I'm sorry I took forever to update, real life sucks and is keeping me very busy at the moment. I'm not particularly happy with this chapter but it'll have to do... I need to get the story moving to the more (hopefully) exciting future bits. I would also like to thank all my readers who patiently wait for my infrequent updates. I finally put in some nejiten moments yay!

Warning: there is a disturbing scene towards the end (well it's disturbing according to my standards) so please do not flame me, no real animals were harmed in writing of this fanfic...

Disclaimer: I own Naruto cos I paid Kishimoto for the rights... NOT ... I have no money and I doubt he'd sell them to me anyway...

Shikamaru had known this was a bad idea and had told Captain Asuma so. He had been of the opinion that the best plan to rescue Naruto would be to grab the fool who had let himself get captured in a fast hitting open assault on the gypsy camp and make a strategic run for it. But no, the Captain wanted to stealthily infiltrate the gypsy camp, capture the gypsies and interrogate them for information about the bandits whilst rescuing Naruto from their clutches. It was that red-eyed woman's fault, if it hadn't been for her being so attractive to the Captain and making him so obsessed with her, he would have listened to him and this whole fiasco would not be happening right now. Second-lieutenant Nara sighed and held his hands up in resignation as one of the gypsies pressed a blade into his back. "Make a sound and I will kill you," one of the male gypsies intoned quietly. There was no way he would be able to warn the others as they had all split up to different points around the camp. It was in the middle of the night as well, and it was near impossible to see.

Shino quickly went to work, giving the lazy soldier a quick pat down, checking for hidden weapons before tying his arms behind him tightly and gagging him. He then pushed Shikamaru forward towards the camp, continuing to press the blade against his back, all the while, keeping a firm grip on him. They stopped at the edge of the camp under the cover of the trees and Shino gave a quiet owl hoot. There were four answering hoots. The gypsy man's grip tightened as he seemed to be waiting for something. Finally there was a fifth hoot and the soldier was pushed unceremoniously into the camp.

The lazy second-lieutenant grimaced as he saw all of his fellow soldiers being pushed into the camp by their gypsy captors. Captain Asuma's plan had backfired spectacularly. Lietenant Neji didn't look particularly pleased as the tiny gypsy girl who had caused them so much trouble had gotten the upper hand on him and she pushed him to the ground next to Naruto. The gypsies had known of their planned attack somehow, they had been well prepared and the 'sleeping forms' surrounding Naruto turned out to be logs covered with a blanket. Shikamaru wondered how they found out; none of the other soldiers could have possibly told them of their plans.

"My love, how did you manage to find out our plans?" asked Asuma. His question was directed to the red-eyed gypsy woman who was trying her best to ignore him as much as possible.

"Shino followed your Lieutenant after he came to spy on us," she replied casually. Kurenai smirked at the silent boy who always seemed to be hiding under the high collar of his cloak.

Neji turned to study the strange boy carefully. He knew that he himself was a good tracker and he should have been aware that someone had followed him. If that was the case, this young gypsy man could well be one of the best in the country. He would be an extremely valuable asset. It would also explain why none of Kakashi's dogs picked up his scent, he knew to hide it or to place himself downwind from them.

"So what are we going to do with them?" asked Tenten quietly. She seemed more subdued than usual.

Both Gai and Kurenai exchanged glances. They weren't entirely sure either. But before they could answer, the one eyed Captain made his own suggestion. "Why don't we all join forces, we're all after the bandits and we all know that they are a dangerous group. We would have a greater chance of success if we joined forces and worked together."

"Why Kakashi that is an excellent idea," Asuma drawled, he had a suspicious glint in his eye. Neji started wondering if Asuma had masterminded this plan to fail just so he could persuade his former lover to join forces with him. It was a smart move, they were obviously not just an ordinary troupe of entertaining gypsies.

"Absolutely not," snapped Kurenai.

"Why not, it is a good idea, I don't see the harm in it," replied Gai, crossing his arms across his chest.

"It would be wise to do so, we would be outnumbered and at a disadvantage otherwise," Shino suddenly said in his deep monotone. He was loyal to Kurenai almost to a fault and rarely questioned her. "I saw the bandits perform at the festival, they are very good at what they do," continued Shino ominously.

