This is actually the chapter I was supposed to deliver last Christmas. Mea culpa, the only thing I can say is that this chapter really didn't want to be written. I rewrote and deleted it a good dozen times. Well, I've learnt my lesson. No Pol Ex stories from adult points of view. Something about it just doesn't really work.
Anyway, hope you enjoy. I plan to have next year's chappie on time as well (it's already half written), but I will likely be out of the country so no guarantees. We can only hope!
AAAnd... five minutes to midnight once again! :)
Polar Express, mark 4 (After 2, Before 1 & 3)
James scowled as he eyed the suspicious stranger smiling genially at him. It was a very young man, certainly a few years younger than him with thick brown hair and a neatly trimmed brown moustache who was dressed in a snappy blue conductor's uniform.
"So what would you be wanting me for, exactly?" he asked the stranger.
"We need some new staff, and your name came up as an option," the stranger said vaguely.
"Yeah?" James challenged. He chewed a bit and pierced the mysterious stranger with another glare. "You're being mighty mysterious. And how is it my name just "came up", huh? I'm still new in these parts; I doubt any of my neighbors would have gotten me recommended for some fancy rail station job."
His granddad might be behind this…if the old man knew where he was. Which he doubted. He and Rose had been living in safe obscurity for nearly two years now—why would his grandfather try to drag him back to civilization after so much time? It just didn't make any sense.
The man coughed a bit. "Well, this is a rather new rail line. Less than fifty years old. And the contract's exclusive. I think it would be easier to explain once I've showed you a bit of where you'd be working."
James rocked back on his heels. "Yeah?" Maybe this was an investigation, something to do with the police. He'd never trusted the authorities after everything that went down back in England. All James' instincts were screaming at him to grab Rose and run again, but he held himself back. Maybe this guy was genuine. Even if he was acting hella suspicious.
The young man shrugged a bit. "I must say, I was recruited in a very similar way. And I'm still new at all this myself. My recommendation would be to work your first shift, and then make a decision. Of course, with it being near the end of December you'll be starting at the busiest season too."
James chewed that over mentally. "Kay, let's say I'll accept this job. I've got one last question."
"Shoot," the young conductor told him, lips quirking as if he'd said something funny.
"Why on earth did you think it was a good idea to recruit me on Christmas Eve?"
That quirky little smile broadened to a smirk. "Oh, I think you'll see soon enough." He held out his blue cap. "If you'd just take this please?"
James took it warily. His fingertips had barely grazed the blue cloth before he felt a jerk behind his navel and the world swirled away in a whirlwind of color. He staggered away from the conductor the second his feet were touching the ground.
"What…the hell?" he rasped out. "The hell was that?"
The conductor bowed a bit in apology. "I am sorry I couldn't explain before. The MACUSA is frightfully strict on explanations. I had to wait until we were out of their territory to tell you anything of consequence."
James blinked. "MACUSA? What?"
"You have been recruited," the man said briskly, "to serve as a secondary conductor for the Polar Express, the first enchanted locomotive in the world. I believe the Brits built one themselves for that school of theirs about a decade or so ago, but as ours is now thirty-five years old it is technically the first wizarding train in existence."
James gapes wordlessly. "You…wizarding? What?" He kept repeating that word. He felt a bit like a parrot.
The conductor swept his hands out grandly. "Perhaps you'd like to see for yourself?" he offered. And for the first time, James looked around.
He and the (very, very strange) man in the conductor's uniform were standing just next to a large steam engine. The words Polar Express were emblazoned on the sides, and the cars extended back into the snowy mist. There was snow falling from above, and James was fairly sure he wasn't imagining the temperature drop between Canada and here. (Wherever here was.) There was snow all around as well, but he wasn't exactly in the middle of nowhere any longer. The train's rail extended far in both directions until the rails faded into the distance. Behind them was a large city. It rose above the landscape in glittering lights and Christmas-y garlands in an ethereal way that took James' breath away, but it was the sight at the other end of the tracks that really destroyed his ability to process.
