Two hours later, Titus left the chapel after his decreed mission follow-up with Chaplain Loor. The priest had lived up to his reputation and chosen his questions with care and kindness.
Titus was about to turn towards the training grounds when he spotted Vox on a transportation servitor a bit away.
It was the middle of the day and she was headed towards the quarters. Puzzled by this, he followed her.
He was too late to reach her before she had vanished into her room and he decided to knock and quickly ask what was going on.
She had already removed her helmet when she opened.
“Sergeant.” It was only a surprised whisper.
A moment ago, Titus had been able to speak, he was certain. Now, the words deserted him. They stared at each other for a breathless moment and then, Titus found out why it had been breathless for her: Vox started to cough.
The sound of this shook him to the core. He had grabbed and pushed her backwards to her sleep slab before he was aware of what he was doing. Vox folded up in his grasp. She managed to grab a towel from the washstand and pressed it to her face. Blood visibly bubbled under her hacking gasps.
“I’ll go and find Dankwart”, Titus said helplessly. “Just stay here.”
When he rose, her hand locked around his. The shock of this froze him to the spot and he stared down at her until she finally managed to uncurl enough to speak: “Just need to sleep.”
For a moment, he recounted their journey in his head and went even colder inside. There had been no time for her to sleep since the last jump had commenced. Erioch had been as close to the Mandeville Point as it could be on its orbit. When they had arrived here, ship time had been evening but station time had been early in the morning. Still, this did not explain how she had been injured again, unless…
He knelt down to get his face level with hers.
“Have you been training?”, he wanted to know, worry and concern on his face.
She nodded and turned her gaze away.
“Vox… I’m sorry to ask, but I overheard Dankwart and Ignatius talking… Shouldn’t you be scheduled for surgery?”
The look she gave him was so full of astonishment, it almost seemed affronted. She shook her head, tapped against her breast plate and made a conciliatory gesture.
“Your heart is beating?”
A nod in reply.
A pained expression crossed her face and Titus scolded himself. Yes, it was rather stupid to ask her to tell tales when she could hardly breathe but when she whispered “Please leave”, all the wounds inside him ripped open again. He had to close his eyes just to contain all the pain. With difficulty he managed to mumble an apology and leave. When her door fell shut behind him, he wanted to fold up in front of it. He told himself that she needed to sleep, that he could approach her when she had rested and healed but the pain about being pushed away again nagged at him like a steel brush scratching over an open wound.
By an immense effort of will Titus steadied himself, forced his body to obey him and made his way to the combat range.
It was basically a large space, littered with different-sized obstacles like the turned over trash can of a giant. Teams of Astartes swarmed around them and Titus spotted Gladius on the far side.
They had Tiberius and four new warriors with them. He established contact and made his way across. On the way, Tiberius filled him in on the current situation. Dankwart was absent because he underwent his own medical check-ups today and Vox had been injured. Three active kill teams besides Aegis and Gladius were on Erioch right now. Titus recognized members of Pugio, Saltus and the sergeant of Morsus. Altogether thirty-nine Space Marines in training. The rest was out on the hunt or seeing to other duties.
Titus had come to value the training on Erioch and did his best to concentrate on this pleasure. The veterans who joined the Deathwatch brought along a lot of experience and ambition. This created a climate in which everybody worked with an almost feverish delight to surpass and impress their brothers. There were fewer rules necessary here and the rough organisation of the training day allowed for enough time to partake in the collective battle practice between missions. Working with and against other people than usual was an exhilarating challenge in itself.
The sergeant in charge today was the battle-hardened veteran of the White Scars by the name of Goji’Rhag. Vox had counselled to keep away from him on their very first day here. Goji’Rhag was the leader of Kill Team Morsus. He had held the shooting lesson in the morning short and opted for more basic battle skills. They targeted movement in combat while keeping track of the position of squad members. Titus was glad of it. It was one of the essential skills when aspiring for higher tactical finesse and could not be honed enough. As a pleasant side effect, it left little room to think about other things.
Having taken over Tiberius and the new men, he had an easy, if exertive time.
The second half of the day was less successful. Tiberius turned to his duties in the mechanicum and Titus was left with four comrades unknown to him.
To his annoyance, he found that he had grown used to Aegis’ effortless competence. Knowing where the four men from different chapters were located had been easy. Getting them to be where they were supposed to be was aggravatingly beyond his abilities today. His comrades were experienced fighters but their teamwork would have needed more time to adapt than they were granted.
It nevertheless turned out to be an enjoyable day. There was a pleasant spirit of aspiration diffused among the brothers. Every error was rated as an opportunity to learn. Someone had to come last. Today, it was their turn.
Afterwards, they headed to the even meal together. Titus spotted Dankwart on the far side of the hall and Ferone, who joined them at this point, dignified him with a short greeting. Apart from his reply to this, Titus did not feel the need to say much. Instead, he listened.
