Disclaimer: I don't own anything in this story that is not mine. Okay?

Author's Note: I have no excuse for updating so late, only that I felt disheartened for not receiving as much reviews as I would hope. BUT, as I had said before, I believe so much in this story that I must finish this because I know the ending will pay off. =)

Plus, some people had been very encouraging about this story. I received a few reviews recently for this story that I thought would be buried under the piles of new stories. But it would seem that some people still had the heart to read mine, so I would like to recognize MonMonCandie, Cha-Leek and Lazy Gaga. I'm hoping that I am not too late, and I could still capture the hearts of many to read this story. But only time will tell. I hope you'll enjoy this chapter. =)

"It will cause much casualties to invade Palompolum!" The Archadian Emperor roared with his fist slamming the mahogany table. "If you wish to reach Esthar, may this fight be only between their kingdom and ours!"

"Your Highness," came a nonchalant reply from a man in black robe. "it is inevitable to pass by Palompolum to get through Esthar." Relaxed on his soft chair, he shifted on his seat. "It won't be an invasion, it will be a formation of alliance with Palompolum. After all, we would need as much forces as we could get, and the technology they have, no matter how little they could be, will grant valuable aid to our advantage."

"Gabranth is right, my brother." Prince Vayne interrupted in response. "Forming an alliance will not hurt in rebuilding this empire. And we may also regain our union with Rabanastre."

The Emperor narrowed his eyes. " If we regain this alliance with Rabanastre, we will wage war against Dalmasca. How many more times must I tell you this?"

"If I may interrupt," Another man in robes, but this time, donning a light brown color that matched his hair, intervened with his finger pointing up. "Why won't we make peace treaties with the kingdoms instead, rather than forcing them to be friends with us." He stood up. "I would suggest that we could create a friendly image to these kingdoms, and let them approach us."

The other judge called Gabranth laughed disbelievingly. "Are you suggesting that we must wait in idle until they deliberately form an alliance with us, regardless if they would or not?"

"Well, they will not certainly welcome us with open arms if we forcefully do it now, would it?"

"Intimidation might be a good key to ensure the security of this empire."

"And intimidation will be a big step towards hostilility."

"Balthier," Prince Vayne cut off between the contending judges. "you may be right about your talks of peace, but I don't think Dalmasca will take us too lightly either way." He concluded with a chuckle.

"My brother, all you care about is invading Dalmasca to get your revenge." The Emperor said in a disheartened voice as he surrendered to his chair.

Balthier bowed to his rulers and returned to his own seat, a meter away from Gabranth's. He wasn't looking to his fellow judge, but he could feel his gray eyes stabbing him. It has always been like this, each of them, standing on opposite sides, arguing until the royal brothers would halt them. But this conflict of insights for the kingdom was not his primary concern about Gabranth. It was his underlying cruel nature to get what he had wanted. Balthier would always try to avoid his eyes unless needed or argument had called for it. He could read wrath, anger, and deception in his eyes. He knew, one way or another, Gabranth could potentially bring forth danger into the kingdom.

But he would fall into his cruel web of plans. Balthier considered himself lucky for being one of Archadia's royal judges; he had the freedom to impose plans and declare his opinions that his rulers may consider. But never did he have as much power and approval as Gabranth had.

When the Emperor has grown tired of the meeting, the session was finished. Balthier rose from his seat and was walking his way to the door when he felt a hand clasped his shoulder. He instantly knew, without a doubt, that it was Gabranth.

"Thank you for butting in, my friend. I must say that your proposal was the most nobel and admirable." Gabranth said in a twisted manner.

Balthier moved his head to Gabranth's side, avoiding facing him. "Thank you, and I apologize for misunderstanding your, well, how should I put this… eagerness to take over Esthar. Now that's what I could call the greatest attempted massacre of Archadian citizens of the century."

He felt Gabranth's grip grow tighter, and he winced. "I would advise you to stay out of my way." He hissed before letting Balthier go. He glided away to the corridor, leaving Balthier standing alone in the room. He massaged his shoulder and shook his head.

"Gabranth," He whispered to himself. "What are you up to?"

If there was anything Serah Villiers was particularly good about being a wife, it was her keen instincts as a wife.

