Loss, Hope, and Redemption

Prologue

Something bad was about to happen. I could feel it. Every time something really bad came stomping into my life, I could feel the little hairs on the back of my neck rise in warning. The last time I got this feeling was when I saw Plum running from those bird people, and this feeling of mine was right then. Last time, I had to fight a god. Well, I'm pretty sure he was a god. Half-god, maybe. Normal people don't burn up and turn back into babies when they get ripped to shreds. They stay all wet and ripped to shreds. Ryouga would've stayed all ripped to shreds.

Then again, our fights never got that serious. He wasn't ever stupid enough to threaten Akane.

The problem this time was that the feeling came outta nowhere, unless eating some leftover rice from dinner was going to cause some titanic struggle for my soul. I examined the bowl of rice and saw that yeah, it was just rice with a few pieces of tempura shrimp on top. Walking out of the kitchen I crossed the living room and sat on the edge of the porch, staring at the sliver of a moon peeking out from behind dark clouds. The whisper of the wind as it blew through the trees was the only sound, aside from the far-off buzz of downtown Tokyo traffic.

I wasn't convinced. Rice in one hand and chopsticks in the other, I walked out from under the roof of the porch and performed a small leap onto the roof of the Dojo. Absently munching on the re-heated tempura shrimp, I scanned the surrounding rooftops, enhancing my awareness with a chi technique I picked up from Cologne. Still nothing at all, for nearly a mile around me. The chi under my control embraced every speck of life within that radius, and still I felt nothing.

Now I was getting paranoid. You don't get as good as I do without learning to trust your instincts, and my instincts were telling me to run and hide. Something bad was coming, something that I should run from. Not that I would, but those instincts did make a pretty damned good warning sign. I pricked my ears up as I heard a faint flapping sound. Too heavy for any normal sized bird. That'd probably make it one of Saffron's people, or Shinnosuke'd finally forgotten his duties at Ryuugenzawa.

A glance in the direction of the sound proved that Shinnosuke was still alive, clueless, and beating large helpless animals into paste. The winged person flying in my direction, however, didn't look quite alive. She was pressing her hands against her side, and an empty scabbard at her hip told me she was either useless with her weapon, or had seen the losing end of a fight recently. I carefully put my empty rice bowl on the roof and began a sprint across the rooftops. As I got closer, I recognized the bird woman as Kiima, her face pale and her hazel eyes pained. Those same eyes took me in as I bounced rooftop to rooftop, and I saw immense relief as she allowed herself to drop to the roof at my feet with a grunt.

"Kiima! Hey, you alright?" As I came to a stop right next to her collapsed form, I saw she was out cold. Her face was pale, and her breathing was laboured. I knelt, and wordlessly took in the blood welling up through the rips in her tunic. It looked pretty bad, but I was pretty sure she'd live if I got her to a warm bed. At the moment, I wanted nothing more than to rush her to Tofu's clinic, but the place had been deserted for months. I gathered her in my arms, intent on getting her back to the dojo and getting her fixed up. I wanted to know what was happening.

I was distracted by Kiima's wounds, I guess. I dunno why, but I wasn't paying attention as I bounded back to the Tendo's. That was why when someone jumped up to attack me between rooftops, I wasn't prepared. Instinctively pulling Kiima closer to my chest, I grunted as a clawed hand raked across my lower body and sent me twisting into the night. I flipped in midair and caught the side of a low apartment building with my feet, and used that to propel myself towards the ground. I landed, barely kicking up the ghost of a whisper. My senses extended, searching for my foe and examining Kiima more closely.

"Come out and fight me, you dirty coward!" I yelled, angry with myself and with my opponent. Who didn't even announce themselves before they attacked? Granted, I'm the best there is, but that's no excuse! I allowed my battle aura to surge forth, lighting the area around me in a shifting blue light. There, crounching in the shadows of a house two doors down. Either he was wearing an animal's fur or he was actually part animal, because the few details I could pick out were greyish fur and wolf-like ears. "There's no use hiding! I know where you are! Come out and fight me!"

Part of me wanted to close the distance. I wanted to pound the bastard into the dirt, my rage growing as I felt the blood trickling my left leg. Not much, little more than a scratch. It'd be closed within an hour, and healed by morning. The problem was that it was still enough, especially with me carrying an injured person... even if that person was pretty much an enemy. Still, he didn't move. He stayed crouched there, watching me. I couldn't go back to the dojo, not with this guy out here. This fight was going to happen sooner or later, and a large part of me wanted it to happen right now.

There was no use running. Either he was weaker than me and I could kick the crap outta him before I dealt with Kiima, or he was better than me, toying with me, and she was already dead.

"I said, come and fight me you-" I cut off and jumped straight up as I heard a scuff to my left, and a large shape passed below me. He stumbled as he passed below me swinging his large arms through empty air, and I threw Kiima still further up as I reached the apex of my own leap. Cupping my now free hands to me, I screamed. "Mouko Takabisha!"

