Tezuka Kunimitsu was someone who would do anything to ensure victory for Seigaku. It had always been his dream since his freshman year to lead the school to victory and to claim the coveted national title. If it meant that he had to sacrifice the rest of his tennis career, he would do it for the sake of the team. He knew he was being reckless, but he had no other choice when his opponent was the arrogant "King'' of Hyoutei, Atobe Keigo. His gambit did not pay off when he eventually lost the marathon tiebreak, but the game inspired his teammates to reevaluate their reasons for playing.
Due to the damage he inflicted upon himself, Tezuka had no choice but to leave to receive treatment. The decision was rushed and made without much of a second thought. Tezuka's sole purpose was to get his arm into a state where he can play without fear of ending his career prematurely. At the recommendation of some, he decided to fly down to Kyushu for treatment. His sudden absence threw the entire club into disarray, but it also caused issues within the school itself, as he also had to give up his duties to the student council. For Oishi Shuichirou and Sugimoto Midori, it meant that they were the ones who had to pick up the pieces.
Oishi was Tezuka's vice captain and closest confidant. Commonly referred to as the mother of the team, Oishi always looked out for everyone's best interests. He accepted the position of vice captain just so that no one else would have to bear the additional responsibilities while also playing for the team. He would handle most of the administrative duties to the club while Tezuka managed the training regime. Oishi was constantly stressed, but did his best to hide it from everyone around him. The only people who could see right through him were the team manager, Inui Sadaharu, and Midori. Both of them worried about Oishi's workload, but neither of them could do anything to help, since a lot of the matters required knowledge that only he had.
Midori, on the other hand, was the vice president and someone Tezuka spoke to often. She constantly lived in the shadows of her president and was always regarded as the second best person for the job. To everyone, Midori was the person they would ask when Tezuka was busy. She was the one who did most of the work between herself and Tezuka, but he would always be the one to receive the praise because no one knew just how much she did. It used to bother her immensely, but now she just keeps her head low and goes along with it. The only people who knew how much work she put in without credit were Oishi and the treasurer, Kajiwara Fumiko. Neither of them were content seeing her take the brunt of the responsibilities and not get recognition, but they could never convince her to stand up for herself.
The main reason Midori never said anything was because she wanted to protect Tezuka. Like many of the girls at the school, she also had a crush on the abnormally handsome honours student, but she knew her place at the end of the day and it wasn't with him. Regardless, she would always work twice as hard to make up for Tezuka's reduced workload. Seeing her fawn over the stoic and serious president was disheartening for Oishi, who had harboured feelings for her since first year. He, too, was powerless to stop the vicious cycle between his two friends as he was also trapped in a similar situation. Both of them knew they were being used in a sense, but they could only watch each other be slowly consumed by the responsibilities and the shadow of the person they had no desire to escape from.
The student council was busier than ever with getting the logistics sorted for the cultural festival in a few months' time. Everything about the Monday after the first round was typical until homeroom began. Midori sat quietly in her seat as she waited for the teacher to begin taking the attendance. Many of the students around her were whispering amongst themselves about the fact that Tezuka wasn't there yet, which was uncharacteristic of him. The teacher at the lectern opened up the class list and began calling out the names of each student. When they got to the end of the list, the students were even more abuzz about the fact that Tezuka's name wasn't called.
One student put up their hand. "Sensei, why did you skip Tezuka-kun's name?" they asked.
"Tezuka-kun will be in Kyushu for the foreseeable future" the teacher responded to the inquiry. "The school was only notified as of yesterday. There will be no further discussions on this topic."
Midori felt like the world had just come crashing down onto her. This was the first time she was hearing that Tezuka had left. Despite talking with him on an almost daily basis, he never mentioned that he was going somewhere and without warning either. She felt a strong sense of betrayal the moment her teacher made the announcement. It was difficult to focus on anything being taught that morning, as her mind kept wandering towards the council and what would happen now that they had lost their leader.
News had spread rather quickly thanks to the powers of technology. It was barely the end of the first period of classes before the entire third year cohort learned of what happened. By lunch, the entire school was aflame with the news. Without so much as a warning, Tezuka Kunimitsu, the revered tennis team captain and student council president had vanished into thin air. Oishi had found himself pacing around in the tennis clubroom, alongside the other Regulars and their coach, Ryuuzaki Sumire. The news was a shock to all of them, as Tezuka did not tell any of his teammates, save for Oishi and Coach Ryuuzaki, that he planned on leaving so soon.
"Now, I know Tezuka-kun leaving during such an important time is difficult news to swallow, but you must understand he's doing it for the sake of this team," Coach Ryuuzaki addressed the concerned Regulars. "It's not an ideal situation, but we all have to work twice as hard to make up for it."
Kaidou let out a hiss. "We must not let Tezuka-buchou's sacrifice be in vain."
Eiji and Momoshiro both nodded in agreement. "We have to win the Regionals now," Eiji reaffirmed.
"My, my," Fuji mused to himself. "Where was all this energy during our match on the weekend?"
Kawamura managed to stifle a small chuckle. "Better late than never, right?"
"You sure are an energetic bunch," Coach Ryuuzaki commented. "Now, as for Tezuka's responsibilities-"
"I'll do it, sensei," Oishi interjected. "I know Tezuka's responsibilities better than anyone else. Let me handle it."
"Oishi-kun, I understand that, but you cannot possibly-"
"I can handle it, Ryuuzaki-sensei. Believe me."
"Of course, I will continue to support this club with my data, so the rest of the work that Tezuka did can be covered by Oishi," Inui added. "We will make this work, Ryuuzaki-sensei."
Ryoma was less than amused that he was losing his break to information that he seemed to know about already. "Can I get back to eating, then?"
Momoshiro put the freshman super rookie into a headlock and began furiously ruffling his hair. "Oi, Echizen! You don't have to be so rude to sensei," he scolded.
"Ack, Momo-senpai! Stop it!"
Coach Ryuuzaki did not seem convinced, but she had to put her faith in the boys to figure out the situation. "I will leave it up to you two, then. You can all get back to your lunch period; I don't want to take up any more of your time."
