It had been a week now that the women's baths were out of service at the Hyuuga compound, and one week since the first time Hinata had followed her little sister to the public baths instead. Seven days now, and she was finally used to it.
Still, whenever she could, she came at odd times, very late at night or in the middle of the day. She never quite got over her initial nervousness at disrobing around strangers, even strangers who couldn't care less; it was better when there was space enough, or a corner was free, so she could turn her back to the room.
But in seven days she had never heard such a concerto of high-pitched screeches ringing over the tiled wall. She wasn't the only one whose head lifted toward the men's side in utter puzzlement. She was the only one who could have checked and made sure, though, but. But.
"Prank war?" wondered one of her neighbors, laughing, and another giggled and said something about cold water on -- private parts.
Hinata told herself it was quite likely, especially with the cries of protest and disgruntlement now following the first yelp of surprise. There was no need to check for injuries. She breathed out, relaxed her shoulders, and upended a bucket of water on her back to wash off the suds.
It was a relief to be clean. Soaking for a half-hour or so would be even better. The mission had left her weary, every single of her muscles tense. She wrapped herself in a towel, averting her eyes from those who had chosen not to, and made her way to the hot springs.
She had one foot in the water, testing the temperature, when the call came.
"Hinata-chan! Hey, long time no see!"
Hinata reproduced the previously heard shriek and dropped in the pool, both arms wrapped tight around her towel and ready to defend it to the death.
When she turned around her eyes only confirmed what the voice had already told her.
Eyes wide, huddled at the bottom of the shallow pool so only her face from the chin up surfaced, she watched Naruto trot up to her, gloriously naked. He was in female shape today, with long shapely legs and a hourglass figure, and unbound golden hair flying out everywhere. He was making shushing noises and looking alarmed. Hinata sputtered, face burning, and sank a little deeper as he crouched at the edge of the pool.
"You -- you c-can't be there!" Hinata managed to protest, somehow, in a hurried whisper. "That's -- that's just not --"
Naruto huffed, cheeks puffing up sulkily; Hinata tried not to find it endearing. No, no, Naruto-kun sneaking in the women's bath was just too much!
"Yeah well, they didn't want me in the men's side either. I've got to bathe somewhere, you know!"
Hinata blinked. Naruto's disgruntled look... it wasn't fake, or covering up something else. He'd... meant to go to the men's side? Looking like that?
"I don't understand," she admitted quietly, eyes slinking away from his face and off to the far side. "W-why can't you... turn back?"
Naruto sighed and shifted her weight on the balls of her feet. Hinata's blush deepened. With her peripheral vision, the only way she could still be polite would be to turn her back completely to place Naruto in her blind spot, and that didn't look polite to people who weren't Hyuugas.
"I... Er. Seriously, believe me, I wasn't trying to be a pervert or anything!" he said, while sneaking a little surprised look at the women bathing all around them. Hinata could still read the shocked little thrill in that expression -- but the surprise...
"I believe you," she said.
Naruto stared at her in shock and then grinned wide and bright. Hinata's heart jumped.
"B-but. Um. Can you... That is..." She took in a deep breath. "May I offer some advice? If -- if you are indeed, um. Stuck like this."
Naruto tilted his head, hair gliding in golden waves along his round shoulders and down his arms. "Yeah?"
Hinata scrunched her eyes closed and braced herself. "P-please keep your -- your. Your knees. Together. Please don't crouch like this."
A nervous laugh, and when she opened her eyes cautiously a few seconds later Naruto was crouching with his knees together very properly, an arm wrapped around his folded legs to hold them close, so that they hid even most of his ample chest.
"I forgot. Didn't used to have anything to hide there! Or, be limber enough to do that anyway."
Hinata nodded faintly.
"I'll go wash super-quick and be right back, okay?"
And then Naruto-kun was gone, running back to the washing area and Hinata was left trying not to hyperventilate.
Naruto... bathing with her.
She would be surprised if he thought to use a towel. A lot of the women here didn't bother.
She told herself the heat she felt was merely from the hot water, nothing bad -- or, fine, embarrassment maybe, she supposed it was permissible in that situation. Just that, temperature and secondhand shame. Just that.
Man or woman, it didn't matter. Naruto-kun was ...
