A cursed martial artist approaches the Tendo Dojo after many years.  He's bearing important news, but they won't be happy to see him…

CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN

By Dan Stickney

Based on characters and situations created by Rumiko Takahashi and used without permission

*****

Home, sweet home, the muscular man in the travel-stained overcoat thought reluctantly, carefully angling his umbrella to shield himself from the cold rain.  Nerima hadn't changed much in the years that he'd been gone – it still rained far more often then he was comfortable with.  Much as he hated the rain, though, it wasn't what had kept him away, or what drew him back now.  At least I made it back for New Year's Eve like I'd wanted to.  Despite his haste he proceeded slowly, taking great care to manage his umbrella and stepping carefully around the puddles.  After all, if he got wet he wouldn't be a man any more.

His steps faltered as he approached his destination, his heart pounding in his ears.  People who knew him – even people who merely knew of him – would have been startled by the trepidation he felt approaching this simple suburban home.  This was a man who'd battled demigods and godlike martial artists alike, and always come out on top - a man with more courage than sense, and more charm than either.  Unfortunately, courage, charm and sense all eluded him when it came to facing this place; the place where he'd experienced both untold joy and immeasurable sorrows.

He stood for a long moment outside the gate gathering his nerve before he finally approached the door.  He raised his hand and knocked, at first tentatively, then with more authority.  Despite his nervousness, he couldn't help but smile at the memories dredged up by the sounds of the party going on inside.  He'd belonged here once.  In fact, it had come to seem more like home to him than the house where he'd been born.  He'd made many happy memories here… happy memories cut brutally short when the mistress of the house opened the door.

After all these years his breath still caught at the sight of her.  At first glance she looked much like he remembered her.  Years of marriage and motherhood had done little to mar her athletic figure.  Closer inspection, however, revealed time's markings on her face: crow's feet around her eyes, smile lines on her forehead.  Her once-short hair had once again been grown past shoulder length.  He apprehended all of this in one brief glance before her face darkened into a scowl of recognition.

"What the hell do you want?"  She growled angrily.

Kami-sama, she's still angry.  After all these years, she's still angry.  He swallowed, licking suddenly dry lips.  Whatever happened to the girl I loved – the one who'd be angry one minute, but happy the next?  When did she, of all people, learn to hold a grudge like this?

"Well?"  She demanded.  "Aren't you going to say something?"

'Uh…Um…Akane?  Can I please come in?"  The big man stuttered nervously, hands that could crush rocks twisting impotently on the handle of his umbrella.  "I have something I need to tell you."

She shook her head.  "We're having a party.  A *family* party." She replied, emphasizing the word to drive home the point that 'family' didn't include him.

"I…I know."  He responded.  "That's why I came tonight.  So I could see all of you, and tell you all at once.  Please?"

The woman facing him scrunched her eyes shut, trembling slightly from the cold.  He could see that she really, really wanted to just close the door and leave him out in the rain.  Finally, she opened her eyes again and leveled her gaze at him.  "Give me one good reason why I should."

The big man sighed.  He hadn't wanted to break it to her this way, but he had no choice.  So he looked her straight in the eye and leveled with her:  "Akane… I've found Ranma."

********

Ryoga Hibiki sighed and took a careful sip of his tea.  It felt so good to be a guest at the dojo again, even if it was only on a temporary, probationary basis.  The reactions of the three Tendo girls (for that was how he still thought of them, even if they were all married women now) had been true to form:  Kasumi had been genuinely happy to see him, Akane angry and impatient, and Nabiki was… well, Nabiki, giving away little or nothing of her true feelings, just as she always had.  It was Kasumi who'd insisted that Ryoga be allowed a hot shower and a soak in the furo before he was made to tell his tale.  Akane had fumed, but acquiesced, and even unbent to the point of providing Ryoga with a clean pair of sweats and a warm robe, presumably her husband's.  Finally, though, he'd finished going through all of the motions.  The time had come for him to explain his presence.  Akane ushered the three of them into the downstairs guest room, once Happosai's lair, for privacy.

"All right, P-Chan.  Spill it."  Akane wasted no time in coming to the point. 

Ryoga winced.  "Still mad at me about that, I see."

"Damn right I am.  You took advantage of me.  You practically molested me, for god's sake."

