When Ilya is eleven, his words appear. The soulmark spreads across his forearm from wrist to elbow in stark black Latin letters. His mother takes one look at it and bursts into tears.
Then she disappears for two days and Ilya doesn't even know where to start looking until he gets a call from Yuri Menshov, a former associate of his father who insists that Ilya call him "Uncle Yuri" every time they speak even though they aren't related and Ilya knows that Menshov has been fucking his mother since before his father was taken away six months earlier.
For once, he's actually happy to hear form the odorous grease-ball. At least he is until the man says, "She's fine, don't worry. She's with me." This, of course, makes him worry more about her because Yuri has access to cocaine and heroin through his blackmarket contacts. She always comes back stumbling and incoherent after she sees Yuri. It makes his hands shake with fury.
When she sobers up, she takes him to have his words registered with the Ministry of Soulmates, just like any good Soviet citizen. When the plump woman behind the desk calls in a translator, who reads his words to him in Russian, Ilya thinks that maybe his mother wasn't crying because it was in English after all.
Funny, because he didn't know she could speak English before then. His mother the intellectual. It's even stranger to wrap his mind around than the soulmark.
Then Menshov recommends him to a youth military training program, away from his mother, and Ilya is suddenly too busy to think about anything but the work. The episodes when he breaks - loses control, loses himself - are corrected and he moves forward.
Everything is going well until after the division of East and West Germany. The records of his words are recalled, English words, the language of the capitalist enemy, and his superiors almost pull him from active duty, decommission him and send him back to Russia but Oleg stops them. He's too talented, too good at his job, spent too many years training and practicing.
He will not go waste because his soulmate will speak to him for the first time in English.
Country over self is one of the credos of the Soviet Union. Children are taught this in school. Ilya learned it as a child just like everyone else. The good of the many is more important the good of the few or, more importantly, the one.
That was why same-sex soulmate couples were supposed to find other pairs of the opposite sex to marry, because the state needed more children. It was why a soulmate bond didn't exempt a person from military service like it did in some countries. It was why people were supposed to turn in all insurrectionists, even if they were soulmates.
Communism wasn't about one person's happiness the way capitalism was. It was about the welfare of the entire nation. Having a partner meant for you didn't exempt a person from that responsibility. Stalin's scientists in the thirties had even posited that the soulmate phenomenon proved that human beings were supposed to take care of each other on a biopsychosocial level.
Oleg knew that Ilya understood this. He knew Ilya well enough to know that he would not be compromised. So he stays in the KGB. He remains in the West.
Sometimes, though, only at night and only when he is alone, Ilya will trace the words with his fingertip. He would wonder who it was, what they looked like, what they sounded like, how they would feel in his arms. Not often, of course, but sometimes. He wonders what he did wrong in this life to get I'm sure you understand humiliation better than most as his words. As if the fact that the words happened to be true weren't bad enough.
Napoleon joins the starts teaching himself to pick pockets when his soulmark comes in at thirteen. Obviously I've been briefed about you your corrupt criminal background is not the most common soulmark a person could have and he wants to live up to his side of the prediction.
As a child he always liked the romance of soulmarks. His parents' had said Get off my fire escape you punk and As you wish my lady. Growing up, the fairytale of his old man accidentally breaking into the tiny tenement his mother shared with her two sisters in attempt to reach his friend's rooms a story above was his favorite bedtime story. It took them less than a month to go from strangers to newlyweds.
He finds it a little less romantic in the summer of '44 when she wakes up screaming about not being able to breathe, suffocating, drowning. Three days later she gets a telegram from the Navy, telling her his father's ship was gone down in the South Pacific, that they were sorry for her loss but that he died serving his country with honor. Napoleon doesn't think the way his mother goes dead around the eyes is so romantic anymore. The way she either doesn't sleep or sleeps all the time isn't a fairytale.
Honestly, he joins the Army as soon as he turns sixteen, lying about his age on his forms, to get away from her more than any loyalty to country or belief in the good fight. It probably makes him a bad person and a worse son but he just can't take it. His memory of her happiness is to clear to bear the devastation of what losing his father has done to her. When the war ends, he writes home, but he doesn't go back.
Europe is good to him. The place is a disaster in the wake of the war but it's a great place to hone the skills he started to cultivating as a teenager. Of course over time, a little pickpocketing escalates to a lot of art-theivery and safe-cracking and, well. No one's ever accused him of knowing when to say when.
He's actually a little excited when he gets busted trying to lift that Vermeer in Rochester. After all, it's one thing to be wanted by Interpol, it's another to have an actual criminal background, one that a person could be briefed on. Then he's staring down the barrel of fifteen years in an eight-by-six and suddenly the whole thing is a little less thrilling.
"The CIA can offer a man with your skill set quite a few opportunities," Sanders tells him. "I'm sure you'd enjoy working with us much more than rotting away in Rikers."
"Sounds fine bye me," Napoleon says. "When do we start?"
Sanders looks shocked as if he expected Napoleon to protest, though why would he? He chafes hard at being controlled and on any given day he'd rather be left to his own devices but honestly, he's not really doing anything more important at the moment. It's not like the Vermeer is going anywhere.
Hell, through all the legal rigamarole no one has even mentioned his numbered accounts and tax shelters in Switzerland, China, Panama, and Saudi Arabia. If they knew about them, they would've threatened him with the knowledge which means that most of his millions are still safely tucked away from Sanders and his minions. So, he has money. A lot of money. Enough money that eventually, his thefts had stopped being about about profit and started being about the game.
So this is just a new game to Napoleon. And he likes games. That's why he works to become the best, not out of loyalty or patriotic duty or even distaste over being forced into the position but because he is likes games and he always plays to win.
After he becomes an agent, he only thinks of the words scrawled his hip when he calls his mother. She asks him what he's doing and he lies and he asks her how she is and she lies right back. Sometimes she'll heave a little sigh that is so hopeless it makes his chest feel like its cracking open. After each of these calls, immediately after they hang up and his mother goes back to the empty life that she refuses to rebuild no matter how much money he sends her or how many times he visits, that maybe it wouldn't be so bad if he and his soulmate never met at all.