Disclaimer: Fanfiction means that I don't own Bleach or the characters and places in Bleach. It also means I'm not making money on this. I'd like it to mean you won't sue me.

Mini-Summary: What all goes on during a day in the life of Aaroniero, medical apprentice? When the patients include Grimmjow and Ulquiorra, it can't be pleasant. Is there any hope?

Chapter 17: "Bad Influences"

Aaroniero tapped the spoon against the side of the pot he was currently tending, and leaned forward to smell the results of his hour in the kitchen. It smelled about like he remembered from the Shiba boy's memories, and if the smells Ulquiorra's cooking had created were any indication, his own culinary efforts were better than passable.

Satisfied, Aaroniero put the spoon in the sink and poured the soup into three bowls. If he'd ever been told that he'd spend time as an Espada wearing an apron and cooking for bedridden superiors, he would never have believed it. Still, kitchen duty was turning out to be a welcome break from wheeling the medicine cart up and down the halls. By now, he was thoroughly hated by every single arrancar he visited, and some of the more swiftly recovering patients had taken to throwing things at him when he came near. It was enough to make him glad he got to give them the various toxins Szayel considered to be beneficial for their consumption.

He surveyed the cart with its trio of soup bowls. There was something missing, and he couldn't think of what it was. There was rice--actual rice, and not the failure Szayel had shown him as inspiration, though how anyone could destroy a dish as simple as steamed rice was beyond him--along with some grilled fish and pickled ginger. A very nice morning meal, if his memories served well. But still missing something.

Aaroniero shrugged, and tossed a handful of chopsticks and silverware onto the tray. There was water on the East wing, and if they were still as sick as they'd been when he was there last night to move the second couch into the room, they'd be better off with water anyway. The prisoner wasn't picky at all about meal time, so she was as much a concern as the other two.

And boy had they been sick, the both of them. He'd hardly believed Szayel when the Octava had described the symptoms. It needed to be seen, apparently. Grimmjow had been all right, if hoarse and a touch surlier than usual--another thing needed to be seen to be believed. Ulquiorra, though... Ulquiorra had hardly noticed the addition of a second couch, despite all the grunting Aaroniero had done in shouldering the thing into the room all on his own, and Aaroniero had had to carry him from Grimmjow's couch to the new one.

He rinsed the pot out and put it in the sink to be washed later. First things first, after all. He rolled the cart out of the kitchen and down the hall, mentally replaying his to do list. Feed the prisoner, and make it quick or she'd start talking. Then head next door to convince his patients that food was good for them and make sure Ulquiorra had taken this morning's medicine. Try to get into Nnoitra's room to dose the fool. Check in with Szayel. After that, there was no telling what his day held. Szayel might have him mixing medicine, or dosing arrancar, or even just cleaning the lab.

With a deep breath for luck, Aaroniero pushed open the prisoner's door and wheeled the cart in. "Breakfast," the high voice called out. He set out the dishes for her breakfast while she rolled over on the couch and rubbed at her eyes. If he was quick, there was a chance he'd make it out the door before she was awake enough to ask him questions about the extra dishes.

"Why so much food?" she asked groggily.

He bit back a curse. "It doesn't matter. I'll be back tonight. Eat up and all that." Aaroniero ignored the hurt expression that flitted over her face and stacked last night's dinner dishes on the tray for washing. He closed the door on her response, and sighed once safely out of her reach. He wasn't sure how Ulquiorra had managed so long with the questions, the longing looks, the overwhelming loneliness she'd filled that room with.

The first time he'd brought her meal, he'd worn Kaien's face, thinking it would put her more at ease than his usual appearance. She'd burst into tears and buried her face in her hands. When he'd come back to take the dishes, the food hadn't been touched and she refused to even look up at him, despite that he'd had his mask on instead of a face. After that, things had been better, if better meant palpable desperation for company. The entire feeding process made him uncomfortable, and he couldn't wait until Ulquiorra was well enough to resume the duty.

