After the badly coordinated boarding, Dankwart worked his healing rites. Since his left arm was riddled with holes, he had to start with himself before he could turn to Tiberius. Their techmarine had gotten the worst of the deal during his heroic assault and had fallen over as soon as there had been gravity to pull him down. It took quite a few rituals until Tiberius looked around at them blearily instead of lying around like a corpse. Dankwart scheduled him for an extended stay in the apothecarium.
Titus and Athuriel had gotten away with less but also were assigned healing duty.
Eventually, Dankwart turned to Vox. The young brother had uttered no word since they had boarded, just sat and stared at nothing. He probably was trying to ignore the absence of Vargov’s corpse. The wounds in his face were not worth mentioning and, other than everyone else, he had not bled on the floor since they had come in. Despite this, Dankwart performed quite a few rites of analysis. His patient, however, proved so sluggish in his responses that he finally gave up and switched to rites meant for the unconscious.
“You alright?”, Athuriel asked Vox after a while. The Dark Angel’s voice carried what they all felt: The leaden depression of a victorious mission for which they had still paid too much. Three brothers lost without a chance to recover their gene-seed was indeed a harsh sacrifice.
Titus was grateful that Athuriel had posed the question. The young brother took this hardest of all of them and surely needed the sympathy in the stern, green eyes resting on him.
Vox lifted his gaze and forced a smile.
“Yeah, you know me”, he said, with a dismissive gesture. “Losing half the team… Story of my life, nothing to worry about.”
“Three isn’t half”, Titus insisted, trying to shine a light on their achievements.
Vox refrained from looking at him. Instead, his bitter gaze rested on Athuriel.
“Just tell them”, he asked wearily and the Dark Angel nodded.
“Brothers, my watch ends. I’m going to leave.”
“Thank you for staying”, Vox said earnestly, pushing his gloom aside for this.
“Good to have met you”, Titus said.
“You certainly earned your laurels”, was Tiberius’ rather quiet contribution and even Dankwart honoured him with a friendly: “Farewell, brother.”
They were silent for a while until Tiberius asked: “Vox?”
“Why did you defrock Tsart?”
“The cards warned me about this”, Vox answered, gritting his teeth. A steep crease appeared between his brows as he frowned. He looked down and Titus felt for him. Being right was not necessarily nice.
“The Primarch lay upside-down in the middle of my cross. He warned me that our leader would endanger us in more than one way”, he explained. “And when Tsart ignored my warning not to pick anything up and insisted that he was the one making the decisions, I was concerned that he would get us all killed before we could complete our task.” His eyes wandered over to the massive form of Tiberius on the ground. “Thank you for backing me up”, he said earnestly.
“Considering that we are still here while the station flies in ruin, it certainly was the right thing to do”, Tiberius said and gave Titus a shaky but appraising nod.
“Indeed!”, Athuriel felt inclined to underline this, his powerful voice almost like an encouraging slap on the back. “Well done, brother!”
“Well done!”, even Dankwart said.
“You are very generous, brothers”, Titus said, leaning back. “But why don’t I hear praise for Vox? I can’t even name all the ways in which he has made it possible that we sit here and you congratulate me?”
He knew at once that he had hit something. The atmosphere tilted in a totally different direction. Had they been gloomy and depressed a moment ago, suddenly, they all tensed. When he looked around, only Vox returned his gaze with a humourless grin.
“That’s a stupid question, brother”, he scolded Titus with a merciless glint in his blue eyes. “The answer is of course that I got tired of all the praise and forbade them to mention anything I do.”
“Does anybody know what happened to Vargov?”, Athuriel tried to sidetrack in a hasty manner.
“Teleported into a wall, I think”, Vox replied and used the opportunity to go gloomy again.
“The Omnissiah chooses his sacrifices”, Tiberius said weakly. “But he would have deserved better.”
