Lunch had just started when Ranma returned from the nurse's office, dry and mighty. This suited her well enough as she looked for her friends. Shortly, she spotted Akane carrying Shampoo in her arms and joined her on the way outside.
"Oy, 'Kane! I'm back."
"So you are," Akane acknowledged as she took in how Ranma was dressed. "I was just heading out for lunch with some friends. You want in? I'll introduce you!"
"Sounds good to me. I need to know more folks here than just Kuno and your sister."
The group -- Ranma, Akane, Shampoo, two hitherto-unidentified girls, and two similarly unnamed boys -- approached a large tree in the yard and sat down around it.
"Well now. Ranma, these are my best friends Sayuri and Yuka," Akane said, indicating the girls.
Saiyuri simply gave a little wave. "Hi."
"Why do the new girls have to be cuter than us?" Yuka jokingly complained.
"Cos I'm a guy," Ranma grumbled.
One of the boys turned towards Ranma. "Even in that uniform, you're not fooling anyone. Name's Hiroshi."
"Daisuke," the other revealed. "I'd picked up a bit from Tendou about a Chinese curse. Is that why you say you're a guy?"
Ranma considered the answer as she let Shampoo hop over from Akane to her. "That's about right. I was born a guy and if it weren't for my old man I'd die a guy." She sighed as the others reacted with various degrees of shock and surprise. "Ya really can't underestimate those ancient Chinese curses. Just takes one quick dip in a spring to turn a guy into a girl--"
"A hot girl, no less," Hiroshi interjected.
"I'm sure Ranma was a hottie as a boy too," Yuka offered.
"Thank you. Or turn a human into an animal," Ranma finished, absently stroking Shampoo's head.
Saiyuri looked from Yuka to Shampoo, then back again. "You don't think the kitty's..."
"There's no way," Yuka argued. "She looks cute in her little school dress but there's no way she's a cursed human. That just doesn't happen!"
"As if a guy magically turning into a girl is a thing," Daisuke sarcastically argued.
"But it true!"
Hiroshi nearly dropped his lunch box. Akane did drop hers, but caught it before it hit the ground as if she was some kind of hot-shot martial artist. Yuka managed to get a piece of rice up her nose. Daisuke and Saiyuri had the good fortune to not have opened their lunch boxes yet in the first place.
"Damn it Shampoo, you wouldn't talk at school," Ranma scolded. Shampoo put both her paws on her mouth in shamed shock. "Guys, I'd really appreciate it if you didn't blab about this."
"Can do!" Sayuri assured her while Yuki gave a stern salute.
"Dude, Dai?" Hiroshi softly spoke after a few seconds to process the latest reveal.
"I thought talking cats were supposed to only show up in Azabu-Juuban?"
Daisuke nodded. "Hiroshi? If Ranma ever does a magical girl transformation?"
"I want a front row seat."
The awkward silence was palpable. Yuka gave Daisuke a stern glare of the kind that said "stop being so typical".
"I don't get it," Ranma admitted after another few seconds.
"You don't have to," Akane reassured the confused redhead. "If you ever do a superhero transformation, it'd be more like this." She stood up straight and did a perfect Kamen Rider 1 transform gesture. As the others softly applauded, Akane decided against showing what Daisuke had in mind. "What Daisuke was talking about involves something a little more twirly and maybe-naked."
"Don't forget the too-short skirts!" Daisuke helpfully added.
"Short skirts good fo' fyting," Shampoo argued. "Good mobilichy an' distracshin."
"You know what Shampoo-chan?" Yuka said, nodding at Akane and Sayuri, "that's actually not a bad point. Ranma, you're a big-shot fighty type, right? Maybe you should consider it."
Daisuke looked a bit red in the face. Ranma on the other hand seemed almost tempted by the idea.
"But do it for what Shampoo said, Ranma-chan," Saiyuri argued. "Not for this pervert's sake."
"Can't believe you got over the talking cat so easily," Akane remarked. Then she considered Ranma in a short skirt and turned a little red in the cheeks.
"I'm not," Hiroshi admitted. "I've just got too much on the brain to care about it." He looked at something behind Akane. "And speaking of guys who like short skirts, we've got company coming."
Indeed, approaching the tree was none other than Tatewaki Kuno, seventeen years old.
"Saotome," Kuno started, "we have need to discuss certain matters, but there is no more time left now. I humbly request you meet me at the track after school."
Before Ranma could respond, Kuno already turned around and left. The bell rang not long after.
Meanwhile, at the Tendou dojo, Genma and Soun sat at the latter's shougi table.
"You know, Tendou-kun, it's really a shame about the whole marriage thing," Genma said he pondered if he should cheat or make a legitimate play.
"Isn't it, Saotome-kun?" Soun agreed as he watched his friend move his bishop. "Still, it's not all lost."
