It was still a few days to Christmas according to the approximate calendar Marion had worked out when she first came to live on Gallifrey. Everything was prepared for the Christmas Eve dinner at which all the servants of the Lœngbærrow household would be guests along with as many family and friends who could be accommodated in the grand dining room. The day itself was going to be devoted to Rodan, with her presents already wrapped up to put under the drawing room tree. Kristoph had warned Marion about lavishing too many expensive presents on her, but when they went shopping in Liverpool even he couldn’t help being caught up in the excitement of buying gifts for their fosterling. Many of them were books. Reading was her passion. She looked books, especially about far off places. And many of the toys were ‘educational’. But there were also some unashamed indulgences like the matching velvet dresses for Rodan and the doll that her grandfather had bought her when he came home from his last offworld voyage. She was bigger than the doll now and it was still one of her favourite toys.

Spoiling her with presents would be all right as long as she understood that she was privileged and that there were many people who did not have such luck. To that end, Rodan accompanied her foster parents on a trip to Ventura.

It had to be said that staying in the Gallifreyan Ambassador’s residence on Ventura wasn’t much of a reminder to Rodan that there were people with less than she had. After all the Residence was a bigger and more luxurious mansion than Mount Lœng House and with even more servants. The bedroom she slept in was next door to baby Remy’s nursery and was full of toys and books.

But on the afternoon of the second day of their visit Rodan put on a specially made dress and a warm coat and hat. She came with Marion and Kristoph and ‘Uncle Remonte and Aunt Rika’ with their own little boy on a journey by horse drawn sledge through the snow-laden streets of the Venturan capital. The exciting journey by a kind of transport that was unknown on Gallifrey brought them to the Royal Hospital, the huge modern building where free health care was available to all citizens of Ventura, regardless of their financial circumstances.

They were expected, of course. The director of the Rodan Mielles Mother and Baby and Orphan Home met them in the bright, airy foyer which had been decorated for the Venturan winter festival with a charming artificial snow scene. Part of the arrangement was a small ice rink. Some of the orphans for whom the hospital was home were enjoying learning to skate. Rodan watched with interest and was pleased when she was offered a set of skates to have a go herself. She slipped and slid a few times at first before getting the hang of it and skating around the rink with the other youngsters.

“We should have got her some skates for Christmas,” Marion said to Kristoph.

“There is nowhere she could skate,” Kristoph reminded her. “There are no sizeable lakes on our estate, and I’m not having her practice on the ballroom floor.”

Marion giggled at the idea of ice skates cutting the three thousand year old polished floor of the ballroom to pieces. Kristoph was right, though. That was one indulgence she would have to forego.

There was much more to do than skating, of course. The orphans were called to order after a while and changed their skates for shoes before going to their dayroom. Rodan was reluctant to put her own shoes back on, but she knew there was another reason for their visit.

Christmas was not celebrated on Ventura, of course, not in the way people on Earth and the Human colony planets celebrated it. But there was a mid-winter festival at which gifts were given and the people prepared feasts to give thanks for the shorter nights and warmer days that were ahead. And that was why they were here - to bring mid-winter gifts to the orphans.

What Marion called it was her own business. The important thing was that they were able to be generous to those less fortunate than themselves.

Rodan was playing her own special part in the gift giving. She had been coached by Kristoph to do it well. She wore a special Mid-Winter festival bonnet made of stiff white tulle with glittering gold threads shot through it. She represented the Mid-Winter Elf and she stood beside Kristoph as he read the names of the children who were receiving presents.

Rodan played her role perfectly, smiling at each slightly nervous child who stepped up to be given a gift and saying the special Mid-Winter blessing to each one in a small but clear voice.

When the orphans had all received their gifts they moved on to the mother and baby home. This was where young women with babies but no homes or jobs, and in most cases no husbands, lived until they were able to fend for themselves. They, too, were given gifts, one for the mother, and one for the baby, along with a blessing from a little girl in a white sparkling bonnet.

After that were the sick children’s wards. Rodan looked at them curiously. Although she had been aware of the illness that struck down so many people on Gallifrey in the past year she and her grandfather in their cottage had not been affected personally. She had never seen anyone sick before. Children with broken limbs, burns, children with terminal diseases like leukaemia were new to her.

But she smiled at them all as she went from bed to bed, accompanied by her foster parents and gave a brightly wrapped Mid-Winter festival present to each child. In return she received smiles of gratitude, even from children almost too sick to hold the gifts they were given.

“It’s only dolls and things,” she said to Marion afterwards when they sat and watched a choir singing Mid-Winter festival songs to the children in the sick ward. “Why are they so happy about it?”

“Because it was a present given to them with love and blessings,” Marion answered. “That’s what Christmas and Mid-Winter are all about.”

“But they only got one present. I’m getting lots of presents for Christmas.”

“That’s because….” Marion was slightly at a loss for words. “We’re rich, Kristoph and I. We have lots of money to spend on presents just for you, because you’re our foster child and we want to buy things for you. But the love and blessings are the same. Everyone has the same amount of those, no matter how many presents they have.”

Rodan didn’t say anything to that. The answer seemed to satisfy her. She reached her arms around Marion’s neck and hugged her. Marion smiled widely as if she had received the greatest gift in the world.

