The first time Xiao Yan Zi met him, he crashed through the wall of the restaurant where she was working. In fact, he crashed directly into where she was washing the dishes, tipping over the wash basin, spilling water everywhere, and (needless to say) broke practically all the china.
She was too distraught at the mess in front of her to notice just how strange the man looked. She wasn't usually prone to crying, but fatigue and hunger was setting in, and the anticipation of the beating she would probably get from the master for the mess made her burst into tears.
The man stared at her, then hearing sounds of footsteps from outside, he grabbed her hand, small and wrinkled from soaking in water for a long time.
It was then that she realised he was ridiculously tall, taller than all the men in the restaurant. Thus, he managed to bowl over all the people who sought to stop them. Together they ran out of the restaurant into the streets and didn't stop until they reached a deserted alleyway.
Xiao Yan Zi was sure it was only adrenaline from the bizarre situation that allowed her to run so far and so fast on an empty stomach. Then again, she suspected the man slowed his pace a little for her to keep up.
It was when they finally stopped that she got a good look at him. He looked unlike any person she'd ever seen before, with short hair that stuck all over the place (who had short hair anyway? And why was his hair that strange brown colour?) and even stranger clothes. He was wearing something like a long brown cloak-like-thing and underneath that a blue outfit that her vocabulary didn't have enough words to describe. He was pointing some strange stick with a blue light at the end all around the alley before turning back to her, declaring, "Well, this place is safe. But it won't stay safe if I stay here."
Then he took the cloak thing off and draped it around her shoulder. She imagined it looked ridiculous on her – she fairly drowned in it and half of it dragged on the dirt of the alley. But he didn't seem to care, but just wrapped it around her.
"Keep that for warmth. I'll come back to get it and get you later."
Then, flashing her a grin, he ran and disappeared around the corner, leaving her alone, feeling totally perplexed.
Did the man just rescue her from that restaurant? She had been sold there a year ago and had generally been overworked, underfed and abused there. She had been trying to think of a way to escape, but never really managed it.
She wasn't sure when the man's "later" was supposed to be, or what he meant when he said he'd come and "get" her. Instinct told her the man didn't have malicious intentions, so she sat and waited for him in the alley until night fall. When he didn't show and her stomach was growling too hard for her to ignore any longer, she began to walk away. Whoever he was, maybe he'd forgotten all about her now. At least he was kind enough to leave her with the cloak; it was stupidly large but at least it was warm.
The second time Xiao Yan Zi met him was also in a deserted alleyway, not far from where he had left her a couple of years before.
It was night and she huddled against the wall, wrapped the cloak around herself, trying to trap in the warmth. Even totally cocooning herself in it didn't totally keep the cold away in the deep Beijing winter. Perhaps she hadn't thought this through quite enough. Running away from a(nother) cruel master was all fine and desirable, but she perhaps should have delayed the running away until spring, when the weather was a bit more bearable.
Well, she was out now, there was no going back. She at least had the brown cloak to keep her warmer than she would otherwise be, now she just needed to steal some food from somewhere…
(She only managed to keep the cloak all this time because before she was captured and sold to the master she just ran away from, she had hidden the cloak in a deserted stable and miraculously it had stayed there, allowing her, just now, to dig it out again.)
Perhaps she should get moving. The cloak around her reminded her of the single word the strange man told her once: Run. Perhaps running would make her warmer. It would certainly give her something to do other than huddling in a dark alley.
She was about to move out when strange, whizzing noise rose about her and the wind picked up, swirling things around in a spiral. Then, she watched, open-mouthed, half in horror, half in fascination, as a large blue, wooden box suddenly appeared in front of her, with a lantern with no fire blazing on top.
The sudden, impossible presence of the box glued her to her place and she couldn't even react when out of the box came the strange man, looking as if nothing had changed.
"Ah, there you are!" he said upon seeing her, as if two years hadn't passed since they last saw each other. "I've been looking for you."
Xiao Yan Zi didn't know what to say, and could only stare at him.
"What have you done to my coat!" he exclaimed indignantly. "It's a shredded mess!"
