Disclaimer:Naruto is not our toy, although sometimes we wish it was. Almost everyone you meet here belongs to Masashi Kishimoto, we just borrow them, occasionally. Hayate's parents, Gekkou Ken'ichirou and Gekkou Shizuka, and Hayate's sensei, Kaifune Dana, belong to Haya Madison, and Genma's mother, Shiranui Riza, and Raidou's sister, Namiashi Yuuko, are all Penbrydd's fault. All quotes from the Tao are from Henricks's 1989 translation. (Lao-Tzu. Te-Tao Ching. ed. Henricks, Robert G. New York: Ballantine, 1989.)

Author's Note: Mizumi is full of violent awesome and absolute win. Yay for hot pepper induced adrenaline-powered stupidity.

Warnings: A bit of the old ultra-violence, expletives, eventual yaoi (GenHaya).


Chapter Two

Considering the fact that Genma seemed to be on guard despite the fact that they were both off duty and the kid barely looked to be a threat, Hayate might have expected the walk to the noodle shop down the street to be at least a little bit awkward. Oddly enough, it wasn't. Mostly, it was just quiet, save for Hayate's frequent wheezy coughing and occasional spitting. He walked slightly ahead and to the left of Genma compliantly, lidded eyes focused loosely on the space before them. He had a quietly noticeable gait, odd for someone with such rumoured grace -- he dragged his feet with every step, sandals scraping over the ground audibly.

Genma was the first to speak, burdened as he was with a constant insatiable curiosity about all things not himself. "Two points: I saw your eye twitch when I told you who I was and when I said I used to work with your mother. You've obviously heard stories. Do I live up to any of them, or am I nothing more than just another pretty face?" He angled the senbon up, inquisitively, as he looked down sideways at Hayate. Hayate just gave him that deadpan blank look, as if considering the question.

"I, um, didn't ever really hear a lot about you from my mom," he admitted, shrugging lightly. "She never really talked about you guys to me, just my dad, and sometimes I overheard her yelling. When she did talk to me, I was usually sick. So I don't know. Your face isn't broken, but that's...probably because she's not here." He seemed to be having difficulty getting all the words out. It was a difficult subject.

"And may the gods preserve me from any further facial damage at the hands of your family. I stopped counting after the seventeenth broken nose. I'm not wholly sure my nose was ever not broken, that entire two years." Genma looked up, speculatively, flicking the senbon as he considered. "And you obviously don't like talking about your mother, so let's move on. I'm sure you've heard worse things, elsewhere."

Hayate just nodded slowly, keeping on with his steps until he realized that he hadn't quite answered all of Genma's question. "I have heard other things about you, though. Mostly the stuff that gets passed around the village. Rumours and things." He paused, noting the highly expectant look on Genma's face. "I thought you'd be better looking," he informed Genma after a pregnant silence, utterly straight-faced.

Genma flinched away from the kid at the sudden crippling blow to his ego. "Ouch. I'm...that's...I don't think I've ever heard that one before. I'm..." He actually looked kind of sad and a little disgusted with himself. "I'm really not hot? I must be having a really off day. I've been hot with my face broken and my arm in a sling." Concern was writ large upon his face, and it didn't help his case any. "So what is it? What's wrong with me?"

Hayate looked honestly taken aback by Genma's response. He blinked at Genma in mild surprise, as if trying to figure out how genuine that reply had been. "Oh, um...you didn't...I wasn't serious. I was just, um...it was supposed to be a joke. Um. I'm not funny. I'm sorry."

Relief crept across Genma's face just before it settled back into the indifferent calm that was so standard. "Oh. Oh, good. You scared me for a minute, there. I think the last person to say I wasn't hot was Ibiki, and well, that's to be expected -- I think I'd freak directly out if Ibiki...you know, I'm just not going to think about that. Oh, and Rai, but he doesn't bother saying it, and it doesn't count. I'd pay attention to that if he possessed a sex drive at all. From those two, I'll take it. I'd never try to do anything with either of them. It would just be whole new kinds of wrong." He nodded and stretched. "And why do you sound so serious all the time? Context clues define a joke, you know."

