“Quae nocent docent.” [“what hurts, teaches” or “what pains us, trains us.”]
~ Latin Proverb
Everyone hated staying in Proxima’s apartment. When she had said she’d throw stuff out, they hadn’t thought she’d throw EVERYTHING out. She’d made the place hell. There was no electricity [with the exception of the stove and the lights, because they couldn’t make a wood-fire; and the refrigerator, because they couldn't salt meat or preserve milk], and they didn’t even sleep in sleeping-bags. She’d also gotten rid of the central heating system, so Medea, Federico and Roderigo had to figure out how to keep themselves warm without it. They still hadn’t. And everything – right down to the biscuit-tin – was booby-trapped [she’d replaced the biscuits with a mixture of both poisonous and non-poisonous berries and mushrooms]. If that wasn’t bad enough, there was also a strangely and freakishly large population of creepy-crawlies running around the apartment – spiders [very large spiders], scorpions [that Proxima claimed had been “de-poisoned”], grass snakes, and even a cute little monkey Proxima called Marcello. How had she done it? No one knew. But one thing was for sure – they’d been living there for a month now and no one was liking it.
Medea at first thought that Proxima was getting her own back for the day they’d all yelled the crap out of her. But Medea soon realized that this was not the case. It was just another part of their training. Getting used to sleeping rough, getting used to the cold, getting used to wildlife, and knowing what to eat without getting yourself killed. But just because it was good for her didn’t mean that Medea had to like it. And she still couldn’t quite explain the monkey. She supposed he was just cute. Medea turned over and found Proxima sitting up on the cold floor and rubbing her eyes.
“Everything okay, Proxima?” said Medea.
“Can’t sleep,” was all Proxima said.
“Well, isn’t that new?” said Medea curtly.
Even in the dark, Medea could see the look of hurt on Proxima’s face.
“Why are you up, Medea?” asked Proxima.
Medea shrugged, “Oh, I don’t know: I usually sleep in a warm bed, in a warm room, with a good book, and drink a hot mug of cocoa before going to sleep; all without the fear of eating spiders and scorpions in my sleep.”
Proxima passed over her thin fleece, “Use this then. I don’t think I’ll be sleeping tonight,” Proxima hugged her knees and leaned against the bare wall behind her.
Medea took the fleece, and glanced at Proxima. Something was definitely troubling her. Perhaps her conscience was pinching at her, and Proxima would finally get the TV and sofas back [along with everything else she’d chucked out].
A snake passed over Proxima’s feet, and she didn’t even flinch as it slithered away.
No, it isn’t her conscience, Medea decided.
Perhaps it was because everyone kept treating Proxima so bitterly since they moved in. Then again, she wasn’t very worried about that. Even Federico, with his size and his murderously angry face, would shy away when Proxima got angry. Snide comments and angry offenses didn’t upset Proxima [her poison-less arachnids did a good job of stinging them for her anyway]. So what was bugging her?
“Medea?” Proxima straightened to look at her.
“Is… Is there something wrong?” Medea sat up and hugged her knees, aligning herself to the wall opposite Proxima.
“Medea…” Proxima looked thoughtfully at her, “don’t worry about it,” she stood up and started walking to the exit, “I’ll go and see if I can find you a nice cup of cocoa.”
“Proxima, don’t be mad.”
Proxima paused at the door.
“I know you feel like we’re all against you,” continued Medea, “but we really aren’t. All of this just seems a little extreme. It’s hard.”
“I’m not mad,” said Proxima, “Legate Cornelius advised me that we’d most likely be killed by natural causes – the cold, poisonous animals and plants – so I did this. I’m not mad at you. I’m not mad at any of you. If there’s anyone I’m mad at, it’s myself.”
Proxima regarded Medea, “…Personal reasons. Don’t worry about it. Try getting some sleep,” she walked out and closed the door before Medea could say anything else.
Proxima kept a hand on the wall as she guided herself to the kitchen. She heard shuffling. Proxima paused. It couldn’t be Marcello… the monkey was far too small. And the lights weren’t on… could someone have broken in? Though, Proxima couldn’t figure why they’d want to – an apartment crawling with bugs and snakes and an over-reactive monkey. She waited for something to happen. It didn’t take long. There was a deep-throated scream followed by a string of curses, followed by an abrupt silence as Proxima flicked on the lights.