Naruto-kun was about to sit in a pool full of women who thought him one of them. Voluntary transformation or not, that was still too much temptation. Biting her lip, Hinata waded farther into the pool, where it curved and rocks made it harder to catch glimpses of other people.
A few minutes later Naruto was back, skipping over the water and then sinking with a loud splash that made every head turn -- the ones that weren't already turned to watch him run on the surface. Hinata wasn't sure why, maybe just tradition, but it just wasn't done to walk on water in the pool. She hid her smile behind her hand, and politely averted her eyes again as Naruto settled at her side in the little niche she had found. She'd been right about the absence of towel.
She'd been wondering if Naruto would be disappointed at the lowered visibility, but instead he looked a little relieved, sighing as he sank to his chin, boneless.
Hinata made sure that her towel was still secured, and asked quietly, "So... um. M-may I ask what happened?"
"Oh, um." Naruto scratched her head. "First I've got to tell you something. Er. Actually, I'm not Naruto."
He wasn't lying. But -- "That isn't true," she replied, soft but with absolute certainty.
Blue eyes familiar like her own turned to her, stared. "How -- but, no, I'm really not -- I mean. Kind of." He let out a long sigh. "Alright, I'm... a seal thinger went wrong, and I was -- aw, hell, it's really hard to explain. It's Kyuubi, okay? We split out of him and now there's three of us, but only one who's the real one, because the two of us, we're Kyuubi. I'm just the Yin half. I'm Naruto-shaped because we were sealed into him but--"
"You aren't just Naruto-shaped," Hinata opposed, shaking her head, though she could feel it spinning with shock. "You -- you are Naruto. Perhaps ... perhaps animated with Kyuubi's power -- and perhaps you are not the only Naruto -- but." She whispered the rest, starting to feel unsure, silly. Surely Naruto -- that person knew his own circumstances better than she did... "You knew me on first sight, so you share t-the same memories. And the way you speak and -- and move... Has your nindo changed?"
The girl stared at her, eyes a little wide, and then a slightly trembling smile bloomed on her face and Hinata stopped breathing.
"You know, I don't get why I don't talk with you more often. It's like every time we do, you fix my stupid. It's magic."
He -- she? -- laughed, a purely happy sound. Hinata started blushing anew.
"Alright!" A fiercely determined look on his face, he pumped his fist overhead. " I won't let other-me hog it. I'm Naruto too!"
Then he paused.
"Only, I'm a girl."
Hinata blinked. "--Oh."
Naruto -- she still couldn't name her anything but Naruto -- grinned at her, and let her legs float up until she could wriggle her toes at the surface. "Yep. I could have tried henge to get a guy body back but I just don't wanna. I'm good like this. It feels right, you know? Before, when we were a boy, it didn't really, it was just fun, but now it does."
Hinata nodded slowly as she thought back on their encounter. "Your -- your movements, they're very natural, very... at home. I can see it."
She really could, and it was strange and amazing, to think of Naruto-kun as a woman. But it suited her; she shone with the same unselfconsciousness, the same appetite for life, the same bravery. Everything else...
There were three of Naruto out there.
"Is it safe to assume t-that... you three are... here to stay?"
Naruto floated up, kicking her feet. "Yeah. Granny Tsunade tried to fix us but it didn't work. Maybe the old pervert could have figured something out, but... I dunno. I don't wanna go back. And I don't think Naruto does either." A snort, followed with a grimace. "I know Kyuubi -- the yang one, I mean -- he really doesn't."
Hinata took a minute to absorb that. Three Narutos out there, and here to stay. She hoped she would have an occasion to talk with the original one -- oh, she was presuming too much, just because Naruto-chan here had said she had helped her, she was thinking she might be able to help Naruto-kun too. But at least she had to make sure he was okay. He had friends, surely, Sakura-chan and Kakashi-sensei and Iruka-sensei, and others, he didn't need Hinata's input, it was a bit pretentious to think he did.
Surely he would appreciate a word of support anyway. She hoped.
She wasn't sure how everyone took Naruto-chan and Kyuubi-kun's presence, though, whether they had friends of their own. And Naruto-chan was right here and didn't seem to mind her. So.
Maybe they could be friends.
She didn't realize she'd whispered it out loud, her little secret hope, until Naruto-chan plopped back into a sitting position and gave her a quizzical look. "But we're already friends."
