In the Forest
Title: The Weak Things of the World
Disclaimer: This story is based on characters and situations created and owned by JK Rowling, various publishers including but not limited to Bloomsbury Books, Scholastic Books and Raincoast Books, and Warner Bros., Inc. No money is being made and no copyright or trademark infringement is intended.
Jack stumbled out of the car onto the soft, muddy shoulder, fighting back and forth and back again against the tangled seatbelt. He wrenched free, slammed the door, and leaned back, waiting for things to steady before crouching down and staring at the wheel. Impossible to see without a torch, it being the middle of the night - there was a little light on his keychain, one with a battery - and his keychain was in the car - fuck. The hubcap was gone, anyway, definitely gone. He had lost it a ways back maybe, when he'd swerved to miss that cat - fox - thing.
Something shone among the trees for just a moment. Hubcaps shone, of course, and he heaved himself up to climb the hill into the forest. Soon he was pretty well lost, and he'd been told to stay in one place, always, and wait for things to sort themselves out somehow when he was lost. So he stopped, and waited, and patted the flask in his jacket pocket for comfort but it bounced empty against his chest. Severe disappointment.
There was the light again, a yellow light like a steady flame, not a hubcap. A little boy was holding it out in front of himself, a square glass box with a handle and - lantern. He was wearing a grey poncho sort of thing with the hood thrown back, and stood up on his toes to peer into the trunk of a tree with a little hop and shake the lantern at it. Silly little elf, out by the highway at this hour with no one to hold his hand. There were animals out here that came and jumped in front of cars. It was dangerous.
Jack took a quick step back when something shifted by his foot. It was only a toy, though - toy horse, looked like, with a soft suede hide and black feathered wings that were bright in the lantern light, pretty things, expensive probably. He picked it up. It was warm, and it moved, pushing its tiny hoof against his palm and stretching one wing while the other twitched brokenly. It had soft, docile eyes. Jack let out an explosion of breath.
There was a high-pitched gasp. The boy's face was stark white and looking straight at him, his eyes terrified. Jack tried to think of something to say.
The boy turned and ran, and a second later - too soon - he disappeared, light and all, like something had swallowed him up. Jack swallowed too, squinting into to the dark, and started to feel uneasy. A car went by down the hill and to his left. He turned to follow the noise, pushing the little horse into his pocket, and knew he'd have a real story for tomorrow morning if he could just get at his keys.
Two days later it was Friday and Draco had caught up on his sleep; today he didn't have tutors, and breakfast was at nine. He couldn't have gotten up at seven again after being out until almost one on Wednesday night looking for his stupid Mikrippon, the second one that had flown away for no reason. He had to find it because he wouldn't get another one if he asked, not now that he'd lost so many. If Mother and Father knew he had sneaked out he probably wouldn't get another one anyway, but he could tell they didn't know. Father sat behind his newspaper at the head of the table and Mother was listening patiently to Grandmother, who was sitting up very straight in her chair and complaining again. Draco wished she were skinnier and bent-looking like Grandfather had been. He'd asked Father once how long people lived if they didn't have dragon pox. It turned out they could stick around for ages.
"This is how it begins," she said in her creaking voice as her fork floated above her untouched eggs. "It's only one or two of them at first, and then you have a mob on your hands - a mob, an actual mob."
Draco took his seat and reached immediately for the preserves.
"I'm sure they're only vagrants," Mother replied. "They'll move on soon enough. I hope you won't fret too much over them."
"Will they? This isn't the first time it's happened. It isn't. Why, when I was a girl, a whole pack of them tried to take the main gate, bristling with pitchforks and all manner of awful nonsense. Lucius, you must run them off."
Father folded his paper down. A man's face smiled out at them all, small and upside down, from page six. "Have some bacon, Draco," he said, eyeing his plate with disapproval. "You can't start the day on toast."
"There are Muggles camping at the southeast corner. You must do something about it."
"I'd rather not."