Hayate shrugged. "It's just the way I am," he said simply. "I don't make jokes a lot. It's not a really big deal, anyway." He'd be the first to admit he wasn't the master of comedy -- hell, he wasn't really a master of anything, really, except maybe the family jutsu, and even that he was still working on.

Genma shrugged lazily and stuffed his hands in his pockets. "As you say, kid. I don't suppose it does. Strikes me a bit off that you don't smile, though. Don't suppose I've given you much to smile about."

"I just don't smile much, that's all." Hayate thought that was an odd observation to make about someone -- but then, Genma seemed to be an odd character all around. Not surprising, really, considering he'd spent a good amount of time around Gekkou Shizuka. "It's not really a big deal."

"What can I say? It bothers me. I live for myself. I live to be entertained, and people who are obviously not having fun kind of disturb me. Distress me, even." He reached out and opened the door of the small, nondescript building they were in front of. "Here. It's a small place, but the food is wonderful." Rich smells of fish and spices poured out into the street. Hayate sniffed as the pleasant aromas wafted into his nose, then covered his mouth as he sneezed. Making a face, he wiped his hand on his pants leg again.

"I've never been here," he said, and paused. "I didn't say I wasn't having fun. This is still kind of a weird thing to call fun, but I didn't say I was unhappy or anything."

"It's a good place. Mizu-chan doesn't even let me see the menu, anymore -- just starts cooking when she sees my face, and she's usually right." Genma grinned, lopsidedly, the senbon throwing off the angle ever so slightly. Hayate just blinked back at him for a moment, but there seemed to be something about Genma's smile that was as dangerously infectious as most of the illnesses that ended up taking him down half the time. He coughed again -- this time it seemed more like a nervous tic -- and the corners of his mouth twitched slightly. It was a small smile, pretty fucking pathetic when it came down to it, but it wassomething, and that something cut right through Genma like a white-hot kunai under the ribs.

"You...ah..." Genma cleared his throat and tried again. "You should smile more often. You're really...cute." It was obvious that cute wasn't the word he wanted, but now was not the time to get into a full-blown discussion on the nature of aesthetics. This kid that he'd been calling roadkill not fifteen minutes earlier lit up like an entire shrine's worth of candles when he smiled. The tiny facial stutter that might have gone unnoticed on anyone else -- would have been nothing more than a fifteen-watt blip at most -- just made the horrific parody of humanity before him glow. There was a clear, if well-hidden, potential for genuine beauty buried in the kid -- he was Shizuka-taichou's son, after all, and she'd been art in motion; it had to be there -- but he'd never expected it to come out quite likethat. Genma resolved to keep Hayate as close as he could for as long as he was able, if only to have some true beauty constantly at his side -- and beauty that wouldn't detract attention from himself. He intended to study the kid like he studied the Tao -- in the end, to know every possible interpretation, every glitch and mistranslation. And all for a single smile. Genma was hooked. Hard.

Hayate blinked, and the fifteen-watt smile flickered out just as quickly as it'd appeared, replaced by an expression of genuine, if not faint, surprise. Had he heard Genma right? Had Genma just called himcute?

He was starting to wonder if Genma was every bit as crazy as his mother.

"I, um..." Hayate tried to think of something to say to that, but the next time he tried to open his mouth, words didn't quite come out. Instead, it was another loud, wet, unpleasant-sounding cough, and he held his hand up in an apologetic gesture as he bent over the bushes just outside the restaurant and proceeded to cough up another wad of nasty-tasting lung butter, hacking and shuddering.

