24. Life Goes on

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The debriefing had been a short, unceremonious visit from the commander in the apothecarium. Since he had already received the report, there was little to say. Athuriel had made his desire to leave clear in other ways and none of the others had anything to contribute. In the end, the commander had found a few simple words of praise for their work, never mentioned the topic of three brothers lost and left them to their healing duty.
Being on healing duty meant that a Space Marine was required to do anything that promoted his health. For this, he was exempt from any normal activity including meals and prayers. Their natural devotion ensured that they made haste to escape this state and Aegis also underwent the mourning rites together. The Adeptus Astartes as a whole knew that a Space Marine still was human in certain ways. Maybe, they could not feel as destructively as a weak-willed human but they were not bereft of feeling. Losing brothers endangered a mind, made it weak and vulnerable to recklessness or corruption. The mourning rites were meant to steady the warriors and bring those who had survived together. They were a way to stand up and fight on. An Astartes who had seen his first couple of battles inevitably got familiar with them.
For Titus, it was only half as bad this time. He had hardly known the lost comrades and mostly had to deal with the sympathy for his friends. Especially Vox had visible trouble but there was nothing to be done for him. The young brother had not been hurt badly enough to justify healing duty, so he was out in training all day. The little free time in the evening, he spent with Athuriel until the Dark Angel left two weeks later. Only after this, did he visit the others again.
Altogether, they spent three weeks on Erioch before their next assignment reached them. It was enough time for the wounded to heal and for Titus to undergo his hypno-indoctrination, which had been postponed due to their hasty deployment. The indoctrination was one of the boons a Space Marine seconded to the Deathwatch gained. It delivered a lot of information about xeno behaviour and strategies and other useful knowledge not readily available otherwise. Had he been able to dream, his dreams would have been a lot more lively for it.
Titus was the first of the brothers who recovered enough to join the training. To his own surprise, he had trouble adapting to it. The journey to Erioch had offered good practice in letting someone else coordinate a training but he had anticipated that he would train with his comrades. On Erioch, this was only true for half the day. As librarian, Vox had duties in the library to observe. Since the morning usually contained training with ranged weaponry and the afternoon melee training, he was allowed to switch phases. It still meant that Titus was alone among strangers half the time. Vox warned him that Tiberius and Dankwart had to follow similar patterns to attend their tasks in the mechanicum and apothecarium. He also mentioned that they usually synchronised their days. Titus’ situation would not change as long as they remained on Erioch. It astonished the battle-hardened former captain that this should even remotely bother him. He would be able to train with Aegis ad nauseam as soon as they were deployed after all.
To prevent himself from moping, Titus set out to learn. He started with what the other brothers could teach him. Tactics, reaction patterns, strategic considerations or lack thereof. Anything the men around him showed or did not show was of interest to him. This way, he had enough to do. He still enjoyed it when Vox talked to him in the evenings. The librarian was a seemingly endless source of knowledge as long as they stayed away from any topic concerning his heritage. Prayers and rules peculiar to the Deathwatch, reflections on tactics they had dealt with during the day and finally personal opinions and preferences that influenced their own style of combat. All laid out in easy, satisfying discussion. At first, Titus was concerned that he might be obtrusive but Vox did not seem to mind. On the contrary. The young man got into the habit of waiting for his brother after the even prayer and accompanied him to his sleeping chamber.
One day, Vox did not show up for training in the morning even though the comrades had agreed on it the day before. When Titus asked about this, Tiberius ventured the guess that a new assignment might have come up. In such a case Vox would need extra time in the library.
Their librarian only reappeared for the even prayer and afterwards, he left the chapel in a hurry instead of waiting. Titus went after him despite this. Once he had drawn level with him, Vox allowed his presence but made no attempt of communication. Not even a side glance passed between them. Titus kept contentedly quiet. He just wanted to be there in case he could help somehow.
Together they walked to a part of the sleeping tract he had never seen. Vox stopped in front of one of the doors. Finally, he turned to Titus and met his gaze.
“Thank you”, the young man said earnestly.
“You’re welcome”, Titus replied and felt a soft smile creep into his features. It died quickly in the compassion that followed.
“I’d ask how your day was but I think I see the general outline.” Indeed, Vox seemed stricken even though he tried to pull himself together. They stared at each other for a while, both of them searching for words.
A mutual “Good night”, was all they eventually came up with but Titus held Vox back by one arm when he had already half slipped through the door.
“Vox?”, he asked, unsure how to continue. “I’m… concerned for you. Can you tell me anything at all?”
Vox looked at him for a long time and finally managed: “The Emperor protects.” There was a fathomless deep, dark despair in these three simple words, hardly mitigated by the all too feeble hope that there were reason and purpose in the universe. Titus felt for his little brother. Whatever had happened today, had deeply unsettled him. So much so that he had nothing left but to cling to his faith as best he could.
Titus would have liked to dig deeper but shied back from the certainty that Vox would have retreated behind his black shield. There was something about his friend that suggested he would not return again if this happened now. He knew all too well that there were times in a warrior’s life when the Emperor was the only one who could help.
“May He guide you through the darkness, little brother”, was all Titus dared to say but at least he meant it.
When he heard these words, Vox closed his eyes as if he had been hit. It took seconds on end until he had scraped enough composure together to force a smile.
“May He guide us together”, he replied and patted the hand that was still lying on his arm.
Titus let go of him and was calmed by the fact that Vox did not close the door immediately. He seemed to wake from his personal nightmare and looked around thoughtfully.
“Do you know your way back?”, he inquired.
With his excellent memory, Titus had a rather good sense of direction and reckoned that he knew where to go.
“The Ultramarines’ quarters should be somewhere over there, right?”, he asked, pointing to his left to double-check.
“Yes, but a level up. Walk down the corridor. There’s a staircase to your left. You should recognize the rest when you get up there.”
“Thank you”, Titus said.
“I thank you, brother. Good night.”

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Guide Me Through the Darkness by Julia M. V. Warren is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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