Ice extended from the city in all directions he could see for miles, curving over the horizon. The train tracks were set up on the longest bridge James had ever seen, a brick behemoth longer than the Great Wall of China that faded into the distance over the edge of the starry horizon just like the rest of the landscape. Parts in the ice revealed frozen sea, and the sky above was painted with unnatural lights. James stared out over the ice.
There was no explanation for any of this. But he wanted — no, needed answers.
"We…where are we?" he asked breathlessly. The conductor smirked at him a little.
"My good sir, may I welcome you…" he swept his arms out again dramatically, encompassing everything they could both see "…to the North Pole!"
James gaped. It wasn't possible. Just. Wasn't.
"The North Pole?" he muttered.
"My hat was enchanted to be a portkey," the conductor explained. "An object that can transverse people across great distances if necessary. It's just a normal hat now, though." And he tossed said hat to James, who fumbled with it nervously before realizing it wasn't going to whisk him away again. The conductor grinned. "One trip only," he said. James nodded slowly.
"And you can take me back home later?" he clarified. The conductor nodded.
"I believe one of the train's routes goes past your town. We take advantage of regular railroads where we can, you know. It makes construction less costly."
James blinked, looking out over the frozen landscape. "But…what is all of it for? I guess you're a wizard, since you said it's a wizarding train, but…what about the boss of this rail line? What kind of cargo does the train carry? And what would you want me for?"
"The master of both this city and the rail is Nikolas North. Or at least, that's what he's calling himself right now. He's a rather odd magical figure. He's one of the oldest known wizards around, you know. Centuries old, maybe." The conductor grinned at James. "He won't be much involved in our duties on the train, of course. The cargo is always passengers, though those passengers vary depending on the time of year. Tonight we'll be collecting a list of children who have won the chance to come and spend the evening here in the North Pole. Honestly, it's likely that if you accept the job you'll only work on busy nights like tonight. Christmas Eve and the Old Ones convention in mid-summer are really the only times when I need an assistant."
James shook his head again briefly at the mention of their location, but tried to focus instead on his new co-worker's words. "So…I'm just going to be your assistant?" The two men began walking down alongside the train, coming to a stop in front of a passenger car.
"Yes, for the most part. I need someone to help with pick-up when we have multiple children in the same area, and I really need someone to watch the children while I'm doing pick-up. Some of the adventurous ones like to wander, according to my predecessor, and this train is…odd."
"Predecessor?" James asked curiously. "You're new as well." Then the rest of the other man's sentence caught up with him. "Odd how?"
"You're just full of questions, aren't you?" the conductor asked in amusement as he led James through the train, showing him the compartments for children and then bringing him to the staff area. "To answer your first questions, I've worked with the Polar Express for about two years now. My predecessor was actually the one to handle the transition Mr. North made from enchanted carriages to the more reliable steam locomotive."
"What's so unreliable about carriages?" James wanted to know.
The man snorted. "Well, they have to be pulled by something don't they? Mr. North prefers his flying reindeer, but he's only got so many, so he had Abaraxans pulling the Polar Express carriages. Some may think giant flying horses would be reliable, but I've always found them flighty beasts."
James really wanted to know more — because giant flying horses were one thing when magic was involved, but flying reindeer kept by a man named Nikolas North sounded suspiciously familiar — but the conductor kept on talking. "And to answer your last question requires a bit of a story."
A story?" James asked curiously. The conductor nodded, stroking his moustache.
"On my first Christmas Eve run," the man began. "I was up on the roof making my rounds after all the children were gone. My predecessor had told me about how he'd neglected his rounds the third year the train was operational and a homeless man got killed because he was run through the wards with no magical protection, so I'm always careful to check everything. Anyway, I was walking along the top of the train, and of course it was covered with snow, when I slipped and fell on the icy roof."
James' eyes widened.
