Napoleon has had an absurd soulmark since birth. It is faded grey, like all soulmarks are until one’s soulmate speaks the words, and scrawled along the inside of his forearm. He wears a band around the mark, because he does not want anyone to try to say it while he is on the job; luckily, a lot of people cover theirs, so he never stands out. Illya, for example, also wears one, and he has no idea what Illya’s soulmark could be.
He has the handwriting of his soulmate scribbled along his skin. It is messy, and has a heavy quality to it, the letters formed quickly but hesitantly. He wonders why, or if he is even correct in his analysis of it. It says, in the smoke-grey handwriting, “Of course not, Cowboy.” He spends a lot of time over his life trying to figure out the details of it - why Cowboy was capitalized, why is someone calling him Cowboy in the first place, what is the “of course not,” why, why, why? Everyone feels the same about their soulmarks - except, apparently, Illya, who never mentions his.
The first time Illya calls him a cowboy, Napoleon frowns up at him, but wonders if it might have been a fluke. The next time, he thinks, maybe it was a mistake. As they get more into a routine - where he earns the nickname Cowboy and, in exchange, gives the nickname Peril, which does not seem to make Illya respond in any alarming ways, but, then again, what does - it becomes more obvious. It becomes horrifyingly obvious, actually, that Illya must be his soulmate. Now, he just has to wait to fall in love with him, apparently accompanied with those four words.
The thing is, Illya probably does not have him for a soulmate, because he never says anything about his nickname (even if Napoleon does not, either) and he never talks about his soulmark, not even in passing. Napoleon wondered if it wasn’t Gaby, perhaps, or maybe someone left behind in Russia. Some other KGB agent Illya will never see again. Maybe, Napoleon muses aloud one day, it was his mother, and earns himself a black eye that is not undeserved in the least.
So, Napoleon is reasonably sure Illya is his soulmate. He is also reasonably sure he is not Illya’s. To be fair, however, he probably is not anyone’s soulmate, and he is fine with that.
Really. He is.
He hears “Of course not, Cowboy,” fairly often, which was bound to happen when one spends a horribly inordinate amount of time with one other person. Each time, he braces himself for the burn he has been told will come, the darkening of the words on his arm, the connection to a soulmate he still is not so sure he wants, but it has not yet come. He checks every time, but the words remain flint-grey, in Illya’s horrible handwriting, and Napoleon exhales gingerly.
Napoleon knows - that, really, is the kicker, that he knows, the whole time - that he is falling in love with Illya. He would never say he does not understand how someone wouldn’t fall in love with Illya, because, God, does he understand why someone might not. He’s angry, and he’s frustrating, and he’s stubborn, and he’s proud, and, Christ, so many other traits that set Napoleon’s teeth on edge. But he’s passionate, and he’s challenging, and he’s determined, and he’s strong, and Napoleon can feel himself tipping over a cliff edge he thought he might never reach.
The whole thing comes to a head when Napoleon can feel that the inside of him is basically Illya’s at this point, every piece of him red-hot and dangling over the precipice. The two of them are on a mission in El Jadida, the faint lamplights of the city barely lighting their path as they pound down the walkways on the walls that separate city and sea. Napoleon chances a look over the edge, and the sea is black and unforgiving and nearly invisible. However, he knows for a fact that Gaby is close by, on a boat, waiting for them, they just need to get the intel carried by their target. Returning without it simply is not an option, if they want to save Morocco, and possibly the entire continent of Africa.
As unforgiving as the sea seems, it is survivable. The goons chasing after them, guns blazing, however, are not seeming so survivable at the moment. Gaby does not have a helicopter to lift them out. They might shoot, but Napoleon also knows for a fact (having overheard the head honcho, their target, Salma, the head of the Moroccan branch of T.H.R.U.S.H., give the order in the first place) that the goons have orders to take them alive. For what purpose, Napoleon shudders to think, but at least the morons won’t shoot to kill, in theory.
In practice, a bullet whizzes by Napoleon’s ear, then another grazes his forearm - his right forearm, not his left, and his soulmark remains untarnished - and Illya looks back at him, alarmed. Napoleon grunts and lets the adrenaline take over his bloodstream, forcing out the pain for a later date. Napoleon can see ahead of them better than Illya can, has always had better night vision, much to Illya’s frustration, and he can see that they are coming to a dead end. He glances over his shoulder, and the brainless beasts are bearing down on them.
