside, and until he did, he could never get beyond hispain. But playing chess tonight had gotten her thinking in terms ofchallenges...and strategy. Vincent couldn't be bluffed, or coerced:she knew that from her one attempt to teach him poker. But shethought that perhaps he could be challenged, if one were brave enoughto try. It also has to be something I stand a chance to win: not likechess. Finally, before she lost her nerve completely, Diana asked: "Ineed to get back to work. Would you like to come along? Maybe you cancome up with something. Perhaps you can see something I missed, orreinforce something I already know."

  He hesitated, then agreed. "All right. For a time. I needto get back to Jacob and relieve Father."

  "I'll meet you at the loft...the roof. Race?"

  "Race? I would beat you easily...even having to detourthrough the tunnels."

  Diana grinned. It was working. She could feel his interest.Few people challenged him, even playfully. This might be fun. Haspotential. Play this right, Bennett. "Are you sure? Are you willingto bet?"

  Vincent looked perplexed, but she could feel his amusementgrowing. He was so seldom amused by anything lately. "You would lose.Are you so willing to give up something?"

  "Um. Depends." I'd give up just about anything, if Ithought... She crossed her arms and watched him again a moment."Yeah. I'm willing...but are you? Are you so very sure you willwin?"

  Vincent spread his hands and shrugged. "I really havenothing to lose. Very well. What would you like to bet?"

  Diana met his gaze boldly. "The loser has to answer anyquestion that the winner puts to him...or her. Anything. And he orshe must answer without reservation." Diana could almost see Vincentretreat into himself. She could feel his mind trying to find a wayaround this. "Not going to renege on me are you?"

  Diana sighed heavily. She could almost feel him weighinghis options and mentally comparing the separate routes they wouldhave to take to the same destination. He was a born strategist.Finally, he answered uneasily, "No. Are you ready?"

  "Yes." Diana grinned.

  Vincent turned back toward the tunnels, then nodded."Go."

Diana ran. She jogged regularly and trained periodically at theNYPD training grounds: she was in top shape, and knew it.Besides...she knew a short-cut.

  * * * * * * * *

  Vincent ran steadily through the tunnels to reach the alleynear Diana's loft. It was still a little too early to be safelytraveling the streets Above for the entire distance; too many peoplewere still abroad. His route was a little longer than Diana's paththrough the park, but he was still fairly confident. Then he beganworrying: he'd seen Diana run. She was fast, and she was tenacious.He decided to try for a train. It was a calculated risk, especiallysince the subways were often crowded at this time of night...butsuddenly, the worry of having to answer her question crowded allother thoughts from his mind. When he got to the station it was fartoo crowded, and even the shadows were not safe. Cursing under hisbreath, he muttered a few expletives he'd picked up from Diana...andnever used. He turned and headed down the tunnels on an alternateroute. He'd lost, and he knew it. Somehow, Diana would get thereahead of him, and he dreaded whatever she would ask. She was far tooperceptive. By the time he managed to reach her roof, she was thereahead of him...just barely, and despite the cold, her hair wasplastered to her face and neck and her sweats clung wetly to her backand breasts. The sweat glistened on her face. As the wind whippedaround the building in a sudden gust, she shivered, and Vincentslipped his cloak off to wrap around her.

  She laughed and shrugged it off, handing it back to him."Come on. Let's go in, and I'll shower and think of my question."

  Vincent saw her through the door, then backed up: "PerhapsI should go...you can ask your question another time."

  She grabbed his mantle and tugged at him. The action wastotally useless. It was somewhat like dragging a log. "UhUh. If youget away you'll keep putting me off. No reneging. Besides, I reallywanted you to take a look at my file. Maybe you can see somethingI've missed."

  Reluctantly, Vincent allowed himself to be drawn inside. Hewas intrigued in spite of himself, and drawn out of his shell oncemore. Whatever does she want to know? He followed Diana into heroffice space, which made up the greatest part of her loft area. Heoften lay across her couch, or on the floor, and watched her work,fascinated by her intensity and enjoying the quiet of the loft. Here,the constant cacophony of other's feelings and expectations wasnon-existent. There was peace. Sometimes he watched tapes or listenedto her stereo, but mostly he watched her. Strangely, she didn't seemto mind. Even when his eyes were on her for hours, her intensitynever wavered. Often he had to stop her to remind her to take abreak. He had never known anyone who could lose themselves that wayin what they were doing, except perhaps Pascal with his pipes. Heenvied them both.

