A/N- Whew! I really have got to stop writing these novel length fanfictions. In any case, for the fans of The Chill of Winter, be forewarned that this Sasuke/Hinata story is far from sweet and fluffy. There will be WAFFy moments, but there's also a substantial amount of drama, angst, action, and adventure. You know me. It's gotta have it all. So let's get down to it.

Info: This follows the Naruto timeline up to the point when Sasuke first encounters Naruto and Sakura again in Shippuden. There might be some similarities to occurrences in the canon timeline after that, but not many. Also, I started this story before finding out the truth about Itachi so it is written with the view that he is still, well, evil. My apologies to Itachi fans. If any of the characters appear to be OOC, it is not intentional, merely a result of the situation they've been placed in that they normally would not encounter and I based their words and action on how I think they might react based on their known personalities. The Rookie 9 are 18 years old.

Ikigai means "that which makes life most worth living" and the title of each chapter ties tightly to this. For example the full sense of this chapter title is "that which makes life most worth living in dreams."

Disclaimer: Naruto does not belong to me. What would I do with a bunch of ninja anyway?



in Dreams

Chapter 1

Raven locks reflected iridescent blue in the dim lighting of the room. It'd grown since he first laid eyes on her several months ago, draping over the pillow like a dark waterfall of silk. He touched it once, to see if it felt as soft as it looked. The brittle strands had slipped through his fingers, soft and coarse as sand.

The muted beeping of the monitors proved her to be alive though she appeared to be little more than a statue of death. The respirator forced her chest up and down in a sick parody of breathing. Numerous tubes assisted the artificial existence, wires taped to different parts of her body making her appear even more frail and vulnerable in the small bed. She was weakness personified and yet…

It was an accident the first time he saw her. He'd suffered a serious injury during training and came looking for Kabuto to heal it so he could get back to the dojo. It was merely a glimpse then through the closing door, but he was an observant man and made certain to miss nothing no matter how simple a word or gesture it might be.

Within the two seconds it took for Kabuto to close the door to the private room, he'd registered dark hair and a small body in a bed hooked up to monitors and machines. It wasn't the first time the medic-nin used some poor sap as a guinea pig and certainly not the last, so he paid it no more mind.

Then Kabuto started pestering him about his Sharingan again, wanting to do tests and study it. Irritation motivated him to investigate just what exactly the medic was up to and he knew it had everything to do with that one room he seemed so intent on keeping secret.

At first he didn't recognize her. She was nothing but flesh and bone and entirely unresponsive to outside stimulus. The name scrawled across one of the observation charts told him in one word exactly who she was, why she was there, and why Kabuto had been pestering him. The question it didn't answer was how she got there in the first place, not that it mattered much to him. As long as Kabuto stayed out of his way, he didn't care what the creep did.

He was nobody's hero.

When he walked out of the secluded room that day he had no intention of ever coming back. And he didn't…for a few weeks.

He hardly slept anymore, never more than two or three hours at a time. Every time he closed his eyes he saw nothing but blood and death. His body ached from the long hours of training he pushed it through but his mind never ceased to bombard him with the torn images of his past each time he dared to rest.

In the last three months the nightmares had become so intense that it was getting harder and harder to discern reality from memory. So he started to wander aimlessly through the compound in the late hours of the night, a lost shade seeking one last place to fall. His restless pacing inevitably led him here.

Sasuke silently crossed the room and lowered himself to sit on the bed, as he'd done many times before, and just stared at her. The first time he did this he felt nothing but envy and hate for the pitifully frail creature that could find rest so easily when it continued to relentlessly evade him. He vowed to walk out the door and forget she ever existed and would've done so immediately if not for fear of the lingering terrors that waited for him to surrender to his body's exhaustion. So he stayed, and he stared, and he seethed…until he realized there was nothing peaceful about her unnatural slumber at all.

With fingers known to cause death and pain, Sasuke gently touched her cheek, noting the steady flickering of her eyes behind closed lids.

She was dreaming, had been dreaming for a very long time. The monitor above her flickered frantically with brainwave activity, measuring and detailing by minutes, hours, days…years. She was trapped in a powerful genjutsu and the unrelenting demand on her brain interfered with her body's normal functions, thus the need of the respirator.

He didn't have the slightest idea what was going on in that head of hers, but knowing Kabuto, he doubted it was anything pleasant. Unlike his Sannin sensei and his compatriots, Sasuke didn't take pleasure from the pain of others. He was simply indifferent to it. Everyone and everything was inconsequential except for his revenge.

