The comrades filed out. Only Corven, Titus and Vox stayed in the room.
“That went well”, Corven said. “I didn’t think we’d get them all aboard.”
“For once I was without doubt”, he said quietly and laid a hand to Vox’s black shoulder guard. She had been focussed during the briefing. Now, he could see her exhaustion claiming her again.
“Don’t worry, captain”, she said while she rolled up the star chart. “You’ll get everything under here. Just wait.”
“Oh, Emperor”, Corven groaned. “Get a room!”
“I’m pretty sure, the Emperor has a room, Corven”, Titus said accusingly. “Now, stop talking blasphemy lest you will be struck down by your own lightning.”
“Jealous that Vox played with me and not you?”, Corven asked provocatively.
“There is no reason for jealousy on my side”, Titus replied with particular calmness. “I’m sure she lit up the room on my behalf more often than on yours.”
In the face of Corven’s expression to this, Vox could not help the wicked grin rising.
“Now, now, captain”, she said placatingly and sidled up to the rune priest. “Whatever happens, Corven was my first male Space Marine. You can’t take that away from him.”
Titus kept his composure. Corven was so obviously unnerved by Vox leaning on his shoulder to grin at him, it would have been a waste not to take this further.
“I apologise”, the Ultramarine said. “You are in charge here and I have shamelessly ignored your orders.” He cleared his throat. “We’ll go and find a room, epistolary. Do you have any preferences on what we should do there?”
Corven stared at him open-mouthed while Vox slid off his shoulder because she was cringing with laughter. When the Space Wolf got a grip on himself, a dangerous grin spread across his face. Suddenly, Titus was a lot less sure that he liked the joke pushed this far.
“My, my”, Corven growled in sudden cheerfulness and took a step back from the table. “I’m embarrassed, my friends, I really am!”, he declared. “Because the only appropriate answer to this is: fuck you! I’ll see you tomorrow.” He swept out.
When the door fell shut and Titus turned, Vox had moved up to him. “That went well, don’t you think?”, he asked and froze when she laid her hand on his.
“Your room or mine?” she wanted to know and smiled at him.
His gaze darted sideways for an instant.
“Erm… I don’t think we’ll fit in either bed.”
“Are beds compulsory?”, she wanted to know.
“I thought you were the one with the experience in bodies.”
“Oh, yes. I remember”, she grinned. “In that case, I’m even more impressed with what has just happened here.”
Nervously, he fidgeted under her hand.
“I try my best to keep up with your Space Wolves”, he said sheepishly.
“Today, captain, you surpassed them all. I see you have settled your hierarchy with Corven then”, she mercifully changed the subject.
“I won the critter count when we cleared the holding tract.”
Titus’ gaze came to rest on their intertwined hands. Shy glances and smiles passed between them. Then, they both took their gauntlets off. Without speaking they intertwined their fingers, sinking into the feeling of holding on to the loved one.
“Dankwart is waiting for me in the apothecarium”, she admitted after a while and Titus had to laugh.
“When in the world did you arrange for that to happen?”
“Didn’t you see us exchange meaningful glances when the others left?”, she asked and grinned tiredly. “He’ll put me to sleep before we engage the jump.” She looked down. “It’ll be better this way”, she said as if she found it hard to believe herself. “I can’t stay awake right now…”
Titus combed his fingers through her hair and pulled her head closer until their foreheads rested against each other. He would miss her but what was there to say?
“Mind if I take you?”, he asked quietly.
“I’d like that.”
The apothecarium was not far away and they found little to talk about on the way.
Dankwart indeed awaited them. He had already performed most of his rites and was ready to send Vox to sleep immediately. They talked shortly about when to wake her and she reminded them that she would need time to handle the after-effects of the narcosis before she could guide Nostromo through the warp.
Dankwart assured them that he would not let her sleep as long as this. The actual time would depend on her healing rate but leaving a Space Marine in a coma for more than sixteen days was harmful. An Astartes was built for movement, he told them. This was the reason why healing duty only in extreme cases lasted more than two weeks. Space Marines healed fast, of course, but their systems also profited from movement in a miraculous way the Emperor had designed. After this explanation, which had been a rather lengthy one for Dankwart, their sanguinary priest pretended to have something to do outside of the room to give them a last moment alone.
“Do you want to go over our files while I’m asleep?”, Vox asked.
“You brought files?”, Titus asked in surprise.
She shrugged with a smile.
“I thought it might be useful if no one could write defaming remarks in them. I’ll update them when I’m awake again.” She took the bag from her shoulders and rummaged in it for a moment. Then, she handed him a stack of paper.
