Okay, I know that it's been a very long time since I've updated RSoD or this fic, but trust me, everyone, I have not fallen off the face of the planet, and I have no intention of giving up either of these projects! Just please bear with me patiently, and I hope you enjoy this chapter. After all, it's chapter 3 of 4...

This chapter is dedicated to Naela. Happy very belated birthday! I hope it was great.


Fading Light
By: Koorino Megumi

Chapter 3: The Raft

Kiru had the same dream about Sora again three nights later and then two nights after that. He skipped just one more night before proceeding to have it four nights in a row--only then did he finally stop seeing it. But the day after Kiru stopped seeing a dream that had particularly bothered him was the day when he was in the worst of spirits. After all, that was the day he knew that his dream had become a reality. So Kiru spent a lot of time staring out at the ocean that afternoon. Aros wasn't sure if he had ever seen him that distracted.

And as the days continued to pass, Kiru's distraction didn't get any better. His restlessness seemed to have reached a new peak, coupled with the fact that he was still being plagued by thoughts of that dream and its significance. Not even Iraki was able to pull him from his brooding most of the time. It was utterly useless to even try to duel or race with him, and carrying on a conversation required a lot of effort as Kiru had a tendency not to respond or to give only one-word replies.

This behavior continued for two full weeks. Kiru spent most of his time staring off into the ocean, and when he did talk to his two friends, he usually brought up the idea of building a raft so they could leave their world. Either that or he wondered aloud about when Ansem would come again and if they thought Ansem would be able to show them a way to travel to other worlds. Aros, to his dismay, found that he was happiest when Kiru was hardly willing to talk at all. Iraki, on the other hand, seemed excited about the raft idea. At least, in front of Kiru she did. Aros knew that he couldn't be sure how she really felt. It hurt to admit that he couldn't take Iraki's words at face value anymore, but he knew his skepticism was well-founded all the same. After all, if Iraki were completely honest about how she felt, then she wouldn't be acting like she trusted Ansem since Aros knew she didn't trust him. She just wouldn't tell Kiru that.

"I can't go against Kiru."

Even Aros himself was having a hard time enjoying the games that they played, but he blamed that on Kiru's distraction. If things were like they used to be, he was sure he would be enjoying himself just as much as ever. And although things weren't right now, Aros liked to think--hope?--that they could be, would be again. Someday. Somehow. He just didn't have any idea how or when. For now, he was simply continuing to act as normal as he possibly could, hoping that denial of the problems could make them go away. And at that exact moment, "acting normal" consisted of a spar with Iraki--not exactly an activity that he had engaged in in the "good days," but not a change that bothered him--while Kiru was off sitting on the beach brooding again.

"Ahh!" Aros cried, pulling his arm back too late. He struck out reflexively before noticing Iraki's mirth, and her laughter cut off abruptly as his sword connected with her hand, causing her to drop her weapon. "Sorry!" he apologized immediately, bending forward to retrieve the fallen weapon as Iraki cradled her right hand in her left. His arm hurt from her attack, but he ignored that, picking up her sword and holding it out to her.

"Are you okay?" Iraki asked, letting go of her hand and taking the sword but then simply letting her arm drop to her side, obviously not planning to continue the fight. Her eyes were narrowed in concern.

Aros dropped his gaze, ashamed at himself for having hit her, however unintentionally. "Of course. You didn't hit me that hard," he replied quickly. Then he realized what that sounded like and stammered, "I mean...it was a good hit, but..." He brought his gaze up to look at her nervously. He really hadn't intended to insult her now.

Iraki's eyes danced with laughter for a second before they became concerned again. "That's not what I meant."

Aros frowned, inwardly suspicious of what she was really referring to but not willing to admit that he was so obviously distracted. He shook his head as if not understanding. "So what do you mean?"

"You stopped in the middle of the fight! That's the only reason I hit you. And...is something wrong?" Iraki didn't mention Aros's lashing out at her, but he couldn't fail to notice the catch in her voice. His mind automatically filled in the words that he was sure she was thinking.

"Nothing. I was just...thinking." Aros cringed, hating how lame the excuse sounded, how lame it was, but there was nothing else that he could say. After all, he wasn't going to lie to her. He couldn't ever do that.

Iraki frowned at him a bit more before sighing. "Are you worried about Kiru, too?"

Aros blinked for a moment, not expecting that response. Worried about Kiru? How could he not be worried about Kiru? If Kiru weren't changing so much, they would all be happy here, just like they had always been. "Of course I'm worried."

"He seems so sad..."

