The following mini-interlude was commissioned and written at a much later date than when this arc was written. It has been moved back here to fit chronologically.
“Wow, they really do go all out for Christmas around here, don’t they?” Roxa’s observation came as she and Sean (with Vulcan and Gidget trotting on either side of their partners, of course) strolled casually through the streets of Medellín, in Colombia. She was gazing around at the incredible, dizzying amount of lights that had been strung up everywhere. Rainbows, stars, various animals, no matter where she looked, there seemed to be more of the dazzling neon decorations. Up along one of the nearby roofs was an entire miniature train made of wire frame that had been decked out in bright lighting, along with a Santa figure perched atop it.
Beside her, Sean chuckled. “Yeah,” he replied, “there’s no snow really, but the people around here go nuts about decorating for the holiday. The weather basically stays between the sixties and eighties year-round so those guys,” he pointed to a few people dressed in Santa outfits who were interacting with kids on the street, “they’re really earning their keep.”
Roxa’s newfound werewolf pack had come to stay with their pack leader’s mate for the holidays. And since that mate happened to be Sean’s uncle, he was there too. Which meant that the two of them had been spending the past couple of days together, as Sean caught her up on what was going on back at Crossroads. And now for the evening, they had taken a walk to check out the city.
“That’s why Uncle Sebastian wanted to come spend the holidays at their other house here in Medellín instead of staying in Bogotá,” Sean explained after taking a moment to smile and wave at one of the passing groups. “Bogotá’s still pretty nice, but he loves Christmas in Medellín.” Beside him, Vulcan made a slight whuffing sound of agreement.
The two (or four, rather), walked in silence together for a minute, just taking in the bright lights and incredibly festive atmosphere. They stopped to buy a few of what Sean called buneulos, which were essentially a savory-sweet ball-shaped cheese doughnut things. Either way, they were good. And apparently a holiday delicacy.
“Mmm, mmmm….” Shaking her head after finishing hers, Roxa laughed. “Okay, I’m sold. Christmas in Colombia isn’t as bad as I thought it would be with the no snow thing.”
Sean grinned back at her. “See? I knew we’d bring you around. That’s how we do it: food bribery. Make ‘em never wanna miss out on all the treats.”
They continued walking then, as Sean repeatedly glanced over to the blonde girl, mouth opening as if he was going to say something before he stopped himself and reconsidered.
“I’m fine,” Roxa finally spoke up after the fourth time. She glanced back to him. “That’s what you keep almost asking, right? How I’m doing? If I’m… handling all of this okay or spiraling?”
Wincing, Sean gestured vaguely. “Uhh, pretty much. The others all want to make sure you’re doing okay. I mean, it was a pretty huge change, you know? Your whole world basically got–”
“Turned upside down?” she finished for him. “Sean, I basically grew up on the street. You know where I was when Professor Pericles showed up to recruit me? Living on the beach in a pup tent. Living a normal, stable life was never actually in the cards. Yeah, it… it kind of sucks sometimes that I had to leave Crossroads. I liked it there. But mostly I’m glad.”
Sean’s mouth opened to question that, before he stopped to consider. “Because you’re more accepted here? I mean, with your pack.”
She nodded quickly to that. “Exactly. I mean, think about it. If Crossroads knew I was a werewolf, they’d instantly try to kill me. No questions, no discussion, no actual testing to see if I was actually evil or anything. They’d just kill me. But these guys? They know I’m a Heretic. And they–okay they care, but it’s not an instant death-sentence or anything. They actually took the time to find out what kind of person I am. Let that sink in, the instinct-driven wolf-people relied less on gut instinct than the supposed champions of humanity.”
“Ouch,” Sean admitted, ducking his head. “Yeah, I know what you mean. I guess it’s easy just to not think about it like that. Especially if you’re convinced that any hesitation will result in innocent people dying. It’s–the whole system is pretty fucked up. And meant to be that way.”
By that point, their walk had brought them in front of one of the city’s many churches, and the two watched people filing inside for Christmas service. Roxa eventually sighed. “I still can’t decide which is technically worse, Crossroads for killing everything and everyone with no questions, or Eden’s Garden for imprisoning what they can get away with and putting them to work.”
