Ignatius joined them a few minutes after the incident but Dankwart and Vox only reappeared for the even meal. In the tension of the mess room they radiated a bizarre, wordless tranquillity. Soon, Gladius tried to act normal. Aegis kept quiet.
After the meal, they prayed.
Gladius had lost their chaplain to the Tyranids before they had been caught on Zenith. When the human deacon on the ship had held his sermon for them, the litanies and prayers were as full of variety as usual.
Ignatius put forth an unusual one. It was short and he only intoned the first word of each line alone. Those who knew it chimed in:
“Father, hear me! I am ready!
Father, see me! I am willing!
Father, guide me! Make me your sword!”
After they had spoken the oath, the others stood up and left for their few minutes of leisure time in the evening.
Mixing with them during dinner had been bad enough for Titus. With the occurrences today, he had no desire to extend his time in their company.
Instead, he stayed in the chapel and tried to find comfort in the opening passage of the Codex Astartes. Kneeling alone before the altar he whispered it under his breath: “They shall be pure of heart and strong of body, untainted by doubt and unsullied by self-aggrandisement. They will be bright stars on the firmament of battle, Angels of Death whose shining wings bring swift annihilation to the enemies of Man. So it shall be for a thousand times for a thousand years, unto the very end of eternity and the extinction of mortal flesh.”
The words of his Primarch were hard on his soul. Filled with doubt, he could not live up to them.
His only comfort was that he might not be prone to self-aggrandisement for a change.
When he finally made to leave, he was distressed to see Vox. She was leaning against the gate’s frame and briefly lifted her gaze when he turned.
The sight of her ran through his core like an electric shock. Standing to the right of the portal, her silver left shoulder plate was visible. The burn marks on her face had healed nicely. Still clearly visible but turning pale already.
He had to force his body into obedience to move forward. Telling himself that he was walking towards the exit, not her, was ineffectual. His hearts very emphatically told him otherwise. They turned up their pulses so drastically that he thought his chest plate would vibrate under their throbbing. A slight tremor started in his shoulder region, passing down to his hands. He had to curl them into fists to stop them from shaking.
Unable to look her in the face, he fixed his gaze on the ornate wall opposite the chapel. For a heart-stopping, terrible moment it seemed that she would let him pass without calling out to him. He was already screaming inside when her quiet voice came: “Wait.”
The word hit him like a bullet to the back. Far worse than the shell he had once taken for her. All his tension sprang loose, spinning him around. Suddenly, he stood too close to her.
“What?”, he snapped.
“I… wanted to talk to you”, she said, averting her gaze. Bitterness crept into her features and in this bitterness, Titus found his biggest curse reflected.
He was not good enough.
Whatever he accomplished, there were mistakes. Mistakes without absolution or remission. No possibility for amends. He felt the cold bane of his life manifesting like ice spreading through water. Mercilessly the weakness held him in its claws. This weakness he fought every day and could never vanquish. He bit down to keep in control and for the struggle inside him, he went hard all over.
“And what about, may I ask?”, he demanded.
“The commander wants to see you when we get back.”
“When did you learn that?”
“It’s a dependency”, Vox mumbled uncomfortably. “He wants to talk to you as soon as you find out about me.” She turned away more and more, bringing her shoulder guard between them. For once it was not her black shield but the silver plate with the sign of the Deathwatch on it.
“Allow me to notify him when we have arrived”, she asked.
“You should have told me before!”, Titus growled.
Her head snapped around so suddenly that he retreated a step. Her eyes seemed dark like wells and there was something in them. A fathomless pain, dissolving into anger at the edges. Only in hindsight, did he notice the ambiguity of speech. He had meant that she should have told him about his meeting with the commander earlier, not about her gender. Another error to add to the pile.
They stared at each other for a second or two. Finally, Vox closed her eyes. He had seen her do that so often. When she got upset, she retreated into herself for a moment and emerged changed. As if she swallowed all the harsh words she might have said and turned soft. Titus wanted to curl up on the floor. She made herself soft for him.