"I reached out for a hand iron," the conductor continued, "but it broke off. I slid and fell." He paused and turned back to look at James very seriously. "And yet," he said quietly, "I did not fall off this train."
"What happened?" James wanted to know. The conductor shrugged.
"A hand grabbed mine and pulled me steady again. I never saw who. It could have been an angel, a ghost, anything. But this is an enchanted train. Mixing technology and magic always has odd results. Nothing harmful, with the amount of protective spells on this locomotive, but keep your eyes open. There's always something interesting to see."
He held out a blue uniform identical to the one he was wearing. "Here's your uniform. Remember, you just follow my lead. At the end of this trip, you can negotiate terms of employment with Mr. North." He smiled at James just before he stepped out of the room. "Welcome aboard the Polar Express, Mr. Howlett."
James' whole body jerked around in stunned amazement, but by the time his mouth remembered how to form words his new coworker had slipped away.
James pulled uncomfortably at the tight collar of his uniform. It was unfamiliarly formal to a man who had spent the past few years in the wilds of Canada. And the excited children running around didn't help him relax any.
'Why did he think I would be a good employee for dealing with children?' he grimaced to himself. He didn't have the faintest idea what to do with kids under about fourteen. And most of these were ten or younger.
"It's a magic carpet on a rail, never takes a rest! Cause that's the way things happen on the Polar Express!" one group of kids sang out happily. Apparently this Mr. North had even written out a theme song for his kiddie rail line.
James grimaced when his thoughts returned to the odd "Mr. North". Some guy named Nikolas, who lived at the North Pole, had flying reindeer, and catered to children? James wasn't stupid, he recognized Father Christmas when he heard him. He just wasn't sure why his coworker had been tiptoeing around the big reveal. Whether his boss was the Jolly Old Man was up for debate in James' mind, but he did remember what that conductor had said. James supposed it was possible that this North was just some eccentric wealthy wizard-type (because if the nonmagical wealthy folks had odd hobbies he didn't even want to think about magical eccentrics) but something about that thought didn't ring quite true.
The other thing bothering him was the fact that these people clearly knew his real name. James didn't remember much about what forced him and Rose to flee his home, but she'd told him the basics, and none of it was good. He just didn't know how this guy could have connected Logan from Canada to James Howlett from England. Maybe it was a magical thing? It still made James uneasy, made him want to grab Rose and run for the hills. But how do you run from people with powers like he'd seen tonight?
He dashed the pessimistic thoughts from his mind as his co-conductor returned, ushering in yet another small child. "Last pick-up?" James murmured. The other man just nodded.
"We'll give it a few minutes and then punch their tickets."
"You mentioned earlier that you do something special to the tickets?" James asked.
"They're magical tickets," the conductor explained. "You ask for it, and they should be able to pull it from a pocket. If they don't have pockets tell them to check shoes or socks. I found a ticket tucked in this one girl's collar—all she had on was a nightgown and a cloak. No shoes or pockets. But yes, once you're handed a ticket it gives an impression. It's kind of like reading someone's facial expression with no verbal input. A word should come to you. Type in the first few letters, or the first and last, and then give the ticket back. When they leave at the end of the event we'll finish the words."
"Sounds complicated," James observed. His coworker just laughed.
"Not really." The brunet man gave James a considering look. "Why don't you do the tickets, this time?"
James balked. "Wait, what?" The other man smirked.
"Sure, I think it'll be good for you. Go get 'em," he said, pressing the hole-punch into James' hand. "I'll take the second car, you take the first." Before the young man could object he'd been pushed back into the kids' compartment, and he knew better to argue in front of customers. So James took a deep fortifying breath and walked out into the isle.
"Tickets!" he called out, waving the hole punch as his coworker dodged around him and hurried to the other car. "Get your tickets!" He stopped by the first kid. This one was a little girl in a nightgown and a bed robe — a robe that had deep pockets. "Ticket, please," James said briskly.
The girl blinked at him. "Ticket?"
