Title: The Silver Bell
Fandom: DCU/The Polar Express
Pairing: Light Tim/Kon
Summary: A few days before Christmas, in the attic of Wayne Manor, Tim and Kon come across a strange, oddly familiar silver bell among a forgotten childhood toy chest. On Christmas Eve itself, the bell leads to an unexpected wondrous trip on a very special train…
Author Notes: This story was originally created for this year’s Gotham Secret Santa project. My Secret Santa was anachronisticaddendum and their major Xmas wish was for some Tim/Kon Xmas fluff. I’ve never written this pairing before, and the story is not so much romantic as sweet, but I really enjoyed doing a story with these two boys together in a light crossover with “The Polar Express” story, and I hope my Secret Santa enjoys it too.
My apologies for the late posting of this gift, though. I’d originally tried to submit it to the Gotham Secret Santa blog, but wonderful Tumblr ate my submission. So I’m posting the original story here on my writing blog and queuing up the link instead. Hopefully this goes through this time.
Happy belated holidays!
“Wow. I can see why you needed my help. This place is huge!”
Tim almost smiled at Conner’s amazement at the massive space that was the Wayne Manor attic. It was two days before Christmas, and Alfred had asked quite politely if he could come over and help him search the attic for some lost holiday decorations. Of course the young adopted Wayne knew this was just an excuse to try and get him to come home for the holidays. After everything that had happened earlier that year, Tim had made it a point to distance himself from his family. He didn’t even bother making an appearance at Thanksgiving a month earlier. Of course, this made Alfred all the more determined to see him before Christmas, to try and persuade him that he was still welcomed, that this place was still home, that his family loved him.
Tim almost smiled, but it never materialized on his face.
“Yeah. It’s pretty massive and filled with decades of stuff. It’d take me days to find what Alfred wants if I had to do this on my own.”
“So what are we looking for?”
“A box labeled Victorian Holiday Ornaments. That’s his theme this year for the manor, but he’s missing the box that has half the tree decorations, including the topper.”
Conner was already sweeping a corner of the attic with his x-ray vision. “I’m guessing he can’t just go to the store and buy new stuff for the tree?”
“Are you kidding? When it comes to holiday decorations, Alfred’s got an OCD about it that puts my own to shame.” Tim shook his head as he scrubbed a thick layer of dust off the top of a cardboard box, trying to read the faded label with his flashlight. “These particular ornaments have been in the Wayne family for over sixty years. They’re practically irreplacable unless you want to go scouring every antique shop in the country looking for replacements.”
“Not exactly my idea of a good time,” Conner said with a chuckle. Then, as he swept a stack of boxes, he stopped. “Hey, I think I found something,” he said.
“The ornaments?” Tim asked hopefully as a cloud of dust he’d just stirred up sparked a coughing fit.
“Nope.” Conner moved a couple of boxes out of the way to reveal an old footlocker. “But its got your name on it.”
“Really?” Tim couldn’t help the curious tone in his voice. “I thought I got everything when I moved out of the manor this past summer.”
“Looks like you missed one.” Conner cleared a path for Tim and held his own flashlight over his find.
Tim took a good hard look at the box and drew in a sharp breath. “Oh! I know what this is.” His face looked both fondly nostalgic and sad at the same time as he ran his hands over the lid. “This was my old toy chest back before my folks died,” he admitted softly. “I forgot that when Dad died, I had this moved into the manor instead of being put into storage.” He ran his fingers over the lock. “I think the last time I opened this was right after my mom died. I don’t even think I have the key to this anymore.”
Even in the dim light, Conner could clearly see the pained expression on his best friend’s face. “Would you like me to get that lock for you?” he asked helpfully.
It was a long moment before Tim finally nodded. Conner worked fast, using a combination of his tactile telekinesis and his x-ray vision to dismantle the lock from the inside out. Before Tim was allowed enough time to second guess his decision, the lock was popped and the lid clicked open invitingly. Curiously, Tim pushed the lid open all the way, revealing its contents for the first time in years.
Within the footlocker was a treasure trove of beloved childhood toys that beckoned Tim with heartaching familiarity. They were a reminder of a simpler time… A happier time… Beloved toy robots and action figures from when he was eight… A stuffed bear that one of his grandparents had given to him when he was two or three… A whole plastic container full of legos that took up nearly a third of the entire footlocker… Even as Tim felt a smile flit across his face, his eyes pricked with unshed tears at the memories attached to these inanimate childhood playmates.
With a quick brush of his hand across his eyes, Tim looked at Conner and the small red velvet pouch in he lifted from the trunk. He tilted his head first to one side, then the other as he took the bag and examined it curiously. “I… I’m not sure,” he admitted. “It looks kinda familiar.” With nimble, slender fingers, Tim drew open the bag and shook out its contents into his palm.
“Is that a bell?”
Tim stared at the silver bell that rested in his palm. About the size of a large walnut, the round bell seemed to glow in the flashlight’s beam that illuminated it, as if it were brand new and recently polished. There was something naggingly familiar about it, like a memory of a dream that was mostly forgotten. Tentatively, Tim held the bell by the red ribbon attached to it and gave it a shake.
There was no sound.
Conner frowned. “Lemme look at that.” He took the bell and gave it a closer look with his x-ray vision. “It doesn’t look broken. The clapper inside is in one piece and attached the way it should be.” He shook it himself, a little harder than Tim had, but with the same result. Utter silence. “Weird. Even I can’t hear anything. Where’d you get this, Tim?” He handed the silver bell back to his friend.
