Ruth Rosen let herself into 5B and pushed the door closed behind her with her walking stick. She walked into the small kitchen and placed her bag on the table with a sigh of relief. Rummaging inside she pulled out a large dish containing a hearty stew cooked by Lobelia and placed it in the fridge. A pint of milk followed along with a slab of butter. A loaf of bread, a jar of homemade strawberry jam and a container of tea were left on the table.
She had baked and iced a chocolate cake, which she would bring up later, once she knew Illya had returned home. It made the perfect excuse to call in and make sure he was safe and well. The young man seemed to have developed quite the habit of getting himself into trouble which resulted in an alarming amount of bruises and broken fingers. Sometimes his injuries were far worse. Although he would shrug off such concerns, Ruth couldn’t stop herself from worrying.
Satisfied that everything was in order in the kitchen, Ruth moved into the living room and pulled back the curtains that covered the flat’s large windows, flooding the room with afternoon sunshine, dust motes danced and shimmered in the light.
Although the room was relatively small, it appeared much larger than her own living room; due mainly to Illya’s being virtually bare and what furniture there was, looked as though it had seen better days. As if Illya had bought furniture that would hold no attachment, in case he suddenly left. Ruth briefly wondered how many other rooms, or apartments Illya had temporarily called home, never or unable to return. Illya’s apartment contained an armchair, a couch and a coffee table with its ever present chessboard set-up ready for a game. The only other item in the room was a large, tall bookcase. Ruth and the other residents of the block of flats had watched the six shelf unit slowly fill up. Technical manuals mingled with autobiographies, but the majority of the now overflowing bookcase were fiction. All kinds of genres, classics with the recently published, books in English and a myriad of other languages. If there was any weakness that could be assigned to Illya Kuryakin it was his love of the written word.
Happy that everything was in order for Illya’s return later in the day, and that he would have enough food to see him through for a couple of meals, Ruth turned to leave. A groan suddenly filled the air. She paused, wondering if she had misheard. But the low groan came again. Moving as silently as she was able Ruth made her way to the bedroom and gently eased the door open.
In the dim light she could she make out the tall figure of Illya in the middle of his bed. He was bare-chested, a sheet tangled around his hips and legs. His hands gripped the bedding as another groan escaped from him. Thinking of nothing other than to comfort the young man she was coming to regard as a son, she flipped on the light switch, flooding the room with harsh light as she moved towards the bed.
“Illya,” she gently called, reaching out to him. Ruth’s hand was on his forearm for only long enough to register the heat that was radiating from him when she was suddenly flipped onto the bed, a large hand pressing her down into the mattress. She watched in horror as Illya raised up his other arm, his hand clenched into a fist.
Ruth brought both hands up to wrap around the hand that pinned her to the bed. “Illya, it’s Ruth!” she gasped out in terror. She squeezed her eyes closed as the fist descended. Ruth knew the punch would do her great harm. Her age had made her frail. Illya was young and strong, his lean frame packed with muscle, she would be lucky if it only broke her cheek or her jaw, and that was only if Illya stopped with one blow. Her heart clenched at the damage it would do to Illya when he returned to his senses, when he realised that he had struck her. “Illya, please. It’s Ruth!” She cried out in desperation.
“Ruth?” His voice sounded weak and uncertain.
She opened her eyes and stared into the puzzled face of Illya. The pressure from the hand that pinned her to the bed eased, but the fist hung suspended in the air, still aimed at her head. She slowly raised her arms and cupped her hands around Illya’s face. “Yes,” she sobbed in relief. “Yes, it’s me, Illya.” She frowned as her hands became slick with sweat.
Ruth watched as Illya’s face morphed into a mask of abject horror and he pushed himself away from her. He scrambled off the bed and disappeared from her view. She pushed herself upright and frowned as her left hand encountered something wet. She looked in shock at the blood that covered it. She twisted as best she could to try and see behind her – part of the white bedsheet was covered in blood. Ruth slid from the bed and cautiously approached Illya who sat leaning against the bedroom wall, knees to his chest and his arms wrapped round them. Ruth could see no obvious signs of blood on his pyjama bottoms or the parts of his torso she could see. She knelt stiffly in front of him and reached out to touch his shoulder in a gesture of comfort. Illya flinched away from her.
“No!” He cried out hoarsely. He tried to curl in on himself even more. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” He repeated as he lowered his gaze from her.
Undeterred Ruth gently grasped his shoulder, her hand sliding in sweat and the burning heat emanating from him. “Illya, it’s alright,” she soothed.
“No, not alright.” Illya raised his head to look at her. Ruth almost cried out at the pain and anguish that marred his features. “I attacked you. I hurt you. I could have killed you!” The last few words end in a choked sob and unshed tears shone in his eyes.
“But you didn’t hurt me, Illya.” Ruth countered. “You stopped. I woke you up and you just reacted. I should have…”
“No.” Illya covered her hand that was still gently stroking his shoulder. “Not your fault. My fault. I am … dangerous. I…I shouldn’t be here, in flat. I should, I should be …kept in cage.”