The door slipped out of Genma's fingers as the blood drained from his perfectly calm face. "Are you -- stupid question. Is there anything I can -- equally stupid question." Craning his neck toward the shrubbery, just to reassure himself that nothing bloody had come up, he stuffed his hands back into his pockets to hide the shaking. Genma was the very image of placidity. Hayate just kept his hand up, now trying to reassure Genma that he was just fine and could handle himself. He choked and shook for another few agonizingly long moments, hacking and spitting into the grass, before he stood up. His breathing was ragged and wheezy, even after he cleared his throat and spat one last time, and he wiped his mouth on the back of his hand.

"Sorry," he heaved, looking mildly disgusted. "I, um. Still sick. Doesn't usually happen that often." He coughed again, but nothing quite came up this time. "I just got out of the hospital yesterday, that's all. Still kind of sick."

"If you're good, I'm good." Genma reached for the door again. "It's just a little nostalgic, that's all. Brings back the bad old days in vivid detail." He didn't look all that perturbed -- it was something he really worked at, and usually succeeded at, these days. "You done for now?"

Hayate nodded, shivering as he swallowed. "Yeah. I'm fine," he muttered. "Sorry."

"As you say." Genma pulled the door open again and gestured for Hayate to precede him. "There is tea to be had and beautiful women to be observed."

Hayate managed to give Genma something of a half-blank stare before he shuffled into the restaurant, one hand hovering cautiously over his mouth. He was in a restaurant now; it really wouldn't do to start coughing and sneezing everywhere when people were trying to eat. He let Genma lead them to a table for two by the window, sitting down heavily in the wooden chair.

"Mizu-chan!" Genma called out, "I'm back to make more trouble!" He offered Hayate a slightly self-deprecating smirk. "She and I, we had a thing. Then we got bored. Now she cooks me noodles and critiques my taste in friends. Lovely girl." He was flippant and droll, but not sarcastic.

A small woman in her mid-twenties appeared from the kitchen, drying her hands on a small towel. "Genma-kun! I'm always in the mood for your kind of trouble," she teased. "Who's your little friend?"

"This is Gekkou Hayate." Genma shook his head slightly, a warning that she was not to mention the obvious. "Hayate, this is Takenaka Mizumi -- Mizu-chan to me, and only to me, for reasons best not discussed in polite company." He ducked, but not fast enough, and Mizumi caught him in the head with the towel. Hayate just sort of nodded, inclining his head to Mizumi.

"Hello," he said, voice quiet and subdued as seemed the usual with him.

Mizumi bowed politely. "Pleased to meet you. Pomegranate white tea, today, boys." She vanished back to the kitchen to retrieve it.

Genma rubbed the side of his head disconsolately. "She's not even a kunoichi. I just don't have reflexes when my life's not on the line."

Carrying two cups and a teapot, Mizumi reappeared. She set the cups on the table with a resounding crack, and then filled them as she glared at Genma. "I used to think you'd develop a sense of taste as you got older. Maybe I was wrong." She smiled at Hayate. "What's a nice boy from a good family doing out in public with this ragged old whore, hm? People might get the wrong idea."

"Jealousy doesn't suit you, Mizumi." Genma's tone was slightly warning, but thoroughly coated in jest.

"Why would I be jealous, Genma? You're not going to tell me no, and I'm not going to ask." She shrugged and set down the teapot. Hayate blinked, as if bewildered, and coughed quietly into his hand.

"I, um. Genma-san's okay, really." He fumbled slightly as he tried to come up with a concise explanation for why they were eating lunch together that was anything but what Mizumi was implying. "He was, um. On my mother's team." It wasn't what he'd wanted to say at all -- he hadn't wanted to mention his mother -- but at least it was the truth.

"I know," she said with a sad smile. "I remember. He's pretty with a bloody face." Mizumi reached out, grabbed Genma's nose, and shook his head.

"Ow! Shit! My face! Mizu-chan!" Whining ill-suited Genma.

"You," Mizumi yanked Genma's nose again, "will eat what I give you, today. Would you like a menu, Hayate-san, or do you trust your friend to order for you?"