“I don’t remember,” Tim admitted with a frown. For some reason, though he didn’t know why, knowing that he couldn’t hear the bell made his heart ache. “I think it was a gift I got one Christmas a long time ago.”
“Who gives out broken bells to kids for Christmas?”
Tim shook his head with a sigh. “Doesn’t matter.” He put the bell back into its pouch and slipped it into his pocket before shutting the lid of the footlocker. “Let’s get back to finding those ornaments for Alfred.”
Christmas Eve had finally arrived. Red Robin checked his watch. It was a quarter to midnight. He sighed.
“This night is going to go on forever,” he muttered to himself.
Gotham was oddly quiet that night. In the past, Christmas Eve wasn’t a night immune to the usual troubles that plagued the dark city. Thieves, arsonists, murderers, rapists… Most of them didn’t believe in taking a holiday. Tim sighed again. He’d really hoped that something would happen to get his mind off of the fact that Christmas was just fifteen minutes away.
With surprise, Red Robin looked up to see Superboy hovering just overhead. His usual black t-shirt with the emblazoned red “S” was replaced by a high collared black winter coat.
“What’re you doing here, Kon? Shouldn’t you be with your family in Kansas?”
Superboy floated down and took a seat on the ledge next to his best friend. “Shouldn’t you be with yours? I know this is a working holiday for Bats in Gotham, but I would’ve thought you’d at least be patrolling with Batman.”
Robin frowned and turned his attention back to the street.
Conner looked at him with concern. “What about Nightwing? Or Batgirl? Isn’t Black Bat supposed to be in town tonight? I thought you two were pretty tight?”
Superboy was answered with a sigh. “I just wanted to patrol on my own tonight,” Tim said somberly. “You didn’t answer my question, Kon. What are you doing here?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” Kon quipped back. “I’m here because I was worried my best friend was going to spend Christmas Eve alone and anti-social.”
“No, you’re not.”
“How do you know?”
“Because ever since we went ornament hunting for Alfred, you’ve been getting more and more depressed the closer we got to Christmas.” Conner narrowed his eyes at Tim. “You still have that bell on you, don’t you?”
Behind the white lenses of his cowl, Tim’s eyes widened. Then, almost guiltily, he reached into compartment on his utility belt and pulled out the silver bell. Unnoticed by Red Robin, a folded slip of gold paper got caught on his glove and slipped out of the same compartment and fell onto the rooftop.
“Why are you so obsessed with that thing?” Conner asked. “It’s just a broken—” Superboy’s train of thought was derailed when the gold glint caught his sharp eyes. “What’s that?”
“This?” Superboy picked up the gold paper and unfolded it curiously. It was a large gold embossed ticket about the size of a dollar bill. On one side was an illustration of a black train engine in an oval. On the other side were the words “THE POLAR EXPRESS” in flowing ornate script and “ROUND TRIP” in big bold letters beneath them. “I’m guessing it’s a train ticket?” He looked at Tim with concern. “Is that why you’re patrolling alone? Were you planning on skipping town for Christmas without your family knowing? Dude, that’s kinda messed up!”
“I’m not skipping town, Kon! I don’t know how that got in there!” Then Tim got a better look at the ticket. “Wait…” He reached out and took the ticket into his own gloved hands. He frowned for a moment behind his mask before finally using one hand to push his cowl back, revealing his face. Once the mask was out of his way, he brought the shiny embossed ticket up into the light and examined it even more closely. “I think I’ve seen this before.” Tim flipped it over in his hand, then back again, several times in a row. “I just… can’t remember where.”
With his cowl pushed aside, Conner could see that his best friend was confused. He was about to ask Tim what he was thinking, what he thought the ticket was for, when an unexpected sound caught his attention.
A train whistle.
Conner was no stranger to the sound of trains. There was a set of tracks that ran not too far from the Kent’s farm, and trains regularly traversed it on their way across the country. He knew a train when he heard one. He also knew that there were train lines that ran through Gotham City. There was a station on the other side of of the city.
But the whistle did not come from the other side of the city.
It came from the street directly below the building they were sitting on.
In disbelief, Conner looked down and saw the life-sized version of the black train on the golden ticket taking up practically the entire street below them. For a moment, he wondered if he was hallucinating. Gotham had more than enough demons who had a way of doing strange things to people’s minds. But he knew he wasn’t hallucinating.
This was because Tim was staring in shock at the very same train, too.
Tim and Kon stared down at the train conductor who was looking up at them from the door to a massive black train that stood perfectly still on the Gotham City street it was resting on. The conductor was an older gentleman dressed all in blue with a thick well manicured mustache beneath his nose and a kind of immaculate posture that Tim had thought only Alfred possessed. Through wireframe glasses, he glanced impatiently at a pocketwatch he held in his hand before looking back at the pair of teenagers on the rooftop again.
“Well are you coming or not, boys? We have a schedule to keep!”
Conner stepped back and looked at Tim with confusion. “What the heck is going on? Where’d that train come from?”
Tim kept glancing between the train and Conner, confusion etched all over his own face as well. “I don’t know,” he admitted uneasily. Then he looked over the ticket that was still in his hand. He flipped it over and his eyes widened. “It’s the train! The train on the ticket!”
“That’s the Polar Express?”
“I guess so?”
Not really content with Tim’s answer, Kon leaned over the edge of the roof and called down. “Hey mister! Where’s that train headed?”
“Why the North Pole, of course!”
Conner looked at Tim. “Dude!” he said. “This is crazy! A mysterious train that goes to the North Pole shows up out of thin air on Christmas Eve?” Superboy looked down at the train again, then back at Tim with a huge grin. “Let’s go!”
