Golden sunlight dripped from the leaves as we swung through the forest. I was careful not to touch the sticky substance.
My tail tightened around a thin branch, which I used for balance as I vaulted myself towards Sphynx.
"I can't believe it," he said in his odd language of clicks and whistles. "I can't believe the melting seasons are already here." He shuddered from his position as he hung from the tree. "I've heard about it of course, but I never realised how sad it is to leave home."
I pulled myself into a squatting position above him and readjusted the flower behind my ear. "It's not so bad. Things will look different when we return, but it's kind of fun. We get to clean everything and redecorate--just like moving to a new tree!" I scratched at my cheek with my back paw.
His tawny wings fluttered in surprise as he struggled to stay on the now-swaying branch we rested on. "Watch it! Just because you can balance well doesn't mean I can!"
I stopped scratching at my fur and tried to steady our branch. "Sorry." I sniffed the air, quickly searching for any predators, and then plopped down on the branch, letting my lilac arms hang down. "Look, the melting season doesn't last too long. And it's fun! We get to explore new places, try new types of food, and all kinds of stuff. You'll like it." I purred at the memories that swept over me like morning mist.
He raked his small, bony hands across his snout, covering his jaws with leathery wings. "I don't know," he clicked, "I'm just not the adventurous type, Malaya."
I blinked slowly at him, a smile curling my lips and exposing my fangs. "You're too Leatherwing for your own good," I complained teasingly.
"Hey, I can't help what I was born!"
I bobbed my head in laughter. Suddenly, a distant howl made my ears perk up.
"What is it?" Sphynx asked. "Predator?" He quickly let go of the branch and fluttered in the air beside me.
I shook my head and shrugged in guilt. "No, it's just my mother. I've been avoiding her all day."
The space between his eyebrows furrowed. "Why?"
I grinned. "Because if she sees me, she'll want my help with the packing."
He snorted. "Go home, Malaya. Your poor mother must be worried!"
"She won't be, but I'll go anyway." I stretched out on the branch, arching my back. "She knows I'm tough enough to take on any predator in the entire forest."
He shook his head. "Or dumb enough." He flew just out of reach before I could swat him. "See you at the Gathering!" Laughing, he disappeared into the woods.
I growled before shaking my head and taking off for home. Unlike him, I didn't have wings to carry me, so my run would be long.
The next morning smiled upon us with her smell of adventure and promise.
I bounced anxiously on my paws. Mother noticed my energy and draped her tail over my head.
"Calm down, Malaya. You're scaring the prey families," she hissed.
I glanced out of the corner of my eye at a grass-jumper family. They looked scared, and I noticed the father kept pushing his family behind him, as if that would stop me if I dared to attack.
I rolled my eyes and sighed, lowering myself to a sitting position.
"Hunters and Prey!" the speaker announced, climbing onto the branch ahead of everyone. "Thank you for your presence!" The speaker was a pink water-wader, who stood on one leg, while her other held the paper in front of her. Her long, feathered neck crooked downwards to peer into her notes. "I'm just going to run through some sentences here. Feel free to ask questions when I'm through!"
I watched a blue leaf drop from the tree like a piece of ribbon as it drifted towards the stage. When the leaf landed, the water-wader began. "No hunting anything other than plants on this trip. Creatures, stay with your own families unless given permission by the family you're mingling with. Parents, always keep your cubs supervised--"
I drifted off into my thoughts as she went on. This was the most boring part of the Gathering ceremony.
When she was done, our Gathered groups took off--well, most of us did. Some groups were a bit slower than others.
Sphynx fluttered over to my group and sat on my back while I ran.
"Hey!" I growled teasingly. "Who offered you the free ride?!"
"Meh, I take what I can when I can get it," he replied, laying down and propping himself up on his elbows. "So tell me, what is it like there?"
I inhaled as a smile found my face. Leaping over a large tree root, I took a detour between a cluster of shrubs and ran far ahead of my family. I impulsively ran up a tree, which made Sphynx slip off my back. When I reached a height that I could watch my family's progress from, I stopped and waited for them to catch up.
"Don't--" He cut himself off and sucked in a breath of air as he flew up to me. "Don't do that again! Warn me next time, will you?!"
I laughed. "Your whistles sound so funny when you're winded!"
He harrumphed and perched beside me. "Now answer me. What are the cold lands like?"
I scanned the stampede of creatures for my family. They were nearly here. "Cold," I replied distractedly. Pretty soon, we would need to get back.
"And. . .?" he prodded.
I started to climb down. "Come on, they're catching up."
He sighed and flew onto my back again. I used my tail to swing onto a small tree and then leapt down from there, where I took off again, right in the middle of the Gathering crowd.
"To answer your question," I shouted over the pound of hoofprints and growls, "You just need to see for yourself! My mother wouldn't tell me either!"
"But Malaya, please!"
"Nope! Sorry. Now let me run in peace, please?!"
He was quiet the rest of the day's trip.
By night, most of the animals were too tired to keep going.
I had to admit, even I was a little exhausted, and that was a rare occurrence.
"What will things be like when we return?" Sphynx quietly clicked from our spot beside the firepit.
I watched burning embers dance off into the sky like stardust, tracing the invisible strings of midnight that had gone before them.
"Messy," I said simply. "The melting seasons destroy everything with tree sap. We all pitch in to rebuild everything. I yawned and stretched my legs out. "But it was so long ago since the last melting season, I barely remember what happened when we came back."
Sphynx whistled sadly. "That doesn't make anyone depressed? Knowing that all their hard work is gone just because the sun decided to melt?"
I shrugged. "I guess a little, but everyone gets over it, and it doesn't happen all the time."
He sighed. "I think I'll find it very sad."
I rolled over and looked at him. His normally-fuzzy mane was damp with sweat, slicked down over his face and reflecting firelight. "The cold lands are fun to visit. You'll see."