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Operation Cure Makoto

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Makoto Tachibana usually had plenty of energy for swim practice. Even after a particularly harrowing school day, his enthusiasm for swimming came naturally. He loved coming to club after his classes ended, seeing his friends, his team who had come so far with him since they started the swim club last spring.

Today, however, he found himself wanting to go home and take a nap more than anything else. A blanket of fatigue had crept over him as the day wore on, and by his last class, he was having trouble keeping his eyes open – and not just because it was English, his worst subject. He would have liked to think it was just because he didn’t sleep well the night before, but he didn’t think that was the only reason. Or rather, not the ultimate cause for it.

That morning, he’d woken out of his restless slumber with a scratchy throat and a vague tickle playing at the back of his sinuses, and no matter how much he swallowed or rubbed his nose, neither lessened a bit. In fact, over the course of the day, they worsened, and he kept trying to stifle sneezes so as not to disturb his classmates. Although, every time he looked up afterwards, he caught Haru frowning in his direction, to which Makoto replied with a reassuring quirk of his lips, telling him not to worry.

It wasn’t cause for concern. Makoto had come to practice, and he really was fine. It was only early May, the cherry blossom trees having just finished shedding their flowers, so it was entirely possible he had allergies....though he’d never had them before.

As he briefed the team on what they would be working on this practice, his brain seemed to be having a little bit of trouble catching up. He had to think each of his statements through when normally, his instructions came naturally. It wasn’t as if he didn’t know what he wanted to say, just that the words were having trouble coming out. He hoped none of the others noticed.

“So,” he said, glancing around at his teammates, eager with the exception of Haru, whose gaze was on the shimmering water behind Makoto. “Today we’ll work on our times and forms, since it’s still early in the season, and...then...” He trailed off, the tickling in his sinuses spiking once again, and quite inconveniently. Blinking it away, he continued. “Then we’ll see h...how we’re doing c-compared to—“ He broke off abruptly, ducking into his elbow to stifle another sneeze – almost, anyway. He nearly succeeded, but it was getting more difficult.

He opened his eyes to find another of Haru’s glares directed at him, though he was sure that up to this point, Haru hadn’t been paying any attention to what he was saying at all.

“Bless you, Mako-chan!” Nagisa said emphatically, rocking onto the balls of his feet, blond curls bouncing on either side of his face.

Makoto chuckled, mildly embarrassed. “Thanks,” he said with a good-natured smile, knuckling the tip of his nose. “Anyway, we’ll be gauging our progress from here to see exactly what each of us should focus on while we train for regionals.”

“Right,” Gou chimed in, clipboard in hand. “Since you barely did any swimming over the winter, you need to work hard now! You can’t afford to slack off at the beginning or we’ll never get where we need to be!”

“Gou is right,” Makoto said, resting his hands on his hips. “We have to work hard if we’re planning to make it to nationals!”

“Right!” Rei and Nagisa replied in unison.

“And for after practice, I made some food for all of you, since your lunches still aren’t up to code.” Gou pointed with her pen at a table by the door of the club room, laden with covered bowls and dishes of various sizes.

Rei’s face paled at the memory of the last meal Gou made for them. Makoto made a face that started as a grimace, though he tried to appear more grateful. Even Haru’s expression shifted to one of mild disgust. All of the food on the table looked harmless enough, but it had last time, too.

Nagisa leapt forward with no shortage of excitement. “With strawberry protein powder?! Or chocolate?!”

“Absolutely not!” Rei exclaimed before Gou could answer. Rei wilted, one hand over his eyes, groaning, “I never want to eat protein powder again.”

Gou scowled at him, then turned back to Nagisa. “I didn’t put it in the food, but I brought some if you want it. But not until after practice.”

Nagisa howled, punching a fist in the air and grabbing Rei’s wrist, dragging him toward the pool against Rei’s cries of “Wait, Nagisa-kun!!” Makoto laughed airily, glancing at Haru, who, to his surprise, had not dashed for the water long before Makoto finished briefing the team. Instead, he was staring at Makoto, a slight frown still in place.

Makoto’s expression softened. “I’m okay, don’t worry.”

Haru said nothing, only deepened his frown, and strode toward the water, pulling his goggles down over his eyes. Makoto followed, though he didn’t really feel like swimming, or doing much of anything. His body felt sluggish and heavy, even without the water’s resistance, and a dull ache blossomed behind his eyes.