“Oh come on, Rob! I know as a general rule whenever something weird happens in Gotham, it usually means serious trouble, but… man this doesn’t feel like trouble!” He elbowed Tim lightly in the ribs. “This could be fun!”
Tim looked down. Part of him was suspicious of the train, it was true. However, it wasn’t because of his training as a detective and vigilante. Normally, as Conner had stated, weird stuff like this usually meant bad things in Gotham City. However, Tim knew that whatever this train was, it wasn’t bad.
He didn’t know how he knew. He just did.
And not knowing made him curious.
A few moments later, he and Kon were floating down to the street, landing right in front of the conductor, who didn’t seem at all phased at the Kryptonian and the costumed vigilante before him. “Well it took you two long enough.” He glanced at his watch. “We’re on a tight schedule. Are you coming or not?”
Tim and Conner glanced at one another before turning back to the conductor, each of them nodding in turn. “We are, but…” Tim faltered a bit as he showed the man the golden ticket. “…we only have one ticket.”
With a slight raise of his eyebrows, the conductor took the ticket and gave it a closer inspection, adjusting his glasses in the process. “Only one?” He flipped the ticket over once. Then twice. Then, he blew upon the edge of the ticket and rubbed it between his fingers. Before either boy could blink twice, the conductor pulled apart two tickets from the single one, as if they’d just been stuck together.
“You’re sure you didn’t see two tickets?”
“I’m positive. There was only one ticket when we found it.”
“Rob? What’s wrong with your voice?”
“My voice? What’s wrong with your—” After the conductor had made a dramatic show of punching their tickets, Tim and Kon boarded the train as quickly as the conductor urged them. Only when they were both on the train and the doors had closed behind them did either of them notice that something strange had just taken place.
Tim’s jaw dropped as he got a good solid look at his best friend. Gone was the eighteen year old teenage Kryptonian-human hybrid clone. In his place was what looked like an eight or nine year old kid dressed in pajamas, a house coat, and slippers. For a moment, Tim was utterly speechless, his mouth opening and closing like a fish out of water.
At the sudden silence, Conner turned around and immediately mirrored Tim’s reaction. “Holy crap!” Kon said in astonishment when he finally found his voice. “When’d you get all tiny?!”
A quick glance in his reflection in the glass on the door confirmed that Conner wasn’t the only one who’d been deaged. “I’m not the only one!” Tim said, and Kon gaped in astonishment at his own reflection. As Conner stared at the glass, Tim took a closer look at himself. He looked about the same age as Conner was now, and he was dressed similarly too, though whoever chose their nightclothes had an ironic sense of humor. Whereas he was dressed in blue pajamas emblazoned with red Superman shields, Kon was wearing black pajamas with yellow Bat symbols all over it.
“We’re dreaming, aren’t we?” Conner finally said. “This has all got to be some funky dream, right?”
Tim frowned. “I don’t know. I don’t dream about being a kid, do you?”
A kind of melancholy expression flashed across Conner’s face. “Maybe. I never got a chance to be a kid, remember, being cloned straight into puberty and all. I used to wonder what it would’ve been like…”
Before Tim could have a chance to speak to Kon again, the conductor came up behind them. “Alright boys. Let’s get you to your seats so we can get this train moving. You know the drill Timothy. No refreshments till you get to your seats.”
Ever since finding the train ticket in his pocket, Tim had been enduring the worst case of deja vu. As he and Conner moved through the train full of kids about their same “ages” and found their seats, that deja vu only got worse. Everything looked and felt familiar, but he couldn’t quite place when or where.
It wasn’t until he sampled his first taste of the Polar Express’s hot chocolate that everything started making sense.
“Oh my god!” Tim muttered in astonishment after taking that first sip. The smell and taste of that wonderful hot chocolate that had no equal in the rest of the world had jump started his memory and things finally became clear. “I remember now!” He looked at Conner with excitement. “I was here! I’ve been on the Polar Express before!”
“Seriously?” Conner, who had a chocolate milk mustache, stared back at Tim. “When?!”
“When I was kid… About this age, I think…” Timothy deeply inhaled the aroma floating up from the mug before taking another long sip. Afterwards he sighed with contentment, a smile lighting up his face, the first genunine one he’d allowed himself all night. “Wow… I can’t believe I forgot. The last time I was on this train… Wow… That was such a wild night.”
Conner pulled up his feet so that he could sit cross-legged in front of his best friend. “Well tell me!” he demanded impatiently as he leaned forward. “What happened?!”
“It was before I got involved with Batman and all that stuff,” Tim said reflectively. “Before I even met Bruce or Dick. Before either of my parents died.” The young boy’s expression grew a touch melancholy, as he usually did whenever he spoke of his parents. “I think I was eight, and I was feeling pretty low on Christmas Eve because my dad decided that it was time to tell me that Santa Claus wasn’t real.”
“Is that a big deal?” Kon asked curiously.
Tim almost snapped back at Conner, but then remembered that his best friend had never had an actual normal “childhood.” Conner had never had the chance to grow up believing in Santa Claus. Instead, he nodded. “Yeah. When most kids are younger, they grow up being told the story of Santa Claus, and how he’s real and delivers toys all over the world to good boys and girls in the space of one night. Then… When they reach a certain age, reality sets in and they just stop believing. That first Christmas when it happens is usually not the greatest.”
“But something different happened to you?”
