Chapter One

Sasuke likes to examine the mark in the middle of his left palm: a crescent, rich red, like a blood moon. His parents say he was born with it, which means his mate is older than him. He wonders whether the gap is only a span of a few weeks or months, or if the girl he's meant for is already grown. Soulscars don't care about age differences, or gender, or nationality.

Most people have a single mark, but every once in awhile a person will develop two, more, or none. Itachi still doesn't have one, and half the clan has taken to betting on whether a soulscar will ever appear on him at all.

Sasuke's is completely normal, utterly average. It's on his hand, a common place for someone's mark to appear, and the color is typical too. He doesn't have anything unusual, not like his cousin Saiyuri, whose feather-shaped scar is white, the rarest shade of all. Even so, there's only one other mark in the world that's precisely like his, and it belongs to the girl he's meant to be with forever.

Sometimes he's curious about his mate, but for the most part Sasuke is jealous of his brother, who has no scar, no destiny laid out for him. He has the freedom to choose.

Sakura's soulscar appeared when she was four months old, on July twenty-third, sometime in the early hours of the morning. That must have been the moment when her soulmate was born, when he first drew breath. So every year, on that date, Sakura thinks of her mystery boy and wishes him a happy birthday.

She starts at the Academy the spring she turns seven years old. The first thing she and her classmates do during their recess is compare soulscars—all but a handsome boy named Sasuke who stands off to the side, arms stubbornly crossed over his chest. A bold, blonde girl marches right up to him and asks to see his mark anyway.

Sasuke frowns at her, says, "No," and walks back inside of the Academy.

Shikamaru holds up his right arm, so that she can see the blue figure-eight just above his elbow and asks, "Where's yours?"

"Here," Sakura says, and she opens her hand for him to see the soulscar imprinted on the middle of her palm.

Shikamaru just nods, then runs off to see if Hinata's mark matches his own.

It doesn't, though, because to everybody's surprise, the Hyuuga girl's soulmate is Uzumaki Naruto.

He's dreamed about finding the girl with a sun marked on her right palm since he was old enough to understand what soulscars were. For a boy whose mother was loneliness, the idea of a soulmate—a person meant to love him, to be his family—was impossible for Naruto to ignore.

Now he's found her, and it doesn't matter, because the Hyuuga Clan is notorious for disregarding soulscars and marrying only other men and women with their dojutsu. They prioritize keeping their bloodline pure and their kekkei genkai intact over such trivial things as love and fate.

Besides, even if Hyuuga Hiashi would have allowed his eldest child to marry outside of their clan, he would never make such an exception for Naruto. The whole village despises him, and he can only think, after Hiashi-san tells him to stay away from his daughter, that he's simply not meant to be loved.

"You will not even speak to that boy," her father orders. "Do you understand?"

"Yes, Otousan," Hinata says, obedient as always. Not that he cares how closely she follows the rules; she'll always be a disappointment.

Not like her little sister. Two-year-old Hanabi has already learned to activate her fledgling byakugan, a skill that Hinata didn't acquire until last year. Otousan brags that, with such a powerful dojutsu already, she'll undoubtedly become a prodigy of their clan.

Hinata can't help but notice that her parents' soulscars do not match. Her mother's is an inky oval on the inside of her right wrist, while Otousan's mark stretches across his left shoulder in the shape of a pale snake, almost the same shade as his skin.

She doesn't know until that spring that the color of Okaasan's soulscar is significant. That it was once a vibrant green, but when she was fifteen the mark on her wrist turned black. This, Hinata learns, only happens when your soulmate dies.

Sasuke is easily the most skilled ninja-in-training at the Academy, and this draws the attention of his instructors and classmates alike. The boys are jealous of him and the girls follow him around, stealing covert looks when they think he isn't paying attention, trying to figure out what his soulscar is. No one's going to see it, though, because Sasuke wears fingerless gloves every day, so that his mark is always kept covered.

He's been at the Academy for a week when Iruka-sensei asks a difficult math question that stumps the class. Only Sakura raises her hand, and it's then that Sasuke sees the mark on her left palm: a crimson crescent moon identical to his own.

That can't be right. He can hardly think of anyone less like himself than Haruno Sakura, the shy, insecure girl who gets picked on by their classmates.

Except something about it makes a strange sort of sense. The first day he saw her he felt an odd pull in her direction, an interest in her that he couldn't quite explain.

Sasuke keeps this to himself. He'll tell her eventually, he decides. Just not yet, because he isn't ready to belong to someone else.

Sakura studies her soulscar by the starlight streaming in through her window. It's late, and she's supposed to be asleep, but she can't stop looking at the mark on her hand. It's such a small, simple thing to carry so much meaning, her fate branded into her skin. She thinks about who her soulmate could be, where he lives, when (or if) she'll find him. Not everyone has the opportunity to meet their partner, after all. Sakura knows who she wants her mate to be, but chances are that Sasuke will never have any reason to notice her.

The next day, when she goes to school, Sasuke's seat is empty. Once everyone else is there, Iruka-sensei tells the class to settle down, then says, "You won't be seeing Sasuke for a few days, but when he comes back I want everyone to give him some space."

"Why's Sasuke-kun gone?" asks Ino, pouting.

Iruka-sensei runs a weary hand over his face and says, "There was an incident with the Uchiha Clan. There's not much I can tell you, other than it has been a very sad night, for the village, and especially for Sasuke. He's going to need a lot of time to recover."

