Express Purposes

by Rob Morris, with the able aid of Denizen 1 and Sean Morris

1

Harry was in a bit of a haze, perhaps it was the chill on his face, cold yet invigorating. Something was not right, and yet the thing that wasn't right could not have been more purely right.

He had no idea what this was, so he concentrated on listening to the aged teacher Dumbledore.

"...to let our many worries consume us. Our foes are our foes, and they are plotting as foes do. I may have one or two schemes up my long sleeves, but I am rolling those up for an outing that involves no such games." He paused and dramatically addressed the youngsters: "Will you three stand with me as I uphold the honor of Hogwarts?"

Hermione looked about her. It was nearly Christmas, but trying to place a date certain to it was hard somehow. Was it that first wondrous holiday when she realized she might finally have friends? Or was it the one where she nearly bolloxed all that up by having Harry's best gift snatched away, even if out of concern? She thought she was staring at a statue with Harry, when she gave up and responded to Dumbledore.

"How are we upholding the school, Headmaster-and against whom? Another wizarding school?"

Ron shook off the oddest sight. Ginny, waving goodbye at the King's Cross tracks - though not to or at him. Then, without warning, she stood bloodied but smiling amidst rubble in what resembled a bombed-out city and held him close, crying about how sweet life was. Finally, he spoke as well.

"Do we really wanna be off somewhere? How do we know You-Know-Who won't try and undo the first Christmas or something?"

Before Hermione or Harry could snark at that, Dumbledore shook his head.

"No, Ronald. I made certain, while he was here, to give our Tom Riddle several very fine Christmas gifts I know he treasures still, even if in a shallow way. He will not wish to part with those things for an iffy time-scheme."

Ron idly wondered what the Headmaster could have offered to the Dark One that would occupy him so. What sweets would tempt him away from his vengeance? And then decided that he didn't want that particular knowledge. The man - if he could even be called a man anymore - was like a spider sitting in the centre of a web of myriad schemes and plots. Sometimes all that was needed was something caught to distract him.

Harry, no longer distracted himself, spoke up, while Hermione seemed thrown that Ron's remark had validity.

"Headmaster - I feel like I haven't seen you out and about like this for a while now."

Dumbledore smiled at Harry; a rare smile. A genuine smile of true mirth.

"It is Christmas, Harry - a holiday that makes my spirit rise, so there. To answer Miss Grainger's question-there is a wizard, very powerful, very old - older by far than all the schools we know - who is fond of reminding a young whippersnapper like myself just who is the fastest around. You could call him the King of All Speed. His is a generous soul, but also very competitive. In short, he has a train, and I wish to place the speed of our mighty engine against it. I think it will be great fun, don't you?"

His best words were as infectious as ever, and the three dressed warmly for a race as no other. As Christmas Eve ticked on from being just a day with that name to the actual evening before the Big Day, the trio saw the other train come up from the opposite set of tracks, normally used for the trip back to London.

2

It came into the station as all trains did. The screech of brakes upon track. The grind of metal. The scream of steel. The fogbank of its steam rolling in on little cat's feet.

The other train looked at once both powerful and sleek, a bit proud of itself, though Harry and the others doubted this pride was badly misplaced. Charcoal black with a single blazing beam in the center of the locomotive; a friendly cyclops who would sooner die than drop you while in its grasp.

All present boarded, and both trains were now headed northward - except Harry thought that this was as far north as the train ever went.

"What's left after this?"

There was an unspoken certainty that Hogwort's own steady workhorse could overtake her for the other train looked almost too shiny and sleek, like it had made fewer trips than even the Express. But this would be no victory lap tour. Against the powerhouse they saw before them, Dumbledore would need them all working their best every second. Hermione nodded that knowing nod.

"It's a 2-8-4 Berkshire steam locomotive with traces of the Pere Marquette 1225 Berkshire. We have our work cut out for us."

Ron, despite knowing better, asked Hermione a question.

"Now you're an expert on trains?"

She smiled at the opponent she would still try her best to have the HE leave in the dust-or snow, in this case.

"We do ride one every year. Besides, I've always liked trains. It's all about journey and destination both."

From within the first car of the other train came a middle-aged man wearing a positively antique rail official's uniform, complete with a pocket-watch on a fob. His cap hid the pointed ears.

He smiled at Dumbledore, who smiled back. All knew that friendly jibes were to be exchanged.

"Mighty sorry wreck you have there, Mister Headmaster. You sure she'll be able to get underway? We could just tow you. It's no trouble at all. I mean, let's be honest-she could give your school's founders a run for their wrinkles."