“Oh, I don’t know”, Vox said with a shrug and managed a smile. “At least his funeral was adequately explosive. He would have liked that.”
Finally, despite everything, the brothers cracked up with laughter.
Leaning forward Athuriel shook his head and the smile on his stern features made him look rather handsome.
“Oh Vox, sometimes…”
“No, I will not have that said about me!”, Vox cut in as the sentence trailed off and lifted an accusing finger. In the face of the all-consuming despair, he found a faint bit of humour to cling to.
“I agree with Vox”, Titus said solemnly, eager to see if he could help his brother out a little. He also felt the need to get away from the leaden depression.
“Vox clearly is a man for always, not for sometimes.”
The always-Vox stared at Titus for a moment until he found repartee: “Right. I’m a librarian for life, mark my words! And I haven’t pledged myself to you yet, brother, so don’t you agree with me!” His finger now stabbed in Titus’ direction.
“I can agree with whoever I want, pledged or not”, Titus insisted stoically.
“It’s whomever”, Vox corrected him, letting the finger sink.
“No, it’s just whomever when I want”, Titus assured him.
“Grammar isn’t optional, brother”, Vox scolded him playfully.
“Not as long as you want to be taken seriously!”
“Oh dear”, Titus said, keeping his deadpan expression. “Do you mean to say you are not taking me seriously?”
“I’m successfully containing myself”, Vox declared.
“But I am the solemn, faithful, loyal, well-bred…”
“Starch arsed?”, his young friend supplied.
“Yes, thank you. Starch arsed Ultramarine!”, he finished his description.
“Now you’re going a bit far.”
“In what direction please?”, Titus inquired politely, meeting Vox’s critical gaze head-on.
“You’re not that starch arsed.”
“Am I not now?”
“No”, Vox assured him. “As soon as we’re back on Erioch, we need to find you some additional starch.”
“Direct me to the kitchen anytime.”
Vox took a quick look around before he leaned forward.
“I think we need to stop”, he said conspiratorially.
“Yes, I see the pain in the eyes of our brothers as well”, Titus answered in a stage whisper.
“Also, I’m concerned that I might run out of good quips sooner than you.”
“Let me assure you that you ran out of good quips quite a while ago.”
“Good point!”, Vox took this up with a leisurely smile. “For the next mission, I shall request extra quips to be on the safe side.”
“I agree”, Titus encouraged him. “Grenades are all very well but a cutting remark is always handy in a tight corner.”
“And thus”, Athuriel interrupted their flow gravely. “Since we can’t bury our comrades, we lay to rest good taste.”
“Proper burial and mourning rites are what distinguishes us from xenos, Athuriel”, Titus said reproachfully.
“The way you two are conducting them, not much”, the Dark Angel answered drily.
“Also, I have to protest”, Tiberius could be heard as he lifted a dunning finger perpendicular to the floor. He had visible difficulty to focus on them as he continued: “The position of starch arsed Ultramarine is mine, brother. You may challenge me for it but I will not give it up without a fight.”
They all stared at him.
“Tiberius?”, Vox asked.
“Was that humour?”
“A wimpy attempt at it, yes”, the techmarine declared solemnly and rubbed his eyes as if this could help him to see straight. He wiggled a little but did not manage to roll over.
“I was already shocked at your pun!”, Vox exclaimed.
“That was unintended”, Tiberius admitted with an apologetic smile.
“What pun?”, Athuriel wanted to know.
“You two had me worried there for a second”, Vox said, relief rising on his face.
“So, what’s next?”, Titus asked.
“I beg your pardon? Have you never come back from a mission?”, Vox wanted to know.
“Only once or twice. The process is still new to me.”
“Oh, alright then”, Vox said peaceably. “There will be a lot of lying around, healing and then probably quite a bit of training on Erioch before we get our next assignment. By the way”, he said as if remembering something. “Put down the dagger you are carrying.”
The presence of the thing had slipped Titus’ mind entirely. He reached down to his calf sheath, took the dagger out and laid it on the floor next to him.
