Properly armoured again, Titus entered the training hall the next morning. Only the Space Wolves were vigorously brawling themselves to operation temperature here. Dankwart was conducting his morning round in the apothecarium and no one else was fit for training yet.
“Without armour they needn’t even bother”, Hyron remarked when they took a moment to discuss this.
“We could conduct a few units without armour”, Titus suggested evenly.
“Yeah, why not”, Vyron agreed. “Been missing that in any case.”
“Right. Far easier to get in touch.” Hyron made a pause to grin at them. “With your inner wolf, I was going to say! Eh, Dankwart! Training without armour! Let’s go!”
Dankwart had entered the hall a moment ago. When he heard this happy exclamation, his features hardened. He finished the few steps separating them. When he had stopped, he straightened up as if standing to attention.
The others exchanged puzzled glances.
“Why?”, Titus dared to venture.
“Out of the question”, Dankwart said severely.
“But Dankwart…”, Hyron tried.
“No”, their apothecary interrupted. This was such unusual behaviour for their mild-mannered healer that the three of them left the topic alone. Thus, their day proceeded as normal.
Tiberius had not been retrieved from hibernation yet. Apart from him, everyone joined the even meal. This included Vox. He looked lively and well rested. The bruises on his face were fading. They revealed a few freckles, caused by the radiation on the space station. Everything about his armour he could possibly do himself had been done. Several of his plates were missing parts and would have needed to be replaced but at least they had been carefully cleaned and polished.
The psyker was quiet, bordering on sheepish when he entered the room. Orin Gahanned came to his side and awkwardly tried to express his gratitude. Since he did it by emphasising that he did not mind Vox killing humans by accident, he quickly caused the black shield to thaw. When the two of them had cracked up with laughter about this fumbled attempt of reconciliation, the atmosphere relaxed. The evening progressed in a spirit of good-humoured fraternity.
For Titus, it merely lacked the usual walk with his friend after prayer. He felt he had not finished thinking and Vox did not seek him out.
The next day went by in the same manner. They acted friendly but more on a polite basis.
After the even prayer, however, Titus had reached the end of his thoughts. Since Vox had managed to disappear, he made a detour via the bridge before he sought him out.
Unsuccessfully trying his quarters first, it took Titus almost until tattoo before he found Vox on the observation deck over the bridge. He sat leaned back on one of the benches there, looking up at the windows overhead. Titus wondered why he had not moved yet and what he was looking at. They were travelling through the warp and the shutters were closed.
“Welcome, brother”, Vox said without moving and Titus had to smile.
“Do you really know it’s me or are you relying on ‘brother’ meaning any of us?”
“No, when I hear footsteps and nothing else, it’s you”, Vox said good-naturedly. He peered at him, giving back the smile.
Titus sat down beside him and leaned back as well. The position was quite uncomfortable.
“What do you see out there?”, he wanted to know.
“Nothing as long as I’m careful. It’s restful.”
They were quiet for a while.
“What will it be, brother?”, Vox finally forced the topic.
“One little brother to go, please”, Titus said, shooting him a glance.
Vox laughed quietly.
“I want to point out that you’ll get that at your own risk.”
“Understood. Do your worst.”
Vox looked up at the shutters again and his usual lightness crumbled away. It left someone whom Titus had only glimpsed behind the mask of irony. This man was not playful, could hardly be called young anymore. He was hard and determined. Ready to take up any weight the Emperor could burden him with. Whether it would crush him or not.
“I dream”, Vox said and there was a strange severity to this short statement. “It’s known to happen to librarians sometimes. My ties to the warp are too deep and my sense for it is too well-honed. I can’t switch it off. When I sleep, I lose control.”
Titus allowed himself a moment to think about this. That an Astartes would dream was unusual but why should it be a point worth mentioning? He shuffled through everything he knew about the warp and its ways. Most of it he knew from Vox he found. There was one piece of information that caught his attention. It was the explanation why Vox had not employed any of his powers during their first fight, back on the ‘Lawbringer’. He grunted when the realisation hit him.
“You don’t sleep during warp travel?”
