The mewling caught his attention when he was coming back from a training session with Miki and Mito that had lasted late into the afternoon. He paused in a tree and glanced down, frowning at the cat litter nestled in the roots of a tree below him before moving on. They were being unusually loud, but they were probably just hungry as their mother skulked around the woods for food.
He went the same way the next day. They were crying again, and he frowned at the tree trunk before crouching down on his branch. He was just making sure the dumb things were being fed, he told himself.
An hour passed. No older cat appeared.
“Troublesome little things,” he muttered as he reached into the roots and seized one by the scruff of its neck to pull out. It was mostly white, mottled with patches of orange, and unbelievably fluffy. It bared its teeth and hissed angrily at him. “I’m trying to help you, you fool.”
Its sibling, a brown tabby with streaks of orange on its shoulders, let out a loud scream and crawled out of the hole, wobbling across the tree roots and attaching itself to his ankle. It continued to cry while making a pitiful effort to climb up his leg and the other continued to hiss at him.
The third- a tiny ball of fluff he wouldn’t have even seen because of its black coat if not for the green eyes blinking at him- stared out from its hiding place like it wanted nothing to do with any of them.
“All right, all right!” he hissed at the tabby, snatching it up and holding it close to his chest. “For god’s sake, stop your whining.”
The kitten stopped mewling at him and let out a long whine from the back of its throat. It stared up at him with pathetic wheat-colored eyes and kneaded his mantle with its claws.
He deposited the grumpy one in the crook of his arm. It settled down a bit in the presence of its sibling, but still looked puffed up and irritated.
He reached in, grabbed the last one, and stood up to leave. They almost immediately started complaining again. “Little pests.”
“What’s the matter, Tobirama?” Madara asked in as innocent a voice as he could, trying to look ignorant. “You seem annoyed.”
Tobirama gritted his teeth and refused to look up at him. He was sat over a pile of paperwork twice as high as the previous day’s, while Hashirama and Madara’s desks were conveniently emptier than they had been. He had no idea how Madara had managed to get more paperwork assigned to the Hokage’s office rather than the Hokage himself (and his, technically, assistant), but he was going to reap his vengeance one way or another.
“Nothing at all,” he responded, keeping his answer neutral. Then he made the mistake of looking up at the other man and caught sight of the smirk he was wearing now. His pen snapped in half in his grip. “Nothing. At. All.”
Madara’s smirk widened. Tobirama opened his mouth to berate him when the door swung open and Hashirama stepped inside with a beaming smile. He snapped his mouth shut and glared as Madara gave him a victorious stare.
“I brought dango, you two!” the Shodaime called out peppily. Madara turned away from Tobirama and eyed the bag in Hashirama’s hand.
“I’m not hungry,” Tobirama muttered, giving Madara one last sour look before going back to his paperwork. Hashirama looked at him a little perplexed before turning to Madara.
“Hn. Since there’s nothing else to eat around here,” he said, reaching for the bag with a blank face. He couldn’t let Hashirama know he had a sweet tooth or else the man would pounce on the weakness and use it against him forever.
He sat down at his desk with a dango stick in hand and kept his expression neutral. Hashirama hummed to himself as he returned to his own desk, oblivious to the tension leftover from their passive aggression contest.
“Oh, by the way, Madara,” he said, taking out a report from the Academy as he settled into his seat, “the bank just came out with these convenient new things called checks. You should pick some up later.”
Madara frowned. What was Hashirama even referring to? Bank? Checks? “What?”
“Checks,” Hashirama told him cheerfully. “They’re these pieces of paper made with a special stamp you can use to buy things-”
“Why would I need any?”
“To…to buy things with?” Hashirama looked adorably confused as he turned away from the paper to stare at him with a crinkled brow.
Madara was befuddled. “Wouldn’t I need a bank account to do that?”
Dumbfounded, Hashirama gaped at him. “…you…you have a bank account,” he said.
Madara stared blankly. Hashirama had to have been hallucinating or something, he deduced. He knew for a fact he hadn’t opened a bank account at any point. “No, I don’t,” he argued.
“Y- yes you do! You signed the papers for it!”
“No I didn-” Madara paused, suddenly unsure. He had signed a few papers Hashirama had handed to him without looking at them…something about his work? Frankly, he’d been tired that day and hadn’t been paying much attention. He looked over at Tobirama with a frown. “Do I have a bank account?”
Twitching, the younger Senju set down the scroll he’d been reading and cast him the driest stare that side of Fire Country. “It’s where your salary is direct deposited.”
The words slipped out of his mouth before he could properly think over how they’d make him look. “What salary?”
Hashirama’s face slammed into the table. Madara looked over at him in alarm as he groaned into the wood.
