A/N: This has been mostly written on my computer for ages, but I only now just finished it enough to post it. I wimped out on the ending, so it doesn't feel very finished, but it's done nevertheless. It's basically pointless hurt!Ryoma.

The Prince vs. the Beast

"I'm sorry," Sengoku apologized to the rest of the Japanese Junior Tennis Team, one arm slung over Kikumaru's shoulders.

Dan shot to his feet. "Sengoku-senpai! What happened, desu?"

Sengoku made a face as Kikumaru helped lower him onto a bench in the stands. "I tripped down the stairs." With a sigh, he gingerly stretched out his leg. "Twisted my ankle. So unlucky!"

"Well, are you okay, desu?" Dan hovered beside him, wringing his hands.

"Yeah, but I can't play." Sengoku sought out their substitute's gaze, the team member who'd now have to play in his place. "I'm sorry," he repeated to Ryoma. "I know how much you wanted to play against Kevin.

Ryoma shrugged and looked away. "Whatever." He pulled his cap down to hide his disappointed eyes.

"But we don't know who his opponent will be," Kikumaru protested.

Atobe pointed out, "It's unlikely that it'll be Smith."

"And for the American team, Boooobbbyyy Maaaxx!" the announcer called.

In the stands, Horio gaped at the giant that strode onto the court, brandishing three rackets in each hand. "He's not a junior high student! No, he's not even human!"

The two opponents approached the net: Bobby looked two times as tall, and probably that many as wide, as Ryoma. Most everyone in the audience agreed that this was the most unfair-looking set of opponents, but then, random selection was random selection.

The tennis prodigy craned his neck up. Bobby snorted and leered down with disdain. In English, he scoffed, "Hey, sissy. I'm gonna beat you flat."

Ryoma raised an eyebrow, rested his racket on his shoulder and in English replied just as scornfully, "You still have a lot of work to do."

Bobby snarled and gripped the net in one huge fist, twisting it. Ryoma involuntarily took a step back, wariness in his hazel eyes. "Bobby!" the American coach snapped, rising to his feet from the bench. The huge boy twitched, threw one last deadly glare at Ryoma, then whirled and stomped off.

Ryoma breathed a sigh of relief. At least he got first serve. Then he grinned to himself: this was going to be a fun challenge. Beating a guy with an ego like that was almost a specialty for Ryoma, and he was looking forward to it.

Three games. Three whole games, and he hadn't yet managed to scrape up a single point. On his knees at the baseline, Ryoma hunched over and just tried to breathe. He was drenched in sweat; the hem of his shirt was nearly dripping with it. Staggering to his feet, he managed to trudge to the bench and fall onto it beside his Captain-turned-bench-coach.

Tezuka twisted sideways on his seat to survey him and inquired, "Echizen? Are you okay?"

The twelve-year-old jerked a nod. Tezuka handed him a water bottle, and he guzzled the contents. At this rate, his endurance would probably only last another game or two, much less the whole match – what for him would be a rapid sprint from one end of the court to the other was for his opponent a mere few long steps. This American seemed designed to make the most of his weakest point.

Over on the other side, the American coach, Richard Baker, held out to Bobby a banana. Bobby scoffed, waved it away, and pushed to his feet. "I don't need it! Not against a brat like him!" Bobby shot a furious scowl toward Ryoma, tossing the empty water bottle in his hand over his shoulder to his coach, who caught it easily, and stomping back onto the court.

The stupid brat just wouldn't stop trying. Bobby couldn't believe he actually had to work – even if only a little – to win those games, when it should be dead easy. The kid was tiny! How was he able to return his power shots in the first place?

Ryoma lurched to his feet when he saw Bobby rise. Tezuka allowed a small frown to cross his features as he eyed his teammate. "Echizen," he said, "no one would blame you if you lost."

The Prince of Tennis shot him a glare. "I won't forfeit."

Tezuka's face returned to neutrality. "I didn't expect you to."


As the fourth game commenced, Horio muttered dejectedly to Kachiro for the nth time, "He's got no chance."

"Horio-kun!" Katsuo protested from the other side of the boy, as he'd done every previous time. "Of course he does!"

Kachiro shook his head slowly. "It doesn't look good."

But just then, Ryoma was diving for a ball. His white cap fell. The freshman trio sucked in a collective breath. He was going to miss! But no, the ball bounced up off the rim of the racket, tumbled slowly through the air and tapped the net. For an interminable moment, the ball remained balanced before it finally dropped onto Bobby's side and rolled away.

The referee yelled out, "Fifteen, love!" Ryoma hefted himself up onto an elbow with a victorious grin.

Bobby stared at the ball. His knuckles whitened around his racket in furious disbelief, rage bulging out the veins in his temples. Then with a bellow, he tore across the court, casting aside his racket. He hopped over the net like it was a finger-thick stick lying across his path.

Ryoma scrambled to his feet and stumbled backward, his hazel eyes enormous. With one gigantic hand around the boy's throat, Bobby snatched him up like he was a rag doll, setting his legs a-swinging.

