Apart from Vitus Berethen of the Imperial Fists, Mekrah Serris of the Sons of Guilliman and Anjeck Thuvanor of the Death Spectres had laid down their lives on Zenith. Their names were spoken during the prayers and mourning rites. This way, they lingered in their memories but Astartes were practical. Their brothers had died in battle. One day they would follow them. In a slightly strange way, this was a comforting thought. It connected more than it divided and made fighting on the prudent thing to do.
All considered, the five surviving members of Gladius were good company. The training ground certainly was a lot more lively for their presence. Titus was reluctant to talk to them but he inevitably learned their names and mannerisms.
Sergeant Arrick Grimfang was rough and loud and hard-shelled but had an impressive eye for detail when it came to the men under his command. He always managed to give the impression that he knew and cared about what was going on. Paired with a disconcerting knack to know when to be tough and when to turn soft, he soon got on Titus’ nerves. He seemed so superior, so at ease. To top this off, the white wolf was annoyingly handsome. His white hair and confident grin gave him the aura of a fallen angel, ready to do it all again. Like the other Space Wolves, Grimfang habitually neglected to wear his helmet on his head and after only one day of looking at the distinctive features of the man, Titus wanted to punch him every time he smiled at Vox. Especially because he continued to guard her jealously.
Ignatius, the apothecary of the Angels Vermilion who had lost his arm, was very similar to the other sanguine blooded. Basically he was a more talkative version of Dankwart. Ignatius was Gladius’ second in command and strove to be a calm counterweight to his sometimes overenthusiastic sergeant. He attended the training even though he would not be able to partake in it until he had been fitted with a new arm. Content in this, he watched and counselled and sometimes coordinated a unit.
Tobias Caregar of the Dark Angels was cultivated and quiet behind the permanent expression of silent tragedy in his grey-green eyes and quite different from Athuriel. Where the brother of yore had been harsh in his tone and strict in his demeanour, Tobias was compassionate and patient but also a bit pliable in his opinion. Unless it came to his belief in the Emperor. There an unforgiving flame burned, ready to take down anyone who so much as tried to interpret their faith.
Serebus Rogan of the Iron Hands was grim and dark in his humour and appearance with black hair and black eyes. Scarred like the scratch post of a neurotic tiger, he seemed to have no soft spots at all. For certain people, he retracted some of his spikes but this firmly excluded Titus. Their chapters shared an age-old rivalry, which might have led to problems had it not been for Titus’ superior rank. Tiberius fared better but mostly by avoiding the man.
For obscure reasons Irdan Yorg of the Doom Eagles was referred to as the ‘kid’, even though he was probably older than Vitus Berethen had been. He looked a bit like Merth Cunn with his dark blonde hair and mild grey eyes. He had the same distinctive way to frown when he thought. The young man was quiet but behind his intelligent eyes Titus could see the wheels turning. He felt observed at every turn without ever getting feedback on what conclusions Yorg was forming.
Gladius had grown together in their long imprisonment and brought a kind of rough, easy going and not very sophisticated humour to the ship. Titus did not mind it much but was completely incapable of joining in.
Apart from this, they made things a lot more complicated.
The ‘Aiolos’ was a small ship and her albeit well equipped med bays were not big enough for Vox to get treated properly while Dankwart and Ignatius ran extensive checks on all of the brothers. The implants of a Space Marine had to be monitored and maintained on a regular basis. During Gladius’ long imprisonment, this had not been done.
For the first time, Titus noticed how hard it was for Vox to stay inconspicuous. Or was it easy because no one expected female Space Marines? After all, he had noticed nothing odd about her… Well, that was not true but he had mostly blamed it on her being a librarian. They were always at least a little crazy. Also, she had cultivated the art of acting crazy in such a nice, sociable way like no one else he had ever met…
Titus felt like he had lost his best friend. His little brother had died on Zenith and mourning him was unthinkable. The person he had been was still walking around, getting more lively every day and growing ever more lovely whenever Titus looked at her. He had always thought Vox handsome. Now, he discovered her beauty, her grace, her charm.
He missed her like crazy.
That they did not spend the nights together while travelling in real space was bad enough. Worse was that Vox had started to isolate herself from him. Whenever possible she fled into the company of others. During training, she would never grace him with more than a brief confirmation of his commands and even these were uttered from under her helmet. To spend an evening talking was so far out of the question, it seemed like the distant echo of madness lingering in his memory.
Yet, he missed this so much. The most profound connection in his life had been lost. The link that had tied him to the world after faith had not sufficed to retrieve him.
He wanted her back so badly, it hurt. He wanted to talk to her and found no way to approach her. He wanted to be close and was pushed further away with every passing hour. He wanted to reach out but the very attempt died before it was undertaken. She had told him to stay away.
Time went by, deepening these wounds, making Titus techy to the point of aggressiveness.
It was on the day when they had left the Hive far enough behind to engage the first warp jump. The two teams had decided to separate their training. Gladius wanted to conduct a few sessions without armour, which Aegis had rejected out of hand.
Finally, Titus understood why. He also understood that he himself could by no means act otherwise. Vox needed the protection of her brothers. This way, it was Aegis acting tight, not the anyway suspicious black shield.
