Hey all! Welcome to my Aros side story to my KH epic Reverse Side of Darkness. You have my friend Dagas Isa to thank for this one; she requested it as a Christmas gift. It's rather late (sorry Dagas!), but hopefully the delay was worth it. And I apologize for the delay in posting Chapter 39 (it should be up within the next few days), but obviously there was a reason: this fic! It takes place four years before my fic, meaning it is roughly during the actual game. It should be two or three chapters in length, although I must warn you that this chapter at least is extremely long. Spoilers for Chapter 1 go through about Chapter 16 of RSoD. By the end of this fic, though, there will be spoilers through Chapter 39.

Special thanks to Dagas Isa, Akai Kitsune, Chevira Lowe, and Naela for beta-reading this for me! You guys are the best!

That said, onto the fic. I hope everybody enjoys it!

Fading Light
By: Koorino Megumi

Chapter 1: The Man

Aros grinned triumphantly as Kiru hit the ground with a groan. "Had enough yet?"

Kiru pulled himself up to a sitting position, wincing. He really did look worn out. Aros was breathing hard himself, but the adrenaline running through his limbs was allowing him to easily ignore his fatigue.

"I think that's enough for today," Kiru admitted wearily, sounding a little sheepish.

Aros's grin widened. "Thought so."

Kiru frowned slightly, looking a bit embarrassed. Aros offered a hand and helped Kiru to his feet. "It's getting late anyway," Aros stated, gesturing at the setting sun behind him. "We should go home."

Kiru nodded, looking grateful at Aros's attempt to help him hold onto his pride. "Yeah, you're right. Is Iraki still here somewhere?" He turned and looked past the paopu tree and down toward the beach.

"Right over here!" Both boys turned in surprise to find Iraki waving at them from her vantage point on the roof of the Seashore Shed.

"Iraki, careful! You shouldn't be up there!" Kiru cried.

Iraki laughed, jumping off the roof to the beach below. Aros couldn't help cringing slightly as she landed, but she didn't even lose her balance. "Happy now?" she asked, tilting her head and grinning at them.

"What were you doing up there?" Kiru demanded, "What if you had slipped?"

Iraki rolled her eyes, shaking her head. "So you guys get to spend your afternoon beating each other up, and I'm not even allowed a good seat?"

Aros couldn't help frowning slightly. "What's with you lately and watching us fight, anyway? I thought you hated that stuff."

Iraki shrugged. "I guess I was curious what it was like. And there isn't anything else for me to do around here while you two duke it out."

Aros shook his head, grinning slightly at that response. Kiru still looked bothered, though. He started along the bridge, and Aros followed, the two walking together into the shack and back down to the beach. Somehow they both managed to look reasonably energetic, even Kiru's fatigue of just a moment ago now mysteriously hidden. Neither commented about the new energy; neither wanted to acknowledge that Iraki's being there made them both want to look infinitely strong. Aros liked to think he hadn't been that tired in the first place. And Kiru... Well, this was just another one of those small things that Aros chose to ignore. Just like some of the looks that Kiru and Iraki shared, the way they sometimes walked more closely together than they needed to...

Aros shook his head, trying to clear it of such thoughts. Coincidence. All those silly little things were just coincidences. They couldn't be anything more. If they were, the two would have opened up about it long ago. They wouldn't deceive him. Of that he was certain.

"I don't see how you guys can do it all day," Iraki commented as the three headed together for the docks and their small boats that would take them back to the main island. "I'd be too exhausted to row my way home."

Aros couldn't help smiling slightly. "Well, it's something you get used to with practice. And some people just have more endurance than others."

Kiru nodded, although he frowned at those words. Aros realized what he had just said, and he bit his lip but didn't say any more. It was the truth, after all, and didn't it give Kiru an excuse for his current fatigue? Not that Aros had meant to imply that Kiru was weak, of course. Aros and Kiru had been competing their whole lives, and while Aros tended to win at everything related to fighting--although Kiru did win races reasonably often--Kiru would never once give in or even imply that he was any less than Aros. He always just asked for a rematch. And Aros...well, it had never once occurred to him to ridicule Kiru in any way for his losses. In fact, he had to admit that he rather liked the setup. Kiru was Aros's primary opponent in a competition that had been going on for almost their whole lives, and Aros was obviously beating him by a large margin. Even though neither of them ever actually said anything like that, he knew that both he and Kiru were thinking it.

