When Ukyo comes to visit Ranma, what she finds is the little boy that she met in the street a few days ago, the one who looked just like her Ranchan.
Except it's not just a look-alike; she's staring into the face of the little boy from her past, the one who left her crying in the mud.
As Akane explains everything to her, about the mushrooms and all, her mind goes slightly blank. This is simply too unreal, too much for her to handle, and so she turns to the only thing she can rely on, has relied on before; anger.
If Ryoga hadn't been stupid enough to eat those mushrooms in the first place, none of this would have-- she is going to kill--
As she turns to leave, however, her eyes stray to the corner of the room out of their own volition and she sees another little boy sitting crouched together, facing the wall, shoulders hunched up and trembling, and at the sight of this...
She sees the black and yellow bandanna, sees the shock of unkempt, black hair and it's as if the bottom of her rage simply drops out. Ukyo watches Akane, her sisters, her father and that wretched Genma fawn over Ranma and her stomach clenches with sudden grief.
Why is he sitting there all alone, why is he--
She approaches him as cautiously as she can, yet he jumps when she touches his shoulder. He whirls around, poised to flee, his wide eyes wet and glistening and his tiny lips gasping. She draws an unsteady breath.
He simply looks at her mutely until she grabs his hand and pulls him gently off the floor. Her heart lurches; he's just so small-- this isn't right, this isn't right-- even the bones in his fingers seem soft beneath her touch-- he's usually so strong, so solid--
Ryoga must have noticed her almost frightened stare, because he drops his gaze self-consciously, tries to worm out of her grasp.
She won't let him.
"Let's go for a walk."
He's still not saying anything, but she can tell that he's happy-- if such a word can even be applied to him right now, or ever-- to get out of the house, away from Akane, Ranma...everyone.
Ukyo flounders a bit, doesn't quite know what to say or do. She knows she shouldn't buy him ice cream, take him to the sandbox, anything like that-- it would be cruel beyond measure, he would be mortified.
Because he's still the same, she can tell. It's only his body that's betraying him.
They sit down on the first bench she spots and he's all but curling in on himself; it's obvious he thinks that all the passers-by are staring at him. He doesn't feel like a little boy, and so it's only natural that he would think they would see right through the mismatched body-and-mind as well.
They don't. She does.
Ukyo glances at him, touches his arm briefly, trying to soothe him. "Tell me." She prompts softly, and she has no idea what exactly it is that she means, what she wants to hear, but she can tell there's something.
He's glaring at her now, something of the old Ryoga resurfacing, but the glare simply disintegrates then, flooded by tears-- his fragile, little chest is hitching with sobs and she very nearly panics, has no clue what to do, completely embarrassed on both of their behalves, but forces herself to wait it out, to listen.
And it's all coming out now, running as freely as his tears. When he speaks about his sorrows, it's in a frail whisp of a voice.
The sense of direction, being constantly lost.
The Jusenkyo curse she never knew about, yet somehow did.
Ukyo hadn't really expected him to tell her anything at all as she doesn't know him very well, and she knows he's never really trusted her, and with good reason. She was just using him for her own benefit like everybody else.
But she understands now. This new curse was nothing but the final straw, and the dam had to break sometime. She's just the person who happened to be there at the time.
Swallowing, she does the only thing she can think of and picks him up, pulling him into her lap and embracing him, rocking him gently until the sobbing-- which oddly enough doesn't sound like a child bawling at all, it's just much too raw with pain-- finally quiets down. She can hear him wheezing a bit against her shoulder and neck, feels him shiver, but she doesn't mind.
He has no one.
Or maybe he does, now.
He should have been grateful, he knows, when Akane walked down the stairs one day with the Mushrooms of Ages and handed them to him and Ranma.
He was relieved beyond anything, as if somebody had pulled a knife out of his side, and he had, as did Ranma, promptly scarfed down the mushroom with a kind of frantic desperation, no questions asked.
Afterwards, he felt torn.
He couldn't help but to be angry at Akane for having hidden the mushrooms from them. It had been the smart thing to do, no doubt about that, considering how foolishly they had acted, ruining their only chance at salvation over and over and over...and yet...
