Yes, yes, yes. I know what you're going to say. [WHAT IS THIS? WE DON'T WANT THIS CRAP! WE WANT MORE OF 'AFTER YOU!'] Well, you'll be glad to know that I spent no possible AY time on this fic, because it was one of my final stories for my Creative Writing class. So you should be glad, not mad, about this. At least it's a fanfic. And I actually think that, for me, it's pretty good writing quality, so give it a whirl. Please?

Ranma ½ is owned by Rumiko Takahashi. PLEASE tell me you knew that already. ^_~

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What I Once Was, What We Once Had

[Or: The Lengths Worth Going to for Pizza with Peppers]

by: nakigoe-chan

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Bottom line is, even if you see 'em coming, you're not ready for the big moments. No one asks for their life to change, not really. But it does. So what are we, helpless? Puppets? No. The big moments are gonna come. You can't help that. It's what you do afterwards that counts. That's when you find out who you are. You'll see what I mean.

- Whistler, Buffy the Vampire Slayer

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If I were to ring the doorbell in front of me, it would be a bit like sticking my hand through the bars of the tiger cage at the zoo, with the orange-striped feline sitting just beyond the barrier. You have a hand until you're stupid enough to stick it right in the cat's mouth; you're safe until you make yourself otherwise. Ringing this doorbell will hurl me off a precipice into the unknown air beyond; ringing this doorbell will put my hand in the tiger's mouth. It is a tiger that I have not seen in five years.

It is a tiger that, five years ago, I handed (if you'll excuse the word choice) every reason to bite me.

The tiger is, of course, Saotome Ranma.

Just turn around, my mind whispers. He doesn't know you're here. You can walk away, and he'll never have looked up from the basketball game he's probably watching on TV. The super you asked for his apartment number will only be able to tell him that some random woman came by to see him - doubtlessly not a rare occurrence. Let yourself stay forgotten in his bad memories; bringing them to the surface will just make it worse for him. Is that what you want?

I know this argument is as weak as it is cowardly. I owe him this visit; it is, after all, five years overdue. It is simply my fear, cajoling me away from this doorbell, hoping that it will retain its iron grip on my soul. Fear owns me - it has, for the last five years. In a moment of blind escape I have come here, but my fear has caught up and refuses to let me get away, whispering comforts to ears that strain desperately to hear them.

But even as I cling to the reassurance that I can walk away, I know the promise my fear makes is an empty one; I have learned to see through my empty thoughts and promises. Ringing the doorbell would be touching a lightening bolt - sharp and intense and instantaneous. But if I walk away, I will still have the fear. I have come to very intimate terms with it over the last five years, and I know the truth. Fear is not a wound; it is a cancer. It has gotten inside me and is eating its way out with its acidic fangs.

I turn around, leaning against the door of his apartment, staring at the blank opposite wall as if it will offer the solution to all the problems in my life.

The wall stares back. It evidently has no revelations on the meaning of life that it would like to share with me today.

Down the hall to the left, the elevator doors click and sing as they open. An acne-ridden pizza boy steps out. He's lanky and not at all well-suited physically to the graceful balancing act he's trying to pull off; the box weaves with a life of its own through the air and he almost drops it before he comes to stand before me, glancing beyond me at the door to make sure he has the right apartment.

"You order a pizza, lady?"

"Uh, yeah." Okay, where did THAT come from? But the lie's been told; I can't take it back. Like so many other things in my life, I can't take it back. So I pay for the pizza and he ambles back to the elevator, ready to be done for the night, ready to go off and spend his tips on movies and junk food.

And I'm faced with the door once again, and now I don't even have a choice, because I have his pizza. Five angst-ridden years (boy, don't I sound like the wallowing-in-misery type?) are going to be resolved because of dough and cheese and fake tomato sauce. And peppers. He always got green peppers on his pizza; I doubt he's stopped. I always thought it was gross.

I ring the doorbell. I can't believe how anticlimactic it is. I expect flashing lights, crashing thunder. But as it turns out, it's just another stupid doorbell.

The door opens, and there he is. A mass of dark hair over chiseled features; a thousand memories overshadowed in a single moment of denial. His mouth curves into a tiny smile full of bitter humor; the smile of the Mona Lisa, telling me he knows a thousand things I could never imagine.

"I was wondering how long it would take you to ring the doorbell."

So he knew I was there. I'm not really surprised; I never could catch him off guard. Except that one day. Against all odds, my mouth opens and runs away with me. "I was waiting for the pizza. I didn't want you to kick me out before I mooched some dinner."

One eyebrow slowly rises; otherwise, his face doesn't change. I have no right to be so flippant, and I slap my hand over my mouth. My nerves have made me lose all semblance of control.

His voice is neutral and ironic; a verbal mask. "Did you want to come in?" He asks. "Or are you worried that I'll corrupt your soul with my evil ways if you cross the threshold of a burakumin?"

That one word. That's what it all comes down to.

Burakumin.

I stare at him, silent, for a whole minute. Then I pointedly step into the apartment, past him into the living room. It is a comfortable apartment; he has been doing well since we parted ways. It is not flamboyant, though. Up until he was eighteen or so, he could carry everything he owned in a single backpack; I doubt he is comfortable in a setting that is not essentially simplistic. He has Venetian blinds on his windows, but I doubt he was the one to think to put them there. Maybe the landlord didn't want his wall-to-wall carpet to fade.

The chairs look relatively comfortable, but I don't sit down. I am not a guest.