“My opinion,” Sean replied, “Crossroads is worse. I know I’m not supposed to say that and all, and there’s the whole… slavery thing. But at least there’s a chance of escape that way. But on the other hand–” He coughed audibly, shaking his head. “Saying it out loud like that, maybe Garden is worse. I mean… shit.”
Roxa nodded. “See? Told you it’s hard to decide.”
They stood there in silence, contemplating that question for entirely too long before Sean nudged her. “Come on, there’s a park around the corner. We can throw the balls for these guys before they get too antsy.” His foot nudged Vulcan, before they set off again.
Reaching the park in question, Sean gestured for his partner to open his mouth before reaching in to take out a ball, which he underhand tossed to the girl beside him.
She caught it, holding the ball up for both Vulcan and Gidget to see. “Ready guys? You wanna run? Go for it!” With that, she hurled the ball as far as her werewolf-enhanced strength allowed. It soared off out of sight, with Gidget and Vulcan both taking off for it. The cyberforms ran alongside each other, Gidget even staying fair enough not to switch into her hoverboard mode to easily win.
Watching the two take off like that, Sean chuckled. “I think they really wanted to run,” he observed while reaching into his pocket. “And uh, while they’re gone, maybe I can give you this without a peanut gallery watching.”
“This?” Roxa echoed, blinking at the boy pulled a six-inch long, thin, brightly wrapped box about from his pocket. As it was held out to her, she stared. “Sean Gerardo, did you get me a Christmas present?”
He shrugged. “Well, it’s from me and Headmistress Sinclaire, actually. She enchanted it. I picked it out.”
“Enchanted…” Frowning uncertainly, Roxa took the gift, blushing as she unwrapped it. There was a black box underneath the wrapping paper, and she popped that open before staring. Her voice was dull. “Did you…” With two fingers, she plucked the item up, letting it dangle.
“Did you get me a flea collar?” The incredulousness in her voice was palpable.
Sean gave a brief, explosive snicker despite himself, back pedaling from her squint. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry, I really couldn’t resist.”
“You know what’s gonna make this thing even harder to resist?” Roxa held the collar up. “When I use it to choke you, asshole.” Despite her words, she was clearly fighting to sound serious, her face twitching now and then, nearly breaking into a snicker despite herself.
Still, she took a step toward him, and Sean held up both hands in surrender. “I–I’m sorry. Take it off. It pulls off, see? The real thing’s under the collar. It’s a real present, I swear.”
Shooting him a look, Roxa did just that. The collar opened up inside, and she was able to extract the contents.
“A choker… “ she murmured, staring at the pretty thing that would clearly just fit her.
“The size adjusts with you,” Sean informed her. “And you can reach inside the… see, look.” To demonstrate, he put his hand close to the jewel in the middle of the choker. The hand disappeared from sight, and when he pulled it back, there was a tee shirt clutched in his fingers. “So you can wear it and carry clothes, food, or whatever else you need along with you.”
Eyes widening at that, Roxa tried it for herself, before smiling faintly. “Well, that’s pretty cool,” she admitted. “But it doesn’t make up for the flea collar thing. I am going to get you back for that, you know.”
“Somehow, that actually scares me,” Sean admitted. “I think I’m going to sleep with one eye open for the rest of this trip?”
“This trip?” Roxa mocked. “Oh no. Oh no, no, no. You’ll be expecting it this trip. No, I’ll wait. I can be patient. When you’re not expecting it, that’s when I’ll make you pay for it.”
Blanching as their cyberforms came running back, Sean weakly replied, “I, uh, I’m gonna regret that, huh?”
The response was two-fold. First, the ratty old collar itself was chucked at his head, making him duck with a yelp. But worse than that was the snickering, which was full of dangerous plotting and promises of retaliation.
Yes. Yes, he was definitely going to regret the flea collar.
A/N – Again, this chapter was originally posted much later than where it currently sits chronologically. As a consequence, comments below contain spoilers for later in the story. If you are reading through for the first time, be warned about scrolling down to them.