With this in mind, it was downright offensive that Titus found her chatting with the four able-bodied members of Gladius while they were stripping out of their robes after the midday prayer.
Tiberius used today to tend to the armours of Gladius and Dankwart had gotten lost with Ignatius somewhere.
Titus stood a bit aside, waiting impatiently for his librarian to join him but was unwilling to summon her directly while she stood unperturbed between all this revealed skin and bulging muscle.
He wished that one of them would start to tease her about being in armour. She surely would have retreated from this but Gladius’ low level humour let him down.
He felt jealousy eat away at his core. The others could talk to her with ease because they were ignorant of her secret… His thoughts twisted most unpleasantly at this point. Neither Tiberius nor Dankwart treated her any different than… No, that was wrong as well. They did treat her differently but out of respect she had earned. Not because of her gender. The fact was that Titus was the only person in the world who had some kind of problem with her.
At this point, he stomped to the weapon stand where their training weapons were kept. It was impossible to stand the picture of Vox surrounded by practically naked, muscular men any longer.
His movement finally alarmed her to his presence and she followed him. Irrespective of her hands being busy putting on her helmet, he threw her a training sword.
Anger rose from the pain inside him as she fumbled for the blade and the craving for respite took over. He wanted the rush of a fight to calm this gnawing agony and that Vox should provide the opportunity almost seemed just.
He knew that she had received no proper medical treatment since Zenith. She could speak again but had never met her own standards in training. In their sparring he got aware that she was hardly able to twist.
The concern about this only managed to stoke his anger. He was not allowed to care.
Without him noticing, her debility instilled a perverse kind of satisfaction in him. Vox had alway been so superior in close combat. It had been a daily struggle to remind himself that going against his friend was an opportunity to learn. That she suddenly had weaknesses he could exploit was a source of wicked delight.
In the face of the recent developments, Titus had been helpless. For the first time in weeks he felt in control.
Vox was panting, hardly able to fend him off. He revelled in the openings she gave him, forcing her to turn with his strikes and mixing in thrusts that called for fast twists.
He told himself that he needed to stop when her footwork began to slacken but he wanted one last hit. One attack that went through her defence and showed both of them that he had won.
It would be a combination she had taught him. To honour her. To demonstrate that he was a good pupil. He took half a step back, changed the swordhand and thrust forward with a lunge. Even as he moved, he realised that Vox’s attention had fleeted away from him. She sprang forward and the combined force of their motion drove his blade through the flexible part of her belly armour while her sword met another blade right beside his ear. With a painfully balletic movement, she turned to rip free from the blade and circumvented Titus, keeping the other sword in a lock. When he managed to turn, Grimfang flew backwards under the punch Vox had landed. The Space Wolf had moved up behind Titus to interfere. Now his unarmoured body hit the floor with an organic thud.
Vox took her helmet off without rite.
“This is a duel, Arrick”, she spat. Her voice bubbled oddly under suppressed coughs.
“It has rules. As librarian it is my duty to observe them! The duel ends when one of us yields or dies.” Her blood dripped on the floor when she spun around.
“I yield”, Titus assured her in the numb haste of despair. Regardless of the murder flashing in her eyes, he would not have raised a hand to her again. She had protected him at her own cost.
His stomach turned.
When she threw down the training sword, he had his work cut out not to shy away from it.
In the background, Grimfang came to his feet again. He touched his bleeding nose and eyed Vox warily as she turned back to him.
“Well done, little librarian”, he said after a moment of tense silence. His gaze dropped to the puddle of blood building up under her.
“Now, off you go and have yourself treated!”
“Aye, sergeant”, Vox replied. Returning to the role of subordinate as seamlessly as she had left it, she turned and marched out. A trail of bright red marked her path.
“What the hell was that, sergeant?”, Grimfang growled as soon as she was out of the hall.
“A duel, sergeant, didn’t you listen?”, Titus answered. The anger flared up so hotly, he was unable to stop himself. That his shame would transform into rage so easily almost terrified him.
“I’ll put you on a charge, Ultramarine!”, the Space Wolf snarled.
“Do you even know where to find the forms for that?”, Titus demanded furiously.
“No, I’ll ask Vox where he keeps them!”, Grimfang roared.
“Now, now, sergeants”, Tiberius said and stepped up to them. He had entered without them noticing.
“I have to inform you that I’ll not hesitate to bang your stupid heads together if you don’t stop that. I’ll do it respectfully but don’t think I’m not capable of knocking you both out.”
They stared at him.
“Are you done with your duties?”, Titus wanted to know after a moment. Unable to cope with the situation he retreated to the only thing he felt he knew: Training.
“Yes, sergeant”, his fellow Ultramarine answered calmly.
“Then take your place. I need a new partner.”
“Right you are”, Tiberius said with the same, infuriating calmness. His grey eyes rested almost benevolently on his sergeant’s face. It was impossible to bear his gaze.
“Sergeant Grimfang”, Tiberius asked peaceably. “Would you be so kind as to not interfere this time?”
“Shut up, tech-man”, Grimfang snarled.
“Shutting up, serge.”