“Yeah,” Tim said with a nod. “That night, after my folks had gone to sleep, I decided to stay up to see if Santa would come. I didn’t want to stop believing. But instead of Santa, the Polar Express appeared in front of my house.” He glanced around at their surroundings. “Just like tonight, a ticket appeared in my pocket, and the conductor punched it, and I got a ride to the North Pole.” He smiled at Kon. “The Polar Express takes kids who are on the verge of not beliving up to Santa’s home and workshop. He’s real. Back then, I saw that Santa was actually real. I even got picked that year to receive the very first present of the night.”
A lightbulb went off in Conner’s mind. “The bell?!”
Tim nodded excited and rummaged around in his housecoat pocket. Though he didn’t remember putting the bell away, there it was, and he pulled out the silver orb. “It’s a bell right off of Santa’s sleigh. They’re on the harnesses of his reindeer.” Tim shook the bell experimentally, and his young face fell as silence greeted them both once more.
“What’s wrong, Tim?”
“I remember now, why I can’t hear the bell,” Tim sighed. “Only people who believe in Santa can hear it ring. I’m sure if I shook this for some kids younger than us, they’d hear it for sure.” The sadness and disappointment on Tim’s face shone loud and clear. Conner tried to comfort him.
“I’m sure it’ll be ok, Tim. I mean… We’re here on the Polar Express, right? That’s gotta mean something.”
Tim shook his head. “But, I don’t even belong here.” He looked up at Conner. “After everything that happened this year… After all the really bad stuff I did… I don’t deserve a Christmas!” In his eight-year-old form, the control Tim usually had over displaying his emotions as a teenager simply didn’t exist. It broke Conner’s heart a little to see his best friend on the verge of crying as he hastily put down his mug and run towards the back of the train car.
“At least—” Conner thought to himself as he set his own mug down and started going to the back of the car. “—Now I know why Tim’s been so down lately.”
Conner moved carefully between the train cars. Despite still having some of his powers, even as a kid, they felt significantly weaker, and he wasn’t sure if he’d be able to get back on the train if he fell off. Once he was safely inside the door of the train car behind the passenger car, he went on the search for Tim.
This car looked like a sleeping car, which was kind of odd considering that clearly sleep was the furthest thing from practically everyone’s mind at that time. There were doors on either side of the narrow hallways that seemed to lead into miniature bedrooms. Most of the doors seemed to be locked, but all Conner had to do to find the unlocked was was follow the sound of his best friend’s muffled sobs.
“Tim?” Slowly Conner pushed the door open and poked his head inside.
There was one bed in the car, along with a chair and a small desk. The upset boy was sitting curled up on the bed, wedged against the furthest corner of the sleeping compartment next to the window. His face was buried in his arms, and the moonlight from the window played on his hair as the Polar Express was moving quickly across the arctic tundra.
Conner stepped completely into the room and closed the door behind him. Then he crawled up onto the bed sat himself down right in front of Tim. “Hey,” he said gently, reaching out to place a hand on his friend’s arm. “Are you ok?”
Tim shook his head.
“You wanna talk about it?”
There was a long pause before, with a shuddering sigh, Tim finally lifted his head. Quickly he rubbed his eyes with the heel of his hand. “There’s nothing really to talk about,” he said. “I was just a really horrible person this past year, and I don’t deserve anything for Christmas. That’s all.”
“How can you believe that, Tim?” Conner asked, appalled. “You’re one of the best good guys in the world that I know!”
“Look at what I did!” Tim lamented. “I worked willingly with Ra’s Al Ghul for the first part of the year. People I knew got killed or nearly killed because of me. I broke criminals out of jail. I broke the trust of my family… my friends…” His clear blue eyes began to tear up again as guilt tore at his heart. “Kon… I nearly murdered my father’s killer. I set a whole complicated trap for him just so he would die!” Tim buried his face in his arms again. “I wanted him dead.”
Conner felt a lump rise in his throat as he scooted up so he could sit right next to Tim. As soon as he was close enough, he wrapped one of his arms around his best friend’s shoulders. “Yeah… Sounds like you had a really rough year, but not all of that was your fault, y’know. You didn’t do it because you wanted to hurt anyone. The thing with Ra’s was because you were looking for Bruce, right? And if I remember correctly, you did kinda dismantle the whole League of Assassins in the process.”
He gave Tim’s shoulder a squeeze. “And those chicks you got out of prison… They were hot right?”
Tim jerked his head up to glare at Conner with mild annoyance and a faint blush coloring his face and ears. Kon laughed a little. “Kidding, kidding,” he said. “But seriously, you told me that one of those chicks might be an undercover cop, so letting her go could’ve very well been a good thing.”
“And the other?”
“And yeah… that one… She kinda got away, but it was all to stop that whole assassination game thing that was going on, right? And you did.”
At the reminder of the assassination contest and what almost happened at the end of it, Tim shivered. He hadn’t told Conner what nearly happened on that disasterous mission. The only ones of his friends and family who knew the truth of that was his adopted sister Cass, and she swore herself to secrecy for his sake. Nearly being raped by a creepy, toxic meta girl who may or may not have been related to Ra’s Al Ghul wasn’t something he would ever talk about with anyone.
Especially not Kon.
Thankfully Conner either didn’t notice the shiver, or wasn’t going to press the issue. “And as for nearly killing Captain Boomerang…” Here Kon faltered a little, struggling to find the right words to make it seem less soul-damning than it appeared.
