PLEASE READ THE TRIGGER WARNINGS FIRST. This story deals with some very unsavory subjects due to the nature of the soulmate-identifying marks and the characters involved, as a result of the situation implied by the backstory that canon provides for Karin, and the assumptions and theories that people make based on her scars and the locations of such.
Trigger Warnings: Implied Childhood Sexual Abuse, Implied/Referenced Rape/Non-con, Self-Harm, Slurs
A/N: I was reading soulmate fics in a different fandom and, as per usual, started trying to imagine similar concepts applied to other fandoms. I realized that applying this particular soulmate mark type to SasuKarin would likely be pretty angsty, so I tried writing it.
...it ended up much, much darker than expected.
Soulmate marks, in the Uchiha clan, were considered in the plans for marriage, though not always. Most often, they were allowed to marry, if the soulmate was another Uchiha, a useful civilian, an unaffiliated shinobi, or from a clan without a bloodline that could prove a viable alliance.
A soulmate was… a very important thing, to anyone with a Sharingan, or the potential to develop one.
These rules had relaxed still further after the Warring Clans Era ended. Soulmates were encouraged to marry most times, with the only exceptions being, to Sasuke's knowledge, a handful of soulmates in other villages, and one incident with a Hyuuga.
Sasuke knew all of this, and at six years old, he knew how to recognize his own soulmate marks. Every injury his soulmate got would reflect in image on his own skin, and either fade with his soulmate's injury, or pale to gold as his soulmate's injuries scarred over.
"It means that it healed faster than is natural, but not perfectly," his mother told him as she traced a thumb over a stark red mark on his thumb, thin and bright. "I'd guess your soulmate is probably training to be a shinobi and has access to a medic nin, or perhaps a healing factor."
"You're sure?" Sasuke asked, staring at the mark that was already fading, and not even to gold.
"Mm-hm. A friend of mine had a healing factor, and her soulmate had his change color fairly often as she scarred. Generally, a healing factor results in a mottling of both colors, while a medical technique results in a full change. Your father has a few green marks left over from my days in the field, when I went to a medic instead of letting it heal naturally." Mikoto smiled down at Sasuke. "It's nothing to worry about."
The entire clan was tense, these days. So tense that Mikoto almost welcomed the distraction that was Sasuke's panicked face.
"Sasuke-kun, what's wrong?" She asked, crouching down to get on eye level with her son, now seven years old. "Did you hurt yourself training aga—"
"Look!" He said, shoving his arm into her face.
For a moment, the color made Mikoto think that Sasuke had been hurt, that someone had dared to make her son bleed this much and not even had the gall to take him to a healer, that someone had tossed aside all decency to use a bite in a fight instead of a more civilized attack, because—
It's not Sasuke that had been hurt, she realized after a moment, because there is no blood, no smearing, no denting. Just a red pattern of teeth circling his arm, the same wine-red as every other injury he'd gotten from his soulmate so far.
The teeth were sized for an adult, and there were…
"Are there any others?" Mikoto asked.
He pulled down his collar, and there were faded red marks there, more pink than anything. Bruises, most likely, in the shape of a single large hand.
Something in Mikoto's gut curdled. All of Sasuke's injuries so far had indicated that his soulmate was the same age as himself, and Mikoto shuddered to think of what these meant.
Already, the circle on his wrist was paling, glittering in gold that overtook the red.
(Red and gold, she thought. Just like Kushina. Just like the marks on Mikoto's own skin, platonic as they were.)
"Let's keep these hidden," she suggested. "Maybe wrap them in bandages…"
Sasuke stared at her with wide, worried eyes.
"Why would someone bite, though?" He asked as Mikoto taught him how to wrap his wrist securely, something she'd been planning to show him soon anyway. It would provide support to the weaker joints, so it was doubly useful. "Aren't there other attacks that are more effective? And that bite is too big for another kid."
"I don't know, Sasuke-chan," Mikoto said as she finished up, and then began unwrapping so he could try on his own.
It was the truth, if barely. Mikoto had her suspicions.
(Sasuke's soulmate, she thought, would be a very broken person.)
It was not the last bite mark.
Bile rose in Mikoto's mouth as Sasuke should her a new mark, once again bright red. It was a ragged cut, from the looks of it, like the biter's teeth had scrabbled for purchase on the skin of the victim's chest.
And Mikoto knew the word was victim. Victim. Had the soulmate been an adult, then the marking would appear proportionally, and would appear to be a child's size on Sasuke. Similarly, if the soulmate was a child, and the biting was simply a child's action mid-spar, then they would appear as such.
A bite mark sized for an adult was…
A bite mark on the upper chest was…
Breathe, she told herself, trying not to think of why the universe decided someone who underwent that was Sasuke's other half.
"Kaa-chan?" Sasuke asked, voice quiet.
"My soulmate's hurting a lot, aren't they?"
Mikoto closed her eyes and pursed her lips. "I expect so, yes."
"Is… this normal? For anyone?" Sasuke asked, so softly that Mikoto could barely hear him.
"Some people." Sex workers, mostly; nothing that was suitable for a child. She couldn't think of anything else that would result in frequent human bite marks with minimal sparring injuries accompanying them. Had the bites been smaller and other injuries accompanied them, she'd have written it off as a child's fight getting out of hand, a classmate with a propensity to bite. Perhaps an Inuzuka training with a relative and learning to utilize those sharp incisors and other enhanced abilities.
