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A Matter of Well-Being and Insecurity

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Army woke up that morning feeling like, to put it simply, actual shit. He didn’t even open his eyes right away, afraid the morning light would worsen his sudden headache. A part of him wanted to shift onto his side, maybe see if he could get a little bit more sleep, but he was far too stuffed up as it was. 

 

After laying still in bed for a good five minutes, Army decided he was too hot for his blanket, and painstakingly pulled himself up. Cod, his back hurt. He didn’t even know where this sudden illness had come from, since the only remotely sick person he had interacted with lately was Mask. Probably just something he had caught in the wind. Or maybe it could have been related to only getting six or less hours of sleep for the past week. He had manuals to write!

 

Regardless of its origin, having a cold proved to be a bit of an issue. On the other rare occasions when he got sick, he would normally just stay home like a reasonable person. But he had just gotten out of four different casts (don’t ask) last week, and only got permission to turf again a couple days ago. It had been a full three weeks since he got any practice in, and so of course he planned a ton for today. His teammates, both his regular ones and the S4, were probably eager for a taste of battle, so he couldn’t just let them down like that! Plus, he kind of missed cooking for them, too.

 

Perhaps this was the wrong decision, but Army had made up his mind and was going to stick to it! He couldn’t risk missing any more time. Surely he could pull through with some medication. Now, if only he could find his shirt…

 

After struggling with his tie for a good five minutes and settling on ‘good enough’, Army trudged over to the bathroom. His first practice of the day wasn’t for a couple more hours, so he had a bit of time. 

 

The drill sergeant sniffed and examined himself in the mirror. His face was mostly pale, save for the bright flush that spread across it. Maybe applying his usual face paint would help cover up those annoying orange blotches. It was worth a shot.

 

He messed up three times, an annoyed growl escaping his teeth at the third. Again, he almost never got sick, let alone attempted to put on his eye black at the same time, and it was proving more than difficult. Only when he eventually came up with something that didn’t look positively awful did he realize they were uneven. It would have to do. 

 

This is why he hated getting colds. All the careful exactness he had worked so hard to upkeep, completely flown out the window. He couldn’t even get his tentacles to flatten down, and so his beret sat slightly at an angle atop his head.

 

Army quickly threw together a bag with some backup meds, his manuals, and his phone. He didn’t even bother packing his wallet. His parka felt both too hot and too cool at the same time, so he opted to leave it unzipped. Yes, he was aware he wasn’t doing a very good job of keeping up the aforementioned punctual appearance, but honestly he didn’t really care. He just needed to look put together enough to be let into the lobby. 

 

 

The sky was gray and clouded over, leaving everything in a hazy filter. Frankly, Army wanted to turn around and go right back to bed as soon as he took a step outside, but he was a member of the S4, for the zapfish’s sake! He was supposed to be stronger than this!

 

Though, that thought did prompt some unwanted questions. Was he a member of the S4 anymore? Of course, the answer was yes. He was the one who organized this practice in the first place! But…during the period where Army was unable to battle, he had Rider fill in for him. With Rider on their team, the S4 got farther in the tournament than before, and even Aloha seemed to like him more. Tzar y and were pretty close in skill level, but the dynamo provided some useful long range and another hard-hitter to go with Aloha’s .gal. So it was safe to say Army was the tiniest bit nervous about his return to center stage. 

 

Army met Forge, his second-in-command, at their usual bus stop. All the members of team Orange lived relatively close to each other, so it was never a surprise running into them.

 

The orange inkling smiled warmly, though none of her features moved much. “Good morning, captain.”

 

“Good morning, Forge,” Army responded, surprised by how raspy and nasally it sounded, as if his head was full of helium. He coughed quickly to try and get it back to normal before she questioned anything, but this only resulted in a very minor coughing fit. Cod, was this what being Mask was like? 

 

Immediately after he recovered, Forge’s brow knit in worry. “Are you alright? You don’t seem very well.”

 

That was an understatement. Army huffed, though it was slightly tricky due to his currently blocked nose. “I’m-I’ll be alright. I don’t have too much to do today, just some practice.” He lied, and turned to look out across the street. Absolutely nothing of note was happening. Forge audibly gulped beside him, her voice laced with just the slightest bit of skepticism.