But he was the captain, and the club needed him to set an example. Besides, he wasn’t lying when he told Haru he was okay. It wasn’t as if he couldn’t swim, he just lacked some of his usual motivation.

Dipping into the water, he shivered, breath catching in his chest. He had forgotten how cold it was. They’d only opened the pool a few weeks ago, early this year, in hopes of attracting new members. This was the first week they were officially swimming in it for their own practice.

Pushing off the pool wall, Makoto stretched his arms in a leisurely backstroke to warm up. The longer he stayed in the water, the more his body got used to the temperature and formed a rhythm with his strokes and breathing. However, staying in the water also started making breathing uncomfortable. By the time he had done a few laps, his chest was tight and he resisted the need to cough when Gou called to him with timer in hand.

“Makoto-senpai, you’re next!” She stopped at the head of his lane, thumb poised over the start button as Makoto neared the starting block. “Whenever you’re ready. Swim two laps, and I’ll record your time.”

Makoto gripped the metal bar beneath the platform. He took a moment to catch his breath, but not too long, lest Gou question it. His energy was declining quickly, much to his dismay, though practice had barely begun. Hoisting himself up – first one leg, then the other – he waited for Gou’s signal.

“Ready...”

He curled tighter against the bar, preparing to dive.

“Go!”

Makoto sprung off the side of the pool, plunging head first into the frigid water, dolphin kicking until his face broke the surface. The water rushed over his head, rolling off his swimming cap, a light rumbling and splashing in his ears as he moved his arms in steady circles, swimming with all his strength. He kept his breathing in check, one breath for every two kicks, conscious of the fact that he hadn’t quite gotten it under control before he dove.

He passed the overhead marker, descending once more beneath the water for the turn. By the time he was halfway down the lane again, he felt his energy starting to abate. He could finish both laps, for sure, but it was taking its toll more quickly than he anticipated.

By his second turn, his chest felt constricted again, muscles tense, and it became more difficult to control his breathing. Gritting his teeth, he took the second lap stroke by stroke, cutting the water with the side of his hand, knowing his form was slightly off, his speed slowly decreasing. It felt like the water was thickening, weighing down his legs like a ball and chain.

He dove again after the marker. His lungs burned, and he took a breath too early, inhaling a mouthful of water. Coughing and spluttering, he tried to keep up his pace despite that he could no longer regulate his breathing, or breathe much at all.

After a couple of seconds, he had to stop, and twisted himself around, treading until he reached the lane divider. He hooked one arm over it, tugging his swim cap and goggles off while he barked into his other elbow. Even after the water had left his respiratory system, he couldn’t stop, and the fit was dizzying. At some point, he felt a hand on his back, and he knew he wouldn’t be spared the others’ notice.

It took him a while to catch his breath once he finished, looking up to find Nagisa and Rei in the neighboring lane, watching him with concern. So it was Haru’s hand against his back. He peered to the side and offered him a sheepish smile, met with brows drawn together in an expression of unease as he removed his hand.

“Mako-chan, are you okay?” Nagisa asked, leaning closer, as if he were about to inspect Makoto’s face.

“Y-yeah, I’m fine,” Makoto said, voice raspier than he would’ve liked. He cleared his throat. “I just swallowed some water at the turn.”

Rei picked up on the rough quality to his voice immediately, pursing his lips before he spoke. “Are you feeling well, Makoto-senpai? You look a bit pale.”

“Huh?” Makoto said, taking a moment to comprehend the words. “No, I’m okay!” Although he said it – and it still wasn’t untrue – he certainly wasn’t in peak condition. He was still a little shaky from coughing so much and exerting himself when he was already worn out, and his lungs and sinuses burned from the chlorine.

Rei wasn’t fooled. “Still, perhaps it would be a good idea for you to take a break. Can you swim the way back?”

“Of course,” Makoto said with a placating grin. “I really am fine, don’t worry.”

Nevertheless, a short break might do him good, and he swam to the side of the pool, pushing himself out of the water and drawing his knee up onto the concrete.

“Sorry, Gou,” he said, taking the towel she offered and drying his hair.

She shook her head. “I’ll time you again later,” she said. “Though from what I could tell, you need to work on pacing yourself and regulating your breathing better. You have a lot of power in your stroke, so you started off fast, but by the second lap, you were slowing down.”

“Ah, I’ll work on that,” Makoto said, not wholly invested in her advice at the moment, but not about to make excuses and tell her he wasn’t feeling well. He had barely admitted it to himself. At the same time, he was having some trouble ignoring it as he walked to the bench and sat down, towel draped over his shoulders. His fatigue had grown, his throat raw from all the coughing, and it hurt when he swallowed.

