The TARDIS materialised by Pier Head. Marion almost RAN out of the door, looking back briefly to see it disguised as a closed newsstand covered in adverts for the Liverpool Echo. She smelt the air. She could TELL the difference. It was so much more polluted than the air of Gallifrey. Even in the Capitol. But it was home. Earth. Liverpool. She was back, if only for a few days of shopping and visiting friends.

“Marion!” One of those friends called her name and she really DID run this time, into the arms of Li Tuo as he walked towards her.

“It’s so good to see you,” she told him as she hugged him tightly. “I have missed you, Li.”

“I have missed you, my dear girl,” he answered her. “And my oldest friend.” He looked at Kristoph as he approached and extended a hand of friendship to him. “How are things at home?”

“Things are fine,” Kristoph answered. “The biggest social event of the year has everyone talking. I refer of course to our Alliance.”

“I wish you could be there, Li,” Marion told him. “It’s so unfair that they won’t lift the banishment on you.”

“I saw you married once,” he reminded her. They walked towards the Pierhead café and sat and ordered tea and sandwiches. Marion kept hold of Li’s hand and Kristoph joked that he felt jealous of her attention. But he WAS only joking. He was just as glad to see his dearest friend.

“You look… older,” Kristoph noted.

“Do you think he does?” Marion looked at Li closer. “Yes, I think so, too. A little greyer and some lines around the temples, I think. Oh, Li, were you in love again?”

Li smiled.

“Her name was Chu Lau. I met her in Anqing in Anhui province in 1835. She was the daughter of the sword maker I went to in order to purchase a new sword. Sixteen years old and a rare beauty. She kept her eyes downcast as she served tea to her father and his honoured client, but just once by accident she looked my way and blushed sweetly. I smiled at her and she forgot her etiquette and smiled back at me and I knew my hearts had a new home. I bought two swords and her hand in marriage. She was by my side for seventy-five sweet years. She saw in the twentieth century with me. Not that very much changed in Anhui. Not for us, anyway.”

“Li,” Marion said to him. “I’m glad you were happy. But it must be so sad when your wives die. You should marry somebody who can be by your side forever.”

“One of my own kind?” he laughed softly. “Gallifreyan women, the ones of high birth anyway, are such snobs. I wouldn’t want one of them. I hope you won’t turn into one of them, dear Marion.”

“No fear,” she assured him. Then she told him a little of what had been happening to her on his planet, the friends she had made, and the enemies.

“You have good judgment in your friends. Remember me to Lily when you return. And what of the political machinations?”

He addressed that question to Kristoph, of course, and the two men talked for a while about politics. Marion listened at first, because it was important to her, too. She was particularly pleased when Kristoph spoke well of the new Castellan, Pól Braxiatel, husband of her luncheon friend Isolatta. As the subject became more deep and complex, though, delving into issues she little understood, she opened her handbag and took out a list that she had carefully prepared and checked it again.

“What’s this?” Li asked, picking up one of the sheets of fine vellum paper that he recognised as being of Gallifreyan make. He felt the paper between his fingers nostalgically for a while before reading the names of people and notes on how much she might spend on a Christmas present for each of them.

“Christmas presents?” Li looked at her curiously. “These are Gallifreyan names. We don’t HAVE Christmas on Gallifrey.”

“We’re going to from now on,” Marion answered. “I’ve arranged it with Lily and Aineytta. The nearest date on the Gallifreyan calendar is the 18th of Decima. That’s a whole week before our Alliance on the Winter Solstice on the 25th of Decima. But I want to do something for everyone who has been kind to me. All my friends like Hesthor and Isolatta and Calliope, and Thedera, and Kristoph’s parents, of course. And also, all of the servants, not just Lily’s servants, but those at Mount Lœng House and all the new ones who will be working there for us. Because Christmas is a time for sharing and for people to be equal. And so I am having a Christmas dinner party for all those people. Not a society dinner. But one for people I WANT to have dinner with.”

