The next training session they had after Ritsu's injury felt strange. It had become much quieter without their captain, who had always riled every one of them up for practice. Even Yui, who complimented the energetic disposition of the captain, was noticeably quiet. Yui still managed to maintain her sunny and optimistic personality, despite Ritsu's absence. Although Mio herself hated how irritating Ritsu can be, she loved the atmosphere that Ritsu provided every session. It was never a dull moment without Ritsu Tainaka.

Mio stared at the yellow armband that denoted her as the captain of the Sakura High soccer team. She decided not to change the color of the armband - it reminded her of Ritsu. Mio felt that she didn't deserve the armband. She would rather be second-in-command, than take an actual leading role within a group.

A familiar voice called out to her. "It looks good on you."

Mio turned towards the source of the voice in confusion.

Yui ran past her to greet the voice. "Ricchan! What are you doing here?"

Mio stared at the sudden apparition. Ritsu was now with crutches, to support her injured leg. Mio walked towards the brunette, who had just taken a seat next to Coach Yamanaka. Her voice had taken a demanding tone. "Didn't I tell you rest up, and not to visit?"

"Hey, I just couldn't stay away, now, can't I?"

Mio fell silent. She didn't know how to respond to that question. She didn't know about how to feel about Ritsu visiting their training session. Commotion settled in as the rest of her teammates swarmed around Ritsu, to ask her questions about the injury. How it happened, and the plans for the future.

The sight of her captain invoked a surge of emotions from Mio. She couldn't let everyone see her break down, so she quietly excused herself and made her way to the locker room. She headed over to one of the sinks, and looked at the mirror. Tears were streaming down her face. Mio wasn't able to understand the turn of events. Ritsu went to visit her team, when the one thing she should be doing at the moment was rest up. Unable to control her emotions anymore, Mio turned one of the knobs of the sink and began to wash her face.

Eventually, Mugi realized that Mio wasn't anywhere on the field, nor was she within the crowd of people surrounding Ritsu. The girl never liked excessive attention, but she would have never been fully out of sight. Mugi headed inside and checked the locker rooms. Inside, she heard the sound of running water within the bathrooms. She went to investigate the source of the sound, where she found Mio, slumped over the sink.

"Mio-chan? Are you alright?" Mugi called over to her.

Mio stuttered. "I-I'm… I'm fine, Mugi..." Her voice trailing off quickly.

"Mio-chan, What's wrong?"

"N-no… I'm fine, really..."

"Is this about Ricchan and her injury?"

Mio refused to answer.

"It's okay. You can tell me. Why don't we go to the benches, make it a bit comfortable to talk about this. Do you want that, Mio-chan?"

Mio nodded, and walked over to the benches. She was asked several questions by Mugi, most of them were relating to Ritsu and her injury. The longer she had to listen, the more it drained her energy. Eventually, she began to unfasten her armband.

"Mio-chan, wait!"

"I… I can't do this, Mugi. Can you really imagine me in that position? Leading a team? There's someone better for this job, and we both know it. Please, take the armband."

"But Ricchan wanted you to lead the team."

"I know, but I can't handle all this burden on my shoulders... It's too much for me. I'll crack under the pressure."

"Mio-chan, you and Ricchan have been friends since childhood. You've built up a bond with her that's stronger than steel. You've put your faith and trust in each other completely. I don't see why this is any different. Ricchan wanted you to lead. She trusts you enough, that you won't throw everything into chaos. Out of all the people in our team, she picked you. She didn't pick anyone else to be the captain. She knows you can lead our team. She chose you to be our captain because she believes in you."

"But, she could have picked Nodoka over me… The one difference she has over me is that she isn't afraid of anything like this… All the pressure and burden of leading..."

Mugi perched a hand on Mio's shoulder. "Mio, it's alright. Ritsu will get better before you even know it. Trust me."

Mio knocked Mugi's hand off her shoulder. "Why are you saying that, Mugi?! Have you seen her?!"