She had been noticing how her husband had been preoccupied about something the moment he came back into the house after his brother left, even when he tried to hide it from his family. He would smile at the right moments, and laughed while he teased Hope about how much trouble he made at school earlier. But when dinner came, while everyone else was eating, he would glance out the window into the dark woods every minute until its frequency became seldom, and then he finally stopped looking. Serah asked if he was expecting another guest in which he only shook his head and said he was only thinking about something. And his wife would reckon how deep that something must be to keep her husband distracted over dinner. She would not like to overthink, and decided to leave it alone if Snow's privacy and space called for it. For as long as nothing important was at stake.

And when they went to bed, everything was forgotten. Of course, except for one thing.

In the morning, after Hope finished the breakfast Serah prepared for him and left for school, Serah sat down across Snow. Her husband was gobbling on his banana caramel waffles and chocolate milk when he noticed Serah looking intently at him. He gulped down his milk before looking back at Serah. "Yes Honey?"

"Well," Serah started. "it's about Hope."

Snow paused. He wiped his mouth and leaned closer. "What about him?"

"His teacher for Magic, Ms. Heartilly, talked to me yesterday, right?"

Snow nodded.

"Apparently, Hope could cast a spell a hundred times stronger than a Thundaga."

Snow blinked, not knowing what to say. "Hmm"

"She was planning to do what she can to help Hope with his power, but still…" She looked down on her hands. "I'm a bit worried. She said that his magic surpasses the power of even the most powerful mages in the history. How could that be possible?"

Snow crossed his arms. "Actually, if I were Hope, I'd be relieved to know that I could defend myself well against anything. That's not just a powerful spell, if it really was a hundred times stronger than a Thundaga. Hope IS gifted. But…"

"But…" Serah continued for him, her fingers uneasy. "But he could be too young to contain all that power to himself."

"Or some sick people might want to keep it all for themselves. I don't know which is worse." Snow diverted his eyes, thinking about the incident the night before. Was it just a coincidence that someone could be spying on his family on the same day Hope discovered he could cast a powerful Thundaga? Did someone know what their Hope was capable of?

"Snow," Serah called. "where did Hope come from? Who are his parents? His real family?"

Snow shook his head. "Beats me. I've been trying to figure it out myself for a long time now. But all I have is the pair of women who handed me Hope fourteen years ago. I don't even know who they are. I don't even know how to find them. They disappeared before I could even ask."

"They might be the only ones that could tell us about Hope's family." Serah replied. "And probably the only ones who could tell us how to help Hope."

"I wouldn't know much about that, either way." Snow leaned back on his chair. "All I know is, Hope is with us. And I would do everything in my power to help him, whatever happens. He's in our family now, a part of what is important to me… to you."

Serah nodded. "I guess you're right."

The last minute of their second subject for that morning was drawing near, yet there still was no sign of Larsa coming to school. Hope would glance over his friend's seat and the door repeatedly to check if Larsa finally decided to arrive. Did something happen in his castle again? Was he avoiding him under his brothers' orders because of the potentially dangerous magic he had demonstrated the day before? Was he all right?

Even Rinoa was worried about the young Prince. She felt ineffectual as a teacher for working unsatisfactorily to her students, and Larsa's absence only made her guilt sink deeper. She feared that the Emperor might have sought the need to distant his youngest brother from school until he had found a safer and more appropriate alternative for Larsa. Even then, down as her performance may seem, she carried on for the rest of the class.

When the bell rang, her students began packing their bags to move on for their next class. She caught on Hope and called his name. Hope turned to his teacher in response, who beckoned him to come closer. And he did whilst carrying his bag on his back.

Rinoa looked at him and smiled. "Hope, as I had promised your Mom, I will have to give you extra lessons to control your magic." She shifted on her seat. "I was hoping I could help you with it so you'll have better control of your Thundaga next time." She paused. "Or other spells for that matter."

Hope nodded. "Okay."

Rinoa nodded back. "The extra lessons will be held at the open lawn near the astrodome. I'll meet you there after class, okay?"

Hope nodded again. "Yes Ms. Heartilly."

"Okay. Off to your next class."

The young student smiled and nodded one more time before turning around and walking out of the room. Serah was right, he wasn't in trouble, at all. In fact, she was absolutely right was she said Ms. Heartilly only wanted to help him, which was why she talked to his stepmother. And everything will be all right, he was sure of it.

… or not.