The Regulars all bowed at their advisor before promptly exiting the room. After everyone had filed out, Oishi sunk into one of the chairs, burying his face into his hands. Inui took the seat beside him as he began to lecture his friend.
"Oishi, how much longer do you plan on doing this? You know you can't do this by yourself," Inui began.
"No one else needs to deal with this stress, Inui," Oishi answered.
"You and I both know the amount of work he did for this team was immense. Even if I helped you with the training schedules, you still won't be able to do everything else."
"Inui, are you here to argue with me?" Oishi snapped. "I said I could do it."
"And I don't need my data to tell me that this isn't a good idea," Inui replied. "Regardless, you can't possibly manage your duties to this club if you also serve on the student council and health committee. You will never sleep."
"The council! I completely forgot!" Oishi sprung out of his seat and dashed out of the room. He ran all the way to the council room, where the headmaster and the rest of the student council were gathering for an emergency meeting.
"Ah, Oishi-kun, you're just in time," the headmaster greeted.
"My apologies, headmaster. I had a meeting with the tennis team to attend to," Oishi bowed as he tried to catch his breath.
"Of course. Please take a seat. I was just about to begin."
Oishi sat down in the empty seat between Midori and Fumiko, who both glanced at him briefly before turning their attention back to the headmaster.
"As all of you know, we are shocked that Tezuka-kun has decided to take a leave of absence," the headmaster began. "His departure comes at one of the busiest times for this council. I am aware that Tezuka-kun has done a great deal for this council and the school as a whole. It is no easy feat to name a successor who can carry on the work that he has done."
"If it's so hard, then why even have this meeting…" Fumiko mumbled to herself under her breath.
"Unfortunately, this council still needs an acting president to make decisions. As per the rules in the student handbook, should the president not be able to fulfill their duties, the vice president will assume the role." The headmaster turned towards Midori, who had been intently listening. "Sugimoto-chan, I expect you to pick up the slack now that you are the interim president. Do not disappoint me."
"Yes, sir," the meek girl replied.
"The next cultural festival is just around the corner. Please do your best, everyone. That will be all," the headmaster finished before promptly leaving the room.
The rest of the council sat there for a few more minutes in silence before each one of them left the room. Midori slammed her head into the table in frustration, causing Oishi and Fumiko to jump slightly.
"Mido-chan, you know that's not good for you," Fumiko huffed. "The nerve of that guy to say that you needed to pick up the slack."
"Kajiwara-chan, it's not a good idea to talk behind the headmaster's back," Oishi pointed out.
"You know it's the truth, Oishi-kun. Mido-chan did almost everything for Tezuka-kun, but he got all of the credit instead of her. I can't stand for it any longer."
"Fumi-chan, that's enough," the new interim president mumbled. She turned her head to the side and stared at her two council members. "It doesn't matter what I do for this council. I'll never be able to live up to Tezuka-kun's achievements."
"You just don't want to stand up for yourself. That's the real problem," the annoyed treasurer stated. "Why do you insist on protecting him anyways?"
"You know the reason for that, Fumi-chan," Midori said as her cheeks began to flush a bright red.
Fumiko rolled her eyes. "I assume the tennis team is also in a similar mess?"
"No, everything is under control," Oishi lied. "We are fine, Kajiwara-chan."
"You don't sound very confident, Oishi-kun," she commented. "Regardless, you should quit the student council. There's no way you can manage two major roles and serve as a member on this council."
Midori slammed her hands down and pushed herself up. "Oishi-kun can't leave! I need him!"
Midori's words caused Oishi's heart to skip a few beats. His face began to turn a bright red.
"Need him for what? No offense to Oishi-kun, but his position within the council is one where it could easily be taken over by the secretary. You have to be more pragmatic," Fumiko scolded.
"Even so, I don't want to lose more members of this council," Midori protested. "Fumi-chan, can't you be more reasonable?"
"I don't intend to quit, Kajiwara-chan," Oishi interrupted their bickering. "You can call me a fool, but I am not going to abandon this council when we've lost our president."
Midori's face lit up as she looked at the new tennis team captain with her teary eyes of gratitude. "Thank you, Oishi-kun."
"I will make this work," Oishi reassured his anxious vice president.
"You two are cut from the same stubborn cloth," Fumiko groaned.
The bell indicating the end of the lunch period began to chime throughout the building. Midori and Oishi both got up from their seats and shuffled out of the room quickly, leaving the annoyed treasurer behind. As the two walked towards their respective classrooms, Oishi used the opportunity to speak privately with Midori.
"Sugimoto-chan, I want you to know that I will support you no matter what," he reaffirmed. "You have my unwavering loyalty."
Midori stifled a smile. "Thank you again, Oishi-kun." She stopped in front of her classroom door. "And please know that I will help you with whatever I can. Just ask." She slid the door open and disappeared into the room without waving her companion goodbye.
Oishi let out a tired sigh as he continued to make his way to class. "If only you could…"
It did not take very long before the two newly appointed leaders began to crumble under the pressure. For Oishi, the amount of paperwork he had to get through was staggering due to the number of problems Seigaku caused during their first round matchup. Coupled with his heavy course load and duties to the health committee and student council, Oishi was just a bomb waiting to explode at the wrong time. In Midori's case, the work was the same as usual, only the criticisms she used to face were now more vocal than ever. Tezuka had been her filter to these harsh words, but ever since he left, there was no one else around to shield her. It wore down what tiny amount of confidence she had left to the point where she would cry herself to sleep at night.
Oishi had to miss more and more council meetings due to the tennis club, but always made sure to stop by the council room before heading home for the day. He tried to rationalize his reasons for visiting with petty excuses, but he knew that, deep down, it was to check on the new interim president. His feet carried him to the student council room, where he caught a glimpse of Midori alone. She was visibly upset as she worked away at the large stack of papers in front of her. He knocked on the door softly before sliding it open. In a hurry, she rubbed her eyes dry with her sleeve.
