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Topic Summary

Posted by: Marco Bott
« on: January 01, 2020, 12:45:22 AM »

The staring did not go unnoticed, its effect seen in the way Marco shifted his weight, the earth soft and yielding beneath his boots.  Those violet-hued eyes seemed to cut through his winter layers, intelligence lending an inherent sharpness to Kaien’s gaze - so much so that it took Marco a moment to understand there was nothing accusatory in it, no hint of rebuke or admonishment.  He was glad of that, and of the bitter wind that raced up the hillside to tease through Kaien’s coloured hair and nip at his fingers, even through his gloves.  It put roses in his freckled cheeks, and disguised the faint flush that bloomed with being studied so intently.  Yet the whisper of the breeze over the coarse grass did nothing to disguise the note of relief in the older cadet’s voice, an intonation Marco was grateful for.  Anything was preferable to annoyance.

“A little,” Marco admitted, with a fleeting smile.  He had experienced a growth spurt in the autumn, and endured the considerable burst of appetite that came with it, but that had since passed, his hunger now lowburning and manageable.  Unhooking his backpack and swinging it down from his shoulders, the cadet rested the canvas bag on his feet, to keep it free from the mud.  Unlike his sombre companion, amusement danced in his eyes as Kaien repeated what he had been told about the bars of field rations.  “Mmm, you’re really selling it to me,” he teased gently, attention focused on rummaging inside his pack, seeking the familiar metallic glint of a flask.  A smile, genuine and warm, graced his mouth as he searched through the supplies.  “Just a half will do me.”  The words were spoken casually, as though the promise of blandness was enough to dissuade him from a whole bar.  It was the truth, though only part of it.  He also hoped Kaien would take the lion’s share, his broad and powerful body clearly having the more pressing need.

At last locating and pulling free the water canister, Marco straightened.  He hesitated a moment, a frown creasing his features as his gaze snagged on the darkening sky.  It was a good thing they were resting now; if heavy sheets of rain rolled in they would likely want to keep moving, the exertion keeping their bodies warm and chasing away the chill that would otherwise gnaw at their extremities.  Casting one last look at the foreboding horizon, Marco’s focus shifted back to his partner, and he held out the flask in offering.  “You thirsty?”
Posted by: Kaien Engelbrecht
« on: December 17, 2019, 06:59:09 AM »

A part of him immediately regretted his actions, but he could not allow it any sort of control… not any more than it already had claimed. He was allowing feelings he had long since decided to lock away to rise from the part of his heart he refused to access; it had to be stopped, and unfortunately coming off as an abrasive tool was the only way he knew how. He curled his fingers into a fist to hide the light trembling of the hand that held onto Marco’s jacket a mere few seconds ago.

Fear

It was faint, but it was there. In those earthy hues he saw a mixture of confusion and fear and even now as Marco fumbled with the compass he could read it across his face. So Kaien turned his eyes to the damp earth, and in an attempt to distract his mind, noticed despite the cold, dewy night from before the pine needles on top were already pale and moving with the breeze. He felt somewhat ashamed right now as he listened to Marco’s unsteady voice, and envied the needles as they blew away to someplace new. A simple ”Mhm” escaping him in response. Perhaps he was more like his father than he realized…

It was a statement Anzai Engelbrecht always liked to throw in front of his son whenever he tried to prove him wrong: “No matter how much you deny it, or try to defy it, you’re just like me… you will be just like me.” Just like him. A man who uses fear to control and manipulate others. Did he do that? He turned around, his back facing Marco as he navigated their route, his hand reaching to clutch onto the material of his shirt just above his heart in an attempt to steady it. Suddenly the air felt heavy, and he could feel every single pound in his chest.

Marco’s eyes became his, and he became his father. All of a sudden Kaien was a child again, confused and afraid as he was being punished for something he did or didn’t do. Scolded, beaten, chained… his home was a cage for his body and in his depression his body came to feel like a cage for his soul. He sucked in one deep breath in an attempt to calm himself, reminding himself that he no longer remained within that cage, that he was one step closer to breaking free of the chains anchoring him to it for good. He could not let Marco see him like this, and as he exhaled his fellow cadet’s words firmly tethered him to the present.

"We're heading north-east. It's uphill… It shouldn't be too steep, not for this first leg anyway. Our checkpoint is beside a stream. It looks like the ground levels out a bit…"

Kaien turned to the north-east, and turned his head to glance at Marco, words like ‘Sorry’, ‘Thank you’ and ‘Good work’ stuck in his throat, but all he could manage was a brief nod before averting his eyes once again. He waited for Marco to take the lead, his right thumb hooking underneath his backpack’s strap as he prepared for the ascent.