Tim sighed. “You don’t have to say anything more, Kon.” He leaned into Conner’s half-embrace, resting his head lightly against his best friend’s chest. Even though they were both about the same age in this form, Tim’s body was still significantly smaller than Conner’s. “Thanks for trying to make me feel better.” A wry smile curled on his lips. “I still don’t feel like I deserve a Christmas, but…” He took a deep breath and let it out slowly before looking up at Conner. “…we shouldn’t let my mood spoil your fun.”
Tim nodded. Clearly he was shifting into avoidance mode, but Conner inwardly felt that if it got Tim moving, then that’d be alright for now. “What do you mean ‘my fun’?”
“Well, you’ve never been a real kid like this before. You’ve never had a chance to really get into the whole Santa Claus thing while growing up.” Tim forced a smile that looked almost genuine. “The North Pole is really awesome. There’s a whole town hidden up there that’s all about Christmas full of elves and workshops and flying reindeer and stuff.”
It was an intriguing thought that Tim planted. The more he described it, the more excited Conner felt himself get. He couldn’t help the grin that grew on his face. “Really? Elves and flying reindeer?”
Before Tim could say anything more, there was a knock on the sleeping cabin door. Conner opened the door to reveal the conductor.
“Time to fall in line, boys,” the blue suited man said as he looked over the pair of them above his wire-rimmed glasses.
Tim looked at him with surprise. “We’re already here?”
“Well that certainly isn’t Gotham City outside the window, is it?”
Tim and Conner looked out the window and saw, laid out before them, a stunning view of Christmas Village, the elusive town tucked away at the top of the world.
Once they disembarked the train, both boys’ eyes went as wide as dinnerplates. Whether it was the first time they’d seen the Christmas Village or the second, the hidden town at the top of the world was still a breathtaking sight to behold. The buildings looked like a like they’d been pulled right out of a Dicken’s story, and despite the fact that they were in the North Pole and it was snowing outside, it didn’t feel very cold at all.
It almost felt like they were standing in the middle of a holiday snowglobe.
As the conductor went on ahead of them to lead the herd of other children from the train station to the center of the village, Tim noticed, out of the corner of his eyes, that one familiar kid was not headed in that direction.
“Kon? Where are you going?”
Conner had a gleam in his eyes. “Exploring! What else?”
Tim shook his head. “No, Kon. We gotta follow the conductor. It’s fifteen minutes to midnight.”
“Please,” Conner scoffed with a roll of his eyes. “It’s been like fifteen to midnight for the last hour. We can spare a few minutes to look around.” He began to float off towards a side street, then paused to look back. “Well? Aren’t you coming?”
Tim bit his bottom lip nervously as he cast one last look at the conductor and his group of kids before finally following after Conner.
For two once-teen-now-boy vigilantes, sneaking around Christmas Village without getting caught by the numerous elves who were moving about frantically in preparation for Santa’s flight was a piece of cake. Though Tim wouldn’t admit it aloud, it was fun exploring the workshops and seeing the kind of fantastic machines used to create all sorts of different gifts. Of course it was made even more fun with Conner’s commentary.
“Have you noticed all the elves are guys?”
Tim blinked. He hadn’t until Conner mentioned it.
“Y’know,” Kon continued in a low whisper. “They kinda reminds me of the Smurfs.”
Covering his mouth with his hand and rolling his eyes, Tim tried to stifle his snickers.
“Think about it!” Conner said, needing to share his brilliant epiphany. “You got all these elves who look mostly the same but slightly different… Santa’s obviously Papa Smurf. Papa dresses all in red too, y’know… Which makes Mrs. Claus—”
“Oh will you stop!” Tim elbowed Conner, but the both of them laughed all the same.
The two of them ducked behind some machines as a small group of elves went passing by, singing Christmas carols as the went.
“See!” Kon whispered. “They even sing in unison just like them!”
After giving themselves a tour of workshops, the boys managed to find the reindeer stables. Santa clearly had more than just eight deer in his herd, as there was room for at least twenty in the barn.
“Wonder where all the rest of them are,” Tim said as he peeked into one of the empty stables.
“I dunno… Maybe out grazing? I wonder if there’s a stall for Rudolph. Do you think he’s just a real fairy tale, or does a red-nosed reindeer really exist?” Conner said as he floated down the middle of the barn. Then he stopped at one of the stables. “Hey Tim! Look at this!”
“Did you actually find Rudolph?” Tim asked in disbelief as he ran over to where Kon was and peeked over the door. “Awwww,” he said. “It’s a baby reindeer.”
Inside the stable, full of fresh, sweet smelling hay, was a pretty little doe with an even tinier fawn by her side. The doe was clearly not at all alarmed to see two strange young boys peeking at her and her baby, choosing to keep her focus on the grains she was munching on. The fawn, on the other hand, was extremely curious and not at all shy. It had never seen a boy before, let alone two. In a cute, unsteady fashion, the fawn floated up in the air and over the stable door so that it could play with Tim and Conner.
After leaving the barn, the boys wandered for a bit until they found themselves in a building with rooms filled with computers.
“Kinda reminds me of the Batcave,” Tim said as he looked around. “I guess this is the nerve center of the whole place.”
Conner was looking at one of the many monitors embedded into a nearby wall that was filled with nothing but names. “What do you think’s the deal with all these names?” he asked.
Tim walked over the monitors and took a close look. Then he paled and began backing away slowly. “Kon. I think we need to leave, now!”
“Because this is The List!”
Tim was so focused on screen in front of him that he wasn’t really paying attention to where he was going. He thought he was aiming for the door. Then his retreat was stopped abruptly when he hit something that wasn’t the door or the wall. Based on the look Conner was directing at the space right above his head, Tim knew there was only one person who was standing right behind him.
