His shirt-sleeves were wet.
When the Doctor sat down in the deckchair next to her, it was the third thing Ayeka noticed.
The first was the expression on his face.
The second was that he'd stripped off his coat, left it on the chair's back.
Almost... /flaunting/ it.
And the third...
'Mm.' The Doctor's voice was low and tired.
'...No, I apologise,' Ayeka said. 'Forgive me.'
She rose to leave.
A quiet voice from behind her. 'Do you know how hard it is to gain someone's trust? How easy it is to throw it all away?'
Ayeka turned round.
The Doctor's eyes were hooded, his face rippled by the shadows from the water.
'How easy it is to just. Stop. Caring.'
Ayeka gently settled back in her seat.
'Ah.' the Doctor said, as if a question had just been answered.
'I... I thought it was, once...' Ayeka said. 'I...'
The Doctor said nothing.
'He betrayed me,' Ayeka murmured. 'or I thought he did... How dare he?! How dare he turn his back on _me?_ Couldn't he see...? Didn't he see... how I felt...?'
'You found him again.'
'But things would never be the same.' The Doctor's voice was low, liting... almost accented. 'Never.'
'I wondered... once...' Ayeka said. 'Whether I could... go back. Stop Ryoko attacking Jurai. Stop my brother leaving. Stop...' Her voice trailed off. 'Would things still have been the same?'
'We can't do that.' The Doctor's voice, never changing, never raising. 'To change our own timelines... We want to change them because we know what happened /here/... and we believe things would be better otherwise... but if we /do/ change things, how did we know to go back and change things in the first place? What if this future is no better? Loop upon loop...'
'But... we're not in time here. Not really.'
'Not in linear time, no... We can step outside, can go back and change things... but then we run up against the unbreakable rule...'
'What happens, stays happened. Even if it's in a time loop, a temporal spiral, a loop of paradox... somewhwere, it stays happened. And we - these versions of us - we still exist... and still remember...'
Ayeka looked at him then, horror in her eyes.
'Horrifying, isn't it?' the Doctor said. 'To know that somewhere out there, you made a different choice, did a different thing... /because you made the one you did here/.
'Here, anything is possible. And that is one of the most terrifying - and incredible - things there is.'
'/Everything/ changes.' the Doctor said. 'A simple choice, and things are sent in a new direction...'
Ayeka didn't look at him.
'A choice to save a life, to keep a friend...' the Doctor said. 'And nothing is ever the same.'
The Doctor didn't look up. 'Nothing will ever be the same... and I was too late to stop it.'
'So was I.'
The words were out of Ayeka's mouth before she could stop them.
The Doctor didn't move. But his whole attention suddenly seemed to be focused on Ayeka.
'I... I /couldn't/ have stopped it that day...' Ayeka's voice became softer and softer, falling to a whisper. 'I was only a child, a girl. How could I have...? Ryoko would still have attacked... '
'But...' the Doctor said.
'But I could have saved Sasami.' Ayeka whispered. 'She /was/ saved, she /is/ alive... but Onee-chan paid such a price... such a terrible price...'
'Surviving death...' the Doctor said. 'And to survive, you have to live...'
'I did,' Ayeka whispered. 'Onee-chan believes she didn't.'
'Perceptions...' the Doctor said. 'Our perceptions change. We change.'
'...She's still my little sister. Still my Onee-chan. I still...'
'...love her?' the Doctor said.
Ayeka looked into his face, then.
The Doctor inclined his head. 'You are lucky. Pray you never learn /how/ lucky you are.'
Ayeka shuddered. 'Have... Has that ever happened...'
'Yes,' the Doctor said.
'Your sleeves...' Ayeka whispered.
'Izzy needed to know. That someone still cared. That someone would never turn away from her...' The Doctor's voice fell sing-song, low. 'Out there, in her timeline... she is alone, now. And all she has is me.'
'Her...' Ayeka looked at him again. 'You knew. You'd lived it. /Made/ those many choices...'
The Doctor was silent.
'The others... can't help, out there. They're from her past... or her future...'
'Or elsewhere...' the Doctor completed gently.
'Have you...?' Ayeka began.
'No... No, I haven't lost her trust.' the Doctor said. 'But... it's harder, now. She's closing off... making it more difficult for herself to trust...
'She said I trust too much. And Anji believes I don't trust enough...'
He shook his head.
'But you do care... don't you?'
'I'm not human, Ayeka. No matter how much I look the part...'
'Do you care?'
'But never as a Time Lord. /Never/ as a Time Lord...' Anger shot through the Doctor's voice.
What kind of world - what kind of life - would do that to someone? Ayeka thought. That they would reject it so?
Then she thought about her own life, her life on Jurai.
And stopped wondering.
'I betrayed her once...' she murmured. 'Betrayed Ryoko. ...She was a demon, a monster, she had destroyed my life... yet I betrayed her when she reached out.
'And it /hurts/, to know that. Isn't that odd? To feel ashamed... /guilty/... over what I did.'
'No,' the Doctor said. 'No, it doesn't.'
And his voice was suddenly very old.
'...When he chooses,' Ayeka said. '...when Tenchi makes his choice...'
'The choice of Heaven and Earth,' the Doctor murmured.
'..when he chooses... will she be betrayed again? Or will it be my turn? To find out what it's like? To lose someone I loved... again?' Ayeka looked down at her hands. 'And I realised... I wanted to end it, stop the cycle, before...'
'Before you betray each other.' the Doctor said.
'So that we have someone we can trust... no matter what happens. What choice is made. Someone we can trust...'
