THE UNDER THE MOON AFFAIR
Glowing brilliantly, the moon slipped into sight over the edge of the desolate plain and seemed to defy the howling wind blowing in from the west. Surreal and enormous against the indigo sky and barren landscape, it rose with in a quiet majesty of silence.
Illya Kuryakin lay flat on the permafrost crest of a small hill dotted with brown, bare shrubs that were little more than sticks glittering with frozen crystals. Snow spread as far as Kuryakin's eyes could see, nearly blinding in its reflection of moon's light. He squinted and slowly worked his frozen fingers up to pull his fleece lined hat down more snugly over his head and attempt to turn up his collar even more. The relentless wind found every opening in his clothing, no matter how small, and chilled him with icy fingers wherever it touched. He couldn't feel his nose anymore. Each breath crystallized on the clothing surrounding his mouth and scratched his cheeks as he scanned the plain.
They were out there, relentless as the wind. The full moon snatched away any chance of cover by darkness; to scare up another rabbit would be to risk being seen in this forsaken landscape. His last meal had been two days ago.
Where the hell was Napoleon?
This game of hide and seek had to end soon. The sky was as clear as it could be and the vast portion outside the rising moon's halo of light was black velvet and sparkling diamond stars. In another time and place it would be dazzling. This night, it was an omen of the end. Now that the severe weather had broken, aerial surveillance was naturally the next step.
The wind should ease before dawn and they would be up there, hunting for the agent and his prize. Weary and ignoring the constant grumble of his stomach, Illya turned and looked behind him. Good, he thought. She's decided to follow my directions for once. I can't see her at all. The agent took a moment to gather his strength. If she continues with her obstinate behavior I just may have to kill her. Beauty does wear thin and I don't have the energy to put up with her any more.
He knew that wasn't really a possibility, but merely wishful thinking. She was the whole reason for his being here in the first place and Waverly did not take kindly to failed missions. Illya went through his orders once more in his mind, and concluded once again that she did indeed have to be brought in alive.
With a small, regretful sigh he pushed back from the hill's crest into the shadows and used his elbows to drag his body along the frigid ground. By the time he reached the hummock of dirt and snow they used for concealment he was dizzy from exertion. He could already feel the warmth of exercise being sucked from his body by the relentless wind.
The woman's arctic glare did little to retain the heat. Kuryakin was again surprised at the chill her brown eyes could dish out. The loose, wavy tendrils of dark, ash brown hair that poked out from her watch cap did very little to thaw the gaze. The icy aura that rolled from her in waves was in direct contrast to the soft curves and manicured look Illya couldn't help but notice when he had first contacted her four days ago. Although her tone had never been friendly, ever since she'd bundled up in the bulky, shapeless cold weather gear, her attitude had fallen faster than the temperature.
"Well?" She snapped. "Where's the cavalry you keep promising? I'm starving!"
He didn't grace her with a response. Instead, he wormed his way into the shadow of the hummock and pressed his back firmly against her side. The emergency beacon was working; he'd checked it a hundred times today. It was only a matter of time until they were picked up. Who, exactly, would be their rescuers was another question. He was as eager to get away from this woman as she was to get away from him; all he had to do was keep both of them alive until that happened, one way or the other.
"It's going to be colder tonight because there's no cloud cover," he said instead.
"How could it possibly be colder?" Her voice was as chilling as the wind. "I can't feel anything as it is! Why can't we build a fire, just for a few minutes? No one can see us here!"
"Like I said, we can't take that chance." Illya hesitated while he weighed the desire for survival against the desire to kill this woman. Killing her would warm him up, he thought brightly, but it would be temporary. He finally admitted that there was only one course of action, as distasteful as it was. "We have to pool our body heat. It's all we can do."
The woman's shocked reaction at least shut her up for a blissful few seconds. Her mouth, barely visible above her turned-up collar, opened and shut soundlessly, but she eventually found her voice, much to Illya's regret. "WHAT?" She shrieked hoarsely. "Are you saying we have to touch each other? I would rather die!"
"Finally, something we agree on. But since I cannot think of any way to justify in a report that the mission failed because of personality conflicts, I am compelled to try anything. Even touching you. I don't care that you dislike me, but I do care that Mr. Waverly is satisfied that I did all I could. Now, if you'll unzip your jacket." The agent rolled over to face the sputtering woman as he fumbled with his jacket.
"I think not!"
"There's your problem. Try thinking for once."
"My fiancé will not approve of this!"
For the millionth time the agent wondered what kind of man this fiancé was to want a shrew for a wife. "I won't say anything if you won't."
"I'm not saying anything because there will be nothing to say!" Sputtering furiously, the woman started to sit up, but was yanked unceremoniously to the ground.
"Keep your head down. Believe me, I wish there were another way. Do you want to live?"
"Of course I want to live, you idiot!"
"Then you'd better follow my directions, which are backed by anyone in the world who has taken survival training. This is a final measure. We need to share body heat or we both will be ice cubes by dawn."
