Up until now Vox had only shown him her thoughts of the moment. Now, she pulled him into a memory.
For the first time, Titus got an inkling of what it meant when she took charge in the mind realm. Her sneering thought of how lucky he was fleeted by. All her other victims had been forced to witness her irrupting into their innermost being. He was only dragged into hers.
It took no time to reach the moment she was heading for. Only the sensation of shifting from here to there preluded his plunging into this old wound.
Titus was lost immediately. His own memories were crystal clear and silent like images. He could shuffle through and look at them closer if he desired. Only in rare cases had he experienced the loss of control when they welled up out of the abyss. Wrapped into Vox’s certainty he understood that the emotions and the pain she conjured up now were normal for her. Braving the waves of her past was a daily, almost momentary habit. Briefly, he noticed her marvelling that it was so different for him but soon he was dragged under by the torrent of agony.
In short order, she threw him into the swirls of the dreadful time after he had found out that she was a woman. The shock of awakening with his hands pressing her down. The helpless dismay when he had attacked her in the shrine. Titus had not seen her crying but she remembered shedding two desperately shameful tears. The sting of their memory slipped his grasp when she pulled him onwards. Past their devastating training fight where she had realised that she would never be safe with him again and to the terrible, terrible row in the chapel afterwards. ‘Forgive me’, she had said and Titus had been unable to understand that it had been her plea for him to stop hurting her. Vox had begged his forgiveness in the hope that he would leave her alone in her misery and at least refrain from making it worse.
In retrospect, Vox understood. She firmly showed him how comprehensively she understood that he had merely been incapable of containing the pain any longer.
But she was still hurt. Unable to make rational thought a good enough ointment for this wound, she was stuck with the bitterness and remorse and dismay.
Titus was devastated to see this and swiped away the coiling spirals of her self reproach with force because he agreed. He might have closed his eyes to his weakness back then but from the outside it was impossible to deny.
Passive and helpless in the stream of memory before, he reared up against the surging stream of her anguish. She was right to be hurt and he was sorry for his part in what had happened.
Suddenly he realised that Vox had unmade his agony by taking responsibility for the occurrences while he had never returned this sweetest of remedies. Through the self blame that she still was resentful about his treatment of her, he took charge and dragged her back to where his crimes had started. He showed her how he had perceived her after Almond. How small and feeble he had made her in his own mind just because he had seen her lying broken. When she had seen him at his weakest she had done nothing but empower and support him to rise again. Titus, on the other hand, had learned nothing from her example. He had only tried to protect, without realising how much he was hindering her to unfold her full, beautiful potential.
‘I don’t need protection’, she had told him and he had ignored her.
He had made her his bail without asking just because he had wanted to bind her to himself. It had happened out of the fear of losing her precious support. Vox’s consciousness went quiet in bafflement when the dark surge of understanding hit them both: Titus had acted in petty selfishness. He had not been ready to stand by himself again. In his need he had tried to control instead of enable. He could have acknowledged the potential and unquenchable power in her like she had done it for him. He could have mirrored it back to her in his looks, in his casual comments. He had not.
‘I’m your bailsman, Vox!’, echoed through their minds, stinging them both with bitterness and shame.
How humiliating to be treated like this. How demeaning that it had needed her return home for Titus to see what had been in front of him all the time: She was Vox Draconis, Mistress of Secrets, Keeper of the Law of the Wings of War, right hand to her Chapter Mistress, proud, accomplished warrior, seasoned veteran. Forced to humble herself before the men, she had still never fully been able to conceal herself. How often had her true nature shone through?
Titus was about to start counting when Vox suddenly pulled him another way.
Shaking with the strain of grief, he followed her back to this terrible quarrel in the chapel of the ‘Aiolos’. Past the harrowing word ‘Dismissed’ she led him to the moments afterwards and showed him why she had decided not to let herself slip that day. The knife of this last word had only been able to hurt her because her hearts had been open to him in the first place. The memory of Ignatius’ voice passed them by. ‘If you can do something like this with words alone, our little brother must love you indeed’. The ugly spectre of fear tinted Titus’ half of their experience. How could anyone love him after the errors he had made? But Vox enveloped him in her certainty. She showed him how her love for him had blunted the dreadful dagger of ‘dismissed’ enough to allow her to persevere. In this moment of crisis, she had been able to call to this power to keep her afloat.
In their intertwined minds, Titus had no place to retreat and under the golden stream of her affection he finally saw it all: He was beloved. Not without reason but also not for something he had done on purpose. Vox’s love was made up of admiration, gratitude and plain joy in his company. Growing under the things he had done because they matched his nature, it had become a force inside her that enabled her to endure.
While Titus marvelled in bafflement at this strange thing, Vox’s impish amusement seemingly turned him around.
Prompted to gaze deep into himself, he found the exact same image of pure delight. Love.
Unaware of what he was feeling, he had nevertheless loved Vox from the start. The sensation was made up of gratitude and admiration and joy in her company. She had given him safety after the devastation of the iniquitous torture and he had returned what he could. His affection had sparked hers and then, they had grown together. Never declared, hardly noticed by him but still nourished by what they both were.
The tidal waves of emotion growing still and slow, Vox and Titus found themselves in each other’s arms. Their connection dwindled into a warm exhaustion.
He found that his head was still buried between her breasts and that his grip had loosened. Yet, she had not escaped his grasp. Holding her down was unnecessary and running away just as needless. They were here by choice. Both of them.
Half lying on top of her, Titus lifted his head to see her face. In the moonlight, her features were clear and beautiful and he saw that she had shed tears. When he reached up to stroke them away, he found that some had pooled in her ear.