“M-Madara…you didn’t think…you were just…working for free, did you?”
“I never asked you to pay me,” Madara disputed, feeling defensive and embarrassed at his error.
“We all get paid!” Hashirama cried, raising a face streaked with alligator tears. “I can’t believe…wait.” He sat up ramrod straight, abruptly concerned. “What’ve you been eating?”
“…fish?” The cats liked fish anyway. Watatsumi even brought him some occasionally so he didn’t have to leave the house.
Hashirama let out a noise like an animal in pain. He placed a hand over his eyes and leaned heavily on his desk. “Madara…”
“What?” Madara was flabbergasted, honestly. Hashirama was such a weirdo. He couldn’t just expect Madara to know without saying anything that he had a salary being deposited into an account he had no idea existed.
Tobirama just stared at them both and resisted the urge to stab himself in the skull with his quill. He wasn’t sure which one was dumber. He looked over at Madara’s puzzled face and wondered if this was even the same man that he’d seen become a terror on the battlefield.
“This is amazing, Naori,” Hikaku uttered, his astonishment clear on his face as he examined the plate she’d handed him.
It was set in a case with an oval opening that complimented the portrait inside. Somehow, she’d convinced Madara to bring Miki into the studio and sit with her for a photo. He sat on a stool with one arm crossed over the other while she stood beside him, hands clasped together, grinning excitedly in contrast to the tiny smile her sensei wore. He’d been blank-faced when they entered, but Naori hadn’t told him when she would be taking the photo and had managed to capture a candid moment.
“It’s so crystal clear. I suppose you rather like it, Madara, hmm?” he asked with a teasing smile. Frankly, he thought it was charming, especially due to the fact that they were wearing matching hair ribbons in the photo. (The clan had a heyday when they heard about that.)
“Tch.” Ignoring the heat in his face, Madara closed the case and slid it back over to himself across the tabletop. “Idiot.”
“We’re trying to figure out how to make them larger,” Naori explained, ‘we’ being her, Inoue, surprisingly, who came by in her spare time to help- though Madara hadn’t spoken to her much- and the civilian merchant who owned the building but was paying for their efforts. Naori had apparently been friends with the woman since the village was founded and been interested in her ideas long before she had the building built. “And reach a point we can print them on paper.”
“Still, this is excellent. Great for preserving memories,” Hikaku said with a nostalgic smile, taking a sip of his tea. “You should start selling them. It would help fund your research.”
Naori’s eyes lit up. “That is a marvelous point,” she said, glancing at the closed photo case. “We have the room for a studio on the first floor. I’ll ask Haruno-san later today if she’d be up for it.”
“Well, if it comes down to getting publicity, a certain someone could leave you a glowing review,” Hikaku simpered, giving Madara a pointed glance.
The man harrumphed and made a point to look busy with his tea as he stared out the window at the street.
Naori snickered. “Don’t worry, Madara. I won’t ask you to socialize and spread the word,” she teased. “Although…a series of portraits of important figures, that could get us some foot traffic.” She rubbed her chin as she stared up at the ceiling.
Madara was about to reply when his eyes fell on Hashirama walking down the street. He wore his training attire rather than the Hokage robes (which, frankly, Madara had no idea how he walked in, regardless of how sharp they looked) and he smiled at everyone he passed. Madara watched him stop to talk to an Inuzuka, leaving the man by clapping him on the shoulder; he paused to bend down and grin at a child who tugged at his pant leg.
He looked so…happy.
“You’re smiling, Madara,” Naori purred. “What at?”
Madara jumped and whipped around. Hikaku and Naori were smirking at him, having abandoned their topic of discussion. “What?” he stammered.
Naori giggled. “Don’t act coy,” she razzed. “I’m happy for you if he makes you so happy.”
“We have noticed,” Hikaku said with a knowing grin, hiding it behind his menu and pretending to read it. “You two aren’t subtle.”
“What…are you talking about?” Madara tried not to let his sudden nervousness show. He felt as if he knew what they were talking about even though he didn’t know what they were talking about and he really didn’t want to know what they were talking about.
“You and Hashirama,” Naori chuckled.
“What- what about me and Hashirama?”
She tilted her head at him. “Your relationship,” she said, using the word decidedly differently than one using it as a synonym for friendship. “Oh, come now. I know you haven’t told us yet- wanted to keep it to yourselves for a while?- but we aren’t blind. I know not everyone is the most….accepting, but we support you.”
“The entire clan will,” Hikaku said firmly. “I won’t tolerate any bigotry.”
Madara felt like he was severely out of the loop. “What…do you think our relationship is?” he asked warily, dreading their answer.
Hikaku rolled his eyes. “We know you’re in love,” he said, and it was like an anvil slammed down on Madara’s body. He stopped breathing. “I mean, the man can’t go five minutes without putting his hands on you. He’s outrageously clingy.”