The crowd exploded with noise. Ryoma's friends, along with a good number of regular audience members, surged out of the stands and onto the court, hollering until it felt their lungs would burst. Security materialized on the scene, shoving their way through the crowd of good Samaritans.

"No, Bobby, stop!" cried Coach Baker, the closest, fastest and thus first to arrive, tugging on the huge boy's wrists. He glanced desperately to the hapless Japanese boy in the Beast's clutches, feeling guilt rage through him for his recruiting Bobby in the first place. This was all his fault – he'd known what Bobby was capable of, and he hadn't cared.

Ryoma's mouth had fallen open soundlessly. His racket had clattered to the ground in his shock, the sound lost in the audience's cacophony. Both hands scratched and yanked at the hand encircling his neck. Thrashing and twisting, he fought with all his might for air. His lungs burned. The crushing grip at his throat seemed like it would snap his neck in two. His ears roared with a burgeoning silence.

Bobby's mouth curled in a manic grin. Nothing reached his ears but the tiny gasps he could read across the boy's lips, that he could feel on his hand, sense in the occasional hitch under his fingers. Terror-filled, bulging eyes locked with his. Small feet kicked at the air and at his rock-hard stomach, several feet above the ground, inadvertently pushing back people who were trying to help.

The mob around the two tennis players heaved, and they all went down under the flood. Pressed to the ground now and half-buried by the do-gooders, the mass of hands yanked at the grip around Ryoma's throat, jostling the two of them. The boy's face was already red and darkening toward purple. They half-pried up the one giant hand, only to find Bobby's left clapping onto Ryoma's throat too, both thumbs digging into the boy's windpipe.

Dark spots raced across Ryoma's vision, tunneling down to a circle of light that shrank and shrank. The need for air had passed pain and moved into anguish. His diaphragm shook with the effort to suck in any wisp of air. The entire earth pressed down on his neck and chest; everything centered there, spun on an axis there. There was life all around him – against his skin in the breath of his teammates, their swift movements, all so close. So frighteningly close. His lungs screamed with the pain of the debilitating void. His writhing slowed.

The yanking and shouting grew even more desperate. Bobby's grip was superhuman, but when they all took a finger and pulled, they finally tore away the hand from Ryoma's neck.

The boy inhaled the deepest, most desperate breath of his life. That terrifying purple color faded from his face, leaving it flushed crimson. Clutching his neck with both hands, he lay on his side and coughed, gasping. Sound and sight came blinking back, uncertain of their welcome. Ryoma panted, his entire body trembling with shallow drags of priceless air.

The dreadful killing pressure dissipated, leaving him weak and dazed. His throat was aflame, his now sickly pale skin clammy. He was unutterably glad to be breathing, to feel air traveling into and out of his chest.

Somewhere on the outskirts of awareness, past the still-almost-desperate need for air, he felt hands on his shoulders and scared voices calling his name, begging him to respond. His grateful eyes twirled slowly up to their familiar faces, and they seemed to take a breath of relief.

At finally seeing a significant sign of life and awareness, both Horio and Oishi sat back on their heels and burst into sobs. Kikumaru joined in and soon a surprisingly large portion of his teammates had relieved tears running down their cheeks.

Kikumaru pushed past Tezuka, whose face had softened into a gentle smile directed at the youngest regular, and snatched up a bewildered, limp, unprotesting Ryoma in his arms. "OCHIBI!" he wailed, careful not to hug very hard.

Ryoma flushed, then froze as his gaze found Bobby's over Kikumaru's shoulder. Even while being hauled off by security, hands cuffed behind his back, Bobby's eyes flamed with a berserker rage. The freshman watched until the American disappeared out of one of the doors, then finally let himself fall totally limp in his senpai's arms, closing his eyes with a small sigh.

Ryoma must have missed some time, because the next thing he knew, two medics had pressed their way through the group kneeling on the court. The first, a woman, laid a hand on Kikumaru's shoulder, saying gently but firmly, "Please lay him down." The boy quickly complied, settling his kouhai softly onto the ground and easing his arms out from beneath the slight frame. Exhausted, Ryoma did nothing but blink up at the medics while they bustled around him taking vitals.

A pair of knees fell to the ground beside his head. Ryoma brought his gaze up to a tearful face. "I'm sorry," Sengoku whispered, devastation marking his features. "If I hadn't tripped, if I'd been able to play. . . ."

Ryoma shook his head a bit, neck violently protesting the movement. It took a few tries before he rasped at last, "Not . . . fault."

The second medic leaned in a bit so that Ryoma wouldn't have to turn his head to see him. "Please refrain from speaking for now, while we check you over. Your throat's been quite damaged."

The boy nodded just slightly, mouthing, "Okay." Then the exhaustion crept over him again, and he let his eyes slip closed. He was already mostly asleep by the time the paramedics put him on the gurney.