He has followed me in. His eyes are assessing; they ask the question his mouth never would. Why? I can't face the answer to that question - it rings hollow even in my mind, God knows my wavering voice will only make it worse - so I drop my gaze to my hands. They are as pale as the rest of me, and the nail polish - a pinkish-purple entitled 'staying alive' - stands out against its alabaster background like Beaver Cleaver's mother at a frat party.

My eyes come back up. My vocal cords have regained their abilities, for better or for worse. "I just came by to see whether..."

I have rehearsed this speech several thousand times over several thousand miles. I have come halfway around the world for this conversation and suddenly I have nothing to say; nothing that won't sound trite and weak and downright clichéd. I came here to regain something, but I don't know what it was. I only know he can give it to me. What was it? Forgiveness? Redemption? Pizza with peppers?

I burst out laughing; the sound is helpless and hopeless and a reflection of misery. I fall backward and by some stroke of luck land in a chair. My head goes down to my knees and I'm laughing, lamenting, and swearing for all I'm worth. God knows how much that is. Would it even buy me a pizza?

He's half-kneeling before me, clearly at a loss. The woman who ruined his life five years ago in a moment of weakness is having an emotional breakdown in his apartment. He is too noble-minded to abandon me or throw me out, but he still has no clue what options that leaves him with. Who can blame him?

I meet his gaze. He stares back, silent and searching. He offers none of the harsh words I expected. This makes it worse. Do Something! I want to yell. Something horrible! Scream at me! Tell me what a bitch I am! Don't act like you're over it - I want to be able to labor under the delusion that I still have a chance to get you back.

"I'm so sorry," Is all that comes out, in a gasp I barely recognize as my own. "I'm so sorry. I'm so stupid."

He is again unsure. Five years ago he had a quick wit and no tact - five years ago he would have had a thousand edged, sarcastic replies. Now he stands wordless and contemplative, watching as I stagger to my feet toward his door, stumbling like a drunk. I turn at the threshold. He has straightened from his stooped position in front of my chair, but he hasn't moved otherwise. His face is blank.

"I just wanted you to know," I rasp, "that I finally stood up to my father. It wasn't pretty. He's not my father anymore. But I knew that would happen, and I did it anyway. It took me five years, but I did the right thing. I came here to tell you that. I did the right thing. And I just wanted you to know, because..." That is all I can say; that's as far as I let myself rant. I would say that I did it 'because it was the right thing,' but I found it didn't fit as well as 'because I'm still in love with you.' But I can't burden him with that knowledge.

I turn and bolt out the door, leaning on the wall before using it as support to lurch toward the elevator. I feel physically drained, as if I spent an hour carrying eighty pounds instead of a minute carrying eight slices of pizza.

"Hey," he says, from back by his doorway.

I turn.

"I thought you wanted some pizza," he says.

I burst into tears of shame and relief.

"The peppers aren't *that* bad," he says with false irritation and another small smile.

"Damn straight," I say. "I suddenly have a serious green pepper craving."

"We can fix that," he tells me.

I pause. I ask the question that he never did. "Why?"

"Because it's unhealthy to go through life with a green pepper craving and never try to satiate it."

This is the version of him I'm familiar with. I roll my eyes. "That's not what I meant and you know it. Why did you forgive me?"

He took a long moment to think, then shrugged. "I wouldn't have, if it had been about me being burakumin. But you were on the spot, and you weren't choosing whether or not the prejudice was justified; you didn't consider it in that instant. You were choosing between me and your family. We knew each other less that a year; how could you choose to take a chance on me if your family would turn their backs on you?"

"I did the wrong thing."

"You didn't have a chance to choose what was right and what was wrong. And in the end, forgiveness isn't even about whether or not you deserve it. You don't make up for something. You live life. You do good stuff. You do bad stuff. You make mistakes. Some make more mistakes than others, some make worse mistakes than others. The fact that you recognized what you believed to be yours - and did something about it - took as much guts as it would have five years ago."

He is wrong there. It took *more* guts. I had assumed that he'd hate me as much as my father now did. The fear had had five years to eat away at my insides. Now, I am shocked to find it gone; it has been twisted into something that heals instead of hurts.

He pauses, tilts his head. "Did that sound terribly corny?"

"Melodramatic truth often does."

He shrugs, not really caring. "Usually I lean more toward wacky. Corny is unexplored territory for me."

I smile. "Speaking of evil vegetables, are you gonna share that pizza?"

"You've just redefined your life for me," he says. "I guess maybe that earns you a little piece."

-------------------------------------------------------------------- END

PLEASE review or mail me at nakigoe_chan@hotmail.com! I want to know what you think! (Although while C & C is appreciated, no flames, please.)

Inspired by Jeremy Harper's 'Path of the Wolf' and Susan Doenime's 'Poison.' I needed a burakumin story with a *happy* ending.

(This 'burakumin' explanation is mostly from Susan Doenime's 'Poison' 'cause it's the best one I can find.) Burakumin are the descendants of Japanese who did "unclean" jobs during the Tokugawa period (1603-1868), such as butchering and disposal of the dead. While in many parts of Japan the prejudice doesn't exist, many traditionalists still hold tight to the concept that they are "spiritually unclean." A common job for a Japanese PI is to check for evidence of Burakumin ancestry. Companies sometimes refuse to hire them, and teachers and students sometimes refuse to associate with them. There are approximately 4 million Burakumin in Japan today.

'k, I don't know what else to say...

~ nakigoe-chan