“The adoring looks,” Naori put in.
“You’re always together.”
“You go out to eat together practically every day.”
“He makes you happier than anyone else.”
“And vice versa. We’ve seen how he looks at you.”
He was silent for several moments. A frown started to tug at each of their mouths. “…ah. Is that…” Madara stared at the table, in shock. “…how…we look?”
Naori stared at him, and then it hit her. Uh-oh. “Erm…” She looked to Hikaku for help. He looked back at her with some amount of panic and rapidly shook his head. She gingerly placed a hand on Madara’s shoulder. “If it makes you feel any…better…it’s mostly just Uchiha who’ve noticed.”
Madara let out a noise that sounded more like a dying cow than a human male.
She cringed and patted him on the head. “There, there…”
He couldn’t believe this.
He couldn’t get it out of his head after those two had put it there. How on earth- why on earth- who was spreading rumors? Someone had to be spreading rumors. Hashirama didn’t act that affectionately towards him.
Something hysterical in his head laughed at his own pathetic attempt to lie to himself.
He couldn’t even- there wasn’t even anything between them, he thought. Nothing at all. He didn’t…
He didn’t love Hashirama.
Hashirama was…his best friend, that was true. And perhaps Madara didn’t have many, and didn’t know what it was like to not be so attached to a single one, but that didn’t mean he was in love with him.
What was Hashirama to him? He was his friend and rival. Only his friend and rival.
Hashirama was…something that no one else was, had ever been, or could be to him.
The nagging part of his brain that had brought his attention to the fact that Hashirama was the perfect specimen of everything he was attracted to reared its ugly head again. He’d tried hard to keep those concepts separate- just because Hashirama was a man, a man who happened to be the most powerful shinobi in all five nations, didn’t mean Madara was even attracted to him.
He thought back to seeing Hashirama in the street not half an hour before; how his hair had waved in the breeze as he smiled, how his skin had practically glowed after a workout, how his lips stretched apart when he grinned-
How every time he was around, the world simply felt better and as if Madara could belong in it after all-
“Impossible,” he whispered to himself, chewing on his thumb nail as he paced in his living room upstairs. “It can’t be.”
He remembered the utter excitement he’d felt when he sensed Hashirama’s chakra coming towards the battlefield where the Juubi was raging about. In that moment he hadn’t even cared about what he was doing- what had he been doing?- all that mattered was racing to the front. (And of course Hashirama brushed him off, that bastard.)
It was normal to be obsessed with fighting your rival, he reasoned. Since that fighting was the most…exciting thing he’d ever experienced…
There was no use fighting it. Denying it would make it worse. He didn’t even know what to do with it.
…But he couldn’t tell Hashirama. The man liked women, didn’t he? He’d married a woman- though, as it had turned out, that had been for political reasons. (And Madara had accidentally stolen his wife from him to be his friend.
But Hashirama…didn’t feel the same way. He wore his heart on his sleeve. Surely he would have said something or he would have noticed.
No, Madara…was going to keep this to himself. Nothing had to change, he reasoned, he didn’t have to go and ruin anything.
A sharp pain in his ankle alerted him to Hachi crying at his feet and trying to climb his leg. “Oh,” he breathed, having not even noticed the collection of scratches he’d acquired. “Come here.”
He bent down and picked the tabby up, stroking its side absentmindedly and going back to his pacing. Toba, the bastard, who he’d named after Tobirama because they were equally annoying and because the kitten looked like it could sink into Tobirama’s fur and never come out, watched him judgmentally from his perch on the windowsill. He had no idea where Zunu had gotten off to. He was probably hiding in the closet upstairs again.
“What am I going to do?” he asked the cat, a bit out of breath. Hachi stared up at him with adoring eyes and kneaded his sleeve. “I’m talking to a cat. I can’t believe this.”
He just couldn’t believe any of this.
Everything was fine.
He didn’t even have to address this at all.
“Madara!” Hashirama looked up at him with a jovial smile when he came through the door. “Good morning!”
“Good morning,” Madara mumbled, walking past him towards his desk. Hashirama frowned at the odd greeting and tilted his head at him as he sat down.
“Did you sleep well?” he prompted.
Madara choked on thin air. No. No, he hadn’t slept well. He’d gone to sleep and been tormented by dreams of Hashirama’s radiant smiles and the way he delightedly called Madara’s name when he saw him after more than a few hours apart and the way his hair fell as it grew longer and longer. He’d woken up at least twice, and it had culminated in a dream that started out completely normal as they walked home from a banquet; Hashirama edging closer and closer to him, hands warm on his shoulders and back, then they were on his thighs and sliding beneath his yukata and Madara tried to move his limbs but found he couldn’t because hands made of wood had bound them to the floor.
