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~ Fréres ~

Three dome-shaped edifices surrounding a cube was the national trademark for the Autozam Air Force Academy, and while Geo and Holden had studied all the bits they could about the Academy, they never imagined that twenty stories would be so tall.

"There must be a lot of trainees in this academy," Geo muttered, staring up at the tallest structure with awe. It was indeed that twenty-story building, otherwise known as Du Nord, and he knew that forty cadets slept on each floor. If his math was correct, that meant that there had to be about two hundred students for each year of students. Come to think of it, the population of the rich people of Autozam must be fairly large as well. Who would've thought--

"Paradise ends now," Holden whispered, nudging Geo and glaring at the direction of the shorter building, known as Du Sud.

Approaching the two was a lean, pale-skinned woman. She had silvery-brown hair tied back in a ponytail, but her skin was smooth and as perfect as one could possibly get: no scars, no blemishes, no anything. She wore a green suit with decorations across the coat. Like many women in uniform, she wore a knee-length business skirt and ebony high-heel boots. However, it was impossible to tell what her rank was in the military; he had yet to be acquainted with the different stripes that showed rank.

Geo often heard that retired military officials taught the students leadership skills and other militaristic techniques, but she seemed too young to be such. Of course, civilians often taught cadets the academics, such as math, science, and history, but why would an instructor be here, and why would she be wearing a uniform?

Bemused, Geo had no clue how to react. Salute? But what if she wasn't a military official? Just stand there and act casual? What if she was? Or, even worse, what if she was their supervisor? Would it be wise just to gawk at her?

"Holden, what the hell do we do?"

"Nothing. I read up on this. We do nothing."

""Read up on this"? And you didn't--"

Geo truncated his own sentence as the woman drew within estimated hearing range. Do nothing, Holden said, and nothing was what Geo was going to do.

She halted at an arm's length away from the two brothers. She was at an average height for women of Autozam, but for Geo and Holden, since they were considerably tall for men of Autozam, she seemed rather petite. However, her aura of authority had Geo a little scared--women were harsher with words than men, and he knew that in the Academy, instructors and upperclassmen alike yelled in public.

But there was nobody else around. Would she yell?

The woman smirked, or at least Geo interpreted it as such. The smile was tiny, but her eyes showed confidence, perhaps too much confidence.

Geo knew that she was not going to shout but taunt them. They were the only two new cadets present, and they were skipping a year of the Academy. Holden was going to be the oldest among the second-year students. Not to mention that they were from a community of poverty, and their clothes, no matter how nice they would have been back at the outskirts of the capital, represented it.

"So," she finally stated, "you two are the Metro brothers, are you not?"

Geo decided to follow Holden's lead about how to deal with this; apparently, he had managed to grab more information than Geo had. He decided that he ought to confront him about this later. Plus, he didn't want to make a fool out of himself in front of her, whoever she was. He would be pretty awful to be humiliated in front of a supervisor, if that was who she was, or an instructor.

From the corner of his eye, Geo saw Holden nod very slightly. Geo did the same. The woman's smug expression deepened for a fleeting moment, and at her next blink of the eye, she had a genuine smile.

"I see. We've heard a lot about you two, and we're very interested with your abilities," she continued. "We'll be seeing a lot of each other. I am not your supervisor, if that's what you're wondering. He will be here tomorrow; the flight schedules between the capital and here are very tight, and he did not expect for all the new cadets to arrive so early this semester.

"I am General Kia Avant of Autozam's air force. I see that my proposition worked; offering a scholarship to the best among the underprivileged families really did bring out some of the best possible future officers of the military. Or, in Holden's case, the best possible pilots for Autozam."

Geo first stared in disbelief at the woman, General Avant, before snapping his head towards Holden. He knew better than to say a word; this was the general. The head honcho of the Air Force. This woman was equivalent to the president: the president is to the citizens as the general is to the armed forces--he remembered that analogy from his logic class back at the capital.

And Holden became a part of the Academy because he wanted to be a pilot? No wonder why he always went to the local eye doctor to make sure that his eyes were in perfect condition!

Keen vision and fast reflexes, Holden always said. Geo had no idea why this hadn't occurred to him before.

"The freshmen should be arriving here in about an hour," General Avant said. "Let's head into Du Sud and have a little chat, shall we? You'll go to your rooms after that and get settled in."

Du Sud. That was the shortest of the three domed-buildings, and from Geo could remember, housed the main office for instructors and the simulators. The other two arched buildings, Est and Du Nord, were mainly for academics. Est was the location of all the classrooms, one floor for each academic, totaling to fifteen floors and fifteen different classes overall. Du Nord was the edifice that Geo had marveled when the brothers first arrived. It was twenty-stories and was the dormitories for the trainees. Each class had five floors.