The fellow's jovial tone was met by Dumbledore, as was his trash talk.

"I wouldn't dream of having your delicate engines strain themselves so, Master Conductor. Our old sturdy friend can handle a few hard turns-but I'm afraid that your tin toy over yonder may just end up disassembling on you. If that does happen, your staff and passengers are more than welcome in our baggage cars. As always."

The conductor opened the watch with a flick of the thumb, and there could be no doubt that it had kept perfect time. After having checked he flicked it close and turned back to his train.

"I'd call that a challenge, Mister Headmaster. Am I correct to do so? I don't like to gloat, after all - tends to get one classified as Naughty."

Dumbledore began to move the preliminary switches, unlocking from the tracks.

"You would be so correct, Master Conductor. I will give your esteemed employer my regrets for your unavoidable tardiness."

The other train unlocked from the tracks as well.

"Then let it begin, Mister Headmaster. Let us have our race of races, with the well-crafted magic of the Hogwarts Express-"

Dumbledore nodded.

"-placed against the miracle magic, Master Conductor, of The Polar Express."

The three young wizards looked at each other, and Harry set himself to ready.

"Oh-that's how far north."

Ron rubbed his eyes.

"About as far north as north gets, really."

"The top of the world, Harry." Dumbledore added. "Top of the world."

Hermione whispered under her breath.

"Please be there. Just let me see you, this once. I need to tell you something."

3

The magic trains began to leave the station, and Christmas snow began to fall, making millions of tiny, ticking sounds as they struck the station roof.

Ron glanced at the other train, and his bigger questions deferred, chose to concentrate on the race.

"Can we take them?"

There was doubt in his tone.

Dumbledore moved the throttle up at a smile from the conductor across the way.

"That is my every intent, Mister Weasley. Yet my jibes at Master Conductor aside, our rival is an engine that never fails to get to its destination. It also has the benefit of well-worn-you really have no idea of just how well-worn-engineers who make it their business to work every last erg of energy their tender can muster."

Harry's words were perhaps predictable, but welcomed.

"You have us, Professor. Tell us what to do, and we will work this venerable old iron to its limits."

Hermione also went in a direction reliably her own.

"Just how does this train run, anyway? Surely not by simple combustion."

Dumbledore was not Snape, and did not see fit to shoot down her ever-inquisitive nature.

"This vehicle does have its own furnace, and the capacity to run on coal alone should it need to. But also there is an additional miraculous component to augment its speed. A miniscule portion of the magic of each rider, whether crew or otherwise, is drawn from in amounts that are easily recouped and never missed. Normally, it is a simple process. That is part of the reason our tough old engine is only used a few times a year. Do you see the flaw in that, Miss Grainger?"

Indeed she did, and almost before she spoke, her companions made the same realization, but wisely let her respond.

"That method would work well when the train is full. Not so much when it needs to make transit journeys without being anywhere near capacity. Do we have batteries?"

Dumbledore nodded, turning his head a bit as The Polar Express' whistle churned out a few notes of 'Jingle Bells', just before pulling ahead.

"Mister Potter-please use our own whistle to play out that little lullaby you use to calm Hedwig."

Harry's heart registered a near-skip at the mention of Hedwig. But wasn't the owl alive and well, back at the school? Surely, he was. Ron brought them back to the question at hand.

"What kind of batteries are they, Headmaster?"

Dumbledore smiled as Harry did as he was asked, a reminder to the Master Conductor that the whistle aboard the HE was far more versatile than that of the PE.

"Originally, Mister Weasley, they were merely for some manner of emergency. Then, a young student suggested keeping a charge in them capable of making a full journey there and back again by siphoning a greater but still miniscule amount from a full capacity of passengers and staff. That is what we are running on at this time, and I hope it is enough."

Ron caught the cue.

"Had to have been my Da. No other wizard thinks in a cross between Muggle tech and Magic quite like that."

When Dumbledore did not contradict him, the three went silent and kept at the controls, or at least the dials and gauges. While the magic kept them at their best, it was still an idea to keep watch for the unexpected.

That came in the next instant.

4

"Uhh, Hey and Hi There. Conductor believes in fair warning-me not so much, but he treats me fair, so I listen. You better listen to me."

Dumbledore looked the vagrant-looking man over.

"You are a spirit that keeps to the Polar Express. A man who could not duck quickly enough for a tunnel when riding its roof."

The three younger wizards all felt for their necks without realizing it. The vagrant chuckled.