“F-fine,” he choked out, resolutely not looking at the man.
Hashirama continued to radiate innocent confusion as Madara stuffed his face into a report that needed doing. He hesitantly went back to his own work, occasionally shooting the red face he could see peeking out from behind various papers curious looks, but said nothing more.
Tobirama decided to ignore them, because whatever was going on now, he wanted no part of their latest drama.
“Mito,” Madara began, a note of desperation in his voice he wasn’t used to hearing, “do you think I’m in love with Hashirama?”
From the couch he’d bought for the front room downstairs, Mito looked up at him with a sympathetic look on her face, stroking Zunu in her lap. “Oh, darling.”
Madara’s neck spasmed. “How was it so obvious?” he despaired, traipsing over to her and collapsing on the floor to lean his head in her lap. Zunu blinked at him before crawling into his hair so she could pet them both.
She let out a light sigh. “Do you know that was one of the reasons I decided to stay and live as myself? I genuinely thought you two were already together, with how affectionate you both are. I assumed the Hokage kept you as his lover without regard for whatever consequences there might be and refused to marry and I was…inspired.”
Madara groaned loudly into her kimono.
“Shush, it’s all right.”
“No, it most certainly is not,” he argued without lifting his head. Her fingers carding through his hair- which was significantly easier to do, since Miki had bullied him into combing it through with olive oil every week- was quite relaxing. “How am I going to look him in the face now, knowing I have this…this…thing?”
He wasn’t completely hobbled- he’d managed to mumble his way through their conversations for a few days before growing a bit more comfortable and managing to interact with Hashirama like a normal human being again. After all, a shinobi’s job was to conceal, and if there was one thing he was good at it was ignoring how he felt.
But it was the other things- the moments- that made it hard. Whenever Hashirama hugged him (which was every day-), whenever Hashirama smiled at him for too long. Even the casual touches he so constantly bestowed on him were starting to fluster him.
Perhaps they wouldn’t normally, but Hashirama did it all the time.
It made him think of how much he wanted to touch back. What he wouldn’t give to-
How was he going to cope with this? Hashirama was…everywhere. Inescapable. Even if they didn’t work together, he was still the Hokage. Not to mention the fact that they lived directly across from each other.
Madara knew it was the smart thing to do, but he couldn’t bear to cut down on their time together. That would hurt him too badly.
“You could tell him,” Mito suggested lightly.
“No,” he returned with vehemence. “Absolutely not.”
“And why not?”
“Wha- why not? Why not?” he mocked. “You seriously need to ask that?”
Mito raised an eyebrow down at him. “I see no reason for you to not.”
“He doesn’t feel the same way,” he argued, lifting his head and leaning against the sofa so he could glare at her, hardly realizing Zunu was on his head. “Obviously.”
“Oh?” The eyebrow climbed higher. “Is it so obvious?”
“Hashirama and his…affection…is just how Hashirama is,” he told her, sighing. “He’s…blithe…with everyone.”
And now the eyebrow rose even higher, because Mito couldn’t even believe he was that blind if he thought how Hashirama acted with him was how he acted towards the general populace.
“Hashirama is…he’s…he’s too good for someone like me,” Madara admitted, glare growing mildly despondent as he glanced down to look at Hachi pawing at his thigh. He deposited the kitten into his lap and let it snuggle up against his stomach.
“Madara. You can’t honestly believe that.” Mito went back to stroking his hair, giving him a sad stare. “There’s no reason you aren’t worthy of his love, and besides that, it’s not about being worthy or good enough. If he loves you, he loves you.”
He released a frustrated sigh. “And as I just said, he doesn’t.”
“Maybe you should ask him about that.”
He gave her a challenging stare. “And if he doesn’t? I’ll have made our friendship awkward. You know he would feel guilty.”
Mito twitched. He probably won’t even believe me if I tell him I know Hashirama feels the same, she thought, mildly irritated. “So what? You just sit here not doing anything and suffer?”
He stared back with a bland look. “Exactly.”
She groaned and let her head fall back against the couch cushions. “You’re impossible.”
A loud hiss followed by a clatter from the kitchen startled them both. Toba went streaking out the door and into the front room, shooting beneath the couch on the other side of the room.
Madara growled. “That little shit knocked over my statue again.”
Mito plastered on a fake smile. “Oh, that…attractive one in the window?”
“He hates it,” Madara informed her, crawling over to the other couch and bending down to glare beneath it with his Sharingan active. “That heinous little wretch.”
A white paw shot out and scratched his nose. He let out a muffled, indignant screech and Mito clapped a hand over her mouth, struggling not to laugh as he yelled profanities at the “heinous little wretch.”