Weeks after returning home, they were still lost to the world. Everything was supposed to be back to normal by now. Most of the damage to the city's infrastructure had been repaired. The distortions and infections no longer troubled anybody. They were safe in the real world again, reunited with their families and friends and lives they had missed for so long. Somehow, they didn't even have to worry about explaining their absence. It should have been easy to pick up where they had left off. That may have been why Daisuke found it so impossible.
The first thing his sister said to him after his return was, “Boy, you got into it this time, huh?”
It was typical Jun, and Daisuke responded in kind: “And let me guess: you still don't have a boyfriend.” She pulled him into a headlock, squeezing hard as her other arm wrapped around his stomach. He didn't fight it, nor did she stop. This was as close as she came to embracing him.
He got more of the same from the rest of his family. It was loving and sincere, but it was also casual. Not that he wanted anyone bursting into tears over him, but given how long he had been away and how much danger he had been in, it would have been appropriate.
Everybody seemed to react the same way. They were happy to see him, and a few of his friends admitted they had worried about him, but nobody was surprised by his return. Nobody seemed all that concerned about his absence to begin with. Nobody asked too many questions about where he had been or what he had been doing. To them, he wasn't off on a perilous adventure so much as he was gone for a few days to get his tonsils removed.
At first, he didn't mind. So much of it was a blur anyway. He didn't think he had been gone that long either. Everything between going into the world and returning was a hazy memory that didn't feel authentic. He didn't know whether he was unconscious for most of it, if the little he remembered was an illusion or fabrication, or if the experience was so horrible he subconsciously blocked it out. He wasn't going to dwell on what actually happened; Ken and Iori could worry about stuff like that. Daisuke was determined to put it behind him and resume his life as a normal (albeit heroic and awesome) fourteen-year-old boy.
Or was he fifteen now? He didn't think a whole year had passed since his last birthday and he didn't feel another year older. The calendar said otherwise. He could shrug off the whole experience and his friends could act like nothing happened. They couldn't reset time. Daisuke and his teammates missed entire seasons and the real world was going to pass through them no matter who was or wasn't in it.
Daisuke still refused to be bothered by the big changes. He even laughed along when his friends joked about how much school he got to miss. In reality, he was either going to have to repeat his second year of middle school or cram two terms of classwork into one in order to move on. He struggled enough at a normal pace, so going twice as fast would be impossible. Daisuke accepted his fate and did his best to enjoy his freedom in the weeks leading up to the new school year.
Instead, the little stuff annoyed him. He would still boast about his soccer team being the defending district champions. Daisuke was very proud of the victory; his play and leadership had been crucial to the team's success. That's why it was no longer accurate: without him around, his team lost early. He was disappointed to hear it, both for not being with his teammates and for missing the chance to play. The next competition was a long way away.
In place of getting on the field himself, he settled for living vicariously through Taichi. Daisuke never missed a match; until the new school year started, he didn't have anything else going on. Sometimes he would have company- Hikari or Sora or that new Chosen girl everyone was suddenly friends with. Today it was just him rooting his hero on.
Nobody else may have noticed it, but Taichi had changed too. To Daisuke, it seemed to be overnight. Before everything happened, he saw Taichi as worn down. Daisuke sympathized; as their adventures faded into the past and more real world responsibilities set in, life seemed a little less exciting. Suddenly, Taichi was as energetic and motivated as ever as he outran the opposing fullback to the ball. He dribbled around him with some slick footwork and drew a second defender over, freeing space for the other attacker. The cross was perfect and his teammate headed the ball into the net. Daisuke joined the crowd in yelling out their approval as the strike partners hugged enthusiastically.
Once the roar died and Daisuke sat down, he was surprised to find stray tears on his cheek. It made no sense: he was happy about the goal, but not to that degree. He couldn't possibly be upset over his friend's team scoring. Yes, he wanted to be out there. Yes, he wanted to be the one receiving Taichi's pass. But he also understood that this time he was on the sidelines. This time, Taichi was playing for him, not with him. Why would he cry over that?
Daisuke didn't always wait for Taichi after the game, especially if the others did. It made him feel like he was tagging along, even with Hikari there. Heck, even with Meiko, whom he still barely knew. He didn't understand why, nor did he understand his compulsion to stick around today. Taichi didn't see him at first, leaving with a pair of his teammates and sharing a few final jokes before they headed home.
Once he was alone, Daisuke eagerly smiled at him. “Hey! Awesome assist! You gotta teach me that move.”
Taichi nodded, still wearing a grin. “If you can handle it. Thanks for coming.”
“Don't know yet.” Taichi walked past him, pulling out his cell phone. Daisuke frowned for a moment, but caught up to him quickly. As he did, Taichi's goggles caught the setting sun just right and reflected the light into Daisuke's eyes. He let out a tiny yelp and turned away.
“What happened?” Taichi asked, looking up from his phone.
“Your goggles stung me.” Daisuke rubbed his eyes and glared at them. “Why do you keep wearing those anyway?”
“Dunno.” Taichi pondered the question far longer than Daisuke expected. “There haven't been any more distortions.” He smirked and knocked the lenses of Daisuke's goggles. “Why? Got a problem with 'em?”
Daisuke clucked his tongue and shook his head, not responding. The answer wasn't satisfying at all. Distortions? What did it matter that the mess was over? The goggles weren't supposed to be useful. They meant something. Daisuke knew exactly what his pair stood for. He was less sure about Taichi's.
He liked to think the torch had been passed and he was as much a leader of the team as Taichi. As much advice and assistance as the older kids would provide, Daisuke and his generation now did the dirty work. Maybe it was foolish to think the worlds relied primarily on them. Maybe they were only the first line in what was an increasingly global defense effort. Maybe once they recovered from the vanished time, all they really lost was a bit of pride. It still hurt. Daisuke was used to being the hero, not the captive to be rescued.
“Actually...” Daisuke mumbled after a considerable delay. Taichi was back to checking his phone and didn't hear him.
Instead, Taichi turned to Daisuke and said, “Hey, I guess I'm joining the girls for dinner tonight. Nice talking to you.” He changed direction and walked off, leaving Daisuke alone on the sidewalk. No warning... no invitation... not even a real talk. Daisuke couldn't even be sure which girls Taichi was talking about.
He was left out once again. Out of everything, maybe missing the adventure stung the most. What Daisuke would have given to be a part of the action. It should have been his fight. It was his team's responsibility. They blew it. And the world was saved anyway.
The fight changed everybody. Daisuke's team was left to catch up on everything they had missed. The ones who actually did the fighting seemed to change for the better. They worried less, they fought less, and they had a better grasp on the world now. Maybe not everyone on Daisuke's team was as convinced. He figured they were just caving into their frustrations, angrily spouting nonsense about the older group not caring enough to prioritize the rescue.
Daisuke was sure Taichi did everything in his power to pull them out as soon as possible. The others were just being paranoid.