'You?' I blurt, surprised. 'I didn't expect to see you again.'
My rescuer's carrying a linen-covered silver tray bearing two golden slices of toast, a dish of scrambled eggs, a bowl of cubed melons and oranges—garnished with the rarest of fruit, blueberries—all of it plated on fine white china edged in gold. To one side, a cup and saucer, a selection of teas, and a covered pot of hot water. Two little pots sit beside the plate, one with a red jam, and the other with—
'Is that real butter?' I cry, moving closer, incredulous, as he sets his burden onto the bed, his big, scarred hands incongruous against the tray's refined elegance.
Miro wakes and lifts her head. She licks her nose, tasting the sudden, mouth-watering array of scents. My rescuer doesn't answer. Instead he reaches down into one of the deep pockets along the side of his trousers and pulls out a little china bowl and a foil packet of cat food. He sets the bowl on the side table, beside a fortune's worth of single malt whiskies, and empties the pouch. The food stinks, but Miro brightens, eager, as he sets it in front of her. I watch, speechless, as he pets my cat with gentle strokes.
In his fatigues, the one who pulled me out of London looks like one of Zee's brutes. He's massive, solid, and ugly as sin. A badly-done tribal art tattoo covers half his face and neck, which is an improvement to the rough, pock-marked, broken-nosed visage he sports on the opposite side.
'It is,' he says, low, with a hint of an eastern European accent. It sounds Russian, but I'm not sure.
'What is?' I ask, unable to stop myself from staring at his hand sliding over Miro's bony spine, gentle, soft. I'm transfixed by how someone as rough-looking as him could be so tender.
'Real butter,' he answers, as Miro sits up and commences to clean her whiskers. 'Better now?' he says to her with a smile. I catch a glimpse of his teeth, broken and jagged. I look back at the tray, thinking how much his behaviour reminds me of Ryan. It makes me uneasy, like something isn't adding up. The sensation of having been held in my rescuer's arms, his lips against mine, whispering the name Ryan christened me with floods through me.
I suppress the feeling, uncomfortable. It was the sedation. I wanted my rescuer to be Ryan, so my drug-induced mind created it. The thought of this man kissing me like Ryan once did turns my stomach. He's the ugliest man I have ever seen, and that's saying something after being around Zee's men. I can't understand how he could be in a perfect place like this. Maybe he has qualities GC values. I eye him, surreptitious, wondering if he is an anomaly like me, a freak of nature. The thought makes me soften a little towards him. If he is, he'll be just as lonely as me. A tug of solidarity pulls at me.
The scent of toast beckons. I clamber over the bed and kneel in front of the tray, noticing for the first time I've been washed and dressed in a soft blue pair of pyjamas, about three sizes too big.
I glance up at my rescuer, catching him watching me under his heavy brow, his look unreadable. A closed book.
He clears his throat and turns his attention back to Miro. 'I washed and dressed you,' he says. He cuts a look at me, then away again. 'I know,' he mutters, acknowledging my dismay, 'but out of the others,' he continues, defensive, 'I was your best option.'
'Before you found me,' I say, low, 'I was raped. Twice.'
His jaw clenches. He gets up and goes to the window. His hands curl into fists and a wall of anger, raw, visceral, washes over me, mixed with something else, dark, heavy, and oppressive.
'He hurt you pretty bad,' he says, quiet, keeping his gaze on the brightening day. 'I gave you a shot of antibiotics, and another one for pain. You needed two stitches around your rectum. I did my best. Take it easy for the next few days. There's some tablets on the tray, they'll stop you from going until you heal.'
My heart tight with gratitude, I nod, even though he's still got his back to me. I neck the little green pills and pick up the fork and start on the eggs. They're seasoned with fragrant herbs, and fluffy as a cloud. They're the most gorgeous thing I have ever eaten. I wonder if he made it for me, the dark horse.
'Real eggs,' he says. I glance up at him, a forkful of the shimmering stuff halfway to my mouth. 'You ever have those before?' he asks.
I shake my head, thinking of the rubbery powdered eggs I'd eaten as a kid, and shovel them in, unable to stop from gorging myself, like Miro.