He wasn’t sure where to cast his eyes as time passed and nothing filled the air between them but nature’s sound. It was true that he preferred it, that he had asked for it, but the uncomfortable aura oozing out from the both of them made his every step fill with unease.  A few trees twisted out of the side of the hill with leaves as hard as thorns. Behind him, below him, ahead of him, it was all the same. In the far distance the mountains were pristine and white, even the dark green of the pines was mostly coated in the crystalline snow. Luckily the snow only remained so high up, and all they were left to contend with was the icy ground which quickly thawed as the day began, leaving only mud for their boots the tread through.

Kaien’s eyes fell upon the flecks of mud which painted the back of Marco’s legs and unknowingly a smile started to tug at the corner of his lips; he found if amusing as it reminded him of the freckles that covered Marco’s cheeks and hands. For a moment he forgot about his life, about earlier, about everything. He kept his gaze on his hiking partner’s boots until they stopped and turned around to face him and quickly his smile faded and his eyes travelled up from the mucky boots to the coppery gaze of Marco, light from the fading sun hitting his eyes to reveal a golden glint he didn’t see there before.

One. Two. He was staring...

“Huh?” he spoke as if he just had awoken, his pupils widening as he regained full focus, as if he was just staring off into the distance moments before. “Oh, yes, that’d be nice.” he sighed softly, relieved. When he first arrived at the Training Corps he felt spoilt, and truthfully - before - he was. Despite his father’s questionable parenting skills he rarely went to bed with an empty stomach. If he behaved he never had to worry about his next meal, but the problem was; he didn’t always behave. He figured he should be thankful for those days, it certainly prepared him for the scarcity of food he had to deal with now. Still, there was something about hunger that robbed the spirit as well as the body, as if in such a state the mind is unable to feel at all. Perhaps his outburst earlier could partly be blamed on his hunger… or not, that'd be cowardly.

He walked over to a large rock that seemed dryer than most things and removed the straps from his shoulders, placing his backpack on top of it. He bent down slightly, his hair falling to frame his face, like a lavender curtain as he unzipped and picked through the pack. “You hungry?” he asked, removing two bars of field rations, wrapped in white paper, and holding them up. “It’s not good, but it’s not bad either…” he looked at the bars with dull, unamused eyes “Or so everybody keeps telling me.”
Posted by: Marco Bott
« on: December 09, 2019, 09:43:39 AM »

You should have stayed home if you're lucky enough to miss it.

Wait… what? Marco blinked, staring in confusion at the broad back of the boy walking ahead of him. For a moment, he was quite sure that he had misheard Kaien, or at the very least misunderstood him. He was still replaying the words when the next question brought the older cadet to a sharp halt - so sudden, in fact, that Marco almost walked into him. A breathless apology was on his lips as a hand seized his collar.

"Hey - !" Marco protested, stunned by the sudden aggression. Instinctively, one freckled hand flew up to where Kaien had a hold of him, with the intention of prising his jacket free from those strong, grasping fingers. The other rested against Kaien's chest, as though he would be able to break them apart, but the taller, broader boy had already closed the distance between them. Beneath the palm of his hand, Marco was aware of the steady, powerful beat of his hiking partner's heart.

In that instant, Marco had a momentary sense of Kaien's immense strength. Although he himself was among the taller and more muscular cadets, Kaien was in a league all of his own. This dominance seemed easy to Kaien, like he wasn't even trying, as though he could lift the younger boy clean off his feet if he desired. Outmatched though he was, Marco's brown eyes bore into violet, warily holding that gaze. His teeth were gritted, a furrow of confusion - perhaps even fear - in his brow. Kaien was so big, and so close.

Look, if you're hoping that this will be some kind of journey where we share our life stories, laugh and have a good time then you're going to be very disappointed.

With that, Kaien pushed him away, Marco staggering a little as he regained his balance, still stunned by the confrontation. The older cadet spoke calmly, plainly.

Pick a rumour you'd like to believe and believe it. I don't care.

Kaien had a point there, and Marco felt a sting of shame. He should have known better than to ask about something rumoured, even if it was among the kinder and more innocuous whispers that swirled around the towering, lavender-haired cadet. It was presumptuous, rude and it had clearly struck a nerve. Yet, for a brief instance, something more than annoyance wrote itself into Kaien's eyes. Jean had dropped his guard like that once, revealing grief in his amber-brown shades, but with Kaien it was something more akin to anguish. Concern flared within the freckled cadet, his regret burgeoning. Somehow, even though it hadn't been his intention, he had wounded his companion. And Kaien certainly cared, even if his assertion was to the contrary.

