Leaving Vox alone and joining the others, offered the opportunity to speak to Dankwart even though Titus encountered minor difficulties in getting his attention. On their way to the midday meal, the apothecary was so deep in thought that he was only alerted to Titus’ presence when he spoke.
“Dankwart, I wanted to speak to you.”
“Yes, aegis”, the apothecary replied obediently.
“I got the impression that you didn’t like the prospect of returning home all that much”, he dived straight in. Dankwart had never been the type for introductory small talk.
The Blood Drinker looked down.
“I had my quarrel with it”, he conceded.
Titus flinched. Maybe, they should have interrupted his talk with Saphane yesterday after all. If he spoke in the past tense then, the first chaplain might have helped him come to terms with the fate Vox had chosen for him. He thought about what to say now, and went for honesty.
“Listen. I’ve spoken to Vox about this.”
“Please, stop there, old friend”, Dankwart asked him. “If my lady doesn’t want me here, I’ll leave.”
“She needs you here.”
“And what would my lady need me for?”, he demanded bitterly.
“Look”, Titus said patiently. “I can see that you’re hurt but do you remember what you told me? If you put all of this aside, you’ll see where you stick and then you can work yourself along from there.”
“You offend me by twisting my meaning like this”, Dankwart said quietly. “You two were longing for each other. My longing is one-sided… I will not force it on her.”
Titus stopped and held Dankwart back by one arm.
“Dankwart, Vox doesn’t remember any of us”, he said so quietly that nobody would overhear them. “The few hours she spent in the cave were hundreds of years in the warp for her. Yes, she has stopped reaching out to us like she used to and we frankly suck at reaching out ourselves. All of us. But she needs us more than ever even though she can’t even tell. Please don’t leave!”
Dankwart stared at him.
“Hundreds of years?”, he asked.
“Can’t you see how she is now?”, Titus asked quietly. “She has been lonely for so long, she doesn’t know how not to be lonely anymore. All she has left is her quest of returning Sanguinius to the Emperor. But you know what happens if Vox lives by pure necessities, right?”
“She doesn’t live through it”, Dankwart said quietly and his gaze lost itself in infinity. “I keep thinking that none of us do”, he admitted after a moment. “Psykers just stick out because you notice it when they let go.”
“Dankwart, I’ll be frank: Staying will not be the easy option”, Titus said. “To be forgotten hurts and Vox will hurt all of us over and over again. She doesn’t remember how to take care anymore. She has forgotten what used to be important to her and all we can do is to remember for her. Please don’t leave me with this task, Dankwart! I need you here too.” Dankwart looked at him in surprise and Titus was about to back-padel when he instead hardened his stance. It was his turn to hold the comrades together and he would stand his ground even against his own embarrassment.
“Please stay, Dankwart”, he repeated. “For all of us.”
“Do you… speak for her as well?”, Dankwart asked cautiously.
“May I think about it?”, Dankwart inquired cautiously.
“Of course!”, Titus said, relief rising in his hearts. “What about you decide until Erioch?”
“I thank you, Titus.”
“I thank you, Dankwart!”
They continued their way to the meal in silence.
The rest of the day was less emotional. The training continued and in the evening, there was the bathing. It was strange but not overly crazy to wash each other instead of being washed by humans. That Vox had trouble with her wings overpainted other difficulties. The sensation of them getting wet was so repulsive to her that she was hardly able to summon the willpower to get clean before she fled the tub.
Over the next days Vox rejoined the training with the others. It was an exhilarating challenge to have her in the grounds. The new movements she commanded enriched any sparring she took part in. As her endurance returned to old form during the following weeks, taking her on in close combat soon got out of the question. Towards the end of their journey, all of 3rd could try to tackle her at once and fail. Not even Titus’ advantage of staying hidden in the ripples of the warp helped. Vox quickly singled him out and took him down by sight alone.
Only the depressing vulnerability against ranged weaponry remained. When she mentioned that she would do something about this as well, it sounded like an oath. This, however, could not be done while they travelled through the warp.
The ‘Primarch’s Bride’ had specially shielded rooms for psykers to test their abilities but Corven had reminded her that she had once grilled one of those on Erioch. With this in mind she collectedly decided against testing the much more potent powers she wielded these days.
Having established her superiority among her comrades, she started to isolate herself again. Titus could tell her that they all appreciated the challenge as often as he wanted. Vox reduced her active involvement to the odd teaching session here and there and worked on her flying skills instead.
Sometimes she spent half the day circling over the fighting company and honed her ability to spot the tides of battle from above. Other times, she flew manoeuvres or worked on handling ranged weapons. A bolter had too much recoil to use in the air but a plasma gun turned out to be a prudent choice for her.