 

“…I believe you…just make sure to take care of yourself.”

 

Army met her eyes and forced a smile. “I promise you that I will. I’m just…happy to be back.” In reality, it was closer to I’m terrified that everyone will hate me if I don’t come back, but that didn’t matter. It wasn’t like there was much to be found in returning home now. 

 

That, at least, made Forge crack a smile again. A small one, but still. “Well, on behalf of Team Orange, we’re happy to have you back.” A bus rolled into the station, and Forge’s ears perked up. “Oh! This is my stop!” She readied her backpack on her shoulders and stepped into the bus, waving. “Thank you for talking with me, captain! Take care!”

 

Army waved right back at her. His wrist still ached from hours of pouring over his manuals last night. 

 

 

During the bus ride, Army had to deliberately force his eyes open on multiple occasions. If only he lived close enough to the square, he could have just walked. On top of that, the bus was delayed, meaning he was running late. Army had no idea how two hours went by so quickly, but then again, he did spend a good twenty minutes putting on his face paint alone. 

 

The bad thing about running late, on top of, well, being late, was that Army had to book it from the bus stop to Goby Arena, where the meet was scheduled. He was usually a fairly fast runner, made even faster by his parka and all the run speed-ups it possessed, but now it just felt like it was weighing him down. He thought that surely he was getting lost, but luckily, the road had been engraved into his head for some time. 

 

When Army arrived at the small meeting room by the stage’s entrance, he actually had to lean on the doorway to catch his breath, which was starting to come out in wheezes. His back ached. What time did he fall asleep last night? One?

 

Blinking away the water that had formed in his eyes, Army gave the other three an awkward wave. They were sitting on either sides of the conference-style table, and at the moment were all staring at Army like he had grown a second head. Probably because none of them were used to seeing Army so discombobulated, but honestly he felt too bad to care. He just wanted to start this. The sooner they began, the sooner he could cross one thing off of his to-do list.

 

Army took his seat at the near end of the table and pulled his manual out of his backpack, blind to how the other three’s eyes followed his every action.

 

“Okay,” Army breathed, annoyed with how his voice still sounded awful. “We should probably-“ he cleared his throat, but it didn’t help. “We should probably just get started, then? I was thinking-“ the drill sergeant frantically flipped through the pages of his manual. “I was thinking just a couple laps around the stage to warm up, and then we can go through some drills.” He regretted making that plan as soon as he said it. The prospect of more running was sounding less than fun right now. Maybe he could just go slow? 

 

Army closed his manual, finished with what he could remember, and glanced to the other three. They continued staring. 

 

Aloha was the first to comment on his condition. “Are you okay, dude?”  His words were genuine, though the mocking tone and the slight grin playing on his lips spoke otherwise. Normally, this would have annoyed Army to all end, but he really didn’t have the energy today. 

 

“I’ll survive.” Army sighed and stood up from his chair, and the others followed suit. “Let us begin, then.”

 

Running more, even slowly, turned out not to be helpful in any way. Some stupid part of Army kept going, even as he felt as if he was melting into the literal sun. His parka felt like it was made of bricks, he ached all over, and even as every part of him was screaming at him to stop, Army’s shoes kept hitting the ground. Just…slower. He almost fell over, but managed to catch himself. Ugh… maybe he wasn’t going to survive.

 

The blinding glare from the  stage lights above was beginning to get unbearable, and now his vision was actually starting to get blurry. He was almost there, he only needed to stay awake for just…a little…longer…for his teammates…

 

Hearts pounding in his ears, Army took one more slow step, but when he went to lift his other leg, it wouldn’t move. It seemed his body had finally given up on him, leaving him entirely on his own. And then he was hurling toward the ground. He attempted to put his hands out to stop himself, but to no avail. The last thing he could recall before everything went black was the gentle sound of his body instinctively turning into a squid and slipping away into a puddle of ink, never to be seen again. 