If one of them gets captured, Napoleon reasons, then that one of them can get the intel, and Gaby will have the other one to help save the captured one. Both of them have the information Gaby would need, but Illya definitely better understands the layouts of the headquarters they found. Any reason he could come up with, actually, to justify sacrificing himself over Illya, would be technically true, but feel like a lie, because, in the moment, the only thing he can feel is a strong compulsion to never let Illya be hurt. He wants, more than anything, for Illya to live, more than he wants himself to live, which is disgusting and horrifying and needs to be analyzed at a later date, or perhaps never.
Napoleon grinds to a halt, and Illya skids to a stop a yard ahead of him, always connected to him, always in tune with his movements. Because they’re partners, Napoleon reminds himself. They have to be. Illya jolts to his side and grabs his left wrist, yanks at him, and Napoleon glances back at the goons advancing, faster and harder. He smiles up at Illya and hopes he can make it back in time.
“Hopefully, this isn’t goodbye, Peril,” Napoleon says, and only has a split second to register the blend of paralyzing shock and horrified realization on Illya’s face before he plants his hands on his partner’s chest and shoves him, hard, over the edge of the wall and into the water. He watches Illya hit the water, watches Illya resurface two seconds and half a breath later, and loses his vision after that when something far too solid hits him in the back of the head and knocks him out cold.
When Napoleon wakes up, he immediately wishes he had not. Every nerve ending in him feels like it is on fire, and it takes the sensation stopping for him to realize what it was, and why it was so familiar - electrocution, again. Except, this time, he is being hung by his wrists, basically dangling, and suspended in a bucket of ice-cold water while he gets shocked. His eyes shoot open, and he gasps, and he feels a sting on his back. When his other senses come back, he realizes he hears a crack before every fresh wound on his back, and he swallows his horror.
“Who are you working for,” a voice in the darkness states more than asks, and Napoleon shakes his head. These jokers are barking up the wrong tree, he thinks, because the only information they want is the only information which he would rather die for than give up. “Tell me.”
Napoleon spits blood at their feet, squinting in the darkness to make out a face. The voice sounds distinctly feminine, and realizes it’s Salma, their target. He spits blood again, and gets slapped across the face for his efforts. Salma is not doing the torturing, he realizes, but is watching from the sidelines while a couple of her beasts do the dirty work.
When Napoleon looks down, the water is stained red. He has a bullet wound oozing blood on his thigh, and he wonders how he might have missed something like that. He also has a knife wound across his stomach that looks like it may be edging towards infected, which worries him for two reasons: one, hello, infection; and, two, how long has he been there that wounds he barely remembers getting are becoming infected? The whip cracks, and his neck snaps back, then forwards, and he loses time again.
They ask him a lot of questions, but he never gives them the truth. He remains a smartass, for a while, before they slash his cheek, and he bites his tongue so hard he wonders how he still has a tongue at all. After that, he is silent. He gives no answers. He wonders how much time has passed. He aches. He looks at his soulmark as much as he can stomach, and wishes he could have heard Illya say those words. His soulmark gets cut up, and heals more quickly than anything else on him, which has always been the case.
Napoleon gives up no secrets. He is asked who the man he was with was, and shakes with rage, and feels like the man whose name he protects when he snarls at them and gets knocked in the face with metal-sharp knuckles. His cheekbone cracks, the skin over it splits, but he does not cry out, because he will not let them win. He is stubborn, like his soulmate, and will die in a blaze of glory, if he will die at all.
Napoleon hears a door slam, which is new. Everything is maddeningly quiet here, unless it is too loud, because sensory alterations has been a form of torture Salma has been experimenting with. The room flashes white, then black, then white again, and lights get turned on for the first time since Napoleon arrived there. He shuts his eyes on instinct, the backs of them burning from too much light after so long without it. He slowly squints, and breathes out, slowly. A sigh like that usually earns him a slice on the outside of his thigh, and he braces for it, but nothing comes. He squeezes his eyes shut, then cracks open one eyelid.
He is drenched, as they constantly douse him in freezing cold water, and he cannot stop shivering when he hears a gunshot and sees Salma hit the floor, grabbing her thigh. She is covered in blood, and he wonders how much of it is hers. The bodies of his tormentors fall one by one, until Napoleon is the only one left standing - and, even then, barely so. He tries to adjust the weight on his arms, and one of his shoulders is dislocated, or broken, whenever that happened - and twisting like that makes his ribs blaze. The chains attached to the manacles wrapped around his wrists are broken, and he is slowly lowered down and out of the tin tub of water. He shivers against the floor and tries to see outside of his haze. He locates a large shape that he would recognize anywhere.