"Yes, I know about the injury, and how it happened. We all do. But, Mio-"

"Three months, Mugi! Three months!" Mio snapped. "Does she really expect me to keep all of this together?!"

"M-Mio… Please, calm down."

"But how can I be calm?! Our captain - my best friend - She's out there, suffering, because she isn't able to play alongside us! She's going to miss out on so much. Even if we win, or lose, we do it as a team, together."

The door swung open before Mugi could respond, and the two turned their heads towards the opening.

"Ah, there you are. I was hoping I would find you guys in here." Ritsu said. "Why are you guys here, anyway?" Her words trailed off quickly as she looked at the sparkle in Mio's eyes. "Mio... are you crying?"

Mio had a blank expression on her face.

"You're crying, aren't you?"

Mio refused to answer her a second time.

Ritsu placed her crutches on the bench and sat down beside Mio, placing a hand on the side of her face. "Mio-chan, you're not as ugly as you think you are~"

Mio pushed her hand away from her face. "Damn it, Ritsu. You're still smiling, even after what happened at the stadium? Look at your leg - and the crutches next to you. You're wearing a splint. You're missing out, on the one thing you love to play. Your smile… I missed your warm and happy smile, Ritsu. Please, get better so I can see it again, so I can see it when we're playing in the nationals. I just… I just don't want to see you, suffering like that..."

"Mio, I'm fine and I will be fine. What isn't there to get? You don't have to be so worried about me."

"You can barely walk by yourself, Ritsu. You need crutches to get anywhere. While you're here trying to rest up, we're out there, playing without you. Please, rest up, so you can be right beside us. We need you, I need you, captain."

Mio's eyes were welling up with tears. She was close to breaking down once again. Her own captain in denial brought her near her breaking point.

Ritsu's voice took a softer, more somber tone. "Look, I know you're upset. I know you're, understandably, very pissed that I had to take that injury. But, let me tell you on why I'm here. I'm not here just because I wanted to. I wanted to check in on my team. A captain has to look out for her team. But then again, I didn't just show up for the team. I wanted to see you, Mio. I missed you, too."

A few tears spilled out from Mio's eyes. She started sobbing uncontrollably as she was pulled into another hug by Ritsu. Those words struck her harder than anything else.

"I'm sorry you have to see me like this. I get it, you want me to rest up, so I can show up for the nationals. I made you the captain for a reason. I know you can handle it. I know you can keep them up to shape. Think of it this way, on the one hand, there's all the stress and burden of being a captain, but on the bright side, at least you get a nice armband out of all this. It's even passed down from yours truly, to boot." Ritsu stated in a comforting tone.

Mio scoffed. She pushed herself away from Ritsu and curled herself up into a ball. "Yeah, sure, I have your armband. Because that matters."

"Well, you can lead the team, right?"

Mio let out a faint groan, the thought of leading the team outright frightened her.

"It really isn't that bad, Mio."

"Really? What if we lose? People are sure to blame me, the acting captain, because her team lost a game. Especially because of her poor strategies."

"That can happen, but nobody can really win all the time, can they? Here's something to think about though - did it happen to us yet? You can't exactly complain about it, unless you've experienced it first-hand."

Mio was rendered speechless, she wasn't wrong. Their team's score, while reputable, was meager in comparison to the other teams that were also competing in the nationals. While Ritsu is the captain of the team, Mio was the one that came up with the strategies that brought them up to the position they are now.

"Well… there is a chance that we could lose."

Ritsu sighed. "Mio, you're being so stubborn right now. There's no one else to take the position from you. All of us have been saying this - we know you can do it. You know where everyone goes, and what they should be doing. Why else would I have picked you? Like it or not, somebody has to be the captain."

"I know that we can't just show up without a captain, Ritsu. But… I don't have the mentality for it. I keep telling you guys, I can't do this, I'll crack under the pressure. Why don't you guys understand this?"