Aros simply stood for a second, trying to think of some sort of response to that. She was right; Kiru did seem sad, but that wasn't the real issue, was it? Kiru didn't want to continue their life here on Fate Isles. He wanted to leave! I don't like to see Kiru sad, but...the real problem is that he wants to change things. Right?

Iraki saved him the necessity of a reply, however, by wandering over to the edge of Kiru's island--if it could still be called that, for all the time Kiru spent sitting on the beach staring out at the sea these days. She peered down and let out a little gasp.

Aros was at her side immediately, peering down as well. "What is it?" He couldn't see anything unusual on the beach at all; it was just sand and water--exactly as it was meant to be.

"Where did Kiru go? He was down there before!"

At that, Aros wasn't sure whether to laugh, shake his head, or comfort Iraki. It seemed...absurd...for her to get so worried when Kiru had probably just walked somewhere else and they hadn't noticed because they were busy dueling. But at the same time, she seemed so genuinely concerned. It always upset Aros to see her worrying over nothing. So in as calming of a tone as he could manage, he said, "Iraki, I'm sure he just walked away. Maybe he decided to do something else and didn't want to interrupt us to say so. He must be around the island somewhere."

"But..." Iraki started, then trailed off, staring worriedly down at the beach and the spot where Kiru should have been sitting.

"Do you want to go find him?" Aros offered.

Iraki turned her gaze to him then, and a grateful smile broke out on her face. "Kiru will tell me I worry too much."

"You do," Aros responded before thinking about his words. He blushed slightly, looking down in embarrassment. "But finding him is the only way to make you stop worrying, so that's what we should do."

"Thank you."

Aros nodded slightly, feeling the redness in his cheeks. He turned and started toward the bridge to the shed, unable to say anything further. Iraki followed just behind him, and he slowed slightly until she was beside him, although he still couldn't bring himself to speak any words. He wasn't even aware of the slight grin on his face.

But she's only happy with me because she wants to find Kiru. Just being with me...that's nothing for her.

Aros pushed that thought violently from his mind, but it still made his smile fade. Iraki glanced at him, worry in her eyes, and Aros brought another smile to his face, trying to look reassuring and keep his mind blank of any thoughts, fearing what he might think of and how it might ruin his encouraging expression. "Think we should check the bay first?" he forced out, needing to break the silence. Words, sound--they should be able to distract him from his gloomy ponderings. Especially if they came from Iraki.

"That's a good idea," the girl consented, looking thoughtful now, "He might be there planning for our raft again."

"I bet he is," Aros agreed, trying to sound certain, "So we'll go there now." He opened the door to the shed, holding it for Iraki and letting her go through before him. They set their swords down on the pile in the corner before heading out to look for Kiru. Just as Aros exited the shed, however, he realized that Iraki had stopped, staring forward. Coming up beside her, his attention focused on her face instead of whatever she was looking at, he asked, "What's wrong?"

"Kiru..." Iraki breathed.

Aros finally turned forward to see Kiru just disappearing into the opening of the Secret Place--Ansem was right behind him. "Hey!" Aros cried, anger flaring up within him. Kiru was going off with Ansem again, and he hadn't even said a word to anyone first? It was more than Aros could handle. He took off immediately along the beach, running toward that opening.

Ansem apparently heard his cry and stopped, turning. He broke out in a delighted smile. "Why, hello again. It's good to see you two."

Aros stopped in his tracks in shock. Good to see them? "What are you doing? Where are you going?" he demanded.

"I needed Kiru's help again," Ansem explained, frowning as if he were surprised at Aros's anger, "We didn't think there was any reason to disturb your training."

Aros's jaw dropped, and he found that he could make no reply. Kiru, however, having heard the commotion, emerged from the Secret Place, looking very apologetic. "Aros...Iraki... Are you guys done already?"

"Done already?" Aros repeated. He found that he very much wanted to yell at Kiru, to explode at him about what in the world he could have been thinking, going off with Ansem like that and trying to hide it from them. What if Aros and Iraki had been just a minute later with their search and hadn't thought of the Secret Place? How worried would Iraki have been when they weren't able to find him? And what about Ansem? Kiru knew, he knew that at least Aros didn't trust him and that for his own safety Kiru should have let Aros and Iraki know before doing something with him. And yet he had gone off and tried to hide that he was with Ansem from them! This wasn't simple forgetfulness, not simple zealousness on Kiru's part. How could he purposefully try to deceive them? Aros wanted to cry out with all the hurt and frustration that had been building up inside him for what seemed like so long now, wanted to tell Kiru exactly how he felt, exactly what Kiru was doing to him, doing to Iraki, how he was ruining everything, ruining this life that Aros held so dear. But even with all of these emotions welling up inside him, bursting to get out, Aros managed to hold back the flood, to resist making what he knew would be a grievous error. There were tears in his eyes, but he did not let them fall, and he choked out but a single word, although a word that, try as he did to prevent it, still held in it the weight of all of his feelings and implications the like of which Aros had not wanted to share. But it was all he could do not to say more than that single, horrible word. "Why?" he breathed, the sound barely more than a pained whisper.