"Try your pocket," he said with a wink. The girl flushed but kept on staring at him. James tapped his fingers on his side meaningfully. "I don't have all day," he said. She turned a deeper shade of red and stuck a hand into her pocket. Her face became a picture of astonishment, her mouth forming a round "o" as she pulled a golden ticket larger than her hand out of the pocket.
James had to repress a flinch when he accepted the ticket with a nod. The other guy had been right. When his fingers touched gilded paper a rush of impressions and muted thoughts flew through his mind. James knew the perfect word to encourage this kid. He got to work punching in the letters, his tongue between his teeth. This was much harder than it looked.
After he'd handed the ticket back with a flourish James moved on to the next seat. And then the next one. There were two cars full of children, and while he only had to do one of the cars there were still definitely enough kids to be getting on with. By the time he'd reached the back of the car his fingers were beginning to go numb from operating the hand-held hole-punching machine. Finally, James reached the last kid.
This one was a little boy, dressed in odd pajamas. It took James a moment to realize they looked odd because they'd been hand dyed. The boy, who looked to be between eight and twelve years old, was also clutching a knit satchel to his chest.
"Ticket, please," James told the boy. The child blinked up at him.
"I don' have pockets."
So he'd been paying attention to the others. James smiled at him. "Well, try that bag of yours, then. Or check your shoes." He'd learnt that sometimes the obvious place was not the place the ticket appeared.
The little boy apparently agreed with him, because he didn't even try his satchel. He just reached a hand down his boot and his fingers came out clutching a golden ticket. James took this ticket and smiled again. This kid almost reminded him of himself when he was little. Or at least — of what he could remember of himself.
James stuck the ticket behind his back while he punched it, making the little boy crane his neck curiously as he tried to see what the man was doing. When James handed it back the ticket had "RE" punched into the far end.
The kid turned it over and over curiously, and then something poked out of his satchel. The boy held it up with a laugh, keeping it away from a questing mole-like nose.
"No, silly niffler, this isn't yours!"
James gaped. "The h-uh, heck is that?"
The boy looked up with a guileless expression. "Haven't you ever seen a niffler before, sir?" the boy asked.
James shook his head wordlessly and the boy just blinked.
"Oh. Well, they're native to England. They like shiny things, so I think my niffler wants my ticket."
That made sense. James smiled. "So long as you can hand it back to us at the end of the trip it doesn't matter what happens during it," he offered.
The boy nodded a bit timidly. "I'll keep that in mind, sir," he said softly, ducking his head down and stroking his odd pet.
When James made it back up to the front the other conductor shoved a sheaf of parchment into his hand. James blinked in surprise.
The man just gestured and James looked down. His eyebrows drew together. "Why are you giving me some sort of song lyrics?"
The conductor grinned. "When the Polar Express was all carriages the kids would have a stop half-way to the North Pole where they would be entertained with refreshments and music. We can't exactly have a full stage play on a moving train, so during refreshment time the cooks came up with some songs for us to sing to keep the tradition alive."
James gaped. "I'm not going to sing!"
"Yes, you are," the other man snorted. James scowled, but then his co-worker was announcing refreshments to the children, causing a delighted uproar. James and the conductor ducked out of the way of a crew of magical cooks (that apron-to-table trick was awesome) and joined in a hearty rendition of "Here we come a-wassailing". The whole thing was a bit like a whirlwind: the cooks came, the children were served, the empty dishes were collected, and the cooks left again. All under the cover of loud and cheerful music. It was actually rather infectious, and James found himself singing along without even meaning to.
After that enjoyable bit of madness was over they all settled in for the rest of the ride to the pole. The conductor was sweating as they neared Flat Top Tunnel—apparently his first year there'd been an enormous gathering of caribou just on the other side of the tunnel—and James nearly had a heart attack himself when the train dove down Glacier Gulch at neck-breaking speeds. He'd had to reassure the children alone, as his coworker had been forced to go off after a small group of boys determined to find the train engine. That hadn't been fun, and he'd rather enjoyed jumping into the other man's lecture on the stupidity of wandering the train alone. But things calmed down after that, and soon enough he was watching in amazement as the train sailed across tracks imbedded in the ice.