“Out here in the Reach, it’s not that big a deal. We can take only short jumps after all. Dankwart usually schedules me for medical checks after a jump so I can catch up on my sleep. Just in case we don’t have a night before we reach our destination.”
“But this time he had been wounded and couldn’t do that”, Titus finished and recounted events in his head. “You had been active for twelve days already when we made planetfall?”
“Vox, that’s terrible.”
“Terribly boring mostly.”
“No, I mean…”
“I know what you mean”, Vox interrupted him gently. “But Nostromo usually gives himself one night between each jump. If the distress call hadn’t come in, we wouldn’t have engaged the next jump immediately and if Almond hadn’t been so close to our exit point, there wouldn’t have been a problem either. Two hours to deployment is unusually short. It was an unfortunate chain of events.”
“That means Nostromo doesn’t know about this?”
“I thought about telling him but he’s a bit overprotective when it comes to me.”
“Yes, I noticed. He positively dotes on you.”
Vox nodded his confirmation.
“He’d fiddle with the jumps to make them as short as possible and delay them to give me more time to sleep. We’d never get anywhere and at some point, someone would ask questions. And then what? ‘Our psyker had to sleep’ is nothing, anyone wants to tell the Inquisition.”
Vox shifted his position slightly and crossed his arms. He seemed uncomfortable.
“Black shields exceed their welcome very quickly when they cease to be useful”, he stated and looked down. “And I lost quite a few brownie points this time…”
The inquiring gaze that wandered over to Titus at this point, met nothing but attentive ease.
“I could spend my time in a stasis field or induced coma or something”, Vox admitted. “But more than sleep, I need the connection to my comrades. I depend on you. On all of you. Losing touch is even more dangerous than lack of sleep. So, I choose the lesser evil. This time it just escalated. Dankwart and I had already talked about putting me to sleep. We only decided against it because we expected to have some time in real space.”
They were quiet for a moment.
“Nostromo is your chaperone, isn’t he?”, Titus wanted to know and Vox had to laugh.
“He’s my executioner”, he corrected. “At least that’s how we started. Now, he is more like a well-meaning guardian who promised to protect the world from me. I’m quite glad about how things turned out.”
“What could he do against you?”
“He can cut me off from the warp.” Vox looked at nothing for a moment. “In theory, this could snatch me back when I have gone over the edge but I’d rather not count on it.”
“Do you remember being hit with that wall of water in the canyons?”
“Quite vividly”, Titus admitted.
“Being cut off from the warp is just like that, only constantly. That’s nothing anyone who has let go wants to return to.”
“You sound like he had to do that to you already.”
“Not Nostromo”, Vox said. “An Eldar warlock hit me with that power once. My comrades killed him before he could do serious harm but I never want to go through that again. Come to think of it, that was my encounter with this witch that could hide in the warp. We had been drawn to their settlement by some Dark Eldar and killed the lot while we were about it.”
“I was wondering how you could tell one Eldar from the other.”
“I remember the moment I saw her”, Vox said with a faraway look in his eyes. “She sent out ripples before she came out of a side alley. When she spotted me, she switched herself off and ran. I went after her because I knew I wouldn’t find her again but my squad had been bound by some other xenos and couldn’t follow me. I ran into a huddle of more Eldar around the next corner. When I was done with them, she was gone.”
“I must say”, Titus said laughing. “In that case telling her that her nightmares will end today was harsh. Accurate, I give you that, but harsh. Even for xenos.”
“Well”, Vox said easily, shrugging one shoulder. “Now she’s out of it. No nightmares for her anymore. Quite merciful for xenos.”
“Can’t say the same for you.”
Vox seemed puzzled for a moment. Then, he understood.
“Oh, I rarely have nightmares”, he explained. “And the dreams are useful. Sometimes, they show me something I’ve been thinking all day and couldn’t get straight. But they still come with uncontrolled emotion. When I was a kid and slept in the wrong places, I could hear the daemons jitter and fade away when I awoke. I don’t want to experience that now.”
“I’m with you on that.”
They were quiet for a moment. When Titus recounted the conversation in his head, he was overwhelmed by the massive change between them. Vox had never shown him such intimate details, such blunt honesty. That his decision would produce consequences like this had never occurred to Titus. It was gratifying and elevating to a never known degree.