Kiru's friendly expression fell, and he now looked terribly upset himself. "Aros...I didn't mean to..." He trailed off, looking like he was at a loss for words. When he started speaking again, it was rapidly, as if he were trying to explain as much as he could as quickly as possible--as if he thought that giving enough excuses or explanations could change what he'd done. "Ansem asked for help, and I just thought I could help him quick without bothering you guys. I wasn't doing anything else, so I thought it would be fine. I wasn't trying to...to hide it or anything like that! I'm...sorry, you guys." Kiru looked first to Aros, then turned his gaze to Iraki, his expression truly remorseful.

Aros sighed. Kiru was supposed to be the older one of the two, wasn't he? Sometimes it really didn't seem like it. He just doesn't notice how much he makes us worry. He doesn't realize what he's doing. And I can't say or do -anything- about it! Kiru...he's changed so much. How can I keep living with things the way they are now?

"Don't do dangerous things without telling us first," Aros stated simply, trying to swallow the lump in his throat.

"Dangerous...?" Kiru trailed off, seeming to suddenly remember that going somewhere alone with Ansem was a dangerous thing to do.

He really does trust him completely...

"You should tell us and...and take a weapon," Iraki spoke up timidly. Aros turned as she came up beside him, although her gaze was focused on their friend, her expression sad and worried. "You know that, right, Kiru?"

Kiru looked down, seeming almost ashamed. "Sorry," he repeated, "I won't go without telling you again. I..." He trailed off, and, after a short silence, brought his gaze up to look at them both. "I didn't mean to worry you. But this is something I have to do. I'll bring a weapon, and I'll just be in the Secret Place. Just like last time. Please?"

His eyes were pleading, and Aros turned to Iraki, knowing that the true decision lay with her. He shook his head slightly, trying to get his opinion across to the girl without vocalizing it, but all her attention was focused on Kiru and the plea in his eyes. She bit her lip, her eyes pleading right back at him, but Kiru's resolve was not to be broken, and Iraki finally gave in and nodded just slightly.

"Aros?"

Aros was a bit surprised when Kiru turned to him then, as if he had a real say in the matter. He shrugged in response. Kiru smiled gratefully, which surprised him all the more.

Even if he is changing, I guess he's still Kiru...

Aros frowned at that thought. He hardly seemed like it--no more than for the briefest moments. And Aros couldn't help but notice as Kiru turned his grateful look on Iraki then, holding her gaze much longer than he had held Aros's. "I'll be careful. Don't worry," he stated, and his words were to Iraki and Iraki alone. She nodded back at him, still biting her lip. The looks in both of their eyes... This was one of those moments--the moments Aros was supposed to just ignore, to pretend they didn't exist. He knew that he should look away from the pair, but he couldn't. He watched as they shared that gaze. It was just a look. Just words.

It hurt so much.

"Well, thank you very much, you two," Ansem broke in cheerfully, drawing all three's attention away from each other and over to him. Ansem raised an eyebrow at Kiru, obviously prompting him to go but looking a bit uncomfortable about it, as if he were in a hurry but reluctant to interrupt. Aros wasn't sure whether to be thankful or annoyed at the distraction Ansem had provided. That horrible moment was over now, but that didn't mean it was forgotten. He didn't think it could be forgotten.

"I'd better go," Kiru stated, either catching Ansem's prompt or really eager to go himself. Probably both. "Just let me grab a sword first," he told the scientist as he turned and ran to the shed. He emerged a moment later, brandishing a wooden sword in an apparent attempt to reassure Aros and Iraki. "I'll be back soon," he promised. Then he looked at Ansem, who nodded, and the two set off for the Secret Place, Kiru turning back briefly to give an encouraging smile to his friends before he was gone.

Aros and Iraki just stood for a moment, Iraki watching Kiru disappear, and Aros watching her. Finally, she sighed. "Ansem has to be trustworthy, doesn't he?"

Aros blinked. If he had been expecting her to give any response to what had just happened, that definitely wasn't it. He swallowed, trying to force back the surge of emotions that single question had caused. Maybe she hadn't meant what it sounded like she had. "What? Why?"

Iraki frowned slightly at Aros, looking a little worried about his reaction. "Well, I mean..." She stopped, biting her lip. "Kiru wouldn't trust him like that if...if he weren't trustworthy..."

