Relating to or lasting for ten years.

Ten times.

Ten years.

Uchiha Sasuke and Haruno Sakura's back.

Clothed in a red blouse with a white circle emblazoned on the center, Sakura's back was an ordinary sight– porcelain white flesh, taut muscles and bones just like the rest of her body. There was nothing alarmingly unique– her back was a ninja's back, always tense, always ready for action and always suspicious. So, why was it so...enigmatic to him? Uchiha Sasuke could not pinpoint what it was about this banal vision– a small square of red and an all-too-ordinary component of Haruno Sakura– that captured his eyes.

The ten years and ten separate times that he catches himself staring at her ordinary back chronicled his descent into a maddening, consuming and achingly prosaic lunacy he fearfully acknowledges as love.

A love shared between Sasuke– a forlorn avenger, redeemed traitor, death's favorite victim, the unsuspecting lover, the last Uchiha and Sakura– the lovelorn, fearsome fighter and skilled healer, death's most vicious combatant, a stubborn lover and the relentless lady of spring, unraveling over ten moments (from children to killers to lovers) painted over a stretch of ten years (of protecting, unsolicited hugs and hand holding, blood and death, crying and coming together).

"This time…it's time for you to watch my back!"

(12 years old. Sasuke wakes up after being unconscious from the cursed seal.)

The corner of Sasuke's neck still felt sore from where he was bitten. He felt a slight sting throbbing from the mark imprinted on his fevered skin. The memories of what happened before came to him in fleeting instances– Orochimaru biting him, the overwhelming pain that engulfed his body, the Chunin exams and the Heaven and Earth scrolls. The sound of fighting caught his attention followed by a shrill scream that stopped him in his tracks. Sasuke felt his cursed seal acting up and he made no attempt to stop it. It was Sakura's voice.

Pink hair and a red back came into view when he rushed out from the clearing. He spotted messy pink strands of hair strewn across the muddy terrain and his eye instinctually darted to a broken figure lying in the mud, an image of desperation, fighting back with gritted teeth, bloodied hands and swollen eyes. His own memories clashed with the image before him– Sakura who prided herself on useless theoretical knowledge, whose hands trembled as she clutched nervously onto a kunai she knew cannot defend her, who watched with fearful eyes as her teammates engaged dangerously in battle and Sakura, whose unblemished porcelain skin was now caked with scars, dried blood and mud.

This was the first time Sasuke saw Sakura fight and it was pitiful. Her back, typically obscured by her pink tresses was finally visible. Even in her weakened state, hunched and desperate, Sakura fought. He unexpectedly recalled a time in the past when tears dropped on his face and a frail girl embraced with a fierce strength he never imagined existing within her tiny frame.

Strength. Haruno Sakura wielded her own brand of strength. A strength that went unnoticed because she was always too quick to dismiss it. Sakura thought she was more suited to play the role of the damsel in distress, she had looked the part with pretty hair and eyes but now, she was fighting, there was no one left to rescue her, she was now the one protecting and she had become a survivor, a fighter, a heroine, birthed from harsh circumstances.

When her bright green eyes caught his, he noticed Sakura struggled harder against her assailants. Sasuke heard her muffled cries, beckoning him to make his escape but her battered form triggered a flurry of emotions he recognized by heart– anger laced with hatred and a longing to kill.

Sasuke was an avenger, revenge flowed in his blood and killing was a nature he accepted as his own. A blinding power was now threatening to overtake him, flowing rapidly from the cursed seal and he knew that he was losing himself to it. The image of dirty pink hair and a muddy back covered in grime and blood stirred the anger inside him and unleashed a greater flood of power. Purple swirls enveloped his body and a sinister power coursed through him, making him confident that he could shatter bones, tear down walls and crush the earth.

It made Sasuke absolutely certain that he would kill whoever did this to Sakura.

(13 years old. Sasuke is facing a difficult enemy, Gaara, who was half-possessed by Shukaku.)

Sasuke was usually confident. If he was not, he would falter, he would let himself be prey to biting insecurities and probing questions. As he stood proud, lips twisted into a smug smirk, he tried to quiet the thrashing of his heart.