Hayate raised his hand slightly off the table. "Ah. I'd like a menu, please. I've never been here before, so..." He trailed off, ending with a brief cough.

Pulling a menu from the back of her apron, Mizumi handed it to Hayate. "Not going to argue with me, Genma-kun?"

"Why would I argue?" His voice was slightly nasal as he checked his nose for damage. "You're usually right and you cook good food. Even when you're wrong I have few complaints."

"You have no complaints. I haven't heard you bitch once." Mizumi smiled at Hayate. "I'll be back in a few moments to get your order. I just have to start cooking for tall, pale, and stupid, here." She started back toward the kitchen. Hayate just sort of blinked, as if reeling from the sheer force of her personality, and picked up the menu.

Well. Mizumi was...interesting, to say the least. Forceful and a little intimidating, but that wasn't anything he hadn't had plenty of experience dealing with in his own lifetime. He scanned the menu briefly before his eyes settled on the udon. Udon, he reasoned, was a relatively safe choice, because there was virtually no way to mess it up (unless there was too much nori in it, but that was another matter entirely). "I think I'm going to get this," he said, tapping on the menu.

Genma looked over, curiously, and nodded. "Hey, Mizu-chan!" he shouted, to be heard over the sizzle of the wok, "The kid wants udon!"

"Hai!" The return shout was crisp -- the sound of someone used to shouting to be heard over the sound of her cooking.

"So, you've heard stories about me, and I've heard stories about you... And none of these stories can be compared to reality in public." Genma lifted his tea and sipped at it, watching Hayate over the rim of the cup. "Perhaps it is time to make new stories."

Hayate picked up his own tea for the first time, regarding Genma with his eyes only as he sipped at it. It was a refreshing sort of flavour, he discovered, and realised he'd never actually had this kind of tea before. "What do you mean?" he asked placidly.

"I mean that you're interesting. There's something about you that I find oddly appealing." Like that amazing smile, perhaps? "It seems that instead of relying on the impressions of others for context, we should make impressions of our own. You are more than roadkill, and I am more than a lazy asshole. These things, however, are the first things that we see of each other. No better or worse than the first impressions most people have of either of us, I'm sure." That might not have been entirely the truth. Genma had a slight preference for 'cheap whore' over 'lazy asshole'.

"So what do you want to do, exactly?" Hayate watched Genma for an answer. He didn't seem to be making any particular point that Hayate could see, just talking in circles.

"I want to be amused." Genma smiled in a reasonably pleasant fashion that left one just a bit cautious about what might come next. "Same thing I always want. Tell me about you, and I'll tell you about me. We can move on like reasonable individuals from there. First time I've made a friend in a non-combat situation. The rules are different, here, and I think we should get all our cards on the table right at the start -- or at least enough of them that we can play nicely together."

Hayate just sipped at his tea, taking that in. He set the tea down with a gentle clink against the table. "Okay, then. What do you want to know about me?"

"What is your opinion on the nature of a shinobi?" Genma paused for a long moment, sipping his tea. "Sorry, I'm joking. What do you enjoy most in the world?"

"I don't know," Hayate said plainly. "Maybe training. Working on kata. Not being sick." He was a simple person, with equally simple answers.

"The sensible things, I see." Genma nodded. "I enjoy the feeling of hands on my skin, the subtle textures in the reflection of the moon in the river, and meditating on the Tao. I'm afraid I'm a bit of a hedonist. Next question is yours."

Hayate was quiet, taking in the answers and considering each one. Genma, he decided then, was a complicated person who liked complicated things. "Uhm...I don't know, ah...what's your favourite food?"

Genma had to think about that question for a good long time. He sipped his tea and contemplated. There was, of course, a difference between 'favourite food' and 'most frequently eaten food'. Melon and spiced beef seemed equally high on the list, with plum as a close second, if only because plum went with so few things, but those things it went with, it went with well. Then the answer struck him. "Pomegranate. It is eccentric -- more sharp than sweet, difficult and messy to eat, and it goes with nothing but the taste of skin. It is, I think, the perfect fruit, if one I rarely have occasion to eat. And you?"