'...To the ends of Heaven and Earth.' the Doctor said.
Ayeka's voice nearly broke. 'So that we will not be alone again. In the dark.'
The Doctor sank back into his chair. 'Not alone. Never alone. But... lonely.'
Ayeka nodded. 'Yes. /Lonely/. We all need to be alone... sometimes.'
'Not for too long...'
Ayeka half-smiled. 'No. Not for too long... Onee-chan reminded me of that, one time...'
'She's very brave...' the Doctor said.
'...She is,' Ayeka agreed.
'So are you.'
Ayeka turned her head, her mouth open.
'Consider: to stand by your little sister, despite - because - of what you have been through together, for your love to remain... that takes a /lot/.'
'And what of you?' Ayeka said.
The Doctor was silent for a moment.
'Listen. Back there... back in normal time... do you know how often...' The Doctor fell silent.
'I stand over the controls, the coordinates as familiar to me as the day I landed.
'And I wish that once - just once - I could go back and stop it.
'Save a single life. Make a single change.
'Save Anji's boyfriend. Warn Izzy what will happen.
'And once - /once/ - I did.
'By purest accident.
'I saved someone who should have died.
'And Time will have her due.'
'Who...?' Ayeka began.
The Doctor was silent.
'...I'm sorry, Doctor-san.'
'She doesn't know.' the Doctor whispered. 'I hope she never does.'
Ayeka looked at him, and said nothing.
She looked out over the pool.
To stand by them, despite and because of what they go through...
...to be there, the soft voice in the darkness, the comforting arms in the night...
...a quiet heroism all its own, perhaps...
Famed across the galaxy. Nearly as famous as her brother, Yosho.
Saving worlds. Saving lives.
But how many saw him saving people?
'Underestimation.' the Doctor said. 'The important, the personal... someone, somewhere, will overlook it. And really... how much do you think they /want/ to know?'
Ayeka thought about Yosho again. About why he'd left, on the trail of the space pirate Ryoko... and about why he'd /really/ left...
Icons. Symbols. How much was them, and how much what people wanted to see?
How much /she'd/ read into Ryoko... afraid she'd lose Tenchi to her, afraid that... that...
'In the end, it's who we are that matters,' the Doctor said gently. 'But if no-one else knows... how easy is it to become who others think you are?'
A jealous, petulant brat. A spoiled, vain little girl who never grew up.
Choices she could so easily have made... had made.
But not /here/. Not now.
She was... herself. Ayeka.
And the Doctor?
She looked at him again, /looked/ at him.
And she wondered.
Were any of their ideas - their perceptions - of him correct?
Did he /want/ them to be?
'Do you want it to be?'
'Do you want it to be like that?'
Ayeka hesitated, then shook her head.
The Doctor settled back in his deckchair, as if she'd passed some sort of test.
And then she realised that he /hadn't/ been responding to her thought, that he'd been continuing the conversation. 'Do you want to become like others think you are...?'
She looked back at him again.
How easy /was/ it to become how others thought you were?
And ... she thought of Ryoko for a moment.
Glanced at the Doctor, tipped back in his chair.
How did people see him? Not just his friends, but those who hated him?
How did they see her? See her family?
Were they the Royal House of Jurai, distant and benevolent? Or cold and uncaring?
Did they see what was there... or what they'd learned to see?
And what would it take, to change that learning?
'Between the image and the reality, the idea and the creation, falls the shadow...' the Doctor murmured quietly, but his mind seemed to be elsewhere. 'We were lucky to come here...'
'If we hadn't... If we had not... Izzy would be...' The Doctor shook his head as if to clear it. 'She's amphibious. /Literally/ amphibious. She needs both water /and/ air to survive... otherwise, she will suffocate... dehydrate... And here... there's water all around, she's safe here... I didn't see, until it was almost too late, I saw her hurting... and I didn't see the body.'
'You... /didn't/? But it...' Ayeka hesitated.
'Say it.' the Doctor said, his eyes cold.
'She's beautiful.' Ayeka said, quietly.
The Doctor nodded. 'Not to her. Perhaps never to her. But to me - never ugly...'
'Never.' Ayeka completed.
'Whether she will ever think that...' the Doctor said.
'Perceptions...' Ayeka murmured.
'Trapped, with no way out. A villain's features, a monster's voice, facing her wherever...'
Again, the Doctor nodded.
'Never to me. /Never/.'
'Does she know that?'
For a moment... for a moment, he looked so terribly alone, Ayeka wanted to reach out and take his hand, tell him it was going to be all right.
'I told her,' he whispered. 'I told her that she would never be ugly... She knows. But I can only hope she believes.'
Ryoko. I... I...
Ayeka closed her eyes.
I can only hope she believes...
'I know,' she told him. 'I know.'
'Thank you.' the Doctor said, his voice a whisper on the wind.
'We're not supposed to be lonely...' she said... and the words felt right on her tongue.
'I only hope Izzy remembers that.' the Doctor said.
'She has you,' Ayeka reminded him. 'With you there... I do not believe she will ever go that far.'
The look on the Doctor's face then.... then, it had been the face of a small boy, about to lose his friend.
Now... now, it brightened again. There was faith, and hope, and care...
/Revitalised/, she said to herself, and hoped she was right.
'No... Thank you,' Ayeka said. 'For helping her.'
Together, they settled back in the chairs and watched the pool.
Doctor... she thought, watching him then, looking out at the horizon.
Thank you for letting me know what to do.
For helping me see the path.
For hoping I have another chance.
For fighting to make sure none of us will be lonely.
Copyright 2001 Imran Inayat.