The monster growling before him was no longer the same person he fought earlier in the arena. Gaara's features had contorted into a vile form. His face was swollen and outlined with numerous veins and pale green eyes glowered with brutality and a readiness to slaughter. The sight before him took Sasuke aback but the Uchiha forced himself to maintain steady eye contact with the beast. Fear was useless in this situation. Itachi had spared his life on a whim– Sasuke had not even been worth killing, he had been a coward whose fear compelled him to run, run past the looming houses, past the long corridors littered with corpses, past the puddles of murky blood and out of his home and hell.

He had been a coward before but things were different now. Were they? Sasuke gulped. He needed to prove that he was no longer the same boy with fearful eyes and a swollen heart. If he could not take down Gaara, a traitor to Konoha and someone whose life barely mattered to him, how could he resolve to annihilate his elder brother, his own blood and kin?

Plunging his fist into Gaara, Sasuke felt the surge of lightning connected with something physical– was it Gaara's sand shield or his real body? The Uchiha was uncertain but he knew that he had made his first attack hurt. Still, Gaara seemed undeterred by the pain, Sasuke recognized the bloodlust evident in Gaara's eyes, even though he was hunched, clutching onto his bloodied side, he was still itching to fight.

Sasuke knew that the pain was only fuelling the monster's urge to kill and spill his blood. He watched as Gaara snarled at him ferociously and he jumped to the tree branches behind him. Sensing two familiar chakra signatures approaching him, he cursed. This was his fight and he had to end it on his own terms. Sasuke was not going to let Naruto steal his thunder again.

Ever since he had been announced as Gaara's opponent, this had been his battle to fight, to conquer and to win. But more than that, this was also the one chance he had to answer the burning questions that plagued him at night. He wanted concrete proof to something that he had always been frightened of.

Was he ready to face his brother?

Was he powerful enough?

What was he willing to sacrifice?

Sasuke readied himself for chidori again. The sound of screeching birds rung in his ears and even despite its sheer noisiness, Kakashi's words still echoed in his ears. Sasuke, your daily limit for chidori is three. Anymore and your death would be certain. The Uchiha knew that Kakashi meant well but he could not heed his advice. To face his brother, there was nothing he would not sacrifice. If he could not defeat Gaara now, it meant that nothing had changed, even after years of grueling training and stubborn determination.

The curse seal revealed itself, dark marks tattooed across the side of Sasuke's face, neck and shoulders. His anger had stimulated the curse mark and Sasuke relished the waves of power spilling from it. This was Orochimaru's brand and promise of power. It was the price the avenger paid for giving himself so fully over to the devil. With its power, Sasuke attacked Gaara again with chidori. Gaara howled in pain and Sasuke stumbled back, the pain from releasing the cursed seal assaulting him in sharp pangs. His vision blurred before him and he slammed hard onto the ground. The scorching pain that seared through his body left him grimacing in agony. His mind spun and the greenery before him turned into flashes of darkness.

Sasuke was losing consciousness quickly and he scrambled frantically to find something to grip onto, something to keep his mind from reeling and surrendering itself to the abyss. His fingers scratched roughly against a tree bark in a futile attempt but there was nothing, nothing except– a hand that instinctively clasped onto his own and steadied him. Sasuke recognized its contours and softness, he knew that the same hand had found his numerous times before. The feeling of Sakura's hand pressed against his own helped kept the pain at bay. As he strained his eyes to see her face, he noticed the vivid fear in her eyes that betrayed the strong unyielding grip of her hand.

Sakura does not hide her fear well but he knew that she was strong. Strong in a way that Naruto and him could not possibly be. Strong in a way that a person with little combat experience and endurance was. Sakura was strong because she could not rely on her weapons, ninja techniques, her speed or her agility. She could only rely on her heart and Sakura had a heart that loved endlessly.