Kurenai sighed and studied the faces of the members of her troupe before finally nodding. Tenten and Lee began untying the soldiers. Neji rubbed his wrists, trying to get some circulation back. "So whose orders do we follow?" asked Shikamaru rather bluntly. He was never one to beat around the bush. It was too troublesome otherwise.

"Mine," said Kurenai firmly. She gave both Captains a challenging glare, daring them to argue with her. She was after all the Governor's Chief Spymaster and answered directly to Tsunade herself.

Kakashi merely nodded, he had known Kurenai for a while and respected her. She was a smart and resourceful woman. Pity Asuma couldn't hang onto her, she was the one dalliance of the chain-smoking soldier he had been fond of. Asuma didn't seem to mind following her orders much either since he didn't raise any objections.

However, the other soldiers weren't too pleased with the arrangement. "Troublesome," muttered Shikamaru. "They're gypsies, they aren't trained for these kind of missions."

All the gypsies overheard his comment and shot him dark looks. Lee marched up to him and crossed his arms, "I will challenge you to a fight and I shall show you that we gypsies are trained for these kind of missions!"

"Lee, he's not worth it, drop it," said Tenten sourly before either Gai or Kurenai could step in.

"Women shouldn't even be coming on dangerous missions like these," the lazy soldier added disparagingly.

The brunette girl's expression changed abruptly as she suddenly whipped out a knife and threw it at him. It landed right next to his ear, blade digging into the tree that he had been leaning against, and the Second-Lieutenant's eyes widened with shock. Her eyes were narrowed dangerously, "That was a warning, next time I will not miss." Neji couldn't help but smirk, Nara had obviously never seen her in action.

Asuma pulled the knife out with a great deal of effort, it was firmly entrenched. He whistled, impressed, "Kurenai, what do you do with these kids you pick up off the streets?"

The gypsy woman turned towards him, annoyance etched across her face. "You," she pointed at Asuma, "Shut up. We need to get moving, we've lost enough time already." She began barking orders, "Kiba, Shino and Kakashi, you three will be tracking. I want to divide us all up in groups in case there happens to be more than one trail to follow. There must be at least one soldier and one gypsy in the group. Kakashi, I want you to have Lee and Tenten in your group and you may take one or two soldiers with you."

Kakashi nodded and beckoned at Naruto and then after a second thought, he motioned towards Neji. Neji frowned, unsure if he really wanted to be teamed up with his hyperactive comrade, the feisty gypsy girl or the strange looking acrobat. But orders were orders, he couldn't disobey so he resigned himself to his fate.

"Kiba and Gai will form another group," Kurenai needed Gai to stay with Kiba because she was afraid that the young man's emotions would get the better of him when it came to Hinata. She would have to be teamed with Shino, Shino could be surprisingly temperamental and would obey only her orders. Kurenai glanced at the soldiers, "So who will be joining them?"

"Shikamaru and Chouji, they work well together and Shikamaru is very smart, he'll be useful." Asuma grinned at his underlings who stared stonily at him back. Shikamaru wasn't pleased about being separated from his comrades whom he knew, and how they worked under pressure. "So that leaves you, me and your tracker Shino," the bearded Captain pointed out cheerfully to Kurenai.

Her brow furrowed, she didn't want to be partnered with him. It would have made sense to put the Hyuuga Lieutenant with Gai's group instead since he was the next highest ranking soldier but both he and Kiba cared too much about Hinata. She didn't want them doing anything rash, she had to keep those two separated. From what she had observed of the blonde soldier, he was as hot headed as Lee. It might be better to separate those two as well. She sighed, "We need to even up the numbers, Naruto, you're joining our group."

The blonde soldier's look of relief sweeping across his features when he found out that he wasn't going to be in close proximity with Tenten for much longer was great. Kurenai wondered what it was that the petite brunette had done to terrorise him. Tenten was usually such a sweet girl although she could be quite … spirited at times...

"Looks like you've managed to charm our little captive, Sasuke," sneered Kidomaru. The archer continued to fletch his arrows but Sasuke knew he was being watched very closely. Most of the other bandits still didn't trust him nor like him. He was tolerated only because he was in Orochimaru's favour. The Uchiha ignored him as he went about performing his task of readying the horses.