Until then, there was Ulquiorra himself to deal with. And he had a feeling he'd be dealing with the Cuarta a lot since Grimmjow was rapidly falling prey to the mono himself if last night was any indication. Szayel had been alarmed at his report last night, but after a moment's thought, had seemed relieved. Against his better judgment, Aaroniero had asked about the relief, hoping that maybe their workload would be reduced.

He should have known it wouldn't be good news like that, though. No, it had been the sort of bad news that Szayel took as the building block of a new theory. The Octava's latest was that Grimmjow's slow recovery from the pneumonia had been masking the mono symptoms. Aaroniero didn't see how this could possibly have brought Szayel any relief, but he felt better off not understanding the scientist.

Aaroniero hesitated a moment with his hand on the door, and then pushed it open. He seemed to be pausing at doorways more than usual lately. Better to just get it over with: set out breakfast, gather dinner dishes, check the medicine, make sure they were both breathing, and get out as fast as he could.

He'd expected them both to be asleep, and they were. He'd also expected the dishes from last night to be cleared, but they hadn't been touched. They sat on the center table exactly where he'd put them, napkins spotless, teacups full, plates heaping with food. Aaroniero tried not be upset by this blatant disregard for all the effort he'd gone through to prepare that meal, and turned his attention to the two ingrates who should have eaten said meal.

They were sprawled out on their respective couches, just as he'd left them. Neither of them had so much as turned over during the night. Aaroniero took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He tried to think of how Szayel would handle the situation. He'd probably threaten them with needles, or pull out some similarly terrifying consequence for their lack of action. Since he had nothing like that at hand, that wouldn't work. Instead, he let the door close behind him with a loud thud.

"Okay, guys," he started, "give me a break, here, all right?" There was no reaction. He let the deeper, louder voice take over. "Hey! Seriously, I don't have time for this!"

Grimmjow mumbled something and shifted slightly, but didn't open his eyes.

Aaroniero left the cart by the door and walked over to shake the Sexta's shoulder. "You two are supposed to be taking care of each other in here!"

A bright blue eye cracked open and stared at him for a moment. "He wants to sleep," Grimmjow whispered, his voice cracking. "I want to sleep," he continued. "It works out great."

"You can sleep all you want, but you need to eat."

The eye closed. "So?"

"So?" Aaroniero repeated incredulously. "You haven't even glanced at the meal I brought you last night."


Aaroniero clenched a fist and with a certain amount of effort refrained from smacking Grimmjow right off the couch. It took even more effort to keep his voice reasonable. "Grimmjow, you need to get up and eat. And you need to get Ulquiorra up, too. Don't you want to force him to eat? Like he did to you?"

There was a moment of silence before Grimmjow answered. "Takes too much energy."

"Eating the food will give you energy," he reminded, knowing full well that logic was lost on Grimmjow but hoping there'd be some effect.

"No thanks."

Aaroniero felt his shoulders tense. Not only was it too early in the morning to deal with this, but all told, this was looking like the formal ruination of an already doomed day. He could have spared himself the torture for another hour at least, but no, he had to get a head start. All his efforts in the kitchen were going to waste, and these unappreciative lay-abouts were just going to sleep right through a second meal if he let them. And this didn't even take the medicine into consideration. Damn it all, he had a whole fortress worth of arrancar to play nursemaid for, and these two were determined to make his life that much worse. He felt like screaming.

When a solid minute passed and the urge didn't go away, he gave up and indulged it. "Get your blue-haired ass up and eat this meal I slaved over!" he yelled into Grimmjow's ear.

Grimmjow opened both eyes and stared impassively at him, not impressed in the slightest. Ulquiorra groaned, though, and Aaroniero took this as an opportunity to address someone with hopefully more reason.

"And you," he said, turning toward Ulquiorra, "you need to take that medicine."

"No I don't," Ulquiorra croaked, turning his head a fraction of an inch to meet his gaze fully.