Sasuke's vision was disappearing before him again and he braced himself for the oncoming darkness but Naruto's voice jolted him awake. The idiot's words rang loudly in his ears. "We have to escape, Sakura-chan, hurry!" It pushed him to keep fighting– to fight the exhaustion and the pain, fight Sakura's steel grip that begged him to rest, stay put and leave the fight to the shining blonde hero.

Three genins do not stand a chance against a monster like Gaara. Sasuke knew that. His chidori had been useless against Gaara and the three of them were severely outmatched and outclassed but this was still his fight.

I need to win this fight. Don't you understand? Sasuke tried to yell but no words escaped his lips. The pain and exhaustion that wrecked his body stole the venomous words from him and left him hunched over, pathetic and reliant on a pink-haired girl.

Instead of words, Sasuke found something else. Sakura tried not to flinch as Sasuke vomited, his face twisting in agony. The pink-haired kunoichi bit her lips, willing herself not to inhale the nauseous stench. She needed to be strong now. Her hands were still in his and her resolve was strengthening, hardened like her tight grip on Sasuke's hands.

Sakura knew that Sasuke was battling, even while his body remained still and his eyes were closed, he was fighting– fighting the urge to sink into the darkness of his mind and he was failing– his body was rebelling against him and Sakura's hand. She squeezed his hand. Sasuke needed to fight, it was the only thing he could do, if he lost, it was all over for him. His ultimate failure.

When Sakura's hand disappeared, Sasuke made a feeble attempt to stand but his knees buckled. His sharingan eyes widened when he saw Gaara, monstrous arm outstretched and fingernails long, sharp and lethal. The gruesome sight before him stole what mobility he had left and Sasuke found himself frozen, the loud hammering of his heart silencing Naruto's anguished screams and Sakura's determined ones.

A dark red robbed him of his vision of Gaara and he saw Haruno Sakura's small back before him, rife with contradictions. Her back was firm in a show of confidence but he could make out the slight tremors that rocked her body. Sakura's hands gripped tightly onto her kunai but like her confidence, the kunai was for show, she would never hit her target.

Badump. The sound of his heart seemed to echo endlessly in his head but the image of Sakura's red back filled his mind. Badump. Scream. Silence. Uchiha Sasuke realized with a chilling clarity despite his clouded mind and vision, despite the pain and despite everything, that Haruno Sakura was defending him with nothing. She was using herself as a shield. He panicked and a hoarse sound escaped his dry throat– a strangled scream, a desperate call for Sakura to get out, to get away from him, to be safe. But, his body was numb and he was unable to move.

He saw Naruto in slow motion, blonde hair a mess, blue eyes wild and frantic, moving towards his direction but Sasuke knew. There was an eerie sense of dejavu – in his inability to move, in his numbness and in seeing a person he cherished slaughtered before him. His palms begun to sweat, his breathing hitched and he felt his heart going overdrive. Sasuke saw splashes of blood in his vision. The dark blood of his family, the sticky red liquid on his brother's hands and Sakura's blood dripping down her corpse in rivulets. When these images faded, he was confronted once again with the red of Sakura's back, resilient and stubborn, like a fearless weed refusing to be stamped down. Too late.

Her back was an unfamiliar sight to Sasuke because…he had never been behind her. He never faltered. He had always been the protector. Naruto and him were always a little too eager, a little too anxious and a little too determined to come to the rescue of their female teammate, as though it was part of their ongoing competition. Sasuke recalled countless times where he instinctually flung himself before Naruto and Sakura, as though not one life was gifted to him, but three– one for Sakura, one for Naruto and one for himself.

Was sacrifice so inherent in his blood, in his being? Then, why? A nagging question popped in his head. Why had he not done anything on the day of the massacre?

And now Sakura's back was shielding him.

His goal had always been to defeat his brother and to avenge his clan. To realize that dream, he had to survive. For that, he endured regardless of the circumstances thrown to him and regardless of how many times he had to fling himself before Naruto and Sakura. He did not have three lives but maybe if he acted the part, believed in it, he would find his one life would count for three.

And Sakura?