Tayuya and Kimimoro emerged form the forest breathing hard. They had been creating false trails and traps for their pursuers. Those two bandits didn't look very happy either. "Where's Orochimaru?" asked Kimimoro curtly. He was a dangerous man and all the other bandits were wary of him. The strange white-haired man was also fiercely loyal to Orochimaru to a degree that was frightening.

"In the wagon with his precious snakes," grunted the archer as he dipped the arrow tips in poison before placing them back carefully in his quiver.

The tall swordsman climbed into the wagon and Sasuke inched his way closer with the horses straining to eavesdrop on their conversation.

"They are catching up to us too fast, we will have to abandon the wagons or confront them. Tayuya and I can barely stay ahead of them, they have three highly skilled trackers and the soldiers have joined forces with them now."

Sasuke stiffened, soldiers? They would blow his cover for sure if they knew him and recognised him.

"We can abandon the other two wagons but we need one for the Hyuuga, people will start asking questions if they see her travelling with us. You and the others, will have to try to delay them, kill them if it's easier, to give me more time to get the girl onto a boat before the storms start and we're left stranded at the coast," rasped Orochimaru.

"Which of us do you want?" asked Kimimoro bluntly.

"You, Tayuya, Jirobo, Sakon, Ukon and Kidomaru split up and ambush our pursuers, have a little fun with them if you want," replied Orochimaru sinisterly.

"But then it will just be you and Sasuke."

"Oh don't you worry about me Kimimoro, I can handle Sasuke. You know what to do if you miss the ship because of the storms?"

Sasuke didn't hear Kimimoro's answer but he moved away quickly before the bandit emerged out of the wagon, expressionless as usual. He cast his eyes coolly over Sasuke before turning to leave. The white haired man began coughing. Sasuke wondered how long he had been sick for but it didn't seem to hinder the bandit much, he was still deadlier than all the other bandits they were travelling with except for maybe Orochimaru. But Sasuke wasn't sure himself of the extent of Orochimaru's abilities. The sole reason why Sasuke had joined the snake-like man was to get closer to his brother Itachi who was now running what was left of the Uchiha clan after systematically destroying it himself. He had found out Itachi was a member of a secret society called the Akatsuki just before the Massacre and he knew that Orochimaru was once a part of this secret society after some investigations. It was impossible for him to reach his brother openly as he was a wanted man on the run for supposedly being the perpetrator of the Massacre. But if he was going to revenge his family and bring justice to the person who had really been behind it all, he was going to get hold of the real killer by infiltrating the Akatsuki, a group so secret that even the members did not know more than two or three other fellow Akatsuki.

The trails had split almost immediately once they had set out from camp after retrieving the soldier's horses. Lee, Tenten and Neji followed Kakashi in a single file through the forest. His dogs roamed circled ahead. Kakashi raised his hand to stop them before climbing off his horse to inspect the ground closely. "This is very fresh, they have been watching us," he murmured thoughtfully. He cast his good eye over the younger men and woman. "Be on your guard."

They remounted and continued following the bandit trail through the forest. Tenten's intuition kept telling her that something was wrong. Her uneasiness was starting to affect her mount as her horse began tossing her head and pinning her ears back. She ran a gloved hand over her mount's neck and murmured soothingly to the horse until it stilled. One of Kakashi's dogs stopped in its tracks and raised a paw so it seemed like it was pointing ahead of it. The dog was growling and the Captain whistled sharply to his dogs, summoning them back to him. All the dogs returned to him obediently except for one who had continued sniffing ahead curiously when suddenly the ground collapsed below it and it yelped. Tenten gasped and her horse reared, forcing her to rein in the mare sharply. The grey mare snorted nervously before standing still but she could feel her mount quivering under her. The dog in the pit was screaming piteously in pain. All the animals were shifting uneasily. Kakashi dismounted, his lips pressed together grimly as he approached the edge of the pit and looked down at his animal. The dog was impaled on a set of roughly made wooden spikes and it struggled weakly to get free.