"Sugimoto-chan, may I come in?"
She smiled sadly. "Of course. What brings you here today?"
"T-thanks," he stuttered. "I just wanted to read today's meeting notes."
She gestured for him to take a seat as she pulled the notes out. "I thought you had tennis practice right now. Is it over already?"
The boy nodded his head as he closed the door behind him and took a seat across from her. "I ended it early today. The team needs time to rest before our next match."
"Who are you playing against?"
"Midoriyama, though I won't be playing in it," he answered.
"That's too bad," she lamented.
"W-well, it's a bit of a blessing in disguise that I'm injured. I can use the time to catch up on all of the paperwork and get it all done by the beginning of next week," he laughed nervously.
"A wrist injury can be very serious if you aren't careful, Oishi-kun," she scolded. "Please don't overwork yourself."
"Sorry, Sugimoto-chan. I didn't mean to worry you."
"It's alright, Oishi-kun. As your interim president, it's one of my duties to watch over my council members and to make sure they're alright," Midori smiled.
He chuckled. "You are too kind, Sugimoto-chan, but what about yourself?"
"What do you mean?"
Oishi reached over and picked up a clear folder with festival logistics and started glossing over it. "This transition must not have been any easier for you. Especially with the festival coming up."
She let out a small sigh. "It's a lot, yes, but it's not that much more than what I was doing before," she lied.
"May I ask what is on your mind? Sorry, but I can't just ignore someone who is upset."
Midori hesitated to tell him about the criticisms she faced and how vitriolic the other council members were being towards her. She didn't want him to needlessly worry over her more than what he was already doing. "I'm fine. Really," she said as she forced a smile. "It's just a lot of adjusting and growing pains."
An uncomfortable silence began to fill the room as the two students sat there, unsure of what to say to each other. They both knew that neither of them were alright and they had to do something in order to fix that. The question that now remained was what they could both do for each other to make their situations less awful.
"I'm so pathetic, Oishi-kun." The girl buried her face into her hands as she let out a long sigh. "Who am I kidding? I can't do all of this by myself. Tezuka-kun always knew exactly what to do and how to get everything done efficiently. I can't compete with that. Everyone else was right; I'm just the person they ask when Tezuka-kun isn't around."
"You're being too hard on yourself, Sugimoto-chan," he said in an attempt to make her feel better. "If there's anyone who can do this, it's you. Without you, the council would surely fall apart!"
The girl failed to fight back her frustrations as the tears began to flow from her eyes.
The vice captain began to panic. "Ah! I- uh- I'm-"
"I'm sorry." She reached for the box of tissues on the table and took one to clean up her face. "You're so kind to me when everyone else spits in my face. I'm lucky to have you on this council, Oishi-kun."
Oishi reached over the table and grabbed ahold of her hand. He gave it a gentle squeeze. "Please know that I will always be on your side, Sugimoto-chan. You are important to me. I will always be around to lend you an ear when you need it."
A light pink blush began to form on her cheeks. "Oishi-kun…"
"Here," he took half the stack of papers she was working on and placed them in front of himself, "I'll do half so you don't have to stay here all night trying to finish it all."
"I can't allow this! What about your own work?"
"I insist." He reached into his bag and pulled out a black pen. "Supporting you is part of my work, president."
"Is convincing you otherwise out of the question?"
He nodded. "Let's both do our best, Sugimoto-chan!"
She couldn't help but giggle. "Of course. I am in your care, Oishi-kun."
Later that night, Oishi sat hunched over his desk as he desperately tried to finish up the club paperwork before tomorrow. He knew it was careless of him to help Midori out with the council, but his one-sided attraction to the girl caused him to act irrationally. He did some quick calculations in his head and had to accept that the only way he'd be able to get all of this done was to stay up all night and miss morning practice. Sighing, he took out his cell phone and dialed up the team's tactician.
"Oishi," came the expressionless voice from the other side.
"Inui, can I trust you to take care of practice tomorrow morning?" the vice captain asked. "It'll just be the first and second years since the rest of the team will not be there."
"Is this because you will be staying up all night to finish the paperwork, Oishi?" Inui questioned.
"Bingo," Inui mused to himself. "Of course I can do it, but do know that they will resent you for leaving me in charge." The bespectacled boy chuckled sinisterly before hanging up.
Oishi let out a groan. "Please forgive me, everyone," he muttered under his breath.
Just as he was about to continue with his work, Oishi received a text message from Midori, thanking him for helping her earlier. Smiling, he shot back a quick reply before picking his pen up again.
"Maybe, this will all work out," he thought to himself.
Seigaku overwhelmed their next opponents in a dominant 3-0 fashion. The team would have little time to relax as they prepared for their next match. On top of the preparations for their next game, Oishi and Inui were also tangled up in the upcoming school festival planning. The both of them were attending one of the many meetings between the student council and festival planning committee to iron out the details. Heading the meeting was Midori, who looked a little less stressed than when Oishi last saw her. Following the adjournment of the meeting, everyone in the room filed out of the room, leaving the treasurer and chairman to argue with each other. Oishi and Midori also stayed in the room to mediate and prevent their friends from killing each other.
"Mido-chan, you know I love you, but how could you do this to me?" Fumiko cried.
"You are the best person for this job, Fumi-chan," Midori tried to explain. She lowered her head to apologize. "I am counting on you!"
"Not up for the challenge, Kajiwara?" Inui taunted.
The annoyed treasurer rolled her eyes. "As if this is going to be a challenge, Inui-kun. The only thing difficult about this position is working with a moron like you."
"Kajiwara-chan! You don't have to be so harsh," Oishi interjected.
"'Moron' huh? That's a new one coming from you," Inui remarked.
Fumiko rolled her eyes before picking up her bag and heading towards the door. "I'm going to get a head start because I just know you're going to hold me back, Inui-kun."
Inui pushed his way to the door to join his new, unfortunate partner. "Not if I get ahead of you first, Kajiwara."
As the two bickering individuals left the room, Midori let out a loud sigh as a smile crept onto her face.
