Disclaimer: Clearly, I don't own these persons, places, or things. You're reading this on a site devoted to fan fiction, remember?
Mini-Summary: There are no germs in Hueco Mundo, but the human world is different. So when the Espada are sent to the human world on missions, it's only a matter of time before they get sick. And Szayel Aporro makes a mean cough syrup.
Szayel Aporro gritted his teeth as he stalked down the pristine hallways of Las Noches toward the rough sounds of painful coughing. He was a scientist, dammit, not a doctor. Nevertheless, it seemed he was Aizen's first choice of medic when confronted with an ill Espada. It was something he figured he'd better get used to now that they were making regular trips to the human world, but that didn't make him any happier about having to treat this particular patient.
He rounded the corner, came to a stop outside the door with the number 6, and sighed. It couldn't be Ulquiorra, who'd take the medicine as he took everything else, without a complaint or even so much as a change in expression. And of course it wasn't Nnoitra, who might not trust him but would at least follow Aizen's orders to cooperate. Hell, any of the Espada would be easier patients than this one. But they finished their opponents off in a timely fashion instead of playing around, which prevented them even getting sneezed on in the first place.
A particularly bad set of coughs was followed by silence, and Szayel doubted he'd get a better chance than when the rebel Espada was laying still, trying to catch his breath. A tap on the six swung the door open and he peered into the darkness. Leave it to Grimmjow to pick out one of the only rooms in all of Las Noches that didn't face the moon. He took a step forward, focusing on the darker area that was almost certainly the bed.
"Here," Szayel began, reaching in his robe for the bottled syrup he'd mixed up in the lab a few hours earlier. "I made some medicine for that cough." There was no response, but Szayel's eyes were adjusting to the darkness enough to see that Grimmjow was curled up with his back to the door. When Stark had fallen asleep on a park bench while on reconnaissance and gotten sick in the rain, he'd been so tired and feverish the coughing hadn't even woken him up. Szayel shrugged, feeling a tiny stir of pity for the Sexta Espada if he had contracted the same illness.
He raised his voice a bit, hoping to wake his patient enough to take the medicine without being loud enough to make it hard to fall back asleep. "Grimmjow, here's some—"
"I heard you," he rasped. "Don't need it." Another coughing fit immediately followed, giving his denial something of a pathetic twist.
Szayel's eyebrow rose of its own accord. "Don't be stupid, of course you do. You're sick." Knowing it would be the wrong track to take here, he left off the part about following Aizen's orders and would Grimmjow please not make a fuss for once. If anything, an order from Aizen to cooperate and get well would result in Grimmjow dying to spite them all.
"Then I don't want it," he growled in correction. "Go away."
Szayel rolled his eyes and walked forward, stopping just out of easy reach in case his reluctant patient suddenly turned violent. "Quit being so stubborn, you ass. This will make you better. I'm not out to poison you, you know. It's medicine. It's good for you." That stirring pity was beginning to settle down at Grimmjow's continued obstinacy.
Grimmjow shifted a bit, but still didn't turn to face him. "If it's so good for you, then take it yourself," he muttered. "I'm trying to sleep here, and it's hard enough with the coughing, so would you just leave already?"
"You aren't supposed to take medicine when you aren't sick," Szayel returned with more exasperation than he'd meant to reveal. "If I were sick, I'd be the first one to take this."
There was the muffled sound of shifting fabric as Grimmjow finally sat up and turned around to face him. The movements promptly set him to coughing again, but when the fit had passed, he glared up him from the twisted nest of blankets. "Why would I trust your concoction if you aren't willing to drink it yourself?"
Szayel opened his mouth to respond, but then shut it. At this angle, Grimmjow's eyes caught the light streaming in the open door from the hallway behind him and reflected it at Szayel in an eerie blue-green glow. Sick or not, this was the Sexta Espada, two ranks above him and fully capable of inflicting all sorts of painful damage. Szayel shifted a few feet to the left until the two points of light were gone and he felt more like a doctor than a midnight snack.
He let a hint of sternness into his voice, though he was sure it wouldn't be effective. "Grimmjow, you are sick. It's time you got better, and this 'concoction' as you put it will help you do that. You cough all night, every night, and after a week of it, we're all tired of hearing you."