He just had to ask "Do these tracks ever ice over? It doesn't seem very safe."
The conductor harrumphed a bit. "My predecessor said they did once when the train was new, but there're crews that are supposed to break up ice around the tracks. I doubt they'll ever ice over completely again."
The trip was really breathtaking, and James couldn't help but gape along with the children as the Northern Lights glimmered in greens and blues across the skies. He'd heard of Aurora Borealis from hunters who went deep into Inuit territory, but James hadn't ever expected to see it himself. It was beautiful. And then the North Pole was on the horizon, a fantastic city of glittering golden lights that the conductor had assured him was invisible to anyone not permitted to see it.
The children were singing the song about the train again—"It's a magic carpet on a rail, never takes a rest—flying through the mountains and the snow! You can ride for free and join the fun if you just say yes! 'cause that's the way things happen On the Polar Express!"
James found to his astonishment that he was humming along under his breath. The conductor was triumphant.
"Five minutes 'til midnight once again! We made it the third Christmas in a row!"
James laughed. "Yeah, we did!" He hesitated. "I don't get it, though. It's been five minutes until midnight for hours."
The conductor shrugged. "Well, North built this train to ride just outside time, as it were. So we can slip around time and get to everyone before midnight when he's supposed to begin delivering presents. But no enchantment is perfect, and if we take too long time will begin passing like normal."
James considered this as the two men began chivvying the children into lines so they could depart the trains. The children were hard to wrangle; completely distracted by the elves and yetis walking around the area. James felt a tug on his jacket and looked down as the last kids stepped down off the train. It was the little boy in the hand-dyed pajamas; the one who'd had that pet hidden in a satchel.
The boy was wide-eyed and alarmed. "Mister!" he exclaimed. "Mister, my niffler's gone."
James had to repress the urge to swear. He put a hand on the kid's shoulder. "I'll help you find him. You sure he's not just on the train?"
The boy shook his head. "No, he was in my bag when I got off. But an elf went by and they've got these bells on their hats. He ran off after it and chased it around the corner—over there."
He pointed and James nodded. "Right! Let's go, and if we catch him quickly we won't miss anything."
As they hurried around the corner James repeated his coworker's directions in his head. They were taking the kids down the main street to the square, and in the square they'd wait for Santa. It was the first time the conductor had called "North" by that name and he'd given James a curious look when the rough man didn't bother reacting. He was on a magic train capable of stopping time somehow. The Santa Clause part had been both easy to figure out and not too weird concerning all the wizards and magic and stuff.
They ran down a steep incline, hurrying down the cobblestone streets. As they went the buildings seemed to shrink in size until they were small enough for only elves or little children. The boy cried out, "There he is!" pointing down the street. The pair saw the strange little mole-like creature flip a lid over on the street and dive in. The boy nearly dove headfirst after him, but James caught him just in time.
"Woah, kiddo," he said. "Let's climb down properly. In a way that doesn't have us breaking our necks."
The boy gave him a sheepish smile. "Sorry sir," he said.
When he was placed on the ground he carefully climbed down the ladder leading into the depths of the manhole. James followed after and once they were both on the ground he realized they were inside some kind of tunnel. It was lit with lanterns along its way, and definitely wasn't some sort of sewer like James had first assumed. It looked well-used, with decorative paneling lining the top and bottom of the tunnel walls. The ground wasn't paved, but it was worn smooth as glass by years—possibly centuries—of use.
There was a skittering and snuffling a ways off and James realized it was the little creature again: the niffler. He grabbed the boy by the hand.
"Come on!" And they took off running after the retreating little animal.
They ran for what seemed like miles down the winding tunnel. Sometimes they passed through intersections that seemed to lead off to various different directions, but as the niffler continued running straight so did they. At one point, though, the boy's head jerked up. "Do you hear that!?" he exclaimed.