  Diana called him over to the computer and he watched as shebooted it up, called up the word processing program, selected herfile, and began the printout. The noise of the printer seemed veryloud as they stared at one another. Suddenly, Diana's scent hitVincent like a blow. Here, in the closed air of the loft, with nowind to blow the other way, her perspiration brought her scent--heavyand very female--to him. It hung in the air around them, and hisdesire rose abruptly.

  Angry with himself, confused, and somewhat frightened,Vincent spun away and paced to the window. He flipped the light offand looked out at the lights of the city, feeling very alone andlonely. And very needy. Taking deep breaths, he closed his eyes andfought the tide that rose within him. Catherine. Catherine.Catherine. He repeated her name...a litany and a chant, tryingdesperately to put something between himself and this presence whichfought with him from inside, as it tried to eat its way through him.He was angry with himself that he could even think or imaginedesiring anyone else but Catherine. He'd tried so desperately neverto even allow himself to think of Catherine whenever he felt thisway. It was...unsuitable...and very dangerous. Finally, he managed toforce the feelings to the background. He turned, expecting to seeDiana, and was surprised to see she had left the room and left himthe printout. He'd been so involved in his inner battle that he'd noteven noticed that she'd left. Gratefully, he walked over and pickedup the printout, and took it to the couch to read it. He settled backinto the comfortably worn cushions, placing one fur-booted footagainst the table.

  * * * * * * * *

  Vincent was still reading when Diana came back into theroom, wrapped comfortably in her worn terrycloth robe over freshsweats, and heavy socks, her wet hair plastered to her head andbeginning to curl softly around her face. Diana stood watchingVincent as he read. She knew he was aware of her, and aware of herscrutiny. She toweled her hair and smiled. She'd felt his desire forher before. Score one, Bennett. At least he noticed you're a girl.Unfortunately, her own desire hadn't ebbed in the least. It was goingto be a very lonely night tonight after he left. Sighing, she builther barrier once again and walked across to join him on the couch,stepping deliberately across his outstretched legs...which he didn'tdrop. Finally, re-folding the last page of the printout andstraightening the pages, he handed them back to her and stated: "Thewife had a lover."

Startled, Diana answered, "Yes. So what?"

  "He killed him."

  Diana grunted. "I thought of that. But, there's no proof. Ihave a gut feeling you're right, but one can't convict on that." Sheshrugged. "I'll get it eventually."

  Vincent's quiet voice commented: "You always do." When sheglanced up at him, he was smiling. "I've often wondered how someonewith a mind like yours could possibly play such an abominable game ofchess."

  "Just my fate, I suppose. But I'm great at questiongames."

  Vincent sighed resignedly, and hunched further down intothe couch cushions. "Very well. You won."

  Diana stretched, rose, and walked to the window. Shewrapped her arms around herself as she stared out at the lights ofthe city. Dropping her barrier once more, she felt Vincent's anxietyand curiosity. Carefully, now, Bennett. Watch your step. This isgoing to be like stepping on a mine. Got to open the wound, it'sfestering...but watch out for the backlash. Never looking back athim, she stared out the window and finally asked quietly: "Tell mewhat it was like for you, never to have made love to Catherine. Andnow...after finally loving her...not to remember...at least notfully. How'd you deal with it then, and how are you dealing with itnow?"

  She felt his shock at her question, and when she turned,his face was hard, his eyes like dark glass. "I should never havetold you that to begin with. You are taking unfair advantage. How canyou ask me this?" She could feel his anger rising, and she could seeit evident in his face and the rigid set of his shoulders. Sheflinched a little inside, but her face remained impassive.

  "We agreed we could ask anything...and you agreed to answerwithout reservation. Remember?"

  Voice edged with steel, Vincent answered: "I remember."

  Walking quickly to the couch and curling up next tohim...just as though she didn't feel like she'd just dropped a snakein his lap, Diana drew her legs up under her and leaned on the backcushions. She locked eyes with him. "Then talk. Please. I'm not beingnosy or insensitive, truly. There is a reason for this."

  * * * * * * * *

  Staring into Diana's eyes, Vincent was quiet for a longmoment, then took a deep breath and began. "It was...is...difficult." He stood restlessly, and paced the rug in front of Diana,now almost unaware of her presence. He tried to organize histhoughts, feelings. There was a hard knot in his stomach that wasthreatening to unravel.