“Oh, by the way”, he remembered. “I got you something.”
Vox stared in wonderment at the quill Titus held out to him. He had obtained it from one of the humans on the bridge.
“Thank you”, the librarian said wholeheartedly and took the small thing. “I was planning to start on my report tomorrow.”
“I have to admit that I suspected you to sit through the night with that”, Titus conceded with a smile.
“It’s something to do. If I don’t write too fast, I can even stay in half sleep. Sometimes, I get obsessed with details and kick myself out of it though.”
“So, you’re basically running on half a brain the whole time.”
“Pretty much”, Vox confirmed with a nod.
“That at least would explain why you suck at perception units”, Titus mused. Vox indeed often had problems with any element in training that covered perception and overview in a situation where he could not employ his warp sense.
The young man grinned.
“When I have slept, I have to be careful not to let it show”, he confided in Titus with an impish expression before he settled back again. “Sometimes, I think it’s a blessing that I’m not all here”, he went on after a moment. “The boys would drive me crazy if I tried to occupy more than half a brain with talking to them.”
“Are we that bad?”
“Not all of you”, his friend said generously. “You are nice for one… But I miss Corven”, he sighed and explained: “He’s the highest ranking librarian on Erioch and right hand to Ferone. Talking to him was always fun. Hitting him too.” A dark severity came over him. “He left for an extended mission about the same time we left to fetch you.”
“Do you know where he went?”
“Yes. He’ll probably be back but not very soon.”
“Anyone else you miss?”, Titus asked, remembering Vox’s warning. If the friend did not give him details of his own accord, he probably was not allowed to part with them.
“Mostly dead people”, Vox said and there were leaden overtones in his voice.
“Then let’s not go there.”
“On the subject of going”, the librarian said. “Are you going to sleep tonight?”
“Only if you don’t want my company anymore”, Titus declared peaceably.
“I’ll tell you when we reach that point”, Vox promised. “Shouldn’t take long. Next millennium or so.”
“I have to admit that I can’t stay awake that long”, Titus said laughing.
“Alright, you get time off then.”
He looked at his little brother for a moment. “Vox?”
“What would you have done if I hadn’t shown up?”
“Do you mean now or in the general scheme of things?”
“About now, I would have left for the chapel, I think”, Vox reckoned. A faraway look stole itself into his eyes as he glimpsed the universe as it might have been. “Praying is comforting. I don’t feel so lonely. Afterwards I’d have headed for the library. I am allowed to apply for some tomes from Erioch to take along for each mission and I wanted to catch up on some laws of the Deathwatch.” He took a deep breath. “And in general… I don’t know. Kept to myself, I guess. Watched the years and xenos and brothers drift by. Maybe killed some of the xenos on the way. Normal things. If we wouldn’t have worked well together anymore, I’d have pulled a few strings to get us separated. How about you? What would you have done if you hadn’t come?”
“Gone to sleep probably. And generally… The same as you I suppose, except for the strings. What do you mean by that?”
“Well, first I could have applied to be taken out of Aegis”, Vox said. “But I have to admit that this would probably have resulted in you being taken out. The commander values old established friendships in his kill team. Hyron and Vyron will leave us as soon as we get back to Erioch but Dankwart, Tiberius and I have been together for almost ten years. We’ve been through a lot. Well, and then… I wouldn’t have wanted to leave you hanging and probably tried to get you home.”
Titus blinked. He was deeply shocked by the prospect of this.
“You think you could do that?”, he asked.
“You might not like the conditions but, yes. We could get you back to your chapter before you die. The only question is: Do you want to?” Vox awaited his answer patiently while Titus thought about this.
He lived for honour and for the Emperor. Falling under the suspicion of heresy had been a blow for himself and the Ultramarines alike. There was a kind of longing to return to his brothers. The encounter with Cunn had sparked more than a little nostalgia in him. Yet, how could he bear smudging his chapter’s reputation with his unfortunate past? It was unthinkable.