“Could you look after this for me?”, she asked, handing the bag over as well.
“It will be my honour”, he replied in surprise and proved a bit clumsy at slinging the bag around his shoulders. “Should I put the files back in there when I’m finished?”, he asked.
“I’d rather not have you glimpse what’s in there”, she conceded a little uncomfortably. “It’s not really time, you know?”
Titus smiled sadly.
“I’ll keep them separate then.” He glanced down at the stack in his hand. If by accident or design, the file on top belonged to Xavor.
“What?”, Titus exclaimed, experiencing a déjà vu as he spotted the young man’s surname. “Did you know that Xavor is a Whiteskull?”
Vox laughed pleasantly and sat down on the slab intended for her.
“Indeed I did”, she said. “That’s the reason we took him along. Turns out, our bastard Corven has a lineage after all.” Her smile made her look happy and content but it could not hide her exhaustion anymore.
“You really think they are related?”, Titus asked, searching for Corven’s file to compare them.
“I even think they are father and son”, Vox informed him calmly and watched as he skimmed over the text.
“Is this possible?”, Titus asked in surprise.
“Sure”, she said with a shrug. “Corven has three children. His only son aspired to become an Astartes just after Corven had followed Ferone to the Deathwatch and he didn’t know what had happened to him until now.” She shrugged. “Apparently he has come to see his father.”
“Amazing”, was the only thing Titus found to say. “He must be proud.”
“I think he’s mostly uncertain. Didn’t you see him skulking around Xavor the whole time during the feast?”
“No, I had my mind on other things”, he admitted and then looked up at the wall. “So, I beat up the son of the man we will be dispatched with and with whom settling authority will be a pain in the ass in any case.” The personal hierarchy the Space Wolves liked to establish was one thing. The real ranks, on the other hand, were a completely different problem. Technically an epistolary did not outrank a captain but also, a captain did not outrank the personal counsel of the commander. Things could easily become difficult.
“A good start to any mission”, Vox said happily.
“Well, they’re Space Wolves”, Titus sighed and his fingers brushed over his service studs for a moment. “They had it coming to them.”
“How did you manage it in any case?”, Vox inquired. “Xavor is the most relaxed Space Wolf I’ve ever met.”
“I’ve always been good at annoying strangers”, Titus said.
“My, my captain! What hidden depth you have!”, she said and then cocked her head, looking at him attentively. “Do you really think you’ll have problems with Corven?”, she inquired.
“He seems inclined to bite”, Titus conceded a little uncomfortably and stared down at Corven’s picture. Apparently, the rune priest had obtained the scars on his face after joining the Deathwatch. He had been a rather handsome man and really looked similar to the younger Space Wolf.
“In that case, let me give you some advice in Corven handling”, Vox offered. “He will not defy you until he thinks you screwed up so hard that you should be removed from command but if you don’t want to put up with his growling and snapping, just make yourself soft. Corven hates punching soft things and starts to cuddle them.”
“I don’t think I want to cuddle Corven”, Titus said flatly.
“Shame”, Vox said, her face a careful blank. “He likes cuddling.”
“Vox, what are we talking here?”, he asked cautiously.
“I’m talking emotional closeness. What are you?”, she said innocently and Titus really, really could not decide if there was irony in there or not.
“I would like to talk that too, I just thought I had taken the wrong turn.”
She grinned and shrugged.
“Corven is profoundly intelligent and a very good confidant. Also, other than most Space Wolves I met, he can drop this ‘big bad wolf’-demeanour. You should try it.”
“If he annoys me again… When he annoys me… Alright, I will give it a try.”
She looked sidelong at him and smiled.
“Next time you meet him, just stop, breathe deeply and look again.”
Titus looked at her and his features went soft.
“I admire how you do that”, he said thoughtfully.
She shrugged one shoulder dismissively.
“Talking to people? That’s just strange because none of you boys do it. It’s common among us. Although I have to admit that I had to hone my skill for it somewhat since I got here.”
“How do you mean?”, Titus asked and sat down on the slab beside her.
Vox smiled bitterly at a memory.
“Goji’Rhag almost shot me down during my first week because he thought I was using my psychic powers to enhance my sword skill.”
“Only when he opened fire”, Vox said flatly.
“He really shot at you?”
