Illya Kuryakin tested genetically positive as a dormant Sentinel at the age of ten. It was early, the tests still questionable, and while his parents didn’t make a big fuss out of it, officials did.
When his father was sent off to the GULAG in Siberia and his family lost all privileges, everyone expected him to come online from the psychological stress.
It happened when he turned sixteen, for no apparent reason, and he registered right up there, as an A-class, with all five senses and a strength that would become unrivalled if he found the right Guide.
With the Special Forces he learned control. Tight, iron-wrought control. He learned to be self-sufficient. He learned restraint, though the volatile explosions happened when the right trigger was pushed.
By the time Illya turned twenty-one he had gone through dozens of prospective candidates for a Guide, burning through them like a wildfire. None of them were able to withstand the psychic force involved in a bond to a Sentinel of Kuryakin’s manifestation, breaking it off just as the surface connections formed, their minds overwhelmed by the fire inside the young man.
One he had torn to shreds. A whimpering, babbling wreck of a man, older than the Sentinel, A-class Guide and still not up to the challenge. Illya had utterly destroyed him.
The KGB didn’t mind.
He was an effective, deadly operative and with the right handler he performed just perfectly.
And the rage that boiled underneath the deceptively stoic façade was used for their purposes.
Illya learned to concentrate, to rein in his temper as long as was needed, then let it fly and tear into whatever he needed. His handlers called it ‘decompressing’. For him it was a period of no memory, of such powerful emotions that they wiped out his rational mind. The primal being came free and soared happily, then it was caged again.
Illya never questioned it, rarely needed a Guide for missions, and he decompressed in his own way. It wasn’t always the healthiest way, sure, but it did get the job done and his handlers didn’t comment on the path of destruction, serious injuries and sometimes death he carved in his wake.
His shields were flawless.
He fulfilled his missions, he had an incredible success rate, and he performed.
It was all he ever did.
It was like the creature that resided inside him, the monster that killed and bloodied its claws, was in upheaval, wanting more, wanting to go out and right into the next melee.
Of course he met other Sentinels, all of them with Guides, and he saw their expressions, the pity and disgust, the fear and loathing. He was an unknown for them, an aberration. He didn’t fit. He should be catatonic, a gibbering wreck of a man, overwhelmed by his senses.
He was lethal. He functioned.
One asked him about his spirit guide.
Illya was perplexed for a moment, unsure what she was talking about.
It was the night he spent reading up on what he was supposed to be for the very first time.
He never caught sight of his so-called spirit animal. He suspected he either didn’t have one or it was too terrible to manifest.
He didn’t pursue that line of thinking for much longer.
And if he saw a shadow sometimes, at the far edge of his sleeping mind, it was nothing but a faint memory in the morning.
* * *
Napoleon Solo was tested positive as a low-level empath and as such as a possible Guide when he was in the Army.
He was eighteen.
He didn’t register all that highly after the initial positive. Two more tests showed no single blip went higher than maybe a D-class empath, which had him off the list of Guides to be trained immediately.
No one realized his true abilities and he breezed through his escapades of theft and deceit easily.
C or D-level Guide potential, the Army had noted down.
Too low to be useful. No Sentinel would be able to work with him, not even as a simple anchor-line.
No one suspected that his charm and suaveness, his smooth execution of any kind of theft, could be because of his empathy.
Napoleon never hit it off with any Sentinel he came across in his career, but he managed to wrap whoever was his target around his little finger, distract them, schmooze them.
He was a professional.
He got what he wanted.
When he was caught he ran into his first wall, a B-level Sentinel with a B-level Guide, both of which were far, far outside his abilities.
As a CIA agent he had a success rate that was up there with the best CIA-trained agents. He did his job, he did it well, and he squirreled away what he could to build a little nest egg. His superiors and handlers were aware of his illegal activities, but they could never pin anything on him.
There was no proof.
No Sentinel he crossed paths with thought of him as a Guide. No Sentinel-Guide pair gave him more than a cursory look.
And whenever he was retested, he still registered way too low to pull off any kind of Guide methods. No one thought that he was empathically talented enough to influence a person, least of all the psychologists he played, the handlers he had wrapped around his little finger.