"Yeah. It went like that. Hey, how's my old pal Nearly Nicky? Has he-heh-heh-let it go, yet?"

Whether the joke was regarded as inappropriate or merely dumb, the vagrant shrugged at the silence.

"Wizards and witches are the toughest crowds. Okay, well here's why I popped over. Seems that the vibrations from the Polar Express tend to excite the migrating Caribou. Now this has happened before-so the PE remembers to take it easy over this stretch of nowhere. That is, usually they remember. A good competition can do wonders to your long-term memory. So, with two of these toy train sets going at it full blast-yeah. We may be delayed a while. Toodles!"

Ron had a know-it-all for a girlfriend, and happily, she almost really did know it all, so he looked at her.

"Got anything for caribou in that old kit-bag?"

But this was the exception that proved the rule, even for Hermione.

"Not really. They are determined beasts. Hagrid commented on their single-mindedness. It's one of the only times I've heard him talk admiringly about a non-magical creature. So-does the hero of the piece have any ideas?"

Harry felt a blast of cold air from outside, cold enough to remind him of something far colder still. From this, he drew the idea Hermione snarked after.

"Yes-if I can get up on top of the cars. Headmaster-coordinate with Master Conductor. I don't wish any charges of cheating, so he should alter course and speed to make use of what I'm about to try."

Ron gave off a look that spoke of the madness of climbing atop a train in the driving Northern winds, and Hermione almost seemed set to argue against this, but reminded herself, part of the reason she would never choose Harry was his determination to avoid an argument and bypass her objections entirely.

By that same note, these qualities also made part of why she loved him, but that's life.

And so Harry brought out one of his most prized possessions.

"The cloak will serve two purposes-keeping me out of sight-and keeping the snow and wind off me, if just a bit. I'll need you two for support spells-and by support I mean, keeping me alive during something more than a little stupid."

Ron gave up and said it.

"If it's so stupid, why even try it? It's only a race."

Harry jerked his thumb back at the view of the opposing train.

"He seems a nice sort, but I would dearly love to feed that conductor a healthy portion of crow."

Hermione smiled, and grabbed her wand.

"Support ready to cook up some crow, Mister Potter. Very ready."

Ron grasped his wand as well.

"Well, why didn't you say it was to rub it in? That's a worthwhile purpose all by itself."

5

For his part, Harry found that any journey up the side of any object was a simple thing if none of Dudley's gang was apt to grab at his ankles as he went. The wind was ferocious as he predicted, and the snow as well, but he was the only one wearing a cloak, not figures personifying despair itself, so that too was easier.

"Apologies, Master Coldmiser. But I've felt the real deal where I live."

Now, Harry did have one quandary: he was forever hearing that every last mature wizard he met was talented and powerful both, which made sense when dealing with a school taught by the best, but gave him no sense of scale. Ron had treated the question like he treated 'pureblood' - something that was said to exist, but had so many qualifiers the word might as well be non-specific. Harry for himself had wondered how much of his power and skill had been a graft from Riddle's attack, but rather than debate such a grim subject, he awarded all praise to his parents for this. Yet still, Harry Potter really was a talented, skilled and powerful sorcerer when he had himself together, and now he needed to show he could be a smart one as well.

"Hold steady, Harry...if either of them has to rescue you, that will be the entire holiday season, hearing about it."

The incline and the speed meant to match it made everything worse, but he bore it, waiting till just before the top to write his air-message (backwards) at the Polar Express, hoping that they caught it in time.

**ALL SPEED AT DECLINE**

Indeed, both trains met their best speed after the top of the hill above the caribou-ridden valley beneath.

"There are a lot of them. Hagrid really would love this."

Living and thriving in such an alien clime, they really did seem almost magical, but letting such admiration throw off or stop the race was not in them, so Harry waited till the last possible second for his miracle effort.

"Not...yet...just...about...NOW! Wingardium Leviosa!"

What Harry did with this common spell was normally unthinkable, foolish and everything else one cares to name as a counter-indicator.

"Rise-just a little further."

The steep and fast decline meant that the trains, while not leaving the tracks under their own power, were briefly rising up from their normal steady position on them. It was that moment which Harry exploited, a mix of magic and Muggle science that saw two large trains and all their cars rise well above the aroused Caribou mega-herd before meeting the tracks just beyond them, enough so that some of the lesser alphas led a dispersal at the shock.

"I am cold in places best not spoken of."

Almost sliding back into the engine room, Harry saw Ron look concerned.