“Roderigo?” asked Proxima, furrowing her brows at the open cupboard; Roderigo's dishevelled state, and the bewildered monkey clawing at his head.
He hesitated, “Uh…”
“Were you trying to kill my monkey?” she said, stifling a giggle.
“Ha, ha,” Roderigo’s face became stony, “Very funny.”
“Looking for a midnight-snack?”
“I was, until your murder-monkey attacked me.”
Proxima walked up to Roderigo and gently pried Marcello off his head. The monkey shrieked loudly as it scampered away, shaking a fist mockingly at Roderigo.
“Smart-hairy-arsed idiot,” Roderigo muttered.
“And you call me childish,” said Proxima, “Up for some hot cocoa?”
Roderigo looked at her with surprise, “What? Has the Devil finally blessed you with some common sense, Fitz?”
“Nope, just feeling generous towards man who got attacked by a rabbit-sized murder-monkey in the dark.”
Roderigo rolled his eyes scowling, and sat away in a corner, brushing away the insects.
Proxima had kept the cocoa, and coffee. She decided that they weren't in the 'wild' yet, and everyone would be in enough of a fix as soon as they saw what she'd done to her apartment. Cocoa could be a one-off retreat if things became too unbearable. She took the jar of instant cocoa out of the cupboard and placed it on the desk. She walked up to the refrigerator and smiled at the seven unlabeled cartons of milk she had placed inside. Three of the cartons were sour, another three were unpasteurised and only one was regular. Proxima shook her head. Not even she knew which was which [because she moved them around everyday], but she soon found the four that were not sour through smell and picked one of the others at random. Medea, Roderigo and Federico refused to believe that 'pasteurised' simply meant 'thoroughly heated'. Proxima quickly made three steaming mugs of cocoa, passing the third to Medea back in the bedroom, and then returned to the kitchen. She sat in an opposite corner to Roderigo and sipped at her mug.
There was silence for a time, until Roderigo said, “What? No witty remarks?”
Proxima remained silent.
“Something must really be bugging you,” Roderigo added.
“I know I’m not the most ideal person to get all emotional over,” said Roderigo, “But you’re better off telling someone before it gets all, uh, congested inside. You’ll explode, kid.”
Proxima regarded him, but didn’t say anything. She just continued sipping her mug, idly watching a spider scuttle along the wall above her.
Roderigo looked at her – a mark of pity on his face, which she could not recognize because it was so rare – and said, “I’m not going to stop pestering you until you spill. What – is – up?”
Proxima sighed and mumbled, “Two more days.”
Roderigo’s eyes widened. He hadn’t realized how quick time had passed [which came as a surprise, since this apartment-nightmare certainly felt as long as eternity]. Tomorrow was their last Senate meeting. The day after was Proxima’s farewell visit to Cato – something she couldn't go without doing. The day after that… that was the day when the real mission would start.
May would end; June would start. Spring would fade; summer would begin. Life as they knew it would be over; and a new life, a far more dangerous one, would take root.
No wonder Proxima couldn’t sleep.
“It won’t be all that bad,” said Roderigo, without conviction, “You have us.”
Proxima burst out laughing, hysterically. She laughed and laughed and laughed; spilling her cocoa, choking and spluttering, and even ignoring when a stitch formed in her side. Once she was done, Roderigo thought she’d chuck up and make an even more hideous mess. But she didn’t. She looked at him and still managed to giggle at his serious face.
“I have you?” she said, “You three who’ve been moaning and whinging about my ‘crazy’ treatment since the beginning of the bloody month? You’ve become a bickering little kid, Medea’s become some crooked, bitter old woman, and Federico’s caught some sort of extreme bipolarity – going from hitting on me to hitting me! If you’re acting like this here and now, only God knows what you’re all going to be like when Destiny chucks you up on Nature’s doorstep. You’re even worse than Cato’s flabby relatives! At least they’d admit they couldn’t do it! ‘You have us’ – hysterical!”
Roderigo frowned. She had a point, “Oh, come on, Proxima. Give us some credit. Medea is a top-rated thief – she’ll be useful; I have some military training, I was in the Legion after all; and Federico… Federico is very, very, uh… he’s strong,” Roderigo finished lamely, “and besides, it’s hardly fair. We only get one month to prepare for this, Proxima, to destroy a whole state. Cut us some slack.”