Solo was successfully flying under their radar and that was what he wanted.
His shields were impeccable, keeping him from being discovered, and while they stopped Napoleon from discovering his true depth, he didn’t care.
He wasn’t Guide material anyway.
He didn’t need to know more about himself.
So when he was paired with the volatile Russian super soldier who had torn out the back of his getaway car, had later nearly choked him in a Berlin toilet house, he didn’t get a blip.
Close physical proximity, life-and-death brawl, and there was nothing.
The way Kuryakin was looking at him, that dark fire in his eyes, the stoic expression that barely hid his anger at being teamed up with an American he detested, he didn’t seem to find Napoleon any more desirable than Solo desired the Red Peril.
Which was a lie, he told himself later. A big, fat lie.
Of course he had looked into the man’s file, had read up on the intel. Of course he knew his history, and that he was an A-level Sentinel, an alpha candidate who had until now burned every Guide, sent them screaming and sobbing back to wherever they had come from.
Napoleon was fascinated.
It was why he had provoked him in the first place, to see that rage, to witness the outbreak. A brief storm raging over the land and then there was nothing but destruction left behind.
Absolutely under control until a trigger was hit.
His family. His father. His mother.
A Sentinel of his abilities and he had psychotic episodes that didn’t break him, that didn’t throw him into a fugue or a zone.
Yes, Napoleon was fascinated.
And he continued to poke at that dangerous, mercurial temper.
Every. Chance. He. Got.
From beginning to end.
It was entertaining.
The Red Peril was entertaining.
More than anything he had ever had the pleasure to experience. Challenging, too.
He also looked very good in all black. Rome was just about to be Napoleon’s downfall.
They worked smoothly together.
With some ups and downs, sure, but they did get the job done, though there were some hiccups.
The biggest was Solo getting strapped to an electric chair and having his brain fried.
His shields wavered.
He was losing control and he wasn’t even aware of it.
There were cracks forming, tearing at his decade-old walls, turning him into a mass of pain and suffering. He caught whiffs from Rudi, the crazy Nazi uncle of Gaby’s, but he was in too much agony to really tell them apart from everything else his brain threw at him.
He was starting to hallucinate. He saw something shadowy race around the underground room, saw it snap and snarl, but it had no shape.
It was Kuryakin who saved him, of all people, when Napoleon had been convinced he would die that day.
“You doing okay, Cowboy?”
The question was casual, the words spoken at leisure, but the meaning was so much deeper.
Something sparked in those usually glacial eyes, a fire that was blazing hotly, contained by a super-human will and determination. It was something so furious it was almost unnatural. It was a darkness in a soul that needed to be vented, that wanted out, but it had never found a right way.
Venting equaled destruction, maybe death.
It was a beast, a monster, dark and deadly, and it was locked away behind a human façade, clutching onto a human soul with all it had. Lose that and it would never be controlled.
Solo had seen it rise once or twice before, that tell-tale twitch of a finger tapping against one leg, but it had never been this open, this uncontained, and it was not even directed at him. Like some 6’5” supernatural creature right out of Hell it swooped down on Rudi, threatening to devour him alive.
Napoleon had to suppress a shiver and the instinctual need to recoil, while part of him wanted to reach out and soothe that unbound fury, push it down to a bearable level.
This was unhealthy.
It would only end in pain.
Eyes the color of a glacier lake caught his still too blurry gaze, anchored him in the present, brought him back and pushed away the memory of pain and fear for just a second.
Napoleon looked into those eyes and while he saw the untamed energy boiling below the human façade, he also saw and felt something else.
For the first time in a week of working together, there was nothing between them. Just the naked truth, the emotions roiling through Illya, and Napoleon felt something inside of him yearn to be free, to touch this, to embrace it and call it his own.
Illya expelled a soft breath and the moment was broken when he blinked.
Sure hands freed him from the infernal contraption, helped him stand and stagger over to the wall to lean against. His muscles twitching, his brain scrambled, Solo could only watch events unfold. He was scraping together his shields, was desperately trying to catch a clear thought and put his mask back on.