Ryoga looked down into his tea.  "Akane… I'm sorry.  I said I was sorry years ago.  You never gave me the chance to explain."  Now I know how Ranma felt back then.

"What is there to explain?"

Ryoga took a deep breath.  "Akane, when I'm a pig, I AM P-Chan.  Do you understand?"

Akane looked back at him uncertainly.  "No, I don't understand."

Ryoga looked across at her steadily.  "P-Chan is a tiny, frightened food animal.  You're about the only person who ever looked at me and didn't think 'dinner'.  When I'm P-Chan, I'm not after your body..." he swallowed "...not that way, anyway."

"Then why did you keep jumping in my bed like that, huh?"

"Because you made me feel safe!  Do you have any idea what it's like to be tiny, and helpless, with people trying to eat you all the time?  Akane, I…"  Ryoga's voice faltered for a bit before he looked back up at her.  "Let me just say this: If you ever have the misfortune to be turned into a small, vulnerable animal, I just hope you're lucky enough to find someone to care for you the way you cared for me.  OK?"

Akane swallowed and looked down at the tatami mats.  "I'm sorry, I never realized…"

Nabiki overrode her younger sister's apology, impatience evident in her voice.  "This is all fine and good, but weren't you going to tell us about Ranma?"

Ryoga pulled himself back to the main topic with an effort.  "Heh, right.  Well, it all started when I went back to China to find the Musk Dynasty."

Kasumi looked puzzled.  "Why on earth would you want to do that?"

Ryoga looked back at her.  "So I could spar with Lime, of course."  He looked around the circle of incredulous faces.  "I do it all the time."

Akane looked startled.  "You like to spar… with Lime?  That psycho who's part tiger?"

"Sure.  He's about the only guy around who I don't have to pull my punches against.  So I go to Qinghai and look him up when he's on guard duty.  He gives me the usual 'who dares to approach the stronghold of the musk dynasty' speech, and then we go at it for a while.  The fight always lasts until one of us is too firmly embedded in the landscape to go on.  Then we go out for a few beers and talk about old times."  Ryoga smiled fondly in reminiscence.  He didn't expect them to understand male bonding rituals; women never did.

The three sisters shared a look.  Finally Nabiki looked back at him.  "So where does Ranma come into all this?"

Ryoga winced.  "Well, unfortunately, this time Lime wasn't alone on guard duty…"

*******

Ryoga staggered through the bushes, barely feeling them as they brushed against his various lacerations, abrasions, burns and contusions.  Damn that Herb, he thought foggily.  Why the hell does he have to always take everything too seriously?  Trust him to turn a pleasant sparring session into a dynastic pissing match.  Ryoga's erratic retreat was interrupted by an extended coughing fit, and he noticed that his lungs were starting to gurgle ominously as he breathed.  That's not good…I must have breathed in some of the superheated air from that last Ryu Sei Hisho.  He staggered on, only to be brought up short when someone leaped onto the trail in front of him and ordered him to stop.  The stranger wasn't speaking Japanese, of course, but that hardly mattered:  Ryoga had wandered across so many guarded borders and military installations in his travels that he knew the word for "halt" in at least 63 different languages.

Stopping triggered another coughing fit, and he braced his hands on his knees until it passed.  Straightening up, he noticed that the young woman who'd accosted him was wearing Joketsukozu dress.  Oh, damn, an Amazon.  Out of the frying pan… Straightening further, he looked straight into a face he knew very well but never expected to see again.  Suddenly, a rage that he'd thought long dormant was reawakened in his heart.

"RannnMAAA!" he growled, dropping into his familiar combat stance.  The pigtailed redhead looked puzzled for an instant before she followed suit.  "How dare you run out on Akane like that!  How dare you hide from your friends for so long!  How dare you still look like you're sixteen years old…"  Ryoga trailed off, his head swimming.  Oops.  I guess I overdid it.  Ryoga shook his head to clear it, to little effect, for when his vision cleared there were two Ranmas.  Double vision – this is bad.  Shaking his head again only seemed to make it worse, for suddenly there were three Ranmas.  The next coughing jag left him flat on his back, helpless, looking up at four Ranmas spinning over him.  Oh Hell, this has gotta be Ranma's easiest victory over me yet.   As Ryoga began the long slide down into darkness a small part of his brain couldn't help wondering why all of the duplicate Ranmas seemed to be wearing different clothing…   

******

"Damn it.  'Going back to seek my cure' my ass!  I knew he ran off to be with Shampoo."  Akane growled.