Vox shook his head and laughed.
“I’ll probably never get tired of testing that. You really can’t hear a thing, can you?”
“I can hear fine, little brother, but this weapon doesn’t speak to me, no.”
“What does it say?”, Athuriel wanted to know. His voice and features regained the intensity he had displayed when Titus had inquired why no one praised Vox.
“It screams to be picked up”, the librarian answered, staring absently at the thing. “No wonder Tsart took it. I bet it’s infused with White Scar blood too. It would have been even louder for him.”
“So, not exactly his fault then”, Tiberius said.
“No, not really”, Vox confirmed.
“I disagree”, Titus cut in, earning a few raised eyebrows. “I remember a very distinct warning not to pick anything up. He knew what he had to look out for.”
“I’ll remind you of your words, brother.”
“On the day you ignore my warnings.”
“This has yet to come”, Titus said severely.
“It usually does”, Athuriel commented, lowering his gaze.
“I don’t understand you, Vox!”, Titus burst out. “Tsart almost shot you down. How can you sit here and defend his honour?”
Vox leaned forward on his knees, looking Titus deeply in the eyes.
“Do you really mean that question, brother?”, he asked quietly and earnestly.
“I do”, Titus replied.
Suddenly, all the mockery Vox usually displayed drained away. What it revealed underneath was someone Titus had never seen before.
“Alright”, the librarian said, settling back in his seat. “Then, listen closely, Ultramarine: ‘Dread him who has ties to the warp, for in his footsteps chaos falls. Keep your thoughts clear and your weapon ready to strike him down on the day he gives the darkness way to this world’. Recognize this quote?”
Titus nodded. It was a passage in the Codex Astartes. Vox watched him with half-open eyes as if he did not care overly much but still wanted to see how he reacted.
“On the day I give the darkness way”, he said very quietly. “I will be killed by my brethren. If I start thinking that day hasn’t come yet, it probably has.”
“Today was not the day”, Titus insisted and noticed how carefully everyone else avoided looking at him.
“No”, Vox conceded calmly and then, his voice got a dangerous spin when he said: “But I begin to doubt that you will see it when it has, my friend.”
“Getting offensive now, little librarian?”
“You know”, Vox said and all the mockery returned but in a bad way. “I was wondering how you could not have spotted Drogan.”
“Hurtful too”, Titus said but he could already see that Vox was not going to back down. He realised that, up until now, he had been protected by his superior rank from what would follow.
“But what amazes me the most”, Vox continued, turning colder and harder with every word. “Is that you don’t seem to have learned, brother.” He leaned forward like a predator ready to spring. “I’m a psyker”, he almost spat. “I walk with chaos every day, I hear it scream the thickness of a shadow away. Have you seen me in action?”, Vox demanded testily. “I will not fall against some foe or other, some creature, some xenos, some sorry, misled renegade. I will fall through you! One of you will send the bullet flying that takes me away from this world! Look around you, brother!”, he bade him with an aggressive gesture encompassing the three others. “Here are the men I call friends and whenever I reach into the warp, they wonder if this is the day. If it is finally time to kill me before I become something even worse than I am now. You wanted to know why you don’t hear praise for me? Because I freak them out, brother! I freak them out to an extent that they can only ignore what I’m doing or it would drive them mad!” Vox’s eyes were full of seemingly uncontrollable wrath, but as Titus looked into them, into these deep, blue wells, he thought he saw something else.
“I’m a psyker”, Vox ended. With this final statement, cold as ice, the young man leaned back against the wall and closed his eyes, the harsh truth still ringing in the air.
Titus could not turn his gaze away from him. He saw how he sat there, suddenly retreated after this outburst, bracing himself for the counterstrike. For the first heartbeats, Titus had considered striking back indeed but he remembered standing on the other side. Making hurtful remarks, threatening, cursing and he remembered how Vox had seen through his anger, finding the reasons behind it. They had been strangers back then, neither bound by friendship nor understanding and still, Vox had reacted to these deeper reasons instead of the superficial affront. Titus found that he wanted to return this favour because behind the wrath, he had seen the pain.