Iraki slipped on a puddle on the dock. She might have been about to catch her own balance, but Kiru was there and steadying her before Aros had hardly had a chance to move. Aros could feel a scowl tugging at his features, but he willed it away. Sometimes, just a little bit, he doubted that he was really the one winning the competition. Not that he would ever admit that, though. Not even to himself.

The three were standing in front of their boats and about to leave the island for the day when a voice from behind them brought them up short.

"Why, hello you three! I believe you're the ones I've been looking for, then."

They all turned in surprise to find a figure standing down on the beach, not too far forward from Kiru's island where Aros and Kiru had just been fighting. It was a man with inordinately long blond hair and dressed in an odd looking, light colored outfit. Aros couldn't make out any details of the clothing because of the distance, but it looked like it had to be suffocating to wear in the island heat, especially his long coat. Just that coat marked the man out as a foreigner. He was staring at them, smiling. As Aros squinted at him, he thought he could make out intense excitement in the strange man's features and even in the way he was standing, waving at them, but considering the distance, Aros couldn't really be sure.

Aros ran over to the edge of the dock to get a better look at the man, and he could hear both Kiru and Iraki come up just behind him. He ignored them for the moment, all his attention focused on this man. Who was he? And what did he mean that they were the ones he had been looking for? "Hey, who are you!?" he called down to him.

"Why, I'm..." the man began. He frowned and started walking forward. "Do you really want to have this conversation yelling?" he called to them, "Or can I come to you or you come to me?"

Aros hesitated just slightly before deciding he couldn't be so afraid of the man as to be unwilling to get near him. After all, Aros knew how to defend himself. Of course he didn't trust the man, but at the same time, if he was careful to be wary of him, he'd be fine, even if the three of them did get close to him.

Aros hopped off the dock, landing in the sand not far from the man. He heard Kiru land on his feet beside him, and Iraki let out a little yelp. Aros turned in concern to find that she had landed rather unsteadily. Kiru had already grabbed her arm to help save her from losing her balance, and she seemed to be steadying herself. Aros turned back to the man, resisting yet another urge to scowl. He wondered why he seemed to be in such a bad mood today but decided it was best not to dwell on the matter.

After all, he didn't want to acknowledge what was really bothering him.

"I am Ansem," the man introduced himself, holding a black-gloved hand out toward Aros as he reached the three, "The seeker of light."

Aros took the hand uncertainly, looking up at the man's smiling face. "Seeker of light?" he blurted out.

Ansem withdrew his hand and frowned slightly, putting his hand to his chin in thought. "Where to begin?" he asked, presumably addressing the air. Something seemed to occur to him then, and his face took on a sheepish cast as he extended a hand to Kiru and shook his and then did the same with Iraki. "I'm sorry, I didn't intend any disrespect," he apologized, "Your friend's comment just distracted me slightly. I am very pleased to meet all of you. After all, you each have your own important role in all of this."

"What are you talking about?" Aros burst out, already starting to get impatient with this Ansem and his cryptic ramblings.

"Ah, I suppose I shall try to begin at the beginning. Please excuse my somewhat fumbling explanation. It's just that I had envisioned meeting you all, but it's still so hard to believe that I'm actually here, that the machine actually worked, that I'm actually seeing and talking to the three of you."

"Machine?" Kiru asked this time.

"Ah...you see, I'm not really here. This is just a representation of my physical self. You see, I have a machine, and it can..." He hesitated, frowning again. "You three are fourteen and fifteen, correct?"

Kiru nodded. Aros narrowed his eyes, wondering how in the world this man knew such a thing. And he still didn't understand at all what Ansem was going on about.

"I suppose it's a bit too complicated to explain..." Ansem stated thoughtfully, his hand going to his chin again. "So please, never mind how I am here, just simply know that I am. It is the reason why that is infinitely more important."

"And why is that?" Aros demanded. He knew he was being rather rude, but he couldn't help the fact that to him this man was just plain aggravating. And suspicious.

"Well, you see..." Ansem trailed off, thinking again. His eyes lit up and he began, "I have been studying the history of the universe for quite a few years now. Nine, I believe. Ever since...a bit of an incident piqued my curiosity." He frowned, his eyes taking on a worried cast. "Needless to say, it has been quite the intriguing study. I have salvaged many documents that one would normally assume had long ago been lost. My particular world is a bit of a focal point when it comes to travel to other worlds, and the amount of documentation that has survived since the time when the door was open is just enormous."

