“God will never give you anything you can't handle, so don't stress.”
~ Kelly Clarkson
Proxima sat on the hood of a car, bent over with a cigarette between her lips. It was a nice car. It was a Mercedes-Benz, S-Class 280; dark blue, antique and very flashy [and, not to mention, it had a giant oil-guzzling engine]. Federico had picked it, because Proxima refused to drive Cato’s jeep to Methum. She had a simple alibi. Some people considered their pets to be part of the family. Cato considered his jeep to be family. Proxima shook her head, a sad smile on her face, as she remembered how much Cato loved his car.
Proxima had gone to see him on their last day in the Decagon, whilst everyone else was busy packing. Roderigo had offered to come with her, but she turned the offer down. Cato was her guardian, and it was her burden. Roderigo didn’t have the right to make such an offer. Cato was healthy by the look of it – even if he was as bald as an egg, and had the biopsy scar on his forehead. He was also in a more… acceptable room in the Infirmary – a nice warm room, a decent bed, and even a TV screen which he would never turn on unless he woke up. He was fast asleep.
Duh, thought Proxima, He’s in coma.
After about half an hour of just watching the rise and fall of Cato’s well-insulated chest, and a good deal of silent sobbing on Proxima’s part; she had walked out of the Infirmary. There was one line, one sentence embossed in her mind after that.
I will not let Cato die.
Proxima wondered if she could fulfil that promise now. She took another draught of her cigarette and thought about the day before that. After the Senate meeting, each of them had been handed diamond-edged weapons – as promised – but Proxima didn't intend to use any of them. She had the weapons that Cato had given her, and that was more than enough. They had also been issued a special cloak each. The cloak had some special properties that could turn you 'invisible'.
Not really, mused Proxima.
The cloak just camouflaged you so that you appeared to be invisible. The scientists explained it: something to do with translucent polar bear fur, body heat, DNA, and other jargon that Proxima could not understand and could not remember.
It wasn't important.
Later that day, Medea had suggested they make codenames for each other. She said it would be fun. No one saw the harm in it, so they agreed. Medea had gotten the name 'Cub' without any fuss. Federico was a little harder to decide on. Roderigo had said he should be called 'Spoilt Nigger', which earned him a good punch in the mouth, but he said it was worth it. In the end, Federico got the name 'Glint' because his bright green eyes always appeared to glint against his dark skin. Roderigo's name had been hardest of all to pick. Federico suggested 'Redneck Nut', which Roderigo shrugged off and said suited him fine; but Medea refused to have anymore abusive nonsense. Other names like 'Hunter', 'Scavenger', 'Grass-Reader', etc. didn't seem to fit either. Proxima had picked 'Path', for Roderigo. When she was asked why, Proxima only replied that it felt right. Roderigo had said he liked it.
Then it had been Proxima’s turn.
Goodness, people should be more grateful for the gift of imagination! Proxima thought – a happier thought than those she’d grown accustomed to over the last few months.
Medea had picked ‘Flame’, because of Proxima’s auburn hair. Federico had suggested both ‘Kid’ and ‘Vampire’. Then Medea hit him and said that Proxima should be called just plain ‘Red’. Roderigo and Proxima watched whilst the two argued and bickered. It was amazing how many times people fought over her. First at the assignment to find Roderigo; then when the Great Matter was announced; then when Proxima had vowed to serve the Emperor on the condition that Cato stayed alive; and now this.
Though… the name-choosing seemed a lot more fickle than the other incidents, thought Proxima.
In the end, ‘Vixen’ was what Proxima had landed up with. Everyone had seemed content with that – even Federico – and Roderigo had commented that she had a ‘ten’ in the middle of both her names. Medea and Federico didn’t understand the remark, but Proxima did. ‘X’ was ‘ten’ in Roman numerals.