"You two come from Integra, didn't you?" General Avant asked as she led them into the building. Geo knew better than to survey his surroundings; after all, he had three years to come into the office, right? Besides, it was just the anteroom. "I hear that the outskirts of the capital were really nice, but I've never had the time to view them for myself. What do you think?"

They came to a door and stopped. As the general pressed a button nearby, Holden answered, "Actually, ma'am, we've never been outside of central Integra. When we left, it was too early in the morning to see anything, and we slept on the trip."

"I see," the general said as the doors opened. "Come on in. You must have traveled by ground transportation. Public?"

The three stepped into the elevator, and the doors slid closed. "It's the only thing we could afford, ma'am."

The floor shook a little, and the car began rolling up. "Well, soon you two will experience air transportation. It's better in so many ways and actually quite safer than you would initially think..."

If only we could afford it, Geo sighed. We used half of our personal savings to get here, and the other half is only enough to get us back home after we graduate. We didn't want to borrow any money from Mom. I wonder if she's doing okay...

"Here we are." General Avant walked out of the elevator, the brothers following. "The third floor, where students who practice in the simulators and in the virtual reality gymnasiums rest. Since today is the first day of school, nobody should be here. I have no office in the Academy since I don't work here, but I made a special exception in your cases. This is the best I can do for a private conversation."

Geo looked out the window and noticed the cube-shaped building. "The Centre," he noted.

"Oh yes, that's where students normally socialize," General Avant acknowledged. "The general gymnasium and weight room are on the first floor, and the second and third floors are the cafeterias. There are only two lunch periods, so we need to accommodate both classes. The lounge is the next floor up, a popular hangout for upperclassmen. The game room is on the top floor. After all," General Avant grinned, "there's nothing wrong with a little fun, especially in a stressful school such as this."

She sat near the window that was facing the Centre and waved her hand to the couch in front of the coffee table she was sitting behind. Geo and Holden took a seat as Holden whispered to Geo, "This is odd. I didn't exactly expect this to happen."

"I don't think it happens to most cadets, Holden," Geo hissed back.

"So," General Avant said, reaching behind her chair and grabbing two folders, "Holden Torana Metro. You realize you are one of the few people I know who have middle names." She opened the first folder, and by no surprise, with him being the older brother by three years, was Holden's. "The classes you have opted to take for this year were Physics and Foreign Cultures. Next year you want Piloting and Engineering, correct?"

Holden nodded. "Yes ma'am."

"For your last year, your quatre year, you want Advanced Piloting and General Strategy," General Avant continued. "I see you have your heart set on becoming a pilot. You're lucky you still have perfect vision; most cadets don't and have to get surgery so that they can have excellent eyesight."

Surgery on the eyes? Geo wondered. It wasn't that he hadn't heard of it before, it was just that the concept was still uncomfortable to him. Of course, eye surgery was also very expensive, so there were more reasons than one why Holden tried to prevent too much strain on his eyes.

"Nevertheless, we'll need to get you tested once a month to make sure. Could you handle it?"

"Yes ma'am."

General Avant smiled. "It's a pity that we have to put you among the sophomores. You know how ruthless teenagers can get.

"However, considering how well you did at your old school, you seem to be proficient enough that you do not need to take the basic courses. This year, you only have four classes instead of the usual eight for sophomores. For your trois year, you will take only five classes instead of nine. Quatre year is always the softer of all four years, so you will only need to take any choice of classes that you want aside from your electives. This is true all the way around for all quatres.

"This would have been your last year of school." General Avant placed the folder on the table. "This doesn't bother you at all that you have another three years to go? Is this what you truly want?"

"Yes ma'am. More than anything."

She smiled. "If you ever feel uncomfortable, please let your supervisor know." She picked up the other folder and flipped through it. "So, Geo Metro, you want to be... a leader of some sort?"

"Yes, ma'am," Geo answered. Holden had taught him that when he answered questions asked by a higher official, he cannot elaborate. He must answer either "yes" or "no" unless otherwise told to do so, and even then, he has to be as concise as he could. Simple does the trick.

Actually, in this case, the truth was that there was no elaborating to do. Geo had was clueless as to how he wanted to live his life. He just wanted to make his mother happy.

"You got lucky; you're in the same class as you should be in," General Avant stated. "However, this will be a bit more of a challenge for you than your brother. Policy says that new students who are fifteen or older cannot be placed among the freshmen. Since you turned fifteen only a month ago, we have to follow through with that policy. Can you handle the fact that your classes will be difficult?"

"Yes ma'am."

This is getting repetitive.

"Good. Now, for your classes... you will be taking all of the required courses for sophomores and troises. Your electives for this year are Basic Strategy and Teamwork. Next year is Strategy and Foreign Relations. For your quatre year, you will be taking Survival, Advanced Leadership, and Advanced Strategy. A double major--good planning for becoming a good leader."