"Sugimoto-chan, was it really a good idea to let them work together?" Oishi asked, concerned.
"Fumi-chan begged me to let her do it," she laughed. "She really likes Inui-kun, but she's not the type of person who would directly tell him how she feels."
Oishi was taken aback by the sudden confession. "Huh?!"
"It's a secret. Please don't tell Inui-kun," she said in a hushed voice.
"I-is that so…"
"Anyways, what's up? The meeting is over and you don't have any other duties for the time being."
"Are you sure you don't want me to do anything for the festival? I feel bad that everyone else on the council is picking up extra tasks," he sheepishly admitted.
Midori shook her head. "You have to prepare our tennis team to win the Regionals, Oishi-kun. You also helped me out a lot last week with the paperwork and I feel bad about it still."
"Sugimoto-chan, you know I did that because I wanted to help you."
"And I want to help you by returning the favour!" She gave him a gentle smile, which made his heart skip a beat. "To be fair, Inui-kun threatened me with his strange drink concoction if I gave you any sort of responsibilities regarding the festival."
Oishi gasped in horror. "He did not!"
"I think it's his way of looking out for you. After all, you are the captain until Tezuka-kun returns."
The boy could only look at her in awe. His thoughts were scrambling and he couldn't come up with a coherent response.
"Congratulations on your win, by the way. I am a little late, but better now than never, right?"
"A-ah! T-thank you," he stuttered. "It means a lot coming from you."
"You're welcome. I hope you can give it your all and win the whole tournament! It'd be a shame if you all just stopped now because you qualified for the Nationals."
Oishi let out a nervous laugh. "I won't be playing in this match either, but I will pass on your well wishes to the rest of the team."
"Oh? Your wrist still hasn't healed?"
"Not yet, but if we make it to the finals, I should be able to play then. I'm taking it easy for the time being."
The girl's expression brightened. "If that's the case, then I hope I can find time to come and watch."
"Y-you don't need to do that! Really, it's fine!"
"I'm only dreaming, Oishi-kun. There's too much work for me to come and cheer on one of the school's sports teams." The girl let out a weary sigh. "I sure hope Tezuka-kun gets better soon. Watching him play tennis is just so magical."
Oishi felt a slight tightness in his chest when she name-dropped his friend. "Sorry, Sugimoto-chan. I don't know when Tezuka will be returning."
"It can't be helped. All we can do is pray for his recovery and work hard to make sure his efforts weren't in vain." The girl stood up from her seat and walked towards the door to the room. "I have some matters to attend to with the headmaster, so I'll see you later, Oishi-kun."
The disheartened vice captain watched as the girl waved at him and exited the room. Sighing, he dragged himself to the door and shut off the lights to the room before locking up the council room and headed towards the tennis club room to pick up his stuff. As he walked to the room, he wondered how much longer he could take watching the girl he was madly in love with continue to talk about his best friend like a revered deity.
Seigaku ended up claiming the Kanto Regionals title in a very close 3-2 victory against Rikkai. Following the tournament, the school's festival was slated to happen. Thanks to the hard work between Inui and Fumiko, most of the logistics have been sorted and organized. Everything had been going smoothly, which made Midori become less and less stressed. Oishi couldn't help but feel relieved as he quietly watched the girl relax little by little. Though she was still anxious about the looming event, the weight on her shoulders was less burdensome.
In the days leading up to the festival, Oishi had to attend a meeting on Rikkai's campus to decide the seeding for the Nationals. Knowing his luck, he was doomed to draw a terrible seed. The large lecture hall that the seeding was taking place in was filled with many intimidating opponents from all over the country. This made the boy even more anxious.
He closed his eyes and began to think to himself. "It's finally the national tournament. As long as we don't get too worked up and play our best, we can definitely…"
"Tokyo representative Seishun Academy! Seishun Academy, are you here?" one of the tournament organizers called out.
Oishi snapped out of his trance. "Ah! H-here! S-sorry, I'll be right up!"
A bunch of the other prefectural representatives began to snicker and laugh at him. "Look at that guy! So lame! He's all nervous!" one of them sneered.
Suddenly, the door to the lecture hall swung open. "Oishi, why don't you let me take it from here?"
Several of the representatives turned around in the direction of the voice, knowing all too well who it belonged to.
"T-Tezuka?!" Oishi exclaimed as he saw the formidable captain standing before him. "When did you get back to Tokyo?"
The stoic boy said nothing more as he made his way down to the front of the room.
"Hey, he's the guy all of the pros are watching right?" one of them murmured.
"Really? But, I heard he was injured" another added.
"Idiots! Tezuka Kunimitsu means nothing to me!" one of them boastfully claimed. "Once I use my Super Tennis on him-"
"You wouldn't last 15 minutes with him," Atobe Keigo interrupted.
"Mind your own business, Atobe," the same boy hissed.
One of the players stuck out their leg in an attempt to trip Tezuka as he made his way down the stairs. Luckily, Tezuka caught himself before he could fall.
"Such long legs you have there," he commented with a less than amused tone. The player who tried to trip him began laughing hysterically.
"Mmm, it feels like all the main characters have finally gathered together," Yamabuki's Sengoku Kiyosumi mused to himself.
"That's Seigaku's captain, Tezuka-san, right?" Rokkaku's Aoi Kentarou asked.
"Yup," Aoi's teammate, Saeki Koujirou, confirmed. "In the absence of Rikkai's Yukimura, he's currently, along with Sanada, the ones closest to the pros."
"It looks like Tezuka will make it on time after all," Rikkai's Yanagi Renji remarked.
Yanagi's friend and teammate, Sanada Genichirou, could only scowl at the sight of his old rival. "There's no time to relax."
"I'm very sorry for being late," Tezuka said as he approached the podium to draw the seed.