“The servants?” Li wasn’t putting her down for the idea. She realised that. His smile was genuine and not at all patronising.

“I have lived there for so many months now, and I have been pampered. I wake up in the morning, and even if it’s quite early, there are people already up and tea is served to me in bed. I take a shower and my bed is made and my laundry taken away and clean clothes put in the drawers. By the time I’m dressed breakfast is being served downstairs. I don’t lift a finger. All those people doing things for me. And I want to thank them. So I need something nice for each of them. And we must buy lots of decorations, too. Lily is going to have a tree cut to put in the hall and we’ll decorate it. And one in the big dining room, too. So LOTS of decorations. And I want Christmas crackers. Good ones, not the cheap sort. And….”

The two men were both laughing. Li asked if he should pop back to Anhui province and bring a string of mountain hardy pack mules to carry everything. The thought of such a thing in the middle of Liverpool made her laugh out loud, but Li had a point.

“We’re here for a week,” she reminded them. “We don’t have to do it all at once.”

But even so she was ready to start her Christmas shopping as soon as they had finished their tea and sandwiches and walked purposefully through the retail heartland of Liverpool. In Lord Street she went to the bank and withdrew cash from her Earth bank account. It was strange and exciting to be handling money. On Gallifrey the House of Lœngbærrow had accounts everywhere and everything was charged directly, from The Fashion House that was making her wedding gown to the Conservatory where she ate luncheons, even the small café where she enjoyed latte drinks with Hesthor and Isolatta and Calliope. Just holding money in her hand was a rare treat.

“You’re enjoying yourself much more, shopping here,” Kristoph noted as he watched her smelling perfumes at John Lewis’s cosmetics counter. “More than you do at home.”

“It’s just like I’m on holiday here,” she assured him. “And everything is more fun on holiday. What do you think of this perfume? It’s meant to smell like the salt air of the seaside. I thought of it for Isolatta.”

Of all the things he was qualified to comment about, the subtle differences between one perfume and another wasn’t one of them. But he smiled and said he was sure Madame Braxiatel would love it. He was pleased that she had described being here on Earth as a ‘holiday’. She HAD accepted Gallifrey as her real home. This was a place to visit.

The perfumes were just small gifts for her friends. She wanted to buy them something that was a real present as well. The same department store gave her plenty of ideas in its china and glassware sections. Not only was she planning to introduce Christmas to Gallifrey, Kristoph remarked, but the brand names of Royal Doulton and Waterford Crystal, too. She bought several very beautiful, very expensive and very breakable items and was wondering how she would carry them safely when Li gave his address to the salesman and arranged for delivery.

Marion seemed determined to have her arms full of shopping before they were finished, though, and when they finally left John Lewis’s she was carrying a selection of fine linen tablecloths.

“These are for OUR home,” she told Kristoph. “The dining table at Mount Lœng House shall have English linen on it.”

“Quite right, too,” Kristoph agreed indulgently and was happy to carry her purchases as she searched for the perfect gifts for the servants on her long list of names. In a jewellers on Williamson Square she finally found what she wanted. The salesman gaped in astonishment when she gave him the list and asked if they could be engraved.

“Yes,” he said. “But a bulk order like that will take at least three weeks…” He caught Kristoph’s gaze and stammered. “Perhaps two.”

“That would be just fine,” Marion said and paid in advance. Of course, she need not wait two weeks. Kristoph could take her in the TARDIS tomorrow to pick up her order. She was beaming with joy as they left the shop and began to list the other things that were needed. Kristoph caught the words ‘Stilton’ and ‘tree lights’ though clearly not directly related to each other. Li put his arm around her shoulders and kissed her on the cheek.

“There is plenty of time for all that,” he told her. “Enough shopping for one afternoon. Spare these two old men of yours the torture.”

She laughed but accepted that there was plenty of time tomorrow and walked with her ‘old men’ back to where they left the TARDIS.

