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One Sky

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When Tezuka gets back to the hotel, Ryoma is waiting in the lobby, tennis bag on his back, a can of balls in his hand. He straightens his back, lifts his chin, looks at Tezuka.

"I have two hours," Tezuka says and they walk back out into the dull white heat of the day.

It's a neighbourhood court, pitted and chipped, the painted lines wearing away. Ryoma takes off his jacket, Japan, just like the one on Tezuka's back. Tezuka can still feel the weight of Oishi's arm across his shoulders after he draped it there. Ryoma's has a stain on the sleeve where Tooyama must have spilled a drink.

"Rough," Tezuka says and the racquet clatters against the cement. It's a moment before either of them look down.

Ryoma's serve is almost lost against the sun, but Tezuka's racquet finds it. Every shot in the rally rolls through Tezuka like a wave, pulling at him like the tide, every point in the game.

They drink water when they change ends, standing in the shade of a small shelter. Tezuka takes a towel from Ryoma, hands him a tube of sunscreen.

Heat shimmers in the air and sweat stings Tezuka's eyes when he reaches for the ball. The thwack of each hit cuts through the rumble of the traffic, the buzz of strange insects, the call of a bird watching from the roof of the shelter.

He doesn't need to see the ball, just Ryoma across the net, dashing, swinging, wiping sweat from his forehead. The ball takes care of itself, Tezuka can't even feel the racquet in his hand.

Watch your back, Fuji always told him, Echizen will catch you up.

Tezuka can see every match Ryoma has ever played, whether he was there to watch or not, in Ryoma's smash, in his drop shot, in his searching eyes and his backhand down the line.

But that's what you're waiting for, isn't it? Fuji would say.

I'm not waiting, Tezuka said once and Fuji smiled at him.

Neither drops a service game. The tie-break stretches out like the highway into the desert. Tezuka's head is swimming with the heat, his ears are ringing with adrenalin. He can't remember where they are: the Haruno clay court, on the grass at Wimbledon, a broken down street court under the Australian sun.

Tezuka's racquet slips in his hand and the ball twists off it, falling just inside the tramlines. He shakes his arm out and goes back to receive Ryoma's match point.

But Ryoma drops his racquet and goes to the net. Tezuka blinks, then walks slowly up to join him.

Ryoma's shirt is dark with sweat, his face is flushed and shining in the heat. He looks up at Tezuka and holds out the ball.

Tezuka takes it. It's worn and fuzzy in his hand, they should have replaced the balls before the tie break. He puts it in his pocket. He can already feel their next match, their next meeting. Or maybe there only ever is one match between them.

Ryoma is still holding out his hand. Tezuka clasps it and they stand there under the sun, palm to palm.

"Buchou," Ryoma says.