"The door?" Aros interrupted irritably.

"Ah...seems I'm getting ahead of myself. I apologize. What I am trying to say is...ah..." Ansem stopped again, thinking. Aros couldn't help but think that either this stranger was the worst liar he had ever seen or was telling the truth and was infinitely disorganized. "Perhaps..."

The three children all leaned in, waiting for him to finish his thought.

"Perhaps it would be easiest if you just...well, read my partial report. I had thought that perhaps an explanation would be best before the reading, but it seems I would have to explain most all of the reading in order to do that, so you should probably read first and then I will clarify. Yes, yes, I think that would be the best idea." Ansem reached into various pockets of his long coat, withdrawing three identical folded reports. He handed one to each of them.

Aros looked over at Kiru and Iraki before unfolding his. Kiru already had his report unfolded and was reading intently. His facial expression could only be described as absolute awe and excitement. Aros's eyes widened. What in the world about this obviously insane man's words could get Kiru excited? They might even be in danger talking to him, after all. Iraki might be in danger.

At that thought, Aros jerked his attention back to Ansem. He had his hand to his chin again and seemed to be lost in thought, presumably trying to determine what he should say to them when they were finished, although Aros seriously doubted that. *He's trying to distract us, isn't he? He's getting us all engrossed in the reading so we'll be off-guard and he can steal from us or do whatever it is he's here for. Why else would he be looking for fourteen- and fifteen-year-old kids?*

Aros glanced over at Iraki. He couldn't help but be thankful to see a look of skepticism on her face, although she, too, had unfolded her copy of the report and was reading intently.

Aros debated for a moment whether or not to read his as well. He feared allowing himself to get that distracted. At the same time, it would be hard to ridicule Ansem or get away from him if Aros refused even to read the man's "explanation" of what he was doing there.

Curiosity got the better of him, and Aros unfolded his report as well, although not without first giving another suspicious glance at Ansem himself. He was still staring off into space, apparently thinking. Aros looked back down at the report. It was titled "On the Nature of the Universe." Aros almost snorted at that. Insane might be too light a word to describe this man.

Beginning the report, Aros couldn't help but get just as distracted as he had feared he might. The contents of the report were something amazing. It spoke of the universe as being made up of many different worlds, of which his own set of islands was but one. Not only that, but the universe had two sides to it--one leading to the door to the light and the other to the door to the darkness. The side that they were currently residing on led to the door to the light.

It continued by describing how the universe had once been balanced, all light on one side and all darkness on the other. On the side of the light, the worlds had all been connected by a golden road. On the side of the darkness, the worlds had not been connected at all. These two sides were separated by a mirror, and the two sides of the universe also met in one other place--at the universe's very heart, the heart of all the worlds, Kingdom Hearts.

The report also detailed the existence of four keys of a very special nature. They had been created in Kingdom Hearts to affect the balance of the universe. Each had two purposes--one for light to preserve the balance and one for darkness to destroy it. Each key had two masters, one on each side of the universe, and each with the power to call their key from the center of the universe to their hands.

It was one of these weapons, the silver key, and its master from the dark side of the universe that had one day unlocked the mirror, opening a path between the two sides of the universe, connecting all the worlds, and closing the door to the light. Many years later, masters of the silver, white, and golden keys had somehow managed to seal the mirror again, but the balance of the universe had been all but destroyed, and the door to the light remained closed. All the worlds were now separated. The universe tried to rebalance itself by making the worlds into parallels instead of opposites, meaning that every world was now exactly the same on each side of the universe instead of completely different. However, the experiment did not work. Over time, with the two sides of the universe once again separated, the universe had begun to adjust to the imbalance of good and evil.

Nine years ago, however, the door to the darkness had somehow been unsealed once again. Darkness had since been overrunning that side of the universe, destroying worlds and consuming the hearts of the people. With the mirror still sealed, the side of the universe with the door to the light had remained unaffected, but there was no way to know how long that would last. The time had come for the masters of the keys to again call those weapons to themselves. Just as the silver, golden, and white keys could be used to seal the mirror, the silver and golden together would be able to seal the door to the darkness. Their masters on the dark side of the mirror would have to accomplish this task as soon as possible. If they were not fast enough to keep the balance of the universe from disintegrating, then in order to rebalance the universe, the mirror would have to be unsealed, again connecting the two sides, and the door to the light would have to be opened.