It would have been nice to believe that, but the fact that there were less marks of a struggle as time went on, less and less until all that was left was the large-handed bruises on the wrist and neck and the bite marks themselves…
"Nothing that should be happening, though," Mikoto continued, noticing that Sasuke was staring at her with wide eyes. "Your soulmate is going through some very tough times, I think. I doubt they've agreed to any of this."
She didn't want Sasuke to know. He was so young… But it was his soulmate's reality, wasn't it? Sasuke was too young to even know what sex was, and yet here was his soulmate's daily pains being laid out before him, nothing but—
"I think I should talk to your father," Mikoto said after a long moment. "We'll see if we can find some hints of who your soulmate is."
The Konoha Military Police busts several illegal brothels in the following months, and more than one had underage workers, but… none had Sasuke's soulmate.
Konoha roared in anger at what was found, though. At least one brothel had a list of common patrons, and they were sent behind bars as well. The legal ones found sex workers who desired to continue knocking on their doors, and the police worked with Konoha to find solutions for those who wanted nothing other than to get out.
It raised the Uchiha's reputation, something Mikoto hadn't even bothered to think about. It was a nice side effect, but they still hadn't found Sasuke's soulmate, hadn't saved them.
"I can't find anything on missions," Itachi told her one night, as Mikoto sat on a couch, face buried in her hands. There'd been a new mark that morning, right over where the breast would be in an older person and Mikoto had almost started crying at the sight of it. She hadn't, if only because it would have affected Sasuke even worse than before.
"You've been looking?" She asked, lifting her head.
"I thought…" Itachi pursed his lips and looked away, scratching at the desaturated green slash mark on his arm; it was a remnant of one of Shisui's less fortunate missions. "I thought that if I paid attention to the people around me when I went on missions with other villages, I could find hints. A healing factor means this person is probably affiliated with a village, but—"
"Probably kept a secret," Mikoto finished for him, shaking her head. "Whichever village is letting this happen to a child… I want to burn it to the ground."
"…I'll help," Itachi said, something empty in his voice. "For Sasuke."
Mikoto nodded. For Sasuke.
Mikoto's vision went black as she hit the floor, struck down by her own son.
Sasuke watched as a nurse tutted over his arms. Everything was wrong. Everyone was dead.
He didn't have answers for anything. Why Itachi did what he did. Why Sasuke himself wasn't dead. All the old questions about his soulmate.
"You should probably hide these," the nurse told him. "If people see them, they'll… judge you, to put it bluntly."
"Why?" Sasuke demanded. "If they've gone through all this, then they're brave. That's nothing to be ashamed of."
"My parents thought I was too young to know," he interrupted the nurse. "They tried to dance around the topic. I'm only eight, but… But I know what this is. I know what abuse is, and that these marks aren't normal. My soulmate's survived so far, and that's nothing to be ashamed of."
(He had never told his parents about how much he'd eavesdropped, about the conversations he'd heard regarding the child prostitutes that had to be give therapy and new homes and whatever else was necessary to keep them from breaking.)
(Sasuke had opinions on that industry, now. He was young, but… he wouldn't judge someone who chose to live that life, of course, but he'd heard enough of the horror stories to have some very strong opinions on anyone who frequented such places of business, especially the ones that "employed" anyone under the age of majority.)
(Sasuke knew more than he should have about a lot of things, like the smell that accompanied the bodies of his family decaying around him.)
"But other people won't see it that way," the nurse tried to tell him.
"I don't care."
Sasuke ignored everyone who stared at him in class. Some were staring at him because of the massacre. Some were staring because of the rings of scar marks that peppered his arms.
A few hearts were broken, but Sasuke ignored that as the students in his class stared, lacking subtlety as only other eight-year-olds could.
(He noted that a few people seemed to stare differently, though. Haruno Sakura plucked at the bandages on her wrists and the scarf around her neck, staring at Sasuke's arms when she thought he wouldn't see.)
"Huh," Naruto said, tilting his head and looking at the marks on Sasuke's arms. "Why are they all funny-colored like that? Like, why are they two colors instead of just one?"
It was the least-insulting question he'd gotten all day.
"Healing factor, apparently," Sasuke answered.
"Oh," Naruto said, and made an aborted motion towards his forehead. Everyone knew that Naruto had something there, because he could never afford a concealer that actually matched his skin tone, or to use it on his entire face instead of just the patch that had the scar mark. It was just that no one knew what the soulmate mark he had was.
(He didn't seem to have any others either, which Sasuke thought was pretty weird. Did some people's soulmates just… not scar?)
Naruto didn't ask any more questions, which was more polite than usual, at least.
"Sasuke-kun," Iruka asked at the end of class, taking him aside. "Are you sure you don't want to cover up?"
Sasuke looked down at his arms, and then back up at his teacher. "No."
"Sasuke-kun…" Iruka looked like he was struggling for words. "Do you know what people have been saying?"
"Yes. They're wrong." Sasuke crossed his arms, the angrily mottled scars standing out like a particularly strange decoration.
"They are wrong," Sasuke insisted. "I know what they were saying. It's the same stuff they said about the kids that… that the military police got out of the brothels."
He paused and took a deep breath. Talking about his soulmate had been enough of a distraction to keep him from thinking about his family for a bit, but as soon as he'd mentioned that, he'd…
"I know what my family was doing in the months leading up to the massacre," he said after a long moment. "I never met those kids, but I heard my… my parents talking about it when they thought I was asleep. I know what people think about my soulmate. They're wrong, Iruka-sensei, and I'd like it if you didn't say stuff like that, too."