Rinoa was hysterically throwing out spells to put out the fire everywhere the second Hope attempted to cast the Fire spell. The area where they decided to practice was blazing, and ready to melt the barrier spell Rinoa put up to limit the domain of Hope's magic. In an act of desperation to help his teacher, Hope cast Water, which did take out the flames, but soon flooded the invisible dome. Whilst floating, both the student and the teacher were in a state of shock when they found themselves safe from the fire, and surrounded only by harmless water. Rinoa even let out a laugh of relief, and Hope did too. But the barrier have weakened from the previous spell, and not long after, it eventually broke and gave in, spilling water on the lawn, and dropping both Rinoa and Hope to the soft ground.

Rinoa immediately stood up and run to Hope's side. "Are you all right?"

Hope sat up with his arms supporting himself from his sides. He nodded. "Yes Ms. Heartilly. You?"

Rinoa nodded. "Yeah." She gestured for Hope's hand and as soon as he reached for her, she grabbed him and pull him up.

She took a deep breath. "Well, at least I know you have a quick sense of action." She said as she smiled at her student.

Hope blushed. "Uhm, I guess. But I still don't know how to control my magic."

Rinoa shook her head. "Don't worry. We'll figure it out, right?" She then looked at her soaking self and then Hope. She sighed. "We're both wet. Do you think you can still practice?"

Hope, determined, nodded eagerly. "Yes, I'd still want to practice."

"Okay, but this one last time." Once more, she went around the burnt area and built another barrier. But this time, she did so thrice to make sure it would be three times just as durable as the last one.

At last, Rinoa was pleased. "Now, we'll try this again. Close your eyes…"

Hope did as he was told.

"And I want you to take your time to breathe in and exhale. Calm yourself down, the calmest that you can. You are the master of your own power, not the other way around…"

Hope felt himself relaxed a little in Rinoa's voice, keeping his eyes closed, but not too tightly.

"You want your magic as powerful as you wanted it to be. You have the capability to guide it as you wish; to be powerful, or to be weak. But for this moment, just for this moment, you wish it to be weaker.."

Hope clenched his fist, trying as he could to have control over his magic.

"Hope," his teacher called gently. "relax. It does not need forced to be controlled. It needs your guidance."

The student inhaled deeply and exhaled as he relaxed his fist. And slowly, he felt his hand opening by itself.

Suddenly, Rinoa gasped, and clasped her hands together. "Hope!"

"Can I open my eyes now?"

"Yes! Look at your fire! It's smaller!"

"Wha…" Hope opened his eyes. He looked at his hand, and there it was: a small ball of flame burning on top his palm.

"You did it!" Rinoa cried excitedly.

"Wow, I really did it!" Hope exclaimed. He turned to Rinoa and looked back at his fire. Hope really rose up within him, and he felt the kind of achievement as if he could do anything. Of course, if he could control his insanely powerful spell for the second try, what can't he do?

The only things missing at the moment was Larsa. If only he could be there with him, to share that victorious moment. To prove to him that he was not all that dangerous.

But that was not the reason Larsa did not make it to school that day. Not at all.

Larsa was preparing for school in his room that same morning. He just finished a book he had been reading and he couldn't wait to lend it to his best friend. He firmly believed that it was a good read, and even when Hope was not as enthusiastic about the genre, he knew he would like it.

While he was fixing the collar of his uniform, his sister entered his room.

"Good morning Tifa." He greeted.

Tifa nodded. "Good morning. Are you ready?"

"Yeah, just one more minute." He scampered to his large wardrobe and took a pair of socks.

Tifa scanned his bed. "Honestly, when was the last time you fixed your own bed?" She said while she arranged the pillows on their rightful positions and flattened the comforter neatly. It was not how the royal servants would usually groom their beds, but at least it looked nicer.

"The servants can do it for me. And honestly, I will end up messing it about tonight anyway." Larsa called in reply.

Suddenly, someone burst through the door. He was taking a series of deep breaths, his eyes transfixed at the princess.

Tifa froze on her spot at the sense of the intruder's urgency while Larsa went out of his wardrobe to face the man.

The princess paused what she was doing. "Balthier," she said, recognizing the man. "what is it?"

Balthier's eyes gave up and looked down, unable to look directly at the princess and her brother as he would tell them the news. "The Emperor." He said finally. He looked up to confirm his straightforwardness. "He has gone."

Larsa looked at him in disbelief. "What?"

Tifa dropped on the bed, her hand clasping her mouth in shock. She shook her head.