The woman fidgeted and grumbled and glared but kept her jacket closed. A particularly hard gust of wind made her hunch down closer to the agent. For the first time, he actually saw fear in her eyes, but only for a fleeting second.
"Look," Illya reasoned tiredly. "It's only for five or six hours. After that, we should be picked up."
"By who?" She grumbled.
"We'll see when it happens." He began to unzip her jacket without her help. She didn't try to stop him. He couldn't feel his fingers.
She watched his fumbling with her zipper with wide, furious eyes, refusing to help. Illya felt her stomach muscles tighten as the cold hit her lighter clothes. He automatically snuggled in closely in response. He felt her tighten up even more.
"I'm throwing the blanket over the top of us. Tuck it in under your side."
"For all the good it will do. It's a flimsy piece of itchy wool."
"And we're thankful to the naked sheep who made it possible. Now help me."
The fact that she helped without further comment attested to her discomfort. Illya figured she was more uncomfortable with the cold than with him at this point. He could feel the heat from her body as he moved in closer. The blanket covered them completely and after a surprising few minutes, it actually felt a little warmer.
"We'll probably die from suffocation."
"Keep your hands off me."
"I'm trying to pull you in closer to reduce the air pocket between us."
"Your fingers are cold!"
"And yours aren't?"
"But I'm not touching you!"
"I'm not asking you not to. Really, the closer we are, the warmer we'll be."
The wind flapped the blanket and the agent wiggled to tighten it down. Several minutes later, with a bit of warmth between them, he felt her body relax a little. He began to feel drowsy.
"I hate to admit it, but I am warmer."
Her voice was soft, almost gentle. He felt her warm breath against his raw, wind worn cheek, and it was painful, but he didn't flinch. The heat was welcome, no matter the source at this point.
"I am elated."
Time was indeterminable. It could have been minutes or an hour before she spoke again. Illya was in a nice floaty place when her soft voice trickled into his brain. Her lips were right next to his ear, which prickled with the warmth of her breath. Her soft voice sounded scared; she'd been alone with her thoughts too long.
"Are we going to die?"
"Not if I can help it," he mumbled.
Her arms circled his waist slowly, mirroring his position. He felt her bare hands under his layers of clothes and against the skin of his back. Amazingly, her hands were not that cold. She tightened her grip. The wind moaned against the stark and brittle shrubs outside.
"I . . . I want to apologize for being so . . . difficult."
Her words brought the agent slowly from his pleasant mental place far from this reality. He realized just how far adrift his thoughts had gone, and he made an effort to focus. Exhaustion was taking its toll. It took him several moments to realize that he should respond, but he wasn't sure exactly what to say.
"I would do my job if you were difficult or not."
"I'm sure you would, but if I were more civil it would be a bit easier, wouldn't it?"
"I'm just not used to being treated this way."
"Survival tactics probably isn't one of your pastimes. Or dodging bullets."
"But it is what you do, and I should be thankful. I just wish we could have escaped in a bit more . . . comfort."
Illya actually laughed shortly. "Are you thanking me?"
"I guess I am. If I'm going to be dead by dawn I don't want a guilty conscience."
"I won't let you die."
"You can't promise that."
He hesitated. "Maybe not. But I'll die trying."
"Is that supposed to make me feel better?"
"It is my job."
"To make me feel better?"
"To die trying."
There was a long moment of thoughtful silence. "I never thought of that before. I guess someone has to do that."
"Make you feel better?"
It was her turn to laugh shortly. He was surprised at how nice it sounded. "No, you idiot. Die trying. Die for the good of . . . something."
"What did you think soldiers did all through history?"
"I didn't think about them as individuals. They were just a . . . tool, I guess you'd say. A tool for a government. But they are individual people, aren't they?" He didn't answer. "What makes someone want to do that? To risk sacrificing themselves for people they don't even know?"
He thought for a moment about his own childhood and young adulthood. He never thought he'd made an actual decision; it was just the way it was, the way he was. "I suppose some people make that decision when they've seen enough suffering. When they decide to try to change what they see."
The silence was long enough for Illya's mind to wander again. How long before dawn? How long had they been here? He couldn't build
the strength to look at his watch, and didn't really care what time it was at this moment.
"You have so many scars on your back. I can feel them." Her fingers caressed his skin gently. He felt a warming chill run down his spine.
"It's part of my job," he replied softly.
"I don't want you to have a scar because of me." He felt her rough lips against his earlobe. They were cracked from the weather, but warm where they touched his skin.
"Your job is too hazardous," she said quietly. "And I thank you for doing it." Her lips brushed his ear and his neck. "I'm so scared. I . . . I think that's why I'm being so difficult. I don't deal with change very well."
Illya felt his blood rush a bit warmer. She snuggled closer.
"No one has ever held me like this. Not even my parents or my fiancé."
"Your fiancé must love you very much. He insisted that you be safe. He refused to give us any information until he knew you were."
"Maybe." She worked her lips down to his shoulder, and started back up again.
Her activities were not lost on the agent. Suspicion gave way to a befuddled surprise, which was quickly turning into welcome warmth.