He scowled. "You know how to solve that one, Pink? You stay somewhere where you can't hear me." After a strangled cough, Grimmjow's glare was transferred from Szayel's face to the bottle he held. "Take your poison and get out."
Szayel took a deep breath and debated the possibilities. He could continue this argument all night and not accomplish anything. He could go back to the lab to transform his medicine into an aerosol form that could be lobbed into the room to dose the fool without his permission. Easiest of all would be simply giving up. Let the idiot cough until his lungs bled for all he cared.
Deciding that he could honestly inform Aizen that he'd tried to no avail, Szayel spun on his heel and stalked out of the room, slamming the door shut behind him. Rather than cart the medicine all the way back to his lab, he set it down beside the door. He was, after all, not a doctor. If his patient wasn't interested in getting better, that wasn't his problem. He'd made the medicine. He'd brought it to his patient. He'd done his part.
"Didn't go well, huh?"
Szayel stopped his march and glowered at Yammy, who was waiting there with the silent Halibel. Both arrancar looked about as exhausted as the rest of them in this wing of Las Noches. "You know what? I'm all for going back there and wrestling it right down his throat." He looked at what could be seen of Halibel's expression and turned to address Yammy alone. "You're big. I bet we could do it if we worked together."
Yammy took a step back and shook his head fearfully. "You ever try forcing medicine on a cat?"
"He's not a cat," Szayel muttered, trying to forget the glowing eyes. "He's an arrancar."
"You've seen him released," the larger Espada insisted. "He's a cat. A sharp, ornery cat with a nasty temper and a superiority complex." He shuddered. "We'd never make it out alive."
Szayel sighed, knowing logic when he saw it, even if it came from Yammy. Still, the Sexta Espada was sick. It wasn't as though he was at full strength or anything. What damage could he do, really? It only took a moment for him to shake these thoughts from his head. "I'll go report my failure to Aizen-sama, then."
"It's a human thing he's sick with, right? Like Stark was?"
Szayel nodded, shocked into silence by Halibel's departure from her self-imposed muteness.
"So wouldn't the humans have something to fix it?" Her eyes betrayed nothing, though her voice held a note of censure that he hadn't just swiped something from a pharmacy in the first place.
Yammy nodded at her. "Hey that's a great idea. And since it won't be one of the freak's inventions, maybe—"
"The 'freak' is standing right here," Szayel coldly informed him.
Six hours, two stops for directions, eighteen pharmacies, and three minor scraps with alarmed Shinigami later, Szayel and Yammy returned to a very quiet Las Noches bearing several bags of assorted over the counter drugs. The medicine had been hard-won, and for several moments, they were too appreciative of the silence to realize what it meant.
"So, are we going straight to Grimmjow with this, or what?" Yammy inquired, holding up a bag so full of cough suppressants that it threatened to burst at the seams.
Szayel shook his head as they passed a Número who'd squished herself into a tiny alcove and seemed to be praying silently. "Only one bottle will be needed. We'll put the rest in the lab for the time being, and I'll sort them all out later."
Later, of course, he might be sampling some of the headache medicine trying to accomplish that sorting. They'd gathered a variety of medicines designed to combat a myriad of symptoms, since it made more sense to make a single trip to the human world to stock up instead of several trips as arrancar came down sick. He was rather looking forward to some mixing and matching in the coming weeks, but his priority at the moment had to be stopping the incessant coughing that was keeping them all awake. And thinking of incessant coughing…
He strained his ears for the sound, but came up with more silence and a shuffle to one side where another Número was spread out in a doorway trying to be flat and inconspicuous. Szayel frowned. The lower arrancar were timid on the whole, yes, but not to the point of cowering at the passing of Espada. He wondered what had happened during their six-hour jaunt outside Hueco Mundo.
"Yammy." He waited for the other Espada's attention before continuing. "Do you hear anything?"
A pause and a glare. "No. Not even coughing." He slammed his fist against the wall, prompting a tiny squeak from one of Stark's Fracción, who'd been crouching upside down near the ceiling with his hands wrapped around his head. "If this whole trip was for nothing, I'm—"
"Quiet," Szayel cautioned. The arrancar were clearly frightened of something, but short of an irate Espada on the rampage, he couldn't fathom what it would be.