“Not by all means”, he decided. “I can do my bit here as well. It’s not as if I could return to my position. Someone else will be second captain now. I can’t stand the thought of challenging him for it after all this and where would be the place for me in that case? Being a brother here is fine. It’s a new start. But being degraded among my own kind… I don’t think I could stand that.”
“Who’ll be second captain now?”, Vox wanted to know, his attentive gaze resting on Titus’ face.
“Cato Sicarius”, Titus said. Pronouncing the name of the lost friend was another small ripple in the homesickness that wanted to take hold of him.
“He used to be our champion”, he explained, steadily resisting to dive into the melancholy. “I’m sure he would have accepted the position.”
“You two were friends?”, Vox asked, accurately picking up on Titus’ troubles.
“And you are concerned, he might still think you a traitor?”
Titus looked over at Vox. Eyes, blue as the summer sky over Terra. This phrase would haunt him from now on, he knew.
“Yes”, he admitted. He marvelled that it had ceased to worry him to be read so easily. On the contrary. It was a relief not to have to spell everything out.
“Do you want me to leak information in his direction?”, Vox asked, causing Titus to give a surprised laugh.
“Can you do that?”, he wanted to know.
“I think so”, Vox replied earnestly. “Depending on what’s going on around him, I might not be able to be very subtle about it though.”
“I… I’ll get back to you about that.”
“Just say the word”, Vox said patiently. “It’ll take a while. Be aware of that.”
“Thank you, little brother.”
“You’re welcome.” Vox smiled.
“Is there anything I can do for you?”, Titus inquired, eager to return at least a little bit of kindness.
“Nothing more than you did already.”
“And what did I do?”, he wanted to know.
Vox turned to him, looking him in the eyes.
“You came for me”, he said quietly. With a searching glance he seemed to ascertain Titus’ discomfort about calling this extraordinary.
“Why can’t you of all fathom what that means?”, the young man asked.
“You started”, Titus stated defiantly. Suddenly, the open gratitude and devotion was too much to handle.
“And you came for a stranger. I came for a friend”, he emphasised.
“Worth is what we take it for, my friend”, Vox said, turning his gaze straight ahead again. “It meant a lot to me and I thank you.”
“You’re welcome, little brother”, was all Titus found to reply.
“May I ask why your armour hasn’t been fixed?”, he changed the subject after a moment.
“You may. I need to wait for Tiberius. There are peculiarities about my armour and he requested that I let him handle it exclusively.”
“Good we kept him alive then.”
“Yes, very convenient”, Vox agreed with a smirk.
“Did you speak to Solomon?”
“No, should I?”
“He was concerned that you could begrudge him his questions.”
“And he is right to do so”, Vox said, his nostrils flaring slightly.
Titus was surprised and said so.
“Solomon is really and truly human”, Vox said, pursing his lips in resentment. “Immature, without principles or dignity. Also, he’s a passing problem and most of the time not even mine.”
“Don’t vox me, brother”, Vox snapped testily.
Titus looked at him.
“Please, just let me tell you that he was concerned for you.”
“That’s largely his problem.”
“Alright”, Titus said and waited for a moment.
Vox’s defiance lasted only a few seconds. He sighed.
Titus hid his smile.
“When you were poisoned on Corred and all the time on Almond”, he answered.
“That would be the first sensible emotion anyone has ever seen him have”, Vox said dismissively. “The man is plainly unreasonable!”
“You two seem to know each other for quite a while.”
“Elaine was the first Inquisitor I served under in the Deathwatch”, Vox informed him. “She always sent him along with us because he was disposable. We managed to keep him alive. Which was hard enough to achieve sometimes, let me tell you!”
“May I ask how long ago that was?”
“About ten years.”
“He told me that he is only thirty-two.”
“So, you met him when he was twenty-two.”
“Yeah, he acted like it and now you want to argue that he has grown since then?”
“Pretty much”, Titus said, still quite patient.
Vox shot him a glance. Then another one and, suddenly, amusement danced in his eyes. Soon, his features were illuminated by a happy and rather infectious grin. Clearly, he had reflected that he was displaying exactly the same qualities he despised in Solomon.
“Come on”, the young brother said standing up, ending this topic before it could get worse. “I need ink as well.”