“Now that’s enough of that nonsense, Illya Kuryakin.” Ruth stated firmly, she smiled as he looked up at her in shock. “You are obviously very ill. You’re burning with fever and there is blood on your sheets. You’re hurt. I woke you from a nightmare. I should have taken more care. Neither of us are to blame.” She stood up, using Illya to brace herself, his hands coming up to steady her.
She watched as he pushed himself up from the floor and towered over her, before suddenly swaying alarmingly. What little colour he had drained from his face, his breathing becoming ragged.
“Illya, sit back down,” Ruth ordered in alarm. She would never be able to hold him up or even provide enough support to get him back to the bed. Illya ungracefully lowered himself to the floor, his knees raised once again, but this time he lowered his head between them, long arms wrapping around his legs. Ruth moved to lean over him so that she could rub his back as he tried to gain control of his breathing when she saw the reason for the blood on the sheets. There was a long jagged wound on his left side. It appeared to start just above his hip and stop in the middle of his back, only a couple of inches from his spine. The uneven flesh had been roughly stitched together, but the stitches were irregular and at odd angles. Some had broken altogether allowing the wound to bleed. It was also inflamed with infection.
“I won’t be a moment, Illya.” Ruth said as she squeezed his shoulder for a moment before making her way to the bathroom. She folded a towel and dampened one side. A search through a bathroom cabinet produced a bandage. She retrieved her fallen walking stick as she made her way back to Illya. Moving to his left side and using her stick to balance herself she leaned down and placed the towel over the wound, causing Illya to flinch.
She unwound the bandage and then realised that she would have trouble wrapping it around his torso. Illya sat up, moving his left arm to hold the towel against his back. Wordlessly Ruth pushed one end of the bandage under Illya’s hand and passed it along his back for Illya to grab it with his right hand and bring it round his stomach and back to Ruth. They repeated the procedure until the entire bandage had been used. Ruth secured it with a safety pin.
“Thank you,” Illya muttered as he lowered his head between his knees again, his face ashen.
Ruth suddenly found herself at a loss to what to do. Her inclination was to call for an ambulance, Illya certainly needed medical care. But she knew that any suggestion to do so would be rejected by the young Russian. She had heard many an argument between Illya, Napoleon and Gaby on the subject. From what she had managed to glean from the heated conversations Illya had a strong distrust of medical professionals, and Napoleon and Gaby were appalled that he felt the need to patch himself up. She wondered if that was what he had attempted to do this time, but with the wound in such an awkward position he’d been unable to tend to it properly. She had a vision of him in a dirty hotel room trying to stitch the wound up using his left hand and strategically placed mirrors. No wonder it had become infected.
“Illya, I’m going to call Gaby?” She hadn’t meant to make it sound like a question, to give Illya an option to say no. She let out a sigh of relief when he nodded his head in agreement. Ruth stroked a hand through his sweat dampened hair. “I’ll just be in the next room,” She felt compelled to say as she made her way out of the bedroom.
Trouble shooters. That’s what Napoleon had called the three of them. Tasked with sorting out problems in far flung subsidiaries of British Oil, the company that they supposedly worked for. It was to explain the bruises, broken bones and other wounds the three of them often came back with after one of their long absences. Napoleon and Illya seemed to carry the most physical injuries, but Gaby would sometimes come back with a haunted look in her eyes that took a long time to fade, which worried Ruth more.
The residents of the flats had become surrogate minders over the months and years. Gaby would be invited for afternoon tea and surrounded by the support and wisdom of women who had lived through and survived their own horrors. Illya and Napoleon would be entrusted into their care when a watchful eye was required to ensure that they allowed their injuries to heal. It would often amaze Ruth that two young men would obey the commands of old women. Meekly accepting a scolding when they tried to do too much too soon, contently sitting on couches, large hands put to good use by the knitters of the group as hanks of yarn were twisted into more manageable balls. Oh, they would snipe and grumble, but Ruth knew it was all for show. Two young men, one American, one Russian, so very different in personality, but both starved of genuine love and affection. Who probably couldn’t comprehend themselves why they felt safe enough to show the pain they were in and succumb to their body’s demands and fall asleep in the presence of a caring, fussing old lady.
Ruth found Illya’s telephone balanced on top of a pile of books sat next to his bookshelf. She dialled a number that she had committed to memory from regular use.
Ruth had just put the kettle on to boil for a pot of tea when there was a loud knock at the door. It had been four days since she’d discovered Illya so desperately ill in his flat. Gaby had arrived within half an hour of speaking to Ruth on the telephone and had immediately called for a doctor despite Illya’s protests. Napoleon had arrived just after the doctor and escorted Ruth home with a promise that he would keep her informed of Illya’s condition, which he had kept. But he had gently refused her requests to be allowed to see Illya. There had been an uneasiness about him when he told her Illya wasn’t feeling up to visitors and it had set off a sense of foreboding within Ruth.