“Well what have we here,” the large man dressed in red fur with the snow white beard said as he looked over the boys in front of him.
“Oh my god!” Conner said in an awestruck tone. “It’s him! Oh my god, Tim! It’s really him!”
Tim had yet to turn around. The memories of the reasons why he felt like he didn’t deserve a Christmas had resurfaced and paralyzed him.
The terrified boy released a gasp of air he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. The voice was warm and comforting as a warm, gloved hand settled on his shoulder. He swallowed hard as a lump rose to his throat.
“It’s been a long time, hasn’t it, Timothy?”
Slowly, Tim forced himself to turn slightly and glanced upward at the man behind him. “Hello, Santa.”
Rather than the look of disappointment he’d been fearing, the timeless old man had a look of compassion and gentleness. He smiled at the young man. “Who’s your floating friend there?”
“Ah. This is Conner, my best friend,” Tim replied with a small smile. At the mention of “floating”, Conner settled himself back down to earth with a blush and a sheepish grin.
“Er… Hi… Mr. Claus, sir.”
Santa chuckled. “Conner Kent. Ah yes. Otherwise known as Kon-El, a very close relation to Kal-El and Kara Zor-El.”
Kon’s eyes went wide. “You know Clark and Kara?”
“I’m Santa. I know everyone,” the jolly elf said with a wink. Then he motioned for the boys to follow him. “I think we’ve got a few minutes before I need to head out for the night. Why don’t you join me for some milk and cookies?”
The two of them were led to the small, cozy, non-descript cottage that Santa and his wife lived in there in the city. Once inside, they were welcomed into the living room where a fire blazed happily in the fireplace before a large sofa and a pair of high backed lounge chairs. A kindly and grandmotherly Mrs. Claus brought the fore-mentioned milk and cookies before leaving the three of them on their own.
While Conner wolfed down his first cookie, Tim just stared at the one in his hand, his appetite practically nonexistant. Santa noticed, but said nothing at first. Conner noticed, and spoke up immediately, wiping the crumbs from his lips first, so as not to spray them at his best friend.
“What’s wrong? These cookies are really, really good. Even better than Alfred’s.”
Tim sighed. “I’m sure they are, but I don’t deserve them.” His head bowed sadly.
“Why don’t you think you deserve a cookie, Timothy?” Santa asked.
“I don’t mean just the cookie. I mean being here.” Tim felt the familiar lump rise up in his throat. “You know everything, right? You know I did some really bad things this year. I know I’m on your naughty list. I don’t deserve anything this Christmas.”
Santa gazed at Tim like a patient grandfather with his favorite grandson. He opened his arms and patted his left thigh invitingly. Once the upset boy was seated on his lap, he asked him a very important question while Conner watched intently.
“Are you sorry about what you did?”
Tim stared at Santa with wide-eyed confusion.
Santa clarified in a firm, but non-accusing tone. “Of course I know about the things you did. That whole seeing you while your sleeping and while your awake bit is pretty accurate. Some of it was pretty serious.” The old man nodded. “But, are you sorry about the bad things that you did?”
The boy’s blue eyes seemed almost luminous with the unshed tears that sprang up before he closed them with a nod. “I am,” he admitted in a choked voice. “What I did hurt people I care a lot about. I failed my big brother and my father. I just…” Tim voice broke slightly as he tried to repress a sob that threatened to escape. “…They’re the only family I have left, and I screwed up so badly think I lost them.”
Tim buried his face in his hands, but a moment later he felt comforting hands on his shoulders. But the hands were too small to be Santa’s.
“They’re not your only family, Tim,” Conner said firmly. “Even if you lose the Bats, you’ve still got the Titans. You’ve still got us.” Kon’s own voice choked up a little. “You’ve still got me. No matter what happens I’ll always be your best friend, no matter what. You’re my family too.”
Tim lifted his tear streaked face from his hands and looked at Conner, his young wounded heart clearly in his eyes. Then he felt a larger comforting hand on his back.
“Being genuinely sorry about doing something bad makes a huge difference in being a good person as opposed to being a bad one,” Santa said comfortingly. “If you were truly being bad, you wouldn’t have felt sorry at all.” He looked at Conner. “If you were truly bad, then you wouldn’t have friends as devoted as Conner looking out for you.” Then Santa smiled warmly. “And you’re quite mistaken about what your family thinks of you.”
Santa nodded. “You haven’t lost them, Timothy.” He motioned to the fireplace, and when Tim and Conner looked into it, the flames were revealing a scene just like a television screen.
It was 11:45pm in the Batcave on Christmas Eve, and Alfred was manning the computer with a worried expression on his face.
“Any sign of Red Robin?”
From one com link feed on the computer, Dick Grayson’s voice was heard loud and clear. “Nothing so far. But he’s been avoiding the usual patrol routes like the plague since the incident with Captain Boomerang.” A sigh could be heard on the other end of the line. “Christ, I don’t even know where to start looking for him, aside from trying to wait for him to get back to his new place.”
“I’ve already altered my patrol to stay within the area of Red Robin’s new command center,” Batman’s voice chimed in on another comm link. “When he returns home, I’ll know of it.”
“I don’t see what the big deal is,” the new younger Robin’s voice cut in.
“The big deal, little D, is the fact that tomorrow’s Christmas and Tim should be home with us for the holidays,” Nightwing insisted.
“Code names!” Robin chastised.