"Come off it, Sis."  Nabiki shot back.  "Are you honestly going to tell me that you're still mad about that?  That you regret marrying Toshiro?  Starting a family?  Having kids?"

Akane bristled.  "Of course not!  It's just that… he should have told me!  I'd have been just as hurt, but at least I wouldn't have wasted two years pining for him."

Ryoga intervened reluctantly.  "Uh, Akane, Nabiki, I'm not finished yet."

"There's more?"  Kasumi asked quietly.

Ryoga sighed.  "I've barely gotten started."

******

Ryoga tossed for a long time, caught in feverish delirium, wracked with horrific nightmares of endless flight from phantom pursuers intent on chopping him into mu-shu pork.  He staggered for what seemed like forever before he was finally cornered, and he saw that his pursuer was Ranma.  No… not just one Ranma… it was many Ranmas, dozens of Ranmas, a whole army of Ranmas;  He was surrounded by vast legions composed of nothing but different versions of Ranma, ranging from serious-faced young women in Amazon garb through pigtailed teenagers all the way to giggly little chibi-Ranmas cuter than whole baskets of kittens.   But all female, for some odd reason.  Finally, his fever broke and he sank into the blessed darkness of normal sleep.

Ryoga awoke slowly to the sounds of a bustling household.  "…No, Nodoka, you are *not* marrying him, and that's final!"  A woman was saying in the background.  "He's an old friend of mine, He's my age, and I don't fancy him for a son-in law!  Besides, having a wounded man collapse at your feet does not qualify as defeating him in honorable combat.  If you don't believe me, ask your father."  Ryoga was still too out of it to wonder why they were speaking Japanese.

"Mama! He's waking up!"  A childish voice suddenly sang out besides Ryoga's ear, startling him.  He looked over to see a girl of no more than five or six with startlingly blue eyes, red hair, and very familiar features.  Clearly, she was Ranma's daughter.  "Nihao!"  She chirped at him.

"Nihao."  He smiled at her, he couldn't help it.  "And who might you be?"

"I'm Plum!"  The little girl smiled back at him.  "Plum of the Joketsukozu!"

"Plum, Sweetheart," came the woman's voice from earlier.  "Please go help your sister in the kitchen."

"Yes Mama." 

The woman replaced the little girl in the chair at Ryoga's bedside, and his head swam a little from the transposition.  She reached over and gently brushed the hair back from Ryoga's forehead, carefully checking for fever in a shockingly maternal gesture.  "How are you feeling, Ryoga?"

Ryoga made no reply, instead staring in shock at the familiar redhead.  "R-r-r-ranma?  You…you… you're a, a… m-m-mother?"

Ranma seemed to find this sally remarkably amusing.  "Well, yeah, I am.  You got a problem with that?"

*******

"Ranma's a MOTHER?"  Akane repeated in shock.

"Oh, yeah, is she ever."  Ryoga replied ruefully.  "In fact, she has more kids than any of you three.  They're all girls, and they all look just like her."

"But, but…how?"  Akane boggled.  She'd dreamed of sharing many special things with Ranma:  Motherhood was not one of them.

"Oh come now, Akane" Nabiki sniggered.  "You have to ask that after having three kids of your own?  Surely you've figured out how it works by now."  Even Kasumi had to giggle at that one.  

"I don't mean that!"  Akane blushed.  "Well, actually, I do mean that!" 

"What do you mean, Akane?"  Kasumi asked in her musical voice.

Akane looked around the circle.  "I mean, even if Ranma did get locked in his female form, can you even imagine HIM doing what's necessary to get pregnant?  Mr. 'I'm-a- man-among-men-even-when-I'm-a-woman?'"

Nabiki stroked her chin.  "Well, now that you mention it, No, I can't."

"Me either."  Kasumi admitted.

"Wellll…" Ryoga replied.  "It's not quite that simple."

*******

"No, I don't think I have a problem with that."  Ryoga told the woman who'd once been his best friend.  "Am I supposed to have a problem with that?  I'm just surprised, is all."

"Yeah, me too, sometimes."  Ranma agreed wistfully.  "So, old friend, what brings you back to Qinghai province?"  Suddenly her eyes narrowed.  "You weren't trying to find the nannichuan, were you?"