She gasped in delight as she opened the door to find Illya on the other side.
“Illya! Come in. Oh, I’ve been so worried about you.” In her joy she missed Illya hesitate before he stepped over the threshold and slowly close the door behind him. “I was just about to make some tea. Would you like some?” She moved towards her kitchen, needing to do something otherwise she would hug the dear life out of the young man.
“No, thank you.”
She turned at the unexpected refusal. Illya stood only a few steps away from her door his gaze lowered, his face pale.
“I... I can’t stay for long. I…Gaby said I had...” He took a deep breath and took a step towards her, holding her gaze for a moment. “I came to tell you that I am leaving.”
“Leaving?” Ruth queried in puzzlement. “Are you going back to Russia?”
“No. I am…” he took another deep breath. “I am moving out of flat. Is too dangerous for me to stay. I am too dangerous.”
“You’re leaving us? But why?” She implored.
Illya took another step and reached out as if to touch her, but jerked his hand back. He put his arms behind his back as if he was at parade rest. “I hurt you and I do not wish to do so again. It is best I leave.”
“Oh, Illya. You didn’t hurt me.” Ruth had no compunction about touching him as she reached up to gently touch his cheek. Her eyes filled with tears as he looked down at with such anguish. “You…you frightened me, yes. But you didn’t hurt me. You would never hurt me.”
Illya shook his head. “You cannot know this. I was ready to strike. I could have killed you!” He brought his arms around from behind his back and gently held her shoulders. “I can’t take chance that I would lose control again,” he confessed sadly.
“No.” Ruth replied firmly. She took his left hand off her shoulder and held it in both of hers. His right hand dropped to his side. “You did not hit me, Illya. Despite your injury, the pain you were in, the fever you were running, you knew not to strike. You knew I was no threat. You knew it was me.”
“Ruth, you …”
“I’m still talking, Illya.” He blinked at her in surprise. “But you are hurting me now. You are going to break my heart if you leave. Betty, Yvonne, Lobelia, all of us, you will hurt us beyond measure if you leave.” Ruth lifted his hand and kissed his knuckles. She looked up at Illya’s sharp intake of breath. He looked down at her with pain filled eyes. For a horrified moment she thought she had physically hurt him, before realising that he was in pain all the way to his soul. He very gently took her hands into his.
“Ruth, I am dangerous. Should not be near good people. I am monster.” He held her gaze for a moment before lowering it in shame.
“Illya, you are no monster.” Ruth replied firmly. “A dangerous man? Yes, you are. But you are only dangerous when you need to be. If you were a man without conscience you would not be so concerned over an old lady’s feelings. Illya, I don’t know what it is that you, Napoleon and Gaby do, but what I do know, is that it keeps us all safe.”
Illya raised his head to look at her in puzzlement.
“I’m old, not stupid, Illya. A trouble shooter in the oil industry doesn’t get into the amount of trouble the three of you seem to find on a regular basis.” She smiled as he looked at her in astonishment. “Illya, I beg you, please don’t leave. I have lost all those I have ever loved. I cannot bear the thought of losing you too, for something so silly.” She moved closer to him and wrapped him in a hug, her cheek on his chest. She felt him stiffen in surprise before engulfing her as he hugged her back.
“I am sorry,” he murmured a few moments later. “I do not want to leave. I like it here. I have not had home like this for many years. But, I…I thought I had…destroyed it with my actions. I didn’t realise I would hurt you more if I left.”
Ruth moved back slightly so that she could look up at him. “So you’re going to stay?”
“I will stay. But we must discuss what happened, must not happen again.”
Ruth smiled up at him. “I’ll make that tea. You go and sit down. Should you be out of bed yet?”
Illya bent and kissed her forehead. “You sound like Gaby.”
“I always knew Gaby was the brains between the three of you. You and Napoleon would get into far too much trouble without a firm hand to keep you in line.” With one last hug Ruth let Illya go and turned towards the kitchen, looking back at Illya as he followed her.
“I will carry tray,” he said.
“You will do no such thing. You’re still far too pale. Go and sit down.”
Illya took another step towards the kitchen.
“Sit!” Ruth commanded and pointed towards the couch.
Illya heaved out a heavy sigh. “Gaby, she will be like you when she grows old. Beautiful and bossy.” But he turned towards the couch.
Ruth placed cups and saucers onto the tray as she re-boiled the kettle. She couldn’t have allowed Illya to leave thinking he was a mindless danger to those around him. He was a good man, with a good heart. One day she might lose him to the hazards of his job. She was selfish enough to hope that she would never feel that pain, that old age would take her first.
As she filled the teapot and let it brew, she turned to look at Illya, his long legs were stretched out in front of him, his head thrown back against the back of the couch, the epitome of relaxed. She smiled.
She had won another battle against Illya’s inner demons, but the war waged on. A war she and the other ladies of the block of flats were determined to win.
Their reward? A happy, healthy Illya, finally at peace with himself.
Was that really too much to ask for?