He left, then. He didn't want to talk about this anymore.
The rumors only grew.
Sasuke stayed up at night sometimes, looking at his arms and chest and legs, at the ever-growing number of blood-and-gold rings on his skin. He counted them regularly, and tried to send comfort at his soulmate even if he knew they wouldn't feel it, that the connection didn't work like that.
At age ten, he found an old razor, still sharp and not rusty in the slightest, and wondered.
There were… stories. Sad stories, mostly, about soulmates so desperate to find their other half that they took a knife to their skin to find them.
If… if he kept his cuts shallow and small, and had a healing ointment on hand to make sure it didn't scar over, maybe…
His shin was the safest place to try.
My name is Uchiha Sasuke.
I live in Konoha.
He put on the ointment that would minimize his chances of infection and scarring, wrapped it in bandages, and went to school. He ignored the looks he got from his teachers and classmates when they saw that he was wrapping the shin of one leg, and avoided questions.
Please see it, he thought whenever he had a moment to spare. Please find a way to contact me so I can find you.
The hot water of his shower felt painful against the shallow cuts, but it was a sting that he could bear. If it helped his soulmate, then he could bear a lot.
(They'd already borne enough, after all.)
A cold tingle started at his other shin as he toweled off, and he looked eagerly to see if it was a message or another actual injury.
Nothing followed, and the message faded without a scar mark within the hour, but…
He had information, now. He wrote it down somewhere safe, and kept that name in his mind, of the brave person that fate had tied him to that had already lived through so much.
Mine, he thought. If this person couldn't save themselves, then Sasuke would do it for them.
"You sure your soulmate isn't from my clan?" Kiba asked during one lunch, taking a seat on the table without invitation. "Because we bite during spars sometimes. I don't know anyone else who does."
Sasuke looked up at him from beneath his eyelashes, something fairly condescending if he was doing it right. "Positive."
Kiba tilted his head. "You sure?"
"They got a message through. They're not Konoha."
"Got a message thr—oh." Kiba made a face. "That's… usually pretty discouraged. Why?"
"Kiba, take a moment to think about why someone would get bitten if it wasn't a spar," Sasuke said quietly.
"…childcare? Little kids bite sometimes. Me-chan drew blood when I was babysitting her last week, and she just finished teething."
"These aren't child-sized, Kiba." Sasuke shook his head. "I don't want to talk about this. Ask your parents or something. All I can tell you for sure is that they're brave, after all this."
"Yeah?" Kiba gave him a long look. "You're not saying that like it's a good thing."
"It's good that they were brave. It's not good that they needed to be brave. Now, can you go away? I'm eating."
Kiba tilted his head again, thinking that over. "Yeah, okay."
He was, oddly enough, one of the most polite of the students to approach him about the scars that dotted his skin.
"My mom said that you're soulmate is, like, a baby whore," Ami said one afternoon, all lazy like she didn't think it was a big deal.
"Excuse me?" Sasuke kept his voice low and quiet, but there was a sudden chill as the class quieted down.
"Well, yeah?" Ami gave him a confused look, all eleven-years-old and convinced of her own superiority. "Like, don't you wish you had a soul mate that wasn't so, you know, trashy?"
Sasuke's control broke and he surged forward, grabbing Ami by the fabric of her neckline. "Don't you ever say that again!"
Ami whimpered for a moment before Iruka showed up to separate them.
"You have no idea what they've been through," Sasuke snarled, straining against the fingers that Iruka had wrapped around the high collar of Sasuke's shirt. "So how about you just—"
"Sasuke, enough," Iruka ordered, shaking Sasuke just a little to get the point through. He turned to Ami. "And Ami, if you say things like that again, then you will be going to the Principal's office."
Ami paled. She knew exactly what that meant, and how many laps she'd be getting as a punishment, at minimum.
"…Sorry for saying stuff about your soulmate," Ami muttered, glaring at the ground.
"…" Sasuke said nothing.
"Sasuke," Iruka prompted.
"You heard what she said," Sasuke retorted.
Iruka made a face. "Be that as it may, I am supposed to be impartial, and fighting isn't allowed indoors."
Sasuke seethed for a few moments longer, and then grunted. "Fine. Sorry for attacking you. But don't you dare say that again."
(If half the class conspicuously avoided both of them for the rest of the day, then that was fine by Sasuke.)
(Kiba clapped him on the back, though, and growled at Ami a few minutes later. That was weird.)
Sasuke closed his eyes and prayed that Ino would leave.
"I'm… I'm not here to ask you out or anything," she said, sounding awkward at best. "I just… have something to ask you. About your soulmate."
Sasuke's face soured even further. He turned to face her, already prepared for the worst. "What?"
"Are you sure they'd want you showing those off?" She asked, taking a seat next to him and gesturing at his arms.
Sasuke blinked. "What?"
"I mean… you haven't met them yet, right?" She paused, waiting for Sasuke to respond, and then continued when he nodded. "So, like… you don't know if they want you to show all that off. I can guess the sort of stuff that they're going through, and it sucks, and I know you're proud of them, and that's a good thing, but… if your soulmate joins you in Konoha, then do you really think they'd want a reputation before they even got here? You know what people think, and it's… it isn't really your choice to tell people your soulmate's life story, right?"
Sasuke blinked at her for a moment. "I…"
She waited patiently, and then gave him a pitying look. "You didn't consider that, did you?"