The return of Gladius was the topic of the evening and Grimfang got to tell the tale of their heroic rescue. Titus was astounded to hear how lavishly the grumpy rival bestowed his praise on each of Aegis. To the surprise of all who knew him, Dankwart was the only one who found something to reply to the generous commendation: He apologised in leaden tones that the tradition demanded they rescued no more than five of any other Kill Team.
It was impossible to decide whether to burst into laughter or frown about this reference to the five of Gradus they had been able to rescue from Almond. The two Ultramarines opted for trying to keep a straight face. So did the commander as Titus observed.
For everyone else, this went by as a cryptic remark and was painted over by the continuation of Grimfang’s report.
It turned out that the Space Wolf knew about the Deathwatch custom of letting others participate. He soon opened the field for anyone else who might have comments. In the proceedings of this it transpired that Kill Team Morsus had also come in contact with an unidentifiable Space Marine Chapter who were not clearly chaotic. Other than Gladius they knew their colours: Red and gold. They had remained uncertain about the crest, however. Titus kept quiet. He remembered a half-molten bronze cast on a wall and the crest on a certain tarot card. Three swords crossed in front of six wings.
When Grimfang made to sit down after this, Commander Ferone spoke: “It is my greatest pleasure to hear of the achievements of Aegis but why is one of you missing? My report for today included no injured men in the apothecarium.”
Goji’Rhag stood up. He was shorter than average but broadly built and his face not only showed the ritual scars peculiar to his chapter, but numerous marks bearing testimony to all the battles he had fought.
“Commander”, he said with a respectful salute. “Brother Vox apparently had been injured in his last assignment. The machine spirit of his jump pack got angry and he ripped open his lungs when he fell during training. He specifically asked to be sent to his quarters.”
Ferone treated him to a long, unfathomable look. Everyone else was silent.
“Brother Dankwart”, the commander said then. “Were you not in training today?”
“I had my own medical check-ups, commander”, Dankwart answered calmly.
“Be so kind and check on Brother Vox directly.”
Dankwart saluted briefly and left.
“Sergeant?”, the commander addressed Goji’Rhag. “Come and see me tomorrow. We have matters of staff to discuss.”
With this, the meal was concluded and the Space Marines marched to the chapel for their evening prayer.
Gladius left Titus to his own devices afterwards and he could not help but to steal away to Vox’s room. He found Dankwart leaving it.
“How is she… he?”, Titus corrected himself.
“Sleeping”, Dankwart answered. “It was the best he could do. His vitals are strong.”
“It was certainly the only thing he could do with you occupied”, Titus mused. He looked at Dankwart. The apothecary seemed shifty. “Tell me, brother”, he demanded softly.
It took a while until Dankwart managed to formulate a sentence.
“You two need to talk”, he finally managed.
When Dankwart looked him in the eyes, his hesitation suddenly dwindled.
“It’s not enough to know. I’m sure you know about the necessities. I bet Ignatius talked to you about them. He always does. So does Vox. It’s not what’s missing but I know for a fact that both of you want to resolve this. Find a way to put what happened aside and you’ll stick together again, I am certain.”
Titus looked at his apothecary for a long time. His sanguinary priest, he corrected himself. He asked himself why Dankwart had not tried to tend to their emotional wellbeing up until now, when he remembered that he had done so. Just never with words. When Titus had found out that Vox was a woman, Dankwart had prevented him from shooting her. Instead of sending him to stand watch and brood over what had happened, he had made him help with her treatment. When Titus had attacked her in front of the open shrine and was about to go violent on Grimfang because he cuddled with her, Dankwart had blocked his line of sight. From the moment things had started to go wrong, Dankwart had been there, trying to soften the blows. It was humbling how much ceaseless faith and trust he had displayed during the whole, dreadful affair.
Now he reflected on it, Titus realised that Dankwart had always been in the background, catching splinters if they flew by. He had demanded to be taken down to Almond because he had known how tired Vox had been at that point. He probably knew only half of what Dankwart had done for the team, even in the time Titus was with them. For the sergeant it had always taken Vox to catch him. With this forsaken darkness that still lurked in his soul, ready to spring him when he least expected it, their sanguinary priest had left it to their librarian to tend to Titus. He instead had done the subtle things when Vox had been unable to. It dawned on him that the man in front of him had played a valiant part in keeping the two of them alive and he had never given him credit for it.
The respect and gratitude that flowed into him gave him hope. With support like this, maybe they could sort this mess out. It was up to them.
“Thank you Dankwart”, he said and continued: “I confirmed my bailsmanship today. I’ll take her out for training as soon as she’s up to it. Somewhere out of the way, so we can get ourselves back in line.”
Dankwart nodded approvingly.
“Thank you for getting me down when I found out.”
Dankwart’s smile was a little agonised when he nodded to this as well.
“Permission to be dismissed?”, he asked.
“Granted. Good night.”