"We had to freeze up the roof so you'd be able to stay in place when it got dodgy."

Dumbledore made a gesture that gathered heat around Harry, and he nodded as Hermione gave him some tea.

"Well, you did your jobs well. Because it was cold up there."

Hermione shook her head.

"You kept us closer to the ground than you did the Polar Express."

Harry smiled.

"So that when we met the ground, less lost momentum as we regained the tracks. Can't be too fair."

6

While the Polar Express was not eating anyone's snow, it had fallen a bit behind, enough so that catching up was a near yet not a casual thing. Dumbledore struck a switch with an iron bar.

"That was the reserve tank. I suggest we all hang on."

Ron grasped the side rail with one hand, and a wall hook with the other.

"Don't have to tell me twice."

Hermione did nearly the same, while Harry secured a position by the window.

"The Polar is still in the game-and I can sight the city from here!"

Indeed, in the distance the city was a million lights, a million hearthfires twinkling against the night of eternal winter.

The reserve kicked in, and Dumbledore himself seemed not to have heeded his own advice, only the throttle stick keeping him from being knocked back hard.

"Mister Potter-our position?"

Harry was exultant.

The plain of caribou became a vast forest of tall, straight trees, There appeared to be no transition. One moment the white expanse, the next lines of even spaced trunks. Shapes could be glimpsed running between them. Wolves? Perhaps. But far too big to be ordinarily wolves. Surely wolves weren't the size of horses? They flitted through the wintery mist, staring at the passing of the two trains silently. The trees looked all wrong as well. Surely nothing that tall and straight existed this far north, and in such numbers. Indeed nothing should grow here. Nothing should be here at all But here it was, in defiance of reality.

There was a guest speaker - one who gave a lecture on dimensional quirks, reality pockets, and nexus ley-line points of entry. Harry now wished that he hadn't been sick that day and missed the lecture. It might have helped him understand what was happening now. Indeed, he wished that he could remember the speaker's name. Lazo? Laslo? Something like that.

Then there were the mountains - huge things - larger than Himalayas, as colossal as the moon rearing up from an immense desert of ice - the Great Polar Ice cap - a continent by itself; as perfect and gleaming as a diamond capstone at the world's top. The trains clung to ancient paths around their circumferences - built by whom and when none could say.

7

The two crossed a narrow bridge made up of bricks colored a deep lustrous red. It was as though the bricks from every chimney on Earth (on every Earth), past and present had been taken and placed here to pave the way for their arrival in this most special of all places. The white mortar glistened bright between those bricks like lustrous sugar frosting of a gingerbread house. The body of water from which the bridge arose should have been frozen completely solid in the northern cold, but wasn't. Large grey shapes swam in those depths. Narwhals - their unicorn tusks upraised as though greeting the new arrivals.

"The North Pole trainyards are right ahead! WE'VE WON-"

The Polar Express breezed past them and seemed to put the lie to Harry's words. Dumbledore nodded.

"There is no power on this Earth, and only a few above it, that can keep the Polar Express from making that very final leg of its journey, on time and first of all."

Ron said it plain.

"Then we never had a chance of winning?"

Hermione said it plainer.

"Headmaster? What then, was the point?"

Harry laughed.

"It was that last pass, wasn't it? Since the Polar always makes the North Pole proper first, the pass is the race's finish line."

Dumbledore seemed openly and honestly cheerful.

"Master Conductor is an aggressive competitor, but eminently fair. He would not want a victory tainted by a technicality. Better an honest loss-which is what he did in fact suffer. Students, let us disembark."

The North Pole trainyard spread before them - the envy of any that existed on Earth at any age in history. A platonic ideal, and yet also somehow honest and homely. A paradoxical combination that only magic could reconcile.

8

In the distance rose tall industrial towers - perhaps foundries where such trains and their components were constructed by multitudes of eager workers. One could almost hear their silent churning of gears and the beating of hammers upon anvils.

The houses of the city were blocky structures, like wrapped gift boxes around a Christmas tree. A forest of gables and cornices. A sea of gold stars. Chimneys spouted smoke like whales at sea. Every door and window was flung open, and figures emerged to view the twin train's arrival.

The Conductor stomped across the divide between the two trains, and looked at Harry. Harry expected an accusation of cheating.

"Young Man, you saved my train's perfect record, even if you favored your own in doing so. Well, I'd rather lose a race than my on-time standing, so no hard feelings and congratulations on a race well run!"

"Not had a race that close since that one chance encounter with the Arkangel, eh?"