Sasuke looked away sharply, cheeks flaring red. "Shut up."
"I could teach you how to hide them with cosmetics, if you don't want to wear sleeves," she offered.
"It's too late," he argued back, a pit of guilt settling in his stomach. "Everyone already knows."
"Yeah… I guess so." Ino sighed, looking away and kicking her legs back and forth. "I hope you find them soon. Whatever they're going through, I doubt they want to keep going through it."
Sasuke said nothing, just stared at his shin and remembered the words he'd carved into his skin and the words that had come back.
"I know their name and village," he said after a long moment. "When I get… when I graduate, I'm going to ask if I can get a message to that village, and get them out."
"It might not be that easy."
"I know, but…" Sasuke pursed his lips and made a frustrated noise. "I have to try, and I think Konoha might be able to make a claim, just going by the history books."
Ino looked over to him and tilted her head. "Well, you might want to talk to Hokage-sama about it, then."
She patted him on the shoulder. "You'll figure something out, I'm sure."
She hopped off the stool and started to head back over to where Sakura and Hinata were.
With a small jerk, she paused, and turned to look at him. "Yeah?"
"Have you met yours?"
Ino's eyes flickered over to Hinata for a moment, expression souring. "Yeah. He's a bully, but we'll see how long that lasts once I start actually spending time with him."
Absentmindedly, she touched her forehead, frowning.
Ah. A Hyuuga, then.
"Good luck, I guess."
"You too, Sasuke-kun."
He graduated successfully, and ended up on a team with Sakura and Naruto.
His teacher's eyes lingered on Sasuke's soulmate marks when he talked about how he wanted to help them get out of whatever situation they were in, unreadable.
"What about your soulmate, Sensei?" Sakura asked brightly at the end of the conversation.
Kakashi tilted his head. "I don't have one."
Sakura froze. "Oh."
Kakashi shrugged. "It makes shinobi life easier, in my opinion."
The statement didn't seem cryptic on the surface, but… Sasuke got the feeling that there was much, much more under the surface of it.
Sakura's skin was almost flawless, when Sasuke saw it almost bared and free of products. She stripped after falling into a river, wringing her clothing and cursing. She still had on her underthings, bandages, and sodden scarf, and Kakashi had offered an overlarge tank top from out of nowhere, but there had been enough skin visible as she changed to make something very obvious.
"Sakura-chan, don't you have any soul marks?" Naruto asked, frowning at her.
Sakura paused. "Not many."
Naruto tilted. "Like… civilian levels?"
Sakura scrunched her nose up, one hand coming up to pluck at her scarf. "I doubt it. The injuries look like shinobi stuff, just… you know… not very often. And they tend to heal up without scarring."
"Your soulmate must be an awesome ninja then, Sakura-chan!" Naruto said with a wide grin. "I don't think my soulmate gets hurt a lot either, 'cause I don't get a lot of soul-marks, just…"
He fell silent, looking at the ground. Sasuke glanced at Sakura, and noticed that she was looking exactly where he had been: the tacky patch of concealer on half of Naruto's forehead.
"The soul-mark on your forehead must be pretty distinctive," Sasuke said after a moment.
"Uh, yeah." Naruto laughed nervously, rubbing at the back of his neck. "I'm pretty sure I'll know them when I see them, y'know?"
"So I'm the only one that's going to have trouble, huh." Sakura sighed exaggeratedly. "Even Ino-chan figured out her soulmate pretty easily. And Sasuke's already said he's going to know his on sight, but I know mine is pretty inconspicuous until I go on more missions and get more scars."
"Especially if your soul-marks match your hair!" Naruto said, excited. "They'll be hard to see against your soulmate's skin."
"Don't remind me," Sakura muttered. "Everyone thinks that's going to be the color I get since it's so unique to me."
"Sakura," Sasuke interrupted before the conversation could continue. "What's under the scarf?"
Sakura sucked in a deep breath.
"It's… pretty obvious," he added after a moment.
Sakura's hands came up to her neck and fiddled with the fabric for a moment, eyes darting between the two of them.
(They had no idea where Kakashi was.)
"Promise you won't tell?" She asked after several long moments, breath shallow.
"Promise," Naruto said.
"O-only my parents and the doctor know," she said after a long moment. "And Ino-chan. So… don't go spreading it around."
She slowly unwrapped the scarf from around her neck, revealing the still-wet skin underneath. Pale blue met their eyes, patchy and ragged and—
"That's a friction scar from prolonged imprisonment. Manacle on the neck." Sasuke identified on sight. He'd seen pictures of these before, snuck from his father's study after another raid on an illegal brothel. "The… the bandages on your wrists…"
Sakura nodded as he trailed off. "Yeah, there's more. Nothing else has scarred, not even the really obvious kunai and shuriken injuries."
"You think they're hiding it the way you are?" Naruto asked after a moment.
Sakura shrugged uncomfortably. "Maybe. I just… don't think it's a good idea to go around showing them. I've… I got these pretty young, maybe toddler-age? They stopped getting worse after a while, so I'm guessing my soulmate got out of whatever situation they were in, but my parents wouldn't explain and just told me to hide them, so…"
Sasuke couldn't think of anything else to do as Sakura stood there, glaring at the ground with clenched fists at her sides and tears building in her eyes, so he just came over and put a hand on her shoulder. She looked up at him and he held out his arm, putting his red-gold marks on display. "We're in this together, Haruno."
She laughed wetly at that. "We are, aren't we? Gotta save them all, I guess."
