I'm sorry for leaving this story untouched for five years. I started writing this as a distraction during my own period of Dark Ocean so found it difficult to return to the story, even though there's probably only a chapter or two left after this one.

This chapter is actually the entire reason I wrote Gray in the first place, as it (along with the following chapter) inspired the base story. So I'm glad I can finally bring it to life after so many years of visualizing it in my head.

Pillars of Salt

Takeru looked furious. Behind him, keeping deliberate distance away, stood Patamon and Tailmon.

Hikari flinched. Takeru was one of the most even-tempered people she knew, which made his rare bursts of anger all the more dangerous. And unfortunately, she had always been rather good at setting him off.

"Hikari." His grip on her shoulder had not slackened; instead, it was now almost tight enough to bruise. While his tone remained sharp, it was taking on an undertone of fear. "Answer me. What were you thinking?"

"The ocean was calling me." The words tasted so familiar on her tongue that they sent shivers down her spine. "I think I have some unfinished business here."

"And what exactly were you planning?" he said. "Take a swim in the ocean in the middle of the winter? Ask the monsters politely to leave you alone?"

"If that's what it takes," she retorted, hurt by his incredulity. "Is it so difficult to believe that I can take care of myself?"

His eyes were snapping at her before he was even speaking. "Yes. Because when I think about responsible decisions, I don't think about disappearing in the middle of the night without telling anyone or bringing my partner."

"I needed to come alone." She hesitated, unsure if she should mention the voice in her studio, and decided to appeal to him differently. "I needed to stop avoiding my fears and face them."

That seemed to be the wrong thing to say. He dropped his hand and gave a bitter laugh. "Of course. Now you decide to stop running away."

Her breath quickened as they stared at each other. The ocean air hung heavily between them, salty and putrid.

"What," she said softly, her mind racing (don't ask don't ask don't ask), "are you trying to say?"

"It's what you always do, isn't it?" he said. "Running away with no explanation whenever things feel out of control."

"I don't run away." This was precariously close to morphing into a different fight. She needed to stop talking (please stop talking now). "Sometimes I need space to think, but I don't just run away."

He paused, just long enough for her to stop holding her breath. "Then what do you call leaving in the middle of the night because we had a fight?"

All these years, it had hung between them, the unresolved fight, finally exposed again in all its glory. There was so much she wanted to say, so much she had rehearsed in her head, but when the confrontation came her mind was blank.

"I -"

I was nineteen and I was scared.

Takeru was clearly more prepared for this conversation.

"What do you call slipping the key under my door instead of saying goodbye?"

"I wanted -"

I wanted you to say something but you were sleeping.

"Don't try to pretend this is any different." His voice was cold, matching the chill of the ocean breeze. "Because this is what you've always done. Hurt me by running away, because you want me to come after you."

"I never -"

I never intended to hurt you so much.

"And the one time I didn't," he said, and was it her imagination or was his voice cracking, "you disappeared from my life for so long that I didn't know you would ever come back."

Ever come back. As if he had intended to wait for her, as opposed to moving on and marrying the next woman he dated.

Something in her snapped then: her own restraint.

"Fine," she said. "Fine. You're right. I was selfish. I did want to hurt you. I did want you to chase after me, and I was upset that you didn't."

His eyes narrowed.

"But don't - don't act like you're the victim here. I left, but you shut the door behind me so I could never come back."

Even though I wanted to. As soon as I left.

His mouth twisted. "Guess what, I'm not a mind reader. Sometimes, when someone says that she needs space, I tend to believe it."

"Well, good thing you did," she said. "You won."

They were both trembling from the effort of yelling, listening, and regretting. She couldn't bear to look at his face, so hurt and so angry, and tried to focus on some patch of gray sand far away. How did it come to this, the two of them regressing back to their nineteen-year-old selves and revisiting an old fight on this godforsaken beach?

The words they exchanged drummed in her head, forcing her to revisit the painful feelings that she'd tried to bottle up. To some extent, yes, she had stayed far longer than she needed to abroad because she had craved some grand declaration of love to soothe her uncertainties and insecurities, because she had unfairly expected that he would always be there waiting.

