Title: True Leaders
Author: Stormy1x2 (travelingstorm)
Recipient: Andersenmom
Pairing/Characters: Kamio, Tachibana
Rating: G
Warnings(if any): None
Word Count: 1556
Author's notes: This is a different style for me (yet again!) and so I hope it works okay. It's hard writing in both past and present tense without doing actual flashbacks.

True Leaders

It wasn't the first time they'd heard the whispers, the rumors that drifted through the stands. It happened every time they went to a match or a tournament. Tachibana naturally stood out as the leader of their little rag-tag group – tall, handsome, poised, completely at ease. He exuded a personal aura of confidence that swept over anyone who looked at them, convincing them that they were looking at the eventual winners. But that wasn't what the whispers were about.

The whispers came when Tachibana introduced his vice-captain, and Kamio Akira stood up. Short, painfully thin, all arms and legs and pinched white face that seemed permanently exhausted. He looked so much different from Tachibana; weaker, unfit. Then he opened his mouth, and new whisper would flood the court: brash, abrasive, hyperactive, tense.

Despite years of listening to radios, Walkmans, CD and MP3 players at full volume, Kamio nonetheless retained excellent hearing, and Tachibana knew his second was not unaware of the comments he drew every time he stood by his captain's side.

They don't know, he told himself again and again. They didn't know, they didn't see what he saw the day he first came to Fudomine. They didn't have a clue.

But Tachibana did. He remembered seeing a group of young boys trying to play tennis. Six of them, filled with love and devotion to their sport of choice, all of them unnaturally blessed with hidden talents and massive potential – and every last one of them being beaten down for trying. But they never gave up. Or, rather, one of them refused to let them give up.

When he'd first seen them all, he'd naturally assumed Ishida was the 'leader' of the group. Bigger, stronger, he'd been the obvious choice. He'd stood up, fists clenched, eyes burning with anger, and the older tennis club members had laughed challengingly. Tachibana had been surprised when a sharp voice snapped out, halting the tall, muscular boy in his tracks. Kamio pushed past Ishida, yelling at him not to start fights. A sly, determined look slid across the redhead's face as he then declared, 'That's my job,' before whirling around and decking the 'sempai' closest to him, sparking an all-out brawl.

It had been the same firebrand who'd suddenly stood up and yelled for a retreat, commanding near-instant obedience from them. They disappeared around the corner of the courts just as school officials, informed by other students, had swarmed out of the administrative building to stop the fight.

The small redhead had intrigued Tachibana, and it was that interest that had helped rekindle his passion for tennis. He sought out clues, answers to his questions about just who this Kamio Akira was, and the more he learned, the more interested he became.

Kamio lived with his mother and two sisters, practically raising his siblings as his mother worked sixteen hour days at two jobs to make ends meet. He tutored Mori in mathematics, and Uchimura in History. He walked Shinji to and from school to make sure Shinji – who seemed permanently lost in his own world – didn't wander away and get lost, or forget to go to school (or home) at all. He'd backed up Ishida when the older boy was targeted by eager young scrappers because of his size and strength, and had strong-armed Sakurai through a near suicidal bout of depression when his mother had died the year before.

He was a natural caretaker. Tachibana had finally made his decision to step in and help them reach their own potential. After slowly winning Kamio's trust, it had become apparent to him that Kamio must have been feeling a bit desperate, in need of someone to help take care of his team. He'd welcomed Tachibana, latching on to him as someone who didn't need looking after; as someone who could take care of himself, and help Kamio in return.

After the incident when he'd knocked out the tennis club supervisor, it had only made sense to submit the forms needed to start their own team. Once approved, it had been a mere formality on his part to name Kamio as his vice-captain. A smile flickered across his face as Tachibana recalled that particular moment in time.

What had been, to him, a magnanimous gesture, had been met with wariness and a chilly undercurrent of hostility from the rest of the team. Despite having won their trust, it was still Kamio they turned to first. It had taken a long time to completely win their devotion and dedication.