“Salma has the codes,” Napoleon says, urgently, the words grating out of his body, “inside her jacket. Get them.”
He hears scuffling, and distantly hears Gaby’s voice. It sounds like an affirmation, a positive response, so he focuses harder on Illya above him.
“Looks like it wasn’t goodbye after all,” Napoleon rasps, his throat raw and torn, and Illya pushes his wet hair away from his bloody face.
“Of course not, Cowboy,” he says, and his tone makes Napoleon’s skin crawl, and his soulmark blazes. He looks down at it, watches the words change from pewter-grey to obsidian-black, and sighs. His chest aches, and he thinks, distantly, that he has never loved anyone more than he loves Illya right in that moment.
“Oh,” he says. “Of course.” And Illya’s eyes drag down to the soulmark, as well, and Napoleon barely catches the look on his face before he dips back out of consciousness, but it is horrified and surprised and regretful and he wants to slap it away.
When Napoleon wakes up again, everything hurts, and feels sharp and acute in a way nothing has felt since he got taken. He blinks his eyes open, and the world blurs white around him, spinning like a carnival ride. He lurches up and dry heaves, and a heavy hand lands on the back of his neck, grounding him.
“Deep breaths, Cowboy,” Illya’s voice instructs him, and Napoleon does as he says. Illya guides him back against the pillows on the bed he has been placed in, and Napoleon squints up at him.
“Did you get the codes?” Napoleon asks, and his throat is dry and scraped, and Illya gets him a little bit of water.
“We did,” Illya assures him. He sets the paper cup of water back on the table beside the bed and leans back in his chair. He is sitting so close to Napoleon’s bed that it barely matters. He yanks his sleeve up, and he is, Napoleon notices, not wearing the long cuff that hides his soulmark, for once. Staring back at him is his own handwriting, stained on Illya’s scarred skin; the words are midnight-black and stark, and they say, “Hopefully, this isn’t goodbye, Peril.”
“I’m your soulmate,” Napoleon breathes through the pain, and Illya nods. He lifts Napoleon’s left arm gingerly and shows them both his own handwriting on Napoleon’s arm. “And you’re mine.”
“Yes,” Illya answers. “I wish you had said.”
“I wish you had said,” Napoleon counters, and Illya sets his arm carefully back down on the mattress. “I worried I might not be yours.”
“I knew you were mine,” Illya says tremendously. “But I believed- I was not even so sure you had one. But you-”
“I do,” Napoleon offers, when Illya seems lost in a well without words. He shifts, and rockets of pain slither through his body and explode in his brain. He groans, and Illya gets up and leaves, briefly, before returning with a nurse, who helps him swallow pills. She asks him questions and looks in his eyes and takes notes before leaving them alone again. The pain is subsiding, and he squints at Illya.
“What seems to be the damage?” Napoleon asks, trying to make his voice as sweet and deep as he usually keeps it. Judging by Illya’s look, he misses his mark, but not by so much that the effort is not appreciated.
“Too much,” Illya answers. “You had whip-marks, on your back. Broken ribs. Dislocated shoulder. Many cuts, bruises, splintered bones, cracked bones. Many drugs in blood. I do not-” Illya drops his head into his hands and rubs at his face with his calloused palms. “You cannot say my words and push me into ocean.”
“Sorry,” Napoleon says, and shifts, back aching but slowly numbing. Illya leans closer to him, and Napoleon parts his lips, and Illya takes the hint, kissing him slowly, carefully, like he might break. Napoleon will not break, but he has never felt closer to it.
“There is no goodbye, for us,” Illya tells him, and it sounds like a warning, like Napoleon might catch hell if he does not promise this is true and follow through on that vow. “You understand?”
“I understand,” Napoleon assures him, and Illya’s thumb strokes the stitches holding his cheek together. He heals, even if it takes time, and Illya helps him back into his old skin, freshly scarred though it may be. Their words blaze ink-black on the insides of their forearms, burning when Napoleon so much as thinks Illya’s name. Illya loves him, is in love with him, which Napoleon never saw coming - though, honestly, he should have. He loves Illya, is in love with him, which he has known since near the beginning but wondered when he would finally fall. Soulmates were never something he took much stock in, but, he supposes, they exist for a reason. That reason, right now, seems to be Illya sitting across from him, reading the newspaper, eating scrambled eggs off of Napoleon’s plate, and smiling, face lit by the Parisian sun. Napoleon smiles back and fights his fork off and catches the twist of his soulmate’s writing on his arm, and he shines like the sun.