"Okay," Marco answered hoarsely, smoothing out his rumpled jacket. He cleared his throat softly and fumbled with his compass, flustered. "Okay. We don't have to talk." The day would seem all the longer without the rhythm of conversation, but he could respect his partner's wishes. With Kaien asking the way, Marco drew out his map, folding it several times to make it smaller and more manageable, focusing in on the area they currently occupied. Even as he busied his hands, trying to move on from their exchange, he could feel the heat in his cheeks.

Pinching the compass against the paper with a thumb, Marco aligned it with the north-south grid, orientating the map to north. It was still a new skill, and he felt that he was slow at it, like this was taking a lifetime. Distantly, he wondered why he cared, why he felt so unsteady. "I just… need to get our bearing," Marco murmured apologetically, his gaze flitting to Kaien, a small, tight smile on his lips. His partner mightn't want conversation, but Marco didn't suppose that meant absolute silence. They had to communicate at least a little through this challenge.

Aligning the compass with the route plotted, Marco determined their angle and direction. "We're heading north-east. It's uphill…" His gaze narrowed at the map, gauging the contour lines. "It shouldn't be too steep, not for this first leg anyway. Our checkpoint is beside a stream. It looks like the ground levels out a bit…" He was providing too many details, perhaps. Exhaling with a quiet sigh, Marco fell silent, nodding to Kaien as he took the lead.

Their ascent continued, carving through a rocky, barren hillside. They travelled through the browning heather, the ground damp and uneven beneath their mucky boots. Flecks of mud painted the backs of Marco's legs as they walked. In the summer, this place would be all purple, blush and mauve, the air sweet with pollen and carrying with it the drone of busy bumblebees. With his coloured hair, Kaien would fit very well into such a landscape, but Marco knew better than to make this remark aloud. Instead, he dwelt on the older cadet's outburst, on what had been said in the heat of that moment, and what it could possibly mean. If you're lucky enough to miss it. He didn't miss home then - but why?

The only sound was the wind brushing through the heath and coarse grass, his own increasingly ragged breath, their slow and steady footfall. Dark clouds bloomed on the horizon, as if to reflect the current mood, and Marco's hope for some warmth dwindled. The ground was levelling out a little, so he came to a halt, turning to check on Kaien. "The stream shouldn't be far… do you want to take a break, or keep pushing on?" The question was asked gently, Marco's expression mild. He hooked his thumbs under his backpack's straps, fidgeting a little. The fact that his partner was likely hungry hadn't slipped his mind.
Posted by: Kaien Engelbrecht
« on: December 08, 2019, 02:01:58 AM »

Kaien turned away from Marco’s quizzical stare, feeling rather bothered by it and by the words leaving his fellow cadet’s lips. Of course boring was good; Titans scratching at Wall Rose, poverty, overpopulation, politics and corruption all lived outside of the Barracks - for the most part anyway - and all the things that people said mattered and tore at your soul were waiting beyond graduation. Here boring things were all you got. The funny thing was that as soon as most stepped out of this bubble they now lived in they would die… they were all fodder anyway, something the instructors, like Shadis, happily reminded them of everyday. Did people think they were joking? Or did they somehow saw it as motivation?

Perhaps he was wrong, perhaps Marco wasn’t smart at all - at least not in any way that truly mattered - and it was as if it was confirmed in the freckled boy’s answer to his next question. Kaien furrowed his brows in slight frustration as he moved, his movements becoming heavier as he put more strain in his step. Simple sounds like twigs snapping underneath his boot and leaves rustling as they passed only becoming secondary to Marco’s words which he could not help but scoff at.

“You should have stayed home if you’re lucky enough to miss it.” he said without looking back, merely pushing through to the end of the established trail, swatting low hanging branches out of his way with more furocity than before. Enjoying his time here, always wanting to be a soldier? It was all laughable and completely and utterly infuriating. Kaien tried to push it out and ignore it, to let it fall upon deaf ears. He didn’t care about Marco, nor did he plan to, so he would let him foolishly believe what he wanted to. It was likely Marco would die anyway once they leave this place.