Every word that came out of Genma's mouth just further convinced Hayate that Genma liked things complicated. He gave a noncommittal shrug. "I don't really know," he said, glancing back toward the kitchen. "Tea. Hot noodles. I just like things that don't make me sick."

Genma sipped his tea and considered the aesthetics of simplicity. There was certainly something to be said for the quiet and plain solution to anything, but he frequently found that it was that much easier to look like an unshakeable badass when things were anything but calm and plain. "Tea is always the correct answer. There is a tea for all times." He nodded sagely and sipped at his cup again. "Next question: Dogs or cats?" He had a particular interest in this answer ever since Kakashi's dogs had left the corpses of several cats on the stairs of the building Genma lived in. He'd been rather upset about it -- more upset than he'd been about the unfortunate demise of his last team.

"Um..." Hayate shrugged. "I don't know. I never really thought about it. They're both okay, I guess. Cats are quieter, but...it doesn't really matter to me. I've never had a pet anyway."

"I always tried to tell myself that pets are as bad as children, but that was before I found myself with an orphaned kitten. Rai likes to make fun of me for it, sometimes. Calls me 'mommy'." Genma's hand crept up to rub the back of his neck. "I like cats. They're like small, fuzzy ninjas." He waved for Hayate to ask the next question. The kid faltered for a moment, trying to think of a fairly innocuous question. He might have been awkward and a little clumsy socially, but he wasn't so stupid as to ask about fears or battle scars.

"Uh..." Hayate scratched at his nose. It itched like hell. What the hell kind of medication did they have him on, anyway? It didn't seem to be doing him a whole lot of good, he thought glumly. "Do you live in an apartment?" he asked lamely, saying the first thing that came to mind.

Genma nodded. "I do. And as I recall, you don't. Am I right? Still living in the old family home?" He sipped at his tea and tried to come up with another question. Hayate nodded slowly, reasoning that it wasn't all that surprising that Genma would know where he lived, considering he'd worked with his mother all that time. He wondered briefly if Genma had ever actually been to the house, or been inside it -- Hayate certainly couldn't remember ever seeing him there.

It was an effort to have gotten this far without saying something tasteless, and Genma was about to damage his current streak of good taste. "Girls, boys, both, or neither?" he asked, gazing placidly across the table into Hayate's eyes as he sipped his tea, thoughtfully. Hayate seemed to stiffen, the defensiveness sliding back into place behind his eyes.

"I don't think that's really any of your business," he said plainly, picking up his cup of tea again. It wasn't even that he was a secretive person, but to have Genma -- even Genma, who had known his mother and who probably felt some sort of odd kinship with him for it -- ask an intimate question like that out of nowhere seemed uncalled for and a little bit unsettling. Why he needed to know any of that was beyond Hayate.

"Touchy subject." Genma's eyebrows arced up in surprise. "My apologies, but since I asked, I'll answer. Both, although I suspect you knew that."

Mizumi strode to the table carrying two large bowls which she sat on the table loudly, but without spilling a drop. As soon as her hands were free, she yanked on Genma's nose again. "Don't."

He blinked in shock. "Ow! I'm not! Do I look suicidal?"

She cuffed him in the back of the head. "You will. And don't come crying to me when it all burns down."

Genma's hands tightened into white knuckled fists and his eyes hardened as he looked up at the little waitress. "Word choice."

Mizumi jabbed a finger at him. "Burns. Down." She stormed off toward the kitchen, and Hayate shifted uncomfortably in his seat as he reached for a pair of chopsticks. Something unpleasant and awkward had passed between Genma and Mizumi, but not nearly cleanly enough, and it had gotten messy and leaked heavily into the atmosphere hanging over the table. Hayate didn't quite like the feeling.