When Sakura goes home, her mother and father sit her down and ask her what she heard about Sasuke in school today.

"Iruka-sensei said something bad happened with Sasuke-kun's family. Should I bring him flowers?" she asks. "That might make him feel better."

Her parents share the sort of knowing, serious look that tells her something is very wrong. "I don't think flowers are going to help Sasuke much right now, Sakura," Otousan says softly. "He lost his whole clan last night."

Sakura frowns and asks, "Lost?"

Okaasan sighs. "Sakura, you know how you lost Spotty last year? Do you remember what I told you about that?"

She nods. When her puppy went to sleep and didn't wake up, she asked her mother what it meant to be dead, and Okaasan had said, voice gentle, "It means you're gone, and there's no way to come back."

Sakura is not quite eight, and it takes a moment for her to understand what her parents are telling her. Then she gasps, covers her mouth, and feels tears coming to her eyes.

"Sasuke-kun's whole family is gone?" she asks.

Okaasan takes her in her arms and rubs circles on her back, just like she always does when Sakura is upset or sick. "Yes," she whispers. "I'm so sorry, sweetheart."

That night, Sakura lies awake in bed, thinking of Sasuke. It seems so wrong that he's all alone in the world. She wonders where he'll live and who will take care of him now that he has no parents or brother.

Sasuke's desk remains empty for the rest of the week, but he returns to the Academy on Monday. He's dressed as he usually is, in a dark, short-sleeved shirt with the Uchiha crest emblazoned on the back, fingerless gloves on his hands. But there's an emptiness in his eyes that wasn't there before, a coldness in his rare speech and stiff posture that's nothing like the Sasuke of only five days ago.

Iruka-sensei told the class not to give Sasuke their condolences or acknowledge what happened to his family in any way, so Sakura doesn't say what she wants to, which is that she's sorry this happened to him and she hopes he's going to be okay.

Publicly, Otousan says that what happened to the Uchiha Clan is a great tragedy, but privately, he tells Hinata it's no less than their arrogant cousin-clan deserved.

That's awful, she thinks, but doesn't say.

Sometimes, when no one's looking, Hinata will trace the golden sun on her palm, thinking about Naruto. He's a brave, brash boy who never gives up, regardless of how many times he fails, and she can't help but quietly admire him. He's rude and reckless, an orphan boy who's lived without rules for so long that he doesn't know how to respect anybody, but these things don't matter to Hinata. She finds him beautiful, from his messy blonde hair and sky blue eyes to the strange marks on his cheeks.

She doesn't dare say this to her cousins because all of them are loyal to Otousan before anyone else. Hinata doesn't blame them for this, though; the Branch House has been bred and conditioned to obey her father.

When Okaasan misses dinner, Hinata goes looking for her. She isn't in her garden or her bedroom (separate from Otousan's ever since Hanabi was born), the reading room or the kitchen. She would use her byakugan to see through the walls, but there is an unspoken rule in their household never to violate one another's privacy in this way.

Then she opens her mother's bathroom door, and the sight on the other side is one Hinata will never forget.

Okaasan lies in a tub of red water, her long, lustrous hair pinned up on top of her head. She could be sleeping, except her chest doesn't rise and fall with the cadence of breathing, and her face is stiff and colorless. Hinata touches her mother's cheek and finds her skin cold. Vaguely, in some distant way, she notes that Okaasan's wrists have been slit (cutting right through her black soulscar), and a bloody razor is still gripped in her right hand.

She doesn't wail, and she doesn't cry. Instead, Hinata kisses her mother's bare forehead, on the seal that marked her as Branch House, and walks downstairs to tell her father that Okaasan is dead.

Naruto's Academy years are lonely and long. He convinces Iruka-sensei to let him take the graduation test early, hoping to become a genin and get out of the school that he hates, but he fails the exam not once, but twice. After that he decides to wait until everyone is tested and try his luck then.

His days are full of learning jutsu he has trouble mastering and grammar, history, and mathematics that are too boring to bother with. He has a hard time sitting still and paying attention, and besides, what use is book-learning to a ninja? At night, he goes home to his empty apartment, microwaves a cup of ramen for dinner, struggles through his homework, plays a board game by himself, and goes to sleep.

Every now and then he studies the mark on his right palm and thinks of the girl he's supposed to love but will never know. Hinata is pretty in a subtle, gentle way. Kind, quiet, and thoughtful. Something about being in her presence makes him feel just a little less alone, but it's rare for them to have a moment together.

The spring he's twelve years old, Naruto fails the graduation exam for the third time, discovers what he is—a jinchuriki, a vessel for a nine-tailed monster—and is assigned to Team 7. He doesn't much like his squadmates at first. Sakura gets easily frustrated with him and always hits him upside the head, and Sasuke is a bastard who's so good at everything that Naruto can't stand him.

But things change after the Wave Country. Sasuke almost dies saving Naruto's life, and he truly feels the chakra of the Kyubi overtake him. There's a bond forged between the three of them and Kakashi-sensei now, something immutable that neither time nor distance can ever break.

Author's Notes: So this is the soulmates AU I've been working on. I read a glorious Zutara oneshot called "oracle bones" by sohhng on AO3 (which I highly recommend) and I was inspired to write this story. I expect that Providence is going to be a short-ish multi-chap, maybe 20k words before all is said and done. But that's just my best guess.

Many thanks to DeepPoeticGirl for pre-reading this and brainstorming with me!