Aaroniero tilted his head to the side, confused. "You-- What?"

"I already took it."

There was an uneasy silence in the room, broken only by Grimmjow clearing his throat and pulling the blanket up around his shoulders. Aaroniero tried unsuccessfully to chase off the cold feeling creeping into his midsection. Really, if he'd already taken the medicine, there was nothing to worry about. Still, there was that feeling of wrongness.

"You already took it?" he asked.

Ulquiorra's eyes were somehow more piercing than usual, despite his obvious exhaustion. "Yes," he confirmed. "We thought it would save time if I ate them all at once."

Aaroniero knew this cold feeling. It was the same as when the Kuchiki brat stabbed him with the ice blade, and every bit as horrifying. "N-no, you didn't," he pleaded, his voice sounding pitifully tiny to his own ears.

"He didn't," Aaroniero insisted, looking at Grimmjow this time.

The Sexta only shrugged and closed his eyes again.

Aaroniero turned back to Ulquiorra, who blinked at him, but didn't elaborate. "Tell me you didn't do that!" he screamed, the cold spreading as his heart beat faster and his stomach spasmed. "Shit! Shit! Where's Szayel?!"

Aaroniero abandoned his patients and the breakfast cart, flung open the door so hard it slammed against the wall, and then tore off down the hallway, screaming for Szayel so loudly that he missed hearing Grimmjow chuckle and mutter "nice one" to Ulquiorra.

After nearly fifteen minutes of frantic searching, he finally found the Octava in Stark's room, mixing something clear in a beaker while Stark heaved into a bowl. "We have an emergency," he panted, hanging onto the door frame while he sucked in the breath to continue. "Ulquiorra took all the antibiotics in one dose!"

Szayel paused, set the beaker down on the table, and then slowly turned to face him, his expression unreadable. "Did you see the bottle?" he asked, calmer than Aaroniero would have thought possible.

"What?!" Aaroniero straightened up and pressed a gloved hand to his gut. "Ulquiorra said it himself." Why wasn't Szayel halfway to the East wing by now? Did he want to call down Aizen's wrath by letting the Cuarta die? Was he that much more cracked in the head than he'd been last night?

Szayel shrugged, and then filled a syringe from the beaker and tapped it out. He took the bowl from Stark and handed him a shot glass of something viscous and green. "I think he lied to you, Aaroniero."

Stark downed the medicine and wiped a hand across his mouth with a grimace. "See?" he managed to choke out. "Pay up." He doubled over clutching his stomach, and Szayel slid a new bowl under his face in time to catch a tiny dribble of green.

"But Ulquiorra doesn't lie," Aaroniero insisted. He shouldn't have had to remind them of this at all, but apparently, they had lost their minds, so he elaborated. "Not ever. Not to anyone. He thinks it's beneath him." He flung his hands up when this didn't prompt a response from them. "What's wrong with you two?!"

Szayel readied the syringe and injected the dose into Stark's shoulder. "Well, we'll go check on him in a minute," he said dismissively, holding a cotton ball against the injection site. "That should help," he told Stark. "Keep drinking water, even if it doesn't stay down. We'll knock this out if it kills you," he swore.

Stark looked up at him, strangely more resigned than horrified. "That's what you said the last three times I got this." He retched, but nothing came up. "I'm kind of hoping it kills me this time."

"Well, it's a different strain each time, Stark." Szayel handed him a glass of water with a straw. The twitching in his right eye was the only sign of irritation. "If Lilynette didn't keep sneaking in to visit you, you might actually stay healthy for a while. I'll be back. Slow sips."

Aaroniero watched Szayel put the various mixtures back onto the cart and toss the needle into the box he was using as a temporary biohazard unit. He'd have thought Szayel would take off for Ulquiorra's room as soon as he'd heard the news. This other reaction really didn't make any sense to him, but at least he could pass off blame on Szayel if there was anything fatally wrong in the East wing. Eventually, the Octava grabbed his bag and nodded for Aaroniero to lead the way.