He decided, though, that the best solution to this unfortunate dive in mood was to keep quiet. Talking usually led to more problems, he'd learned, because hardly anyone ever said the right thing at the right time, and no one could point the finger at you if you said nothing at all. He snapped the chopsticks apart and muttered a thanks over his food, leaning over the bowl of udon to inhale the aroma before he dipped his chopsticks in.

Genma stared into the eye-watering cloud of spice that hung over his bowl. "I must have pissed her off something right and proper," he muttered. "Just so you know, I think that's Mizumi being right, again. She doesn't trust my intentions." Not that I trust my intentions, either, but I'm really not suicidally stupid. "She's going to go write herself a note, and the next time I come in here looking like I just got my ass gnawed off, she's going to find that note and tell me she told me so, complete with written proof." He smiled calmly, as if nothing in the world were wrong, and picked up his chopsticks intending to lay right in to whatever tongue-stripping delicacy Mizumi had chosen to gift him with, this time.

Hayate returned the smile, but it was so nervous and disfigured it looked more like a deeply unsettled grimace. He began slurping up the thick noodles without a word, silently admiring the quality and flavour. He wasn't much of a culinary expert, but he could at least tell that Mizumi was talented.

After poking at his own bowl of noodles for a few moments, Genma finally figured out what he was about to be eating. It appeared to be yakisoba, but topped with some kind of meat and those bright orange peppers of instant death that Mizumi was so fond of using. With a quiet sigh, he closed his left hand around the edge of the table and took the first bite. Tears sprung to his eyes and he swallowed quickly, but went back for another bite instead of reaching for the tea. If he just kept going, he'd blow out his nerves, and he'd be able to eat the whole bowl without further trauma. A bright red flush spread across his face and he sniffled, trying to keep his nose from running into his food.

Hayate looked up from his udon -- it was an entirely pleasant taste, one that was mild but still flavourful, and he liked it. Spotting Genma looking about to spout smoke from his nose and mouth, Hayate's forehead creased, and he swallowed, putting his chopsticks down. "Um. Are you all right?"

"Not yet, but I will be," Genma rasped, closing his eyes so that he could focus on making coherent sentences. "Adrenaline should hit any minute now." He held up a finger and then took another bite, the table creaking in the grip of his other fist. As he swallowed, he coughed, gasped, and finally reached for his tea.

"There." Genma's eyes opened, preternaturally calm. "Nothing like the wrath of a woman to put all the nerves on high. Although I'm not sure why she'd want to do that to me, since she seems so bent on making sure I don't try anything with you. Maybe she's forgotten how much I like the death-peppers. They tend to leave me pleasantly philosophical."

Hayate seemed to draw back a little, just nodding vaguely in response -- smile and nod, smile and nod. He slurped his noodles without speaking, hoping to finish quickly so he could go home. He didn't have any entirely pressing appointments, but he was sure there were things to do at home that would have to be taken care of sooner or later, and while he wasn't opposed to spending time in the company of one of his mother's former teammates, this man was starting to unsettle and discomfit him more than he could conveniently ignore.

Eyeing the kid with moderate concern, Genma slurped at the oily, red broth that he knew was hidden under the half-bowl of noodles that remained. "You don't look entirely at ease. Was it something I said?"

Hayate just shifted in his seat again, shrugging uneasily. He didn't give a real, direct answer besides that -- he'd never been much of a liar, and he wasn't about to deliberately offend someone he'd only just met, particularly a senior of his. Genma, however pretty and stupid he may have appeared, was just a bit brighter than he tended to get credit for. Bright enough, in fact, to read the shrug like an open book.

"Yes, it was something I said, and for some unfathomable reason, possibly my fame, rank, or association with your mother, you don't want to tell me what it was. I assure you, the only reason that Mizu-chan is so good at pushing my buttons is that she knows where all of them are, and she likes to push them on purpose. Otherwise, I'm like a stand of bamboo in a stiff breeze. I just bend. You're not going to upset me if you tell me what I've done wrong." He gulped a few more mouthfuls of the scalding noodles. Hayate just shrugged again, this time looking more relaxed.