He focused his eyes on the ground, watching his own feet as they moved one step at a time up the steep path. A breeze blew threw the pines on the trees, shifting the sunlight across the surface of the ground and upon the pools frozen in place, the breeze cooling his already heated skin by brushing through his hair. It was almost time for him to stop and let Marco take the lead and navigate them up the hill, the pre-established path fading and mixing into the shrubs and trees of heathland - but his partner’s next words made him stop in his tracks for a different reason.

“You’re - You’re from Wall Sina, right?”

Kaien’s features formed a mixture of anger and fear as the gate he’s been trying to hold shut budged open. Memories of home, of his life before he came here came seeping through, stubbornly refusing to be continuously ignored. It was a constant battle within the Training Corps as cadets shared their stories and he didn’t, as eventually rumours started to circulate and so many of them coming so close to the truth. Despite having been further away from his past than he had ever been he still wasn’t free and as people seemed to have nothing better to concern themselves with he was constantly reminded of it.

Kaien stepped forward, pressing his body up against Marco’s as he grabbed onto the collar of his jacket with his left hand, forcing the freckled cadet to look up at him as he spoke, “Look, if you’re hoping that this will be some kind of journey where we share our life stories, laugh and have a good time then you’re going to be very disappointed.” he lightly shoved Marco away as he let go of his collar, birds flying from their perches nearby as if they could sense the shift in the atmosphere. “Pick a rumour you’d like to believe and believe it. I don’t care.” he spoke plainly, but his eyes still betrayed him as they held Marco’s gaze with a certain amount of pain he could not hide before he turned them toward the compass hanging upon his chest. “Now, which way?”
Posted by: Marco Bott
« on: December 02, 2019, 11:54:47 PM »

It's probably for the best anyway.

Those words caused Marco to tilt his head a little. Did this mean his partner lacked confidence with orienteering? The instructors often had reams of information to impart during lessons, and frequently lectured to sizeable classes - that was thanks to the introduction of conscription, no doubt - so it was all too easy to miss some details. Diligent though he was, it had happened to Marco himself on occasion. Perhaps when they were up on the hillside, he could offer to help Kaien with the more technical aspects of hiking. And if the lavender-haired boy wasn't interested, that was okay too, as Marco was content to navigate the entire route for them if needed. Even if this was the first time his own capabilities would be properly tested.

Walls, hopefully they didn't get lost.

There came a stretch of silence, save for Kaien's thoughtful hum, which suggested the older cadet was giving the question some consideration. Marco was grateful for that; an earnestly given answer was always preferable to one uttered reflexively. Still, Kaien's response, when it came, caught him by surprise.

"Boring is… good?" Marco queried gently, following his companion's lead by coming to a halt and peering up at him quizzically. Boredom wasn't something he often felt, admittedly, preoccupied as he was with applying himself to his studies, fervently using his spare time to study and revise his notes - and to write home, of course. Kaien moved off again and Marco followed suit, now travelling in the older boy's wake.

"I'm really enjoying it," Marco confessed, his focus falling to the ground, watching the rise and fall of Kaien's boots. The incline was growing steeper, the cold air around them carrying with it the faint scent of fallen pine needles. "I have a lot to learn, and there are so many new skills to practice…" After a pause, and with his head full of thoughts of his mother and a door framed by climbing roses, Marco continued: "But even though I've always wanted to be a soldier, I sometimes miss home."

Through the trees came the brilliant, blazing light of sunrise, heralded by the first sounds of muted birdsong, the bravest of the woodland's creatures welcoming the frigid dawn. The spoke-like shadows cast by the bare trees were stark and inky, sunlight sparkling in the frost-rimmed puddles that punctuated the trail path. Although his boots were up to the task of wading straight through them, Marco chose instead to avoid the small pools, oftentimes placing his feet in the prints Kaien left. Twigs snagged and dragged across their coats, the taller boy contending with branches more frequently than his freckled partner.

A glance up revealed dawn's light catching in the purple-hued hair Marco itched to ask about. Instead, another question fell from his lips. "You're - you're from Wall Sina, right?" The question rang hesitant, even to his own ears. Bringing up something Kaien hadn't told him directly felt dangerously close to bad manners, but his curiosity was too great, burning too bright and too hot to hold. Cadets loved to talk, and although Marco didn't enjoy gossip, he would have to be deaf to have not heard some whispers about the towering boy's origin. Rumours of nobility seemed to carry some weight, and the education that accompanied such high birth might go some way to explaining why Kaien was bored by their classes.
Posted by: Kaien Engelbrecht
« on: December 01, 2019, 02:12:57 AM »

Marco didn’t seem to notice the soft growl his stomach emitted and a small sigh of relief blew past his lips, forming a misty vapour in the cold air. His eyes flicked down to watch as the visible air dissipated, reminding him of a simpler time when the sight of one’s own breath excited the innocent mind of a child. It always served as a sign to him - that the real cold was about to come, and for so many winters he hardly ever had to deal with its harsh realities.