Ritsu laid a hand on Mio's shoulder. "Hey, you know how I led the team as Captain? I always kept up that big goofy smile of mine. I always made dramatic speeches about winning the nationals, and taking home the trophy. The idea of losing never really crossed my mind. I kept my mind where it mattered, I always kept my eyes on the prize. I made those speeches so we fight with all our might, so that the other team gets a good match. With how you're feeling right now, it looks like you aren't going to follow my footsteps, Mio."

"W-What are you saying… Ritsu?"

"Sure, say what you want about the armband, but without a team leader, they're going to be running around like headless chickens out there. They need someone to come up with strategies. Someone to lead them through the game. They'll end up fretting over what should be done, instead of actually doing it. We're going to lose a lot more games than usual, without someone taking over." Ritsu paused between her sentences, as if to emphasize the next. "And I'm pretty sure that's what you want, all along, isn't it?"

"Do you even know what you're saying, Ritsu Tainaka?! I wouldn't jeopardize the team over everything else. I would never want something like that."

"Then, are you the captain or not?" Ritsu asked sternly.

Mio was speechless. Ritsu trusted her with the most important role on the team, and she wouldn't want anyone else to take that position. As she looked away, Mio jumped back in shock. In front of her was the rest of the team, suddenly right beside them. They had followed Ritsu into the locker room, after overhearing the conversation outside.

"Wait, when did you guys get here?!"

"Sorry, Mio. I told them to stay outside, so they don't bother you, but it looks like they got too curious. Now, before I forget, are you going to answer my question?"

Mio refused to answer. Instead, she looked around the room, seeing if any other teammate was willing to take her place. She spotted Nodoka at the front, who held a hand out before Mio got a chance to speak.

"Don't think of trying to hand it off to me, now. Ritsu wants you to be the captain, remember?"

"But, Nodoka-"

"I know you don't want to do this, Mio, but you need to respect her wishes. Like it or not, you have to be the captain now."

Chatter began to fill the locker room. While Mio couldn't hear most of the conversations properly, she could infer that most of the team thought's were of Mio as the captain. Eventually, she heard a teammate speak up.

"Don't just throw that opportunity away, Akiyama-san."

"We know our Captain is making the right decision." Another teammate said.

"With you taking over the reigns, we won't lose!"

Mio stammered. "W-wait, but-"

Azusa had a stern look on her face. "Somebody needs to be the Captain, Mio-senpai, and we think you're our best choice."

Mio stared at Azusa with a surprised look on her face, then sighed. She knew that trying to weasel her way out was pointless by now. "Fine, I'll be the new captain of the Sakura High soccer team."

After a few seconds of silence, the locker room burst into a round of applause. Several teammates were walking up to Mio, personally comforting her and congratulating her.

Ritsu perched her arm on Mio's shoulder. "Hey, I know you're not happy about this, but give it some time. Try to live with the armband for a bit. Soon enough, you'll probably grow attached to the damned thing, and I'd have to pry it off your arm. Now, about being the leader and the responsibilities that with being the captain, you can handle them, can't you?"

"Ritsu… But what about-"

Ritsu spoke a bit louder, her tone carrying a slight hint of irritation. "This isn't up for debate, Mio. you're either taking my place, or you're not. So, what's it going to be?"

"I… I-I'll do my best."

"That's what I'd like to hear. That said, this calls for my graceful exit. I trust that all of you will win the next few games, even without me. That's the best gift you guys can give me while I'm out of commission. Try not to give Mio too much trouble while I'm gone, guys. Don't want to see her as a nervous wreck, after all. Remember, guys, I believe in you. All of you."

The team said their goodbyes before Ritsu backed out of the locker room. Mio watched from the inside as she walked out of the training grounds. Getting to see Ritsu calmed her down a little, maybe even confident enough to finally take the mantle without any complaints. But the farther she was from her, the more those conflicted feelings began to resurface. Mugi gave a few taps on Mio's shoulder.

"Remember why she picked you, Mio-chan. She's counting on you now."

Mio sighed. "I know, Mugi…"

"...I know."