I want to address a very good question that readers of Tale might have: Takeru said in that story that he never had a girlfriend before Haruka, so why am I telling you that he and Hikari dated? The key was the term "girlfriend" – when they were dating, they hadn't wanted to define themselves by "boyfriend" or "girlfriend" since they meant more to each other than those words could embody. This nuance was always intended: for two close friends to willingly lose touch, something serious must have happened, like a relationship gone wrong. I also wanted to contrast their teenage relationship and their adult relationship – there is a reason that high school or even college sweethearts don't end up together, which is probably what happened in canon. Gray gives my favorite couple a second chance after they had time to mature.

Hope that makes sense (and let me know if you still have concerns). Please enjoy the next installment! The writing is a bit raw – there's no question Tale has the better writing - but I'm remembering how much I enjoy storytelling again.

Sand of time

One winter morning brought the first snowfall of the season and an unexpected email. Hikari reread it a few times, eyebrows furrowed, until she contented herself with the conclusion that there was no subtext. Hi there, hope all is well, it read. My family and I will be visiting Yamato and Sora for the holidays. Would you mind if we stop by and say hi? Takeru.

No, nothing there, just a greeting from a childhood friend who would be visiting her city.

That night, she wrote back, in the same careful, polite tone. Hi Takeru, great to hear from you. It will be my pleasure to host your family for Christmas Eve dinner.

When the doorbell rang on Christmas Eve, Hikari was shoving her third attempt at baked potatoes into the oven, so it was an excited Kazuki who opened the door. He had met Yoshiro Takaishi a few times over the years, mostly in passing during reunions, and remembered him as the boy who had a Tokomon to match his own Plotmon. By the time she came out of the kitchen, wiping oily hands on her apron, the two boys were already jabbering away. Then they were tearing through the apartment with their Digimon partners in tow, leaving their parents shaking heads in amusement.

Hikari greeted her adult guests, though she did not allow her eyes to rest on Takeru for too long.

"Kazuki is very excited about Yoshiro," she explained as she led the way to the living room. "Kids in his class have Digimon, but none of them have Plotmon or Tokomon."

Takeru was looking around the apartment with a frown. He gave only a slight nod.

"Yoshi was very excited about coming too," Haruka said, noticing that her husband was uncharacteristically rude. "Thank you again for inviting us to dinner."

"Not at all, thank you for coming. Have Yamato and Sora taken you around yet?"

"No." Haruka was again the one to speak, because Takeru remained disengaged. "They have their hands full with the kids right now, but we will be taking Yoshi to a few museums and parks."

"That sounds really nice. Kazuki really likes the zoo, so I highly recommend it as well."

Haruka returned her smile. "That sounds great! Let us know if you'd like to come along."

"I probably won't, but maybe Kazuki would like to join."

Hikari wished she'd started cooking earlier. She'd forgotten how awkward she was at making small talk. It didn't help that she and Haruka had never become close friends, due to physical distance as well as history with Takeru. As she glanced around her living room, trying to think of a new topic, she caught sight of her Tailmon painting that was hanging on the wall.

"You know," she said, getting up, "since dinner won't be ready for a while longer, why don't we take a tour of my apartment? I have something that I'd like to show you."

She told them about her painting classes and the local art shows as she showed them around her apartment. She wasn't trying to brag; it was just easier to ramble about her hobby. Haruka responded appropriately, accompanied by occasional nods from Takeru. Hikari hesitated when they reached her art studio. Dark Ocean was such a special project for her and so recently completed that she felt a bit shy. Haruka's inquiring eyes encouraged her to continue.

"There's something that I've been working on that I'm especially proud of," she said. "Since writers are supposed to have good eyes for art, I'd like to hear what you think of it."

She stepped aside and allowed the guests to take a closer look. The painting was not perfect, by any means. She could see spots where the colors didn't contrast well, where a bad stroke had smeared the outlines, and where she could have added more volume to the water to convey weight and distance. Yet somehow, she felt that this was the most alive painting she had ever created.

"It's beautiful," Haruka breathed. She sounded sincere.

"No!" Takeru said. "It's a terrible painting."