Sakura with her small back, her vulnerability, her hair pink like her namesake, Sakura with zero combat skills and Sakura who was willing to throw her life away to save his. One life for another.

Gaara's mutant arm swatted Sakura away, like the weed that she was.

Sasuke's vision was finally stabilizing. He always found his feet when it was a little too late, when the deed had been done and he hated himself for that. Sasuke saw Sakura, pale and unconscious, caught in Gaara's death grip and an image of her back flashed before his mind.

"I never want to see another important person die in front of me again."

It was a trembling lover's back determined to protect his life even at the sacrifice of her own.

(13 years old. Sasuke leaves Konoha and Team 7 behind.)

The crescent moon hung low in the sky as Uchiha Sasuke listened to the heartfelt confessions of Haruno Sakura, her voice husky from crying, sobs robbing her of her breath and salty tears dripping softly to the ground. Sasuke focused on the cobblestone pavement beneath his feet and forced himself not to spare a glance back at Sakura. He cannot look back now. Not now, not when he was this close to leaving.

If he looked back, he was lost.

Sakura's tears flowed without end and her hands shook violently. Her worst fears had materialized themselves before her. Sasuke's back before her, on a cobblestone street, late at night, making his quiet departure out of Konoha. She imagined if she had not followed her intuition, if she had smiled and allowed Naruto to walk her back. Sasuke would have left without saying goodbye. He would have willingly walked out of her life without so much of a warning, a word or…the thought of that only makes her cry harder.

Sakura does not know how to stop him. She has nothing valuable to offer an avenger who sought vengeance for the ghosts of his family. She was not strong enough to save people, she was incapable of saving anyone, let alone herself. Haruno Sakura could not save Uchiha Sasuke but she could love him. She loved Sasuke, in spite of his growing darkness, bloodshot eyes, the bloodlust that lingered longer, his scathing words and his scarce grins. Her intuition already foretold her that nothing she said could ever hope to make Sasuke stay. But, a desperate part of her wanted to believe she had some effect over the boy she loved. Sasuke's footsteps had halted. Sakura spilled words, spilled desperate promises she had no confidence of keeping, she spilled tears, and even more of her love but Sasuke is silent. A silly girl like her had little to give but she does anyway.

Sasuke tries to keep his distance and silence. If he remained quiet, he hoped that Sakura would return to her comfortable life and let him be. The minutes that passed between them with only the crescent moon interrupting their solitude felt more like hours. And Sasuke waits but Sakura does not stop. She speaks, in between tears and in between the formidable distance that separated their worlds. She is running out of words but she rambles anyway, Sakura does not stop talking because if she does, he will continue walking, words were the only thing she had to force Sasuke to a halt…even just for a little bit. Sakura offered him things he coveted once before– a new family in the form of Team 7, happiness, a peaceful life and love. And Sasuke does not deny that in another life, in another time, he would have gladly accepted all of that.

The Uchiha tried explaining to her, words falling from his lips, words that Sakura has pried them from his barren lips. His promise to maintain his distance and silence had been willingly broken. He spoke because he could not stand to hear her cracking voice and miserable sobs. He spoke because he did not want to hurt her. Sasuke hoped that somewhere inside of her, Sakura could find it in herself to understand why he was doing this. Let me be, Sasuke thought, he wanted to walk away from her crying face and shaky words and he wanted her to find comfort in her warm bed instead of his traitorous back. But, we never get what we want, even in the cases of a sinner and saint.

If you love me, let me go. A traitorous thought. It was the same traitorous thought that Sasuke harbored because he refused to let his family go. Even in death, he recklessly pursued them. And even this close to the mouth of hell, Sakura will recklessly pursue him.

When the pink-haired kunoichi and the dark-haired avenger finally fell silent, Sasuke turned to face her, in spite of everything he had thought before. He looked back and felt regret welling up in him almost instantly. Maybe he would be lost, maybe he would be doomed to witness the vision of Sakura crying and she would haunt him like a ghost, like the rest of his family.

Sakura's heart lurched when she saw Sasuke's face. He had on a grin, his trademark grin, a slight tilt of his lips that probably constituted as Sasuke's own definition of a smile.

