Titus was doing handstand push ups in a corner when he heard Vox’s blanket fall softly to the ground. Before he was the right side up again, she had escaped towards the door. Surprised by her determined speed, he went after her, scooping up her blanket in passing.
“Vox?”, he called out and was immediately glad that Dankwart had warned him. She spun around and attacked him. The movement turned out to be only a little on the clumsy side because she tried to swing a sword she did not hold. A complicated moment followed, in which Titus did his best to ignore the amazing amount of bare skin rushing past. At some point they took up momentum and rolled over the floor, landing with him on top. Once in this advantageous position, it was easy for him to twist her right arm back and pin her to the ground.
Replaying their short melee in his head, Titus realised that Vox had stopped struggling halfway through.
She said “Ouch”, and left it at that. Titus let go of her immediately and backed away. With painful movements, she sat up.
An awkward pause ensued in which Titus stared at her while Vox tried to orient herself. Blood ran out of the large wound on her right shoulder. He cursed inwardly. That he had left her lungs intact this time was a very small consolation for having ripped it open.
Apart from the bleeding shoulder, he spotted a lot of punctures on her right side. They mimicked his impact wounds of the bullets. A large, black mark adorned the left side of her face. Probably testimony of where she had hit him. There were a lot more other details.
When she finally turned her gaze around to him, he felt the immediate need to hide. With only her blanket to hand, his choices were limited. He slung it around his hips and scurried to the cupboard in the middle of the room. There had to be bandages somewhere here to get her wound dressed.
Out of sheer nervousness, he ripped the handle off the first cupboard he encountered. While he rummaged around in the next one, Vox appeared beside him. Feeling the heat of her skin from a hand’s width away caused him to stiffen all over.
He forced himself to turn and look at her.
All he had found until now, was a small towel which he held out to her as if trying to fend her off with it.
“You haven’t seen bodies before, have you?”, she asked softly.
Titus was unable to answer. Too many considerations simply locked his brain.
“Don’t worry”, Vox said, taking the towel from him. The shock of their fingers connecting for a moment ran through him like hot ice. “They’re only bodies. Yours looks better by the way.”
This confused Titus sufficiently for him to ask: “Better than when?”
“Than when we first met”, she explained and walked over to one of the slabs.
The memory of their first meeting chilled Titus’ blood for several degrees and finally made being in the same room with her bearable. When he checked, she was just wrapping herself in the other blanket.
She sat down on his slab and seemed to sink into herself, growing small and soft in the movement. Harmless. Without armour, with the only blood visible her own. Titus came to her and sat down too. A strange feeling welled up inside him. It was hot and soft and confusing. How much he had missed her…
They sat side by side for a while. He uncertain, she exhausted.
“I saw what Thrax did to you”, Vox started out of the blue. “All three years at once.” When she looked up at him in the half light, her eyes seemed big and dark.
“You got me out of there”, he felt it necessary to mention while he sank into her gaze. He wanted to reach out but did not dare.
“Should I ever find out that that bastard escaped his death sentence, I’ll correct this mistake”, Vox vowed.
Titus smiled sadly. He was certain that he would never be able to express the full extent of his gratitude but he had to try: “Thank you for coming after me. Then and now.”
“Well, isn’t that nice?”, she asked, suddenly playful. The back of her hand slapping against his upper arm caused a shiver to run through him.
“I save you from inquisitors, you save me from daemons. We’re great buddies. How about you become my bailsman so we are always sent out together?”
He laughed a little uneasily.
“I’ll talk to the commander”, he promised.
They fell silent.
“When will Dankwart return?”, she asked.
She glanced up to where the time of day was shown in a frame surrounded by skulls and wings. They had hours yet.
“Typical”, she said. “Just lock them in a room and it’ll be alright. Well done, Dankwart!” She took a deep breath. “Alright”, she sighed. “It’s not as if he isn’t right about this. So: Time for that talk. I have no idea how to start…”
Titus looked at her in bemusement.
“It was no accident that I saw your torture”, she began. “Using the white fire establishes an intimate connection to those I heal. You were unconscious, so you probably missed out on my half but I… I saw a lot of you through the flames and most of it was pain. It’s unpleasant if that happens but I somewhat feel that I deserve it in your case because most of what troubles you, was caused by me…” She swallowed and stared at the floor. “May I ask what Ferone told you about me?”, she then sidetracked.
“That… You looking like a woman was a deformity.”
Vox snorted but refrained from saying anything.
“That you were caught on Pellor just after the Omega Vault had thrown up your tarot deck. That Corven looked quite unsettled when you drew a card from it… What do you want to know?”
“Did he tell you that he sent Aegis along with Corven to pick me up?”
“Yes, and that all but Tiberius are dead.”
“Aegis consisted of six men back then”, Vox said quietly. “They saw me without my armour and Ferone attached me to them because he thought that brothers who knew my secret wouldn’t be a problem. We were sent out with Corven, which should have been even less of a problem.” Vox rubbed her face. “Tiberius was alright”, she said agonizedly. “He didn’t like me but he was quiet and law-abiding and mostly left me alone but the others were… hostile. They tried to kill me.” Vox shot Titus a bitter glance. “I think I mentioned a few times that I’m a psyker.”
“Not very often”, Titus said ironically and was happy that a short smile danced in her features.