A shadow seemed to pass over the Conductor at the mention of that name. His kind eyes narrowed and his mouth pulled unconsciously to the side as though he were mentally reliving that incident nearly a century ago, a meeting with that supernatural train's own supernatural conductor.

The moment of recollection passed. His once cheery demeanor briefly lost, but was recovered quickly. Dumbledore had committed a faux pas by bringing up the Train that Never Was, and the other man changed the subject immediately as though the headmaster had said nothing.

"Mister Headmaster-staying for the ceremony? Some few luminaries from across time. Including one who just came off his darkest hours."

The train's whistle blew abruptly, startling. The students turned and gasped in alarm as the Hogwarts Express went off without them, but Dumbledore raised a hand.

"We will be the guests of Master Conductor and his fierce hospitality on our way back. The Hogwarts Express knows its way home, and is almost as hard to waylay as the Polar Express for this grand spot."

9

The students had never seen such a city. It put the likes of Hogwarts to shame. London itself could not compete with it. It appeared deeper than wide, built in layers leading down in concentric circles of buildings radiating from the central plaza. The architecture had elements of the modern, the past, and here and there possible futures - all Christmas. Here were the cobblestoned streets of Dickensian London. There the Roman temples celebrating Saturnalia. One borough could have been right out of a 1950s American suburb where perhaps a certain boy slept blissfully cradling a daisy air-rifle that he had just received. And if one looked down one alleyway one could swear there was a fully-stocked sushi bar lit by Christmas lights of neon vapor; a Delorean equipped with thrusters parked next to it with a side hatch opened as though the driver had just exited.

The streets they passed through now had the feeling of a marketplace, but all the vendors were handing away their wares: marionettes, toy rocketships and intricate puzzles, finely bound books and boxes of chocolate. Every gift ever desired by a child was here. No money exchanged hands. No receipts were written out and given, and none taken. The spirit of giving was the only currency recognized here.

Likewise, there were no policemen, no royal guards, none were needed. No one would steal in a time and place where everything was given freely.

Spinning snowflakes glimmered in the arctic night like fireflies. And in a moment fireworks launched from hundreds of different points throughout the city.

On what must have been a lake frozen over, what seemed like ten thousand people skated across the ice's surface, describing whimsical strokes or solemn vows of love.

They excitedly made their way to the center of the city, finding themselves stunned, the temptation to give themselves entirely to genuine childish wonderment overpowering.

10

As they neared their destination Ron asked Dumbledore a very odd question.

"Headmaster, what year are we in at school? What year is this? I have memories that don't meet up..."

Dumbledore for his part merely held up a finger in front of his own mouth, as though asking Ron to put this puzzle and challenge aside for now, which he did.

In the circle, the reindeer and sleigh had landed. The most wonderful man in the world - the incarnate spirit of the Holiday - exited his equally wondrous chariot and raised mitt-covered hands to the gathered crowd of elves and fortunate children. The ho-ho-ho of his joyous laughter could be heard over the resulting cheer, carried the length and breadth of the immense courtyard.

At the great ceremony, a young boy received a sleigh bell, while a much older boy was lauded, unbelievably, as being at the Top Of The Nice List for twenty solid years. Dumbledore pointed him out to Harry.

"In Earth's 23rd Century, that boy is destined to be a champion. His path-has been among the hardest I can recall. You were raised by unsympathetic guardians. He was held captive for a decade by his family's sworn enemies."

"Another undead schemer, Headmaster?"

"A dragon with three heads the size of a planet, Harry."

Unnerved, Harry then asked the obvious.

"Why are you telling me this?"

Dumbledore understood the confusion.

"Perhaps you and he could chat on our way home. For you see, Harry, I have in my time laid upon you much responsibility and no small amount of confusion and even misery. For once, I wished to give you perspective - and the feeling that just this once, yours was the greener grass. So Happy Christmas, Harry."

Harry produced a large package of Movie Theater Lemon Drops. Dumbledore grinned widely.

"Happy Christmas, Headmaster."

11

Harry saw Hermione run to meet Father Christmas, something Harry was not sure he could bear without blubbering like a fool.

"You were wrong, Big D-sorry. He is real."

As Hermione returned, Ron asked what she had said to the dear old man. She grinned.

"At my 11th Christmas, too old for all the 'nonsense' which has now proven very real, I still asked him for something, and I thanked him for it, even if it wasn't till the next year that this wish came true."

Ron shrugged.

"That being..."

Hermione grabbed up him and Harry in an embrace.