“Robin,” Batman said wearily. “Regardless about how you feel towards him, the fact of the matter is that Red Robin is still my adopted son and one of your older siblings, the same as Nightwing and Black Bat.” The dark knight’s voice softened. “He’s been through a lot this past year. We all have.” There was a sigh. “Christmas is a time for family, Robin, and for the first time in a long while, we’re all alive and well for the season this year. Perhaps it’s selfish of me, but for once I want the family together under one roof for this one day.”
“I hope he’ll come home,” Black Bat’s soft feminine voice chimed in over the computer. She must’ve been out on patrol too in the city, despite having just arrived from Hong Kong earlier in the day.
“I hope so too,” Batman agreed.
The image from the fireplace faded back into flames, and young Tim was staring at them with a wonderous expression.
“They want me there?” he murmured in disbelief. “They really want me to come home?”
“Of course they do, Timothy,” Santa confirmed with a smile. “They love you… Well, perhaps except for Damian, but the rest want you to be with them for Christmas. They’re your family and they care about you as much as you care about them.”
Despite the fact that his eyes were tearing up again, a relieved smile lit up Tim’s face. Conner echoed the expression, clearly happy that things were finally looking ok for his best friend. Santa then looked at the de-aged Kryptonian boy and welcomed him over to the empty spot on his leg opposite Tim. Without hesitation, Conner flew from the sofa to the jolly old man.
“And now for you, Conner. How are you enjoying being an actual boy for once?”
Kon smiled up brightly at Santa. “It’s great!” he exclaimed. “I mean… I like being a teenager and being at full power and all, but I never had a chance to just be a kid like this and it’s so awesome! I really wish I could’ve had a real childhood, but I think I can live with just this for tonight.” Then he looked over at Tim. “Especially since I got a chance to share it with Tim. Sneaking around the city here wouldn’t have been as much fun without him.”
Despite himself, Tim blushed at Conner’s declaration, and Santa laughed heartily. Then he patted Conner on the back. “Well some people have a saying. You’re only as old as you feel. Look at me. I’m over a thousand years old, but I don’t feel a day over a hundred and two.”
The boys both laughed at that.
Santa looked at Conner warmly. “As long as you feel young at heart, you’ll be young in spirit no matter how old you grow.” His eyes twinkled as he smiled. “And if, some Christmas Eve in the future, you find yourself with another ticket to the Polar Express, then you can come back here and spend another night revisiting your childhood with us here.”
“Maybe next time with some of our other friends?” Conner asked hopefully. “Bart? Cassie?”
Santa pressed a finger aside his nose. “We’ll see,” he said with a wink.
Then the old man gave the boys a conspiratorial look. “Now… Traditionally, the very first gift of Christmas is given at midnight right before I head out with my team for the night. However—” He grinned at them. “I think we can make a little exception tonight, just between the three of us, since this is a rather… unique opportunity.”
Tim smiled, but shook his head. “I got my gift last time I was here,” he said. “And even if things are all right with my family, I still don’t think I deserve a special gift like that from you.”
Conner nodded. “Being a kid for a night like this is gift enough for me,” he admitted. “I can’t really think of anything else I could want that could top this. The only thing I wish is that some of our friends could have…” Kon’s voice trailed off as an idea suddenly came to mind. His face broke out into a huge toothy grin.
“I got it! I got it! I got it! I got it!” he said excitedly. Before a confused Tim could ask him what he meant, Kon floated over to him and began whispering into his ear. Confusion was replaced by delight.
“That’s perfect! That’s the absolute best idea in the world!”
It was the sound of the alarm on Tim’s smartphone which lured the young man from the comfortable deep slumber he’d been enjoying. His blue eyes slowly opened and for a long moment he just stared at the glowing screen of his black phone in mild confusion, not quite processing what he was looking at and why it seemed off for some reason. Then he realized what was wrong there in the pre-dawn hour.
He was home, but not in his new place in downtown Gotham City.
Tim sat up in his bed and looked around at the room that was his in Wayne Manor. Then he glanced at his reflection in the nearby wall mirror. Gone was the eight-year old boy and returned was the seventeen-year old teenager.
In his pajamas.
He looked down at himself and the black t-shirt and red flannel pants he usually wore when he slept with confusion. Tim couldn’t recall changing his clothes, or even how he got to Wayne Manor. The last thing he remembered was relaxing on the train while leaning against Conner and talking about Santa, his sleigh, the ginormous sack of present, and…
Suddenly, the fog in Tim’s mind cleared as one thought cut across all his confusion. “It’s Christmas morning!”
Barely taking any time to pull on his housecoat, Tim silently slipped out of his bedroom and padded down the hallway towards the stairs on bare feet. He didn’t stop until he’d made his way to the parlor where the massive Christmas tree was gently illuminating the entire room with its twinkling lights. The dreamlike events involving the Polar Express and the North Pole suddenly seemed just a little more real, and despite himself, Tim felt a smile pull at his lips.
“Merry Christmas, Timothy.”
At the sound of Alfred’s grandfatherly voice, Tim turned around to look at the kindly old man. The smile he’d been wearing didn’t fade in the least, taking on a more affectionate quality as he nodded. “Merry Christmas, Alfred.”
Alfred stepped forward and gave Tim a warm hug. “I’m so glad you decided to come home,” the old man said gratefully. “When did you slip in?”
Tim could do little more than shrug. “It was… pretty late.” He chuckled. “I wasn’t really paying attention to the time.”
“Well no matter,” Alfred said. “Let’s get some coffee started before the rest of the household starts stirring.”