James frowned. "Hear what?"
"Those bells!" The boy sounded utterly entranced.
James had to shake his head. "I…I don't hear them, no," he said. The boy pointed.
"I think my niffler must have been following the sound!"
"Well," James said, resigned to now following the sound of bells he couldn't hear, "I guess we should follow them as well to find him."
It was several more minutes of running before they caught up enough with the niffler to see it again. The creature had reached a dead end in the tunnel, and James actually thought they were going to finally catch it and get back to the group. But then the creature scrambled up a ladder and vanished again. The boy scowled.
"He's getting away again!" he cried, running at full speed over to the ladder so that he could climb up as well.
James followed with a groan.
They exited the tunnels to a large kitchen. It was a homey sort of place, despite being large enough to cater to hundreds and hundreds of people. It was also in absolute chaos.
The second James was aboveground he slipped on a sheet of ice coating the ground. The man gaped at his surroundings. There was a small blizzard filling the room, coating everything with ice and snow. There were dozens of elves in the kitchen; all of them running around squeaking in alarmed protest. James gaped at his surroundings. Snowballs were appearing from nowhere and were nailing elves in the face. There was one large yeti stumbling around the kitchen protesting loudly with rumbling cries James couldn't understand, but still got the gist of.
Throughout all this the little boy was gaping at the room as well, absolutely amazed. "It's haunted!" James shouted.
But the boy shook his head. "I don't see any ghosts, though," he protested. James didn't see what that had to do with anything, but before he could comment the boy's face brightened. "My niffler!"
And with that he dove into the fray as well.
James scowled. "EVERYBODY STOP!" he shouted.
To his surprise, everything did stop—the elves running in confusion, the furious yeti, the boy and his niffler, even the snow just sort of stopped falling.
"Thank you," James said in exasperation. "Now, can someone help us catch the niffler trying to leave the kitchens and direct us back to the square?"
There was a pop and one of the elves appeared in front of him holding the niffler, trying to pull a shiny decorative plate out of its paws. Thankfully the boy was there to help. "Let me," he said. He grabbed the niffler by its hind paws and began tickling its stomach. Amazingly things began pouring out of its pouch—shiny things like coins, spoons, even a couple buttons. The boy then stuffed the protesting animal into his satchel and clutched it to his chest to keep the niffler from escaping again. "Sorry about this," he said in embarrassment, ducking his curly head.
While they'd been occupied, the yeti grabbed on to something invisible and marched out of the room grumbling, so once the niffler was secure James had to turn to the elves. "Can one of you take us back to the square?" he asked again.
One of the elves nodded excitedly, the bell on its hat ringing merrily. It grabbed the boy's trouser leg and began pulling him along, beckoning James to follow. They were led through the large house, both human gazing about in fascination. There were elves and yetis everwhere, and the boy oohed and aahed at the currently unoccupied desks where toys were clearly manufactured. They passed through one really large room that had a rotating globe at its center, tiny golden pinpricks of light covering the globe. James noted there was even a cluster up by the North Pole.
Finally, they were led out a side door and into the square. As they made their way back to the group the boy smiled up at James. "Thank-you for helping me, sir," he said gratefully, still hugging his satchel to his chest. James nodded with a faint smile curling his lips, but they couldn't focus on one another for long. As they reached the main group again—James exchanging nods with the conductor—both found themselves staring in awe at the flying reindeer cavorting about as they were led from their stables. The reindeer were huge and almost dangerous-looking though they were also beautiful. They were very nearly pulling the little elves holding their halters off the ground. A string of elves carrying two chains of beautiful silver bells on red leather lines followed them, shaking the periodically in time with the song the elves were singing.