Hinata flinched. She must have hurt her, saying they weren't. She opened her mouth to apologize but nothing would come out.
"... We could become better friends, yeah. You're right." Naruto-chan scratched her head and then grinned sheepishly. "I don't think Kiba's gonna want to hang out, and Shika's gonna be all 'girls are too troublesome!', and, I dunno anyway, I'm a girl so I should have girl best friends, right? I'm sure they know jack shit about girl stuff anyway, and, um." She fidgeted, a little embarrassed. "I'm still Naruto, but. Even I can tell, I'm already different. And there's some Kyuubi stuff I've got that we didn't used to have, because it was sealed off, but it's here and I'm the one who's got it and it's going to make me more different, and -- and maybe I won't be like me so much when I'm done and. ... heh. Er. I'm being stupid, sorry."
Hinata's heart ached for her. Slowly, cautiously, she reached for her shoulder, covered it with her hand. Naruto-chan's skin was wet, and strands of silky hair clung to Hinata's palm.
"Everyone... Everyone changes as they grow. I changed... You changed me." Her voice shook a little bit, but she firmed it, made herself smile. "I'm not the person I was -- I'm better than I was. And I -- I'm not done changing. But I'll keep growing, and -- surely I'll do things I don't like, and be unhappy with myself, but everyone changes, all the time, and I'll keep changing until I can be proud of myself. So you -- it doesn't matter if -- if you change in different ways from Naruto-kun, does it? As long as you're happy with you."
Suddenly she had an armful of wet skin and she was being squeezed to an inch of her life. She was so shocked she didn't even react at first, and then the hug was over anyway.
Naruto just grinned at her, blushing just as hard as Hinata was. She ruffled her hair in embarrassment and laughed, flustered and happy. Hinata couldn't have stopped smiling if her life had depended on it, all... tender and soft and protective, she wanted to tell Naruto everything about what an amazing person she was, until even those little cracks in her confidence disappeared entirely. But those cracks just made her a sweeter person anyway, and oh, here Hinata had gone and fell in love all over again. She ducked her head, still smiling, unbearably happy.
"You're really great, you know that?"
Hinata ducked her head some more and twisted her fingers into weird and improbable tangles underwater.
Silence descended on their little corner of the pool, but not an uncomfortable one. The spring's heat seeped into their bones, and the water lapping at the rocks made little sounds that Hinata loved listening to. It was so relaxing that her eyes started to slide closed.
She felt Naruto-chan's eyes on her and blinked a question.
"... I was just thinking, your hair looks pretty like that."
Hinata's hand rose immediately to the messy bun she'd pulled her hair up into, a quick twist from the base of her skull, just so it wouldn't get soaked and float everywhere. Naruto-chan's own hair did, even longer than Hinata's waist length.
"--Um. T-thank you."
"How do you do it?" Naruto-chan sat up, tried to gather her hair and winced when she pulled too hard. "Ow. Okay, not like that."
"I could show you," Hinata offered. She took down her own hair, and put it up again, self-consciously avoiding Naruto-chan's eyes.
Naruto-chan made thinking noises and attempted to imitate her. And, well. It showed that she was used to handling short hair. Eventually she sighed and turned around, throwing Hinata a hopeful look over her shoulder. "Can you...?"
She lifted her hair off her nape, and for a second or three Hinata forgot to breathe again.
She drew closer slowly, acutely aware of the lapping waves against Naruto-chan's skin, and the muddled lines of her body under the water. Her hands were trembling a little when she gathered her hair and combed it with her fingers, soft and slow to make sure she wouldn't tug. She twisted it up, coiled it together, and she had no hair band with her but when she tucked the wet ends under the coil it stayed put.
"There. I -- I don't think it'll last long, you need hair clips or, or a senbon, or something, but. There it is."
Naruto-chan felt at her hair as she turned back around. "Hee! I feel all elegant and shit. Er. And crap. ... Stuff."
Hinata giggled, and then realized that she hadn't moved back quite enough, because there was Naruto's knee pressing against her underwater.
"You're very pretty," she assured her quickly before she could lose courage.
"Eh, I'm cheating, it's all artificial just for -- huh."
And now Naruto-chan was giving her the most peculiar look. Hinata leaned back slowly, eyes growing huge and worried.