Aros cringed at those words, but he tried to keep his feelings from being visible in his expression. Does she really mean that? Or...does she mean that she has to pretend he's trustworthy because Kiru thinks he is? It's all about Kiru...isn't it?

"Do you..." Aros started. He trailed off. Iraki looked at him inquiringly, but he swallowed the rest of his question. Do you really believe that?

"Aros...is something wrong?" Iraki asked. She was wringing her hands nervously, but, absorbed in his own agitation, Aros didn't notice.

"What? Of course not. Why do you think something's wrong?" the boy responded a little too quickly--and sharply.

Iraki frowned, still wringing her hands. "Well, lately it's just seemed like you...like..." She bit her lip.

"Like what?" Aros asked carefully, trying to sound as neutral as he could and perhaps even gentle, although he doubted he could pull that off while in such an agitated state.

Iraki gave him a nervous look, then quickly blurted out, "Like you're mad at me and Kiru."

Aros blinked. "Mad?" he repeated. Iraki nodded almost imperceptibly. "You guys have been thinking that...I was mad at you?" Iraki bit her lip, not responding to this second repetition. "But...but what did I do to make you think that?"

"So you're not mad?" the girl asked hopefully, and her face brightened. She still looked nervous, but now it seemed to be because she thought Aros's response was too good to be true.

"Of course I'm not mad!" Aros cried. "Iraki..."

He had an urge to hug her then--to show her that his feelings hadn't changed at all. Maybe he was a little upset with this Kiru, but when it came to Iraki and the Kiru that he had known his whole life, his feelings would always be the same. He wasn't the one who was changing. Aros wanted to remain the same; they were the ones who didn't. They--Kiru especially--were the ones hurting the peaceful existence that Aros held so dear. And they were worried that he was mad at them? No. No, never.

Aros started to reach both hands out to Iraki. He wasn't sure whether it was to hug her like he wanted to or just to take her hands in his and comfort her. But she took a step back, clasping her hands together, as if she were uncomfortable with the prospect of either. "I'm so glad you're not mad!" she exclaimed. But as Aros watched her nervous face, he couldn't help but wonder if she were really being sincere.

He decided to reassure her anyway, however. He didn't want her thinking he was mad at her--or even so much as suspecting it, for that matter. "Iraki?"

"Yes?" Iraki bit her lip again, clasping and unclasping her hands.

"I'll tell you if I ever get mad at you, okay?" Aros started, the words flowing out with little thought on his part. He just wanted her to trust him and stop acting so uncomfortable... "I promise. So you don't have to worry about that happening!" He smiled, and, despite how upset he was feeling, he knew his smile was genuine. This promise felt good to make. He was still true to himself, still true to her, and she had to be able to see that. And if she knew he was true to her, well...then of course she would be true to him back, right? "Okay, Iraki? I promise."

Iraki grinned. "Thank you, Aros! That's very sweet of you."

Aros looked down at his shoes, feeling his cheeks growing red. He hadn't been expecting quite that response from her. But something occurred to him then about what she had said, and he looked back up at her, sharing in her nervousness this time. "Hey, Iraki? What did I do to make you and Kiru think I was mad at you?"

Iraki's eyes widened slightly, and she looked away, clasping and unclasping her hands again. "Well, you just seemed...kinda mad when we hung out with you. Like you weren't having fun doing stuff with us anymore." She shrugged, kicking lightly at the sand with one foot.

Aros was too shocked at her words to register whether his jaw had dropped or not. "Like I wasn't having fun doing stuff with you guys?" he repeated. He shook his head in disbelief. "No, no! That's not true at all!" It was all wrong. How could she even think that? Kiru was the one who wasn't having fun anymore--he was the one making it sad to hang out together. Aros hadn't changed at all! He was only sad because Kiru was different. And he definitely wasn't mad at them!

Iraki grinned again, looking relieved by Aros's outburst. "That's really great, Aros!" she declared, and she seemed sincere this time, although there was still worry in her eyes. But Aros could guess what might be bothering her. If he wasn't angry, why was he acting like he didn't enjoy being with them anymore?

But I do enjoy being with them! It's Kiru who's always so bored and unhappy. I'm just sad when Kiru's not acting like he's supposed to. If he's not having fun, of course I have a hard time having fun! And doesn't Iraki notice that Kiru's not acting normal? She doesn't think it's just me...does she?

The thought horrified Aros, and for a petrifying moment, he couldn't help believing that it was true. But then he remembered what Iraki had said to him before.

"Are you worried about Kiru, too? He seems so sad..."

