"Toby," Sarah whispered, "turn off your flashlight and come look at this." She kept her voice quiet, barely a whisper, and Toby, seven now and seeming to get bigger every day, grinned because he knew that tone of voice and exactly what it meant. He immediately did as instructed, wriggling out of his sleeping bag and, comic book he had been reading still clutched in his hand, joining Sarah where she sat cross-legged, looking out through the open tent flap into the night beyond.
Sarah did not know if her time in the Labyrinth had left its mark upon her like an indelible magic fingerprint or if she had merely learned how to "look at things the right way," as Mr. Worm would call it, not just accepting how something seemed to be at first glance but really looking until she saw it for what it really was. And the more that she looked at the world, the more she saw that there was magic everywhere, not just in the Underground, which had been quite the revelation to her teenaged self. It was one thing to play at the idea of hidden magical worlds while lamenting how mundane life really was; it was quite another thing to discover that magic was real and pervasive and not something which could be put on a shelf and forgotten when you tired of it and wanted to return to your uneventful little life of comfort and safety. If you toyed with magic, however unknowingly, you risked it toying right back, as Sarah had learned at her peril all those years ago.
However, Sarah's time in the Labyrinth had taught her other lessons as well, such as the fact that magical folk were still people, and however strange they seemed most of them were more likely to treat you with friendship than hostility if you did the same to them. Therefore, Sarah chose to embrace magic wherever she found it unless it gave her a reason (such as kidnapping defenseless babies) to do otherwise, and she chose to share it with her little brother whenever possible, because knowledge was power, and because when faced with seemingly insurmountable odds, having a wide array of friends could be a lot of help too. This night spent out in 'the wilderness' of a state park campsite to help Toby prepare for the week-long camping trip his Cub Scout troop was going to be taking next month looked like another perfect opportunity to share something with Toby which few others could, assuming he cooperated, of course.
"I can't see anything," Toby whispered back after not very many fruitless seconds of squinting at the darkness.
"That's what you get for spending the past hour practically shining that light in your face when you should have been trying to sleep," she said, still keeping her voice low. She wrapped an arm around his shoulders and pulled him close in a semi-hug to remove any sting her words might have unintentionally carried. "You'll just have to wait for your eyes to adjust to the dark again. Be patient."
Toby spent another few minutes glaring into the darkness as if he could get it to reveal its secrets through sheer force of will then gave a quite sigh and asked, "Can I have a hint?"
"Well," she said, drawing the word out as if pretending to think deeply about the matter, "I suppose I could, but only because you're my favorite brother."
"I'm your only brother!" Toby complained, and Sarah was proud that he continued to keep his voice down even during such a moment of sibling-induced frustration. It meant that even though he could not yet see what out there, he believed her when she said there was something worth seeing and didn't want to risk scaring it away.
"And that's a good thing, too," she said. "If you weren't my only brother, then any other brothers we had would be so jealous, because you'd still be my favorite. After all, I don't drag myself out into the woods to go camping with just anybody." She ruffled his hair until, giggling quietly, he squirmed out from under her hand.
"Sarah! You said you'd give me a hint."
"That's right, I did, didn't I? Now, would you like an easy hint or a riddle hint?"
"Saaaarrrraaaahhhh," Toby whined as only a seven year old can.
"Someday you'll ask for a riddle, and that will be the day I know you ran away and let some changeling take your place," Sarah said. "For now though, look near the fire pit." Earlier in the evening, their campfire had roasted many marshmallows and acted as a funeral pyre for one unfortunate half of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich which had fallen in the dirt, but in the hours since then it had died down to nothing but coals. Now that Toby looked, he could see the silhouette of something moving and occasionally blocking the faint red glow of the remaining coals. The shape stood a little over a foot and a half high and looked like it might have a pointed snout and a long, skinny tail trailing out behind.
"Aww, that's just a 'possum. We learned about those back in kindergarten," Toby grumbled, but he kept watching, because he had never seen a real opossum before, at least not one that wasn't dead by the side of the road. His mother had found one living in the garbage can outside once while taking out the trash, but she had shouted and chased it away with a broom without letting him see it first. The next day, she had made his father buy a new garbage can with a latch on it, and there had never been any signs of an opossum near the house ever again. Still, Toby had been hoping for something really special, like the sorts of things his big sister usually pointed out to him, the sorts of things nobody else seemed to ever even see.
"Are you sure?" Sarah said, not yet willing to admit defeat in face of Toby's obvious disappointment. "Look harder."
"Still looks like a 'possum."
"I don't know about your teachers, but none of mine ever said anything about opossums walking on their hind legs and using sticks to stir a dying fire back to life and warm their paws," Sarah said.
Toby looked harder, and now that his eyes had finally had some to time to adjust to the darkness, he saw. "Oh," he said, his smile returning. "Wow." He did not know how he had missed it before, but course his sister was right. The small being was about the right size to be a very large opossum and had a tail like an opossum, but its face, though pointy, was too long and too lumpy, and though it had wispy gray hair on its head, the rest of its shaggy gray fur was attached to a patchwork coat and trousers instead of growing from its skin. When it opened its mouth to blow on the coals, Toby could see lots of sharp teeth, and its claws were long and sharp-looking too. The being threw a few small twigs onto the coals and then went back to poking at pushing the coals around with its stick. As the being moved, the blade of a knife tucked into its belt gleamed in the dull red light of the slowly reviving fire. "Is it dangerous?" Toby whispered.
"Probably," Sarah said, "but dangerous is not always the same as hostile, just like looking scary isn't the same as being a monster. I could be dangerous if I needed to be." And she really could, too. Hoggle, Sir Didymus, Ludo, and many of Sarah's other friends from the Labyrinth had shared their tricks and skills with her over the years. She had not yet mastered all of them, but she knew more than enough to get out of most confrontations. "I don't want to act dangerous all the time, though. Most people don't, even the magic ones." She crawled out of the tent, stood, brushed the dirt from her knees, and then offered a hand to Toby. "They look cold and hungry, and we have sandwiches and firewood. Let's see if we can make a friend."
And that's exactly what they did.