 

 

Naturally, Aloha finished his three laps before any of the others. Usually, the winner was either him or Army, but he clearly wasn’t at his best today. The dude actually had to catch his breath at the door. Had he run all the way here or something? Maybe he was simply still recovering from the literal bee bombing he received a couple weeks ago. Though that wouldn’t really affect his lungs, would it…

 

Aloha stood at the stage entrance, waiting for the others to arrive while tapping his foot impatiently. Too bad he had left his phone in the meeting room, then at least he could complain to Scuba about all this. Or maybe Rider. That was usually more entertaining. 

 

Surprisingly, the next person to finish their laps was not Army, but Skull. Mask was right at his tail, wheezing in the heat.

 

Skull skid to a halt right next to Aloha, and both inklings watched as Mask dragged himself about in almost a comical fashion. He found his way to the other two, eventually.

 

“I don’t think heeee-“ Mask coughed out, buckled over with his hands on his knees. Skull patted on his back reassuringly. “I don’t think Army knows how haaaaard it is to run in rain booots.”

 

Aloha chuckled, resting his hands behind his head. “Yeah…” he hummed, and then quickly changed the subject as Mask wheezed away. “Come to think of it, where is Army? If you beat him, something’s gotta be up.” 

 

Mask shot Aloha the glare of a thousand suns, but Skull merely shrugged. “No idea. Should we look for him?”

 

Aloha glanced out across the stage, puddles of blue and orange ink still present from a previous battle. Army looked tired today, sure, but he was never this slow. The abilities on his jakcet sure of that. “Yeah…” Aloha hissed, tugging on his shirt. “Probably…”

 

Skull immediately let go of his hold on the back of Mask’s shirt, who promptly fell to the ground.

 

 

After around five minutes of searching, Aloha was ready to give up. He had searched every nook and cranny of the stage, and no sign of the orange inkling. Between that and almost dying twice to the leftover puddles of ink, Aloha was gonna just call it quits. Where was his trusty point sensor when he needed it? 

 

His thoughts of how in the world he would properly announce Army’s unfortunate death to the public were interrupted by a certain purple someone’s deep “This Way!” from across the map.

 

Aloha was immediately excited by either the fact that Army had been found or that the prospect of him being dead was still possible; he couldn’t decide which one. On one hand, it would be absolutely horrible, but on the other hand, it would give them a good mystery to solve. He readied himself and super jumped straight to Skull’s position and nearly collided with Mask on the way there.

 

Skull was standing in front of them, an all-too-familiar orange squid cradled in his arms like a baby. From the hastily applied face paint alone, Aloha deduced that it was most definitely their man. He was certainly alive (much to Aloha’s relief/a little bit of disappointment) , though his breath was coming out in delayed wheezes and he was quivering slightly. It was weird, because Aloha never thought of Army as particularity small, even when put next to Skull, but now…?

 

“I think he just passed out from overexertion,” Skull muttered, eyes darting all over the place. Anywhere but the unfortunate inkling. 

 

Curious, Aloha placed a careful finger to the end of the squid’s tentacle. It was unnaturally hot, and left an inky residue on his finger. Ah…He guessed from the moment Army walked in that he was unwell. Though, Aloha kind of always assumed Army to be the ‘stay at home’ type of sick person, but you learn something new every day. 

 

Mask narrowed his eyes. “...Is it weeeird I feel kind of bad for hiiiim?”

 

Aloha only huffed slightly in response, as the three stared their disheveled teammate. There was a brief pause, so he broke the silence and promptly asked what was running through all three of their heads in that moment: “Well, what do we do now?”

 

 

Army woke up feeling like, again, actual shit. Though, less so. Don’t get him wrong, he still felt awful, but it seemed the unspecific amount of sleep he had gotten improved his condition a bit. He couldn’t fully remember anything after he entered the meeting room to start their practice, though from what he could take in, he definitely wasn’t at so and so anymore. Instead, he was lying on what seemed to be a futon.

 

Army had initially planned to keep his eyes shut and go right back to sleep, not caring to find out where he was or how he got here. But curiosity ended up winning. 

 

Army groaned as he struggled to sit up, observing the room as his vision cleared. It seemed that the room was less of a room and more some sort of storage closet, with a chair holding his parka and beret, along with the futon hastily stuffed in the corner. There was a door situated at the far end, from which some familiar voices could be heard.