"You really think he lied?" Aaroniero asked, his breathing under control again.

Szayel looked over at him, absolutely serious. "If I thought he'd downed a whole bottle of antibiotics, I'd be pumping his stomach thirty minutes ago."

Aaroniero let that sink in for a moment. He couldn't quite tell how Szayel had come to the conclusion that Ulquiorra had lied when the Cuarta was the last Espada anyone would expect to do so. "Why would you assume he was lying?"

Pink hair slid through gloved fingers as Szayel rubbed his scalp. "Grimmjow knows antibiotics well. He would never let Ulquiorra take more than was recommended. The only real fear there is that he won't make Ulquiorra take any medicine at all." Szayel sighed. "We'll count pills when we get there. If there aren't the right number, then my guess is there will be one too many in the bottle. The only way they'll be gone is if Ulquiorra threw them out."

Aaroniero nodded. That did make a certain amount of sense. It didn't explain Ulquiorra's motive for lying, though. That was a completely new development, and one he hadn't expected. It seemed to indicate the Sexta and Cuarta were coming to an understanding. He thought about his wager in the betting pool. He, along with roughly half of Las Noches, had his money on Ulquiorra killing Grimmjow before the quarantine was over. At this rate, it was looking like he'd lose.

"Is it too late to change my wager?" he asked.

Szayel shrugged. "I'm not sure. Talk to Findor. He took over the books to save me time and keep things fair."

Aaroniero grunted. Findor. They didn't exactly get along, but he couldn't say they hated each other, either. Maybe the fraccion would let him change his wager if he asked nicely. Or if he bribed him with something. There were lots of wagers to choose from. Most of Las Noches had bet that there'd be a fatality or two on the East wing before quarantine got lifted, though there was a lot of disagreement about who would kill whom, and when, and how. A small group, including Aizen, if Ichimaru was to be trusted, was holding out hope that Ulquiorra would have a positive influence on Grimmjow after being locked up with him for two weeks. Only one person--Stark--thought Grimmjow would rub off on Ulquiorra. From what Aaroniero had seen this morning, he might try to join Stark in that wager.

"What did you bet, Szayel?"

Szayel raised an eyebrow at him. "Officially, I'm out of the pool." He yawned and rubbed at his twitching eye. "No inside information allowed."

"And unofficially?" Aaroniero prompted.

"Stark and I are splitting his take."

Later that evening, after cleaning up the tofu he'd left to burn in the oven, Aaroniero found himself outside Tousen's room clutching a bottle of medicine and the tiniest spoon he'd ever seen and wondering who was singing. This was the first time Szayel had sent him on this particular assignment, and he was terrified of getting something wrong. Tousen was, after all, the one who'd chopped off an Espada's arm for talking back to him. Even if that Espada had been Grimmjow and fully deserving of such treatment, there was no telling what the man'd do if Aaroniero upset him tonight.

After standing by the door for longer was strictly necessary, Aaroniero steeled himself and knocked. The singing stopped, and he heard a muffled response inviting him in. With a sigh, he followed the order.

Inside, Tousen sat on a couch rocking a bundled, fleecy blanket on his lap. From this angle, Aaroniero could just make out Wonderweiss's wispy blond hair as the smaller arrancar curled up in the blanket. Wonderweiss coughed a little and buried his face into Tousen's chest, tiny fingers grabbing for a tighter purchase on the commander's orange sash.

The room was largely empty, but everything that was present was highly textured. There were two different kinds of carpet, and several different fabrics in the many throws across the furniture. Aaroniero was surprised that the colors matched. Maybe Aizen had helped with the decorating. Ichimaru wouldn't have put together something this visually appealing, preferring, Aaroniero was sure, to prank his colleague by choosing garish colors.

Tousen looked up from rocking Wonderweiss and motioned for him to approach. "Szayel must be busy if he sent you, Aaroniero."