"Oh, Tezuka-kun's aura has increased from last year," came the comment from Shitenhouji's Shiraishi Kuranosuke. "This just might be their year…"
After the tense meeting, Oishi and Tezuka headed back to Seigaku to tell the rest of the team the news. Though they did not have to play in the first round, the seeding made it so that they would have to face either Rokkaku or the dark horse, Higa, in their first match. Should they win that, it was likely that they would also end up playing Hyoutei again in the quarterfinals. The journey back was a mostly silent affair, as Tezuka was never the type to engage in a conversation and Oishi was lost as to where to begin a conversation. His best friend abruptly left and came back from a medical leave with very minimal communication the entire time, and now, he was going to insert himself back onto the roster as if nothing had happened.
"Oishi," Tezuka began, interrupting his brooding thoughts, "how are things with the festival?"
"A-ah! T-they're great, actually. Inui and Kajiwara-chan really work well together," Oishi stammered. "I'm sure the both of them can give you a status report when we get back."
"Is Sugimoto-san not working on the festival?" Tezuka asked, confused.
"She is, but, ever since you left, she had to rearrange the responsibilities so that the burden of not having you around wouldn't affect the whole school."
"Is that so?" The taller boy pushed his glasses up his face.
"She did a lot while you were gone, Tezuka," Oishi pointed out. "Please don't dismiss her efforts."
Tezuka gave his friend a strange look. "I would never do something like that, Oishi. Sugimoto-san is the pillar of the student council. I have the utmost faith in her abilities."
Oishi couldn't help but feel an intense jealousy begin to grow within him. Why did he feel this way whenever Tezuka mentioned her?
"Oishi? Are you listening?"
The sheepish vice captain laughed nervously. "Sorry! What were you saying?"
"How are things with the team?"
"The morale is high. They're all very excited for the Nationals, though I hope their excitement doesn't waiver when we tell them about the seeding."
Tezuka nodded. He was satisfied with the answer and chose to end the conversation there. Oishi felt his soul sink further and further down his body as the two continued their journey back to campus. When they arrived, Tezuka immediately made his way to the council room to catch up on the meeting notes from all of the ones he had missed during his absence. Oishi reluctantly followed him, hoping to gather enough courage to grill out his friend for his abrupt return. As they approached the door, the two heard a conversation happening on the other side of the door. Tezuka hesitated to open the door, as he wanted to hear more of it.
"Man, that Sugimoto really can't replace Tezuka-sama," one of the voices cursed. "What an absolute mess she's made of the responsibilities."
"How did she even get the position of vice president? She totally doesn't deserve it," the other one chimed in. "Kajiwara's been doing all the heavy lifting for this festival. What the hell does she even do?"
"Tezuka," Oishi hissed. "What are you-"
Tezuka held his hand up, gesturing for his friend to hold his tongue as he violently jerked the door open, catching the two girls by surprise.
"T-Tezuka-sama!" the both of them exclaimed as they jumped back in surprise.
"I will not tolerate this kind of talk in the student council. If you have an issue with some of the members, please bring it up in the next meeting," the bespectacled boy calmly stated.
Horrified, the two girls ran out of the room, stunning Oishi.
Tezuka turned to address his friend. "Do not mind them. They never do bring it up at the meetings."
"I didn't know people thought about Sugimoto-chan in that way…"
"No one does, except me," Tezuka admitted. "I have kept it hidden from her all this time, but I fear that my absence has caused her to hear some of these harsh words."
"Tezuka! Why didn't you say anything?"
"I am the president of this council, Oishi. I have a duty to protect my fellow council members."
"Is it really protecting if what you're doing is just keeping it to yourself?"
Tezuka said nothing as the girl they were just speaking about approached Oishi from behind. She had been silent the entire time, but she was able to hear most of the conversation between the two.
"Tezuka-kun," the meek girl began, "have you really been hiding it from me for this long?"
"Sugimoto-san," Tezuka said in an apologetic tone as he approached the girl.
"Have I always been this bad at my job?"
"Sugimoto-chan, don't say that! You know that's not true," Oishi pleaded.
Her eyes were glistening as the light caught them, illuminating the pain deep within her. "Everyone's been saying it to me either indirectly or behind my back, Oishi-kun. Everyone but you two. Who's telling the truth; you or them?"
"Just stop! Both of you, please," she begged. "Why do you feel the need to hide this from me, Tezuka-kun? I'm capable of receiving criticism and handling it on my own."
Tezuka reached into his pocket and took out a handkerchief. He presented it to the upset girl. "No excuses can justify my actions and I deeply apologize, Sugimoto-san."
The sudden gesture caught the girl off guard. She accepted the handkerchief from her colleague and used it to dry her tears. Oishi felt his anger begin to build up within him. He wanted to shout at the top of his lungs, but held his tongue instead. It was frustrating to see her in this state and it was even more frustrating knowing that she would never turn to him for comfort.
"Tezuka, I'll see you later. I just remembered Ryuuzaki-sensei needed me to do something," he lied as he quickly walked away from the two.
Oishi hurriedly walked down the hall and away from their sight. Once he felt like he was sufficiently away from his two friends, he cursed under his breath as he kicked the air in front of him.
"Why is it always a competition between me and you, Tezuka? You'll always beat me in everything…"
The school festival went off without a hitch, thanks to the brilliant and well thought out plan from the minds of Fumiko and Inui. It was very well received and everyone who did get to enjoy the festivities had great things to say about it. Shortly afterwards, the tennis team had to resume practice and training for the start of the Nationals. At their next tennis practice, Tezuka announced his formal return to the team. Though everyone seemed relieved and excited that their captain had returned, one man stood in his way and opposed his return to the Regulars.
"We will be having a ranking tournament to decide the strongest players for the Nationals," Coach Ryuuzaki announced to the team.
"Please wait a moment," the vice captain interrupted as he made his way to the front of the group. "We have just captured the Kanto title! Our team has been playing its best tennis in recent days. A ranking tournament could affect the morale of the team."
"Oishi-senpai?! Are you saying that Tezuka-buchou should be left off the team?!" Momoshiro shouted in confusion. "Come on, Oishi-senpai! Weren't you also anticipating the return of Tezuka-buchou?! Besides, I was the one who lost in the ranking tournament to begin with. I've only been playing as a Regular in order to substitute for injured players."