But in the presence of this weak little mouse he couldn't help but feel just the tiniest bit of peace because she was fighting monsters in her sleep too. So he came, and he stared, and he meditated until the visions in his head surrendered to the steady beeps and whirs of the machines. It became far more therapeutic than any of the sedatives Kabuto offered him.

Of course, that didn't mean he owed her anything. She was never aware of his presence and didn't have to be for him to take what he needed from her. He had no problem taking what he needed or wanted from anyone. He'd been denied and tossed aside for too long. That helpless, ineffectual child was gone, no more to suffer at the whims of others. He was his own master now and the world would bend to his will. Justice and mercy, so long denied him, were now his toys.

Nothing stood between him and his revenge anymore. Orochimaru's blood was still fresh on his sword and his brother's would soon join it. He'd taken what he needed from the evil Sannin and in return rid the Earth of his vile existence, as had been his intention from the start. It was past time to grant justice to the nightmares of his past and mercy to his own tortured soul.

The wounds he sustained from his battle with the Sannin were tolerable but he came to attend them anyway, killing every one of Orochimaru's henchmen that got in his way with ridiculous ease. By the time he reached the medical ward there was no one left alive in the compound…except her.

Sasuke could summon no emotion for this woman, but neither could he walk away. Invisible chains held him fast, demanding something of him he didn't understand. The girl was as good as dead. Kabuto was away, no doubt checking up on his other experiments elsewhere, and corpses couldn't provide the care she needed. All he had to do was walk away and she would eventually slip into eternal slumber, a far more peaceful rest than the one she found now.

Yet he lingered as he often did, listening to the hum of the machinery, studying her delicate features.

"What do you want from me?" His voice echoed in the darkness, deep and cold. Of course there was no reply. He didn't expect one, but felt all the more frustrated because of it. She was a burden, an obstacle, just one more thing to keep him from seeking his revenge.

He hated her.

Laying one hand on her forehead and making a hand sign with the other, Sasuke shattered the complicated genjutsu with surprising ease. Her brainwaves fluctuated wildly for a moment before sinking into a steady, even flow. What did it feel like to be trapped in a dream for two years? Did she even know she was dreaming?

Starting with the electrode attached to her right temple, he methodically removed the wires until all the monitors save one fell silent and blank. When the last wire fell from his fingers, he sat back and listened to the steady beat of her heart, waiting for the little blip to stress or flat line. Surely by now her body had forgotten how to function on its own. If this proved true, he would end her existence swiftly and painlessly. It certainly would make his life a whole lot easier, that's for sure.

The deathly silence dragged on for so long he jumped when she breathed in sharply and started choking on the respirator. He pulled the tube free but despite her sharp, strangled breaths, she didn't awaken. With the sound of her struggling gasps cutting the silence, he pulled the rest of the tubes and IV's from her body and bound the puncture wound on her forearm.

So she surprised him, and not much surprised him anymore. Her breathing calmed considerably by the time he finished ridding her of all of the attachments of her previous artificial existence but it was still strained. Painfully thin and muscles shriveled beyond use, her appearance was that of a corpse but even still she struggled to live.

Some people just don't know how to die.

Pulling a blanket off the bed, Sasuke wrapped it securely around her frail body for warmth and lifted her into his arms. Limp as a rag doll, she folded in his embrace and he felt he could snap her in two with one hand. Perhaps it would be kinder to kill her now instead of letting her struggle. They were a good week's run from Konoha and he knew he could entrust her to no one else without his efforts being wasted, but in her current state she would never survive the trip.

Quickly sifting through his options, he carried her into the next room and laid her on one of the exam tables. If he was going to have to hole up somewhere for a while he was going to need supplies and if she happened to die while he was putting them together…so be it.

Bandages, food, medicine, a spare change of clothing and an extra blanket later, the stubborn woman was still alive. He even walked as slowly as possible and took the long way around the compound, but clearly she had no intention of relinquishing her white-knuckle grip on life. Deciding he'd dawdled long enough, Sasuke swung his pack over the two swords sheathed at his back and scooped her up.

The pleasant scent of herbs mingled with a trace of lavender washed over him and he readjusted his hold to brace her head under his chin. Seldom did Orochimaru's hideouts ever smell of anything beyond earth, chemicals, and death. How this girl managed to retain what must be her natural essence, and a quite soothing one at that, was a mystery he never considered until now. Even knocking at death's door, yet obviously refusing to enter it, she was a bright spot in the pitch of nightmares.

Moving into the hallway, he carefully made his way through the underground twists and turns, stepping over bodies and weapons until he emerged into the cool evening air. The forest fell silent, waiting with bated breath as he laid his bundle of skin and bones at the base of a tree far from the entrance. Stepping back, he studied his surroundings for an unwelcome audience. Finding none, he raised his hands in sign. The ground shuddered as the explosive tags set throughout the tunnels triggered, forever burying its secrets in fire and stone.