“Roderigo, I’m sorry to say this but, listen to all the crap you’re spewing,” Proxima snapped, “You just pointed out everyone’s strong points! Characteristics they’ve had since ages! If that was all they needed, then why the hell would I waste a whole month on trying to prepare you? Sure Medea can steal, you have skill, and Federico can go and get his idiot brain into a fight; but can any single one of you cook? Can any of you hunt? Can any of you make a decent fire? Tie a decent knot? Build a decent shelter? Can you? What will you do, hmm? Just rely on me to do everything for you? What if I die? Who will you rely on then? You really think the Empire’s going to send you a team to pull you out of Methum? After the Methist authorities put your faces on wanted posters up and down the state, what will you do?”
“Proxima!” Roderigo yelled, “Listen to yourself!”
Roderigo’s tone of voice didn’t surprise her; she just leaned back, and listened.
“Look,” said Roderigo, “I know we’re not perfect. I know we’re not the greatest army to ever walk the Earth. But listen: do you really think you’d be able to do this on your own?”
“Roderigo, tell me – how many times have I been told that?”
Roderigo stared at her.
“Don’t you think I know? I know I can’t do it on my own.” Proxima was angry; hot furious tears running down her cheeks, “Don’t you think I know? But ‘can’t’ isn’t an alibi! I have to do it – with or without Cato’s life being a condition! The Emperor wants it done – final! And, quite frankly, I’d rather die on my own… I’d rather die on my own in Methum than have the lot of you die with me!”
Her last sentence ended in a sob. She turned away from Roderigo, and cried into her palms.
Roderigo cast down his gaze. He understood. It was like Atlas had gone on a vacation and left the weight of the world on Proxima's shoulders. But she didn’t want it. She wanted to crawl into a corner and cry like a little kid until someone came and comforted her or killed her.
“Kid,” he said gently, “I… um…” he thought over what he wanted to say, but didn’t know.
“I’m sorry,” she said, sobbing, “I’m sorry I yelled at you! I’m sorry I made my apartment a hellhole, so you guys could learn something! I’m sorry I got you from the Buck’s Tooth! I’m sorry! I’m sorry, okay? I’m sorry I was born! There, are you all happy now?”
“That’s not what I wanted to say…”
“Then what did you want to say!” she snapped.
Roderigo looked at his mug, “…Do you want me to go? Leave you in peace or something?”
“Peace? What bloody peace are you meant to bloody leave me in?”
Roderigo shifted uncomfortably, “Look, just calm down, alright? Let me think.”
He thought she was going to explode on him again, but she rested a palm to her forehead and waited.
“Fitz… I know Methum,” he said at last.
“I’ve lived there before. I know my way around, I know people, I know a way in… I can help.”
Proxima raised her head to look at Roderigo, “You… can?”
“Why didn’t you say so before?”
“You really think my reputation could take a hit like that?”
Proxima considered, “Fair point.”
“I guess I owe it to Cato,” Roderigo added, “He tried to save me twice. He could only do it once, though, because the other time I didn’t want to be saved.”
Proxima banged her head against the wall, a sickening crunch resounding as a spider’s exoskeleton broke under the force. Proxima seemed not to notice. She was still lost, but this seemed reasonable – if Proxima could get her way around Methum with Roderigo’s help, the mission might [just might] be a success.
“Thanks for the cocoa, by the way,” said Roderigo.
Proxima looked at him, and shook her head, “Think nothing of it."
She got up, and walked back to her bedroom, finding Medea fast asleep. Proxima patted her head briefly – wondering how such a small child could take all this – and then rested her head against the floorboards. She didn’t intend to sleep. How could she? Just because Roderigo seemed to produce a solution, didn't mean her worries were over. For all she knew, Roderigo could have lied to make her shut up. And even if he was telling the truth, there was an even greater danger... would he defect to the Methists, or stay on their side? There was no telling anything. They could all still die.
Medea; Federico; Roderigo; and Proxima.
Kid; Naive Fathead; Nutcase; and Childish Hothead who'd been made Leader.
Proxima put her hands under her head, and stared at the ceiling. Her vision became blurry, and it wasn't because she was falling asleep.