"Why?" Yammy said, not bothering to lower his voice in the slightest.
Szayel raised his eyes to the ceiling and was surprised to see a second arrancar huddled up there. "Okay, clearly something's the matter," he said to her softly. "What is it?"
Wide-eyed, she brought a finger up to her masked lips and tried to shush him, but all that came out was a stuttered hiss.
Shrugging in irritation, Szayel motioned Yammy to follow him and began stalking down the hallways toward the center of Las Noches, where there would be more Espada.
"Your lab's that way," Yammy protested, pointing a finger at a side passage.
"Come on, already," Szayel said. "We're going to figure this out. The medicine can wait."
As they neared the more structurally diverse area of Las Noches, the arrancar grew more creative in their hiding places, and Szayel was sure he missed several of them. He didn't see his fellow Espada, though, and that was worrisome. Las Noches was always quiet, barring sick Espada and invading ryoka, but this was not the clinical calm of before. The silence now held an air of expectation and unease.
He finally saw Stark rounding a corner into the kitchen and hurried to catch up, nearly leaving Yammy behind. "Stark," he called, following the higher-ranked Espada. Where most of Las Noches was a sterile white, the kitchen areas were all sterile stainless steel. This didn't stop Espada from purposely cluttering their kitchen up in an attempt to escape the overbearing neatness that was Las Noches. Mugs and plates were arrayed all across the countertops, pushed aside whenever space was needed, and hand towels and the like—white, of course—were haphazardly stacked on top of the refrigerator instead of hanging from the stainless steel hooks.
The mess was minute in comparison to what he'd seen on various trips to the human world, but it was monumental by Las Noches standards. And in the cleared-off counter space nearest the sink, he saw the bottle he recalled leaving on the floor outside Grimmjow's room. Beside the bottle was a single spoon, clearly waiting to be washed.
"Oh, welcome back, you two," Stark's lazy voice greeted them from the table in the center of the kitchen. "I was wondering when you'd get here."
Szayel turned to ask the other arrancar about the silence, the hiding, and the bottle of cough medicine, but his questions died on his lips as he caught a glimpse of Stark's right hand. The first two digits were taped to a splint, and the entire hand was wrapped in gauze that had started to bloom faint tinges of pink in a semi-circular pattern. Stark was judiciously applying a bag of half-melted ice to the injury and looking for all the world like there was nothing out of place about that.
"What, um," Szayel began. "Are you all right?"
Stark looked up from his hand and shrugged. "Sure. I hope you don't mind, Szayel, but I figured with all the coughing it was time for some more medicine. It sounded like he was coughing up a whole lung in there."
Szayel was flabbergasted. "Y-you gave him the medicine?" he asked, knowing the question was stupid.
"Your label said a spoonful would do it," Stark said, nodding back toward the bottle by the sink. "But as I said, he was coughing a lot, so I gave him two. Was that all right?"
His eyes locking onto the steadily reddening bandage and broken fingers, Szayel said the first and only thing floating around his head. "You got him to take the medicine?" The task had not been easy, if Stark's injury was any indication.
Stark blinked at him, looking slightly concerned. "All he needed was a little persuasion."
Szayel tried to wrap his mind around the notion that the Sexta Espada, widely known to be the most difficult and stubborn of them all, had taken his medicine like a good boy… For Stark to have sustained this injury, Grimmjow must be in much worse shape, since he wouldn't have backed down without a damn good fight. Szayel wondered what other medical attention he'd be required to give now.
"Hang on a bit, Stark," Yammy said incredulously. "You're telling us that you just bullied Grimmjow into taking medicine he didn't want to take?"
Stark shrugged and rearranged the wilted ice bag. "Oh, it was easy, no bullying required. I just told him you can't win at hide and seek if you're giving your hiding place away by coughing. He came right around after I described the game."
"Hide..." Szayel blinked, imagining with a sense of foreboding the ramifications of a sick Espada lurking in Las Noches trying to avoid detection. Especially one who took contests of skill as seriously as Grimmjow did. Fool would probably starve to death before allowing someone to find him.
"...and seek?" Yammy finished faintly. Stark had clearly been spending too much of his reconnaissance time at the community park.
