They've been running for a day and they aren't catching up quickly enough.
They're faster, but the enemy was well-prepared. Intricate false trails abound;
even Neji can't see through them at first glance, or even at second. Kiba and
Akamaru can barely breathe for the stink in their noses -- but they run anyway.
Naruto runs with them. And he doesn't give a rat's ass that they're supposed to let the Cloud nins go if the bastards cross the frontier. Kiba won't care either. And for all his respect of the law and authority and the Hokage's strict orders, Neji won't, either. Naruto remembers his words in the stadium, so long ago; lingering distance between them or not, he doubts Neji is ever going to let Hidden Cloud get the person his father died to protect.
Besides, Naruto hasn't saved the Hyuuga yet, and he can't do that if Hinata isn't there. She needs to see it, too.
So when Neji sucks in a startled breath, Naruto doesn't slow down, but plows through... whatever it is that Neji saw.
As it turns out, Neji wasn't staring at another trap.
There's a dozen of Cloud ninjas standing there in combat stances -- not running -- and he thinks that maybe Kiba, Neji and him did herd them into Shino's trap.
For all of two seconds.
And then he sees, too.
It was strange that they would target her again, because Hinata is not a toddler anymore, not easily transportable; but after the last time, they know better than to take a sealed Hyuuga. Of the few unsealed people in her clan -- apart, maybe, from a few old warhorses who never leave the compound anymore -- she is widely known as the weakest.
She flows between her enemies. She's like a feather in the wind. Graceful, small, unthreatening -- but you rush toward her and it's like the air itself twirls her away. It's a dance, where she knows everyone's moves and matches them effortlessly.
He only thinks of moving again when it looks like they're going to tackle her en masse -- but then Kiba and Akamaru rush through with a fierce yell. Hinata dodges like they've repeated this a hundred times before, and then she's following in their wake and striking down any who still stands.
Two men try to run; Neji sends them flying.
Naruto is still standing there and staring.
Trotting back, Akamaru whines a question; Hinata beams and scratches his heavy head, reassures Kiba when he points to the ugly rope burns on her pale wrists. She bows quickly toward Neji, who sighs, shakes his head and pretends she didn't; and then she turns around and starts.
"Ah! Naruto-kun!" A pause -- a shy, surprised smile blooming. "What... What are you doing here?"
Saving you, he wants to say. But his mind is still full of that grace and competence, that quiet determination.
One of the Cloud ninjas twitches; before he can react, Hinata gasps and runs past him to knock out the enemy again. Just a light touch at the base of the neck, and he's out like a light. Kiba laughs and throws everyone a roll of wire each; and then they start hogtying the unconscious men.
"I'm -- I'm sorry, Naruto-kun, what were you...?"
He stares at her, with her long flowing hair and the too-generous, un-Hyuuga curves she hides under her oversized clothes, dainty, callused feet, bruised hands demurely smoothing down her rumpled jacket. And her soft, shy smile, and her reddened cheeks.
"Were you going to -- to say something?"
"...Yeah," he finally answers. And then he grins. "Yeah. When we get home, d'you wanna spar with me?"