She supposed it was worse for wear, but it'd been two years. What did he expect?
She still didn't speak and for a moment they stared at each other. Then, finally:
"Wait. You're older. Definitely older. Children grow so fast, even obviously malnourished ones. When was the last time you saw me?"
"Two...years?" she answered, still having no idea who he was, but for some reason, feeling no fear. There was something in his easy manners and his open, friendly face that made her unafraid.
"Right." He looked as if the fact that he somehow missed two years was totally normal. "Sorry about that. I meant to come back right away. Guess time got the better of me."
Nothing he said made any sense, so Xiao Yan Zi just settled for a neutral question. "Who are you?"
"I'm the Doctor," he answered with an impish smile, leaning casually against the wall beside him, and sticking his hands in his pockets.
"Yes. The Doctor. And who are you?"
"Xiao Yan Zi."
"Xiao Yan Zi! It's a bird, if the TARDIS translation is correct! Now, Xiao Yan Zi, what are you doing out here in the cold?"
She shrugged, not really wanting to get into her predicament beside the cold – that is, homeless, nowhere to go and beyond hungry. At least he'd noticed it was cold, then perhaps he wouldn't take the cloak away from her.
"Come into the warmth," he said, holding out his hand and nodding towards his blue box.
She eyed it dubiously. She wasn't even sure how it held him, let alone the both of them, even as small as she was.
"Oh, you'd be surprised," he said mischievously, seeing her doubt.
She stepped through the blue doors and her jaws dropped open at what she saw inside. It was like something from another world, and she had no words to describe what she saw. Everything was bright and smooth and shiny, so different from the dark, grimy and earthy world she was used to. And it was huge.
"Well?" the Doctor asked, standing beside her, a rather silly smile on his face.
"It's bigger on the inside," she breathed.
"Exactly!" he cried gleefully, looking absurdly pleased, though she couldn't see why he seemed so impressed that she would draw attention to this fact. After all, of all the extraordinary things she'd seen in the last few minutes, this had to be it.
"Who are you? What are you doing here?" she asked again.
"I told you," he replied jovially. "I'm the Doctor. As for what I'm doing here…well, it's about Christmas time. Something always happens to me at Christmas, or at least in places and times that celebrate Christmas. So I figured I'd go somewhere that doesn't celebrate Christmas. And at a time that would ensure they definitely would not celebrate Christmas, just for good measure. And here I am. Didn't manage to stay out of trouble though. Got chased by some bald sword-wielding monks. I don't reckon they're the same ones I ran into in Scotland in 1879 though, so that's all right."
Everything he said was extraordinary and not much of it made sense. But somehow his eccentricities fascinated her, and she had an urge to giggle at how little she understood any of what he just said and how unseriously he seemed to take himself.
However, before either of them could say anything further, the door to the box slammed shut and the whole (box?) that she was currently in started to make the same wheezing and whooshing noises it had made when it first appeared.
"Oh come now, where are you whisking us off to?" the Doctor asked, though not to Xiao Yan Zi, though she was the only other person in the room. He ran to the (thing?) in the middle of the room, the thing that was covered in knobs and levers and she knew not what else and started to punch at them in seeming randomness, before he apparently gave up and leaned back against it, facing Xiao Yan Zi. He smiled.
"Looks like she thinks you are in need of an adventure, Little Swallow."
"The TARDIS. Well, there's no stopping her now. Allons-y!"
For a little girl whose entire existence had only consisted of the less savoury parts of Beijing, life in the TARDIS (for apparently that was what the blue box was called), traveling through Time and Space with a strange man called the Doctor, was unlike anything she could ever imagine.
She didn't even know why, even as the TARDIS whisked the two of them away to some unknown destination, she didn't feel afraid. Of course, it helped that at that moment she never realised the scale of the adventure she was heading into. She didn't know in just a few days time, she'd be running from creatures called Daleks and Cybermen and murderous statues called Weeping Angels. It was only amazing that she couldn't help but trust the Doctor right away. She never liked strange men. More often than not, they would make her work too hard or sell her to work even harder. She shouldn't like or trust men who apparently lured her into a weird box and then kidnapped her to who-knew-where (when?).
