Christmas lights, the Achilles heel of Molly Holiday. Okay, so it wasn't the Christmas lights she really had a problem with, it was the heights. She was supposed to be decorating the central tent since the acrobats were done with rehearsal. However, at the moment she was standing on the ground, staring up at the ceiling and trying to banish the butterflies from her stomach.
"Well, here goes nothing," she said, but her body didn't move. "Oh, come on!" she said to her feet. "Ari can fly higher than that when he's a cat!" Still, her winter boots refused to budge.
Molly's heart leapt as she spotted Sophia jogging past the bleachers carrying an empty cardboard box. Sophia didn't mind heights, so perhaps…
"Hurry up with those lights, Molls. Dinner will be ready soon." And with that, her hopes were dashed as Sophia ducked through the tent flap and headed toward the dining car. Had she really been stalling for that long? Regardless, she was clearly the last one left decorating. Everyone else was already tucking their napkins into their shirt collars. Well, almost everyone.
"You haven't seen Ari, have you?" asked Hal, poking his head inside the tent. His hair was ruffled and his voice out of breath.
"Nope." Molly averted her gaze and fiddled with the string of light bulbs awkwardly. "Is it your turn to catch him tonight?"
"Yeah, wish me luck." Just when it looked like he was about to go, Hal parted the tent flaps again. "You're still working on those Christmas lights? Don't be too long, or Micah and Pippin will have eaten all the good stuff." And just as Sophia had, he disappeared.
If only the central tent wasn't so tall. She was usually able to make it about thirteen feet in the air before her limbs froze up. If only she was a fearless acrobat, or an Avian Shifter, or…
"Evening, kitten. Ehm-hm-hm." The nasally giggle tickled Molly's ear. A shifty looking cat with midnight blue stripes floated around her head on a crackling cloud of frost. After all these years, she still jumped every time he materialized in front of her. Ari stared at her with wide, unblinking eyes, and his frost coated tail swung like a pendulum.
"Hal is looking for you," she said coolly, and began walking toward the ladder that led up to the catwalk. Normally, Molly was quite happy to stop and chat with the Season Shifter. However, his winter personality was a little too mischievous for her taste.
With a loud crack, the cat disappeared and popped up again in front of her once more. "Is that so? Ehm-hm." Ari giggled and grinned at her, flicking his tail close to her nose.
She huffed. "If you want to speak to me, I prefer it be face to face. Not face to fur." The cat seemed to shrug, and Molly watched him slowly morph into a young man with icy blue eyes and unruly black hair.
"If you're going to be snippy," he said in a deeper voice. It oozed a pompous tone that she assumed was meant to mock her, "then I would be happy to go to supper." He smiled impishly. "I hear that it's taco night."
"What do you want, Ari?" Molly sighed and placed the hand that wasn't wrapped up in Christmas lights on her hip. The Season Shifter pressed his palms together, his long fingers creating a steeple, and he pursed his lips.
"I intended to offer you my assistance, but if you don't want it…"
Molly sighed again, but this time in relief. "Oh, thank goodness," she said and held out her arms, the festive string of lights in a tangled heap. "I hate when this chore falls to me. I just can't seem to -" But before she could finish, the wind left her lungs. Everything happened so suddenly, and it couldn't have been longer than ten seconds. Ari disappeared, and almost instantaneously she felt an ice cold arm curl around her waist.
Then she was flying.
It was confusing at first, trying to figure out how she had come to soar through the air. After the initial shock, it was exhilarating! No sensation in her experience had ever felt so freeing. Ari dropped her on the square platform that was connected to the tightrope. As soon as her feet were under her once again, they wobbled dangerously, and Molly's heart jumped into her throat. The lights fell from her arms, and she desperately grasped one of the bracing poles. A small squeak emitted from her throat, and she heard Cat Ari's nasal laugh.
"Ari," her voice quivered. "Please, this isn't funny!" With a crackle of frost, Cat Ari appeared along the tightrope, about seven feet away from Molly's perch.
"I don't know," he said and did a lazy summersault through the air. "You look pretty silly from over here."
"I-I me-an it," she stuttered, but the would be threat came out all breathy and wrong. "Help me d-down, now!"
Cat Ari's oblong Cheshire face shifted into one of skepticism as he studied her. Even then, he was still grinning madly. "Ehm-hm! And why should I?" He did a barrel roll through the air and wrapped his tail around the tightrope, so that he resembled a monkey hanging from a tree. "After all, you're just like the rest of them."
Molly's knuckles were white around the pole, and slick with sweat. Cautiously, she slid down in an attempt to sit. If she was going to exchange riddles with Ari, then she didn't want to be distracted by vertigo. "Like the rest of them?" she asked, feeling more confident now that her legs were folded under her.