And then, as Hinata was still gearing up to prompt her to share her thoughts, Naruto-chan started smiling a smile she had never seen before. It was -- the closest she could remember was the devilish glee of a prank well-done, but that wasn't it.
"You like me."
The world grayed and swayed dizzily for a second
"You like me!" Naruto was saying, jubilant. "You were totally not-looking at my boobs!"
--just physical attraction, she still didn't know. Hinata started breathing again, though very shallowly. "I--I wasn't!"
"You were, you were, you were!" Naruto-chan crowed as she leaned forward, almost dancing in place.
When she rose on her knees, Hinata didn't have any choice but to not-look, away from the water streaming down her breasts until they were entirely visible, and much too close to her face.
"I-I... I'm sorry."
"What for?" Naruto-chan whispered, leaning into her until her lips brushed Hinata's cheek.
Water dripped from her chin to Hinata's cleavage. Hinata swayed, dizzy.
She was propped up against the rough edge of the basin and she wasn't too sure how she had gotten there. Naruto-chan was leaning over her reclined body with an arm planted for support next to Hinata's head, half out of the water and dripping all over her, and -- oh.
"I'm going to kiss you," she decided. "...If that's okay."
Hinata wasn't aware she'd nodded a tiny yes until Naruto-chan's face loomed so close there was no choice but to close her eyes.
Lips. Soft and damp, plump. Hinata trembled. A little awkward at first as they pressed against hers, but then there was a little purring, surprised, satisfied noise and it was like Naruto-chan had another epiphany. The next time they glided light and soft against hers and Hinata caught herself parting her lips on instinct, offering more.
She couldn't think. Couldn't, she tried but every time her brain stalled on something new she'd just noticed -- long eyelashes against her cheeks, fluttering like captive butterflies. A knee pressing against her thigh. The wet brush of a tongue-tip, barely darting in between her lips before leaving again, and she was whimpering.
It took her an eternity to open her eyes again after the kiss ended.
She looked down at her, all proud and nervous, a grin breaking and blooming on her face, and Hinata loved her so, so much she couldn't speak.
"So? How was it?"
Hinata slipped under the water, only halfway on purpose.
Soft hands dragged her back up. Her muscles were still jelly -- and her face was still burning, the blush going down her neck and turning even the top of her chest red.
"Na-na-Naruto-chan -- people."
The little nook was out of sight of a big part of the pool, but not all of it, and apparently while they'd been -- distracted -- more women had arrived. A couple of them were staring their way and tittering.
Naruto of course only blinked back at them, and then went "Oops."
But the moment was broken. Hinata wasn't sure if she was disappointed or insanely relieved. She couldn't believe she'd forgotten they were in public.
On the other hand maybe Naruto would never kiss her again, and that broke her heart a little.
Sighing, she straightened up. "Maybe -- maybe it would be best to -- leave the pool. It's... the water is very hot."
"Oh. Are you dizzy?" Naruto peered at her, chagrined. "Here I thought it was my mad skills."
Hinata choked a little and stared down at what she could see of her lap immediately.
"Yes -- well. I, I'll go now." Gathering her courage, and trying to ignore Naruto-chan's closeness, she moved to get up.
Naruto stopped her with a hand on her bare shoulder. As she froze -- was she about to receive a kiss goodbye? -- Naruto's other hand rose to her chest and tucked her unraveling towel back in.
She hadn't seen a nipple, but it had been a close thing.
"...Wanna go to the bath together tomorrow?"
Her fingers brushed the curve of Hinata's breast through soaked terrycloth on their way down. Hinata's lips said "Yes" of their own free will, before any actual thought could happen through the thrill of shocked arousal.
She was rewarded with a brilliant smile, one where a flicker of leftover nervousness was losing out to catlike pleasure, that same hint of mischievous glee.
Naruto-chan was already different from what Hinata had expected Naruto-kun to be -- not as awkward, more... instinctive, more openly interested. Different enough to shock her, not enough to make her recoil. She didn't think anything would. Naruto-chan was Naruto, and Naruto-kun's sister, clone, mirror, and that meant Hinata couldn't have changed her reaction with all the wishing of the world, and even though she was scared it was mere experimenting, and still dizzy with nerves, she didn't even wish to.
"Um, you know -- I meant it when I said we should be better friends. I -- I really meant that. No matter what. ...Want me to help you back out of the pool?"
They were the same where it counted.