The report ended there. Aros looked up to find Ansem, Kiru, and Iraki all looking at him. He scowled slightly, realizing that he had allowed himself to completely stop paying attention to the world around him while he read. But at least it seemed that Ansem hadn't been planning to do anything to them while they were distracted. In fact, Aros realized that he really had no idea what this man wanted with them at all. Maybe he really was just insane and didn't know what he was doing. That would account for his irrational behavior, anyway.

"So you've all read it then?" Ansem asked eagerly, "Good, good. This is a somewhat abridged version; I worked very hard to make it as short as I could without losing any particularly pertinent information. My associate warned me that it might bore you into not reading it if I gave you the full version. As well as the fact that I would be required to leave you with it and return later since it would probably take too long to read for me to just stay here. I do still have my kingdom to worry about, I'm afraid, although thankfully so far none of this has affected it or any of the other worlds on this side of the universe."

"There are really...other worlds? A whole other side of the universe?"

Aros turned to Kiru to find, to his shock, that Kiru's face still held the same awe-struck look. *He...believes him, doesn't he?* Aros realized with surprise and perhaps even some degree of disappointment.

Ansem's eyes widened slightly at the question. "Why, of course there are other worlds. This report is not a simple fairy tale or story, after all. This is a scientific document based on years of intensive research and study.

Aros couldn't help it. His jaw dropped at that statement. It was simply too much for him to take, as was the fact that Kiru was apparently eating up this man's every word. "You've got to be kidding me!" he burst out, "All of this...it's all just crazy."

Ansem and Kiru both turned to him in surprise, but Aros couldn't help noticing that Iraki was simply watching them, biting her lip and looking uncertain. So Aros continued. "What proof do you have of any of this?" he demanded.

"Proof?" Ansem frowned in thought yet again. "Well, I am proof, am I not? I'm not from this world of yours. My world is called Empty Citadel. I am the king there, actually. And this is...this is Fate Isles, I believe the name was?"

"How do we know you're not lying?"

"Not lying!?" Ansem balked, sounding shocked and perhaps even a bit offended. "I will not deceive you. Darkness will not be allowed to sprout within my heart, not even through simple deception." He frowned slightly but then broke out into a smile, looking as if he had just thought of something brilliant. His expression had a hint of pride in it as he continued, "I promise you now that I will tell you the truth in everything you ask, even if you don't believe me. So please, if you feel you must test me somehow to prove the truth of my report, go ahead and do so."

"I don't think there's any need for that," Kiru spoke up before Aros could say a word. Aros noticed that Iraki had opened her mouth as well. She frowned slightly over at Kiru. Kiru, however, didn't notice. He turned to Aros, his expression looking almost pleading. "Come on, Aros, he is here, isn't he?"

"Did you have something you wanted to say, Iraki?" Aros asked gently, wondering how Kiru could be so rude as to speak on top of her. That seemed somehow worse to him than Kiru's affront to Aros himself.

"Well...I was just wondering if he might be from one of the other islands. I mean, we don't know everybody, after all," Iraki replied, her voice quiet and sounding a bit nervous.

"Exactly," Aros chimed in, nodding and smiling encouragingly at Iraki. She didn't smile back and simply bit her lip in response.

"Well, if I were to do this..." Ansem's form abruptly became transparent. All three of them couldn't help but gasp. Aros stuck a hand out, expecting it was some sort of visual trick, but his hand did indeed thrust right through the air where Ansem had just been standing and where he could now see a ghostly form of the man.

"Please remove your hand, er...um..." Ansem trailed off, apparently realizing that he didn't know any of their names, "Could you please remove your hand so that I can return?"

Aros frowned at him, his mind trying to fathom what exactly was going on here and how exactly this man was managing to trick them like this. If Kiru and Iraki had both trusted the man, Aros might have consented and trusted him as well, but because Iraki obviously didn't trust him either...well, Aros just couldn't ignore that. There was something very suspicious about this man, something that Kiru must just not be able to see.

Aros withdrew his hand, and Ansem again became substantial. Aros didn't reach for him again, so Ansem held out a hand toward him instead. "Go ahead. I am here again. Well, in a way."