But in the end, she was never afraid of him, and she always trusted him, despite all the dangers that they got into. Maybe it was because she somehow understood he was as alone as she was, and that he wandered because he had nowhere else to go. She wished she didn't know what that was like, but she did.
He took her to see far away stars and planets (so far away that she didn't have a concept of how far exactly), which always took her breath away. He took her to see places where people looked more like him and she was apparently the exotic one. He took her to a time when children were more cherished, actually had something called rights and by law could not be exploited. And apparently, there would be a time when women could hold their own against a man and did not have to obey men's every whim.
But at the same time, the places he took her to made her realise that even in what seemed to be a perfect world in the future, where people no longer needed servants to soak in cold water for hours to get the dishes cleaned because the dishes apparently washed themselves, there were still problems. There were still good people, apathetic people and bad people. There were still those who wanted to hurt others and seemed to thrive on that. Apparently even if all of human wants and needs were granted, desire was infinite and people would still go to lengths to get it, hurting others in the process.
Perhaps in light of it all, the small, unexciting life she'd known back in Beijing was simpler, and to some, perhaps more enticing. But she had found a taste for these adventures, and couldn't image going back to all that servitude again.
"Even this is amazing to you, isn't it?" he asked her once, while they were standing under a traffic light on the sidewalk of a street in Beijing, three hundred years into her future. "Just this, 21st century, cars and electric lights…"
"They're horseless carriages. That run without horses. And lights that burn by themselves. In different colours," she said, looking at him as if he'd grown another head. "Of course they're amazing."
He chuckled. "I spend so much time in the early 21st century that sometimes I can't see the wonder in it anymore. I suppose now, for me, it's amazing and wonderful to go back into the past, to a time when I haven't spent much time. Like China in the 17th century. I was ever hardly there, so when I ran into you, to me that whole city was so worth-seeing. I suppose I felt that once, about the 20th and 21st centuries, when I first started traveling. When it was all still new to me, it was like I'm the first to discover a lost world. I guess you can get used to anything."
"I'm sure if I lived here, I would never be able to get used to all this."
"You'd be surprised. The past or future is only interesting and magical when they remain the past or future. When they become your present, they get mundane and bring all the hassles and pains of life."
"What is your present? Here? Now?"
"Everywhere and every time could become my present," he said, a tinge of sadness in his voice. "That's why I need people like you. People who still see the wonder of their past or future and teach me to see it too."
Sometimes he would take her to see a little girl who lived with her mother by a shining lake, a girl who was often sad because her mother was often sad. The girl's name was Zi Wei. Xiao Yan Zi told her of her adventures, and Zi Wei thought it was all make belief. Zi Wei tried to teach Xiao Yan Zi poetry and the like, but who needed that when you had the entire universe waiting for you? The Doctor, at least, found Zi Wei's poetry interesting, so maybe it wasn't a completely futile effort.
The Doctor took her into the imperial palace once because she always wanted to know what was inside those impenetrable walls. She had seen things beyond this world, but the reality of the world she originated from still haunted her. So they spent a couple of hours sneaking around in the Forbidden City, and if it wasn't for the perception filter, which made them unnoticeable, they probably would have been beheaded at some point, for they stuck out like sore thumbs.
(The only person who apparently saw them despite the perception filter was a young prince, but they ran back into the TARDIS right away and by the time the guards came, the TARDIS had already whooshed away. Xiao Yan Zi was disappointed though, because she was sure even when the guards came, they couldn't have noticed her and the Doctor through the perception filter, and she would have liked to actually talk to a prince. The Doctor just smiled and said she'd see him again, and wouldn't explain when she asked what he meant by that. His only other comment was a rather long-winded rhapsody about how incredible it was that the prince was immune to the perception filter. Apparently that made him special. Go figure.)