Aaroniero nodded, and then mentally kicked himself for nodding to a blind man. "Yes," he said. "Three spoons of this for tonight, and then three more in the morning." There was a silence. "Do you want me to do this, or leave the medicine here?" He crossed his fingers and hoped that Tousen would send him away.

"It's rude to cross your fingers like that, Aaroniero," Tousen reprimanded. "Leave the medicine on the table."

Aaroniero stared, racking his brain for an explanation for Tousen knowing about the fingers. Nothing came to him, and he set the medicine and spoon down as directed before he could be reprimanded for a delay. "I'll be on my way, then," he said, backing out of the room. "Unless you need anything, sir?"

"No." Tousen waved him away and then stroked Wonderweiss's bangs out of his face.

Thankful for the reprieve, Aaroniero closed the door behind him and pretended that he didn't hear one of their mighty commanders resume his lullaby.

By the time he'd wheeled the dinner cart to the East wing, he'd come to the uncomfortable realization that their three commanders--or at least two of them, if the rumors about Grimmjow and Aizen were to be believed--had gaping soft spots for certain favorites, and that he wasn't anyone's favorite.

Aaroniero sighed and opened the prisoner's door. "Dinner," he muttered, pulling the cart along with him. He was so preoccupied with his sense of rejection that he forgot to be quick enough to escape questioning. The prisoner seemed to appear out of nowhere.

"Three meals?" the woman asked, her knuckles white from gripping the side of the cart. "Who else is eating? Can I eat with them? Please?" She looked up at him, her eyes wide and hopeful.

"Let go of the cart," he ground out, ignoring her feelings. If he was going to be rejected, he didn't see why she shouldn't be, also. "It doesn't concern you."

The hands didn't move. "I want to know," she insisted. "I won't let go until I do." There was a tense silence between them. "Ulquiorra would tell me. He's not afraid to talk to me."

"I'm not afraid," Aaroniero snapped. "I'm stressed. Now let go or I'll kill your pet."

Orihime glared up at him and ignored the threat. "People are getting sick, aren't they?" she challenged. "Grimmjow was sick a few weeks ago, when that little deer-antlered arrancar was born. He was feverish when he came to get me."

"Shut up, human." Aaroniero jerked the cart away, but she took a matching step forward, her eyes triumphant.

"And you were screaming earlier this morning," she said. "What's going on? I know my friends aren't back because you made a truce."

Aaroniero let out an angry breath. This whole day had sucked, right from the start. This meal drop off was supposed to be the last thing he did, and it just figured it would be as miserable an experience as the earlier feeding had been. He wondered what would happen if he just played along. Surely admitting defeat would at least speed this latest event along.

"If you must know," he said, "Grimmjow and Ulquiorra are sick. With something called mono. You may not eat with them. Now let go of the cart so I can do my job."

"Mono?" Her face scrunched up in what he assumed was either sympathy or disgust. "Oh, I've had that. They must be miserable."

Aaroniero filtered her expression into the sympathy category and then froze when her words sank in fully. "You've had this?"

She nodded, releasing the cart since it seemed he was being more receptive. "Mhm! I got it earlier than everyone else, so I was able to take care of Tatsuki when she got it." Orihime laughed softly. "She was really sick, but it was the least I could do for her."

"You took care of this girl." Aaroniero wondered if it was too soon to allow hope back into his emotional repertoire. "And you didn't become re-infected?"

"Oh, no," she insisted, taking her plate off the cart and setting it on the table before sitting down to eat. "You only get it once. Then you're immune to it."

Aaroniero mentally replayed the words, checking to be sure he'd heard each one correctly. When he'd confirmed his hearing, there was a single question that burned brightly at the front of his mind. He was almost too excited to ask it, but managed after several seconds.

"Can you cook?"