“I am sorry”, he said and all of them looked round to him in amazement. “I never imagined how it would be for you.”
Vox stared at him wide eyed but found nothing to say. Neither did the others. It took a long time before the friend managed to turn back to business. He did it by taking off his gauntlets. It was an odd occurrence. The young brother used a short rite, no longer than a few words. It was much shorter than the one Titus had learned for his gauntlets. Tiberius kept calm, so it was probably the appropriate rite in this case.
“Throw me the dagger”, Vox demanded when he had bared his hands and put the gauntlets into the helmet on his belt. Athuriel and Dankwart laid their bolters nonchalantly over their knees while Titus bent down. Tiberius searched for his weapons too but gave up very soon.
Carefully, Titus threw the dagger over, handle first.
Vox caught it and suddenly made a hasty movement with it, aiming the blade against his own throat. At the last moment, he managed to push it further out and scratched harmlessly over his shoulder plate.
“Sneaky little bastard”, he said with an expression of deep concentration on his face. Deliberately, he turned the blade so that it pointed downwards. He completely ignored that Athuriel and Dankwart both had their bolters cocked and aimed after this.
Silence fell for a few minutes. Finally, Vox reached out and stroked with a finger over the sharp edge of the blade until his blood ran down it.
A quick sideways glance told Titus what he already knew: At least Athuriel’s finger was tensing around the trigger. The Dark Angel had the bolter rested on his thigh and tried to uphold the appearance of ease but it was obvious that he would not hesitate if Vox so much as twitched now. Once more, a breathless silence ruled. Titus considered reaching out to Athuriel but feared that he would squeeze the trigger for anything. So, they all just sat still until Vox emerged from his trance. He relaxed, letting the blade sink and weighing it thoughtfully.
“Well?”, Athuriel asked, his bolter still nonchalantly aimed. At least Dankwart had put his weapon down.
“Nothing interesting really. It’s called Övöl’Ir, it’s a blade, it wants to kill.” Vox shrugged. “A White Scar librarian could probably tell us more. We’ll put it in a secure crate and give it to the next one leaving to take it home. They’ll be glad to get it back. No idea how the xenos got it.”
“Could you say the name again?”, Athuriel asked.
“Not for your amusement”, Vox replied with a reproachful look. “It bites me when I do.”
“Shame. Because that was a hilarious name if ever I heard it.”
“Yes, very amusing”, Titus cut in, trying to keep his temper. “Could you lower your bolter now, brother?”, he asked insistently.
Athuriel turned his glowing, green eyes to him, regarding him for a moment.
“I think Vox was right”, he said then. “You will not see the day coming, brother.” He was very definitely not lowering his weapon. “But since you have proven a worthy and totally deaf carrier, would you take the thing back, please? Then, I might be inclined to lower my bolter.”
Vox stood up and held the dagger out to Titus, handle first. Their gazes met when he reached out to take it. He had already seen the agony in Vox’s reaction earlier. In his blue eyes, he now found the cruel facts echoed: No one cared how hard it was for a psyker to stay with the world. If he was in less than full and perfect control all the time, he was shot down like a rabid animal.
‘If I start to think the day hasn’t come yet, it probably has’, Vox had said. Titus could not help but feel for him. His friend was condemned to complete helplessness in this matter. If he spoke up against someone threatening him wrongfully, he would only raise his chances of being killed. Titus remembered all too well what helplessness meant. It was something even a Space Marine could fear. He felt compassion and admiration alike because Vox bore this burden very well as far as he had seen it.
When he had taken the dagger away from him and put it back into his calf sheath, Athuriel finally lowered his weapon and the atmosphere relaxed.