Proxima closed her eyes, and flicked the butt of the finished cigarette away. She sighed and leaned back, lighting a second and sticking it in her mouth. It was one of the things she considered a ‘necessity’ – along with only one set of spare, durable clothing; a thermal flask, iodine tablets, canned and/or dried food, thick rope, the IVC [invisibility cloak], a long coat, a Pashmina scarf that she intended to use as a hood, the Kevlar suit, her sword, the double quiver, twenty of both types of arrows, the diamond gun, a few daggers, and, of course, the Dyonuxiot blood. She was wearing a loose sweat-shirt, baggy trousers and thick, heavy boots over leather socks. As she mused idly, she touched Cato’s cord which still hung around her neck. She didn’t know what the others had packed. Proxima had told them that they should take only what they had to, and she hoped they’d done just that.
Then Proxima asked herself: Why were poison-sticks a necessity?
She thought on it, and couldn’t find a justification.
They weren’t a necessity, she thought, They were just so small. I’d be able to take them, without it hindering me even a little. They didn’t weigh much. And they added some comfort.
Excuses, thought Proxima angrily, Not justifications.
Of course she could go on without them for days and days. Why did she take the pack of cigarettes? The answer was one word:
Weakness: A characteristic that every hero in a Greek tragedy had.
Weakness: Cato could sacrifice his life, and Proxima couldn’t even sacrifice cigarettes.
Weakness: The one thing that could get them all killed if Proxima wasn’t careful.
Weakness: Something that Proxima simply couldn’t afford to have.
Proxima was the hero in a twisted Greek play, and it would become a tragedy if she succumbed to her weaknesses. And she wouldn’t even be able to kick herself for it afterwards.
You can’t kick if you’re dead.
And just as she was about to throw away the fresh cigarette in her anger and her morbidity, someone spoke, “You smoke?”
Proxima looked to her side, and saw Roderigo standing with his head tilted in curiosity. He was meant to be asleep in the car, like everyone else. She hadn’t even heard him come out of the car and shut the door. She wondered how long he’d been standing there.
She made room for him on the hood of the car and said, “It’s something I picked up in my last year of college along with… other bad habits,” she paused a while, “This one I couldn’t let go.”
Roderigo sat, bent over with his hands on his lap, “Lamarke would blow a fuse if he found out we were sitting here.”
Proxima shrugged, “We’re going to have to ditch this ride sometime,” she looked at Roderigo, “Right?”
He nodded, “Quite soon actually – what, with you driving in the day time and me at night.”
“Shouldn’t you be getting some sleep?”
Roderigo chuckled, shaking his head, and said, “You don’t tell an insomniac when to sleep.”
“Sorry,” said Proxima, “I forgot.”
“S’okay, I’ve got no one to blame for it except myself, I suppose,” he looked up, “It’s what happens when you grow… accustomed to drinking yourself to sleep. At least with smoking,” he took the cigarette from Proxima's hands and threw it away, “you get to keep your mind.”
“Was that meant to cheer me up?”
“You’re an open book, kid,” said Roderigo, a small smile on his face, “It’s not hard to tell when you’re eating yourself up inside.”
Proxima looked away, and didn’t reply for a while. She huffed as the sun was beginning to rise over the horizon in the east. Another day of driving, until they reached the gates of Methum.
Roderigo stared at her blankly for a moment, and then said, “For a girl…” he paused as Proxima turned to look at him, “you got balls.”
“Even if I wasn’t a girl, the Empire would have taken them away from me!” Proxima muttered loudly.
“If I meant it literally,” Roderigo sniffed, “I would have said ‘testicles’.”
“Vixen, will nothing on this bloody planet cheer you up?”
“Not until I’m done with killing people,” Proxima paused and then corrected, “Not until Cato wakes up.”
“You won’t get no killing done, and Cato won’t do no waking up if you’re all stressed-out-bitch all the time!”
“Shut up, Roderigo.”
“You know that’s not the way to do it.”
Proxima slipped a boot off her foot and attempted shoving it in Roderigo’s mouth, “Is this it?” she said through gritted teeth.