"What sort of vile abdication - "
"Hornby's spot on the Board is about to open up," he said, taking a careful sip of his tea. "A pile of dead Muggle tramps on the doorstep isn't quite the thing."
Grandmother sniffed. "I don't know what sort of people these are you're throwing in with, who would fault you for dealing properly with trespassers -"
"They haven't trespassed, nor can they. You're off to visit Electra this weekend, are you not?"
"Oh, how wonderful," Mother chimed in, leaning over to pour more milk into Grandmother's tea. "Cannes is so lovely - you'll be staying a while?"
"Father," Draco said, before he could cover himself up again with the paper. "Can we go to the Menagerie today?"
"You have your French to finish, Draco."
"But I'll have it done before lunch."
Mother smiled at him across the table. "I'll take you, dearest. As soon as you've finished up."
"And why is it you want to go?" Father asked. He always asked one too many questions.
Draco busied himself with chipping at his bacon. "My Mikrip flew away, and I want another one."
"No." The paper flew up again. "That's the second one you've lost. I've told you at least three times that you're not to take them outside. That's enough."
"But it wasn't my fault -"
"No. You won't have another until you prove you're capable of holding onto it for more than five minutes."
Draco turned to his mother, his shoulders sagging in frustration. How was he supposed to prove that when he didn't have one? But she only gave him a cautious little shake of her head. He let out a loud sigh and pushed his plate away.
"Dad, it's past midnight."
"Hush, you." Jack sat with his back to a tree, torch propped between his ankles and glaring deep into the woods. The horse lay on his knee. It hadn't moved much over the past couple of days. Daniel hadn't seen it move at all, said it was only a doll and that he drank too much, him, as if he hadn't seen Dan half pissed with those layabout friends of his at ten in the morning on a Sunday. Fine thing to see on your way to the market, your son having a lager for breakfast.
"You can't sleep out here."
"I can. I did last night. Be quiet, now."
"If you won't come home, I'm calling Officer Walker to take you -"
Jack snapped his fingers at him and gave a huff. He couldn't hear a thing with him going on like that. Dan always thought he knew everything, but he was hardly ever worth listening to, poor fool.
They sat in silence for a while. Dan muttered now and again, and Jack lightened his flask minute by minute. He knew it was important that he stay, even if he didn't know why. Sometimes you couldn't know everything.
Something about the trees in front of him changed. He blinked.
"You!" The word was a harsh, distant whisper that came from no direction. Jack stood. He thought he could see a light, but dim and diffuse like a bulb hanging behind a curtain.
Dan started to push himself up. "Are we going, then? Come on -"
"You, I said! You'd better come here!" The whisper broke into a high, irritated voice, and the command pulled the curtain away - the forest Jack had seen disappeared and there were new trees, different ground, a little boy with his lantern and a furious sneer. Jack walked up to him, holding the horse in his hand. Dan cursed behind him and - by the sound of him - started digging around in the bushes.
"It's late to be out alone in the middle of nowhere," Jack said, watching the boy's lantern, which was filled with flitting little lights like insects. "Where's your mother?"
"That's mine." The boy pointed to the horse, but seemed reluctant to come close enough to grab it. "That's mine, and you had better give it back. My father will have your hide if you don't."
Jack held it out to him without protest. It was his, there was no question about that, and just because the child didn't have any manners didn't mean he shouldn't have what was his. The boy snatched it away and stuffed it into his cloak, thrusting the lantern out in front of him like some kind of weapon.
Jack turned to tell his son to shut his mouth, but there was Dan not five feet behind him, staring right through him like he'd gone blind.
"Dad!" He came closer, leaning to pick up the torch and stumbling forward. "Where the bloody hell have you got to, you -" And then Dan should have stumbled right into him, but instead he disappeared, torch and all. Jack heard him a moment later and he sounded like he was a mile away in the other direction, still shouting. "Dad!"
The boy was staring at Jack's other hand, where he was clutching his car keys. "What is that?" he demanded, lifting his pointed little chin into the air. "It's not a pitchfork, is it?"