She had let them believe there was no solution.
She had let them believe they would have to wait another ten years to be back to normal, while everyone around them went on as usual.
She had let him, a boy who's constantly separated from his parents, believe that he would have to relive his childhood.
He cannot help being angry with her for doing that to him, even if it wasn't her intention. No matter the reason, though, a small grain of contempt for her has rooted itself firmly within him, only magnified by the attention she's giving his rival now that he's himself again. The look on her face when she saw Ranma back to normal overshadowed any joy he might've felt.
With a pang of regret, he realized he was himself again. He was glad for it, of course, but at the same time he wondered--
What do I have to look forward to? What do I have to live for as me? Does it really matter what age I am? Does it make my life any less miserable?
The next time he arrives in Nerima, he doesn't come bearing any gifts for Akane.
Ukyo is sweeping the leaves up from the pavement outside her restaurant when she hears somebody approaching. Looking up, she is startled to see the person she least expected to see.
She hasn't seen him since that day, when she led him back to the Tendo's after his tearful confessions, even though it almost broke her heart to leave the sad, little boy with such an insane household when he was obviously unstable and depressed and needed nothing less than he needed the complete lack of peace and quiet that is the Tendo dojo.
She didn't know what else to do, though. She has a restaurant to run, and she had little or no idea about what she could possibly do for him in any case. She had listened, yes, she had comforted, yes, but like all the others, she couldn't reverse the effect of the mushrooms.
She's looking at him now, though, and realizes she has to tilt her face up to look him in the eyes and it almost makes her want to hug him again, makes her want to grin so widely you'd think her face would split in two.
"Ryoga," She says in awe, leaving her broom behind as she steps closer to him. "You're...you're Ryoga again." She blurts, immediately feeling stupid. "I mean, you're..."
"I know what you mean." He says quietly, and she's secretly pleased that his voice is back to its usual deep bass. He always had a darker voice than Ranchan, but she used to put it down to the fact that he was always growling or sulking or being sullen while Ranchan's always cheerful. Now, however, she thinks to herself that it just is.
Ukyo watches his broad shoulders and long legs and his adult face and can't hold back the smile anymore. "I'm happy for you, Ryoga."
This seems to make him a bit self-conscious, but he bravely attempts to smile back despite the fact that his face feels uncomfortably hot. "Thank you." He replies shyly, even meeting her gaze for a few seconds.
Ukyo doesn't know why, but she's suddenly aware that it wouldn't feel right to mention Ranma's participation in the entire mushroom catastrophy. Or perhaps she does know why. Ryoga talked quite a bit about Ranma that day in the park.
For once, maybe Ryoga doesn't need to be sharing the attention with Ranma.
"I was worried." She admits, and his eyes widen, his face brightening marginally before the surprised joy simply seems to fizz out like a sputtering candle. "No need to worry, Ranma's fine." He mutters. "All back to his annoying self again."
Ukyo grins lop-sidedly, rolling her eyes. One day she will have to end this silly rivalry. "I meant about you, Sugar."
Ryoga stares at her for a moment, and then, as if after careful consideration, he appears to decide that she's being honest. He smiles back, though hesitantly, almost too nervously for it to be a real smile at all, and pulls something out of his pocket, offering it to her with a somewhat unsteady hand.
Ukyo blinks in surprise. It's a parcel whose white wrapping paper, adorned with orange foxes, identifies it as being from the mountain shrine of Inari, the god of rice, in Fushimi, outside of Kyoto. She should know; her father took her there a couple of times whenever they took breaks from selling their okonomiyaki at festivals in Kyoto.
Kyoto, only a short train ride away from Osaka. The city she was born in.
In thickest Tokyo, he's offering her a little piece of Kansai.
"It's for you." Ryoga says cautiously, as if his intentions aren't clear. Or maybe because he's afraid she won't accept it.
He needn't be.
"Thank you, Ryoga." Ukyo tells him in an amused tone as she takes the present from him.
It might just be her imagination, but the next smile he sends her seems to be just a little less broken.