Aros brought up a reluctant hand and touched Ansem's, then immediately withdrew it as he found substance there.

"Does that satisfy for proof?" Ansem asked, sounding a little anxious, "It was the best I could think of, but if you can think of some other way-"

"You feel like you're here now," Aros interrupted pointedly, "But didn't you say you weren't here?"

Ansem trailed off, frowning in thought again. "Well, I suppose for all practical purposes I am here. This is truly just a transmission of myself, though, because the real me is back on my own world, hooked up to a machine. Unless something calls my attention back to my home, I have no awareness of my true body there, so you could say that I am really here, even though in a way I am not. So I suppose I must answer your question with both a yes and a no. Oh...no, your question was if I said I wasn't here? Yes, I did say that. But to be truly accurate, I would have to both say that I am here and that I am not. Does that clarify everything?" Ansem's face took on an anxious cast again.

After looking at Kiru's intrigued expression, Aros had managed to resist the urge to interrupt in the middle of Ansem's cryptic speech. But at the end, he couldn't help stating flatly, "You don't make any sense."

"I have a question," Kiru spoke up suddenly.

Aros raised an eyebrow at him. Was Kiru beginning to doubt Ansem's sincerity as well? He couldn't help grinning slightly. Good. All three of them were going to face this situation together.

"Yes?" Ansem asked, turning to Kiru.

"Why are you here? And why are you telling all of this to us?"

Ansem's face seemed to light up at that. "Because I need your help."

"What!?" all three broke out in unison.

"Our help?" Iraki repeated, "With what?"

"Why, you did read to the end of my report, did you not?" All three nodded. "Then you know that currently we are searching for the Keyblade Masters on the other side of the mirror. I have found out about three children, and I believe that at least one of them must be a Keyblade Master, if not more. He needs guidance, however. And it is you, actually"--he nodded in Kiru's direction--"who I believe will be able to give him the guidance he needs."

"Me?" Kiru asked, his expression turning to disbelief and, Aros was disappointed to notice, excitement.

"Yes. Although..." Ansem frowned slightly. "I am very sorry." He gave an apologetic look first at Aros and then at Iraki before turning back to Kiru, seeming anxious again. "But I was advised that we should do this without your friends. Would you mind coming with me?"

"No!" Iraki burst out just as Aros opened his mouth to protest. Aros, Kiru, and Ansem all turned to her in surprise.

Iraki's cheeks reddened slightly. "No matter what you say," she broke in, and her voice sounded determined, although there was an undercurrent of embarrassment and uncertainty, "and no matter what the truth is, we've still just met you. Do you really think it'd be right if we just let you walk off with our friend and leave us here? That just...wouldn't be fair to him."

Ansem frowned again, seemingly considering her words. "I believe I see what you mean," he stated finally, "and I would acquiesce if circumstances weren't what they are. But it would be far less fair to your friend to do this in your presence, I believe. Would it help if he went with me armed?" Ansem's expression looked hopeful.

Iraki frowned and Aros started to shake his head, but Kiru held up his left hand to stop any protests. He gestured at the wooden sword that he still held in his right. "Don't worry, you guys. I trust him. Plus, I've got a sword if anything does happen, and I promise not to get out of yelling distance, okay?"

"But Kiru..." Iraki started.

Kiru shook his head. "I want to do this! You guys know how restless I've been. Somehow...I feel like I was meant for something like this. And I'll be coming right back, right?" he asked Ansem.

Ansem nodded. "Kiru is it?"

Kiru laughed slightly. "We haven't introduced ourselves to you yet, have we? Yes, I'm Kiru." He looked over at Iraki, cueing her to give her name next.

"I'm Iraki," she stated, her tone still holding the same uncertain quality.

"Aros," Aros mumbled unhappily. Kiru was getting way too familiar with this man already. And the little speech Kiru had just made... Well, Aros knew how Kiru was about trusting people. He didn't like to be open right away. For him to come out and say he trusted this man meant that something must have certainly struck Kiru about him. From that alone Aros knew that he wouldn't be able to convince Kiru not to go with him. If there was one thing that he and his friend understood about each other, it was the intensity of each of their drive and determination to accomplish whatever they set their minds to. *And he's even saying this over Iraki's protests. We won't be able to stop him, no matter what we say to him.*

"So you are coming with me, correct?" Ansem asked, his features hopeful, "I really do need your help. I wouldn't ask for this otherwise. If you are who I believe you are, then you are the only person I know of who might be able to do this."