It was another hour before anyone else in Wayne Manor woke up. Of course the next person to wake was Dick, practically carrying a half-grumpy Damian along with him and being trailed by the boy’s massive dog as he cheerfully prattled on about it being Christmas morning, followed closely by both Bruce and Cassandra. All were surprised to see Tim sipping coffee along with Alfred, but at least Bruce, Dick, and Cass were visibly pleased to see their son/brother there that morning.
It was Christmas morning. All the ills of the world beyond their home, of their recent history, could be set aside for one day.
Especially when certain gifts began surfacing as presents were opened.
Alfred noticed first. He’d counted all the packages before going to bed, and he knew who had given what to whom and with what wrapping paper they’d used in the process.
“Did you bring in any additional gifts when you came home?” he asked Timothy as he turned over a mysterious box in an unfamiliar paper that had been labeled “To Alfred” in an ornate flowing gold script.
Tim recognized the paper, though he kept mum about it. It made his heart beat a little faster when he remembered where he last saw it. They’d never believe him even if he admitted the truth, though. “Maybe St. Nicholas made an extra stop last night?”
“This isn’t from you?”
Tim shook his head. “Not one of mine,” he said honestly.
Alfred turned to the others, though he was greeted with similar denials and confused looks. Suspicion graced Bruce’s features, but before he was allowed to act on it, the old man unwrapped the package, curiosity taking over instead. As soon as he saw what was hiding behind the brightly colored paper, his eyes widened in disbelief.
“Oh my…” he exclaimed breathlessly.
“Is everything alright, Alfred?” Bruce asked with concern.
“I can’t believe it,” Alfred murmured as he ran his careworn hands over the exquisite mahagony box. “It can’t be,” he said as he slowly opened the box, revealing a set of gorgeous chess figurines carved out of both pale and dark wood.
“What is it?”
Alfred picked up one of the pieces and examined it closely in the light. A smile lit up his face, and he shook his head. “It’s a chess set just like one I had when I was a child,” he admitted fondly. “I used to play with with my mother and father back in England.” The old man frowned a little. “But the original set was lost during the Blitz in World War II. When I was grown, I searched for years for a set just like it, but could never find one.” The frown faded. In the light of the gift he’d just received, it couldn’t last.
Over the course of the morning, there were other mysteriously wonderful heartfelt gifts revealed with no solid answers as to who gave them. Damian received a leatherbound book of Arabian stories that was the exact copy of one his mother used to read to him when he was younger. The gift rendered him speechless, and when he was sure no one was looking, the boy wrapped his arms around it and hugged it close. Dick’s gift was a model of the old Haly’s circus electric train set from back in the fifties. Though the tents were made of richly colored cloth, the train cars and figurines were all in meticulously hand-painted tin. Almost immediately, the former acrobat began setting up the tracks on the floor before the tree. Cass had gotten a rose engraved locket which contained something which made her eyes tear up, but she refused to share with anyone else, slipping it around her neck almost immediately. Even Bruce was awestruck when he opened his mysterious secret Santa gift to find a stack of his favorite childhood comic books waiting for him within the wrapping paper and ribbons, ever issue seeming to be in mint condition.
Tim watched the gift openings with amazement. Seeing the unrestrained joy at the unexpected gifts in the people he loved the most warmed his heart and soul like nothing else. When was the last time he’d been able to share any kind of happiness with his family?
When the doorbell rang, Tim rose up first. “I’ll get that Alfred,” he offered, and before the old man could protest, he made his way to the foyer.
“Kon!” Tim exclaimed with a grin as he saw his best friend standing on the other side of the door, shivering slightly. “Did you fly all the way here from Smallville?”
“What do you think?!” Conner groused impatiently. “Lemme in! It’s freezing out here!”
Tim laughed and welcomed him in. “Merry Christmas, by the way.”
“Merry Christmas,” Conner replied with a grin.
“So what brings you here this early? Shouldn’t you be with the rest of the Kents right now?”
“I would, except a certain someone left something for you under our tree. I had no choice but to bring it here.” Conner reached into the pocket of his winter coat and brought out a small wrapped package addressed to Tim in a familiar gold script.
Tim’s breath caught in his throat as he took the unexpected present. “For me?”
“Well it’s not addressed to me.” Conner nudged him. “Aren’t you going to open it?”
Swallowing hard, his heart thudding in his chest, Tim slowly unwrapped the gift, then opened the box. “My bell!” he exclaimed in amazement as the round silver ornament glistened in the morning light.
“Looks like there’s a note.”
Tim picked up the slip of paper folded inside. “Timothy. My wife found this last night after you left. Wanted to make sure it got back to you. May it always ring true for you. Sincerely, S.C.” The young man pulled the bell out of its box and held it to his ear before giving it a gentle shake. The sweetest ringing sound he’d ever heard echoed in the air, and both he and Conner heard it with crystal clarity.
“What do you have there, Timothy?”
The two teenagers looked over to see Alfred approaching them, trailed close behind by Damian. “Ah, Conner was just delivering a gift,” Tim said.
“That’s a rather interesting bell. May I?” Alfred had a curious, almost knowing look on his face as he held his hand out for the bell. When Tim handed him the bell, the old man did just as Tim had done, holding it close to his ear and shaking it gently, smiling as its musical jingling echoed in the foyer again.
“Well that’s stupid,” Damian said with a frown. “Who gives broken bells for Christmas gifts?”
The kindly butler chuckled before giving the bell back to Tim. “Who indeed,” he said with a wink before turning to lead Damian back into sitting room, leaving Tim and Conner sharing a secretive smile between them.