A/N: IMPORTANT! Howl's name was changed to Halcyon (Hal).
Molly Holiday sat thoughtfully on a metal folding chair under the central circus tent. An enormous book titled ACT Preparation 101 rested in her lap as she poured over the mathematics section. Algebra and trigonometry didn't sit well with Molly. She had tried testing herself with the suggested period of time given in the book, but that had only served to make her even more nervous and scatterbrained. After two hours of taking and retaking the sample tests, Molly slammed the book shut and threw it on the ground.
"What am I going to do?" she muttered and dropped her head into her hands. If she didn't do well on her ACT, then she'd never be considered for any major scholarships and she could kiss college goodbye.
"Study issues?" Molly looked up to see Sophia, one of the Fire Handlers, standing in front of her. Sophia's black hair was sculpted into taut spikes currently. Her slightly revealing uniform showed off the impressive and very animate dragon tattoo along her shoulder blades. It slithered and writhed and blew inky tendrils of smoke across her tan skin.
Molly shrugged. "It's math, and I know how you feel about numbers."
Sophia winced. "Yeah, that's not really my thing," she said and reached to pick up the discarded ACT prep book. "Now if you needed help sewing a fire retardant jumper, then I'd be your gal." Molly chuckled and took back her study book.
"I don't suppose you would know of anyone who's good at math, would you?"
Sophia frowned, "Just your dad, and he's a little busy what with tourist season coming up." Mr. Holiday happened to be the Master of Ceremonies at the Holiday Traveling Circus, hence the name. Molly huffed once more in utter frustration and flipped the book back open to the algebra section.
"Although…" Sophia said, a tiny smile forming on her lips, "there is always the resident Season Shifter." At the mention of Season Shifter, Molly froze. Sophia was, of course, referring to another member of the Holiday Circus, Artemis Snow. Mr. Holiday often reminded everyone that Season Shifters were rare and they were lucky to have Ari, but it didn't change the fact that nobody really liked him. By nature, Season Shifters were temperamental. Not only did their abilities and appearance change according to the season, but so did their personalities, and Ari was no exception. With his constant mood swings and teasing nature, he was a bit intimidating and some found him arrogant and self-centered. Molly categorized herself as being a part of the first group.
"Yeah Soph, I don't know about that. I mean, he's probably doing… stuff." Molly wiped her palms, which were starting to sweat, against her jeans.
"I'm sure he has his routines down to a tee. He can take a break." Sophia grabbed Molly's wrist. Molly watched as the tattoo dragon's forelegs wrapped around Sophia's arms, giving her the strength of a real dragon. It would have been useless for Molly to try and resist. Molly clutched her study book tightly to her chest as Sophia dragged her through the hodgepodge of activity under the central tent. She guided their way through the maze of practice routines until Molly heard a distinctly frustrated and male voice.
"Watch the pyrotechnics, Ari! I'm not your freaking dance partner, you know!" Halcyon Bast, an Avian Shifter, glowered up at Artemis Snow who was balancing atop a particularly tall unicycle. He appeared to be juggling several sparklers, one of which had just narrowly missed Hal's blond hair.
"My bad, H.B." Ari grinned down at his friend. Hal rolled his eyes and grumbled.
"Hey Ari." Sophia smiled and waved to the boy. "You got a minute?"
"For you?" Ari extinguished the sparklers and ran a hand through his ebony hair. "Gee Sophia, I don't know…"
Hal crossed his arms and scowled. "You want me to shake him down?" He looked tempted to grab the unicycle and do just that.
"Not necessary." Ari hoisted himself from the seat and slid gracefully to the ground. "Now, what can I do for you?" he flashed a charming grin.
Sophia elbowed Molly, who stumbled forward. "Moll's having some math troubles, and you came to mind." The Season Shifter and the Fire Handler smiled conspiratorially at each other. Molly frowned. This was beginning to feel a lot like a set up.
"Why I'd be honored to assist you, Molly dear." Ari swept into an extravagant bow. "Right this way, if you please." Sophia gave her another shove forward, and then took Hal by the elbow intent on drawing him away from the pair.
"Honestly, Hal," Molly overheard Sophia say to the Avian Shifter, "if I didn't know any better, I'd never guess you and Ari are a best friends."