"The spring of the drowned man?  No, of course not," Ryoga replied.  "I decided a long time ago that would be a really bad idea.  I mean, there's over a hundred springs, right?  With my sense of direction, there's no way I'd ever end up in the right pool.  The last thing I want is another curse.  After all, I've had over twenty years to get used to the one I have."

"Oh, thank Kami-sama."  Ranma blew out her breath, then reached over to gently stroke his cheek.  "Please, Ryo-chan, stay away from Jusenkyo.  It's not a cure, it's a trap."

Ryoga boggled even as he felt strangely comforted.  Ryo-chan?  A maternal Ranma wasn't something he found easy to get used to.  He took a moment to look his old rival over very carefully.  She was still very pretty, and still petite, but there was no denying that she was a mature woman now.  Her blue eyes were surrounded by tiny creases, and her fiery red hair was shot through with strands of gray.  Physically, she'd traded her youthful buxomness for a more voluptuous, maternal form, with added heft in her hips and the little potbelly that childbearing brought.  Her breasts seemed only slightly larger but decidedly more pendulous - all telltale signs of maternity that nothing short of surgery could erase.

"So what are you doing in China, Ryoga?  Besides getting your ass kicked by the Musk?"

"I did not get my ass kicked by the Musk!  I gave them as good as I got!"

"Sure you did."  Somehow, Ranma managed to make the simple phrase sound reassuring, comforting and chastising all at the same time – like only a mother could.  "Now tell me what happened."

"All I wanted was a good dustup with Lime – a little no-holds-barred sparring match, you know?  And then that bastard Herb had to go and ruin everything."  Ryoga boggled a little at the plaintive note in his own voice.  Damn it, Ranma may be a mother, but she wasn't HIS mother.  So how did she manage to make him feel like a little kid?

"Ah, I knew Herb had to be involved.  I could tell from the Chi-burns.  But how the heck did he manage to give you pneumonia?"

"I think I breathed in some of the hot chi from his 'dragon spirit flight' attack, and scorched my lungs."  Ryoga grumbled. 

Ranma snorted.  "Oh yeah.  Little Herbie-chan just loves to go for the showy stuff, doesn't he?"

Ryoga looked at Ranma like she'd grown a second head.  Herbie-chan?  It took a serious effort of will to wrench his attention back to his story.  "Anyway, Herb decided that the honor of the Musk required him to treat our friendly little sparring match like it was some sort of dynastic challenge.  I think the little dickhead is still overcompensating for his curse.  Even when he's a girl he's a dickhead."  Oops, probably not the best choice of words.  Ryoga snuck a peek at Ranma, but she seemed unruffled.   "So, Ranma, why are you here living in Nyuuchezu with the Joketsukozu?  Have you joined the Amazons?" 

Ranma was about to reply when she was interrupted by the sound of an infant crying in the other room.  She turned towards the door.  "No-chan?  Could you bring the baby, please?"  She turned back to Ryoga.  "Do you mind if I nurse while we talk?"

Ryoga boggled.  "No, I don't mind.  That is, if you don't.  I am a grownup, after all…and a father."

Ranma removed her familiar red silk blouse as a young woman entered carrying an infant.  Ranma took the baby from her and gently presented it to her breast.  Despite his protestations of adulthood, a small, incorrigibly male part of Ryoga's brain couldn't help noticing that Ranma's breasts had actually grown much larger and more pendulous.  It's a good thing I got over that nosebleed thing right after I married Akari.  Ranma nodded at the older girl as the baby started suckling.

"Nodoka, I'd like to formally introduce you to Ryoga Hibiki.  Ryoga, No-chan was leading the patrol that found you in the woods."  She smiled at the girl fondly.  "No-chan is my eldest."

Ryoga looked the blushing young woman up and down.  "Wow, Ranma.  She looks just like you." No wonder I thought she was Ranma when she found me.

Ranma tilted her head, unable to shrug without dislodging the baby.  She gently stroked the few wisps of red hair that were just starting to show on her tiny head. Somehow, Ryoga just *knew* it had to be a girl. "That's because she is me, sort of."  Ryoga gave her a strange look, but she ignored it.  At her nod, the older girl returned to the kitchen.  "Anyway, to answer your earlier question:  Yes, I did join the Amazons.  After what happened to me, I really didn't have much choice."  She looked up at him and smiled.  "Don't worry, all the girls have received firm instructions that they are not to challenge you for marriage, unless you wish it."