“Forgive me”, was all she whispered as she turned away again. “Permission to be dismissed?”, she asked and Titus almost choked on her words. The mere prospect of seeing her walk away was so unbearable that he darted forward, grabbing her by the arms.
“Denied!”, he growled. Even through the armour he felt her stiffen.
“Get your hands off me”, she demanded between gritted teeth. He pushed her back instantly, unable to deal with the rising panic. Why had she not come to him? Why had she not told him what had happened with her sisters? Why had she not sought him out earlier? Why now?
“I’m your bailsman Vox!”, he almost screamed through all the wrongness and confusion. Seeing her go pale in anger made it worse.
“You should have…”, he tried and got no further.
“See this?”, she roared. Thumping her black shoulder guard she pushed him backwards and came after him. Suddenly their faces were even closer than before. Titus stared into these eyes gone dark for the strangely widened pupils.
“This black shield I’m wearing? The one you never respected?”, she screamed at him.
This got through all the measly defences he had still left. He had struggled so hard to keep his curiosity at bay ever since she had asked him to.
“You little hypocrite!”, he snarled furiously. “You broke the rules yourself! You asked Leandros his story!”
It was even worse than her fury. She stared at him in offended horror.
“What?”, she croaked. “You really think that? You think I broke the rules for you and so they should be broken again? I never broke the rules for you, little captain!”, she insisted, her voice starting to work itself up into a scream again. “The rules for the black shield are not extended to other black shields! I never told a living soul what passed between Leandros and me before he was a true Ultramarine again. Even then, I told only you because you knew his history! I would never dishonour my brother like that!” She stared at him for seconds. “Not even for you”, she added in a stunned tone as if this truth had only just become apparent to her. “I gave you all I could. What do you want from me?”, she asked hoarsely.
Titus failed to cope. What were they talking about? What was the point? However hard he searched, there was no point. There was just pain and guilt and confusion. It had gone too far. Vox might have been able to help him sort through it but he could never have her. Not for this. Not after all his errors.
“Nothing”, he said, his eyebrows knotting in fathomless, furious dismay. “Dismissed!”
And with this, he turned from her.
Titus did not dream that she would waver. After she had told him to stay away from her, he could not understand how close to the abyss he had pushed her with these words. He did not see her turn, did not witness her stumble towards the altar.
Arrick Grimfang saw it. He had lurked outside the chapel, waiting for Vox.
When Titus passed him by in a hurry, the Space Wolf wasted no time. He ran inside and saw Vox fall to one knee. He was unarmed and unarmoured just like Titus had been last time. As accomplished a warrior and even more experienced than his fellow sergeant, he did the only thing sensible: He snatched Vox’s own bolt pistol from her belt and used a moment of unsteadiness to bring her to her back.
For a moment, Vox thought that Titus had returned. Unarmoured, kneeling on her chest, the pistol under her chin. It had been like this once. She groped for him, desperately reaching for the hold he could provide. They had entered the warp a few hours back. If she failed to contain the daemons now, the whole ship was lost.
Vox tried to find a hold and when there was none, she realised that her memories had already started to distort. Titus as she had seen him a moment ago had worn armour. Through a red mist, she recognized Arrick.
The beloved white wolf.
Who would not be able to help her at this point.
Urgently, she fumbled for the pistol to pull the trigger. One of her hands had already gone numb. That she proved unable to tell which one, was a bad sign.
At the edge of detection she noticed that Arrick’s grip around her throat had vanished. He had snatched her scrabbling fingers away from the weapon, holding them tightly to his chest instead.
In a corner of her being Vox was endeared by his attempt. He probably talked to her encouragingly but she had dropped beyond hearing already.
The world tightened around her, the storm in her ears thickened, the ravenous voices in it became distinguishable.
They were always there. Since she could remember, she had been able to hear them if she only would listen. There had never been silence until Titus had entered her life.
And now, he was not here.
Vox’s grip on reality slipped.