Brilliant yellow energy briefly flashed at my side before flying directly at the larger of my two opponents, washing over and consuming him. The energy burst on contact, and bright light filled the neighborhood and illuminated my opponent before ploughing a trench into the street with his face... an ugly face I saw, framed by two tiger-striped shoulder guards. Lime. Which would make the other one-

"Mint." I growled as I gently caught Kiima. She hadn't even noticed. I glanced at Lime, slowly shaking off the rough treatment his failed attack visited on him as Mint stepped out of the shadows. "What the heck do you think you're doing?"

"This doesn't involve you, Ranma." Mint returned, walking over to his downed friend. He rocked back and forward on his heels as he considered me. Eager. Eager but wary, now. Over two months earlier I'd fought Herb to a standstill, with me at the disadvantage. Now, I was male and pissed off. Still, he pressed on: "Just let us have the bird woman and we'll leave."

"You two losers think you can beat me?" I chuckled, taking them in. I only had a minor injury, but Lime still looked half out of the fight. Since fighting these two, I'd only gotten stronger. Clearly they hadn't, not by any measurable degree. Kiima shifted in my arms, and I knew this had to be finished quickly. "Y'know, I was able to beat Herb pretty easy. Think you two clowns will do any better?"

"We're stronger now, Ranma." Mint snarled, and blurred out of sight. I flared my aura, not bothering to move. Coming back into view, Mint tumbled down the street as he was knocked off balance as the pressure of my aura took him in. He finally regained his footing and slid to a stop forty feet away. I took a step towards him, and he backed off. "You've won this one, but we'll be back!"

Mint blurred again, and he was gone. Lime must have disappeared while I was concentrating on his partner. Shifting Kiima in my arms, I made my way back to the dojo.

"Why should we protect her?" Nabiki had always been cold... But this was brutal. Yeah, Kiima was the reason Akane nearly died, but anyone willing to kill someone in cold blood was not someone I was dealing with. My father, Tendou, and Kasumi stood to the side, watching. Didn't they realise that the past didn't matter, the present did? At present, Kiima clearly needed my help. The fact they were even questioning it was beginning to make me angry.

"Nabiki... How many of my friends now were enemies before?" I questioned, still tending Kiima's numerous wounds. "Ryouga, Mousse, even Shampoo... They all tried to kill me. Maybe I'm wrong, but weren't they all at our Christmas party? Aren't they friends now? How is Kiima any different?"

"She put my sister in danger, Ranma. I heard the story." Nabiki is pure ice, now. She's in the sort of mood I can see her in while demanding money of Hiroshi or Daisuke on payday, taking most of their hard-earned money in interest. Doesn't much bother me at the moment.

"Ryouga's the reason Akane's hair is shorter. Shampoo caused Akane to forget me entirely. Even Mousse nearly cursed Akane with a Jusenkyo curse... How are they different?" My ire was up. I wasn't all too happy with Nabiki right now. Yeah, she was angry with me. It was my decision not to leave Kiima to those two... But she wasn't a bad person, I didn't think. We'd fought, but she'd left us alone when we'd left the lands of the Pheonix people. "Why, because she was the one who I fought last month? 'Cause she kidnapped Akane?"

A glass of cold water washed over Kiima's form, and I was suddenly staring directly into the pained face of Akane. I hadn't even notice the glass in Nabiki's hand. Kiima groaned and twisted as her wounds reopened with the shifting of her body's shape. Fresh blood stained her tunic, and the bandages I'd tied were torn apart as her form expanded.

"Nabiki, what the hell is your problem! You coulda hurt her!" I yelled, slamming my fist into the floor. I angrily ripped apart more sheets for bandages, while yanking off the old, split bandages from Kiima's body. More blood, maybe more than she could afford to lose at this point. Some of the wounds had been deeper than I'd thought. I shot a glare at the brunette as I redid the bandages. "She's hurt enough as is! Don't go triggering her curse!"

"Ranma, what is your problem?" Nabiki growled, leaning in close. Her eyes were wild with emotion I'd rarely seen in her before. "This girl nearly caused Akane to be killed! Why are you helping her?"

I took a deep breath, eventually meeting Nabiki's gaze. I don't know if she saw something in them that she'd just never noticed before, or if I'd come to some decision about my life and decided to change things. I don't think I'll ever be able to seperate the difference, really. All I know is that I surprised her with my response.

"Doesn't matter who she is. She's in trouble. It's my duty to help out." I was calm about this statement. It felt right, like nothing I'd ever said before. I'd said the words, but in the past they'd been convenient. I'd help those who needed help, but choosing the other path would have been personally harder, not easier. Before, refusing to help Akane, or Ryouga, or anyone would have pissed everyone off. Now because of the principles everyone held me to, I was pissing people off.

Despite what people might think about my intelligence, the irony of the situation wasn't lost on me.