"That's reassuring."  Ryoga told her faintly.  "All of the girls?  Do you mean in the whole village?  At Ranma's nod he continued.  "Ranma, just how did you get that kind of authority?"

This time Ranma did shrug, albeit very slightly so the baby wouldn't be disturbed.  "Well, I joined a very influential family."  Seeing his incomprehension, she sighed and continued.  "You see… I'm sort of Shampoo's fellow wife."

********

Akane growled.  "So I was right!  He did run off to be with that Chinese bimbo!"

Kasumi couldn't help sympathizing with her little sister.  Much as Akane loved her husband and children, the knowledge that Ranma had dumped her for Shampoo of all people must have bothered her very much.

"Uh, well, Ranma did make me promise to make sure that you knew that she only did it because she had no choice."  Ryoga mumbled, cringing in expectation of the nearly inevitable mallet, but Akane forbore.  Apparently, motherhood had taught her a little something, too.

"Hmmph.  I'll bet.  Did he - I mean SHE - make you promise to say anything else?"

"Uh, yeah," all right, finally a chance to get some of my own back.  "Ranma also told me that she would agree to arranged marriages between her daughters and your sons if you still wanted to unite the schools."

Ryoga waited patiently for the three sisters to pick themselves up off the floor.  "A-a-a-anything else?"  Akane asked weakly, looking around as if she expected an Amazon wedding posse to arrive at any minute.

Ryoga grinned despite himself.  "Well, yeah.  She also told me to kiss you on the cheek and tell you that she's only kidding – but only after you managed to pick yourself up off the floor."

"You've got to be kidding me!"  Akane responded.  Ryoga just shook his head and wordlessly handed her a crumpled sheet of paper covered with Ranma's unmistakably messy calligraphy.  Akane carefully flattened it on the mat in front of her with trembling hands.

"P.S. Unless, of course, Akane's boys actually want to…" Kasumi read over her sister's shoulder.  "Oh, My!"

"Wow."  Nabiki added over Akane's other shoulder.  "Ranma's really changed a lot."

"How could Ranma know about my boys?"  Akane asked, wonderingly.  "He's been gone for years!"

Nabiki shook her head.  "I bet he's been getting regular reports from his mother.  It sounds like just the sort of idiotic thing that Auntie Saotome would come up with."

Akane looked back up at Ryoga with a sort of sick smile, the first time she'd smiled at him all evening.  "Uh… Is it OK with you if we just take the kiss part as read?"

"Fine by me.  I doubt Akari'd be too thrilled about it either."  Ryoga replied, distracted.  To tell the truth, he was more than a little worried that a pack of amorous redheads might be stalking his own son even now.

Nabiki on the other hand, was studying Ryoga carefully.  "There's more, isn't there."  It wasn't phrased as a question.

Ryoga sighed and took a deep breath.  This was going to be the hardest part…

*****

"What do you mean, you're Shampoo's wife?"  Ryoga asked.

"Well, co-wife, actually.  We're both married to the same man.  Our sort of arrangement is very common among the Amazons.  She's the primary wife, and I'm number two.  She's the warrior, and I handle the kids.  We both still outrank our husband, though.  We are a matriarchal society, after all."

Ryoga boggled.  "And do these co-wives have sex with each other, too?"

Ranma pursed her lips judiciously.  "Well, it's not *required*, but…"

"But what?

"I don't see why anyone would want to miss out on it."

Ryoga almost choked on his tongue, wondering, not for the first time, if his delirium had returned without him noticing it.  He wet his lips, and choked out the inevitable question:  "S-S-S-So, Uh, who's your husband?"

Ranma smiled.  "Mousse, of course.  Can you imagine him letting anyone else marry Shampoo?"

I won't ask, I won't ask, I won't, I won't, I… "Um, do you have sex with him too?"

"Of course I do silly, what else is a husband for?"

"With MOUSSE?"

Ranma glared at him.  "Hey, don't you say nothin' bad about my Airen!  He's always been very caring and gentle to me."  Ranma's expression softened, then suddenly went dreamy.  "Besides, all that hidden weapons training has given him the most amazing hands.  He gives a whole new meaning to the word prestidigitation."