Her decision backfired, simple as that.

"You won," she repeated quietly, "and I lost."

That was true, wasn't it? He had everything they had once dreamed of with someone else. Someone more deserving.

Takeru didn't say anything for a while, and the only thing that interrupted the silence was the occasional roar of the ocean waves. Then he met her eyes and shook his head. His voice, when he finally spoke, was soft.

"It's never been about winning."

And with that, her frustration and the anger dissipated, replaced by a dull ache. Hikari ran the back of her hand across her eyes. Apologies swirled in her head, none of them adequate. She really needed more sleep.

"If you guys are done yelling at each other," Tailmon piped up tentatively, "I think we have more important matters to attend to."

"Yeah," Patamon said. "We need to find Kazuki as soon as possible."

Too late, Takeru hissed a warning while Hikari jerked.

"Kazu - is he -"

Her heart sank when she saw Tailmon and Takeru exchange a look. It was difficult to breathe. Please no, not her little boy.

Tailmon's ears were drooping. "He was already gone when I woke up. So was Plotmon. I looked for them all over the apartment and I couldn't find them. I'm sorry."

Hikari shook her head numbly, feeling a turmoil of emotions most clearly defined by guilt. "It's not your fault."

There was nobody to blame other than herself, who thought that she could make a deal with a disembodied voice.

"Everyone has been alerted and is searching for them," Takeru said, this time putting a comforting hand on her shoulder. "We will find them."

"Yes! We will find them! Don't worry!" Patamon remained a beacon of optimism. "We found you, didn't we?"

"That's right." He was squeezing her shoulder gently. "We will find Kazuki and Plotmon."

She nodded despite the cold dread settling in her stomach. After all, her friends needed her faith, which was the least she could provide after everything that was happening. She pressed the heels of her hands against her eyes and shuddered as a wave of dizziness hit her.

"Hikari?" Takeru whispered, worried. "Are you feeling okay?"

For the first time, she took in his appearance, noticing the hastily buttoned shirt and the messy hair. He had probably been sleeping, had probably rushed to her aid without thinking twice. He cared, even if he had been angry with her.

A rush of gratitude and appreciation flooded her, lifting her spirits. She didn't deserve him, didn't deserve the Digimon, and yet here they all were.

"Yes, I'm okay," Hikari said.

Tailmon came up to her, the pink Digivice on the palm of her outstretched paw. Hikari bowed her head in acceptance of her partner's silent reprimand as she picked up and pocketed the device.

The waves were coming in more strongly now, trying to exert a final pull over her. Hikari took a few deliberate steps away from the water, lifted her chin, and focused on her friends.

"Let's go find them."

They took to the air in order to cover ground more efficiently, Takeru on Pegasmon and Hikari on Nefertimon. She hadn't flown in a long time, having been kept too busy by work and family duties, and she hadn't realized how much she missed the freedom of being weightless.

She could tell that her partner felt similarly, could almost feel her purr with contentment as she soared alongside Pegasmon, occasionally goading the other Digimon into small aerial tricks.

After this is over, she made a silent promise to herself, I'll make sure to take Tailmon flying for fun.

Beneath them, the Dark World stretched out, gray and endless. The lighthouse had served as their landmark when they were at the beach, but now that they were further inland, they could hardly orient themselves on what was more or less a canvas filled with crude brushstrokes. There were only trees in every direction, interrupted by the occasional small clearing.

It wasn't the most ideal setup to find a boy and his Plotmon.

Takeru broke the silence between the two humans. "I have a feeling that Kazuki is not here."

Hikari glanced up from her Digivice, where she was hoping to pick up her son's signal. "Do you think we should try a different area? Maybe try flying west for a bit?"

"No I mean...I don't know if Kazuki is in the Dark World at all."

Her grip on the Digivice tightened. "What do you mean?"