"Um…" Naruto sucked in a deep breath. "Can… can I keep mine a secret for a bit longer?"
"Yeah, of course," Sakura answered before Sasuke could get any words out. He didn't disagree, but… hm.
"Actually," Sakura said, frowning at Naruto. "I'm going to take you shopping."
"What?" Naruto squawked. "What do you mean?"
"The foundation you're using doesn't match your skin tone, and you should really be covering your entire face instead of just one patch if you want it to look natural," Sakura critiqued, suddenly much more comfortable than she'd been only minutes earlier. "And if you're going to do that much, then you should probably learn about other forms of makeup. I'm sure it'll come in useful at some point, after all."
"Sakura-chan, I can't afford that," Naruto protested. "I just get the old stuff that's on clearance, okay? I don't care if people know I have a soul-mark on my forehead, just that they don't see it."
Sakura frowned, and Sasuke piped up. "I'll spot you."
They both turned to stare at him.
He shrugged. "I'm not hurting for money, and you can pay me back if you want once we're doing missions. I want to see what Sakura has to say, anyway."
Sakura grinned, and Naruto gulped.
"I look like a girl," Naruto said, staring at the mirror in shock.
Sakura pouted. "I mean, I could figure out some more subtle looks, but I wanted something really obvious so you could learn what each thing meant without struggling to see where boundaries or whatever were."
"I, uh, I didn't say it was a bad thing, Sakura-chan."
Sasuke and Sakura exchanged a look over Naruto's head. Okay, then.
(The skin of Sasuke's underarm tingled, and a red circle seared itself painlessly into his skin.)
"That's a terrible idea, Naruto." Sakura crossed her arms and looked away.
"Well, it's not like your soulmate knows what to look for other than their own injuries, and you keep those covered up!" Naruto protested. "I think it's a good idea."
Sakura stuck her tongue out at him and then turned to Sasuke. "Sasuke-kun?"
"…something small might help," he said after a moment. "It doesn't need to be large or flashy, just a small thing to identify you."
Sakura pouted and turned back to look at the front of the tattoo shop. "But…"
"You're legally allowed to get one, and it's one of the few forms of intentional marking that's socially acceptable when trying to find your soulmate," Sasuke reasoned. "If you can handle the pain, of course."
"Hey!" Sakura huffed. "I'm not that much of a child."
"You kind of are, Sakura-chan," Naruto told her. "We're twelve."
She got a small sakura petal, perhaps an inch long, on the back of her forearm. It was outlined in black and filled with shades of pink, and looked as nondescript as possible while still being in an area she regularly showed the world.
"Okay, so maybe it wasn't the worst idea."
"That's usually discouraged for a reason, Sasuke-kun." The Sandaime puffed on his pipe as he frowned at Sasuke.
Sasuke shrugged, not really caring. "I know. But is there anything that can be done?"
Sakura had a hand clapped over Naruto's mouth. Sasuke noticed that from the corner of his eye, and admitted to himself that he probably should have told Naruto about his soulmate being an Uzumaki before he'd told the Hokage.
"It's possible," the Hokage finally said. "If we're very lucky, they'll be sent here for the Chunin Exams, and we can talk them into staying then. In the meantime, there aren't any missions to Kusa that we could politely send anyone below Tokubetsu Jounin on, so I'm afraid you can't go there to explore on your own."
"The exams are in four months, Sasuke-kun," the Sandaime informed him. "With how long you've waited so far, I imagine you can wait a bit longer."
But can Karin? Sasuke bit his tongue to keep from asking that question.
"I'll send a message," he said instead, and ignored the way everyone's eyes sharpened. "It'll only be the second time, but if they see, then it'll give us a better chance, right?"
The Hokage shook his head in exasperation. "I wouldn't risk it, but I'll leave that up to you."
Sasuke was fully capable of understanding the fact that his superiors thought he was reckless and foolish on this front.
That didn't change his mind.
A single razor.
The reply happened a few hours later.
It faded within half an hour, but it was enough for Sasuke.
Sasuke only heard about it later, when Naruto was essentially screaming into Sakura's face that he'd found her soulmate.
"Should… should I ask?" He said hesitantly to Kakashi. "I don't really know what's going on."
"Well," Kakashi said, watching Naruto grab Sakura's shoulders and shake her, seemingly unaware of both her slowly widening eyes and slowly tightening fist, "from what I can tell, Naruto met a very pretty boy in the forest, helped him gather herbs, and then saw Sakura's tattoo on him, along with hints of the manacle scars."
"Ah." Sasuke considered that for a moment. "Sensei, what are the chances that this person might be connected to Zabuza?"
"Fairly high, I'd imagine." Kakashi flipped through his book, sounding largely unconcerned. "I trust you understand that we can't risk the mission for that reason?"
Sasuke made a face. "Can we try diplomacy first?"
Sakura was… not as innocent as she would have been without the icy blue marks that ripped their way across her wrists and neck, but she was still more innocent than Naruto or Sasuke. She'd lost less in life, so far.
Sasuke didn't want to think of how much she'd break if she lost her soulmate now.
"We can," Kakashi said with a nod and, almost, a sigh.
It worked, funnily enough.
The exams made it to Konoha, and Sasuke kept his soul marks bared to the world.
Find me, he thought, as foreign genin filed in. Some of them balked at the mottled rings that stood out against his pale skin, knowing from a glance what it meant.
He stared back coolly.
"Oh my god, just shut up!"
He was, of course, distracted by shouting from a former classmate, because of course.