"Boy, are you turning your back on your fiance?" Of course, my old man would put things that way. In his mind, things were always in black and white... With his decisions being right and anything else being wrong. Seeing the look on old man Tendou's face, I knew my father had struck a cord. Nabiki grinned with something akin to triumph though in the back of mind, behind the rising anger, I think she realised I'd been pushed far enough to push back.

"If it comes down to Kiima's life or this engagement, I choose Kiima's life!" I growled, glaring at my father. In my own head, I'd done more for Akane than anyone could ask. A pheonix rose up against me, and in Akane's name and Akane's name alone, I'd vanquished my enemy. That fight had not been about my pride, either in my own infallibility or in my skill in martial arts. That fight had been about Akane's life, and in that fight I'd been victorious against a foe almost anyone would have fled from.

Instead, I'd wound up tearing his damned head off of his shoulders. All in Akane's name. In my own head, I had nothing to prove to these people. Nothing to prove to myself. I loved Akane, plain and simple. I could admit it, to myself. I would not let anyone else die in her name, even if it meant pissing off these fools. In my head, I was sure Akane wouldn't want Kiima's death on anyone's conscience, especially in the name of her pride.

In your head, everything seems clear. More clear than the most perfectly shaped crystal. Clearer than the purest water in the brightest sunlight.

"You're abandoning my daughter?" Soun growled, and I knew things were about to spiral out of control. This was not an issue I could back down on, not with a person's life on the line. Slinging Kiima's prone form over my shoulder, I glared at the man, daring him to continue.

"One more word Tendou, and I'm gone for good. I ain't gonna let you say anything bad about Kiima. She stays, or I go." Full of bravado, I made this statement. Full of the boundless confidence which ruled my every action. In my mind, this statement had only one solution. Kiima would stay. Her wounds would be tended properly. She would get the bedrest she needed, and then in the morning she'd tell me who's ass I'd have to kick to make things alright. Then I'd go do it, and a week later everything would be back to the way it was.

In retrospect, it's hard to blame Akane's reaction to the scene. Half-asleep, she came into the living room to see her doppleganger slung over my shoulder, my steely eyes meeting the anger of the people she trusted the most.

"Ranma, what's going on here?" Akane demanded. This was my chance, I realised as she spat the words out angrily. This was my chance to vindicate myself of everything and get her to agree with me. Surely she'd see the reason for tending to Kiima's wounds. The woman was hurt. She was being chased by forces that were, compared to her skills, undefeatable. Already she'd lost her weapon and her will to fight. Half-unconscious and grasping at straws, at hope, she'd come to the home of her enemies.

"Ranma doesn't care about you, Akane! He's chosen Kiima over you!" Soun growled, and in that moment I knew my cause to be lost. Anger steeled Akane's eyes now, and I knew that nothing I could say at the moment could change anything. She furiously glared at me, her gaze demanding an answer and apology all in one even before the first word of denial escaped my lips. Kiima whimpered on my back.

My choice was clear.

"Akane..." I began, and her demeanor didn't change one bit. I guess that at the time her mind was set. Either I set down Kiima and go to her, or I've chosen Kiima over her. Black and white, just the way my old man liked things. In the back he stood, not commenting any further. His concept of the situation was plainly evident on the disapproving glare on his face. I looked at Akane. In her eyes, I saw no questions, no forgiveness. Only anger. Kiima's weight didn't strain my muscles, but I could feel every pound of her burden on my soul. No more choices.

Keep it simple, stupid. Nabiki's advice, long ago. Less than a year, but an eternity. My face calmed, and I took one last look at the place which had been my home for over a year and a half. Longer than I'd had a home for over a decade, and this was how it ended. At least I'd be leaving an impression. My eyes turned back to my fiance... Soon to be my ex-fiance, the rotten little voice in my head informed me. I didn't disappoint him.

"I'm sorry." Maybe it was just the words, words she'd seldom heard from my lips before. Maybe it was the steely look in my eyes as things rapidly spinned out of control and I maintained the course which I'd plotted. Whatever it was, it broke her anger and turned it to sadness. She fled back up the stairs, leaving only a sparkling trail of tears. I watched it, steeling my heart against this reaction.

Wordlessly, not acknowleding the rest of the household, I gathered my pack and left.

Camped outside of the outskirts of Nerima, Kiima awoke. By this point I'd gathered myself sufficiently to present a strong mask to her, despite the fact that her questioning eyes wore Akane's face.

"How did it happen?" I asked. I allowed a slow grin to come to my face. The grin was empty, but in the back of my mind I hoped she didn't notice. "Who's ass do I gotta kick to make things better again?"

I hoped I could.

Author's Notes:

This is just a little something I've had cooking in the background of other, non-fanfiction related projects. It will be updated when inspiration strikes and where the word count is sufficient enough to actually call it an update. Reviews are very much appreciated but not required.

Minor Edit: Formatted the prologue to match later chapters. The actual content remains unchanged.