He was weighing his choice of words. "It's just a feeling. We've already explored a lot of the forest and if another Chosen were here, we should've been able to pick up something."

Hikari raised her head and squinted at the sky. There was no sun, only swirls of gray mists that passed for clouds. Kazuki and Plotmon were all by themselves, they must be terrified, and yet she couldn't disregard the shadows under Takeru's eyes.

"Maybe we should take a break at the next landing," she said. "Pegasmon and Nefertimon could use a break, and we can try to contact the others again. I want to make sure that they are doing all right."

Takeru agreed. Not long after, they were seated on a patch of dewy grass with their Digimon, verifying yet again that the messages on their D-Terminals refused to send. It appeared that not only was Kazuki not in the Dark World, the other Chosens had not managed to go through the portal in the painting either.

"I'm sorry," Hikari said quietly. "I got us here and I don't know how to get us out."

"We'll find a way out," Takeru said, embodying his crest as much as ever. "How long do you reckon we've been here?"

"I'm not sure," Hikari said. "I have a feeling that time flows differently here."

Takeru glanced down at his wrist, brows furrowed as he tried to make out the current time. "Yeah. I think you're right."

His watch was expensive, sporting a clean and elegant design that spoke to Haruka's refined tastes, no doubt an anniversary present. Hikari's throat tightened and she averted her eyes to watch Tailmon and Patamon playing on the grass.

Takeru turned his attention away from his watch. "Do you still not remember this place?"

Hikari wrapped her arms around her knees. "Some details are coming back to me. Like, I know I've been lost in this forest, or some part of this forest, before. I know I've been to the beach before. I've seen the lighthouse before. But I can't remember what happened when I was here."

She glanced at him tentatively. He cleared his throat. "Well, the first time, you were called here by a bunch of Scubamon who wanted to deliver you to their god," he said. "The second time, you got lost with Ken and Miyako, and you and Miyako worked out your differences to unlock Silphymon."

Scubamon. Silphymon. Familiar names that all seemed like lifetimes ago.

"How did we get here before? How did we get back?"

"Light, I think." He gave her a small smile. "Your light somehow connected the Dark World and the Digital World both times."

Hikari turned her Digivice over in her hand. She hadn't manifested her light in decades, not that it was ever something she could turn on by command. She wasn't even sure she still possessed the power, now that adulthood had long extinguished childhood faith.

More than ever, she was doubting her ability to save everyone, doubting her half-baked plan to come here and face the ocean. If the military couldn't handle powerful Digimon, how could she hope to vanquish her nightmares with only herself and an old handgun?

"You know what's strange?" Patamon had joined them. "The forest feels familiar when we were flying around, but the beach where we found Hikari feels very different."

"Yeah, you're right," Takeru said thoughtfully. "We walked through a whole town to get to the beach, didn't we?"

"Yeah, with all the shops and creepy townspeople," Tailmon agreed. "Pretty sure that wasn't there before. I wonder where they all came from."

Hikari thought about the shop she'd visited, the mirror that reflected her memory. "This place feeds on negative emotions, I believe."

Takeru looked slightly alarmed. "What are you saying?"

Leaving Takeru and all of her friends to the loneliness of being abroad. Takeru's engagement. Nobu's death.

"I was also walking through the town," she said. "I saw...well, never mind, but I think...um...it's been feeding on my negative emotions."

It took her friends some time to digest the implications of what she was saying. Disbelief bloomed on Takeru's face, joined by frustration and perhaps even sadness. "Your negative emotions built a whole town, Hikari."

"Guess I should've gone to therapy more often?" She gave a weak chuckle, but her joke fell completely flat.

Tailmon looked reproachful. "You should've told me!"

Patamon fluttered his ear wings. "It's not healthy to keep everything bottled up."

"I appreciate your concern, everyone, but I'm not a little girl anymore," Hikari said wearily. "Life isn't going to be full of rainbows everyday. And it wasn't for me. Sometimes we just have to deal the best way we can."