Jack shook Dan out of his mind. Let him look a while, it'd do him good. Wherever he'd gone. "A pitch -? No, of course not. They're keys, you see." He jangled them and dropped them in his pocket, because it really wouldn't do to lose them.
"Well, they don't look like keys. Do you have a pitchfork?"
Jack grinned, and wiped his hand over his face. What a funny little creature. "I don't. I'm a janitor, not a farmer."
"You're a Muggle."
"And you need your mouth washed out, young man," he said, putting a bit of the whip into his voice even though he wasn't sure it was true. It didn't sound like a good word, though, and you couldn't let children go calling you things they'd made up and letting them think they'd gotten away with something.
"You won't touch me," the boy said, sticking his hand out to dig in Jack's pocket. "Give me those, I don't believe you. They don't look like keys to me."
Jack grabbed his wrist and held. When the boy tried to jerk back, he squeezed. "Now, you don't just go grabbing other people's things. We're going to find your mother, and you can tell her -"
"Let go!" There was a desperate rustling sound as the boy tried to scramble backward and his feet shuffled around in the leaves. "Get out, get out!"
It was like being hit by a train. The whole forest slammed into him. His hand was ripped from the boy's wrist with a violence that made him heartsick and he heard a yelp before he found himself on his back in the brush, his head spinning. There was Dan, ten paces off, in the other forest, the one that had fallen away like a theatre backdrop. The boy and his woods and his horse and lantern were gone. Jack checked his pocket: he still had his keys.
"Dad! Where the hell did you go?"
He waved his son off, pulling himself to his feet. "You never had any patience," he said when his breath returned to him and he started for the car again. "Never could just sit and wait and see."
Draco came to breakfast just as Mother was sitting down, dragging her chair around the corner of the table to sit close beside Father. She leaned her elbow on the arm of his chair. "Well," she said, "they've gone."
"Perhaps they've followed her to France," Father said, and for a moment they were both hidden behind the paper. "Perhaps none of them will come back."
"Lucius. You'll get my hopes up."
"I absolutely live to -"
"Look," Draco broke in, laying his Mikrip down on the table. They both gave a start - they hadn't noticed him.
"Oh, you've found it!" Mother jumped out of her chair and came to his side to smooth his hair down and lean over him to look at his pet. "I knew you would, my darling. Is it sick? We'll buy you a new one this afternoon."
"He's only hungry," Draco said, poking at the Mikrip until it stood. It was unsteady and its wing was all wrong, but maybe that would heal up.
"And where was it?" Father asked. Draco knew he'd find some reason to scold him no matter what, even though it wasn't his fault.
"He was outside. But the tentacula in the garden had him," Draco rushed to add, lying easily. They couldn't think it was his fault if that awful plant had done it. He hated that plant. And he couldn't tell them it had really been a Muggle. He pushed back his sleeve to show the bruise that had grown up all around his wrist where that man had grabbed him. "See? It tried to get me, too, when I pulled him out."
Mother made a soft, distressed sound and grabbed his hand. Even Father raised his eyebrows, the way he sometimes did when someone had just said something very wrong indeed.
"Well," Father said, laying down his paper. "It's high time we had it ripped out, in any case."
Draco let Mother press a kiss to his wrist before tugging his hand away. He scooped the Mikrippon into his lap.
"Now, Lucius." Mother's voice was sharp and a bit too loud.
"Quite." Father pushed himself out of his chair and started for the hall. He called for an elf and started telling it what to do, to burn the plant out of the ground.
The Mikrippon stirred against Draco's hand. He watched it try to stand on the napkin that was spread over his lap, and the fragile way it carried its mangled wing made him feel very strange. He stroked its neck under the table where no one could see. He felt bad, but he didn't know why. He'd be glad to see the tentacula go, and no one would ever know he had lied, so it was stupid to be so scared all of a sudden that they would find out. He pulled his sleeve down over his bruise and sank lower into his chair.