The bathing room was strange and familiar in equal measures. In its difference to the black marble cabinets of the Deathwatch it was the sweetest, inanimate piece of home yet. It was neither luxurious nor ornate. The smooth but unpolished stones were of the same cool, almost bluish white the whole fortress showed. It reminded her of the snow outside. The armatures of gleaming gold and sparse furnishings of dark wood gave the room an elegance that she had learned to appreciate in her long absence. The most important distinguishing feature to the bathing cells in the Deathwatch was the simple fact that everything was built to accommodate more than one participant in the ritual.
Vox’s eyes wandered through the room while a serf helped her out of her armour and she listened to the chatter of her sisters.
They were nine. Celeste, Saphane, the members of the honour guard and herself.
Technically, their bathing night was a few days in coming but for the highest authorities in the chapter, bathing could be arranged at any time. Tonight they allowed themselves this lapse.
Vox had come late because she had coordinated the revision of the secret archive. It had taken a moment to get her fellow librarians up to speed. Thus, her sisters were out of their armours already as they waited for her.
To have them all here again was such a strange thing, Vox felt it on her skin even before her under armour slipped away. The whole atmosphere made a beautiful, infectious smile bloom on her face.
She was slightly derailed in her happiness when she noticed that her friends were staring at her as soon as she bared her skin.
“Vox, what happened to you?”, Celeste asked and came up to her. Her large hands were reaching out for her in concern. The first target was the most livid scar on Vox’s body. It was the one caused by her own sword on Corred. A warp blade not only damaged the flesh, it tore the very essence of a living being asunder. The wound had never healed properly and the scar was of a vivid purple. Gnarled and ugly it sprawled on Vox’s white skin like a tumour. It had hurt and impeded her movements ever since she had suffered it. She thought back to this dreadful moment when Mevida had collided with her. The swirling nausea, caused by the poisoned bullets. The sickening pain to see a sister again and yet be unable to talk to her because she was taken by the Black Rage. The dreadful realisation that she could not dodge the stab and still provide the comrade with at least the rusty blade before she pushed her out there…
Today, Mevida’s sacrifice had finally borne fruit. Her case had led Vox on the right trail. It had resulted in her finding out about the nature of hypno-conditioning. Today, she had brought justice to those who had done that to her sister. Maybe, she thought for a fleeting, vulnerable moment, maybe, this wound would heal now.
Celeste stroked over her shoulders and arms, reaching out for all the other scars she did not recognize. The concern in her mild, blue eyes was of the kind that could tip into violence at any point and Vox pulled herself back to the present.
“Scars”, she said as she gently took the friend’s hands and squeezed them. “Things that are past us, remember?”
Celeste gritted her teeth for this quote of her own words and pulled Vox into a tight embrace.
“I expect to hear your stories of times gone by then”, she growled.
“That’ll take some time”, Vox threatened while the gratitude to feel the friend skin to skin again threatened to overwhelm her. After all the hardship, finally safe in an embrace. She smiled and stroked over the single fresh scar on Celeste’s elbow.
“Let’s start with you”, she suggested, smiling up at her sister before she took a look around at the others. “What have you all been doing?”
It was allowable, if unusual to talk in the first part of the ritual. Her sisters brought her up to speed about their engagements in the past twelve years while they stood under the ultrasonic showers. Rid of the roughest dirt, they laid out sponges and soap at the edge of the water basin and still they talked. It was so important to hear their voices. To align her reality to those of her friends. Bathing was meant as a time for friendship and exchange. A shared experience in a protected area. Something, other Astartes never got, Vox had learned.
“Emperor!”, she sighed when she stepped into the water. “How I have missed this!” She took her place between Celeste and Saphane, leaned back and just let this feeling sink in for a while, how the water flowed over her skin and how it made her muscles relax.
In the middle of this bliss, she began to tell her story. As her friends had informed her, most of the chapter’s toil had been business as usual and they had done well overall. There had been few casualties and even though they had lost battles, they were ahead in the war so far. Vox knew that this would change now that Tyranid fleet Daegon had entered their realm. She hoped to soften the blow somewhat by hooking the Wings of War up with the Deathwatch but she was by no means ignorant to the extent of this threat. Yet, this was for a later time to discuss.
She started to talk. Using the many scars on her body as a map to navigate her timeline, she soon got into the flow. Her sisters listened, laughed, marvelled, fretted and commented like Vox had always known them. She had missed them so dearly.
While she talked, Challey, who always needed something to do with her hands, came to her and started to massage her shoulders. When Vox had mostly finished her tales, the sister said: “Mistress, you’re one large knot!”
“I certainly feel like it”, Vox replied dryly while the friend’s fingers squeezed the muscles on her upper arm.
“No wonder, if you couldn’t take off your armour for twelve years”, Saphane commented.
“I’ve certainly lost some mobility”, Vox said darkly and then threw an impish look around. “Anyone want to test their combat skills against mine while I retain this handicap?”, she asked playfully and immediately winced because Challey had poked a particularly tense point between her shoulder blades.
“Did I win?”, the masseuse asked innocently and moved on to the next spot.
“The round is yours”, Vox conceded. “I’ll have my rematch tomorrow.”
The others grinned and Celeste called them to start the ritual washing.
Vox flexed her shoulders as she stood up. She had not felt as good as this in years. To be as one with her armour became a warrior but sometimes she simply needed more than half an hour of washing per week off.
Vox had enjoyed this way of cleaning each other before. The receiving part as well as the giving. After the long deprivation, she was prepared to treasure it even more.