She knows. So if she knows, then why did she...why did -they-...think I was mad? They...the two of them...and they must have talked about this without me...

"I'm worried about Kiru," Aros blurted out.

Iraki blinked, then looked away again. "Me too..."

"That's...that's why maybe I've seemed a little different."

"Oh..." Iraki kicked at the sand again, looking a little sheepish now. "I'm sorry, Aros."

"Sorry?" Aros shook his head, surprised and even a little upset that he had made her think that she had anything to apologize about.

But she did say that she thought I was mad. And she and Kiru...

"Don't be sorry, Iraki! You didn't do anything!" he cried, trying to force such thoughts away before they could finish.

"Well, I should have thought...I mean..." Iraki bit her lip, looking back up at Aros again. She finished quietly, "Kiru makes me a little sad sometimes, too."

Aros's expression softened at that, and he felt himself start to reach for her again, but he made his hand drop. "I'll try to be happier," he said, "So Kiru won't think I'm mad at him."

Iraki smiled gratefully, her face brightening with excited hope even as the sun's light caught glistening wetness in her eyes. "Oh, thank you, Aros! We'll...we'll make Kiru cheer up together, won't we?"

Aros nodded emphatically, although it hurt inside to do so. Sometimes it seemed like Kiru wouldn't cheer up unless...well, only one real possibility came to mind. Unless he leaves this island. Unless he goes to another world. But Aros pushed those fears away, trying to sound certain of the idea that had gotten Iraki so excited. "Of course we will. He just needs a little time. And things'll get better. We'll help."

Iraki brought her hands up together excitedly. "Yes! Yes, we will!" She looked to the Secret Place then, frowning slightly. "We'll have to do something, right when he gets back..." She turned a questioning expression to Aros. "What do you think we should do? What would be really fun?"

An answer came to Aros's mind immediately, and, as much as it was something he did not want to do, it was the perfect solution--not to mention he knew that, if he suggested it, it would make Iraki happy. "Let's ask Kiru if he wants to start building the raft."

Iraki's eyes widened, and an excited grin spread across her face. Quite abruptly, she stepped forward, throwing her arms around Aros, and hugged him tightly. "Oh, Aros, that's perfect!"

The embrace only lasted for an instant before Iraki stepped back and turned her attention toward the Secret Place again, obviously watching for Kiru, but that hug sent emotions flowing through Aros, and suddenly he was both amazingly elated and wanted desperately to cry.

"What should we do to get ready? How are we going to get started?" Iraki bubbled.

Aros blinked, trying to pull himself from his reverie and concentrate on Iraki's words as her excitement cut through his confusion. "Well, isn't Kiru..." He frowned thoughtfully. "I thought he was collecting stuff for it already? Doesn't he have a couple boards in the cove that his dad got for him? And he came so early this morning..."

Iraki gasped, her hands flying to her mouth as she jumped slightly with excitement. "Oh, Aros, I completely forgot! Him and his dad were here this morning putting the raft together. I think he was afraid to bring it up 'cause he thought you might be mad, but... Well, I think he finished, or almost did. He said he was gonna think about what to say before we told you, so he was down on the beach...and then we fought, and Ansem came, and I forgot all about it!" She gave a rather sheepish smile to him, rocking on her heels as her enthusiasm energized her.

"He...already built it?" Aros stuttered. He had known that Kiru was planning a raft and starting to get materials for it, but he had never considered that Kiru might be building it already. But...but if he's been building his raft, then why is he still so sad? Isn't the raft...isn't the idea of leaving...isn't it making him happy? And...how long has he been working on it? How long has Iraki known? And...all without me? Because they thought I was -mad-?

At his reaction, Iraki's excitement faded just as quickly as it had gathered, and she began kicking at the sand again uncomfortably, looking like she was regretting what she had just shared. She quite resolutely focused her gaze on the sand she was kicking and mumbled toward the ground, "Well...well, you knew we were planning it, and we were going to tell you soon, but...but we didn't want you to...to get upset, you know, if you knew we were building it."

"So...so you decided to build it first and tell me after?" Aros burst out, "So if I got upset it would...be too late to do anything about it?" His words slowly dropped in intensity as he spoke until the last of them was barely a whisper. And as he finished and it connected in his mind what he had just said, Aros's eyes widened in horror. It was an accusation, wasn't it? He had just accused Iraki. "I...I mean..." He tried to think of something to say to take it back, to cover up what he'd just said. But he found that he couldn't think of any other way to see it--no way to pretend that their behavior had been anything other than hurtful and selfish.