James frowned. The ring of the bells was…odd. He could barely hear it; as if the ring was coming from a long distance away. But the children and the conductor could all hear it just fine. He looked down to see the boy staring with shining eyes as the elves attached the bells to the reindeers' harnesses. But then, as he smiled down at the boy and looked up again, he found to his surprise that the sound was coming in stronger as if his hearing had temporarily faltered before beginning to work again.
His breath caught in his throat.
The conductor clapped him on the shoulder. "Isn't it the most beautiful sound?" he murmured in James' ear. "It took me a while to hear them my first run as well. You really have to believe in the wonder and the magic to hear the bells—or to be able to see Santa."
Had that been why the conductor had been so cagey earlier? James wondered in a daze. The magic of it all was overwhelming.
He had no problems seeing Father Christmas as the man came out. He was so much taller than all the elves and the children—the yetis were all clustered around the edges, so their bulk didn't keep anyone from seeing the jolly man in a red suit. And jolly was right. He was laughing joyously, waving with both of his mittened hands. His belly shook with mirth.
James watched as Father Christmas approached. The man was everything James had ever imagined him to be as a child and more. He wore a red coat trimmed with not white, but dark fur. On his head was a square-ish cap of the same dark fur. His hair and beard were pure white, but his eyebrows were bushy and dark grey. His blue eyes were kind. The differences from the stereotype made him even more real, somehow. James only wished he could share this experience with Rose.
"Good evening children!" Father Christmas said in a booming voice, hands raised. His accent was foreign, but that only seemed to make him even more real. Santa went around greeting the children by name, smiling and saying a few words—calming one or two spoiled one demanding the First Gift for themselves, commending those who had admirable Christmas spirit.
And then he stopped in front of the boy with the niffler. "And as for gifts," Father Christmas rumbled, "why not dis young man right here?"
A heavy hand was clapped on that thin shoulder, and the boy twisted around to look at James, gaping in astonishment. James just motioned him forwards, and the boy followed the legend over to his sleigh.
The boy and Santa exchanged a few words, none easy to make out. James was fairly sure the man asked what the boy would like for Christmas, but the boy had dithered a bit, clutching his satchel. At one point Father Christmas had chuckled and called over a yeti. He spoke to it and the yeti went over to an elf, clearly describing something. The elf popped away and returned with a shiny new suitcase. Father Christmas presented it to the boy, who placed his niffler inside in surprise, his arm clearly going much too far in for the size of the suitcase. Then once the case was closed Father Christmas stood, pulling the boy to his feet as well. He held up the sturdy suitcase.
"De First Gift of Christmaaaaaas!" He shouted, lifting the suitcase high. Everyone cheered, the elves jumping with joy. Santa spoke a few more words to the boy before handing him the suitcase and helping him down from the sleigh.
Then church bells began ringing out. Santa shook the boy's hand. "Happy Christmas," he said, smiling down at him. The boy hurried back over to where James was standing, his arms unable to close around the suitcase he was now clutching to his chest. He stood with the other children as Santa rallied his reindeer.
Father Christmas meanwhile conjured a magical rainbow whip, cracking it above the reindeers' heads. "On Dasher! On Donner!" he cried, cajoling the reindeer trying desperately to pull the laden sleigh off the ground until finally, they did it! They flew a lap around the square, and Santa lit up the tree like a candle with a crack of his conjured whip before vanishing to begin his long night of gift-giving.
The scene around them devolved into a wild party as the conductor herded the twenty-or-so children back onto the train. Yetis and elves danced and jumped around. A group of elves tried to sing wild renditions of Christmas carols as the yetis failed to keep order by regulating the music.
James was once again drafted to help the conductor. As his coworker chivvied the children along James punched each child's ticket again as they reentered the train. "Ticket, please?" he asked each time.
For many of the children he already knew their word, and so just finished punching it in. For others, he received the impression for the first time and finished the conductor's handiwork. Then the boy with the niffler, who'd gotten the First Gift of Christmas, stepped forwards. He was the last in line.
"Ticket?" James asked. It was handed to him with a beaming smile.