She stormed down the street, hesitated next to him, and then grabbed his sleeve and started pulling him along with her.
"Stick with me, please. If you're here then he'll probably stop lecturing, ugh."
Sasuke blinked. "…What?"
"My soulmate. He's kind of a jerk. He likes to talk about Fate a lot and he won't shut up today, and just… ugh. I need to get away." Ino glanced over her shoulder and made a face. "He's still following."
"Yamanaka, wait." The voice was close to normal for their age, but maybe a bit deeper.
Sasuke took a moment to consider his options. He'd only ever seen a situation like this play out twice in real life, and both times, an older relative had gotten involved. He couldn't really take the same route as Uncle Jirou had taken, since he didn't have a police uniform like his older relatives. Shisui's method, however…
Sasuke turned and smiled (huh, a Hyuuga), and kept a tight grip on Ino's wrist as he said, "Hey, fuck you, buddy, she said no."
And then he used a Kawarimi to get himself and Ino the hell out of there.
(Shisui had used a shunshin, but Sasuke's control wasn't that good yet.)
He repeated the long-distance Kawarimi once or twice, just to get out of range of any tracking method the Hyuuga might have, and then let go of Ino's wrist.
Sasuke scoffed, unwilling to admit that it might have been. "Got you out, didn't it?"
"And while I'll thank you for that, I'd also like to point out that I'm not really the kind of person that needs saving, ya got that?" Ino's look wasn't exactly easy to read, but there was something maybe a little condescending to it.
"Fine, I'll just leave you alone next time." He crossed his arms and looked away.
"Whatever," Ino said, accompanied by a noise that sounded like she was tossing her hair over her shoulder.
"Why do you dislike him so much anyway?" Sasuke asked after a long, awkward moment. "I could guess, but…"
"He's a bully," Ino said bluntly, and Sasuke turned to look at her again. "Mostly to his cousin. She was in our class; remember Hinata? Anyway, there's that, his whole thing with fate, and he's just kind of an all-around jerk right now."
Sasuke considered that. "You sound like you think he's going to grow out of it."
"I'm hoping, yeah." Ino laced her hands together above her head and stretched, palms to the sky. "Right now I'm just… avoiding him, mostly. I know he has issues that caused him to get like this, but I'm sure as hell not in any place to involve myself, you know?"
Sasuke blinked at her. "No, I don't."
"Ugh," Ino wrinkled her nose. "Like… it's clan politics stuff, and my status as the heir to a non-noble clan is nowhere near enough political clout to start involving myself in the fight against centuries-old traditions in a noble clan."
"Oh," Sasuke said. "That makes sense."
Ino scratched lightly at her temple, staring at the ground. "I'm just gonna… go, if you don't mind. I hope you find your soulmate soon."
Naruto found his first.
Sasuke walked into a situation that looked like this:
A boy from Suna, dressed in something that looked like a cross between a catsuit and a garbage bag, was holding a child up in the air by the back of his shirt.
An older girl, also from Suna, was standing back with her arms crossed, looking disapproving.
Another boy from Suna, this one with red hair and a massive gourd on his back, was standing still further back.
Two children, the same age as the one being held up by the back of his shirt, were standing by and looking worried.
Sakura was staring at Naruto with a look on her face that was halfway between concern and irritation, with Haku nowhere in sight.
Naruto was pointing at the boy with red hair and yelling his lungs out.
"AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGH—OW WHAT THE FUCK SASUKE?"
Sasuke dropped the hand that he'd used to smack the back of Naruto's head (lightly, Kakashi-sensei, he promised) to make him shut up. "You were being loud and annoying."
"But—!" Naruto pointed at the redhead again.
"Put your hand down, Naruto. That's rude." Sakura finally moved to intervene as well, yanking Naruto's arm down herself. "Now if you don't mind, we should probably—"
"Do you have any make-up remover with you?" Naruto demanded.
Sakura blinked. "What."
"Do you have any?!" Naruto demanded again.
Sakura shook her head. "I just have water, sorry."
"Good enough, can I have it?"
Sasuke looked away from his arguing teammates and over the Suna Nin. Probably here for the exams, he guessed. Belatedly, he recognized the kid that was still in the air.
"You do realize that's the Hokage's grandson, right?" He asked.
The guy in the catsuit took a look at Konohamaru and scoffed, dropping him. "Gonna run to gramps, then?"
Konohamaru stuck his tongue out at the Suna Nin. He nudged Sasuke as he walked past, maybe a little faster than strictly necessary. "Uh, thanks, I guess."
"Why didn't Naruto do anything?" Sasuke asked, unfortunately aware of how close the two were.
"He was gonna, but then the redhead showed up and he started screaming." Konohamara dug a finger into his ear. "Which hurt, by the way."
"I know, I was here." Sasuke patted Konohamaru on the shoulder, and took a few steps forward to get back into the mess of things. Naruto had finally gotten Sakura to relinquish the water bottle and was frantically spilling some on the end of one of her scarves.
"So, why haven't you left yet?" Sasuke asked the group of Suna Nin.
"I'm honestly kind of curious about where this is going," cat-suit said. "Usually when people scream around Gaara, it's in fear. This was just… random yelling."
The girl shrugged, apparently feeling the same way, and the redhead just kept staring.
"Sakura-chan, is it coming off?" Naruto demanded in a whisper-shout behind Sasuke.
"Yes, but I don't see why… oh. Oh."