"No, life isn't full of rainbows," Takeru agreed, "but it doesn't mean that you can't reach out to your friends. That's what we're here for, so you don't have to overextend yourself pretending everything is always okay. You don't have to do everything alone."

He looked so earnest. She looked back down at her knees.

"I have reached out to friends, to Taichi and Sora and Miyako," she said softly.

"But never me."

She gave a half shrug. "I didn't think you should be bothered."

"Look, I know things happened between us." Her mouth quivered; that was certainly an understatement. "But I still consider you a good friend, even if you can be extremely frustrating sometimes."

"I know," she said, surprising him with a smile. Some tension diffused, both from this conversation and the earlier argument. "And I'm sorry, I should have reached out more. I guess I got used to living with a shadow over me, so here I am."

"Well, we are here now," Takeru said, with a tone of finality.

"Except maybe we shouldn't be here here," Tailmon said, looking around nervously. "It's too quiet, too deserted."

Hikari stood up, dusting dirt off her clothes. "You're right. Let's keep searching."

Eventually, subconsciously, they returned to the coastline. It was hard to say how many hours, or even days, had passed by then. The sky changed unpredictably, with stretches of light and darkness of unpredictable length. Exhaustion and hunger had caught up with everyone.

They found a small cave at the edge of the forest and decided to rest there. Tailmon and Patamon gathered some gray fruits and started a small fire. From the smell of the fruits roasting, they seemed edible.

Hikari and Takeru made a few more futile attempts to reach the other Chosen Children before they settled down to eat, though neither displayed much of an appetite.

After the so-called dinner, they lay down facing each other, keeping a respectful distance apart.

"Good night," he said, closing his eyes.

"Good night," she whispered, following suit and wondering if he, too, were thinking of that last night in his apartment, the last time they had slept in such close proximity.

It was eerily quiet, the silence broken only by the occasional soft snore from Patamon and the distant crash of waves. Despite all the thoughts racing through her head, it had been a long day, and Hikari was about to drift off when he spoke.

"I was awake."

Her eyes sprung open. He was watching her, but it was too dark to make out his expression. She knew exactly what he was talking about, but in the moment, all she could think of in response was something ridiculous like, oh I'm sorry I woke you up,

Fortunately, he continued before she could embarrass herself. "I heard you move around the room and realized that you actually meant to leave. I knew I should've said something but I didn't what to say, and what if...what if I said something and..."

He stopped, but she still heard the rest.

What if I tried my best, and yet you still left.

"I'm sorry I left," she said, before he could apologize. "I've wanted to apologize for a long time but...well anyway, it was very immature of me to run away. I was really scared because I thought..."

I thought you didn't love me anymore.

His eyes were steadily boring into hers. "You know that's not true."

She wondered if the choice of tense was deliberate and forced a laugh to lighten the mood. "Too bad I was so stubborn, huh? You wouldn't even have to convince very hard."

He made a sound that was halfway between a laugh and a snort.

"But," she added, "I think life still worked out for the best."

He didn't reply, but she felt his hand reach out to squeeze her hand before letting go.

There was a lot more that they could have said, more words to bridge the years and to heal the hurt. Yet she found that they didn't need to be said, not in this perfect, delicate moment.

She allowed herself to fall asleep, their hands centimeters apart.

Twilight was settling when Hikari heard the approaching footsteps, heavy and assured.

She was awake and ready to face her nightmare.

"You've been stubborn, my Light, but I have been patient, and so here we are."

A silhouette appeared in the mouth of the cave, casting a shadow over the occupants inside. Hikari shifted so that she was shielding Takeru and the Digimon from view.

"My darling. We finally meet again."

The voice was coming closer. Tensing, Hikari raised her eyes slowly to meet those of the approaching figure, expecting to finally meet Dagomon.

Instead, she saw a very familiar person. He was smiling.

"In life and in death, don't you remember your promise?"

"I remember," she said, her voice steady despite the pounding of her heart. "Hello again, Nobu."

The ending - which hopefully made sense - is my twist on the Dark Ocean. More explanations upcoming.