Ryoga shuddered, stopping abruptly when he noticed Ranma was glaring at him again.  Grovel a little, boy, and you might still live.  "Uh… It's just that, uh… I thought you didn't go for that sort of thing?"  Ranma's glare hardened.  Ryoga's voice took on a slightly frantic tone.  "I mean…um…  You never *used* to go for that sort of thing."

Ranma stopped glaring and sighed.  "You're right.  I didn't *used* to go for that sort of thing."  Ryoga nodded in relief.  She wasn't going to kill him.   "But you wanna know something?  I kinda got over that sometime around the birth of my third child."  She took one look at Ryoga's poleaxed expression and continued, a bit defensively:  "Hey, if I've gotta be a woman, I oughta at least get to enjoy the fun parts, too, right?"   Suddenly the petite redhead giggled in a decidedly non-Ranma fashion.  "Hey, remember how, when we were kids, Mousse was always telling me that someday he was going to really screw me over?  Well now he really does screw me over… and over, and over, and over, and over!"

Ranma's laughter gradually trailed off when she realized that Ryoga hadn't joined in.  She looked up into his immobile face and noticed the thin trickle of blood that had just started to flow from his left nostril.  "Aw, man.  *That's* why I couldn't return to Nerima."

******

This time it was Kasumi who couldn't contain herself, Akane being too busy being stunned speechless to raise any objections

"Ranma is married to MOUSSE?  And he, she…LOVES him?"  Kasumi looked at a loss for any further words.  Even 'Oh My' wasn't sufficient to cover this one.

Nabiki, meanwhile, was caught by another aspect of Ryoga's story.  "Waittaminute, Waittaminute.  Ranma said she didn't start having sex with men until *after* her third child?  Then who in nine hells fathered the first three?"

Ryoga gulped.  "Well, that's what I was wondering…"

******

"Ranma… Why?"  Ryoga finally asked after he'd retrieved his jaw.

Ranma favored him with a tired smile.  "Well, after my last trip to Jusenkyo, I really didn't have much choice.  Oops, excuse me for a moment."

Ryoga watched, speechless, as Ranma gently disengaged the baby from her nipple, burped her, and then rocked her to sleep, singing a quiet lullaby.  Her movements were gentle, but sure, and spoke of vast experience.  The child was fast asleep much sooner than Ryoga would have otherwise deemed credible.  Once Ranma was assured that the baby was indeed sleeping, she bent and gently placed her in a cradle by her feet, then sat back, pressing her foot down on the cradle's rocker with a slow and steady rhythm.

"Would you like some Tea, Mama?"  Yet another redheaded girl, this one looked to be about twelve, stuck her head through the door.

"Yes, sweetheart – and bring a cup for Mr. Hibiki too, if you please."

Kami-sama, how many kids does she have? Ryoga wondered as he sat quietly waiting for his tea.  Ranma being a mother was hard enough to swallow; Ranma being a mother four times over was just incredible.  The girl came and went quickly.  Like all the others, she was the spitting image of her mother - absolutely no visible trace of Mousse in her.  So, was Mousse her father?  Or was she one of the (gulp) "first three".  For her part, Ranma seemed content to sip her tea, slowly rocking in her chair, using one foot to rock herself and the cradle at the same time.  Finally, she seemed to come to a decision, and looked up at her inadvertent house guest.

"Ryoga, remember how I told you Jusenkyo was a trap?"

"Yeah, you did.  But you didn't explain why."

"Well, it's simple.  Heck, it should have been obvious to all of us,"

"What should have been obvious to all of us?"

Ranma took another sip of tea before replying.  "Ryoga, do you remember what happened to Pantyhose Taro when he fell into spring of the drowned octopus?"

Ryoga shook his head.  He still hadn't figured out how an octopus *could* drown.  Still, he did know the answer to that question.  "Sure.  That's how he added those tentacles to his cursed form…"  His voice trailed away as insight hit him.  "Do you mean…?"

Ranma smiled that same sad smile again, the cradle never missing a beat.  "That's right, Ryoga.  The curses don't cancel each other:  They combine."  Ranma took another sip of her tea.  "Now I bet you're really glad you never found the nannichuan."

Ryoga shook his head, confused, before he took a sip of his own tea.  "But how does that explain why you never returned to Japan?"

