Strawberry Milkshakes

Disclaimer: Familiar characters, settings, events, and concepts all belong to Takeshi Konomi.

Note: This started off as a one-shot but got a little too long - so I'll post another chunk or two sometime soon.

Ensure is a high protein meal replacement drink, the same thing as Boost - I honestly have no idea if there's an equivalent in Japan or not.

Oh, poor Yukimura...I discovered Rikkai about the same time I started studying for my nursing boards. Hence, much study break hospital fic.

Every time Marui Bunta saw a strawberry milkshake, he thought of the hospital. It wasn't an entirely bad association and it didn't prevent him from eating one every once in awhile. However, he knew he'd never be able to eat the cold, pink concoctions without thinking about sick Yukimura and feeding tubes and Kirihara spewing Ensure all over the place.

When Yukimura had gotten sick in December, he'd gotten extremely sick. ICU sick. Hooked up to monitors sick. Full of tubes sick. He'd been hospitalized for two whole weeks before anyone outside his family was even allowed to come and visit him. Sanada and Yanagi went first, and came back upset but in one piece. They said Yukimura was on a ventilator.

Before visiting Yukimura, Marui had associated ventilators with comatose people in dumb soap operas and sappy movies. Despite the breathing tubes shoved down their throats, they always looked nicely asleep and peaceful and clean.

Yukimura had tubes taped all over his face and he was awake and not exactly peaceful. Calm, but definitely not dreaming of kittens and baby angels. The whole hospital set-up freaked Marui out, frankly. He could see everyone's reactions as they were allowed their turns inside Yukimura's cruddy little cubicle. Sanada and Yanagi seemed okay with it, because they were standing next to Yukimura's bed talking to him like any normal person. Kirihara was wide-eyed and would have been shocked into silence if he hadn't been so curious about everything. He repeatedly grabbed at Yanagi's arm and tried to ask questions, glancing furtively at Yukimura. Jackal and Yagyuu were more or less upset, but they'd survive. Niou just seemed pissed off. Marui wanted to leave. And never come back. Ever. Well, at least not until Yukimura could breathe by himself again, anyway.

It was the nurse who stopped him. She didn't physically grab him and tell him to stay put. She didn't say anything to him. In fact, she probably didn't even care that he existed. She just stood up from her place in a corner of the room, looked at the clock, and told them all that she was sorry to get in the way, but it was time for Yukimura to have dinner.

How in the heck was he supposed to eat with a tube shoved down his throat?!

That was when Marui learned what the tube in Yukimura's nose was for and about formula for people who were not babies. He found it more distressing than disgusting.

"Yukimura, we are going to give you such a hard time later." Niou had his arms folded over his chest and he was staring at the plastic bag of white stuff the nurse had just hung on the IV pole.

"You are not!" Sanada barked.

"I don't think he cares," Niou said as he moved to look at Yukimura's face, and Marui sneaked a glance as well. Their captain was still awake, but it was still difficult to tell how he was feeling. He wasn't glaring at anyone, at least.

Marui took another look at the bag on the IV pole, and then looked over his shoulder at the nurse. "What flavor is that stuff?"

"Hmm?" The nurse looked up from her paperwork, not looking particularly concerned. "Probably vanilla, if it's flavored at all."

"Yukimura likes strawberry," Marui commented, thoughtfully chewing his gum and staring at the plastic bag. "Maybe you should give him that."

One day not long after Niou thought he'd be incredibly clever and brought a can of Ensure to the locker room. "Extra calories for decrepit old people. It's the same stuff they give to Yukimura." He opened the can with a loud pop, the devious look on his face radiating anticipation. "Who wants to try it first? Strawberry flavored – Buchou's favorite! Team-building activity!"

"Yukimura doesn't have to taste it," Yagyuu pointed out dryly, not even bothering to raise an eyebrow at the can Niou was holding out.

"It's just a protein drink." Jackal almost rolled his eyes, reaching for the can. He took a gulp and calmly wiped his mouth with the back of his hand a moment later. "It's a little weird, but it's not horrible."

Yanagi took the can next and took a sip, swishing it through his mouth. "I've had worse," he reported. He inspected the can for a moment, then held it out to Sanada while picking up his water bottle from the floor. "Have some."

Despite the whole thing being Niou's idea, Sanada didn't protest. Marui noted that he didn't seem quite as indifferent to the drink as Jackal and Yanagi, since he swallowed the same gulp twice and looked like he wanted to spit out whatever was left.

Their vice-captain didn't even get a chance to comment before Kirihara was grabbing for the Ensure. "Me next! Hand it over!" He took the can as soon as Sanada shoved it at him with a reprimand for being rude and impatient, taking a long swig. Kirihara actually did spit it out, spraying pink stuff over the floor and down his shirt. He was lucky none landed on Sanada, who was glaring at him like a bug on the ground just for spewing everything all over. "What is this crap?! It's like…strawberry barf. You're all insane."