"It's my curse, apparently," he grumbled, and then the two faded into the crowd. Molly turned around and saw that Ari had perched himself on the lowest row of bleachers. He grinned and patted the spot next to him. She felt her palms start to sweat profusely and her knees began to shake. Molly took a deep breath. She could do this. He was just another part of the circus, the circus she had grown up in. Right, she could talk math with Artemis Snow as long as she kept thinking that.
Gingery, she sat down on the edge of the bleachers and clutched her ACT book to her chest. Ari smiled at her warmly and held out his hand for the study guide, which Molly handed over reluctantly. Now she didn't know what to do with her hands.
"Okey dokey, let's get started," Ari said cheerfully and tossed her prep book over his shoulder. "We won't be needing that." Molly's jaw dropped.
"Uh, yeah we will," she pointed out. "How are you supposed to teach me algebra if neither of us can see the problems?" Ari pursed his lips and squinted at her, shaking his head condescendingly.
"Math isn't your problem."
Molly growled and balled her fists. After two hours of struggling, Ari thought math wasn't her problem? She rubbed her eyes furiously, blinking back tears.
"Yes, math is my problem."
"No," he said adamantly, "it's focus. You just don't know how to narrow your focus under pressure."
"And you do?"
At this, Ari gave her a patronizing look. "Molly, I'm a fire juggler, a feline acrobat, a death defying clown, and the host of the haunted house all depending on the time of year. I think I know a thing or two about focus."
"Fine," she said and crossed her arms with a huff. Yes it was a bit childish, but she was so tired and frustrated that she almost didn't care if she threw a temper tantrum in front of her childhood crush. "How do I focus, then? Enlighten me."
"Right," he said and rolled up his sleeves. "First of all, you want to pick something to concentrate on. Preferably something stationary." That was easier said than done. Everything under the central tent was moving! Finally, Molly settled on Ari's discarded unicycle about ten feet away.
"Okay, now what?" she asked, looking up at the Season Shifter's dark orange eyes.
"You've got it pictured in you head?" Molly nodded. Ari raised an eyebrow skeptically. "So you could describe it in detail, without looking at it." Molly thought hard. One scuffed wheel, a black seat with orange stars, and orange peddles. She nodded and blushed. Molly had spent a fair amount of time staring at Ari, and consequently his favorite unicycle, over the years.
"Okay, so here's what I do," he said, and his eyes lit up. "Every time you start feeling flustered and confused, stop for a second, breathe, and describe that thing in your head until your thoughts are clear again."
"And that actually works?" Molly stared at Ari, disbelieving.
He shrugged. "It works fine for me. And if that technique can keep me focused one hundred feet from the ground, then I think it will serve you well during a standardized test." He smiled again, but it was the kind of smile that made Molly's stomach melt and seep down to her toes. He wasn't teasing her like he did most of the time. He stood up then, about to head back to his unicycle, when Molly thought of something.
"What's your thing? The thing you focus on when you're feeling nervous." Ari turned around at the sound of her voice, and then chuckled like he was sharing an inside joke with someone. Molly wondered what was so funny about her question.
"Do you remember that old sea chest your dad told me to store underneath my bunk?" Molly nodded, excited that she was soon going to learn something about her friend who never shared anything personal. Ari laughed again and winked at her. "It's not that."
Her heart dropped, and judging by Ari's expression, her disappointment must have showed. He turned around and started to walk away again. "Is it in the sea chest?" Molly tried once more for some sort of clue.
"Nope!" Ari hollered over his shoulder.
Molly scowled over his evasiveness and went to retrieve her fallen study guide. It had landed about two rows up after Ari had thrown it away. She sat back down and flipped it open to the math section again. She clocked her starting time on her wrist watch and set to work. Molly was already beginning to feel muddled and frustrated by the third problem, so she closed her eyes and took a deep breath. In her mind, she tried to image the unicycle with its orange stars, but all she could see were Ari's orange eyes. When she pictured the black seat, Molly saw Ari's dark wavy hair falling across his face. And when she tried to imagine the peddles, all she could think about was Ari's nimble feet shifting back and forth, navigating the tricky one-wheeled contraption.
Molly opened her eyes and looked back down at the page. It didn't seem like such an impossible jigsaw puzzle anymore. It didn't look that scary at all. In fact…
"Got it!" she said and laughed while she colored in the circle for option B.
Maybe, Molly thought as she worked on at a steady pace, periodically closing her eyes and taking a stabilizing breath. Just maybe, math isn't so bad after all.