OMAKE: "Not the Best Bedtime Reading Material"

Grimmjow sighed and stared up at the ceiling. He'd preferred it when Ulquiorra was so tired nothing could wake him. Now, the Cuarta was so feverish nothing could keep the nightmares away. The crap Szayel had made them drink earlier may have given them more energy, but he'd trade the energy for a good night's sleep. If only Ulquiorra had slept all afternoon, he wouldn't have been reading that damn book Aizen gave him.

He looked over to the other couch, where Ulquiorra thrashed back and forth and generally got his blanket in a tangle. "Hey!"

There was no response. He still had vague memories of his own nightmares, and even though he'd gladly saddle Szayel with them, he thought he might as well save Ulquiorra from whatever was plaguing his sleep. With a muttered curse, Grimmjow got up and shuffled over to the other Espada. He shook Ulquiorra's shoulder. "Ulquiorra. You okay?"

Ulquiorra's eyes shot open and he let out a breath. He grabbed at Grimmjow's collar. "The etymology doesn't make sense," he whispered.

Grimmjow stared at him. "The what, now?"

Ulquiorra shook his head weakly. "Never mind that. It isn't at all like an egg."

He blinked down at Ulquiorra and wondered whether it was worth his time to figure out what he was talking about. After a minute, he decided he'd rather not know what wasn't like an egg, or what that had to do with anything. "It's all in your head, Ulquiorra," he reassured. "Trust me on that."

He freed his collar from the smaller Espada's grip and dragged himself back to his couch. "Just think of something more pleasant if you've got any pleasant thoughts in that head of yours."

Several minutes passed before Ulquiorra spoke again. "It doesn't even taste like eggs."

Grimmjow rolled his eyes. If Ulquiorra's cooking was coming back to haunt him, it served him right. "That's because you cooked it in butter and drenched it in honey. Probably dumped wasabi powder on top, too."

"No," Ulquiorra insisted, "the thing itself."

Despite himself, Grimmjow took the bait. "What?"

"It doesn't look like an egg, feel like an egg, smell like an egg..." Ulquiorra turned over to face him across the room. "It isn't at all like an egg, Grimmjow."

Grimmjow blinked as he realized Ulquiorra was fully awake. However it had started, this wasn't a fever dream anymore. Ulquiorra was actually bringing his brain's fevered delusions into a conscious discussion. Clearly he was trapped in here with a madman.

"Well?" Ulquiorra asked, obviously expecting a response.

Grimmjow glared across the room. Hell, if Ulquiorra was going to do this to him, he'd get even the best way possible. "Bet it sounds like an egg," he muttered.

"No." Ulquiorra tried to fling a pillow at him, and succeeded only in knocking it off the couch. "There is nothing eggish about it!" Ulquiorra rubbed his eyes and tugged at the lock of hair that fell across his face, clearly agonizing over this item that was not an egg.

Grimmjow almost laughed at him, but remembered seeing floating spots of color when the antibiotics were trashing his own brain earlier. Outright mockery seemed a bit uncharitable at the moment, all things considered.

"Why?" Ulquiorra asked, his eyes wide, desperate. "Why call it an eggplant?"

Grimmjow sighed. "Dude, chill. It's just a vegetable." He knew he should have hidden the food encyclopedia. His initial fear had been Ulquiorra being inspired to new depths of culinary depravity, but this was just as valid a reason to hide the damn thing.

He'd almost managed to fall asleep again when Ulquiorra heaved a disgusted sigh of his own. "It's purple and white," he complained.

"So what?" Grimmjow asked impatiently.

"It's an abomination," Ulquiorra muttered under his breath.

Grimmjow ground his teeth. "You're an abomination. Go to sleep."

Notes: Well, now I'm officially behind on all the real world things I'm supposed to be working on instead of this. It'll be hell catching up, so there'll probably be a wait.

More Notes: Yeah, Tousen's got no room to complain about Aizen treating his Espada like children. And it seems Ulquiorra's pretty pathetic when he's got a high fever. Who'd have guessed?