 

Army immediately blanched. If the rest of the S4 were here, then what had happened to him during practice?

 

Somebody one the other side must have heard him moving around, because they knocked on the door. Three times, to be exact. “Hey, you awaaaaake?“ Mask asked in an oddly aggressive tone.

 

Without even waiting for Army to answer, the door swung open, revealing two out of three members of the S4 poking their heads in. Army only stared at them, still trying to fully process what had happened.

 

Aloha’s face immediately lit up. Maybe Mask looked happy as well, but it was always kind of hard to tell with him. “He’s awake!” He looked down to face the cyan inkling, who merely blinked at him. “Told you.”

 

Army rubbed his still-hot forehead, finding it did literally nothing to soothe his pounding skull. “Where am I…?”

 

Mask and Aloha stepped into the room, revealing Skull leaning against the doorframe. “Ammo Knights,” he explained, and gestured out the door. Sheldon took a break from writing something down to wave politely. Skull continued, “You fainted while running laps, about three hours ago.”

 

At this, the orange inkling groaned and held his head in his hands, face flushed more than usual. Why, of all days, did it have to be today that he’d slip up like that? And the thought that the S4 probably had to carry him here…it was mortifying. He was supposed to be the responsible one, not the one everybody had to watch out for and take care of!

 

The drill sergeant looked down at his hands, stained black from his partially melted face paint. Then, the words started spilling out. “I’m-I apologize. I was only nervous that missing my first practice back from my leave would anger you. It’s stupid, but I haven’t exactly felt like I was a proper part of the S4 for the past couple weeks. I shouldn’t have kept brushing it off. I apologize for putting you through that,” he repeated, voice sounding similar to how it did before.

 

Aloha shrugged and smiled. It was one of the first semi-genuine smiles Army had seen from him in a long time. “Naw, we get it. You didn’t wanna let us down. It’s all cool.”

 

Skull nodded in agreement, and it was only now that Army realized he had untied his bandana, which hung around his neck. “Just…maybe try to take care of yourself next time. You don’t have to worry about us.”

 

“No, do worry about ussss…you’re the only person holding this sad excuse of team togetherrrr,” Mask chuckled. Army couldn’t fully tell if he was being sarcastic or not, but he appreciated the gesture nonetheless, and couldn’t hold back a smile. He never thought of this team as one to show much care for one another, but here they were. Army was ashamed to remark on how happy it made him. 

 

Aloha held up a finger, hand on his hip, and began to lecture Army in a very Army-like manner. “Anyway, now that you know all that, get back to sleep!” Army narrowed his eyes slightly, and they threatened to close on him. Aloha didn’t take notice of this and continued, “And if you’re gonna stay here, just call if you need anything. The walls in here are thin as fuck, so I’m sure Sheldon will hear you, but…” He turned on his heel, heading toward the door. “…I’m gettin’ out of here.”

 

Skull caught Aloha by the back of his shirt and pulled him back. “Oh no, you’re not.” He turned to Army again, completely ignoring Aloha as the inkling struggled against his grip and shouted every profanity known to squid. “Think you can make it home?”

 

Army thought for a moment, and then nodded. “I’ll be alright, it’s not a very long bus ride.” He would much rather be sleeping at home in his comfy bed than here on a futon in a closet, that’s for sure. And he could…probably walk. 

 

He pulled himself up, having to stand still for a second or two due to tipsiness, but eventually took a couple deep breaths and steadied himself. Success! Deciding putting on his parka would only cause more pain and suffering, Army only placed his beret on his head. With a little more accuracy this time, too. Just a little. His shoes hadn’t been removed. 

 

Skull held a thumbs up, turning to leave as well after releasing Aloha. The pink inkling was at the door in a second, shooting Army a quick wink before he disappeared into the abyss.  Mask stretched his shoulders and was at Skull’s side in an instant. “Seeya Armyyy~…” the masked inkling slurred, waggling his fingers around in a weird little wave. “Don’t die, okayyy?”

 

Army laughed, just a little bit. It hurt, but in a nice-ish sort of way. “I’ll try my best.”