Illya had seen him at his almost worst and vulnerable, had probably seen the relief in his eyes, the hope and plea for help. Napoleon had been close to embarrassed to find himself clinging to the taller man as he was removed from the chair.
The darkness the Sentinel projected had been unbearable, but it hadn’t been harmful.
Not to him.
It was a void, a vortex, swallowing whatever came too close.
And it had greeted him almost like an old friend, a welcome sight, anchoring itself in him, like Napoleon had used the wall of muscle and human warmth as an anchor for his frazzled mind.
The fury brushing over his mind had been like a hot knife, but instead of slicing into the American agent, it had been focused on Rudi alone.
Ready to kill.
But still, Kuryakin calmed down, listened to him, followed his lead. He talked, he had himself under control, and while it should have been a clue, Solo didn’t delve too deeply into that.
The satisfied expression on Peril’s face when Rudi died in his own contraption had him shiver again, his wavering shields mere scraps of what had been before, and suddenly the Russian’s head snapped around, his eyes narrowing, nostrils flaring.
Two pairs of blue eyes met, one glacially cold with a hot fire underneath that cold surface, the other still too open and too vulnerable.
Solo broke the staring contest. He gathered what was left of his dignity, pride and shields, pushed past the other man and headed for the surface.
They had a nuclear bomb to find.
He had no time to delve deeper into the strange sensations.
The world’s fate was in their hands.
Something inside of him curled with warmth and longing, wanted to feel the Sentinel again, wanted to touch that strength.
Napoleon Solo was no stranger to attraction, though he usually used his charms on an unsuspecting target or his bedmate for a night. He had never felt anything for them, aside from the need for a momentary release.
Illya felt different.
Illya was different.
And he was completely off limits.
That hurt more than his failure to enthrall Victoria Vinciguerra.
It was the first time Napoleon entertained different thoughts when it came to his Russian partner. Solo wasn’t known to push any kind of warm body out of his bed, though he rarely invited men as easily as women. As targets he made no difference between them, but he preferred not to leave scandals behind when it came to hotel room pleasures.
Illya… the Peril was not a simple pleasure. He was complicated and there was so much more underneath that sometimes mulish surface, that cold distance and close to open disgust.
Napoleon found himself drawn to him, wanted to know more, wanted to see and feel what had touched him in the torture room.
And every time he had that thought cross his mind he shied away and pushed it into a deep, dark corner.
This was an attraction close to fatal, because it was an attraction to a powerful Sentinel. Napoleon was nothing, no Guide, nothing at all.
No, he told himself as he jerked off in the shower to the image of a tall, blond, broad-shouldered man with piercing blue eyes. No, no, no!
He came explosively, a gasp of air spraying through the water, and if Illya’s name was somewhere lost in it, so be it.
Solo was tired, feeling the sleepless nights, the nightmares lapping at the edge of his perception, as he packed his bag. Every time he had caught some shut-eye there had been this shapeless shadow, this thing following him like a nosy puppy.
It was no puppy, though.
It was… dangerous. Teeth and claws.
Solo felt aches from his abused muscles, from the electric currents racing through him, and movements were less smooth than before.
He wanted to sleep for a week.
He wanted to crawl into an anonymous apartment, hole up, drop his shields and just fill the emptiness with hard liquor.
He hadn’t felt like this for a long, long time, but the strain had been getting to him ever since demolishing a Berlin rest room with a towering Russian KGB agent.
A Sentinel. An A-level without a Guide. A powerful steel ball of energy that could explode at the slightest provocation.
He was sure the man had picked up something in Rudi’s chamber of torture, but Peril hadn’t so much as given him a sniff or another look since then. They had chased down Vinciguerra, had saved Gaby and retrieved the bomb.
Sure, Napoleon had been beaten up for his troubles, had nearly been killed. And he had been saved by a flying motorbike wreck.
Kuryakin was a freakishly strong man, he mused distantly. Among other things, which all ran along the lines of aggravating, rude and ruthless.