When she started to take weights along, the question of armour became important. It remained a difficult one. The Mistress of the Forge might have never spoken her disapproval of Vox’s former armour having gotten lost in the warp but she turned out to be a bit techy when it came to this topic. It took Titus challenging her belief in her saint before she got amenable enough to create new plans. A day of mourning for the old armour was a necessary concession but at least then, things moved on. However, they never got far.
Nobody could think of a way to fit a power armour to someone with wings. Tampering with the polymer would have been bad enough already. Thinking about a power source not located in a restrictive backpack was plain tech-heresy. Nobody dared to think the thought and Sanguinius almost caused open war by urging Vox to mouth the suggestions. Luckily, the saint had a faint recollection of this being a troublesome path and discussed it with Titus beforehand. The treaties between the Followers of the Machine God and the Imperium created a precarious situation and the three-way argument between the angels and the marine finally ended with the recollection that the chapter had only Mark VI power armours at their disposal in any case. Despite this being the lightest power armour of the day, it still would confine Vox’s movements too severely. What Sanguinius meant with aerodynamic problems, they got only a vague inkling of.
After long deliberations on all sides, the mechanicum managed to bless an independent vox com and provided well fitted normal armour. With this, the topic was closed.
While Vox was dissatisfied with the situation, Titus immensely enjoyed training with a company again. The new people and different fighting styles were an exhilarating stimulation and it turned out that his new position held a particular satisfaction for him. Being able to command a chapter mistress, kept his spirits up even though his guilty conscience whispered that this should not have been the case.
The other brothers of the Deathwatch adapted well to the changed circumstances. They stayed attached to their guides because Vox had said so and afterwards never bothered to revoke the decision.
Aegis had seven members and a squad falling short by three was a minor problem in the greater scheme of things. Gladius, however, was left with two sergeants. Luckily, Cephaya and Grimfang fought well together. Since she had beaten him in their fight, he bowed to her superiority without blinking. Not even when she teased him about his short beard did he bat an eyelash. The patch, Cephaya had ripped out, had quickly ceased to be distinguishable but he had clearly learned his lesson. Now, he wore his beard well trimmed instead of luxuriantly long. However little he seemed to like the hierarchy, once it was settled, he ticked with it smoothly.
The white wolf was not the only one who changed his appearance. Titus had arranged for Aegis and Gladius to bathe in gender seclusion to avoid deaths by embarrassment among the men. This, of course, involved them having to tend to their hair and beard for themselves. In the first few weeks this resulted in Tiberius, Rogan, Caregar and Yorg developing unkempt full beards but at some point, they caught on to shaving habits and actually started to experiment with them. While Corven insisted on simply letting his grey beard grow how it liked and Xavor started to braid the black hairs on his chin, the four of them suddenly wore well trimmed, minutely contoured beards. Without facial hair to speak of, Dankwart and Ignatius were unable to join the fun but seemed content with the state.
Titus, bereft of bathing maidens himself, faced a similar problem. Although razors were easy to arrange in the bathrooms, neither he nor Vox knew how to shave. Between themselves and after only a few superficial cuts, they managed to work out how the process worked. Thus, Titus continued with his usual routine of shaving once a week and left it at that. With all the trouble occupying him, he had no energy to spare for details like this.
One of his most urgent tasks he had taken on was to bring Vox into contact with her friends. She was so sore in her soul that she suffered from the mere presence of other people but he deemed this point too important. It was exhausting and difficult nevertheless. It took her weeks before she was able to distinguish the superficial thoughts and emotions of others from her own. This circumstance was no problem when she talked to a cheerful person like Xavor but few had as light a personality. Instead they were weighed down by their own burdens and buried the angel under them without intent.
Surprisingly, one of the least problematic encounters for Vox was the dark, rough, cynical Serebus Rogan. For some reason or other, he had developed such a hard shell around his soul that not much got through to him and he gave back even less.
Grimfang on the other hand, whom she had kept so close with so much effort, was suddenly unbearable for her. Once she tried to put words around it. He carried a deep, dark sorrow which he bore well but was insufferable for her. One day she had to leave the room, crying on his behalf and since then she kept away. Titus could tell that this hurt Grimfang even more but he found nothing to do about it. Asking Dankwart and Ignatius to look out for the sergeant was all he could come up with.
Because it was easiest for both of them they mostly associated themselves with the men and their guides. Her sisters treating her with distant reverence reinforced this tendency and even though Titus knew that things were wrong, he found no way to amend them. Formerly Vox would have been able to put at least a few words around the difficulties and together they would have worked things out. She had lost this ability and Titus did not possess it. He struggled hard enough to get them through each day.
The training was the only thing that kept them going. Everything else was weirdly impossible.
Sometimes Vox lay sobbing in his arms at night and all he could do was to endure until she fell asleep. These were the nights when her mind slipped over to him in her dreams. They were not as drastic as in the first night after the cave but Titus prayed to be spared several of these nights in a row. He would have collapsed under the exhaustion in that case.