"I'm the only person? But...why me?"

"Will you come with me?" Ansem repeated, "I will explain as much as I can then."

Kiru nodded, but his eyes were not on Ansem; they were on Iraki. She was frowning at him and looking worried, but she made no comment and simply nodded slightly. She was letting him go. So she had noticed, too. Aros wanted to cry out a protest, but he knew that it would be useless, so he kept quiet.

"Wonderful!" Ansem exclaimed, "Thank you all so much! Iraki, Aros, it was so nice to have met you! I am sure I will see you again, if only when I return to show you more of my report, but for today, farewell. I believe I shall have to return to my world straightaway after Kiru and I are done."

"Nice to meet you," Iraki responded simply.

Aros nodded at him slightly. He shouldn't be needlessly rude to him, after all. Not when Kiru trusted him.

"Well, then. Kiru, is there a private place we could go where we wouldn't be disturbed?"

"The Secret Place," Kiru answered immediately. "Okay, you guys? I'll just be there."

"Fine," Aros stated.

"Okay," Iraki replied softly.

"Great." Kiru grinned. He turned to Ansem then. "I'll lead the way."

"Thank you," Ansem replied, giving a relieved smile. And Kiru started off toward the Secret Place, Ansem following just behind him. Iraki watched until they were completely out of sight, biting her lip.

Aros stepped over beside her. "Kiru will be fine," he stated, trying to sound reassuring.

Iraki turned to him, her eyes full of fear. "But Aros...you guys have been fighting all afternoon. He's completely exhausted. And there's no way of telling what that strange man is capable of!"

"I know that, but we've gotta believe in Kiru. After all, he should at least know enough to yell and warn us if Ansem tries anything. He wouldn't want to risk Ansem coming after us unexpectedly, even if he didn't want us to think he couldn't handle him on his own."

Iraki turned again toward the Secret Place. It really wasn't far from where they were standing; Kiru's voice should carry from there just fine. Aros guessed she was probably worrying about it, though. But she turned back to him then and smiled slightly. "Thanks, Aros. You're right. Kiru would at least yell to help us out, if not to help himself."

"It's okay, Iraki. I just don't want you worrying when you don't need to be."

Iraki laughed slightly. "That's sweet of you. But you don't trust Ansem either, do you?"

Aros shook his head vehemently. "I think he's probably crazy," he confided.

Iraki laughed. "I can see why." She turned back toward the Secret Place, biting her lip again. "How long do you think-"

"Don't worry about it, Iraki," Aros interrupted, "I'm sure he'll come back out very soon."

Iraki nodded slightly, but Aros noticed that she was still chewing on her lip. *I have to distract her somehow,* he decided. "Hey, Iraki?"


"You said you were curious about what our fighting was like, right?"


"Would you like me to teach you a little?"

Iraki turned back to face him, her expression surprised. "You mean it?"

"Sure. We've got time before we go home. Why not?"

Iraki smiled nervously. "All right. Do you have an extra sword?"

"Of course. We'll just..." Aros stopped, realizing that there was no way Iraki would want to get any farther from the Secret Place than she already was. "Kiru and I keep a couple extras stashed in the shed in case we leave ours at home. I'll get one for you." He omitted any mention of the fact that he wasn't going to make her move from the spot because he wanted her to be sure she would hear Kiru if he yelled. Aros thought that even mentioning it might make her think he was worried about Kiru, too, and if she thought he was worried, she would just worry more.

"All right," Iraki replied, although she was frowning slightly.

Aros tried to keep a sheepish look from his face. She suspected his real motive in getting the sword himself. Instead of trying to cover up his motive further, though, Aros simply headed over to the Seashore Shed without another word. He looked back just as he reached the doorway to find her staring at the Secret Place again. He frowned and went inside the shed. There were the swords, piled up in the corner. He pulled out one from the bottom of the pile that appeared to be slightly smaller than the others. It was an old one of his. Hopefully it would be about the right size for Iraki.

Aros headed back out to find Iraki right where he had left her, if not a few steps closer to the Secret Place than before. "Iraki, I've got a sword for you. Do you want to start on the beach right here?" He gestured a bit farther down the beach from where she was standing, not wanting to be too close to any walls or to the Secret Place, for that matter. He wasn't sure quite what Ansem and Kiru would think or how they would react if they were to hear fighting going on outside.