Far more quickly than a taxi could have brought them, they arrived at Li’s home. They stepped out of a perfectly congruous pagoda in the meditation garden at the back of the herbalists shop and went up to the comfortable living room. Marion sighed with pleasure as she sank down onto the soft sofa and took off her shoes. She would not admit it to either of the men, but the shopping had been tiring. Li and Kristoph smiled at each other knowingly.

Li made tea, Chinese style and she roused herself from the cosiness to sit with them at the low table. She found herself remembering the first time she had drunk Chinese tea, in much less pleasant circumstances. It was when Li – still known then as Lee – kidnapped her and took her to ancient China. She was his hostage, waiting for Kristoph to come and challenge him to a death match. But still, for a few minutes as they drank tea she had felt unafraid. Li had told her his reasons for his desperate actions and she had understood. She had even had sympathy for him.

“Yes,” Li said to her. “Yes, I think that was the moment when the tide turned. Then I knew, no matter what happened between me and my enemy, I could not have hurt you. I almost thought of running again, taking you with me. I wondered if you could grow to love me and not be afraid of me. Of course that was foolish. Your heart belongs to Kristoph. That is my one regret of my exile on Earth. That of all the Time Lords you could have met first, I was not the one.”

Kristoph laughed softly. Marion blushed at that declaration of love from Li.

“It is fortunate I am not a jealous man,” Kristoph said. “Or I would have to challenge you to a new death match.” But he didn’t mean it. That terrible time was long gone. They were friends now.

“You made that happen,” Li added. “Dear Marion, your compassion for me made the reconciliation of two old friends who had become enemies possible. I could never thank you enough.”

After tea, Kristoph and Li played Mah-Jongg for a while. Marion watched as they lost themselves in concentration. When that game had run its course they played multidimensional chess using the power of their minds to create the board. She watched them locked in the intense mental challenge. She used to worry for them both when they played that way, but now she was used to it.

“We are evenly matched,” Kristoph said when they paused after a stalemate game. “As we should be, of course. My father taught us both to play when we were boys.”

“My father was so often away on business,” Li added. “Lord de Lœngbærrow was a second father to me. And his dear wife…”

Marion remembered Aineytta’s reaction when she discovered that Li was alive and living on Earth. She had been so relieved, even though Li was still banished from Gallifrey.

“What were the two of you like as boys?” She asked.

“We were adventurers,” Kristoph answered her. “We would spend days on end hiking across the plains. Four of us. Li and his brother, me, Jules. We camped under the stars and talked of travelling to some of them when we were men. We tested ourselves to the limit. We climbed mountains, we dived into deep lakes and swam fast flowing rivers. We trekked across the Red Desert on hovertrikes. We were daredevils. And when the daring brought us to grief my mother nursed us well again with her herbal infusions and sweet smelling poultices.”

As he talked he and Li conjured images in the air that illustrated their reminiscences of innocent, carefree days. Marion saw the plains, the mountains, the lakes and rivers, the desert. She saw the boys who would be men with far more complex and difficult lives and Aineytta mothering all of them, regardless of which one was her actual son.

The evening passed in such easy pleasures before Marion declared she was tired. She kissed Li and Kristoph both goodnight, for the two men were clearly anxious to talk about political matters that did not interest her. She undressed and laid herself down on the low futon bed in Li’s guest bedroom and kept herself awake until her husband joined her by running through the things she still wanted to buy. Or at least that was the plan. She began to get increasingly sleepy and when Kristoph did slip into the bed beside her and enfold her in his arms she murmured something about Christmas puddings. Kristoph smiled and kissed her and held her closer. He was perfectly content for her to think about such things. If it made her happy to bring a little of her culture to his world then he would not do anything to spoil that happiness. Though he did wonder where in Liverpool she expected to get a Christmas pudding big enough for the number of people she wanted to give this dinner for.