"Momo," Oishi began, "you want to play at the Nationals, right? You don't have to hold back," he said in an uncharacteristically nonchalant tone.
Many of the club members expressed their shock at their vice captain's bold words.
He looked Tezuka dead in the eyes with threatening intent. "The reason is that I won't allow anyone whose injuries have not healed to be recognized as a Regular on this team!" He pointed his finger at the captain. "Tezuka, you will have a match with me. The match will be a singles match, however, if you drop even a single game, I will not let you back on the team!"
"Oishi! You can't be serious!" Eiji exclaimed. "What are you thinking?!"
Tezuka gave him a single nod of acceptance. "I do not mind, however, I will not hold back."
As the two leaders of the team geared up to play the match, the rest of the club huddled around the perimeter of the court to watch. A number of non-members also began to gather, curious about the commotion. Many people agreed that Tezuka would win this, considering Oishi had never won against him and the fact that Oishi's strengths lied in doubles. The large gathering of people caught the eye of Midori and Fumiko, who were making their rounds to the various sports clubs to collect receipts from the festival.
"I wonder who's playing? Looks like half the school is watching," Fumiko remarked.
The shuffling of people eventually allowed the two to catch a glimpse of the tennis team vice captain and captain standing on opposite sides of the net with harrowed expressions on their faces.
"It's Tezuka-kun and Oishi-kun?" Midori asked, confused.
"Really? I wonder what happened between them to cause this…"
"Let's go watch, Fumi-chan," she said as she took hold of her friend's wrist and dragged her towards the crowd.
"H-Hey! Slow down there!"
The two pushed themselves through all of the boys until they were pressed up against the fencing. The match was extremely one-sided, with Tezuka being just three more points away from winning against his vice captain without dropping a single game. As Oishi served the next point, Midori felt a rush of emotions as she watched the ball fly into Tezuka's racket. She couldn't peel her eyes off of the vice captain and felt ensnared by his tennis.
Midori could feel the passionate flame burning within the boy as he clung desperately onto his racket. She knew he was going to lose, but the sheer determination and his commitment to playing with his full strength in spite of his circumstances plucked at her heartstrings. He had the same 'notice and acknowledge me and my skills' look in his eyes that she knew all too well. It dawned on her that she shared a lot of the same experiences as the tennis team vice captain. No matter what either of them did, they both knew they would never surpass Tezuka Kunimitsu. He was on a completely different echelon of existence.
"Oishi-kun's getting his butt kicked by Tezuka-kun, but I can't seem to look away from him," Fumiko said in amazement.
Midori unconsciously moved her hands up to her chest, right above where her heart was. There was a small, dull ache that felt similar to the pain she would normally feel when she thought about the captain of the tennis team.
Fumiko nudged her friend on the shoulder. "Mido-chan?"
"Ah! Sorry, Fumi-chan. What did you say?"
"Let's go bother Nishi-kun for the tennis club's stuff. We don't have all day to collect these receipts."
"You're right," she agreed.
For the rest of the day, Midori couldn't get the thought of Oishi out of her head, no matter how hard she tried. His playstyle resonated deeply within her as he was finally able to reach her with his tennis.
Midori would not see either of her tennis team council members until the finals against Rikkai. The day of the finals was also one of the few days she had off from both cram school and council duties. When she arrived at the stadium, the Doubles 2 match was just about to begin. She found a seat near the Seigaku team and quietly observed her surroundings. Oishi noticed the girl, but was too preoccupied to wave at her. His expression relaxed slightly upon seeing her in the stands, ready to cheer him on.
"This is Oishi-kun's last doubles match, huh…" she remarked to herself.
The match began with an explosive serve from Rikkai's Kuwahara aimed straight at the vice captain, who returned it with a little difficulty. The intense rally continued on as the audience became entranced by the intricate performance on the court. Frustrated, Momoshiro dragged Seigaku's freshman super rookie out of the stadium, shouting that he will make the younger boy remember tennis. Confused, she decided to ask Tezuka what was going on.
She tapped the shoulders of the tired captain. "Tezuka-kun, is everything alright?"
"Sugimoto-san, I was not expecting to see you here," he responded. "Our youngest seems to have forgotten who he was."
"Oh my goodness! What happened?"
"I am… Not entirely sure, to be honest." Tezuka folded his arms across his chest and turned to look back down at the court. "I must put my faith in Momoshiro. As his captain, this is all I can do."
Oishi glanced up at the team before the next ball was served. There was a calm look of determination on his face as he nodded at his teammates before returning his attention to the game. Midori could easily tell that Oishi was trying to tell the team that he and Eiji would handle this match until their star player returned.
"Oishi-kun is really going to stall the game for Echizen-kun?" she asked.
"Let us hope that they do not get careless," Tezuka prayed.
They continued to watch the match play out as the Golden Pair bought time for their freshman teammate to recover his lost memories. With every rally, serve, lob or smash, Midori could feel the sheer desire to win and the silent prayers for their feelings to reach their amnesiac teammate. She silently uttered her own wishes for the young super rookie to return soon as Oishi and Eiji started to get backed into a corner.
Suddenly, Momoshiro bursted into the stadium, shouting at the top of his lungs. "Buchou! Echizen's memories!"
The team turned around to look up at the second year.
"He's been battling his old rivals from the other schools! Little by little, his memories are coming back!"
"It's too late! This Doubles 1 match is already over!" laughed Rikkai's Kirihara.
Momoshiro bowed deeply at his two seniors on the court. "Eiji-senpai! Oishi-senpai! Thank you for stalling this long!"
"Time to get going, Oishi," Eiji said in a cheerful tone.
The vice captain nodded. "Let's join up with Echizen, Eiji."
The atmosphere surrounding the pair began to change dramatically. They soon began to sync up their breathing and movements relative to each other in a hypnotic way.
"Since when have they been able to use 'Synchro' willingly?!" came the shocked response from their opponents.