Hardly ever - but not never.

The sound of footsteps started to match his own and soon he realized Marco was by his side, his light-brown eyes glancing up at him with an analytical, familiar curiosity he always saw when people weighed his size against their own. It usually went one of two ways; either they seemed intimidated - furrowed brows and anger filled eyes glared back at him - or they avoided further eye contact from that point on because he was different, unusual… odd. People didn’t like what they couldn’t control, conquer or understand. It was a lesson hard learned.

This wasn’t either of those though, and the dim light from the sun reflecting off of his marble eyes confirmed it; it was curiosity, but also it was just a simple moment of observation. Marco didn’t seem to care much for his size at all, and just moved on to the next thing. Kaien raised a brow, slightly taken aback by his hiking partner whom he avoided for several months. He watched as he patted himself down, revealing a small compass from his pocket and for a moment he thought he might have misjudged the younger cadet. Perhaps he wasn’t so much overly enthusiastic… just smart.

“Alright.” he agreed, looking ahead of them up the established trail that would eventually lead them up into the hills. “It’s probably for the best anyway.” and it probably was. Kaien knew the city well, he knew the districts and some of the smaller villages but he didn’t know anything much about the wilderness other than that upon the pages of a book. For the most part training as a cadet seemed easy enough - he barely had to put in any effort and could slack off most of the time - but this along with the ODM gear proved to be a struggle.

His legs seemed to already move on their own, shortening his lengthy strides to keep pace with Marco while his eyes focused ahead. The sun was beginning to rise now, in the distance the tangerine mountains, kissed to their heady blush by the sun, were clouds that moved in shoals. It was beautiful, but it was the last thing his mind focused on as the path ahead promised to be anything but pleasant.

But Kaien wasn’t allowed to wallow in his negativity for too long as Marco’s voice soon pulled him back to the present moment. It took Kaien some time to register his question even after he clarified, his eyes confused and quizzical as he organized his own mind. “Uhm,” it was a simple question, really, but somehow it felt very difficult to answer. He turned his eyes to the fore, soon ducking underneath a bare branch from a tree that stood with only a few withered leaves hanging on to its lifeless corpse. “It’s rather boring, I guess.” the branch snapped back as he released it, causing the leaves to fall to the frosted ground beneath. “But that’s a good thing, right?” he asked half rhetorically as he turned to look down into Marco’s warm light-brown eyes, his filled with with a hint of curiosity but his expression as bland as ever.

He didn’t remain there long before turning on his heel, the boot digging into the frosty, wet ground before he pushed off into a walk once more. “What about you?” he called back, moving yet another branch out of his way.
Posted by: Marco Bott
« on: November 24, 2019, 04:54:58 PM »

Although the lower half of Kaien's face was swathed by a black scarf, its pitch fabric all but blending into their gloomy surroundings, the faint furrow in his brow was not so easily disguised. Marco had the distinct impression that he was being weighed and measured by that steady, violet-hued gaze. Either that, or it was simply a trick of the pre-dawn light. Before Marco could draw any solid conclusions, Kaien bent to retrieve his backpack from the frosty ground, tugging down the scarf. His mouth was pressed into an impassive line, giving no hint as to his feelings, except that he was unenthused by the prospect of hiking all day.

Frecks. That was a new one. Marco couldn't help but smile, enjoying a warm flicker of camaraderie at the use of a nickname. It could only be a good thing that Kaien felt comfortable enough to call him something other than his birth moniker. Every sobriquet he ever had or heard revolved around the freckles that painted his body, his mother's go-to being Starling. Those dark birds visited their garden often, chattering and jousling one another as they stormed the lawn, iridescent plumage speckled with white spots. Their markings were prettier than his own, he felt, and their temperaments more bolshie, but it was a sweet pet name all the same.

These thoughts of home were short-lived, interrupted by the low growl of his companion's stomach. A shadow of embarrassment passed over Kaien's features, brief yet striking enough to keep Marco from giving any indication that he had heard. Instead, the freckled boy wondered how soon he could feasibly suggest they stop to nibble at their rations, without raising any suspicions. Lengthening his stride to fall in beside Kaien, Marco cast a glance upwards. His partner had to have a foot on him in height, the top of his own head barely meeting the older cadet's shoulder. No wonder Kaien was hungry; his body's fire burned brighter, hotter and bigger than anyone else's, and no doubt required more fuel.