If only the same could be done with his past.

Turning away from the destruction, Sasuke narrowed his eyes at the girl. Even now he should just walk away and let the forest claim her, but he couldn't. He didn't know why, he just couldn't.

With an irritated sigh, he knelt to pick her up and froze when she stirred with a soft whimper. Her brow furrowed in pain as she struggled to open her eyes and he watched in silent expectation. Would she know the difference between reality and dreams? Would she recognize him? Fear him?

Pale lavender eyes fluttered open, dull and empty. They flickered across his face before slipping closed once more and he released his breath in relief. He wasn't exactly ready to deal with a panicked woman just yet.

Gathering her up once more, Sasuke scowled down at her innocent face, cursing her very existence and the bizarre compulsion to help her.

How did he ever get himself into this mess? He just wanted to kill his brother and avenge his family. Was that really too much to ask? Why did fate, or whatever powers were at work, have to throw her into his path and screw with his inner sense of honor and duty so much that he couldn't walk away from such an obvious obstacle?

The cold night air made her shiver in his arms as he leapt through the trees at rapid speed and he instinctively cradled her closer to his warmth. There was a village a few miles west nestled against the base of a mountain. It was too small to warrant an inn, but an old woman rented him a room once when he was returning injured from a mission for Orochimaru. It was a good place to hide out for a while: good food and warm shelter from the elements. The girl wouldn't survive long otherwise.

Having been fed intravenously for nearly two years, it was unlikely she would be able to tolerate solid food and it could be months before she was travel ready. Maybe he could just leave her with the old woman and let her find her own way back when she was ready. He didn't have the time to waste anymore, nor the patience.

Her eyes flickered open only once more, but she seemed entirely unaware of her surroundings. What exactly did Kabuto do to her? Maybe he should've salvaged the medic-nin's research, but he hadn't been thinking of her best interests at the time. Why should he? Wasn't it enough that he'd spared her life, taken her from the hands of evil when no one else could? Since when did she become his responsibility?

Growling deep in his throat, Sasuke seriously started to question his own sanity.

"Why couldn't you just die, Hyuuga?"

She felt so very warm. At least, she thought she did. She couldn't be certain if it was genuine warmth or another inducement of the dreamscape she was forever trapped in.

There were memories of laughter and smiles, blue eyes, soft fur…butterflies. They contrasted sharply with everything else and she clung to them, knowing in some distant part of her mind and heart that they were the only things she could trust, the only things that were real.

There were faces too of people she knew well, but their words were not the same, their expressions false. And there were enemies, so many enemies. She was so far beyond exhaustion she could no longer feel her own body and yet it stayed in constant motion. It felt as though she never slept, but perhaps she had and just couldn't remember.

A part of her knew this wasn't real, be it instinct or just a niggling gut suspicion. At first she thought she was caught in a genjutsu, but when she tried to break it, nothing happened. So perhaps this was reality and that other place she remembered where the leaves danced and people she thought she loved lived were the imaginings of a lonely, broken spirit.

The food she ate left her empty. The water she drank left her thirsty. The warmth she sought was insubstantial and fleeting because the growing chill was on the inside and she didn't know how to ward it off.

When she discovered she had no physical limitations, a strange hunger overtook her and she fought with a ferocity that would startle all who knew her. It was all she knew to do and she strained her Byakugan eyes for hours on end fighting the enemies she could and could not see.

She wanted to look into those blue eyes again, feel that soft fur, laugh with her own voice and hear it ring like crystal bells across lake water. She wanted to feel alive, but as time began to blend into ceaseless battles and the hunger for freedom was never satiated, she began to wonder if there was anything left of her to save.

Voices spoke to her from within her own mind. Sometimes the voice was kind and strong, telling her to hold on, to believe that someone would come to save her. Other times the voice was soft and persuasive, telling her she was alone and must fight alone if she ever wanted to be free. She didn't know who to believe or if she should believe either of them at all. It wasn't real. None of it was real. Perhaps even she wasn't real.

Sometimes she was tempted to let one of the enemy kill her and end the confusion, fear, and pain, but that was when the kind voice became the loudest and at times she thought it was a medley of voices, both male and female, all speaking of one accord.

Every day was the same and she was always running, but from or toward what, she didn't know. It was when she finally reached the very end of her endurance that the world shattered before her eyes and darkness swept over her. She fought it, fearing what it could mean, but it beckoned so powerfully she was helpless to resist. Sinking into it, Hinata thought with great relief…now I can rest.