He opted not to move and risk the return of the shrew personality due to rejection.
"I think his motives are political. That's why he began to court me, because of my position."
Illya did not feel frozen anymore and his growling stomach was forgotten. Warmth began emanate from where she touched. He struggled to focus on the conversation. "But now that he's defected, that's all changed, hasn't it?" He realized his thoughts were getting very distracted.
"Not really." Her voice was muffled as her lips brushed the edge of his jaw. "I'm like his . . . what's the term? Card up his sleeve?"
"Um, ace in the hole?"
"Yes, that's it. Ace in the hole. When we finally can return home and I'm at his side, it puts him immediately in a place of power. Like my mother was to my father." She moved to his lips. The agent was suddenly very, very awake. "There was no love between them, just respect for their positions in society. I don't think I want to be used like my mother was. I've finally realized that life is too short."
She brushed her lower lip against his and he automatically responded. The kiss was deep and warm. She pulled him close so they were skin to skin. Her hands eagerly explored his back.
He returned the kiss, long and deep. Part of his mind was telling him to stop, but his defenses dropped like a robe to the floor. He pressed into her and felt her heart racing against the bare skin of his chest. His lips tickled across her cheek to her neck and he heard her sigh. Her back arched, asking his hands to reach farther along her body.
The moon, now high overhead, cast its light down on the undulating blanket like a blessing from above. The heat under the blanket rose to fevered heights as the mutual exploration of bodies beneath it grew desperate and wanting. Long, deep moans blended with the howling wind and blew away into the night.
Finally, after several mighty gusts the wind calmed and the glorious whispers from under the blanket fell quiet.
All was still under the eye of the moon. Dawn wasn't far off.
Illya was roused from his warm and wonderful place by the familiar warbling of his communicator. Napoleon must have been calling for a while, because his tone was sharp and full of concern.
"Illya! It's about time you answered! We're within seconds of your location and the natives are hostile. We're coming in hot. Is the Premier's daughter with you?"
As he came to his full awareness and answered, he was very conscious of the warm breath on his neck just below his ear. Duty rushed forward and pushed the comforting warmth aside and rolled from under the blanket, keeping low. "Ah, yes. We're both here."
Solo's reply came after a fraction of a hesitation. He spoke slowly, instantly suspicious. "And you are both unharmed?"
"We're fine. Just get us, will you?"
"Well, aren't you snippy. See you in about forty seconds."
As the connection was closed they could hear the thrum of an approaching helicopter and the far-off noise of gunfire trying to stop the craft. The woman sighed and pulled her clothing together. "I see why professional survivalists agree that shared body heat is the thing to do."
Illya felt his face go hot and he smiled crookedly. "We professionals do know what's best." He fastened all his clothes and looked to the sky. "Your fiancé will be anxious to see you, I'm sure."
The woman sat up and glanced at him. He saw the glitter in her eyes as she zipped her jacket shut and pulled on her gloves. "I think so. I'm only seeing him long enough to say goodbye, though."
Illya's eyebrows arched and disappeared under the blond bangs than hung loose from his hat. He pulled his cap down more snugly and helped her to her feet. "Tired of being a political pawn?"
She nodded. "I want to live my own life. I want to see what kind of people there are out there. Now that I'm away from my father and I've seen what's out there," she gave him a significant look, "I'm rather curious."
The chopper swooped in low and touched the ground several yards away. The door slid open and a dark haired man motioned them to come.
The agent glanced at their rescuers and took her elbow. "How are you going to explain your change of heart?"
She smiled. "Why, it was due to spirited debate and an open mind!"
" 'Spirited debate', " Illya replied as they raced to the chopper. His wobbly knees and growling stomach reminded him of the entire affair. "I've never heard it called that before."
Napoleon Solo hauled the girl into the open doorway, Illya close behind. His feet were barely off the ground when the craft lifted off and swooped away. Distant gunfire sounded a farewell.
"You two ready for something to warm you up?" Solo offered them steaming cups of broth, which they accepted gratefully. An amused glance between them caused the dark haired agent to narrow his eyes, suspicious. He spoke to his partner. "Everything go as planned, aside from that unexpected weather front?"
"More or less." Illya sipped his broth.
Seeing he wasn't getting any more from his partner, the American turned to the woman. "Are you unharmed? Can I get you anything?"
"I'm fine, thank you, and I'd just like another blanket, if you don't mind."
He got the blanket for her. She automatically draped half of it over the blond agent's shoulders in a nonchalant manner that indicated familiarity. Neither one of them said any more, but sat very close and sipped broth in comfortable silence under the blanket. Solo eyed them both and knew when he was beaten.
"You aren't going to tell me any details, are you?"
"You can read my report when I finish it."
The Chief Enforcement Agent chewed his lip in thought. "I guess I will." He turned to the girl and smiled politely. "Tell me. What are your plans when we get to New York? After you see your fiancé, I mean."
The woman grinned mischievously and glanced at the blond agent before she answered. "I plan to sign up for a survival course."