Geo said nothing. He had chosen those classes, but he had no idea that leadership and strategy were two different courses; he thought they had intertwined. After all, a good strategist was often a good leader, and a good leader was often a good strategist, right?

General Avant picked up the other folder and stood. "I must say, the system of the Academy still confuses me, but your schedules should be ready in ten minutes. Classes will begin, oh, about seventy-five minutes, so that means you will have a little more than half an hour to go to your rooms and get ready for class."

She handed them both a key. "You two are in separate rooms, I'm sorry, but it's all to build up your social skills for the sake of teamwork. That's what the Academy is for, is it not?"

Geo looked at the number on his key. He was in room 8-3. That meant that he was on the eighth floor of Du Nord.

"The room assignments were picked at random," General Avant informed them. "Now that the other students should have arrived by now you will meet your roommates sometime soon. Meanwhile, why don't we head downstairs and grab your schedules before the lines get too long?"

***

The boy was nearly as tall as Geo, only a few fractions of a fraction of a meter shorter. He had short, yet messy chocolate-colored hair, which would be normal to Geo, had the assumption of most cadets at the Academy were considerably rich not cross his mind. His outfit was extremely casual; perhaps he also came from an underprivileged family?

He smiled brightly. "So, you must be my roommate for this year!"

"Well, it appears to be that way," Geo said, returning the grin.

"You know, it's funny, I have never seen you around here last year," the boy continued, snatching away Geo's bags. He opened his mouth to protest, but the cadet continued rambling. "Of course, my mother told me that there were going to be a couple of new students this year who are past the age limit for freshmen, or you may have been one of those honor students who never had the time to do anything but study. Then again, a lot of people last year did nothing but study, so I suppose I would never have seen you--"

Geo only stared at the boy with laughter in his head. If only he knew, but he had told himself to keep a low profile about his family's financial situation. He was uncertain about how the rich acted around the poor since he had never really encountered anybody who were in well to do families; the only people who had public education were people who could not afford otherwise.

"--so, what are your electives for this year?"

"My electives?" Geo asked, unsure of the bits of the conversation he had missed. The boy, while stuffing Geo's bags into the closet, was talking first about if they had ever met before, and then he all of a sudden asked about his classes casually? "Ah, well, I'm in Teamwork and Strategy I. How about you?"

"Ancient Languages and Physics," the boy answered. "Have you ever wondered why the Academy has a course to learn languages of long ago? I always figured it would be incorporated into History of the Worlds that we had to take last year. Of course, my mother always said that the Air Force needed more ambassadors than pilots that people have been applying for."

Does he always babble this much? Geo wondered incredulously, an idle thought wandering into his mind if he should go to his first class the way he was dressed or find some more appropriate clothes somewhere? The boy didn't seem to care that class would begin in thirty minutes.

"Oh! I've completely forgot; please forgive me," the boy said, extending his hand out. "I'm Meson Avant of Matador County. And you are...?"

Meson Avant? Could he be somehow related to General Kia Avant? Is that who his mother is?

He took Meson's hand and shook it. "Geo Metro," he answered. "Integra."

Meson widened his eyes. "Integra? The capital? That's really something rare; most people who attend the Academy are either from Vigor or Matador County. Of course, the Academy is in Vigor and Matador County is considered one of the best education centers in Autozam, and while Integra citizens often either go to "SECRET" or the Security Forces Institute or the Army Trainee Center. Less stressful, I hear."

Geo grimaced. He heard about the spy camp "SECRET" and knew that it was literally a matter of life or death once one graduated. The Institute had harsh rules, and most people who attended the school either dropped out or graduated bearing a smile no more. The Army Trainee Center, while had less competition and had a cheaper tuition to get into, tested the cadets' physical skill to the limit and beyond every passing day. How could the Academy be any worse?

"Say! You said your name was Geo Metro, didn't you?" Meson suddenly perked up. "Geo Metro... of the innermost city of Integra? You must be one of those exceptionally talented kids my mother was talking about!"

"Either my brother and I must be famous, or your mother is indeed General Kia Avant." Geo chuckled, hoping to finally get the kid to opening up.

"She sure is! Which is why I'm in the Academy in the first place," Meson explained. "I've always wanted to travel, you know, but despite the good paychecks both my mother and my father get, I personally will never have enough money to go to Fahren or Chizeta... I'd even like to try to go to Cephiro!"

"Cephiro is a fantasy land."

"It's a fantasy land, but it exists," Meson said as-a-matter-of-factly. "Anyway, my mother decided that the best way to achieve my dream was to become an ambassador. They normally get more days than needed for a trip, and so they can enjoy sightseeing a whole lot more. Better than whatever sightseeing is available in Autozam, after all. The only place to do something even remotely like it is at the outskirts of Integra."