She paired up with Celeste like they had always done it and never had the bulging muscles under the friend’s light skin poured such delight into her. Oblivious to everything around her, she trailed the firm curves with her hands while she rubbed the foam onto her body. When she came to the sister’s hands and played with her fingers like she had done it so many times before, her thoughts fleeted away for a moment. How different this hand was from Titus’.
On their journey here, she and her captain had not intensified their physical contact beyond holding hands and sometimes stroking each other’s faces. There had been many reasons for this, the most severe being her exhaustion. It had been difficult enough to stay awake in the night, let alone explore unknown territory. Also, Titus was so inconceivably bashful about the physical side of their interactions that she had never found the strength to push him further.
Vox was completely immersed in her contemplation when Andjal asked: “And the men you brought are really Astartes?”
She looked up and encountered a grin on Celeste’s face that made her hesitate for a second. It was saucy and knowing to a degree that made her blush. Titus would have recognized this grin. It was the same Vox was able to display when she teased him in inappropriate ways.
“Well”, Vox stuttered and turned to Andjal to answer her question. “They have all the implants.”
“So, you saw them naked?”, Celeste inquired and wrapped her fingers around Vox’s.
“Naked enough”, Vox replied and was astonished to find that the shyness forced her gaze to drop to the water.
“And you have asked the captain to meet you later?”, Sonja teased her.
Suddenly, Vox turned serious. She let go of Celeste’s hand.
“Yes”, she said quietly and her fists curled beside her. “I will ask him to help me find our Primarch.”
Her sisters looked at her for a moment until Saphane asked: “You haven’t found him yet?”
Vox looked at her in confusion. Celeste was the first to understand the puzzlement.
“We didn’t have time to tell you this”, the Chapter Mistress said and pulled Vox down to sit beside her again. “On the day the tarot burned, we saw our Primarch manifest behind you. He folded his wings around you and guided your hands through the fire. He whispered in your ear while you laid down the burning cards. We all thought he had called you away.”
Vox looked around at them briefly and there was shame in her features.
“I couldn’t hear him”, she said and sank deeper into the water to get rid of the foam. “The world is too noisy for him to reach me, but… The captain is a spot of calm. I can use him to listen for the call of my own blood.”
“How?”, Celeste inquired, grinning for the reddening of Vox’s ears.
“I need skin contact”, the Mistress of Secrets admitted.
“All night?”, Andjal inquired innocently.
“I don’t know”, Vox said, lifting her hands defensively. “Until I have found him, I suppose.”
“Have you asked the captain what he thinks about you storming off to search for another man?”, Sonja wanted to know.
“What’s the matter?”, Vox suddenly burst out hotly. “Have I missed out on some Slaanesh corruption around here or where are you trying to take this?”
They all laughed and Saphane pulled Vox into her embrace.
“Vox, we don’t begrudge you a spot of calm of your own”, she said soothingly. “Emperor knows, you deserve it.” Vox pressed herself to the friend’s skin and was unable to fathom how much she had missed this. This simple contact, this uncomplicated connection to another living being.
“Also, this arrangement spares us the trouble to guard you tonight”, Celeste noted casually and sprayed her hugging friends with water. “I don’t see your captain staying away from you.”
“You should have seen yourself talking to him, Mistress!”, Letrelle teased her. “You’re just so sweetly in love, you can’t expect us to keep quiet about it!”
Vox tried to hide in Saphane’s arms. Banter was common and very much allowed among the sisters and their chaplain always provided protection if the target did not take it well. Vox had only rarely made use of this retreat and her reaction now was enough to communicate her discomfort with the topic. She was left alone quickly. Varayne was the first to come close to lay her strong arms around them and then the whole group clustered together.
“Vox”, Celeste said quietly, stroking Vox’s hair. “You’re back now. Whatever the men have done to you they can’t reach you anymore.”
“They… they didn’t do… They were quite kind.” Vox had to laugh. “In a slightly limited way, I have to admit, but kind.”
“They are strange, aren’t they?”, Verissa asked.
“Yes!”, Vox exclaimed, holding on tighter to Saphane. A friend to hold on to and the others close around her. How she had missed this! “They almost never touch each other”, she continued. “Not even in their head I sometimes think. As if they were afraid of what they could see if they saw themselves mirrored in another’s eyes…”
“But you are back now”, Saphane said softly. “You are connected again.”
“I’m so glad about that”, someone mumbled, earning several confirmatory replies.
They let go of each other after a while.
“So, you’ll fetch our Primarch by cuddling your captain?”, Celeste inquired. “Sounds like a win-win situation if ever I heard it.”
“You know?”, Vox said quietly, avoiding to comment. “I keep thinking… We all have followed Sanguinius to his grave but for some reason he is still out there, calling for all of us. Why has no one ever managed to follow him beyond his grave?”
Nobody had actually forgotten how cryptic and mysterious their librarian could be but it still was unfamiliar after all this time. They exchanged uncertain looks until Celeste broke the silence with one of her pleasant laughs.
“I’m sure you’ll have a tale to tell tomorrow”, she said. “And I wish you skin contact all night by the way.”
Resonating with the good spirits of the friend, Vox started to snigger sheepishly and as if this had weakened the clamps on her restraint, her laughter suddenly broke free. It curved and rose into the wholehearted announcement of her joy and relief to have returned. Within heartbeats the whole group shared the merriment and only when they had settled down did they leave the bath to tend to hair and nails and finish their ritual.