  "Catherine was everything to me. A part of me. The desirewas there, but the bond made it easier. I could feel her lovesurround me even without touch. But at times, when we weretogether...when I could feel the warmth of her body, when I held herclose to me...yes. I wanted more. But we were both afraid. She hadbeen brutalized by men: controlled by them. She needed me to protecther, not cause her additional worry. She wanted me. I could feelthat. But, she feared losing herself to...to me, I suppose. She wasonly just beginning to become herself.... Separate from her father,her previous boyfriends...everyone who had always controlled her. Togive herself to me...and me being what I am, frightened her. As muchas she loved me, that dark part of me frightened her, made herunsure." He shook his head, blond mane flying, gesturing helplesslywith his hands. He paced a little faster and clenched and unclenchedhis hands. "And I...I feared losing control. I might harm her. And,sometimes when I killed for her, the rage and desire were mixed. Iwas so afraid. There was no way...no way we could get past thefear...until it was almost too late: I, when there was nocontrol...no self left...and she, when she feared that unless shecame to me, she would lose me." When he raised his face to her, itwas wet with tears, and lined with pain, the eyes shadowed to a deepindigo. "How can you do this to me, Diana? You, who claim to be afriend? No one else would dare."

  Diana's pale face seemed chiseled from marble. Cold. "I canbecause I am your friend. Go on. You haven't answered the last partof the question.

  Vincent scrubbed angrily at his eyes with the long hair onthe back of his hand. "No. This is none of your business. I cannotbelieve I've said as much as I have. I cannot understand how youmanage to drag things out of me that I can barely tell myself, muchless anyone else. How I deal with my sex life...or lack of same, isnone of your business." He drew himself to his full height, reacheddeliberately across her for his cloak, which he'd thrown over theback of the couch. "Goodnight, Diana." He strode, without lookingback, up the stairs and out the door to the roof.

  Once outside, Vincent leaned against the rough brick of thewall and tried to regain his composure. The tears were coming fasternow, as though the hole that Diana had punched in the dike hadruptured. He shook with anger that Diana had done this to him: thathe had allowed her to do this to him.

  * * * * * * * *

Diana hadn't moved since Vincent left the room. She chewednervously on a nail, biting off the ragged edge. She had allowedherself to feel what he'd been feeling, and she was devastated. She'dknown it was bad, but just how bad, she'd really had no idea. God.What have I done? She looked up toward the loft windows. She couldfeel him up there. He was so shaken he couldn't leave...and shecouldn't go to him. What can I say? Suddenly, she felt nothing fromhim. Her sense of him was gone. She rushed up the stairs to find therooftop empty. Where did he go? Why can't I sense him? Diana turnedand stumbled down the stairs, tears blurring her vision. You blew itthis time, Bennett. She told herself. Chess, indeed. You've got to bethe lousiest strategist in the world. You should've known better.What did you expect him to do...or say? This isn't a case...he's notsome suspect. You know better than to try to get someone to facetheir problems by bludgeoning them with   them.

  Diana paced the loft restlessly, looked out the windowawhile, then sat and tried to work. She attacked the keys on thekeyboard as though it were the enemy...not her own stupidity. She duginto the file to find any indication that she and Vincent had beenright, and let out a whoop when she finally found a tie...a piece ofevidence that would probably prove without a doubt that the murderhad actually been a crime of passion rather than a retaliation. Thelover had killed him, and now she could prove it. She made a quickcall to Maxwell, who praised her on her persistence, and she told himshe'd have to check with forensics for fingerprints. It had been arelatively unnoticed piece of evidence. She hoped they'd dusted it.Exiting the file and shutting down the computer, she walked to thekitchen to make some coffee, and her thoughts went back to Vincent.She wondered where he was...hoped he was all right. I miss him when Ican't feel him. Finally, she could stand it no longer. She threw hercoat on, then headed Below. If she got lost, she'd find a sentry, orbeat on the pipes. If she irritated Pascal enough, he'd sendsomeone.

  * * * * * * * *

  When Vincent left the rooftop, he was becoming more andmore upset. That taunting voice inside himself was becoming louder,more frequent lately, and he often saw the image of the creaturewithin himself. He knew the creature was only a projection of hissubconscious, but it didn't matter; he was real enough to Vincent.That was all that mattered.

  Can't face reality yet, can you? I am you. You don't evenremember completely... but I do.

  Vincent sought escape, until finally the darkness overtookhim and gave him peace. At least for a time. When he came to himselfsome time later he was down in the maze. He had no sense of the time,but he knew he needed to get back to Jacob, so he headed back to theliving area of the Hub, and hoped Father would not have been tooworried.

  By the time he reached his chamber, he found Jacob's cradleempty, but could sense the child asleep and well in the nursery, soFather had probably given up on him and taken the baby to Mary. Itwas late, but he knew Father would probably be waiting up for him,worried, so he made his way to Father's chamber to apologize for theinconvenience.