"It's not important." He managed a brief smile at Genma. "I'm fine."

A smile. The kid smiled. Genma's face froze, cautiously dead calm as his throat rebelled against the noodles he had been in the midst of swallowing. He reached out and poured himself another cup of tea and emptied the cup down his throat before pouring again, this time for both of them. "Sorry. Noodles stuck in my throat." Not the whole truth, but a respectable portion of it, he thought. "And I'm still right. You really are just stunning when you smile. You ever develop an interest in someone, you'll knock them flat on the first try with that one. The most natural beauty I've ever seen in a man..." He trailed off, deep in speculation, and then just shrugged and went back to his noodles. He was almost done.

"Um. Okay." Hayate sipped at his tea and went back to finishing off the bits of vegetables floating in the broth of the udon. He was beginning to seriously consider the theory that overexposure to his mother in the field had made Genma every bit as loopy. Genma would not have disagreed with the assessment, although he might have pointed to a few other things that had done near-equal amounts of damage. He finished his noodles and set the bowl aside, sipping his tea and lazily watching Hayate with undisguised mild interest.

"Graceful, too, even if you do hide it." Cocking his head to the side, Genma smiled faintly. "Why do you hide it? You have a simple grace and a bright smile. Why keep them to yourself?"

"I don't..." Hayate frowned, almost thoughtfully. "I'm not hiding anything. I just don't smile as much as other people. It's not a big deal."

"I more meant the grace. You move beautifully, but only when you're not walking. I wonder if anyone has ever bothered to notice." Philosophical, indeed. Genma had trouble keeping his speculations to himself after eating particularly spicy things. The adrenaline loosened his tongue. The few people who knew him well enough to have noticed the effect had a nasty tendency to use it against him when they wanted the truth instead of the flippant half-truths he specialised in. "I rather enjoy watching you -- you're like the breeze in the trees, simple, straightforward, and still oddly suggestive, describing unseen twists of the current with flickers of the leaves." He sipped his tea idly. Hayate just gave him another blank stare.

"Um...all right." He turned his head to cough, sniffling, and shrugged. "I don't try to hide anything. That's just the way I walk. It's not the way I run or move with a sword, but it's the way that I walk. It's not tiring. Why does it matter?"

"I just have an eye for beautiful things. You almost make me wish I'd been an artist instead of a shinobi, but it's much too late for that, now. I just find you oddly enjoyable." Genma continued to sip his tea, but picked up a napkin and passed it across the table. "Blow your nose. Sniffling is unbecoming, and, frankly, I've seen worse things than a snot-soaked rag."

Hayate almost looked sulky for a moment as he took the napkin and blew his nose into it, sniffling afterwards if only out of habit. "That's a first," he muttered quietly, picking up the bowl to drink the broth.

"I think that's the first time I've heard that remark in casual conversation. What, exactly, is a first? I don't think I've said anything particularly peculiar, and I can't imagine you've never been offered a snotrag..." Genma smiled serenely across the table, flicking his senbon in amusement.

Hayate lowered the bowl slowly. "Well...okay, not a first. But, um...people don't usually...like being around me. I'm too sick."

"If you're not contagious, I can't really care. Even if you are contagious, I've got the constitution of a horse. I'm not really afraid of catching something. I'm much more afraid that one of these days I'm going to get quietly poisoned by someone's uncle in the interests of protecting the family name." Genma sipped his tea and nodded thoughtfully. "Or inhaling acid. I'm terrified of that, but only on missions." That's right. Joke about it. It doesn't eat at you nearly as much if you can make it funny, even for a little while. The teacup shook very slightly in his hand as he set it back on the table. Stupid. Why did that even come out of your mouth? Genma remained a vision of placidity, with the exception of his hands, which he folded on the table to keep them still. Hayate just peered at him over his tea. Genma was a worrying person.