"Aros..." Iraki breathed. She brought her face up then, and Aros could clearly see the tears sparkling in her eyes. "That...that wasn't what we meant! We just didn't want to make you worry about it right now. We...we were gonna build it and, maybe sometime when we were ready, use it, but...we weren't gonna go if you didn't want to! We didn't want to...to force you to do anything. We..." Iraki trailed off, frustrated, as Aros's expression didn't change. Her tone and her pleading gaze made it hard for him to take her words at face value, and he couldn't help but feel that she was trying to convince herself of her innocence just as much as she was trying to convince him. But instead of telling her that, he looked down, wanting to believe that her words were true and his own feelings an overreaction.

"I...I know, Iraki. I'm...sorry. I shouldn't have said that," he replied softly, looking down. He was lying, wasn't he? Because what he'd said was true. He was lying to her now. No! I really shouldn't have said that. It's not a lie. I wouldn't lie to Iraki!

Iraki shook her head in response. "No, it's okay, Aros! I…I understand why you thought that. I'm sorry. We...should have told you." She shifted uncomfortably, kicking at the sand again but keeping her apologetic gaze on him. She looked sincerely sorry, although couldn't that be because she knew Aros was really the one who was right? He forced that thought away angrily. How could he be doubting her like this? Her other reason had to be the truth, and she had to have decided that Ansem was trustworthy herself, and she and Kiru must have been talking about Aros behind his back because they were really worried about him, and...and...

For once, he couldn't fool himself. Thankfully, he was saved the effort of having to face this painful truth at the moment as Kiru came running up alone from the Secret Place, his wooden sword still in his hand.

"Kiru!" Iraki exclaimed, turning to him with relief vividly apparent in her features--but was it relief at seeing Kiru or at not having to say more to Aros?

Kiru grinned at her reaction to his return. "Don't worry, I'm fine!" he assured her, "See?" He held his arms out as he approached, rather theatrically displaying that he was unharmed.

"What did you have to do this time?" Iraki asked, frowning at him and seeming to actually be scrutinizing him for injuries.

Kiru laughed slightly, shaking his head at her overblown worry. "He just had me send a brief message to Sora," he replied. His face then grew serious. "He's about to fight a final battle. And go to Kingdom Hearts itself!"

Iraki's eyes widened. "He's going to Kingdom Hearts?"

Kiru nodded solemnly. He glanced at Aros, but Aros simply stared blankly, watching the exchange take place before him. He couldn't seem to bring himself to take part in it. Kiru frowned at him. "Aros?"

"Yeah?" Aros asked, his voice flat.

"You okay?"

"Fine," he replied shortly, trying to brush the question off. "So what...what did you have to tell Sora?" he continued in an attempt to change the subject, "What was happening?" Aros swallowed hard. He hadn't meant to sound like he was intrigued. After all, he wanted Kiru to know he didn't approve of his involvement with Ansem or even trust what Ansem was saying in the least. But...well, what was the point of that now, anyway? Kiru and Iraki would just think he was mad at them, and then they would do more things without him...

"I just had to give him a little advice before he went on," Kiru answered, still frowning at Aros slightly. "After that, Ansem told me a lot about what happened on Sora's journey. We...talked about that dream I had."

Iraki gasped. Kiru had told them both about the dream in detail, and even the mention of it couldn't help but bring the memory to all of their minds. "What did he say?" she asked, "It didn't...did it really happen? But Sora was okay again if you talked to him!"

Kiru turned his attention to Iraki then, smiling slightly at her agitation. "I guess Kairi saved Sora soon after that happened. Oh, Kairi..." Kiru frowned, apparently trying to figure out how to explain. "She's another of the kids from the island. It's...a long story."

"We have time," Iraki responded immediately, her curiosity obviously piqued.

Aros said nothing and watched them. And Kiru set in on the story of three friends from Destiny Islands and a Keyblade Master's quest to defeat the Heartless.


"So you told him about the raft?"

Iraki nodded, avoiding Kiru's gaze and shifting rather uncomfortably.

"I brought it up," Aros broke in, "I..." He hesitated, knowing that continuing would mean committing to something he was against. But Kiru was sad, and Iraki was so worried about him. Even though they had left Aros out on purpose and had hid things from him, it didn't matter, did it? Kiru was sad, and Kiru was still his friend. And Aros had agreed to help cheer him up. "I thought we could work on it together."

Kiru's eyes widened, and he turned to Aros in surprise. "You want to work on it?"

Aros looked away uncomfortably. How could he respond to that? Of course he didn't want to work on it. What he really wanted to do was tell Kiru what a bad idea it was to think of leaving. And how hurt Aros was that they had made the raft without him and had even hidden it from him. And how upset he was that Kiru was changing and didn't enjoy any of the fun things they'd always done anymore. And how much he distrusted Ansem, and how mad he was that...