"How do you figure?"
"Well... I don't know if she knows I know, but my dear Akane... well, she's never really been into boys, if you know what I mean."
"Really now? That explains the teasing between her and the boy, I'd think."
"Not quite, Saotome-kun," Soun disagreed as he moved one of his lances. "She's always been a bit in denial about it, to the point of trying to woo the local chiropractor. Which, of course, didn't work out since the poor guy is out of her age bracket... and he fawns over Kasumi."
"I think I see your point. But how does that solve the marriage issue?"
"It doesn't," Soun blithely admitted, then shuffled some pieces around when Genma was confused and distracted. "But it does mean the dojo's future can be assured."
"I don't follow, Tendou-kun... and wasn't that one piece...?"
"Well you see, Saotome-kun, I have three daughters. Kasumi could get any man she'd wish. Let's face it, so can Nabiki."
"Thank you, father," Kasumi sang as she passed.
"I can see Nabiki and Akane work together here. Nabiki doesn't need to actually fight to own the dojo or even maintain it, and Akane can be the master. Add in Ranma and whoever catches Nabiki's eye and we're set, Saotome-kun!"
The fathers laughed for a good few seconds, then went out for drinks.
"I'll be at the gate," Akane indicated as she took her book bag and Ranma's, including Shampoo. "You enjoy your meeting."
Ranma scoffed. "Aw, it's not like you gotta wait for me, 'Kane."
"If it's all the same, I don't trust the guy. I'm not leaving you alone with him. At least, not that alone."
"A'ight then." Ranma shrugged and turned to the track field. "I'm just glad I got my outfit back. Now, let's get this shitshow over with."
It didn't take long before Tatewaki Kuno made his appearance. Ranma was only standing in the track field for all of two minutes when she spotted him coming directly her way.
"Upperclassman," Ranma said, trying to make it sound at least a little respectful.
"Saotome," Kuno started off with his usual high-and-mighty tone. "I would wish to offer my most sincere apologies for my earlier words."
"It was wrong of me to presume... I shall make no excuse of it, but your mode of dress had convinced me of an untruth, and I falsely presumed you to be what you are clearly not."
"Oh," Ranma interrupted. "You mean with the posture and the baggy shirt?" She thought back to that morning and copied her earlier pose. "Like this?"
"Exactly like that. It is a posture and dress that does a disservice to your womanly qualities."
Ranma considered those words. Kuno sounded more than a bit sexist, but he could have a point. Just for the sake of experiment, Ranma grabbed the bottom of her shirt, pulled it tight, and tucked it into her pants. "How's this? Still think I'm a fag?"
"Your words wound me, Ranma Saotome," Kuno replied. "But I agree that this is a marked improvement. Again, it was wrong of me."
"Good." Ranma pulled the bottom of her shirt back out, ruining the effect. Kuno's disapproval was subtle on his otherwise stoic face, but present. "Something to keep in mind, then. Anything else or...?"
"As a matter of fact, yes. There is in fact something else I must say to you."
Ranma couldn't help but notice Kuno had something in his hands, hiding it behind his back.
"Yeah? And what's that?"
"Ranma Saotome... my pig-tailed tigress..."
"What'd you say?"
Kuno suddenly threw the hidden object at Ranma, who caught it on instinct.
"... I love you."
With those words, Tatewaki Kuno turned around and left, leaving Ranma to fall to her knees in shock while holding a bouquet of roses.
"Holy crap I can't believe he said that," Akane whispered as she retrieved her fallen friend.
Ranma stood in a grassy field, the wind blowing in his hair and whipping around his ponytail, when Kuno approached.
"Ranma Saotome. I love you."
"Dude, open your eyes," Ranma scoffed. "I'm a man."
"Ranma Saotome. I love you."
"What part of 'I'm a-- wait, what?" Ranma started to say, but caught note of the words' pitch being off. Another three Kunos appeared, cutting off Ranma's escape.
"Ranma Saotome," they spoke as one. "I love you."
"No... go away," Ranma called out as she fought not to cower at the sight.
"Stop it! Don't say it!" the distraught girl cried.
"I love you."
"Shut up! I don't fall for guys, a'ight! I am a man!" she shouted, but it was ever harder to believe it.
It was difficult to believe when it first started, that fateful day in China. Spending time awake as a newly-changed girl wasn't that hard once she'd gotten over the shock. But then night had fallen and the dreams started, ranging from the strange to the outright nightmarish, from visions of her almost-forgotten mother trying to take her head off to raising a family with her old friend Hibiki.
Nobody had ever told her that they loved her. Not in that sense of the word.
And the simple fact that Tatewaki Kuno had been the first to say it?
It chilled Ranma Saotome to the bone.
She got up, regulated her breathing, and aired her sweat-soaked tank top. "Jeez, as if I needed more reasons to hate the guy."
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