'Real eggs, and real butter,' I sigh as I finish. 'I must be in heaven.' I dip my knife into the pot of curled butter and spread a fat blob of it across the top slice of the toast—a thick, pale, creamy layer. I forgo the jam, longing to see what real butter tastes like. It's a little salty, rich, and smoother than the lurid yellow, slightly bitter chemical spread I used to get long ago, in another life. I gobble the buttered toast, greedy, and set to buttering the second slice, uncaring of the crumbs coating the duvet cover and my lap. Miro slips over and eats them, one by one, conscientious, missing nothing. I stroke her nose, thinking how old habits are going to die hard, even here in this place of plenty.
My rescuer turns his gaze back to the window and lets me eat. From the corner of my eye, I take a measure of him. He looks better from behind. He's built like a tank. Despite his loose fitting fatigues, the contours of his thick muscles show through the material. I imagine him taking on Zee in a fistfight. Zee wouldn't stand a chance. This guy could break him in two with his bare hands. I wish I could see it, but somehow I doubt my rescuer will ever be going back to London.
I finish the toast and set upon the fruit. The pale green melon melts over my tongue, soft, sweet and honeyed, followed by the slightly tart oranges, blood-red, and cold, making my teeth tingle. Finally, I attempt the blueberries, little plump, dense indigo wonders which pop in my mouth, starbursts of grainy, bitter, sugary-sharp joy.
My rescuer leaves his vigil by the window and pours the hot water into the cup for me. I peruse the artful little selection of tiny boxes: white vanilla, orange chai—whatever chai is—strawberry infusion, and earl grey. I open the box containing the strawberry tea. Inside, a little white muslin bag containing a fragrant mix of dried flowers, berries, and tea leaves. It's so pretty—so unlike anything I have touched in my entire life—sorrow slashes into me. All this time while Miro and I endured endless miseries in a dying city, others were living in a world like this, making tea from fancy boxes, taking their good fortune for granted. The blinding unfairness of it cuts a deep swathe through me.
I lower the bag into the water, acutely aware of my rescuer's nearness, his eyes on me, watching me. I keep my attention on my work, following the trails of inky red circling the bag as I swirl it around the cup, freeing its contents.
'You have a name?' I ask. 'Or do I just call you Soldier?'
He doesn't answer. I look up, wondering if maybe he's not allowed to tell me, like I wasn't allowed to tell Ryan my name. He's looking at me in a way that makes me feel strange. Like he knows me. All of me. Like he wants me to remember something. I wonder if I knew him as a kid, before I blabbed about the flood. I rack my memories, but nothing sticks out.
'It's Ryan,' he finally says, low.
I blink. 'You trying to tell me you were friends with someone who had the same name as you?' I ask, sharp, suspicion edging in, harder than ever. I wonder if he's trying to fool me. Trying to take Ryan's place. I bet Ryan really isn't his name.
He nods and lifts an eyebrow, a half-smile catches at his lips. 'Yeah. Guess that's just one of many things we had in common.'
I don't know what to say. It's hanging out there between us, like a giant, pink unicorn. We share a silent glance, and then he scoffs, relenting, letting us both off the hook. He gestures to himself. 'Yeah, I know,' he says, his Slavic accent thickening. 'Ryan was a hell of a lot better looking than this. Can't win them all.'
I smile, and sip the tea. It's gorgeous, like everything else. I decide I like this savage-looking, yet gentle Ryan, who knew my Ryan, too.
'Thank you for the breakfast,' I say, lifting my eyes to his. 'And for putting me back together again.'
He presses his lips together and nods, his expression shuttered. I get the feeling he's a complicated man. I scoot back to lean against the headboard, and sip again, the tea warms me, comforts me. For the first time in months, a feeling of security washes over me, reminding me of the nights Ryan held me in his arms as I slept.
'What did you do with my things?' I ask.
'Incinerated them,' he says, terse, his dark eyes on mine. 'I hope you don't mind.'
'I don't.' I sigh. 'I just wish I could have watched them burn.'
Ryan says nothing, though he doesn't meet my eyes. He picks up the empty cat food dish, sets it on the tray and leaves, the china rattling a little as he closes the door. I know he'll be back later to tell me what I'm really doing here, but for now, I watch the sun ascend into a cloudless sky and think of the enigmatic man washing my breakfast dishes, wondering who he really is, and why we are here, two misfits and a cat, hidden away in a beautiful, perfect place where there is still snow, and the sky is blue.