Geo nodded and quickly stole a glance at the clock. It read 785. "Say, don't we have to get ready and get to our classes now? We only have fifteen minutes left."

Meson followed Geo's gaze and gasped. "You're right! Get your AMC and let's go!"

AMC? Nobody told me I needed an AMC! And what about clothing anyway?

"Meson, wait a minute," Geo said as Meson rummaged through his luggage. "What if I don't have an AMC? And what about our uniforms? Do we have to wear them?"

"Found it!" Meson cried, snatching an emerald-shaded, flat case out from his open bag. "You don't need to worry, Geo. On the first day of school, nobody cares what you wear. But tomorrow, if you don't wear your uniform, there's going to be hell to pay from the upperclassmen." Meson stood and pointed at the drawers behind Geo. "You have your AMC in there, since you didn't get one last year. Don't worry; it came with the tuition, or in your case, your scholarship, so you don't need to worry.

"Come on; we have to report outside in the hall for a little supplies inspection. If we don't hurry, we'll be late, and I can't leave without you because the basic principles of teamwork is that we are in everything together."

Geo opened the drawer that Meson had pointed at and found a similar gadget as his roommates located inside. He grabbed it hastily and shut the drawer closed with his foot and promptly followed Meson outside of their room.

Upperclassmen raising hell? Certainly it couldn't be as bad as Meson said it was; Geo remembered reading that the trois and quatre sent to inspect sophomores and freshmen were easier on the sophomores than they were on the freshmen.

However, when Geo saw that he was taking too much of his time getting in the line the rest of the cadets were making, he realized that if this was easy, feeling sorry for the freshmen was the simplest deed Geo would do for the rest of his life.

Not to mention that his plan to keep himself low profile went immediately down the drain when the upperclassmen who got up into his face apparently knew who he was and threw insults at everything Geo had grown up to be.

***

He slammed his lunch tray into the table gently enough that there was an impact without the food splattering across the surface. There was already an occupant at the table, but it was who he was needing to talk to all day, ever since the two arrived at the Academy.

"Whoa, Geo, you seem a little upset," Holden whistled, picking up another piece of meat with his fork. "Don't like the idea that the food we get here is even worse than back at home?"

Geo narrowed his eyes at his brother before he sat down. "This hasn't been my day."

"And this crappy asuna they give us here is worse than the fake stuff." He swung the food in his mouth and began chewing, acting as if there had been nothing wrong with his day.

Geo scowled. He could actually have cared less about how his lunch tasted; after all, every school and every hospital were well known to have the most nauseating meals in the entire world, or at least in Autozam. However, he knew that his brother had been keeping something from him, and although Geo knew now what Holden had in mind for himself in the future, he still refused to talk about it.

"Tell me, Holden," Geo demanded, "why you didn't tell me about this whole piloting business? Back in second hour both of the instructors were commending you for your natural talent, but I don't think it was "natural" at all."

"I never got the chance to tell you--"

"You've had plenty of chances."

"That's not what I meant," Holden said, waving his fork around. "There was never the perfect opportunity. It was something I wanted to tell you when I was absolutely sure that nobody would be eavesdropping; I don't want anybody from back home knowing about this yet."

"But why...?"

"Because," Holden sighed and put down his utensil, "they would never have believed me. And you know Ma hates the idea."

Geo shook his head grumpily. "That's not what I meant. Why didn't you tell me on the bus or something?"

"I fell asleep, and you didn't ask."

"Oh, what a likely story," Geo joked with a solemn glare.

He finally picked up his fork and started to eat his lunch. There were still many questions Geo had to ask, but he had no clue how to go about asking them. How was he supposed to ask why Holden had managed to do more studying on the Academy than him without accusing his older brother of going behind his back to do so?

Holden stood, picked up his tray, and left the table. When he came back, Geo found an opening as his brother asked, "So, you've had a rough day today. Care to explain?"

"You act like nothing is out of the ordinary; I'm surprised you're not in a bad mood."

"You mean you're letting the upperclassmen get to you?" Geo didn't reply simply because he didn't want to admit to his brother that it was true through words. He was not at all surprised when Holden broke into laughter. "I don't believe you! You know they really don't mean what they say; they're just trying to break you. It's the Academy's way of finding who's the strongest of the leaders."

"Are they allowed to go as far as to insult families?"

"Of course!" Geo snapped his head up and narrowed his eyes. Holden only smiled. "They do what they can to get rid of the weakest link. So don't let them bother you. Ignore them. Block them out. It's only criticism."

He huffed in anger. "I guess it's true what they say, after all. The Academy is harsher than words can explain. The other military schools here in Vigor don't have this problem, do they?"

Holden smiled as he grabbed a piece of asuna from Geo's tray. "The Air Force only accepts the best of the best."

"I saw that! Eat your own food!"

***

........