Midori felt her breath being taken away from her as she became entranced in the synchronization of the Golden Pair and watched them steal the game back from the brink of defeat. Oishi and Eiji were giving it their all and she could feel the looming sadness in their play. When they won, she couldn't help but shed a few tears of joy for the two. As the two returned to the stands, she approached the vice captain with a silly grin on her face.
"Oishi-kun, congratulations on your win," she beamed. "Your tennis was amazing. I felt like I was completely captivated by it. I couldn't look away for a second."
"Sugimoto-chan, you actually came!" he said in surprise. "T-thank you. It means a lot, coming from you."
"You deserve to be congratulated on such a good game."
His cheeks began to flush as he started to lose his composure. "O-of course," he laughed nervously. "I'm glad you were able to come watch us in the finals. It's nice to see you not stress about the council for once."
"And miss our school winning the championship? This is a very rare event, Oishi-kun," she giggled.
"W-well, we haven't won yet," he pointed out.
"I believe you will," she reassured.
Just as she predicted, Seigaku ended up stealing Rikkai's third consecutive championship title when Echizen Ryoma made a comeback to win the final game 6-4. It was a history-making day for Seigaku and everyone involved, as the undefeated kings were finally toppled. Days later, Midori ran into Oishi, who had just gotten out of a brutal meeting with the student council treasurer. She was on her way to the council room until she saw the vice captain walk down the hall, looking very tense. She decided to approach him to ask what was wrong.
"Oishi-kun, you look like you just saw someone kick a puppy in the face," she joked.
"I assume Fumi-chan had some choice words to say to your team?"
Oishi nodded as he let out a defeated sigh. "Thankfully, most of the damages have been paid for in full."
"That's a good thing! Now, Fumi-chan won't have to kill you all," she smiled.
"I never want to see Kajiwara-chan angry ever again…"
"She does take her job very seriously," Midori pointed out.
The two laughed a little before the conversation went silent. In the awkwardness, Midori couldn't help but notice that her cheeks were starting to warm up and there was a strange, fluttering feeling in her stomach. She wondered if she always had this sort of reaction when talking with him before. Oishi felt like his heart was just waiting to burst straight out of his chest as a million scenarios began to play in his mind about what was going on at that exact moment. Thankfully, the headmaster calling out to Midori snapped the both of them out of their thoughts.
"Sorry, Oishi-kun. Let's catch up later, yeah?" The girl quickly bowed before dashing off to meet up with the headmaster.
Oishi took a deep, sharp breath before heading towards the exit of the school. He spent the rest of his day curled up in a ball at home as he tried to calm himself down.
"It was just an awkward silence, Shuichirou. Nothing more," he repeated to himself over and over again.
Midori had decided that she would finally confess to Tezuka after three years of not saying anything on Valentine's Day. It was her last chance, since she knew he'd be leaving the country after the year was up. A few days before, she dragged Fumiko out with her to a fancy department store in downtown Shinjuku to pick out an expensive box of chocolates for their president.
"Thanks for agreeing to come with me, Fumi-chan!" Midori smiled. "I can't believe you agreed this year."
"I have someone I need to buy chocolates for this year," Fumiko grinned. "But, it's better if I come along with you to avoid suspicion."
"You still haven't told Inui-kun yet?"
Fumiko held her finger up to her mouth to signal to her friend to be more quiet. "Soon. Just one more trick to make that idiot run around in circles." She looked around the store and noticed that the same boy they were talking about was trying to follow them from a distance. "Seems like he's watching us, so don't mention his name."
"Of course," Midori giggled. "Have you decided what kind of chocolates to get for him?"
"Whatever doesn't break the bank," she sighed.
The girls picked up and inspected multiple types of boxed chocolates on display. There were an overwhelming variety of flavours and prices to pick and choose from. Midori felt her head spin. "I feel like they come up with crazier ideas every year…"
Fumiko held up a box of cinnamon and wasabi-filled prank chocolates. "Get these ones for Tezuka-kun," she joked. "Who was the genius that thought these were a good idea?"
"Those look like something Fuji-kun would enjoy," Midori commented as she decided to take the box. "And Fumi-chan, I'm trying to confess to Tezuka-kun; not make him hate me forever."
"Mido-chan, I know-"
"I know he's likely going to reject me," Midori interrupted her friend mid-sentence. "Still, I'll never get the closure I need to move on unless I do it."
"It seems that I was concerned over nothing," Fumiko sighed. "In that case," she reached for a navy blue box with gold accents, "why not these ones?"
Midori took the box from her friend's hands. She flipped it over to check the labels and price. "80% cacao? These sound bitter."
"Tezuka-kun almost never eats the chocolates he receives, but he does like the taste of bitter dark chocolate. I've seen him eat some before in the council room." Fumiko picked up another box of the chocolates. "Perhaps I should give these to Tezuka-kun as well," she said at a raised volume, provoking the bespectacled data collector hiding in plain sight.
"Eh? Getting him the same chocolates probably isn't a good idea, Fumi-chan…"
"You make a good point. What about Oishi-kun?"
Midori was confused. "Huh?"
"You know? The egghead-looking guy? The dude who's been helping you all this time when Tezuka-kun wasn't here?" Fumiko began to make a bunch of gestures in the air to try and jog her friend's memory. "We should get him something too."
"You're right! I have to properly thank him for everything he's done so far," Midori realized. "Oh, but what kind of chocolates would he like? I don't know much about him at all."
"Milk chocolate is always a safe bet," Fumiko pointed out. "I'm sure he'll like whatever you pick out!"
"Eh? How can you be so sure of that, Fumi-chan?"
"I just do," she said in a matter-of-fact way. "Oishi-kun will appreciate anything you give him because it's coming from you!"
"You make it sound like he has feelings for me, Fumi-chan…"
"And what if he does? What will you do?"
Midori felt tongue-tied. What was she going to do if Oishi Shuichirou had feelings for her? The thought has never crossed her mind before since she's never been in a situation where someone was interested in her. The idea triggered a series of thoughts that slowly started to make sense to the young girl. All of the things he did for her and of the times he looked at her with a sense of foreboding desire were suddenly as obvious as daylight.