“Yes”, she replied earnestly. “And it would have gone badly for me if Corven hadn’t knocked him out and put him on a charge. I can dodge bullets to a certain degree but not when I’m trying not to draw the fire to bewildered bystanders.” She shook her head for a moment as if to dislodge the memory. “Since I really had resorted to my powers, he got off with a caution but somehow, we never became friends after that. From there on I took care to talk to all the brothers I didn’t know as soon as I could find a moment.”
“In that case I understand that he wouldn’t be assigned to Aegis even though he’s a long term resident like us.”
“You’re mistaken, captain. He isn’t a long term. He has been summoned for a second mission because he has valuable intelligence concerning a specialist group of Eldar assassins.”
“He told you that?”
“What? No!”, Vox laughed. “I never talk to him if I can possibly avoid it but the dispatchment orders for Morsus aren’t confidential.”
Titus thought things over for a moment.
“Xavor was with Morsus, right?”
He reflected on the cheeky demeanour of the young Space Wolf for a moment.
“I’m amazed that he survived under his command”, he said then.
“Praise the Omnissiah for closed com channels”, Vox replied with an easy shrug. “Also, Goji’Rhag is strict but not quite as bad when you’re not a psyker.” She shot Titus one of the calculating glances that had often been a harbinger of a revelation. It was the moment in which she decided whether to tell him something or not.
“I don’t just talk to people”, she admitted. “I also look into their files. About Goji’Rhag I found out that he fought in three campaigns with the Ordo Malleus for altogether a hundred and seventy years. He spent fifty of them on a daemon world as far as I could tell. He must have seen hundreds of the weaker psykers crack.” She gave a distant, little laugh. “Of course, he would get nervous about me.”
“He certainly seemed nervous when the commander asked him how you had been hurt in training.”
“I can imagine. He isn’t stupid. He found out quickly that if Corven is fond of someone, you better not touch them but he didn’t do anything wrong. The jump pack malfunctioned and I asked to be sent to my quarters. Sometimes, the Omnissiah just hates you”, she added with a lopsided grin. “Now, where’s Dankwart?”
“If you want to get rid of me, just say the word”, Titus said and smiled shyly.
“Don’t”, Vox said agonizedly. “I’m just tired…”
“Then lie down”, he said softly and stroked through her hair. “We haven’t engaged the jump yet and I’m sure Dankwart will be back before we do.”
She nodded hesitantly and lay back while Titus fetched one of the two chairs in the room.
“I would like to tell you that I’ll be right here when you wake but duty might keep me from that”, he whispered, bending over her once more.
“Duty is our first concern, captain”, she said. “Everything else will have to come second.” She lifted her bare hand and stroked his cheek. “But seconds can be plentiful if you know where to draw them from.”
“Could you put this any more cryptically?”, Titus asked flatly, for once unable to cope with the constant secrecy and overwhelmed by the emotions but he turned soft again immediately.
“No, that was the best I can do”, Vox replied lightly. “Good night, my captain. May the Emperor guide you through the darkness.”
“May he guide us together, my angel”, Titus replied and allowed himself to become transfixed with her beauty in this moment. The blue eyes, the pale skin and the golden hair framing her handsome face. He remembered the tarot card and had to smile. Sometimes, the guardian angel needed a guardian herself. He bent down and laid his forehead to hers again but when he wanted to retreat, Vox gently pulled him back down.
The door opened.
Vox and Titus both sighed inwardly and tried to be inconspicuous. Dankwart probably noticed what was going on but reliably withheld any comments. When he had worked his rite and Vox slumbered peacefully, he merely asked if he should leave the light on. Titus confirmed this. He wanted to go through the files.
After Xavor’s surname, there was only a slight surprise in Grimfang’s age. Titus had estimated the sergeant about as old as himself, not more than a hundred years older. The rest was pretty straight forward.
When he was done reading, he let his thoughts wander idly. He asked himself how Vox had spent the nights when she had watched over him. Locked in a dark room, overtired during warp travel, condemned to keep quiet. Titus smiled and stroked her. That she was always willing to take the hard way if it made things easier overall was something he admired in her. Watching over him had certainly been an inconvenience but, looking back now, he realised what an immense impact she had achieved on him. Only in retrospect could he tell how important it had been for him not to be left alone in the darkness.
The beginning of their path together seemed a lifetime away but when he counted dates, he was astonished about the shortness of time. Not counting the incident of hitting the ‘Ghost’, which had discontinued their timeline in the real world, Titus had spent only about a year with Aegis. It was almost impossible to get his head around this. He was more than 150 years old. A single year should not have figured in his thoughts. Titus smiled while he recounted all the steps that had led him into this quiet room. How far he had come in such a short time.