Aros stepped over to where he had gestured, and Iraki slowly came over as well, albeit somewhat reluctantly. She kept throwing glances at the entrance to the Secret Place. Aros held the sword out toward her, and her attention finally seemed to really turn to him, or to the sword, at least. She took it nervously in both hands, staring at it as if it were alive.

"You're not going to be able to swing it well holding it like that," Aros stated matter-of-factly, deciding that he had better jump right into this before he lost her attention again. "Here." He stepped up to her and put his hands around hers, prying her tense fingers from the blade and trying to gently adjust her grip. "Don't fight me," he scolded slightly.

"Sorry," Iraki replied sheepishly, trying to loosen up and let him direct her fingers.

When her grip seemed about right, Aros took a step back and got his own sword in a battle-ready position. "All right, probably the first thing we should go over is how you block. When I swing at you, you're going to want to look at the angle of my blow so you can quickly bring your sword up to stop mine. So if I were to swing like this..." He dealt a slow, diagonal blow that would have been toward her midsection had he been standing a few steps closer. "You would see that I'm coming in from your right because I'm left-handed, so you would bring your sword over to block from your left side. Like this." He stepped forward and reached out with his right hand, directing her sword up until it was against his sword, which he had stopped in mid-swing. "See?"

"That doesn't look too hard," Iraki stated, sounding almost a bit eager, although still very nervous.

"All right, I'm going to strike at you for real this time. I'll keep it slow; don't worry. But you block it."

"Okay." Iraki nodded slightly, tensing.

Aros dealt a slow blow at an angle identical to his previous one. Iraki brought her sword over to block, and she did stop him, although her movements were rather clumsy, and a harder blow from him probably would have been able to force her sword back. "Good," he stated, and he smiled at her encouragingly. "Try that again." He dealt a slightly faster blow this time, coming in at a different angle. She blocked it again, although her block was just as clumsy as her first one. "You're doing great. Keep it up." Aros struck a few more times, and Iraki didn't miss blocking any of his swings, although Aros still thought that a harder blow would likely break right through her block. Her movements did seem to be getting less clumsy as she blocked more times, though.

Aros decided to test his theory, but carefully, and so he brought his sword up and struck down with it. He didn't make it a particularly hard or fast blow, but it was definitely more powerful than the other blows he had been dealing.

Iraki brought her sword up to block and let out a little cry as it was forced back. She tried to take a step back and brace herself against his strike, but she slipped on the sand and fell face-first into it, her sword slipping from her grip and falling to the ground beside her.

"You okay?" Aros asked, immediately kneeling next to her and taking her arm to help her back up.

She coughed slightly, shaking her head to get any sand out of her hair, and smiled at him. "Guess I don't have as much of a knack for this as I'd hoped," she joked.

Aros grinned back at her. "Here." He helped pull her back to her feet. "Everybody slips," he stated, "I slip sometimes, too. And you should see the times when Kiru or I step off his island and wind up in the ocean."

Iraki laughed at that. "I think I can see that happening. You guys just better be careful not to hurt yourselves." Her face grew stern at this last statement.

"You sound like my mom!" Aros accused.

Iraki laughed again. "Well, what about you two, even fussing about me being on the roof of the shed?"

"Hey, that was Kiru, not me!" Aros stated defensively. He looked down. "But yeah...we just really don't want anything to happen to you, Iraki."

Iraki smiled brightly. "I know. You're both real sweeties."

"Hey, stop calling me that!" Aros cried. Iraki just laughed.

It was then that they heard footsteps behind them and turned to find Kiru emerging from the entrance to the Secret Place. "Kiru!" Iraki exclaimed, immediately running over to him. "Are you okay? Did that man do anything?" Aros followed her, just as worried but leaving the gushing to Iraki.

Kiru held up his hands, grinning at them, "I'm fine, I'm fine!" he cried. He then noticed Iraki's rather sandy appearance and frowned slightly. "And what were you two up to while I was gone?"

Iraki grinned. "Aros started teaching me how to fight."

Kiru's expression at that moment managed to both start Iraki laughing and even elicit a chuckle from Aros. "Wh-what did you say?" Kiru stammered.