Stark gave them a lazy nod. "I couldn't seem to get the rules across, though, so it ended up being less 'hide and seek' and more 'stalk and pounce.' Still," he continued, oblivious to their horrified expressions, "it was fun for a while. The game ended about two hours ago when he bit me." He waved his hand in front of him, displaying the splinted fingers and bloody bandages as proof.
"Bit you," Szayel repeated numbly, staring at the reddish semi-circle and broken fingers, and trying to coax his brain into supplying the missing piece of this picture. An Espada had gone into hiding and the rest of the arrancar seemed to be following suit, but who was doing the seeking? Stark clearly thought the game was over, but… the game had been changed to 'stalk and pounce,' which was unarguably more Grimmjow's style, and a very good reason for all the arrancar to be cowering in fear.
"I doubt it was personal," Stark continued. "It said on your label that people might get excitable after taking a dose, so I should have expected it. I just thought he'd be real energetic, so I suggested the game thinking it'd help him get all that energy out." Stark looked down at his hand. "Man, that fucker bites hard in his released form."
"Released…" Szayel began. It clicked then, as he mentally went over Stark's description of events. Szayel felt his stomach twist and resisted the urge to gnaw on his lower lip as he confirmed it. "Wait, Stark. Two spoonfuls?"
"Yeah," he yawned as he set the depleted ice bag in the sink. He turned toward the refrigerator to retrieve more ice. "I didn't think it would be a—"
He was cut off by a flash of blue and white that streaked down from above the refrigerator and landed on his shoulders with a predatory growl, raking its hind legs down Stark's back and trying to trip him with its tail.
"Ow!" Stark shrieked, flailing at his assailant with both hands as he fell to the floor with an audible thump. "Shit, Grimmjow, quit doing this!" He flipped them over and attempted to pin the grinning maniac's arms to the ground, but the broken fingers on his right hand weren't up to the task. Grimmjow slipped free immediately, and lunged up at Stark, tail whipping back and forth and teeth bared in a snarl.
Now pinned himself, Stark futilely thrashed about, trying to reach his zanpakutō and simultaneously keep Grimmjow from his throat. "Get off me, dammit! We're not playing anymore!" He let loose an anguished yowl as teeth snapped down on a corner of his mask just barely missing his jugular, and managed a blow that sent Grimmjow flying at the refrigerator hard enough to dent the door. "That hurt, you freak!"
Grimmjow bounded up from the floor with a feral grin. "You're it," he hissed gleefully at the downed Espada before vanishing out the kitchen door.
Silence reigned for several minutes.
With a groan, Stark held his left hand to his mask and rubbed one of the chipped teeth where he'd been bitten this time. "Would one of you put some new ice in the bag for me? I'm going to rest here a bit before getting up, okay?"
Szayel looked at the top of the refrigerator, where the towels were barely disturbed. "How'd he get in here?" he muttered to Yammy. "I didn't see him, did you see him?"
"No, I didn't see him," Yammy whispered, staring wide-eyed around the room as though he thought the tea mugs harbored demons.
"Um, ice please?" Stark asked softly. "And maybe some antiseptic. I think he broke the skin again."
Szayel shared a look with Yammy, and they both looked down at Stark, whose uniform lay in ribbons about his bruised self. There was no doubt what would happen to either of them if they were to be "tagged" in this game. As one of the top three Espada, Stark was nearly invulnerable. The same attack would not end as prettily if directed at them, even if they managed to release before it reached them.
Letting out a ragged breath, Szayel stepped over Stark to get ice from the freezer. Part of him wished he knew when Grimmjow had taken the medicine, but the rest of him knew it hardly mattered. He'd made the stuff to last, and a double dose was clearly enough to send the already aggressive Sexta Espada into overdrive. Despite the danger that stalked the hallways, he knew he would have to explain himself to Aizen after he tended Stark's injuries. Imagining Aizen's reaction as he filled the bag with ice, Szayel felt a twinge of despair.
"Your label calls that 'excitable?'" Yammy finally managed.
Szayel set the ice down on Stark's neck and mask as gently as he could before looking up at Yammy. "I think the formula needs tweaking."
Notes: Yea! I think I finally managed to write something somewhat non-angsty.