James focused on getting the rather long word typed out properly. He handed the ticket back with the words, "I get the feeling this will be good advice for your future."
The boy blinked down at the word "EXPLORE" typed into his ticket. He grinned up at him. "Maybe I'll be a famous explorer when I'm grown up," he chirruped.
James nodded amicably. "Maybe. Say, what's your gift, anyway?"
The boy grinned down at it. "It's a case for my niffler," he said delightedly. "It's enchanted to be big enough for him to live in, and Santa said I could expand the charms myself when I get older."
"Wow." James supposed the kid must be a wizard, for that to be an option. It was still a really cool gift.
"Anyway," the boy said, "It was nice meeting you Mister Conductor." He stuck out his hand. "I'm Newt!"
James laughed, shaking his hand briefly. "It was nice meeting you as well, Newt. Now you'd better get on; we don't want to hold the train up." Newt nodded in agreement and hopped onboard, james following.
Once the boy was on the train he was swarmed by children who all wanted to know about his gift. He stuttered shyly a bit, but told them all about his niffler and why he needed a sturdier place to keep it. James watched it all as he kept an eye on the full compartment, helping the conductor keep order until the end of this trip.
The drop-offs were uneventful, each dozy child happily walking back to a warm bed and waving goodbye to the train as they went. Newt was no different from the others, yawning into the yellow and black scarf he had pulled out of his satchel. He did give James a hug before he went that flustered the rough man, making the conductor snicker into his moustache.
James just gave his coworker a sour look as the train was off again.
But finally, they were done, and back at the North Pole. Father Christmas was waiting for them. "New man did well, den?" he rumbled. The conductor nodded.
"Really well. I won't need help every year, sir, but when I do…"
Father Christmas nodded. "Is better to be prepared than not." The old man eyed James. "But are you going to be taking job?"
James hesitated for a moment, but really, there wasn't any reason to say no. "This has been one of the best nights of my life," he said honestly.
Father Christmas brightened, clapping James on the back with a heavy hand. "Then this calls for celebration. Bring refreshments! We must go and get contract! And please, Mister Howlett," he added, smiling with those big blue eyes down at the young man, "Call me North."
Roughly eighty years later
A boy's voice rang out in a modest house. "Mum! There's a letter here for Olivia!"
Both the females of the house came running. "A letter?" their mother mused. But the girl was the one who snatched it. She stared down in surprise at the vellum envelope. It had a fancy hand-inked motif on the back of a steam engine; the seal had the imprint of a bell on it. The girl was fairly sure she knew what it was for.
Her mother, leaning over her shoulder, stopped the girl from tearing into the envelope. "That's so nice," she said, "Let's save it. I'm sure you'll be glad of it later."
And so a letter opener was fetched and the seal carefully lifted up so it could be saved along with the fancy envelope. Inside was a letter, also written in parchment. She pulled it out.
To the Miss Olivia who LEADS so well,
It is with great pride and utmost pleasure that we welcome you into the Society of the Silver Bell, a group for those In the Know. Our first meeting is midsummer, exactly half a year from Christmas. Enclosed are tickets and an itinerary that will allow you to make the trip to Devon without expense. You may bring a parent and one guest, if you wish, but should be informed that some of the events of a Society Meeting are for Society Members only.
From your fellow Believer,
Head of the Society of the Silver Bell
Chaperone of the Society of the Silver Bell
A Very Merry Christmas to You
Her mother laughed a little. "That's odd," she said, "it's hardly Christmas any longer. Oh, well, do you want to go, sweetie?"
Olivia smiled up at her mother. "Yes, I do," she said. Maybe, just maybe, she'd see Harry.
And a wrap! I spent two years on this one chapter. Two. FREAKING. Years. I am so glad it's over and done with, and it's still one of my favourites! *sigh* What's wrong with me?
Anyway, Merry Christmas/Happy Hanukkah/et cetera whatever you celebrate. Enjoy the snow, enjoy the cheer, and remember to always believe!