Hikari flinched from the harshness. He had never spoken to her this way, not even in her early photography days when she always overdid the contrast in Photoshop. He had been studying Dark Ocean with such intensity that she was sure he liked it.

She had to pretend that his remark did not hurt. "I'm sorry that you think so."

Haruka came closer and laid a hand on her arm. "I really do think it's great," she said, glancing nervously at her husband, as if she too were afraid of what he would say next.

"No!" Takeru said. He still hadn't looked away from the painting. "It's horrible, Hikari, and you need to throw it out. Burn it."

Neither woman knew how to handle this uncompromising stranger. An awkward silence ensued and Hikari felt relieved when Kazuki interrupted to ask about dinner. She quickly composed herself and led everyone back to the living room, The rest of the night was pleasant, although she couldn't stop sneaking glances at Takeru's face.

It wasn't the anger that bothered her, she realized. It was the fear.

Hikari sat up in bed, feeling cold shivers down her spine. The dream was more vivid tonight, like a long ago memory come to life. The setting was always the same, the gray ocean that had inspired her painting, only this time, she was watching her younger self fight strange marine monsters before being overcome and taken into the ocean itself.

Almost on a whim, she got up to go to her studio. In the dim moonlight, the ocean in her painting looked almost alive, the waves rippling, whispering. Remembering Takeru's fear, Hikari lightly touched the canvas and recoiled as familiar words sprang to mind.

Taichi. Always Taichi. You can't always count on him to protect you!

Takeru had spoken them, in almost the same tone he'd said he hated the painting.

She closed her eyes as the scene at the school playground slowly materialized. That had been so long ago. She had been very scared of something she couldn't now remember. He had been scared too, on her behalf, but instead of comforting her, he yelled at her and made her feel worse. And so she had –

"I've been here before," she said aloud. The Dark Ocean was a real place. That was why she kept dreaming about it. Was that related to Takeru's earlier outburst?

More importantly, why couldn't she remember until now that she had been to this strange ocean?

Because you see, my Light, it wasn't time yet.

There was no mistaking it now. The ocean in the painting was rippling, and someone was whispering. Hikari drew her bathrobe tighter about her.

"Who are you?" she demanded.

You will need to come and find out.

Perhaps it was her sleepiness, or perhaps it was the baked potatoes, the absurdity of talking to a disembodied voice in her otherwise empty studio hadn't quite sunken in. Hikari felt more annoyed than concerned. She had fought off a mugger or two, surely she could deal with this cruel prankster making her talk to a painting.

"How? Where?"

Figure it out, and when you do, come alone unless you want to put others in danger.

The ocean waves were becoming bigger, coming closer together. They were also now glowing, beckoning her. Hikari took a deep breath and touched the gray paint lightly. Then she drew back in shock. Her finger had gone inside the painting, even though there was no trace of any opening. She tried again, now with her entire hand.

The same thing happened.

Hikari stepped back, before some mysterious force grabbed her hand and pulled her into the painting too. She was wide awake now, keenly aware that this painting was dangerous and the voice she'd hear even more so.

Her first thought was that she needed to wake Tailmon. One Holy Arrow from Angewomon and this whole business might be finished.

Then she remembered the mysterious voice's warning. Not that she doubted Tailmon's ability to fight off and win against evil beings, but if she told her partner what was happening, she would leap through the painting without a second thought. And who knew what lay on the other side for the unsuspecting.

Her second thought was that she needed to contact the other Chosen Children. Some combination of Koushiro and Taichi would figure out what was going on. But it was the middle of the night, with Christmas Day only a few hours away. If she contacted them, they would rush to her aid. This might have been okay during their adventure days, but now everyone had families, had children they needed to protect. If she couldn't risk Tailmon, how could she risk their safety?

Her last thought was that of her son.

Her son. Hikari's heart twisted at the thought of leaving her son alone at night, if she answered the call. She weighed her options. She could drop off Kazuki at Sora and Yamato's, but then that would require explanations that she didn't have, not to mention intruding on the Ishidas. She could wake him up and explain what was going on, but he would never let her go alone. Or…

Or she could wait until the morning, let Tailmon and the other Chosen Children what was going on, and then do something stupid like stepping into a painting. That would be the rational decision.