Ranma looked out the window, and for a long moment all was silent but for the cradle.  "Happosai followed me to Jusenkyo."  She said at last.  "He sure didn't want to see me cured – He didn't want to lose his favorite play toy.  Anyway, we fought, and he somehow managed to knock me into the nyannichaun again!  And I was a girl when I went in, too, so you can just imagine the results."

Unfortunately, Ryoga could imagine the results of two trips into the spring of the drowned girl all too clearly.  "Do you mean?"

Ranma smiled ruefully.  "Yep.  Now even my girl side was cursed to turn into a girl with cold water.  And hot water would change me from a girl… back into a girl.  Now I was stuck but good."

"Ranma," Ryoga told her gently, "so you were stuck as a girl?  That wasn't any reason to hide from your friends and your family.  We'd have gotten used to it, eventually."

Ranma's smile twisted.  "Ah, but it wasn't that simple.  You see, I still hadn't figured out the thing about the curses blending yet.  So, like an idiot, I went and jumped into the Nannichuan."

Ryoga's eyes went wide.  "You did?"

Ranma nodded.  "Yep.  However, when I came back up the surface, I still looked like a woman.  I figured that my double Nyannichaun curse meant I was now immune to the Nannichuan.  Boy was I ever wrong.  Still, I guess I'm lucky I didn't come out looking like some half-man, half-woman circus freak."

By this point, Ryoga was very confused.  "So what happened to Happosai?"

Ranma favored him with an evil grin.  "Oh, didn't you hear?  He came back through here a couple years ago.  Nodoka and five of her sisters caught him.  I thought his eyes were going to pop right out of his head when they surrounded him."  She finished her tea.  "Of course, that's exactly what did happen by the time they finished stomping on him."

Nodoka, hearing her name, drifted in from the kitchen, grinning.  "Great-great Grandmother Cologne keeps them in a jar."  One look at her expression convinced Ryoga that Ranma was telling the truth about her family arrangements.  How else could her daughter have picked up Shampoo's predatory smile?

Looking at that smile, the full import of what Ranma had just said suddenly sank in.  Wait a minute…Nodoka has *five* sisters old enough to face Happosai? Ryoga looked back and forth between the two redheads, from mother to daughter.    His gaze finally came to rest on Ranma, who sat up straight, and finally stopped rocking the cradle.

Ranma shook her head at his expression.  "You still don't get it, do you?"

Ryoga just shook his head, unsure of what to say.

Ranma sighed.   "I guess I'm just going to have to spell it out, then.  PLUM!"

The five year old stuck her head in the door.  "Yes Mama?"

Ranma smiled lovingly.  "Family meeting, sweetheart.  Go round up your sisters."

"Yes Mama."

Ranma turned back to Ryoga, her blue eyes holding him captive.  "You see, Ryoga, I wasn't immune to the nannichaun after all.  It really did change me.  But it only changed me inside, where I couldn't see it."  Behind her, red-haired girls started trooping into the room. Ryoga glanced at them, but Ranma reached out and grabbed his hand, once again capturing his attention.

"After my apparent failure at the Nannichuan, I decided to stay here in Nyuuchezu for awhile, you know, to get my head together?"  Behind her more and more girls were arriving.  In fact, a thoroughly improbable number of girls had arrived already, and still more seemed to be showing up with each passing second.  Ryoga suddenly realized that his fever dreams hadn't been entirely delirium after all.

"Well, imagine to my surprise when barely one month later I found out I was pregnant - especially since I was still a virgin."  The room was entirely jammed with girls now, ranging in age from toddlers through young adulthood.  Ranma bent down and retrieved her baby, scooting the cradle under the bed to make more room for them to stand.  Ryoga had long since given up on getting his mouth closed.

Ranma straightened, cuddling her infant close.  "That's when Cologne realized what happened.  You see, the spirits of Jusenkyo have a very, very evil sense of humor.  My final dip in the nannichauan only made one, itsy-bitsy little change in me, but that change made all the difference."  Ryoga eyed her with growing shock as even more girls somehow crammed themselves into this tiny room.  The older ones filled every available square centimeter of floor space, while the smaller ones climbed up to join him on the bed.   

Ryoga gasped as realization struck.  "Do you mean?"