"I, um. I guess. Some people just get really put off by all the coughing. I guess a lot of people find it really unattractive, or something." Hayate managed a shrug and downed the rest of the tea. "I'm...ah, I'm done. Are you?"

Genma fished a handful of coins out of his pocket and counted a few onto the table. "I can be. Nothing left but tea and conversation, and I seem to recall that you had better things to do, today," he teased. "Some other time, perhaps. I suspect that I'll see you again." Standing, he held out his hand to Hayate, and pushed his own chair back in with his foot. After only the briefest hesitation, Hayate accepted the gesture, and a small smile slipped onto his face despite himself. The entire encounter hadn't been all that bad, really, even with the near-constant discomfort -- it was, at least, a lot better than it would have been if Genma had decided to just haze him.

Looking down at the boy standing mere inches from him, Genma found himself momentarily struck, not only dumb, but stupid. He flicked the senbon once with his tongue and returned the smile without thinking. It was, finally, an honest smile -- one with no extraneous content. "You know, the more I look at you, the more I'm sure I want to see you again. Would you be terribly offended if I asked you to come down to the river with me, one of these days, just to eat fruit and watch the water go by?"

Hayate was certain he did the blinking equivalent of a double take then. Genma -- strange, complicated, village bicycle Genma -- had enjoyed his company enough that he wanted to see Hayate again. That he was trying to organize another such meeting. Sure, Genma was weird, and he discomfited Hayate more than most people did -- but he talked to Hayate, and Hayate thought that that was something in itself. He'd grown to like his own company more than most men in his short life, but if someone was willing to sit next to him and talk to him, talk to him like he was a person and not a walking disease...

And Genma knew his mother. The mother that had been all but taken away from him on the eve of his eleventh birthday. There was something there, some vague connection that Hayate had only just begun to close his fingers around, and it was something he wanted to fully grasp, however selfish of a motive that might have been.

"Um. All right."

"Brilliant," Genma declared, and the smile broadened. "I've got an assassination this weekend, so how about next Wednesday? I should be done throwing up by then." To Genma, it was perfectly logical to spend a day or two throwing up after an assassination mission. It was just that thing that one did. Just another little quirk.

Hayate just nodded slowly, looking slightly rattled again. He just kept going on and off with being discomfited, because Genma kept going on and off with being a perfectly reasonable, comfortable person to someone who seemed to have even less idea of 'tact' than Hayate himself. "I, ah...all right. I'm suspended from missions for a little while anyway."

"Ouch. What a goddamn shame. Sometimes the missions are all that keep a man in his wits." Genma finally stepped back and bowed, kissing Hayate's hand before he released it. "Wednesday, then." In the corner of his vision, he registered Mizumi moving toward them. Now was probably the time to make his exit before he wound up with another bloody nose. Still, he waited just a moment longer, just watching Hayate. The kid looked vaguely startled at the gesture, and his hand twitched as it fell to his side.

"Okay. Wednesday. Um...what time?"

Mizumi, thankfully, had gotten diverted by a customer who seemed to want something fairly complicated. She glared at Genma over the top of the man's head, and Genma began to just look smug. "Two? Early afternoon is usually pleasant, even if I do prefer the middle of the night. I suspect you actually sleep at night."

"Sometimes." Hayate coughed. "Okay. I'll, um...I'll see you then." He took a couple of short steps toward the door, looking awkward. "Ah...thank you for lunch."

Genma just smiled contentedly and bowed again as Hayate made his quick exit. No more words needed to be said, and every word that left his mouth was just going to make the beating he was about to receive that much more painful. One of these days, he promised himself, he would learn to dodge people who couldn't inflict serious damage. It had just been a waste of time, so far -- he'd never learned to dodge Shizuka, either, and that damage hadn't been the death of him. The thought trailed off as he adjusted his perception of what was going on behind him, where Mizumi was.