But he had saved Napoleon’s life with throwing that heap of junk at Vinciguerra and then stabbing him with a knife. It had been surreal and part of Solo had been thrilled to watch the carnage, the anger that he had seen before, while another had wanted to calm the blond down, anchor those raging emotions, keep the darkness in check.
He had reached out. Now, thinking about it, Napoleon was sure he had.
That had lasted for all but a second before he had locked it away, telling Illya he was fine and just needed a minute, pushing him to take care of Gaby.
And who was Napoleon Solo anyway? A low-level empath. Too unimportant for even the lowest Sentinels to be interested in, though he had talent and he worked that talent to his favor.
He just never registered.
Illya was the super spy, the special one, the rage-driven Sentinel without an outside control mechanism. He had command of his own senses and needed no one else. Throughout their joint mission Napoleon had wondered how the man managed to keep his shields up, not to zone. He had watched him covertly, had catalogued their interactions, and he had seen the near-loss of control on several occasions.
There were always signs of an imminent outbreak.
Clear signs of Peril fighting it down until he could let go.
It was amazing to watch. Napoleon was drawn to it like a moth to a flame, a deadly spectacle that would kill him, too. And still he did not run from it.
A normal human might be called a psychopath, but this was an A-class Sentinel with no counterbalance. This was a man who was in complete control of himself unless the anger reached a certain point.
Then he snapped, the lid was blown off the volcano underneath, and it was a brief, violent explosion, soon to be tamed and locked away again.
Who could live like that?
Napoleon had even suspected Gaby as a Guide, but while she had been able to hold back their Russian comrade, she had never really calmed him down.
Still, Illya had come to him first, asked him, Napoleon, if he was alright. Sure, it could be argued that Napoleon was nothing but a possible ally and a clever pair of hands to use a gun if necessary.
Solo couldn’t shake that niggling feeling those intense eyes evoked. A face splattered in mud, the blue eyes like icy fire, burning too intensely to be merely human, and a strength unbroken even by his fall.
He had let himself get pulled to his feet, watching Illya with Gaby.
And how the man had calmed down after his outbreak and the murder of Vinciguerra.
He wasn’t jealous of Illya’s attraction to their fellow agent. She was a strong, feisty and attractive woman. If Peril liked her, good for him, even if she wasn’t a Guide.
No, Napoleon wasn’t jealous. Or disappointed.
He simply felt empty.
For the first time in his life he had encountered something he couldn’t have, couldn’t steal, was unable to ignore and leave.
Jerking off didn’t help.
Bedding two beautiful and willing women didn’t either.
Facing off against the powerful Sentinel, aware that they both had the same orders, Napoleon felt a weariness settle in his bones.
He liked the guy.
He truly did.
The whole surly, stand-offish package.
Sure, they rubbed each other the wrong way, but they had been able to cope with their differences, work together, and they had done the impossible.
And he had seen the struggle, the fight going on inside the Sentinel. True human emotions, the battle against orders Napoleon had had himself.
It had hurt him, too. It had touched something deeply, brushing over his shields, his mind.
So Napoleon tossed Peril the watch he had retrieved and watched with satisfaction as the Russian’s face transformed into stunned amazement.
Like a switch had been flicked and the predator was caged again.
Napoleon almost felt the other’s joy, his emotions as the only possession he truly had was returned to him. It was warm and strong, not at all like everything else the KGB agent usually projected.
And Solo wanted to feel it again.
He reined himself in with an effort. This could only end in more pain if he let himself feel.
Had the other man wanted to shoot him anyway he might even just have let him. Part of him had tried to reach out for just a second, touch that steel ball of a mind, feel the fire lick along a haphazard, barely there connection between a lethal, military trained Sentinel and a shadow of a Guide, a thief and CIA agent.
He was tempted. For that one second he was tempted. He wanted to reach out and touch the other man; not just physically.
Napoleon got his instincts reined in and just smiled.
“Absolutely hated working with you, Peril.”
“You’re a terrible spy, Cowboy.”
Two hours later they were christened the new operatives for U.N.C.L.E., with a new boss, and on their way to Istanbul.