A/N: Before I start this story, I'm giving special thanks to ookaiyo, RedlerRed7, and theworstk-onblog for helping/overseeing the writing process of Sakura Strikers. theworstk-onblog knows about soccer/football so thanks to him for nitpicking things that seem too much of an artistic license.
It was around the 65th minute when Ritsu Tainaka received that injury.
Center-back Mio Akiyama took possession of the ball from the opposing team's striker. Before she could take aim, the whistle blew, slowing the game to a halt. Mio turned her head towards the referee, at his feet was Ritsu, laying there clutching the back of her thigh. Her leg was stiff - Ritsu wasn't able to move it. A stiff leg meant that their star midfielder could be out for a while.
Coach Yamanaka signaled to three other players, bringing them onto the field to be swapped with Azusa Nakano, and Nodoka Manabe, alongside Ritsu herself. The girls lifted Ritsu off from the ground, carrying her to the benches. After the substitutions went by smoothly, the game continued from before.
After the two of them laid Ritsu down on the bench, Nodoka stood up and addressed Azusa. "I'm going to get some ice for her. I'll be right back."
"Don't take too long," Azusa said, still fussing over Ritsu's injury. "Senpai, are you going to be alright?"
Ritsu kept her eyes on the field, with an intense look on her face. "Don't worry about me. Worry about the game. We're doing great, but a draw isn't enough to get us to the top of the regional table. We need to keep pushing."
Azusa frowned. "But, Ritsu-senpai-"
"I don't care about my well-being, Azusa!" Ritsu snapped. "What I do care about is if we're going to win this game."
Azusa shot Ritsu a disapproving frown, but said nothing. If Ritsu was going to be that stubborn, then she wasn't going to bother anymore. Azusa shuffled away and sat herself on the other end of the bench.
The 86th minute came around when Yui took a shot at the goal. Everyone was in awe at the goalkeeper's save. Although the ball flew right over the net, the Sakura High soccer team was given a corner kick. Mugi sent the ball into the box, giving Mio the opportunity to score a goal. She pushed her legs off from the ground to hit the ball with her head. The angle of the ball made it easy to slip past the goalkeeper and into the net, having no chance of saving it.
Mugi ran over to Mio who was still staring at the goal, as if not quite believing the turn of events. "Good job, Mio-chan!"
That snapped Mio out of her daze and she immediately turned to Mugi and hugged her. "Couldn't have done it without your assist, Mugi! Thank you!"
Mugi looked surprised for a moment before hugging back.
Mio went wide eyed. "Mugi..." she gasped, tapping furiously on Mugi's shoulders. "Too tight. You're hugging too tight!"
"Oh!" Mugi immediately let go, cupping her hands over her mouth. "I'm sorry about that."
Mio clutched her sides for a moment before gesturing that it's fine.
The score was now 2-1. Their team was winning by one point. The following last four minutes of the game saw little to no action. Compared to how fast the rest of the game flew by, the end felt sluggish. The final whistle blew at the 90th minute, leaving the game a 2-1 win for Sakura High, allowing them to advance to the top of the regional table.
They ignored the celebrations and headed into the lockers. There, they found a short-haired brunette quietly sitting on one of the benches. Mio ran up to the girl, tapping her shoulder. The girl looked up, tears in her eyes.
"Ritsu, are you going to be okay?"
"Ricchan, how long is it going to be?" Mugi asked her.
The room fell silent for a moment.
"Three months." She choked. "It might even be four."
The whole team was in shock. Their most skilled and most important player – their captain and midfielder, forced to spend the middle of the season recovering from her injury.
"How bad is it?" Mio asked.
"It's a grade three – it completely tore up my hamstring. But I'll be fine, guys. Don't worry."
Ritsu attempted to push herself off the bench, but she flinched as she applied the slightest pressure to her feet.
"Ritsu, you aren't even able to walk." Mio pointed out.
"Of course I can. Just give me a second." Ritsu flinched once more.
Mio slung Ritsu's right arm across her shoulder. "Look, Ritsu, you're not going to walk with a broken leg. C'mon, let's get you out of here. I'm sure an ambulance has shown up by now. Hey Mugi, give me a hand here."
The blonde nodded as she grabbed Ritsu's uninjured leg. She hoisted Ritsu's left arm across her own shoulder. At the count of three, they lifted Ritsu up, careful to keep her injured hamstring off the ground.
Yui looked on at the three as she ran up to Nodoka. She adjusted her own pace to match hers.
"Nodoka-chan? Is Ricchan going to be alright?" Yui asked.
"I hope so – we need her for the nationals. Without her, we might need to change up our game plan, at least until she gets back. I can't just hold the midfield by myself."
"How did it happen, anyway?"
Nodoka shrugged. "I don't know, Yui. She wouldn't say anything about it. What we all do know is that she fell and got hurt. I guess I was too focused on the game, since I didn't see how she fell. A red card wasn't issued to the other team, so it can't be them... It must be something Ritsu did on her own."
"So what do we do until she gets back?"
"Well, we have to find someone else to be our midfielder."
"Ah, and who will that be, Nodoka-chan?"
Nodoka sighed. "I don't know, Yui…"
At the stadium entrance, the two girls were helping Ritsu onto an ambulance stretcher.
Mio looked at Ritsu's thigh - while the injury wasn't obvious at first glance – the fact that it was stiff meant it was straining for Ritsu to move it. She hated the sight of an injury, the ambulance that was parked adjacent to her team's bus, less so.
Mugi tapped Mio on the shoulder. "Mio-chan, I'm going to head over to the bus. I'll ask Sawa-chan to give you a few minutes with Ricchan."
Mio nodded. "Uh, yeah, sure. Thanks, Mugi."
Ritsu waved to her. "Um, Mio? Are you just gonna stand there, or are you going to get in?"
"I… I don't know yet, but, Ritsu… just please, get better soon."
"Don't worry, it's me. I'll be up and about before you even know it. But for now, though, I gotta lay low a bit. You guys can carry on without me. You can get them to where they need to be. You can do that, right, playmaker?"
Mio stayed silent.
"Hey, come on, don't be like that. Just think of it as another goal to score. Please, Mio, do this for me, okay?"
Mio hesitated. "A-alright. I'll do this for you, Captain."
"Good, that's what I like to hear. Now, for my final request as the captain of Sakura High, I command you to go back and see to the rest. I think you've spent enough time here."
Mio closed the doors to the ambulance and made her way back to her bus. It was strange to not have Ritsu be on the bus, sitting beside her. She became startled at having found all 17 of the other passengers, including her teammates and her coach, staring at her as she walked up the stairs of the bus.
"Deep breaths, Mio." She told herself. "Deep breaths."
"So, Mio," Nodoka asked her. "What's going to happen now?"
"I-I don't know yet. Since Ritsu's going to be out of commission for about three months, I've been asked to take over, for now." Mio hesitated to speak, but refused to stutter throughout. "Give me some time to think it over. I don't- I don't know what to do about all of this yet. We shouldn't think about this too much. We should look forward to the next game, even without our captain."
The bus was only filled with silence.
"If you guys aren't going to ask any questions, then that's all I need to say. We're ready to go."
Mio walked past the rows of seats, until she found her own. She shuffled into the window seat. The adjacent seat was vacant, formerly occupied by the team captain, Ritsu Tainaka. She looked out the window, as the bus pulled out of the stadium. The surrounding countryside was filled with less color than before she entered that stadium.
She closed her eyes and drifted off to sleep, praying that all of this was just a nightmare.