Sasuke turned around to find that Naruto had rubbed most of the concealer off of his forehead, revealing what looked like a blue-and-beige tattoo of…
Sasuke snuck a glance at the redhead. Yep. That was the kanji for 'love.'
Naruto was staring at the guy with an almost blindingly bright grin on his face, the soul-mark on his forehead still a little faded from the remaining concealer but nonetheless visible.
"We'll just leave you two alone, then," Sakura chirped, grabbing Sasuke's wrist and stumbling backwards. "Ah, Suna genin whose names I don't know, would you like to come with? I'm thinking dango."
The girl with the fan snuck a glance back at the redhead, then at Naruto's slowly fading smile, and shuddered. "Uh, yeah, I'll take you up on that. Kankuro, let's go."
"I really hope your teammate doesn't end up dead," Kankuro said, once they got their food.
"Is that a realistic concern?" Sakura asked after no elaboration followed.
Kankuro shrugged uncomfortably. "Where Gaara's concerned… probably."
"I wouldn't worry too much. The idiot's pretty hard to kill," Sasuke told them, taking a bite of dango. Sakura took up the dialogue where he'd dropped it.
"Seriously, he could probably survive getting a fist through his chest," Sakura drawled. "Tear out a lung and he'd grow it right back. It could make for an interesting black market organ sale, probably. More of a renewable resource than usual."
"Nice imagery. Definitely what I needed while eating," Sasuke said pointedly, not looking at his teammate but definitely thinking at her.
"You're welcome," she said as primly as she could.
"Konoha nin are fucking weird," Kankuro muttered under his breath, and Sasuke couldn't really argue with that.
The girl with the fan nonetheless elbowed her teammate in the side, entirely unsubtle, and said, "Behave."
"My point," Sakura said loudly, "Was that regardless of what your friend Naruto probably won't dies."
"Brother," the girl with the fan said, sounding a little tired. "We're all siblings."
"Oh. Well, alright, then." Sakura shrugged. "By the way, I didn't catch your name? You've said your brothers' names, but I haven't gotten yours yet."
"Temari," the girl said, reaching across the table to shake Sakura's hand. "Pleased to meet you, I guess."
"So, what are our chances of Naruto crying?" Sasuke asked the table at large.
"I'm not taking that bet," Sakura said immediately. "I know a sucker's bet when I see one, and that's got certain failure written all over it. He's going to cry and I'm going to lose fifty ryo if I try to get involved, so you know what? No."
Sasuke caught her gaze and held it for a few moments, as she nonverbally dared him to challenge her.
He shrugged and turned back to his dango. "Fine. Whatever."
"Why is he going to cry?" Kankuro asked after it became clear that whatever had happened was over.
"He's a bit of a crybaby." Sakura took a bite of her dango before continuing. "Not about pain or anything; he's got a ridiculous pain tolerance. He's just… emotional."
"Very," Sasuke agreed.
"Oh, this is going to go over fabulously," Temari muttered, loud enough for the whole table to here.
Sasuke quirked an eyebrow.
"Gaara is… volatile. I don't know how he's going to react to this."
Naruto absolutely cried. He found them, and Sakura and Sasuke immediately hustled him off to an empty training ground to cry in peace.
"And he just looked at me and then asked why I thought he'd even care or anything and he said something about not being human and—and—what did I do wrong?"
Sakura patted Naruto's back as he cried into her shoulder and looked over at Sasuke.
What am I supposed to say? She mouthed at him.
Sasuke shrugged helplessly. This wasn't his area of expertise. Ino and Haku probably would have been great. Kiba, maybe. Even Kakashi probably would have done better.
"Well, his siblings did say he was a little… odd," Sakura offered. "The way they were talking, I don't think he had any real idea what to do with a soulmate once he got one."
"They were expecting him to kill you," Sasuke offered, and then mouthed What? at Sakura when she shot him a glare.
"So… it's a good sign that he didn't?"
"I'd imagine that any situation where you don't die is a better one than a situation in which you die." Sasuke pointed.
"But it's a sign that he might not actually hate me?" Naruto asked, looked up at Sasuke and wow that was a lot of desperation.
"Probably," Sasuke said, unsure of what else to do. He walked over and patted Naruto on the shoulder. "I'm sure you'll figure something out."
Naruto looked at him for a moment, and then faced forward, face set with determination. "Right! I'm gonna woo him!"
"I don't know if that's a good i—"
"I am going to woo him so hard, guys."
"…okay, you do that."
Sasuke caught the looks sent his way as he waited with his team in the room before the first exam. His eyes coasted around the room, checking all the arms he could see for any scars that matched the marks on his arms.
A few people looked into his eyes immediately after seeing his soul marks, with mocking smirks on their faces. Those smirks tended to disappear after he stared back, emotionlessly judging.
It was hard to mock a kid for the marks on his arms when he judged you right back.
"That's ridiculous," he heard behind him, and turned to find Neji staring imperiously down at an older genin. He only achieved this feat because the older genin was crouched to the ground to show off some kind of orange cards.
Ino elbowed Neji in the side, her team right next to his. She hissed quietly, "Be polite."
The look of mild disdain that Neji gave her lead to Ino quickly going red with anger.
"Ano…" Hinata stuttered, tapping the tips of her pointer fingers together. "Should… should we stop them?"
Shikamaru shook his head. "Nah. It's just yelling."
Chouji shrugged, and TenTen followed suit. "They can both hold their own when they argue," She said, "So we usually don't get involved unless things get too personal."