"Get a towel, Akaya," Sanada frowned at the freshman, who was fussing over his spoiled jersey. While Kirihara angrily mopped up the traces of strawberry Ensure on the floor, Niou held the messy can up between his fingertips. He gave it a little shake.

"Who's next?" He gave his doubles partner a little shove, looking far too pleased for anyone's good.

"Fine," Yagyuu consented after another harder shove, gingerly taking the can and wiping off Kirihara's pink splatters with a towel. He managed to pour a little into his mouth, touching the rim of the can as little as possible. He swallowed hard, but remained straight-faced. "There. Happy?"

"Marui's turn," Niou decided next, accepting the can from Yagyuu only to shove it at Marui. He grinned rather wickedly. "Strawberry, Bunta. Yummy, yummy."

"Get out of my face, Niou." Marui attempted to shove his knee into Niou's chest, but succeeded only in knocking himself off balance a little. He stuck his gum on top of the can, peering at it for a moment. The advertisers had tried to make it look tasty, since there was a big picture of a strawberry and a splash of pink liquid on it. He managed to get the last trickle of what was left. Disgusting. Something like strawberry and soy milk and melted ice cream all in one. With powdered vitamins. "It's gross," he decided, pulling his gum off of the can. Thankfully it still had some flavor left. The Ensure stuff seemed to coat the inside of a person's mouth like chalk.

"What about you, Niou?" Sanada remarked after making sure Kirihara had mopped up every last fleck of strawberry slime from the locker room floor.

"It's gone," Niou said, tipping the can upside-down. "Marui loved it so much he drank all the rest. And to think I actually wanted to sympathize this time."

They all knew he was being sarcastic enough to deserve the couple of bruises they tried to give him.

Yukimura stayed on the ventilator for over a month, so after awhile the Rikkai regulars had to be creative with their visits. If visiting someone who was stuck motionless in bed twenty-four hours a day was boring, actually being the person in the bed had to be even more boring. The fact that the ICU was just a little bit strict also prevented them from doing everything they would have liked to. They taped old tennis matches off of TV and sat around watching them on his hospital room television, all craning their heads to see. They brought him music, which they tended to argue over since Sanada said most of it wasn't very relaxing and Niou said everything that Sanada approved of was boring and stupid. They also didn't seem thrilled when Marui tried to sing along whenever Sanada let them play something remotely normal.

They also talked. At first holding conversations with Yukimura in the room was difficult, since it was basically impossible to ignore him. Especially after he started glaring at them every once in awhile. It honestly freaked Marui out, since he hadn't seen Yukimura glare quite that much ever before. He seemed a lot happier when they started including him. Or pretending to include him, anyway. Marui wasn't sure if asking a person occasional rhetorical questions counted or not.

Yagyuu brought Yukimura books on tape, Jackal brought him dubbed foreign films, and Niou brought him out of season holiday decorations. Sanada and Yanagi tried to hold normal conversations with him. Kirihara, they found out, broke into Yukimura's locker in the change rooms and brought him one of his rackets. Marui just pounded his brain for awhile.

Yukimura liked plants, and plants were a good hospital present, except that plants weren't allowed in the ICU.

Cake was another obvious choice, but Yukimura couldn't eat it.

After some deliberation and a rather hesitant exchange with one of Yukimura's nurses, Marui brought him a strawberry shake.

"We brought you a treat, Yukimura-Buchou!" Kirihara bounded into Yukimura's room that day, almost colliding with the bed, as usual.

Yukimura, for his part, never knew what to expect when Kirihara said they had brought him a treat. Once the treat had been a game of trivia where they partnered him with Yagyuu as a handicap. The horrendously glitzy boy band poster Niou so kindly brought for his room would have probably still been taped up if his little sister hadn't begged to take it home with her. Luckily he had plenty of time to decide how to go about payback.

Marui held up the shake in all its McDonald's glory. "Real food!"

"You know he won't be able to taste it, right?" Jackal asked Marui seriously.

"Yeah," Marui shot back, then turned his attention back to Yukimura. "I just thought you'd want what everybody else can have. The nurse said she could put it through your tube as a treat."

"It's better than that crap!" Kirihara pointed to the formula currently hanging from the IV pole again.

The shake was half melted by the time the nurse gave it to Yukimura and she only gave him part of it because she said his stomach probably couldn't handle the whole thing, but Marui, Jackal, and Kirihara all watched the pink stuff travel down the tubing. It felt kind of good, knowing that Yukimura was getting real food. Kind of right when so many other things felt so wrong.