He couldn't blame them. Scarred by abusive sempai's who had sought to harm rather than help; surrounded by a bored, underpaid, and just plain uninterested teaching staff, the boys were completely unused to trusting anyone outside their group. It had been Kamio's acceptance of him that had eventually led to the team they were today.

Tachibana stood tall in front of the referee, facing down the captain and vice-captain of the other schools. They looked at him with respect, but he could see the slight sneers on their faces as they looked beside him. He could sense Kamio's famous temper boiling, knew without looking that the boy's hands were clenching into white-knuckled fists, and he also knew that on the bench behind them, the rest of the team was glaring. He reached for him, laying a gentle hand on Kamio's shoulders without taking his eyes off the opponents before them. Beneath his touch, Kamio quieted, and he could feel his team settle down.

Kamio was the barometer of the team, Tachibana knew. And knowing that, understanding it, was what made Tachibana's leadership possible. After the four captains and vice-captains shook hands, Tachibana steered Kamio back to the group, letting the team settle their ruffled feathers, preparing to show the other team why it was unwise to disrespect them. As for his vice-captain's temper, well, it took extra soothing on Tachibana's part, gentle arm squeezes and light ruffling of that tousled head, but touching Kamio wasn't something he ever considered a burden.

Later, the matches finished and the day over, Tachibana delivered a closing pep talk to the team, rewarding their efforts with sincere praise and constructive criticisms. Kamio stood beside him, listening intently, providing his own unique brand of insight.

When the year came to an end, and Tachibana was going to have to move on, he knew the whispers were predicting a fallout of the team. Whispers told him that everyone, every school they'd fought, believed that it was Tachibana who had united them, who had inspired them, who had made them what they were. Without him, the whispers insisted, Fudomine would crumble and fall.

Tachibana looked over his team as they listened to Kamio; dirty, exhausted yet triumphant, their eyes sparking with life and resolve, and he thought again just how clueless their audiences truly were.

The team had already been united. He had only been a catalyst – the one who had started them on the path to the championship. He had pushed them, had done what he could to bring out their talents in the short time he had with them. The true leader was standing before them, ranting about rhythm and how they needed to tighten the beat in their games, drawing affectionate looks and light chuckles from his teammates.

It had always been Kamio. And now, the junior high tennis world would know it.

---

Kamio wrapped up his speech and dismissed the team. Beside him, he could feel Tachibana's eyes on him, as they had been for the last few days. Had he offended his captain somehow? Done something wrong? Kamio couldn't think of anything off the top of his head, but he had so many responsibilities and things to look after that it was quite possible he had done something and had completely forgotten.

"Tachibana-san?"

His captain started. "Kamio?"

"Did I do something wrong?" Kamio blurted out nervously. "'Cause I know you've been watching me a lot today, and maybe yesterday and the day before that, and if I offended or insulted you then I'm really, really sorry--"

Tachibana cut off his rambling with a chuckle. "Kamio you've been spending too much time around Shinji." He reached out, ruffling Kamio's bangs, before brushing them out of his face.

Kamio drew in his breath sharply at the gentle touch. "Tachibana-san?"

His captain stared at him for another long minute, piercing eyes focused on him intently. Tachibana-san had a way of looking through you, like he could read your mind. But then he smiled, resting his arm on Kamio's shoulder. "Nothing, Kamio. Just thinking."

Kamio wriggled contentedly under the arm. "About what?"

"About what you'll do with this team next year," Tachibana said quietly. "How far you'll go. Can you feel it Kamio?"

Kamio blinked. "Me?" He laughed. "Tachibana-san, I hope you don't have high expectations of us. We'll do what we can, try our very best, but without you--"

"Without me, you'll do even better then we did this year," his captain said seriously. "You underestimate yourself, and what you're capable of."

Kamio nodded, deciding to let Tachibana have the last word, even if it was ludicrous to even think of. After all, everyone knew their success had been due to Tachibana's influence. And next year, with him gone, it was going to be fairly obvious.

After all, he was no leader.

Right?

---

End

I hope you enjoyed this! Feedback is always welcome!

[Revised on July 19, 2007