-The Trouble with Words-

The sliding door Katsura faced was stubbornly refusing him any answers to his innumerable but unvoiced questions. Those questions and this door were proving as insurmountable as the strongest secured fortress or enemy-held territory. The rest of the world faded into a surreal swirl in his peripheral vision as Katsura stood outside this particular door, the sun gradually waning to the west overhead, Edo's townspeople hustling and bustling about their own business around him, as he tried to come to terms with the possible consequences that the presently available courses of actions would entail. Should he knock or seize the initiative and enter unannounced? Was this afternoon an appropriate time, or would he merely be an inconvenience? Would it be better to explain himself first, or should he trust that the person beyond the door already understood?

Katsura cast a troubled glance from his right hand to his left, observing the objects he held, then sighed in spite of himself. More questions and no answers! How was he supposed to guess if Ikumatsu-dono was the type of woman who preferred chocolates or flowers? She certainly didn't seem the mushy, romantic type, but then again, one could never be quite sure--and Katsura knew that this particular arena was far from his area of expertise. He had trusted his limited ability so far as ruling out some obviously wrong options from the very start, such as a massage ticket (too intimate) or some romantic movie (too gushingly feminine). Those didn't seem quite right for obvious reasons, especially since it had been almost a year since Katsura had personally bid farewell to Ikumatsu-dono and her ramen shop.

Though in reality, Katsura had to admit to himself that he'd kept a slight eye on Ikumatsu-dono from the shadows every now and then since their parting, merely affording himself reassurance that those fiends who had pestered and wronged her so were remaining safely behind bars. Unfortunately and rather embarrassingly, the strange circumstances of the night in question placed Katsura in direct debt to those Shinsengumi bastards, who were apparently occasionally competent enough to do their jobs properly, worth enough to keep a few petty criminals off the streets and out of Katsura's (and Ikumatsu-dono's) way. He chuckled to himself, wondering if they understood what a great favor they were doing for their arch-enemy. But if the Shinsengumi knew too much of his association with Ikumatsu-dono, they'd no doubt have found an easily exploitable weakness in Katsura's metaphorical armor.

Still, Katsura couldn't help but keep an ear out for news concerning that particular district of Kabuki-chou, and he took to wandering past the shop every once in a blue moon--in elaborate disguise, of course--just to check up on things. Through his observations, he quickly learned even better than he'd known before that, in short, Ikumatsu-dono was more than capable of looking after herself. Katsura had watched in amazement as one foolish customer tried to pocket a few yen from the cashbox and was promptly shown the door--with the assistance of a very well-aimed kick. Katsura winced at the memory and promptly vowed that he would avoid Ikumatsu-dono's bad side at all costs.

And though Katsura had never mentioned to Gintoki more than the vague circumstances of his short-lived part-time employment at the ramen shop, he was a bit taken aback by Gintoki's remarkable ability to infer for himself the words that his former comrade left unsaid. So it happened that Gintoki was somehow able to piece the details of the situation together on his own, smirking wryly as usual at Katsura's thrilling account of his latest encounter with the Shinsengumi, all the while quietly and effortlessly skirting the mental block Katsura had erected around his emotions concerning the event. . .and the certain owner of a certain ramen shop in a certain part of town.

And then Katsura would abruptly pause mid-sentence, fixing Gintoki with a suddenly puzzled expression, not knowing exactly how Gintoki knew but knowing for certain all the same that Gintoki had him completely figured out. A regular person giving a careless passing glance at the listless, curly-haired yorozuya would never in a hundred years guess that Gintoki had any ability for tact or subtlety about his person, but appearances could be deceiving, right? Or maybe Gintoki didn't even understand what he was doing, but Katsura could swear that the other man's habitually bored expression would curl into a slight, lazy smile for the merest moment before slipping back into fish-eyed oblivion.

Katsura shook his head quickly, trying to rid himself of the mind game he'd wrapped himself in. There was absolutely no way that Gintoki could employ such a great deal of strategy so seamlessly, and Katsura chalked his former comrade's abilities up to incredible instincts. . .maybe. But perhaps there was something else to it, since Gintoki just seemed to know without needing to be told. Regardless, Gintoki had enough figured out that, as a frequenter of Ikumatsu-dono's ramen shop when funds were readily available, he'd nonchalantly toss a comment out here and there, too conveniently within Katsura's earshot and usually along the lines of "the owner of the ramen place seems to be doing well," or "I had some delicious soba at a ramen shop today. . .you know the place I mean, ne, Zura?"

"Zura ja nai! Katsura da!"

At which point Katsura would demand to know why Gintoki thought he cared about some ramen shop on the other side of town. Gintoki would just smile that knowing smile and shrug Katsura's accusations right off, leaving Katsura flustered, blushing slightly, and wondering how in the heck Gintoki knew! Katsura reminded himself that by reacting the way he did, he only gave the other man more reason to suspect that something was up. But then again, the fact that Gintoki could be bothered to mention this or that about the ramen shop meant a great deal to Katsura, since that was Gintoki's indirect manner to communicate his understanding--and the fact that he cared.

All in all, Katsura knew that he'd put himself in a bit of a fix--or perhaps a pickle? As he sighed once more, Katsura sincerely hoped that similar misgivings hadn't troubled Ikumatsu-dono. Besides, the possibility that she would fully reciprocate his feelings, especially after the circumstances of her husband's death, was a chance riding on slim to none.

But one could always hope. Hope was the last shining frontier that guided Katsura's life after the utter collapse and failure of a great many of the people and principles in which he believed. The prospect of reviving his country, however small, gave him a purpose. And if there was hope for Edo and for Japan, then certainly there was hope to be found for the life and relationships of one wandering, hapless samurai.

With this thought spurring him on towards action, Katsura swiftly decided that flowers or chocolates (or neither or both) notwithstanding, he owed it to Ikumatsu-dono and to himself to pursue that scrap of a chance, no matter how slim or far-fetched. Katsura inhaled deeply, feeling immediately like a nervous schoolboy about to ask a girl out to the neighborhood picnic, and shifted the bouquet of flowers into the crook of his left arm. Slowly but surely, he raised his right hand to knock--

And the door suddenly slid open rather forcefully, nearly missing his nose. Katsura opened his mouth in surprise, readying some retort or other, but a certain Ikumatsu-dono beat him to the punch.

"Oh, it's Santa Claus again, is it?" She smirked at him, leaning casually against the doorframe. "I do hope you're planning to leave gifts this time instead of stealing my underwear."

Katsura could only gape at her, stuttering slightly as his long-planned words failed him, unsure if he should state his original purpose or respond to her gentle teasing. Meanwhile, a slight blush began to color his cheeks, despite any and all efforts on Katsura's part to halt its rapid progress. Ikumatsu-dono returned his stare, her eyes sparkling, before she simply grinned.

"Well, get in here already! I thought you'd never make up your mind!"

And without uttering a single syllable, let alone an entire word, Katsura was promptly yanked into the interior of the ramen shop. It was only then that he recalled the old adage "actions speak louder than words."