"Do they ever get violent?" Kiba asked, edging away towards Hinata and Shino.
"Not without warning," TenTen assured him. "The only time they get physical is if one of them challenges the other to a spar. Neji always wins those, but it's never… hm. It's never anything to worry about, I guess."
Sasuke took another look over at where Ino was angrily jabbing a finger against Neji's chest and whispering too quietly to hear, and quietly decided to not get involved.
(Ino was, in many ways, a little scary.)
"Uchiha Sasuke," the older genin said as he stood up. "Lots of rumors about your soul marks. It's interesting; there's more talk about those than there is about your skills. Everyone's curious about them."
"That's 'everyone's' problem, then, not mine."
The older genin blinked, then smiled. "Testy, are we?"
"Excuse you," Ino said, breaking away from the hissed argument she was having with Neji. "That was pretty damn polite given how rude you just were."
Neji apparently felt some loyalty to Ino despite the apparently consistent arguments, because he took a place behind her shoulder with folded arms and narrowed eyes, as intimidating as a fourteen-year-old genin could be.
"Oh, I was just commenting, no need to get worked up," the man said with a smile. "Now, anyone interested in getting some information on the competition?"
…as it turned out, some of them were.
The hairs on the back of Sasuke's neck prickled inside the Forest of Death, maybe an hour or two after entering it. He looked around suspiciously, one hand drifting down towards his kunai pouch.
"Do you feel that?" He asked.
"No," Sakura said after a moment. "But I trust you."
"…same," Naruto muttered after a moment, and there was a pair of light clinking noises as both of them drew their own weapons.
Sasuke shifted to put all his weight on his toes, ready to move at a moment's notice. He turned slowly on the spot, Sharingan active and tracking everything.
(He'd have to thank Haku, again. The Sharingan was a very useful thing to have.)
"Behind you," a soft voice called.
Sasuke spun around to see—
A girl. A girl their own age, with red hair and glasses, and a beige outfit and a headband from Kusa.
She was sitting on a large tree branch several yards above the ground, ankles crossed below her, and hands planted on either side with her elbows locked. She tilted her head as she looked down at them.
"You're Uchiha Sasuke," she said after a long moment where nobody dared speak.
Sasuke's eyes, Sharingan that they were, landed on her arms. It was a subtle play of shadows that gave it away; he doubted Naruto or Sakura would have been able to see it, given that there was apparently foundation smeared over all that skin, hiding the contrast of pale skin behind still paler scars.
"You're Uzumaki Karin," he said after it was clear that she wouldn't be saying anything else.
She nodded, and pulled out a kunai. Sasuke felt Sakura and Naruto tensing behind him, and flung out a hand to the side, low down, to keep them from attacking.
Karin kept her eyes on them, barely blinking, as she drew the kunai across the back of her forearm in a shallow sideways cut.
With a tingling feeling, an identical mark appeared on Sasuke's arm, just as red.
The remaining tension in Karin's frame bled out. "Oh. Okay."
"Is… that surprising?" Sasuke asked carefully, taking slow steps forward.
Karin licked her lip nervously, tensing up again and leaning away almost imperceptibly. Sasuke stopped moving.
"I—" She hesitated. "I wasn't sure if you were real."
"And now?" He asked, stowing away his kunai. If this was a trick in some way, then Naruto and Sakura would be able to hold the line long enough for Sasuke to be ready to fight again.
"I'm a little more convinced, yes." She rocked back, paused, and then leaned forward until her weight led her to slide off the tree branch and down to the forest floor a dozen feet below. Her landing was a little harder than that of a Konoha native, but if she was truly from Kusa, then there probably weren't a lot of trees to practice with.
"I can…" She bit her lip and tried again. "I ditched my teammates a while back. They should be fine, but even if they aren't, I don't… I have no reason to care."
She phrased it carefully, like each word was being examined carefully for imperfections and misleading implications before being added to the sentence.
"I don't know if it's what you were offering, when you brought up the exams." A hand brushes over the top of her thigh, an absentminded reminder of the words they'd carved into themselves still lower to speak with one another. "But if Konoha will have, and refrain from using me as Kusa did, then I would like to stay here."
"You've been practicing that speech for a while, huh?" Sakura asked. Sasuke glanced at her, saw that she was still tense, if less so, and turned back to Karin.
"Years," Karin admitted, with a bitter twist to her lips. "From the moment I knew that my soulmate was from another village."
There was a very long story hiding behind those words.
Sasuke took a step forward and held out a hand. "The Hokage did say I could offer to let you stay if you wanted to."
Karin looked down at the hand. Slowly, she reached out and took it, and then looked up at Sasuke as he let his thumb fold down to rest lightly across her knuckles.
He finally let his smile break out across his own face. "Welcome to Konoha, Karin. It's nice to finally meet you."
Something in her face twitched once. Twice.
She threw herself forward, wrapping her arms around Sasuke and squeezing to the point of almost pain.
Sasuke wrapped his own arms around her, squeezing back lightly, and ignoring the shuddering and tears and badly-stifled sobs from the girl in his arms.
He'd found his soulmate, and he wasn't letting go until she was ready.
A/N: I am so very, very sorry.
There might be a side fic to tie up some plot threads, like NejiIno's development, NaruGaa getting together, what's up with Haku, Karin's PTSD (the most important element, tbh, but probably not the one people are interested in), and so on. I won't be writing it for a while, if at all, because the mindspace I had to occupy while writing this fic was not a fun one, and I'm not excited to go back there.