Just when the village came in sight, it started to rain. Seriously pissed, Sasuke pounded on the old woman's door with a force to rattle the rafters. A wizened old face greeted him with shock and confusion and he pushed his way in before she could even fully open the door.

"I need a room."

Blinking out of her shock, the old woman nodded and shuffled down the hall to the spare room he'd used once before. It was small and bare of furniture except for the futon rolled up in the corner and a window large enough to escape through, should the need ever arise, adorning the far wall.

"Blankets, soup if you have it," he said, gently lowering his bundle to the floor.

The woman disappeared and returned shortly to drop off some blankets before disappearing again. Sasuke made a habit of never staying in the same place twice to make it harder to track him, but this was one exception he didn't mind making. The old woman lived alone and was mute. Not only could she not pester him with stupid questions but neither could she reveal details about him to others, not that she would. She'd taken care of him once before without complaint and without expectation. A quiet understanding had formed between them and he seldom allowed such things to happen.

Unrolling the futon, he set to quickly unwrapping his shivering burden. The thickness of the blanket hadn't protected her from the rain and he scowled at the thin yukata clinging to her scrawny frame.

Nothing but trouble.

Without a care for modesty, he peeled the wet material off her body and dried her with another blanket before tucking her into the futon and piling the rest of the dry blankets on top.

The old woman returned once more with a bit of bread and some hot broth, not much but she obviously wasn't expecting visitors. He made a mental note to give her money for supplies later.

With some effort he managed to get a bit of broth between the girl's chattering teeth, but no more than a few sips. She probably couldn't have tolerated much more than that, so he finished it off with the bread himself before discarding his own sopping clothes in an untidy pile and crawling under the blankets beside her.

Sasuke nearly yelped when his skin came in contact with ice. No wonder she was shivering so badly. She was as cold as the dead!

"I've put too much work into you for you to die now," he growled at the unconscious woman, wrapping himself around her freezing body. The hot broth had taken the chill out of his own bones, but he wasn't sure it was going to be enough now that he was cuddling an ice cube.

Glaring at the wall, he listened to her sporadic whimpers and tried to reorganize and firm his plans in mind.

He wasn't a patient man. He'd waited too long for retribution and now he was finally strong enough to take it. There was nothing more Orochimaru could teach him and if the man thought he was just going to let him take his body, then he was utterly insane. Well, that much had been obvious from the start.

Now the Sannin was dead and Kabuto was…somewhere. The medic had been lucky enough to be away when he severed his ties with Orochimaru with gruesome finality but he had no real quarrel with him anyway. His whereabouts were inconsequential at this point.

How long had it been now since he left Konoha? Four years? Five years? Time just blended together in the face of his training. They had given up on finding him, he was sure. It wasn't like there was a ninja in all of Konoha that could take him down anyway, although…there was no telling how strong Naruto had become since their last encounter. His old teammate always did have a way of surpassing expectation.

The woman in his arms whimpered again and he reflexively held her closer. In just a matter of days he could've tracked his brother down and finally achieved his lifelong goal, but now he had this little nuisance to deal with. No, patience was definitely not his best quality.

He'd never killed a woman before. It wasn't that he had a moral issue with killing one of the fairer sex, he just never found himself needing to. No woman could stand against his strength and there was no point in crushing the pathetic. His conscience was all but numb now, true, but he wasn't Orochimaru. He was an Uchiha, one of the strongest shinobi bloodlines in the world, and he couldn't dishonor that anymore than he already had.

No one would ever look upon the Uchiha name again with reverence. There would only be fear and awe of the Clan's power, power that would be ill-wasted on a weak little woman like the one he held in his arms now.

Whether he liked it or not, he'd taken responsibility for her life. So he would see her past the point of danger and then leave. How she got back to Konoha was none of his concern. He had no intention of returning there anyway. There was no place for Uchiha Sasuke in the Village Hidden in the Leaves.

A/N- Due to time (which I keep in a gum ball machine and can only access when I have 50 cents to spare), I will only respond to reviews through the FF PM service which means if you have a question and want me to be able to answer it, please leave a signed review. I've got nothing against un-logged in reviews, but any questions asked in that manner will likely be ignored (unless a bunch of people wondered the same thing and they all left unsigned reviews). Just be aware I will not email anyone personally because I'm rather fond of my anonymity. It's cute and fuzzy. Besides, I think the chapter is more fun to read without my chatter gunking it up, ne?

Thanks for reading and waiting patiently for me to finally get this up and please let me know if there were any obvious mistakes (words squished together and the such).