Thankfully, her friend was there to snap her out of her trance. "Mido-chan! How about these?" Fumiko held up a box of chocolate covered fruits. "I've heard of strawberries and chocolate before, but a lot of these are strange."
"M-maybe I'll settle for a box of just chocolate-covered strawberries. I don't think Oishi-kun is the adventurous type," Midori sighed. "Fumi-chan, does Oishi-kun really like me?"
"If you have to ask me, then you really are clueless, Mido-chan," Fumiko chuckled. "Well, I'm done with my list. What about you?"
"O-oh! I-I guess I am done," Midori stammered as she rushed to select a few more boxes. "Let's get going before the checkout line gets long."
The air was rancid with romantic feelings and hearts waiting to be broken. Midori decided to go to school earlier than usual, just so she could get a chance to speak with her person of interest before everyone else got in the way. With her expensive box of chocolates in hand, she confidently opened the door to his classroom and walked in. She made her way towards Tezuka and his desk covered in various chocolates from other girls.
"Tezuka-kun, good morning," she greeted.
The boy nodded in acknowledgement. "You are earlier than usual, Sugimoto-san."
"W-well, I have some business I need to take care of," she admitted. "Tezuka-kun, these are for you." She held out an expensive-looking box of chocolates for him to accept. "I know you get a lot of chocolates from other girls every year, but I hope you can accept these ones too."
"Thank you, Sugimoto-san," Tezuka said as he took the box from her. "You are very thoughtful."
She gave him a slight smile. "Actually, Tezuka-kun, there's something I wanted to tell you."
His face contorted into a slightly concerned expression. "Of course. What do you wish to speak to me about?"
Midori sighed as she psyched herself up. "The truth is… I like you, Tezuka-kun. Or rather, I liked you."
"I… see…" The boy pushed his glasses up his face in order to try and hide his slight embarrassment.
"I've liked you for a very long time, Tezuka-kun. I really thought I wanted a relationship with you, but you're just way out of my league," she rambled. "The truth is, I don't know you at all. I just have this idea of you in my head that I obsessed over."
"So, what you are saying is you do not actually love me the way you thought you did," he concluded.
"Y-yeah," she stammered. "I'm sorry. This is extremely awkward."
Tezuka shook his head. "Do not apologize for telling the truth, Sugimoto-san. I am glad that you were able to determine how you truly feel." He gave her a very rare smile of reassurance, which shocked her.
He immediately changed back into his usual stoic demeanour. "I will not speak of this any further."
"Thank you for understanding, Tezuka-kun," she beamed. "I'll see you at the next meeting, okay?"
The boy nodded at her as she quickly exited the classroom. As she shut the door behind her, she immediately walked right into someone who was trying to enter the room.
"O-oh! I'm sorry!" She hastily bowed at the person.
"I-it's alright, Sugimoto-chan," the person reassured. "No harm done."
She raised her head. "Oishi-kun!"
"Listen, Sugimoto-chan," he began as his cheeks began to flush, "can we talk?"
"Um, o-of c-course," she stuttered. "Should we go somewhere else?"
"Y-yeah," he nodded as he gestured for her to lead the way.
The two walked in awkward silence towards the empty tennis courts on campus. Neither of them wanted to start the conversation despite having a lot to say.
Oishi decided to bite the bullet and coughed. "Sugimoto-"
"Midori," she corrected. "I think we've known each other long enough to stop with the formalities, no?"
"R-right." He scratched the back of his head. "In that case, you can call me Shuichirou, then."
She laughed nervously. "Alright, Shuichirou." She rummaged through her bag and pulled out a box of expensive strawberries covered in equally expensive chocolate. "These are for you. Happy Valentine's Day."
"You shouldn't have! I can't possibly accept such an extravagant gift," he protested.
"You've helped me a lot this year, Shuichirou. I wanted to properly thank you for that," she pointed out.
"These are lovely. Thank you so much."
They stood in silence once again, unsure of what direction to take the conversation. After what seemed like another eternity, the both of them started speaking at the same time.
"I like you!" the both of them shouted at each other.
A huge wave of relief swept through Oishi's anxious body. "You feel the same way too?"
"You like me?" she asked.
"Yes! I've liked you since first year, Midori. I just couldn't bear to say anything because I thought you liked Tezuka. I stood no chance against someone like him."
"I did like Tezuka-kun, but only this fake image of him that I conjured up." She looked into his mossy green eyes. "But you… I feel like I'm in love with the real deal. Not some persona that I made up with information I learned."
"Midori…" He reached out to caress her cheek with his hand. "It makes me happy to hear you say that."
"You… You really liked me all this time?"
He nodded. "To be honest, I thought you would reject me. After all-"
"-Tezuka-kun's on another plane of existence, right?" she finished his sentence.
"You feel that way about him too?"
"Who doesn't? He's not even human half the time," she laughed. "Who can compete with an honours student that's also the president of student council and the nationally-ranked tennis team captain? Anyone would lose." She slowly approached the boy and reached up to hold his face between her hands. "But, I learned that there's no point in trying to compare myself to him. Instead, I should be looking at what's in front of me. I'm no Tezuka Kunimitsu, but I do have things to be proud of. You're not Tezuka-kun either, but there are so many wonderful things about you that don't exist within him."
"I never thought of it that way," he admitted. "Wait, you really think I'm likeable, even though I'm not Tezuka?"
Midori propped herself up on the tips of her toes and inched her soft lips close to his. The kiss was light, tender and warm. "Does that answer your worries?"
His cheeks began to turn a brighter shade of red. "M-Midori!"
"My feelings for you remain the same, Shuichirou," she smiled. "I really do like you and only you."
Oishi pulled her into a tight hug and lifted her off of her feet. "I really like you too! Even if this is a dream, this is the happiest day of my life."
The girl laughed. "Let's continue to have more happy days together, then."
The two students sealed that promise with another kiss before heading back into the school before the first period started. They happily held each other's cold hands as they waltzed into the building together. Though they were nearing the end of their middle school lives, it was just the beginning of something bigger.