"Sure. I didn't think you guys would be building it without me." Aros kept his voice as neutral as possible, but he could still hear the accusation in his statement. And somehow, saying it at that moment and to Kiru, he wasn't bothered at all.

Kiru looked down, his expression terribly uncomfortable and...guilty? "I didn't think you wanted to build a raft. We didn't want to...upset you."

"So you built it yourselves so you could leave on it before I ever found out and got upset?"

Aros stopped himself then, blinking. Where...had that come from? Kiru and Iraki would never leave without him, would they? But he couldn't take back what he had just said. And although he refused to admit it, even to himself, he really didn't want to...

"Aros..." Iraki breathed, biting her lip and looking at him with eyes that were on the verge of overflowing. She didn't say anything more and swallowed hard, as if trying to clear a lump from her throat.

"Aros, we would never go without you!" Kiru cried indignantly, "That wasn't what we were doing at all. We just...we wanted to build it, but we didn't want to bother you about it yet. We were going to tell you, just not until we thought you'd be okay hearing about it. We weren't going to go anywhere with it!"

It occurred to Aros then that this whole conversation had been begun in an attempt to cheer Kiru up--as he had told Iraki he would. And here he was accusing him... He'd gotten Kiru upset! Suddenly feeling very guilty, Aros looked down at the ground. "I know. Sorry."

The ache inside him was still there, though. He might feel guilty for his actions, but he was still just as hurt as before about Kiru's and Iraki's.

Kiru sighed. "Don't be sorry. We should have waited for you to build it." Iraki nodded in agreement, and the three were silent until Kiru spoke up nervously, "Hey, Aros?"

"Yeah?" Aros asked warily, his emotions flickering between his guilt and his pain.

"The raft might already be built, but... Well, if you wanted to help with it, we still need to get supplies for our trip."

Our trip? Whose? All three of us? But...I don't really want to go, do I?

Aros nodded, forcing a smile to his face. "Sure! Let's do that." His voice was more flat than he had meant it to be, but it was the best he could do to sound excited. It was hard, being determined to help cheer up Kiru, especially with the way he was feeling now. He wasn't sure where the idea that Kiru and Iraki meant to go off without him had come from, but now that he'd thought of it, he couldn't seem to get it out of his head. He knew they'd never really leave him. He knew that. But even knowing that... Well, they didn't have to actually leave completely to "leave him," did they? They seemed to share so many moments...glances...secrets... They were leaving him a little further behind every day. He could see it now; the raft had brought it into sharp relief.

After all, how had they built an entire raft without telling him? Why? He knew the reasons they had spoken, but it still seemed like...well, like the only thing that mattered to them now was each other.

"Great!" Iraki grinned brightly. "So what do we need, Kiru?"

Kiru started listing off supplies, and the group spent their afternoon preparing for the trip. But as Aros wandered around the island looking for coconuts and other necessities, he couldn't help but feel like he was working alone and they were working together. This is their raft now, isn't it? The two of them... And as hard as he tried to chase those thoughts away, they continued to eat at his mind. Somehow he felt like he would never be able to force his worries away again.


Aros tried to stand it, but he wasn't able to. He finally gave into his gloomy feelings and, with the last bit of a cheerful front that he could muster, told Kiru and Iraki that he was headed home because his mother wanted him early that night. It was a lie...

Feeling more ashamed and upset than ever, Aros snuck away into the Secret Place. Neither of them noticed; they were too busy enjoying each other's company as they equipped the raft with supplies.

He stayed in that dark cavern for hours, staring first at the strange door with its golden Keyhole and then at the chalk drawings on the walls. A chalk drawing on the wall. Years ago, Kiru and Iraki had drawn each other on a day that Aros had been sick. They would have drawn him, too, had he been there--he knew that back then they never would have left him out without a good reason. But now...he wasn't so sure. So, in a way, the drawing of the two of them together was fitting.

No...it's not fitting. They would have drawn me, too. I just have to be there with them...

Finally tearing his eyes from the picture, Aros pulled himself to his feet. Just be there? Could that really help? Things weren't the same now as they had been back then. But...couldn't he at least try it? After all, how could things get worse? And if it could really make them better...

But that idea would only work today if they were still there. It was so quiet... What time was it? The light filtering in from outside was dim.

Aros emerged slowly from the darkness of the Secret Place to see the sun setting over Fate Isles. The tide was lapping gently against the beach, and birds were calling in the sky. Otherwise, it was completely silent.

Wait...