The singers continued for a good hour, and then there was a party back in the foyer with the winter wonderland and ice rink. Rodan joined in enthusiastically, enjoying the party food and the chance to skate again. Marion watched her carefully at first, in case she fell. But she didn’t. She skated happily and joined in a game where everyone held hands and sang as they skated in a ring.

Marion quietly left the noisy scene and returned to the sick children’s wards. There was a party going on there, too, but a little quieter. These children couldn’t get out of bed, let alone skate, but they were having fun watching a man in a costume a little like a pierrot who made balloon animals and hung them around all of the beds.

There was just one corner of the ward where the Mid-Winter joy was not being celebrated. Marion quietly moved towards the curtained off bed. Earlier, the curtains had been open but the little boy had been asleep. His Mid-Winter present was left on the bedside for him.

Inside the curtains a nurse sat quietly, alternatively watching the monitors that quietly beeped, and the boy’s face. She was holding his hand in hers.

“He’s dying?” Marion asked. “Tonight?”

“Yes,” the nurse answered. “We hoped he might get through the festival… one more chance to smile. But he’s been steadily worsening by the hour. The worst thing is his parents are offworld. We tried to contact them, but they’re four days sub-space travel away from Ventura.”

“They work offworld?” Marion asked. “But surely in the circumstances they might have compassionate leave?”

The nurse shook her head.

“Remember, the Royal Hospital is for everyone, poor and wealthy. This child’s parents are the latter. They don’t work. They play. They’re visiting a planet called Oronia, a luxury holiday world, with their younger child.”

Marion was startled by that, but utterly stunned by what she heard next.

“This little boy, Hari, was born sick. He had an inoperable brain tumour that meant he could never do the things other children could. He couldn’t learn to feed himself, or walk. He couldn’t read even before his sight failed him.”

“Poor thing,” Marion said. “But if his parents are wealthy, surely they could get him all the help he needed.”

“They didn’t want to. They didn’t want an imperfect child. They left him in our care and went away. They had another baby a year later, another boy, with no medical problems. He is the one they care about. Hari… They just want him to die and not be a burden to them. And tonight they will get their wish.”

Marion was utterly lost for words. She thought of her baby, Christian. He, too, was imperfect. If he had lived, he would have had many of the same problems Hari had. He could not have been Kristoph’s heir that he longed for, and perhaps he would have died later. But they would not have abandoned him to others. They would have gladly accepted the burden of caring for him.

What parent wouldn’t? What kind of people were Hari’s mother and father?

“I pity them,” the nurse said, almost as if she had read her thoughts. “He is a lovely child. His smile… he will probably never manage it again… but when he could… his smile would light up the room. And they never saw it, even once.”

“Pity isn’t the word I was thinking of,” Marion said. “But perhaps you’re right.”

Hari stirred a little in his sleep. The monitors beeped a little louder, but they just indicated that there was some brain activity.

“He’s dreaming,” the nurse said. “A happy dream, I hope.”

There was music in the ward. The choir were singing again. It was a beautiful little song about snow falling with some high notes from the solo soprano that sounded like bells ringing. Marion looked at the sleeping child’s face and knew he could hear the music in his dreams.

She saw him smile.

He was still smiling when the monitors sounded a very different note, telling them that his heart had stopped and he was no longer breathing. The song came to an end just as the nurse reached to switch off the monitor. There was a moment of utter silence, as if everyone in the room knew that they should be silent. Then the choir began another song. Again it was a pleasant tune about winter snow. Again the soprano sounded her bell joyfully.

“They have their wish,” the nurse said as she folded the bed sheet over the little body of the child nobody wanted. Marion glanced at the brightly wrapped present that had never been unwrapped and tried not to cry.

“It was a good dream,” she managed to say. “He was happy.”

Marion brought the unopened present with her when she left the curtained off cubicle. As she did, she noticed the nurses bringing in a new patient, a little girl whose mother was at her side as she was made comfortable in a bed by the door. She waited until the nurses were finished with her then she approached quietly.

“Happy Mid-Winter,” she said and placed the present next to the little girl who smiled happily and began to tear the paper off a golden-furred teddy bear.

Marion left the sick ward and made her way back to the foyer where Rodan was still skating and playing with the orphans. She watched her for a little while, and thought of eighteen months in which she would be her own little girl again, to love and to treasure. She felt very lucky.

Finally it was time to leave. Rodan left her skates and put on her shoes. She held Marion’s hand and waved goodbye to her friends.

In the carriage, she sat between her foster parents, looking at the snow falling outside the window.

“Marion, am I an orphan?” she asked suddenly.

Marion wondered how to answer that question. Both of her parents were dead. But she wasn’t alone like the children in the orphanage. She was better off by far than Hari, who had two living parents who didn’t want him.

“No, you’re not,” Kristoph said. “You have your grandfather who loves you very much, and you have us. And… while you’re living with us, I want you to call us mama and papa. I think it is right that you should. We will always be that, no matter where your life takes you, child.”

Marion looked at Kristoph and tried not to burst into tears. That was the best gift he could have given her for Christmas.