He regarded her in this state of gentle satisfaction. When he had asked her to unite with him again, he indeed had not understood what it would mean. He had not imagined the strain of working through another’s emotion on top of his own.
Her image came to him. Wrapped in a blanket next to him in the infirmary on Erioch, telling him that she had seen all three years of his torture.
Titus remembered the time all too well himself. The first month or so when Thrax had abandoned him on that forsaken, daemon haunted planet and had only picked him up again because he had found the hellish sword he had been sent to search for. Nobody had given him details, he had just been loaded into a drop pod with a few coordinates and the description of the thing. When he had been picked up, exhausted and wounded, his time in the cell had started. He had been forced to hang helplessly from the chains, clinging to his faith as best he could while mortal men humiliated him over and over again. He also remembered when his resolve had threatened to give out when his suffering had pushed him so far beyond his limits…
He had been unable to fathom her meaning back then. Now, he understood and he admired her. She had been hit with three years of his pain, his resentment, his doubt all at once and turned towards instead of away from him.
Vox held his gaze in the moonlight. Her hands wandered gently over his face and neck and shoulders and an unthinkable certainty formed in his mind: She had seen him like this.
Not only had she knelt before him in the darkness and beheld his shamefully mutilated frame. She had entered his innermost self, witnessed his fall from faith and still, she loved him.
He had felt this love just now but he was cowed by the enormity of the thought. Love for him. He had never been granted that before. What he had for himself was the pride that he had overcome his weakness but never had he been able to love himself. He had been taught that his love was for the Emperor and it seemed that there had never been enough left.
Titus reached up with his other hand as well and sank his shaking fingers into her hair. His own love welled up from a strange, deep place inside him. It was hot and powerful and came in seemingly endless supplies. It filled him up to warm and revive him just like the white fire had done it. Only this time, it originated from within himself. There was so much of it, the Emperor surely could have far more than before and he thanked Him in silent prayer that He had brought their paths together.
Titus let himself sink into Vox’s gaze and suddenly, he wanted to live up to her. He wanted to allow their joint love to smooth over the edges and scratches they had retained. He wanted to live up to her example and fuel his strength and patience with this love so that she could be free to rest her head when she needed to. And maybe, one day, he wanted to love himself in the light of the fire that had ignited inside him.
He slid upwards over her warm body to be closer to her face when he suddenly got aware of how wrapped up in himself he had been again. He should have noticed before how her eyes were fixed on the bleeding wound on his forehead.
“Will you be alright with the blood?”, he tenderly asked his Blood Angel.
Vox took a deep breath and tried to get a grip on herself. Then she nodded.
“You are rather tempting, my dear”, she whispered and grinned. It was this kind of grin that happened mostly around her eyes. Titus loved that one. He pushed his hands under her neck and wanted to kiss her but while he did this, he realised how cold the flagstones were. She allowed him to pick her up and carry her over to the bed. When he sat her down, she pulled him after herself.
“Titus”, Vox breathed.
The sound of his name tingled down his spine and he suddenly realised that he had never heard it like this before.
“You never called me by name before”, he murmured in surprise. “Not without title.”
“Once”, she corrected him softly and he remembered. He remembered the voice resounding through his mind, pulling him back from the brink of death. He had longed for this connection forever. Maybe since before he could remember and now here it was.
A smile spread across his face and on through his mind and soul. It made his hearts jump on the way and filled him with the joy of hearing her say his name.
Her hands wandered through his hair and when he dared to sink down and kiss her, he felt her presence again. It was gentle this time, warm and careful. Full of joy and full of love.
It really was the strangest, most alien thing he had ever known. With a light-headed feeling he sank into it to encounter his beloved just as close as he wanted her to come.
None of them knew exactly who had started to draw their bodies into this again. Maybe, they had acted by themselves. Bodies were strange and sometimes powerful things they noticed. They had their own, special kind of longing. The longing to be close to the loved one resonated inside them and when they united, memory and thought switched off, leaving only impression and emotion. Vox and Titus dissolved into one another. Into the bliss and heat of their doing. Flowing, shuddering for the complete union of their being. For the sensation of melting and being remade into something different and far more powerful than they had been up until now. An eternity they had never anticipated engulfed them and yet it was only a few minutes before Titus, veteran and victor in so many battles, had to give in. He gave in in a way he had never dreamed existed and after this sweetest of defeats he had ever suffered, he sank into her embrace and silence fell.
After a soft, warm eternity, Titus moved his head and rubbed his face against hers. Vox remained still. She lay with her eyes closed as if asleep. He had not even felt her slip away.
“Oh, my beautiful, dutiful love”, he sighed and kissed her rosy cheeks. “Leaving so soon is a bit harsh, I feel.”
Seeing that scolding her was no use he gripped her and turned over so that she came to rest on his chest. While he crawled around in the bed, trying to get the blanket out from under them, he had to smile. Lying like this, they would have fitted in any bed they had encountered so far.
When he had tucked the blanket tight around them, he listened to her breathing for a long time. Sometimes he kissed her, stroked her hair or searched for scars and connection ports on her skin. The serenity of the moment was endless. Soft and strong like nothing he had ever known before. Or maybe it was something he had forgotten because somehow there was nothing unfamiliar here. The smell of Vox’s hair and skin. The warmth. The silent joy for her presence. The lazy satisfaction that settled over him like a second blanket. Somehow, they were all old friends he had forgotten and got to meet again. During their journey to Thetis, he had felt strange for being in love. Suddenly, this had seized. Instead, he felt content and peaceful. He had to smile when this thought crept through his mind. In a moment before the next battle, the warriors had found peace.