As Aros gazed up at the setting sun, trying to determine just how late it really was, a shadow caught his eye against the backdrop of the colorful sky. Two shadows. They were still here! He could join them!

But that meant admitting to them that he hadn't really left. And was joining them now when they were probably about to go home worth it? With those thoughts going through his mind, Aros wasn't sure what stopped him from ignoring the two and just going to the dock and rowing home. After all, he had told them he was leaving. Probably hours ago... So if he didn't want to admit to them that he hadn't left, then why? Why did he walk down the beach and under the bridge until he was close enough to Kiru's island to hear the voices of the pair sitting together on the paopu tree?

Well...I do want them to see me, even if I have to tell them I...I lied. Because I want to go back home as the three of us. I know they aren't really trying to leave me behind! They aren't! I mean...I was wrong, right? That picture...building the raft... They didn't really mean it. They couldn't. All those things... They're coincidences, aren't they? I just have to be there...

But before Aros had a chance to speak up and alert the two to his presence, Iraki's voice pulled Aros from his thoughts. "You know, Aros has changed."

Aros stopped in his tracks. They were talking about him...

-I've- changed?

"What do you mean?" Kiru responded, although his voice sounded more sad than curious.

"Well..." Iraki trailed off, and Aros watched as she turned her head toward Kiru, her voice and her motions seeming to say that no words were needed and Kiru really knew the answer to his own question.

But...but I'm not the one who's...

Kiru sighed, turning to her as well. "You okay?"

Iraki didn't say anything for a while. Aros knew he should speak up and announce his presence to them. But he didn't.

What does she mean -I've- changed? She's...siding with Kiru again. -She's- changed... -They've- changed!

But Aros's thoughts were cut short as Iraki abruptly burst out, "Kiru, let's take the raft and go--just the two of us!"

Wh...-what-?

"Huh?"

Iraki looked down. "Just kidding," she mumbled.

Kiru reached out and put a hand on hers.

Iraki...she just...they...

Aros wanted to scream, to cry, to do anything but stand there and hear more. But it was as if he were paralyzed--as if he were doomed to suffer this moment, this conversation. He stayed rooted to the spot, watching.

"We should...try a paopu fruit sometime," Iraki spoke up. Her voice...it was as nonchalant as if she were making a simple subject change.

Kiru said nothing. Aros couldn't see his face. But...it was enough. It had already been enough.

"Kiru, let's take the raft and go--just the two of us!"

It was more than enough.

Iraki had said that. Iraki.

Just the two of them...so that...I can never be with them again.

A scream tore from Aros's throat then--a scream of hatred, anger, sorrow, and most of all pain. Without waiting for a response--in fact, without listening at all so that he would have missed it had there been one--Aros turned and ran. He ran as hard and as fast as he could, straight back across the sand. He had to get away from them, away from the paopu tree, away from the island, away from the light. From the happy things and happy thoughts and happy memories and bury himself somewhere dark and cold and gloomy because that was where he wanted to be. Somewhere horrible where he could just curl up alone. All alone. And stay there...

Without even realizing he had been headed there, Aros found himself back in the Secret Place, sitting on the ground with his head buried in his knees and his arms wrapped around them, sobbing and crying violently.

That was it then, wasn't it? They had already left him behind.

He was all alone...

"Aros..."

At Iraki's hesitant voice, hot anger boiled up within Aros. No. He was alone. Alone! No one was supposed to be here. No one was supposed to talk to him. They had left him behind, so why couldn't they just do it and be done with it? "Go away!" he screamed, lifting his face but keeping his eyes closed. Tears continued to run down his cheeks.

"Aros, we just-" Kiru now, too. Aros wouldn't have it.

"GO AWAY! I don't want to talk to you. Just...go off together somewhere and...share a paopu fruit or...something..."

"Aros, please-"

"I won't talk to you, leave me alone!"

"If that's what you want, Aros," Kiru said reluctantly, more a question than a statement.

"Yes!"

"Aros..."

"GO!"

Aros listened to the departing footsteps, shoulders heaving as he tried to catch his breath. He opened his eyes...

...and found himself staring straight at the picture on the wall.

Another scream of rage escaped Aros's throat. He lunged forward, grabbing an abandoned piece of chalk from the ground. He scribbled on that wall, furiously, madly, as tears streamed down his face, and when he had finished, he threw the piece of chalk violently to the ground. It hit a rock, breaking to pieces, but he didn't see it happen. Aros fell back, hugging his knees to himself again and sobbing.

The picture of Kiru and Iraki on the wall now showed each of them giving a star-shaped fruit to the other. And Aros just sat there, rocking back and forth and crying.