Cat Ari vaporized in a poof of cold air, and then reappeared again as the human version of himself. He sat facing her, his legs similarly crossed, except he was impossibly sitting lightly on the tightrope. The smile had vanished from his visage, and Molly was almost sorry to see it go. This Ari looked frightening indeed.
"They all say they will stay, but no one ever does."
"I'm not going anywhere, Ari," she assured him. "I promise." His lips quirked, but this time there was no humor in it. He didn't believe her. "Would I make a promise that I couldn't keep?"
"No," he agreed with her, but then added, "Not knowingly, at least."
Molly frowned. It troubled her to see him so serious. Winter Ari was never serious, that was Autumn Ari's personality. Winter Ari was meant to be playful and impish. Not once had Molly ever thought that she would wish for him to revert back to his mischievous ways, but she liked this somber man even less than she liked Cat Ari. She couldn't just blow him off, though. Not when he was clearly so hurt and so worried.
"What do you think is going to take me away from the circus?" she asked.
"Life." He was so sure of his answer, that he didn't have to think about it for even a nanosecond. Ari looked her right in the eyes, and didn't blink. "Real life," he clarified, "not whatever this is." He waved his arms around the central tent. "You may not want to leave, but you won't have a choice. Not even I could stop you from leaving; not if I stranded you a thousand miles in the air." Ari's icy eyes became soft and sad at this revelation.
Before Molly had the chance to respond, the Season Shifter vanished. Once again, she felt a cold arm grip her waist firmly, and she gently floated back down to the ground. When she turned to face him, Molly was surprised to find a tiny frozen tear on his cheek. She reached up to wipe it away, but Ari swatted her hand. He reached up himself, and with a comical expression, flicked the little crystal and sent it sailing.
"Well," he said haughtily and placed his hands on his hips. "I suppose as punishment for scaring the willies out of the Ring Master's daughter, I should finish decorating." Ari glanced at her from the corner of his eye and winked, right back to his old self again.
"You really don't have to -" Molly started to say, but Ari took her by the shoulders and began to physically shove her from the tent.
"Nonsense!" he said grandly. "Go eat with your friends. Have fun, be merry!" He gave her one final hip check that sent her stumbling through the tent flaps. Ari poked just his head out and grinned. "I hear it's taco night." He ducked back inside the tent in a flurry of snowflakes.
When she finally made her way to the dining car, Molly ran into a very frustrated Halcyon. He was muttering to himself, cursing Ari and his future children. The anger seemed to drain out of him as soon as he caught sight of her. "Molly, you look white as a sheet!"
Molly held her hands to her cheeks. "I do?" She must have still been pale from her encounter with the tightrope. She was about to tell Hal that she had found the wayward Season Shifter, but the Avian Shifter must have realized it himself.
"Ari!" he bellowed and took off at a brisk pace toward the central tent. Molly could see feathers sprouting from his arms, ready to shift fully at a moment's notice should he have to chase Ari into the night sky. She hurried after him.
Hal burst into the central tent, followed by Molly seconds later. Except for some reason, he had stopped short just inside, and Molly collided with his back. Once she regained her balance, she noticed that Hal's eyes were wide and his jaw had gone slack. She turned her head to see what he was staring at, and then her breath caught in her throat.
The central tent was covered in Christmas lights, Christmas wreaths, there were mini Christmas trees completely decorated with delicate ornaments. The most incredible part though, was that it was somehow snowing inside the tent. Hal blinked at Molly. "You did all this in ten minutes?"
She shook her head, awestruck. "This wasn't me." With a loud crack, Ari materialized in front of the tent flap. This seemed to snap Hal out of whatever spell the Winter Wonderland had had over him.
"There you are," he said, but he sounded significantly less antagonized than he had just a minute ago.
The Season Shifter grinned smugly. "It looks good, doesn't it?" All Molly could do was mutely nod. "You'll have time to admire my work later, though. Let's go to the dining car, I'm starved."
Molly lingered a moment longer than the boys. Ari must have been a whirlwind to do all of this in just a minute or so. It really did look beautiful. In such a short time, he had managed to capture the magical essence of the holiday season. Suddenly, she heard someone clear their throat behind her. She jumped, but it was only Ari.
"I almost forgot," he said. He glanced skyward conspiratorially. Molly looked up.
"Is that mistletoe?" she started to ask, but before she could finish, Molly felt a pair of cold lips on hers. She gasped, and her eyes became as wide as saucers. Ari chuckled, and evaporated in a flurry of snow and frost.