Then, without waiting for the judge's answer, Larsa dashed out of his room, ignoring the calls of Balthier and his sister. If what Balthier said was true, he had a hunch where his brother could be. He headed straight to the study where his brother spent most of his time, and true enough, he saw a significant number of people gathering outside the room. He fought his way inside, despite being halted by most of the people there, especially by his older brother Vayne. But it was all too late. He already saw him.

The emperor's body was lying on the ground, just behind the table where he used to gather his documents. His lifeless body was drenched in his own blood, which seemed to have spurted out of his throat. There were several handprints on his table, a sign that there was a struggle… that he struggled. The bloodied stains on his carpet had turned brick red, bearing the lengthy time his body waited until it was seen by a female helper. In his right hand was a dagger with a golden hilt where he was clutching it, covered with his own blood.

A suicide.

Behind him, he heard his sister scream in misery, which was drowned in his own shock. Slowly, he felt himself weakening until he could no longer struggle from his brother's attempt to pull him out of the scene. And then, everyone started disappearing in the darkness while his legs gave in. And then, nothing.

Vayne, now the new Archadian emperor, proposed that the news of his brother's death must not be revealed until the right time, fearing that they might come unprepared to the criticisms from the other nations. It must remain within the palace walls until he declares the news himself. But news traveled faster than he had hoped and that afternoon, it was officially announced throughout Palompolum.

Rinoa was on her way home from the academy when the headlines appeared from the street's televisions. Much like the other people around her, she stopped on her tracks and took her time to watch the news of the Archadian Emperor's death.

Hope was watching the newscast with Snow and Serah inside the living room, all of whom paused from their activities while they watched. The program did not show any images of the graphic scene, though the reporter stated precise accounts of the story, including the time when the body was discovered. It was only then when Hope realized why Larsa had not come to school.

Located a thousand of miles away from Archadia, in an empire called Esthar, another viewer was watching. Seifer was sitting on a table inside a fast food place, looking at the television protruded high on the wall where the same newsflash was being shown, featuring a female reporter.

"The late Emperor was seen clutching a dagger when he was discovered lying behind his desk inside the study room. It was declared by the palace itself that he had commited suicide the night before."

Seifer sneered. "Suicide. Right." He turned away from the television and to the roast beef sandwich in his hands. "Suicide my ass."

"Our informant doesn't think so either." Said another man who was suddenly sitting beside him. Though he appeared short, he had a muscular body which appeared almost intimidating. His skin was pale, highlighted by his choice of black clothes and donning a pair of motorcycling goggles that matched his get-up, which covered his sky blue eyes. But that was not the most noticeable thing about him. His fairly short, golden yellow hair was spiked in all directions, which defy the rule of gravity itself. It moved just as softly with his movements, but never dropping from its style.

Seifer scoffed the man off. "Cloud." He recognized. "I didn't notice you. Since when did you get here?"

"Not long." Replied the man.

"Right." Seifer chuckled. He signaled at the clerk behind the counter. "Hey! Burger guy!"

"Yes, sir?"

"Give my friend here one of the biggest burgers you have!"

"No thanks," Cloud replied. "I haven't brought any money."

Seifer frowned. "Hmm. Nevermind then." Because he wasn't going to pay for his friend anyway.

"You better finish fast. Break's almost over." Cloud said nonchalantly.

"Well then," Seifer, still holding his burger, stood up. "might as well just bring this over. And if puberty boy says anything about it, I'll ram this down his throat."

His companion did not say anything and simply followed him. They headed out of the place, which was merely three blocks away from their destination, where the Prince of Esthar was waiting.

Inside the headquarters, the said Prince was sitting on a couch inside a minimalist room, watching the same newcast from right across his position. His was a tall, muscular man, too tall for his young age. His short brown hair was a bit shaggy in form, and he had a noticeable scar right in between his eyes. He was wearing a pair of brown leather panths, and a plain white t-shirt that fitted his contour quite perfectly. He was resting his head on his hands, while his blue eyes were fastened on the screen. The only time he broke his concentration was when his communicator beeped in his pocket. He reached for it and read the message.

"Cloud's friend doesn't seem to believe it." A woman behind him said in a perceptive voice. She had long, curly pink hair carefully gathered over her shoulder, while her bangs covered some parts of her face. She was muscular for a woman's stature, wearing a female soldier's uniform. Her eyes were piercing blue, but still had the subtle soft feminine shape. "It was plotted from the very beginning. A race for the throne's authority."

"As I would think so as well." He replied. He stood up from his couch and looked over his shoulder. "Round up the Order."