Once, the Doctor asked her if she would like to see her parents. But she didn't know who they were, how could they travel to them? And even if they could…she wasn't even sure she wanted to. She had no idea why she was abandoned on the doorstep of that nunnery in the first place, after all. She only wanted happy memories in the TARDIS, and she couldn't be sure her parents ever fit into that criteria.
After a while, the Doctor landed the TARDIS in Beijing again, but not in the dark, depressing alleyway where they met a second time and when he first whisked her away. (She wasn't sure how long they'd been away. They were time traveling, after all.)
She stepped out of the TARDIS, expecting perhaps some other mysterious planet with strange creatures, but was greeted with the familiar sight of Beijing again. She turned around, at once fearful, that he was abandoning her.
"You don't want me anymore."
"No, not at all, dear Swallow. And you have a whole life before you, I cannot keep you away from it."
"There is no life for me here, you know that, I want to spend my life traveling with you."
"You are so young, sometimes I forget how very young. You have much to live for, and my companions so often meet bad ends. I would like this to be a time when someone with so much future as you will not have it all ruined by staying with me. Believe me, Xiao Yan Zi, I have been to your future, you have more adventures waiting for you. They will be more normal than those you will have in the TARDIS, but every bit as thrilling."
She looked at him doubtfully.
"When you walk away from here," the Doctor continued, "you will meet a pair of brother and sister who will be your friends for life and be the catalyst bringing you to people and events that will change your life forever. You and your good heart will bring so much joy to many more people than just me. Embrace those opportunities, Xiao Yan Zi."
She didn't really understand what he was saying, but that was nothing unusual. Apparently no one ever did understand him much. But unlike other times, she was sure she didn't want to understand.
"I don't want to leave you."
"Oh Xiao Yan Zi," he sighed, and pulled her into his arms, kissing the top of her head. "You will come to love all the people in your future so very much. Even more so now, because of all that you've seen. You'll come to cherish them more now that you know how vast the future is and how the things we have can so be easily taken away."
"It's not fair," she sniffled against his (new) brown coat. "You can't drop me back here again, not after everything."
"Oh come, Xiao Yan Zi," he said in that trying-too-hard-to-be-casual voice of his, "you'll be perfectly all right. All my companions are always all right when they leave me."
That was more or less a lie, and he knew she knew it. She waited for the familiar "Weeelll…" of self-contradiction, for him to realise that what he said couldn't be true upon further thought. But it never came.
But even beyond that, it was other things that he didn't say that bothered him more. If she was leaving, it wasn't even herself she was more worried about. He was a time traveler, after all, and if he said she'd be all right, perhaps she believed him a little.
"Will you promise me you will be okay?"
He smiled, but this smile was tinged with sadness. "I'm always okay."
Another lie. But neither of them contradicted this either. They stood there in the shadow of the TARDIS for a long time. Finally, it was he who finally the silence first.
"Thank you, Xiao Yan Zi," he said, his hand against the TARDIS door.
"I didn't do anything."
"You did more than you ever realised. You gave me a reason to hope again. Before I met you, I just had to make a very best friend of mine forget me, and it hurt so. I did wonder if I should ever get close to anybody again. But you showed me that someone so young, so precious as you, who seemed to have nothing, who seemed to have lost everything, could still see the wonder in the creations of the universe, and could still take joy in it. And if you could find hope in all that I've showed you, then I could find my own hope in it all, as well."
Then he turned, as if to go.
"Don't be alone. No one should be alone in that vast, endless universe. You least of all. Find someone to share your adventure. Don't ever be alone."
For a split second, his eyes clouded over, in a way that she knew from experience that meant he was lost in some memory perhaps hundreds of years old. Then, just as quickly, he snapped his attention back to her and smiled.
"Thank you, again. And, good bye, Xiao Yan Zi."
She watched as he walked into the TARDIS and closed the door behind him. A moment later, the now-familiar whizzing sound started, and the TARDIS started to shimmer out of existence. Xiao Yan Zi stood there, watching it go, her hand raised slightly in farewell. Already her surroundings were too vast, too quiet without the ever-present humming of the TARDIS.