"Shall I orienteer first?" Marco asked, patting himself down to produce a compass from one of his pockets, which he then dutifully hung around his neck. Being a conscientious student, he had already pored over their route in detail. It had a simple enough beginning, with an established trail leading them away from the starting point and up into the hills. From there, they would be relying heavily on the topography, their compass and map.

"How are you finding things so far?" Marco queried, relaxing into his step, feeling prepared and positive about the day to come. He tilted his head again to regard Kaien warmly. "The Training Corps, I mean."
Posted by: Kaien Engelbrecht
« on: November 21, 2019, 09:51:43 PM »

The ground beneath his boots changed as the pale light from the rising sun attempted to give it life, shifting the faint shadows of those around him and making promises of warmth it could not keep. Kaien dug his chin and nose into the black scarf wrapped around his neck and sighed into the wool, allowing the warmth of his breath to heat up his lips and nose. It had only been autumn and already the cold seemed unforgiving and relentless, and it was only going to get worse as winter drew close.

Mornings were already difficult and often the hardest part of his day - rising before the sun was never his strong suit. He was always sore, always tired, his hunger never seemed to subside and the cold certainly did not help. This morning was no different and as he stood waiting for his assigned partner he miserably tried to ignore the sunken feeling within his stomach and the impending growl that was bound to make an appearance. He kept his gaze focused on the ground, watching as shadows took off to start their hike until one suddenly covered the ground before him.

At the mention of his name Kaien turned his head to look at his partner - Marco Bott. For seven months Kaien had managed to avoid most of the cadets like Marco; the ones with unrelenting optimism. It only made you weak, vulnerable, and in his experience life always had a way of proving you wrong. Already the smile on Marco’s lips rubbed him the wrong way and he furrowed his brows in slight irritation as excitement was clearly evident in the other’s voice.

For a moment Kaien held his gaze, his eyes analyzing the cadet before him with a critical stare. He wasn’t sure if Marco was being serious. Excitement, ’conquering’ the wilderness? Nothing about the hike ahead was meant to be pleasant, nothing they ever did there was meant to be any kind of ‘fun’.  He bent down and grabbed hold of the backpack by his feet and pulled down the scarf covering his mouth. ”Sure.” he mumbled, throwing the backpack over his shoulder before turning around and starting the long, seemingly endless walk ahead. ”Let’s just get this over with, Frecks. and then there it was, as soon as he let his guard down; his stomach growled. Kaien's eyes widened in embarrassment but he forced his feet to keep moving in the hopes that Marco didn't hear.
Posted by: Marco Bott
« on: November 20, 2019, 11:05:10 AM »

Autumn held on, just barely. The sparse trees that peppered the heathland were all but entirely stripped of their golden leaves, which had fallen to form freezing mulch on the icy ground. Swaths of coarse heather held onto their flowers, though the once twilight-coloured blooms of purple and mauve had faded to brown. Mornings were dark and grim, and today's start came early enough that the cadets were shrouded in the pale, faint light of pre-dawn. Already, teams of two were breaking away, beginning the long hike on varying trails that wouldn't see them return to the barracks until supper - or later, if they were delayed.

It stood to be a long, cold day.

Having checked the bulletin posted the previous evening, Marco already knew he was to be partnered with Kaien Engelbrecht. Seven months into their arduous training and they had yet to share a conversation. It struck the freckled cadet as a little odd, given he tried to speak with everyone and learn as many names as he could. Kaien might tower over him - in the way that Kaien towered over everyone - but he had proved elusive too.

Not so now, the lavender-haired cadet's staggering height and broad build making him easy to spot even in the inky gloom and amidst the sea of bodies. Light was just beginning to paint the far horizon as Marco approached the older boy, his breath ghostly and pale in the still air. "Hey! Kaien, right?" Marco greeted warmly. Winter might almost be upon them, but his smile was all summer, and wide enough to reveal the dimples at the corners of his mouth. Not even the frosty nip and expansive dark could dampen his spirits.

Adjusting his backpack's straps so they rested more comfortably on his shoulders, Marco tilted his head back to regard his partner. "Looks like we'll be conquering the wilderness together," he remarked cheerfully, genuinely looking forward to the hike. It would be refreshing to walk miles from anywhere, hugged by nature on all sides. It would also be nice to finally get to know Kaien a little.

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