Roderigo spat at her, “No offense, but your shoe is rank!” he threw the boot away, “When was the last time to changed your bloomin’ socks?”
“I only brought the leather pair,” said Proxima, retrieving her boot, “It’s the only pair I’d need.”
“Or the only pair that would fit! You could probably have stuffed in a second pair if it wasn’t for those seven packs of smokes!”
Proxima paused, her eyes widening. She spun around to look at Roderigo.
“Call me a barbarian if you like,” he said, his arms crossed, “But I looked through everyone’s packs, since you didn’t seem to care. Nice underwear, by the way, I’m sure maroon suits you.”
Proxima bared her teeth, but didn’t say anything and resumed putting on her boot.
“I’m not saying this because I’m blaming you, Vixen,” said Roderigo, “Everybody does a bit of sin now and then. But to stuff in that many?”
Proxima still said nothing, trying to focus on the minute details of her boots.
“I’m an addict too, you know. Maybe not to smoking, but still an addict to something.”
A hand appeared before Proxima’s face, and she looked up at its possessor.
“I can’t help you if you don’t want to be helped, Fitz,” said Roderigo, “Listen, alright? I know it hasn’t been easy for you, but it ain’t the end of the world yet. If you have the will to go on with this, then you can do it. It ain’t good business, it’s dirty as hell. Everybody knows that. They’d be as dumb as a doorknob if they didn’t! But that’s not the point. It’s something you got to do, because you don’t want Cato to die. It’s not about good and bad, right and wrong – because necessity knows no law. You’ve been pushed into this, Vixen, we all have. I think even Lamarke – with his muscle brain and his thick skull – gets that. So, stop kicking yourself and start breathing again. Please?” Roderigo smiled, “If the rest of us are gonna die, then don’t let it be because of a Vixen bitch-fit, okay?”
Proxima cast her eyes downwards, and thought a moment before saying, “I still don’t understand why you’re doing this…”
Roderigo shrugged, “Maybe it’s because I fancy you.”
Proxima grinned, “Was that your idea of a joke?”
Roderigo shrugged again, “Laugh all you want, kid. I could be helping you because I don’t want you to stuff shoes down my throat. Or because I want you to shut up. Or because I don’t trust you and I’m not on your side, and I want to hand you over to the Methist authorities. Or maybe it’s because I care. Or because I’m a sentimental blabber-mouth. What does any of this mean to you? No matter what answer I give you, you’ll be considering all the other options, aren’t you? Because you’re like that, Vixen. Cato made you like that.”
Proxima chewed her finger, and remained silent. Roderigo was right. No matter what he said, there were hundreds of different angles that he could be working from.
And it was hard to see the truth in a world that had seen so many lies. Lies were offered as comfort. Lies were offered as hope. Lies were offered on a platter of truth and fed to the hungry and destitute. And they all fell ill because of venom in those disguised lies. The truth had been humiliated, so much so people doubted its existence.
Roderigo’s angle, his intentions, could never be found.
It wasn’t all that important either.
But his advice was good, and that was something. Proxima couldn’t go on being stressed-out all the time or she’d never get anything done. She’d end up hanging herself from the nearest tree, or shooting herself with a diamond bullet. She needed to think and focus on the task that had been stamped on her by the Emperor, and she needed to remember that Cato’s life had sealed the deal. She needed to succeed. And she wouldn’t do it – or rather, she would be able to do it – if she kept kicking herself. Proxima stood up, and walked towards the Mercedes. She could see that Federico and Medea were waking; rubbing their eyes and stretching their stiff arms.
“Vixen?” called Roderigo.
“Roderigo?” said Proxima, only glancing behind her to look at him.
He narrowed his eyes, “What were you thinking?”
Proxima grinned at him, “What Cato would say if he heard you fancied me.”
Roderigo didn’t buy it, but he said, “Oh? What would he say?”
Proxima’s grin broadened as she opened the door to the driver’s seat, “He’d say you were…” she shook her head, “‘too skinny’.”