"Yes.  That last dip in the Nannichuan must have changed one of my ovaries into a testicle."  Ranma cradled her youngest in one arm and used the other to gesture to the virtual sea of girls surrounding them, every last one of them a blue-eyed redhead with familiar features…

…Each and every one of them a perfect replica of her mother. 

Ranma smiled and kissed the baby gently on the forehead.   "Now do you see why I had to stay here?  The Amazons practice communal child care."

*******

The three Tendo sisters looked at each other in shock.  "Just how many children does Ranma have?"

Ryoga winced.  "Twenty-four." He muttered.  "She's given birth about once every ten months for the last twenty years."

"Twenty-four?"  Kasumi whispered in shock.  Nabiki looked equally stunned as she unconsciously tugged at the bodice of her dress; envisioning, no doubt, two decades of non-stop breastfeeding.  Akane just stared down at the tatami mats, for once speechless on the subject of Ranma.  Ryoga shook his head, as if to clear it, before continuing.

"In fact, she was three months pregnant with her twenty-fifth when I left." He looked one last time around the circle.  "Supposedly, it's actually going to be a boy this time.  Ranma's quite thrilled.  The first thing she said when she found out was: 'Well, it's about bloody time! Mousse finally managed to beat me to the punch!"

After that there was a long period of total silence.  What else was there to say?

Akane looked up finally, tears in her eyes.  "Damn it, it's not fair!"

Kasumi and Nabiki looked at her oddly.  "What's not fair, Akane?"

"Ranma never let me beat him at anything!  And now he's, he's, he's even OUT-MOTHERED me!  Wait till I get my hands on him!  RANMA NO BAKA!"

Ryoga just shook his head again and sagged back onto his bedroll.  Some things never change.

*****

Author's Confession: 

I fully expect to get flamed to a crisp for this one.  So far as I know the Ranma/Mousse Romantic pairing is unprecedented – with good reason!  Cloud-Dreamer wrote the only other one I'm aware of.

I don't have any idea *where* the heck this one came from.  The whole thing just occurred to me, fully formed, right after I woke up one Saturday morning.  I just got this vision of Ryoga surrounded by a sea of Ranmas, and then discovering that it wasn't a dream.  I must have been channeling Jack L. Chalker in my sleep. Of course, it still took me 14 hours of writing and editing before I was happy with it.  Maybe next time I'll get up instead of lying in bed!

And no, I have no intention of turning this monster into a series.  The mere thought of coming up with names for 20 or 30 Saotome daughters is too intimidating.    I may write additional one-shots set in this continuum if they occur to me.  I'm already thinking about a young, red-headed Amazon, homesick for her sisters, who comes to Nerima to visit her grandmother and attend Furinkan as an exchange student and becomes smitten with a certain dark-haired boy…

…Nah. Not original enough.

Some notes on the story structure:

Despite my offhand comment about this story arriving fully formed, I did dedicate a lot of time refining the narrative structure.  The Dojo, and Tendos, were deliberately written as close to the Canon as I could make them.  The three Tendo women serve as surrogates for the reader.  Ryoga serves two purposes:  First, he's a red herring to draw the reader into the story.  Second, he's the intermediary between the "Normal" world represented by the Tendos and the decidedly out-of-canon Ranma.  Again, I made him as close to canon as I could.  The p-chan bit was thrown in to provide a reason for his long estrangement from the Tendos.  All of this was an intentional effort to lull the reader into believing that they're in familiar territory.  This could be any one of a number of Ranma continuation stories right up until the point where Ryoga loses consciousness.

Ranma, on the other hand, is decidedly out-of-character. The whole goal was to turn the reader's expectations about him upside down.  The trick was to prevent the reader from noticing just how far Ranma has diverged until the final payoff.  That's the reason the story is structured as a series of flashbacks:  Every time Ryoga gets hit by another oddball revelation, it cuts back to the Tendos in an attempt to reengage the reader's expectations and to build the narrative tension.  Once again, it was important to keep them in character (with reasonable allowances for twenty years of maturity) to highlight the contrast between Ranma and everybody else. 

Finally, I decided early on that this story would only work if I made Ranma a very affectionate, loving mother.  First, because it creeps out Ryoga (and, by extension, the audience.)  Second, because there's no way she'd have so many kids otherwise.  This Ranma is weird, yes.  The trick was making her consistently weird.