  * * * * * * * *

  Diana had finally reached the Hub and found her way toVincent's chamber only to find it empty. She went then to Father'schamber and asked if he'd seen Vincent.

  Father looked perplexed. "I thought he was with you. It islate, but he is often out into the early morning, so I left Jacobwith Mary to put down with the infants. Is there somethingwrong?"

  Suddenly realizing that there was no way she could tellFather what was wrong, Diana temporized. "No. Not really. Ijust...irritated him somewhat, and he left in a huff. I just wantedto check on him, maybe apologize. It's nothing. I'll apologize nexttime." She turned and was about to leave when Vincent's bulk filledFather's doorway. They stared at one another for a long moment, thenVincent slowly descended the stairs, his mantle a soft whisperagainst the rails. He spoke to Father, his voice level and seeminglyunconcerned.

  "I am sorry I was delayed, Father. Was Jacob aproblem?"

  Father glanced from Diana to Vincent, then back again.Finally, he answered. "No, not at all. Mary has him. Why not justleave him until morning?"

Vincent nodded, then finally swiveled his head her way andacknowledged Diana. "Diana."

  Diana was receiving extremely odd impressions from Vincent.One moment he seemed to be glad to see her, and the next his mindswung toward anger. Perhaps we're both confused. She finally asked,somewhat tentatively: "Could I have a word with you, in private?"

  "I suppose." Vincent looked to Father. "Excuse us, please.Thank you for keeping Jacob."

  Father nodded, saying nothing.

  They walked silently side by side toward Vincent's chamber,the only place they could be sure of any privacy. Diana felt asthough there were a wall of ice between them, and she cursed her ownstupidity. When they reached the chamber, Vincent lit the candlesthen turned to Diana. He did not invite her to sit. They both seemedto be waiting for the other to speak, but finally, Diana broke thesilence.

  "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have asked. It wasn't myplace."

  Vincent's gaze never wavered as he answered, his voice alittle harsh. "No."

  Diana felt his anger, but finally began once more. "I nevermeant to hurt you...or at least hurt only to help."

  Vincent finally dropped his eyes and his fingers exploredthe curves of the wooden chair next to the desk. "Perhaps. But youcannot know...even if I were to tell you...you cannot know. And it istoo much...too large a thing for me to speak of. With anyone." Whenhe raised his eyes, they were filled with pain. "In answer to thesecond part of your question: I do not deal with it...ever. I cannot,and will not. Now, please. If you would be a friend, leave this.

  Diana ached to go to him and embrace him. She wanted toenfold him and protect him from himself, to reach out and let herlove blanket him with both the passion and the peace she knew thatlove could bring him. But the timing was wrong. Finally, she sighedheavily, built her block in her mind and took his hand. As she lookedinto his gentle face, so scarred with the pain he'd suffered, shenodded. "All right. For now. But I'm here if you need to talk.Whatever you have to say won't shock me...won't make me not like you,or not accept you. You know that, don't you?"

  Vncent nodded slightly. "I know. And I know you meant well,though I do not understand your purpose."

  Diana squeezed his hand briefly, then rose to leave."Someday maybe, when you're old enough, you'll understand.G'night."

  * * * * * * * *

  As Diana walked past Father's chamber, he motioned herinside. She stood, a little awkwardly on the stairs, balanced as ifto run, and asked: "Yes? What is it, Father?"

  Father cleared his throat. "I assume all is wellagain?"

  Diana shrugged. "As well as can be expected, I suppose."She met his eyes. "I truly am a poor strategist, Father. But in thisgame, unlike in chess, people get hurt."

  Father leaned against his desk and smiled. "Check, but notmate, eh?"

  Diana looked at him oddly, then flashed him an embarrassedgrin, her skin mottling in a blush. "No. But I'm working on it."

  As Diana left, Father took off his glasses and laid them onthe table. He picked up a book from the stack and leafed through it.Finally, he read:

 

We are no other than a moving row

Of Magic Shadow-shapes that come and go

Round with the Sun-illumed Lantern held

In Midnight by the Master of the show.

But helpless Pieces of the Game He plays

Upon this Chequer-board of Nights and Days;

Hither and thither moves, and checks, and slays,

And one by one back in the Closet lays.

 

  He chuckled a little and shook his head. "It's all a game,Vincent, and it all moves much too fast. It is over before you knowit. I think you've learned that, and this time, I think the Queenwill take the King. Check AND mate.