Hikari turned to the painting again. She could almost breathe the salty air. Then she gave a start. Her studio was starting to fill with ocean water, very slowly.

The decision had been made for her.

"Wait, let me change," she said, as if she were negotiating with the villain in a superhero movie. "I can't go to the beach in my nightgown."

Without waiting for a response, she shut the studio door and ran back to her bedroom. She slipped out of her now wet bathrobe and dressed quickly, not even bothering to run a brush through her hair. Then she was typing a quick message on her D-Terminal for the other Chosen Children, Tailmon, and Kazuki. She laid the device on her pillow, careful not to wake her sleeping partner. After some inner debate, she decided to leave her Digivice behind. Better to leave with her partner so she could better protect her son.

One more thing.

Hikari opened the drawer and rummaged around until she closed her hand around what she was searching for. Then she was back in her studio. Mysteriously, the water started receding as she headed towards the easel, almost if it knew that it had made its point.

She took a deep breath. She was her brother's sister, and she could face this on her own.

Hikari stepped through the painting, the weight of the gun a comforting presence in her coat pocket.

Somehow, without knowing what to expect, this was still unexpected.

She turned around briefly, to see the black portal she'd arrived through fade away, before returning her attention to the scene before her. The ocean and the lighthouse were the same, looking as they did in her painting and dreams, but the beach was different. It was no longer just endless gray sand and the occasional cave. It was now a bustling town, full of shops and line with paved streets.

She noticed that she was standing in the middle of the main road, with gray and faded Digimon changing direction last minute to avoid running into her, so she hurried out of the way. She hadn't needed to worry about drawing attention though. Nobody afforded her even a glance. Everyone was looking and moving towards some unknown destination, eyes blank, movement slow and mechanical.

It was as if she'd stepped into some sort of a zombie apocalypse.

A cold breeze blew. Hikari drew her coat more tightly around her and tried to focus. She needed to find the mysterious voice, so it knew she kept up her end of the bargain and not hurt her family or friends. She looked around. All she could see were shop windows topped with unfamiliar names. Some were restaurants; others were more esoteric. One in particular caught her eye. Your Memory's Reflection, the sign read.

She gave a mental shrug. Why not? Shopkeepers gave directions and she wanted to check the place out.

There was a distant tinkling when she stepped inside the shop. All she could see were shelves after shelves of glass ornaments. She walked through the aisles carefully, not wanting to knock anything over. The ornaments were like mirrors, reflecting her movements as she passed.

At the end of one particular row, she found a strange ornate mirror and picked it up curiously. Instead of showing her face, the mirror showed nineteen-year-old Hikari closing the door to Takeru's apartment. The image was so detailed that she could even see the tear tracks on her mirror self's face.

Hikari replaced it hastily. Enough bad memories for one night. She didn't dare pick up another object to look closer, so instead she headed towards the front, where the shopkeeper sat, watching her. He was a humanoid Digimon that she found vaguely familiar. She shuddered when their eyes met; his were pupil-less and dead.

Apparently, they could see just fine, because the Digimon said, "Ah, it's you."

Hikari forgot what she had intended to say. "You know me?"

"Everyone here does," said the Digimon. "He's been waiting for you for years, as have we."

Hikari knew then, with strange certainty, that she and this Digimon had met before. Her apprehension grew and she put her hand in her pocket.

"You were asking for directions," he continued. "It's very simple. Keep heading towards the ocean. You will see it."

She looked outside. Follow the ocean. That seemed to be simple enough direction, and what was more, the main road seemed to lead straight to the water's edge.

Hikari walked slowly, but her mind was running. Part of her was regretting coming here with so little preparation. The other part of her was eager to understand what was happening.

When she reached the ocean, she hesitated. Was she supposed to – go inside? She was a decent good swimmer, but taking a dive in the middle of winter seemed like a horrible idea.

Just as she started to bend down to check the water temperature, a hand clamped down on her shoulder. She jumped, too startled to scream.

"Hikari, what the hell are you doing?"