"My friends, you idiot. I wished to have real friends. Ever since then, I wanted to thank him. Can't take chances in a magical world, after all. Oh, what do you have?"

Ron held up his prizes.

"A gold sweater and a large pack of liverwurst sandwiches, with relish and onions on poppy seed rolls. Those elves have got a good sense of humor, lemme tell you."

A voice boomed behind them.

"A mother's love is unlimited, young man. But even the best can misfire-so enjoy the liverwurst-just don't eat it right before bedtime. Call that the voice of hard experience. Harry Potter - I believe I owe you a gift. Will this picture frame do?"

Harry fought off tears, and a thousand questions.

"Thank You, Father-Santa. It's-oh my."

In the picture inside the frame, a young couple celebrated the only Christmas they would ever have with their newborn baby, not yet five months. Now, Harry was openly crying.

"How did you get this-oh, why am I asking?"

The tears faded, and a man once a simple cleric from Asia Minor walked off with his modern trademark joyful laugh. Hermione held up a book.

"A Christmas Carol - signed by the author and by the real Timothy Cratchit, at his Hogwarts alumni reunion. Not selling this. I don't even want to open it-but still."

Harry saw two bearded wizards meet and share a laugh as the ceremony ended, the elder of the two having deliveries to make.

For the record, the Conductor caused Harry's ticket to read 'Burdens Shared', Ron's read 'Confidence', while Hermione's read 'Have Fun'.

Dumbledore, as he expected, got the following:

NEXT TIME, SIR!

12

On the way back, Harry indeed chatted with the beset future champion. As he walked up, he saw that this must be the one the Conductor had described as recently off his darkest time. At first, his look only brushed across the visitor, before recognition kicked in.

"You—you're Harry Potter!"

There was now solid wonder in the boy's badly weary eyes, and he undertook an unsuccessful effort to rouse the girl sleeping in the seat next to him, a girl Harry mistook for an elf but whose eyebrows were far too severe for this. Harry would only later realize what the boy's instant recognition really meant.

"My name is Peter Kirk."

There was some brief glimpse, through his words and tones, into the unspeakable horrors this young man had seen, yet all he could really do was speak of seven people, his heroes, his 'wizarding school staff', his family all headed by a beloved uncle who in his era, strode the heavens themselves like a colossus.

Harry gained his greener grass, and a bit more.

13

Ron disobeyed Father Christmas and ate one of his sandwiches, and he would learn why this advice was given.

"Oh—these things do like to kick out, don't they? Still worth it-may-maybe. This iron have a Loo?"

Hermione read her book as though it was the first time she had ever heard the story, and so it would always be with this copy. She spoke, paraphrasing a classic line.

"…are these the shadows of the things that are, or only those that were?"

The cocoa, of course, was delicious.

But Harry was forced to consider something he heard Ron say.

"Headmaster?"

"Yes, Harry?"

Harry felt he could not hesitate.

"When we get back, we won't be in any year at the school, am I correct?"

Dumbledore nodded.

"Your time at Hogwarts as students was - a time ago, shall we say."

Harry saw his friends come over to him as he spoke, somehow listening in agreement without adding on.

"So-when we get back, you-you won't be there, either, will you?"

Dumbledore sipped his cocoa.

"I will be in my place in the Headmaster's office - it just won't be my office."

Harry realized something.

"Am I dreaming? Are we all just dreaming?"

Outside the train's windows, the great sleigh passed by as it continued its annual journey.

"Oh, Harry-what have I told you about things all in your mind? But this once, I will be less vague, and say, yes, this is all as real as any memory we all share together."

Harry still felt he had to press.

"What year are we truly in? What time is this? Past or present or…"

As Ron or Hermione could have told Harry, Dumbledore seized upon the opening, and doffed his usual pointed hat in favor of a familiar red and white one.

"Time, Harry-you ask me what time it is? Why, I think that should be obvious."

As Hogsmeade Station was called out, and Dumbledore began to fade, he chuckled.

"Why, my dear children-it's Christmastime!"

And in an odd corner of the train, an even odder-looking group of children – and a small beagle dog – had the last say in all of this as they sang:

"Christmas time is here
Happiness and cheer
Fun for all that children call
Their favorite time of the year

Snowflakes in the air
Carols everywhere
Olden times and ancient rhymes
Of love and dreams to share

Sleigh bells in the air
Beauty everywhere
Yuletide by the fireside
And joyful memories there

Christmas time is here
We'll be drawing near
Oh, that we could always see
Such spirit through the year…"