“I have seen distrust and hate all my life”, Vox said. “In every shade and degree. In turn, I usually command fear and respect as well but these five men didn’t have any for me. They tried to provoke me at every turn. Tried to make me slip. Make me turn on them. They pushed for an excuse to kill me. Had I lifted a hand to them, none of them could have matched me but what would I have proved by that other than that they were right to attack me?”, she left the question hanging. “Well, long story short, as far as Corven and I see it, I kept three of them alive on that mission and the other two died because they were too far away from me but those three still blamed me for their death. Since we didn’t see another way out, I applied to be taken out of Aegis, served with Gradus for a year and returned because only Tiberius was alive until then and… Well. I’m a long-term and a nice asset in a tight corner. So why not Aegis… Whatever. What I’m trying to get at is that… There was this moment… After you found out about me and after we had gotten Gladius out. I was standing in their middle and you a bit away and I looked over to you… And I couldn’t read you. You seemed troubled and…” For seconds on end, Vox searched for words as her gaze wandered over him helplessly. “In hindsight, I think these five faces came to haunt me”, she finally stated. “All the hate and disgust at me because I’m a woman.” She gave a bitter snort. “Dankwart tells me that I’m a man whose body doesn’t know but what’s that supposed to mean? I grew up as a woman. I feel and think like a woman and I sure as hell have all the appropriate bits. For all intents and purposes, I am one!”
Titus stared wide-eyed at the wall.
“Yes. I. Saw”, was all he managed.
“Indeed you did”, she said bitterly, apparently ignorant to his very acute predicament. “And we didn’t have time to talk about it and then, you stood there, looking at me and I couldn’t read your face and couldn’t check on your thoughts and I was hurt and exhausted and the Hive drove me crazy and I had feared this day in any case and I had just been away with my sisters and… Well, I expected the worst”, she said despondently. “I wasn’t surprised when you attacked me in the shrine”, she continued in horrible sorrow. “Hurt, yes. Sad, that it had gone just like I had anticipated, yes. But not surprised. It made perfect sense to me. Everything you did made perfect sense. I had seen how much these other five men had hated me just because they knew and I imputed the same to you. I was hurt about that. I was hurt that you should be just like them. So much so, that I didn’t dare to inquire if this was really the case. I feared it to be true so much that I didn’t dare to talk to you again and find out the opposite. Dankwart talked at me until I agreed that I at least had to tell you about your appointment with the commander. Well and… you might remember how that went.”
“Vox, I’m sorry…”
“Stop that”, she demanded gruffly. “Really. It’s not your problem if I lose my temper over personal considerations.”
“Do you even listen to yourself?”, he asked hotly. “I’m supposed to look out for you, remember? This bailsman thing? I feel you just wait for me to shoot you since I became bailsman, but I…”
“You always thought that instead, protecting me from getting this far would be your job”, she said hoarsely and swallowed hard.
“Yes!”, Titus exclaimed and was unable to fathom the depth of his relief to hear her express this.
Vox meanwhile shied back from his gaze.
“You asked me why I was angry about you becoming my bailsman”, she said hesitantly. “And I didn’t tell you the whole truth. Admittedly one part was that I don’t like it if people interfere with me in court. I was offended that you didn’t let me win this on my own. But, well… hurt pride. I usually get over it.” She squirmed for a moment but then continued: “The far more significant part was that, by becoming my superior again, you got into a position where you are enabled to ask me anything and I’m compelled to answer. The rules for the black shield are very clear: If a superior asks something for tactical reasons, I have to lay it open whatever it is. And in the field this can be anything. Especially anything to do with my chapter when we just met them. You just have to get creative with your questions. I… I Have to keep my chapter safe. It’s what I am, captain”, she said. “I feared this power you had gained over me and tried to control it. So, I didn’t tell you that you are entitled to check the rules concerning the black shield. I didn’t tell you about this loophole to find out everything about me. I even made you counsel me that I shouldn’t tell you about it.” She swallowed again. “Captain, you said you had lost faith but compared to me you are a bulwark of reliance. I never trusted you. You stood there beside me after the trial and promised that you would leave the black shield untouched and I didn’t believe it. I started to push you away and was angry that you had let me down like this even though you had not. It was all in my head. You kept your word, you showed me nothing but concern and respect and I didn’t trust you.” Vox took an agonising breath. “Dankwart and Tiberius tried to talk some sense into me and… Well…”, she laughed humourlessly. “One of my best friends in life is a chaplain. She’s the most beautiful woman I ever saw and, on top of that, she’s bright and eloquent, strong and fierce and when she preaches you just want to go and kill stuff. Even prayer? Never mind! Time to start a crusade! What I’m trying to say is that I have a lot of experience not listening to her when I am otherwise convinced… Our brothers didn’t stand a chance against my doubt in you… I just waited for you to harm me until I saw it where it didn’t even happen…”
“Come now, that was a trivial error…”
“That I thought you wanted to attack me, yes. Honest mistake. But I could have stepped back and talked to you. I didn’t have to reach for the blood thirsty warp blade, I didn’t have to carry it in the first place. I exchange it for a training sword every day, for Emperor’s sake!” Vox laid her face in her hands. “Can you even begin to understand how much you put me to shame when you said you’re sorry? Compared to mine your failings are nothing. You had well-founded reasons to think I might have sold our objective to my sisters. Random traitors were so unlikely, it was self-evident that the only other Space Marines you knew about must have beaten us to our goal. I mean, we only now found out that Bereveau set them on our trail. I on the other hand… I had only proof for the very opposite of what I believed… Take my forgiveness if you need it, captain. I’ll give it for anything. I don’t care if you think you did something wrong. You didn’t. I messed this up on my own.”
They were silent for a long time and Titus shyly looked over at her. His hearts raced for her words. So, they both thought they had been the only one screwing up. Titus was no fool. If things like this happened, the truth would be found somewhere in the middle. He was reluctant to give in to this thought right away but he found he was able to let her statement lie for a moment. He could take it into account.