Tenten climbed off her horse and handed its reins to Lee before joining Kakashi at the edge of the pit. The poor animal was dying and suffering from a great deal of pain. She reached for the long bow strapped to her back and looked at the Captain questioningly. He nodded curtly and she strung the bow and took a careful aim before firing the arrow down into the pit. There was a dead silence as the dog finally stopped struggling. Kakashi's shoulders drooped imperceptibly, "Thank you," he whispered hoarsely.

Lee looked at her sympathetically when she remounted, his round eyes brimming with repressed emotion. He knew how much she hated doing what she had just done. Tenten avoided her friend's eyes, she didn't want to show any weakness if she could help it. She suddenly found herself hating the bandits and even more determined to free Hinata from their clutches.

It was finally Kakashi who had stopped their group for a break since dusk had fallen and they could barely see anything in front of them. It was unspoken that he didn't want to lose anymore of his dogs.

Tenten concentrated on picking the hooves of her mount before moving on to Lee's. She had wanted to keep tracking the bandits but she knew it was too dark and dangerous especially if they had left traps. Tenten could hear Lee asking the Captain in the background if it was safe to start a fire. Unfortunately it looked like it was going to be a cold dinner tonight. She hummed quietly to Lee's horse as she began giving it a quick groom. The Lieutenant was tending to his horse next to her and he nodded at her briefly. It was a friendly gesture coming from him. She knew that Lee had been challenging him to a fight as soon as they stopped to make camp. In fact she wouldn't be surprised if he thought that all gypsies were mad after this experience.

"You saved a lot of grief for Captain Kakashi today," he said quietly so that just the two of them could hear.

"I had to," she replied and continued to untangle the horse's mane. If it had been Akamaru in that dog's place, she knew how devastated Kiba would have been. They continued to tend to the horses in silence until she finally spoke to him, "Are you going to force Hinata to return home to marry Uchiha Itachi after we rescue her?"

Neji didn't answer for a while. "Hinata has to face up to her responsibilities as the Hyuuga Heiress, she shouldn't just run away from them. If she truly cannot bear to marry Uchiha Itachi, she should try to sort something out with her father but suitable noblemen are scarce these days." He didn't feel like explaining to the gypsy girl the political ramifications if they were to refuse the Uchiha. Itachi had been clear about the consequences they would suffer should they refuse to form an alliance with the Uchiha.

"You would think that being rich and powerful meant that you had a say in who you got to marry," mused Tenten.

Neji snorted derisively and shook his head, "No, marriages are for political alliances. Thank goodness Hanabi is still too young to be married off or else she would have to take Hinata's place."


"Hinata's younger sister who was very attached to her."

"Hinata never mentioned she had a younger sister," Tenten murmured thoughtfully and wondered what else she didn't know about her friend.

"I doubt Hinata would have mentioned much about herself, she's very reserved," he told her, as if sensing her thoughts.

Tenten turned to face him and locked her dark brown eyes onto his pale ones. "You are close to her?"

"She is my favourite cousin, it was my job to look out for her," he sighed.

"So why did you become a soldier then? Why aren't you living in the Hyuuga estate?"

"I'm working off my debts to my uncle with my pay as a soldier then I shall save up to buy a nice small farm. I want a quiet life in the country once I am done with being a soldier," he replied quietly and cast his gaze on the stars in the sky. It was a cloudy night; the Storms would be coming soon. When his eyes turned once more to the slight gypsy girl he caught her giving him a small gentle smile that transformed her features. Neji suddenly realised how lovely she was even under the dirt and grime of travelling rough in a forest, away from civilisation.

"I never thought you would be the type to want a nice quiet country life, you seem more like one of those aspiring government leader types."

He grunted, "I hate politics."

"And yet we're wrapped up in the midst of it," she observed wryly.

A/N: That was my first death scene (I think) ... one day I shall progress to killing off characters but hopefully not anytime soon on this fic! My justification is that that was intended to show how ruthless and dangerous the Bandits are and what the gypsies and soldiers are up against.

Anyway, explanations aside, I hope this chapter will tide you over. The next chapter should be better (or at least the chapter after that) fingers crossed.

Oh and please review! I like reviews very much, I'm a review junkie/whore/addict/insert another noun along the same lines.