"You really are annoying."

Sakura is in shock, her lips pressed close and her eyes watering. Sakura remembered those words she always linked to Sasuke's memory by heart, it was a memory she recalled time and time again, but to Sasuke, it was likely a faint shadow of the past. Sasuke remembered, Sakura thought, her tears flowing even more rapidly now. Sasuke remembered the times they shared and the caustic words he gifted her many months before. But it was now…a thing of the past. Her red back and pink hair along with the memories of Team 7 would remain in the past where they belonged.

Uchiha Sasuke and Haruno Sakura had been bound together by some uncanny force to be on the same team with Uzumaki Naruto, fate had kept the trio together for one year, fate had given her one year to stay close to the side of the boy she loved and now, their time was up. The last particles of sand fell helplessly down the bottom of the hourglass where it truly belonged and the paths of an avenger and a lovelorn kunoichi will diverge. They were never meant to walk this far together. Sakura will go back to her warm bed and loving family and Sasuke will walk the path of an avenger alone.

When Sasuke's feet moved again, Sakura's frenzied screams assaulted him. They stabbed at him like metaphorical kunais. She threatened to scream louder even with her breaking voice but she stops when Sasuke's back disappears before her eyes. His movement was too quick for her eyes to follow and when she realized he was behind her, she is silenced.

Sasuke stared at her back. Red as it always had been, small and breakable. Such an ordinary sight should be insignificant to him but instead it was a trigger that released figments of a past he was determined to leave behind. If he looked back, he was lost. He silently fought against the onslaught of memories threatening to plaster his feet to the ground and he silently implored Sakura to stop shedding tears for an undeserving avenger.

The Uchiha found himself unable to peel his eyes away from the small form of her back, her short hair brushed against the nape of her neck and the white circle surrounded by red. It was a reminder of what happened in the Chunin Exams, of Sakura's own bravery and strength and of the power that Sasuke felt when the cursed seal was unleashed. Sakura's back shook violently with sobs and he allowed himself one last stare at the quivering back of a girl who loved him up until the very end.

"Sakura, thank you."

There were some things he knew with absolute certainty. He was an Uchiha. An avenger birthed from tragedy. His path cannot be forsaken. Team 7 was his heart and in another life, he would have stayed with them but in this one, he had to give it up. He gave his heart up. Naruto would always be his best friend and a bond he could not exterminate…and Sakura will always love him, stubbornly, desperately and unfailingly.

Sasuke thanked her because words were all he had to give her. He was an avenger, his goal was Itachi's death and to realize that, he would sacrifice everything. Even the trembling back of a girl who loves him. He would give her up and leave her and the rest of the world behind as he dived headfirst into darkness.

Sasuke left a sharp precise jab at her neck and he felt something in him deflate when his name escaped her lips before her eyes closed. Her back crumpled before him like a paper crushed under the weight of something heavy and she fell. Like a disillusioned heroine finally realizing that life was not a fairy tale and that the one you love will always hurt you.

Sasuke does not let her body hit the cobblestone pavement. He catches her in a swift motion, a familiar action, one he has done many times in the past. He places her gently on the bench and stares at her broken figure. He offers her a last look, a last empty look, it was the feeling of his heart hollowing out.

A silent Sasuke parted from an unconscious Sakura.

The last of the fine sand trickled down to meet the bottom of the hourglass. It was now finally where it belonged.

to be continued

Notes: Thank you so much for reading! This fic initially started out as a one-shot but eventually got too lengthy and evolved into multiple chapters. There will be roughly 4 chapters in total. I already have them all penned out, I just need to do some minor editing and formatting. I will be posting the next chapter in a couple of days. Please support me on this scary multi-chaptered ficventure! Your reviews and favorites are greatly appreciated and will continue to spur me into writing. Until the next update then!

(Cookies for those of you who guessed out where I adapted one of the lines from, it's a pretty iconic line in that fandom and I couldn't resist. Hit me up at thegoldengirl at tumblr if you feel like it!)