"Aros taught me how to fight a little. He was showing me about blocking," she added, probably to keep Kiru from worrying about the dangers involved in learning how to use a sword, even a wooden one.

"Oh. Wow. I never thought you would be interested in anything like that, Iraki." Kiru's face was still all surprise and confusion.

Iraki shrugged. Then she seemed to remember the matter at hand, and her expression became serious and worried again. "But what about you? What was that all about? He didn't do anything to you, did he?"

"No, actually I just... He had me send a dream to a kid he thinks is a Keyblade Master."

"Send a dream?" Aros repeated, "What do you mean?" He tried not to look too worried, but it already sounded like Ansem had been saying more crazy things and that Kiru had been believing them. It was frightening to see Kiru act this way.

"Well, you guys know about my dreams," Kiru replied, shifting a bit uncomfortably, "It looks like I have special abilities when it comes to dreams. He was able to use those with some abilities of his own so I could talk to this kid."

"You mean you actually talked to someone from some other world?" Iraki asked in amazement.

Kiru grinned. "Yeah, I did."

"Letting him use abilities with you sounds dangerous, though," Aros couldn't help but pipe up, "I mean, how do you know any of what you were seeing was real?"

Kiru frowned at that. "I know because I trust him. And if he really were planning something, then why did he do exactly what he said he would and let me leave afterwards? He only brought me away from you guys because he wasn't sure if you knew about my dreams, and he didn't want you to find out about them without my consent. And I...I watched him disappear, too! From right in front of my eyes." He turned his gaze to Iraki. "You guys don't mean that you don't believe me, do you?"

"Of course not!" Iraki burst out, "We believe you, Kiru. We're just...not sure about this Ansem. We really don't have any proof that he's telling the truth about anything, after all."

"I don't see why you guys are being so suspicious. And you should have seen what I did, Iraki! It was unreal. And this other kid... He was definitely real. Someone like that couldn't be just some illusion or something. And there's something about Ansem that makes me want to trust him. He seems...really genuine."

"Well, just be really careful if he comes back again, okay? I don't want you getting hurt," Iraki stated.

"Being careful is never a bad thing," Aros added.

Kiru frowned at them both, clearly disappointed. Aros was sure he had wanted to rave to them about his experience but had now decided not to because of their skepticism. *Sorry, Kiru, but I don't like that man. It's better if we hurt you a little than if he hurts you a lot.*

"Well, I'm fine this time, and there's no telling when he'll come back." Kiru looked up at the quickly darkening sky. "We should go home now, don't you think?"

Iraki looked up as well. She seemed a little saddened, probably because she could also see Kiru's disappointment. "Yeah, just let me put my sword away." She hurried over to the beach and picked up the sword that she had dropped when she'd fallen. She shook the sand off of it and then headed over to the Seashore Shed and returned it. "All set to go back," she announced, putting on an obviously-fake cheerful front. "Come on." She grabbed Kiru's arm and started pulling him toward the dock.

Aros had been uncomfortable and worried ever since they had first spotted Ansem, but now he suddenly felt very hurt as well, although he wasn't sure why. He headed to the dock, too, looking at the other two and feeling even more hurt as he watched them smile at each other. *Iraki's just trying to cheer Kiru up,* he told himself.

*But why should she? I mean, she does agree with me, doesn't she? Shouldn't she be working with me, trying to convince him that Ansem could be out to hurt him before Ansem shows up again and asks Kiru for another favor? Why is she making light of this?*

And as they reached their boats and Iraki finally let go of Kiru, grinning at him and rolling her eyes as he gave her a warning about boating in the dark, Aros realized what it was that was bothering him so very much.

*She agrees with me. So why is she standing with him instead of standing with me?*

It wasn't favoritism. It couldn't be. Aros had always believed that he and Iraki would be together someday. After all, he had surpassed Kiru in everything else. Kiru was a wonderful person, but Iraki would choose Aros, wouldn't she?

Unbidden, a number of "coincidences" of closeness between Iraki and Kiru came to Aros's mind. He tried to ignore the memories, but he just wound up feeling more hurt than before. As they rowed home with Kiru yelling almost constant tips and warnings over to Iraki, Aros sat in his little boat silent and sullen, staying slightly behind them and, for the first time in as long as he could remember, feeling almost as if he weren't even a part of their group at all. He didn't think he'd ever felt so hurt and lonely.