Gou was timing Haru now, and Makoto was amazed at how fast he was, despite that he’d barely gotten to swim over the past several months. Then again, Haru always had been that way, however little speed and times mattered to him.

Nagisa and Rei had also gone back to their swimming. Makoto hadn’t heard what Gou told them to work on, but he bet that it was more form-based for Nagisa, and endurance-based for Rei, who still couldn’t quite complete the team’s regular training regimen, though his technique was perfect.

Makoto remained on the bench for a while longer, watching his friends as they swam. He was glad they hadn’t gotten into the more difficult aspects of practice yet. Winter training, though it kept their muscles toned, wasn’t as rigorous as training during the season when they swam every day. At this point, they were still in such early phases of their regular training that they hadn’t even formed a new schedule yet.

As he observed, he felt the infernal prickling return to his sinuses, and rubbed the bridge of his nose, trying to will it away. He wouldn’t be able to stifle this time, he was sure, and he didn’t feel like trying. After a few minutes, he gave up, bracing himself and pitching forward to sneeze into his hands once, twice, and again, as if his body were trying to rid itself of the chlorinated water in his nose. It was painful, and a sharp ache spiked in the side of his head.

He should probably get back in the water pretty soon, he thought, wincing, but he wasn’t ready to be timed again. In fact, if he were, he would probably be even slower than before right from the start. Even resting for a while didn’t seem to bring back any of his energy.

But, he reminded himself, he was the captain, and he couldn’t skip out on practice for something this minor.

He rose from the bench, preparing himself for the icy water. He hesitated before jumping in, his body shuddering at the thought of once again being enveloped in cold right after he’d warmed up, if marginally.

Still, he did it anyway, gasping when he was in up to his chest. He would take it easy this time, he decided, and settled into a slow crawl, if only to say he still was practicing. It wasn’t a bad thing to use other strokes either – his crawl could use improvement, especially since he was thinking of entering one of the freestyle races at regionals.

However, after a few laps of this, he once again inhaled a mouthful of water when he got careless, sending him into another coughing fit.

“Maybe we should end practice early today,” Gou suggested, taking note of Makoto’s condition. “It’s probably better to wait until the water warms up to have longer practices, anyway.”

Makoto nearly slipped getting out of the pool this time, though he was deeply grateful that they were done for the day. He already felt much worse than he had before the start of practice, and he wasn’t sure how much longer he would be able to keep swimming, considering that they’d barely been in the pool for an hour and already he’d had to take a break.

Not to mention, almost immediately after getting out of the pool, he sneezed yet again, and this time couldn’t avoid the eyes of the others.

“Mako-chan, are you getting sick?” Nagisa asked, peering at his face and getting a little too close for comfort. Rei clasped Nagisa’s shoulder, guiding him a step back.

“Nagisa-kun,” Rei interjected. “If Makoto-senpai is unwell, you shouldn’t make him more uncomfortable.”

Makoto smiled to put them at ease. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I might have caught a slight cold from Ran and Ren, but I’m fine.”

“It was more than a ‘slight cold,’” Haru said, speaking for the first time as he appeared behind Makoto, drying off his hair, and leaving the towel draped over his head. “They were in bed for almost a week.”

“Y-yeah,” Makoto said, protesting weakly. “But they’re kids, so their bodies aren’t as good at fighting that kind of stuff. I’m sure it won’t be as bad in my case.”

Though he didn’t reply verbally, Haru gave him a look that said he definitely wasn’t buying that, and apparently neither was anyone else.

“If you are sick,” Gou said, “You should have something to eat so you keep your strength up.” She gestured to the table of food, now unwrapped and ready to be eaten...and the containers of protein powder sat right beside it.

Gou led the team over to the table, where each of them took a seat in the folding chairs around it. There were rice balls, noodles, sandwiches, and all sorts of carb-heavy foods. Makoto, though he couldn’t deny it looked delicious and pleasantly devoid of protein powder, realized as he surveyed the spread that he wasn’t very hungry. Nagisa, on the other hand, dug in immediately, heaping it onto his plate in an indistinguishable mess and reaching for the protein powder.

“Save some of that for Makoto-senpai,” Gou told him as he shook both the chocolate and strawberry containers over his food.

“Eh?!” Makoto yelped. “I-I thought you said you weren’t putting it on the food.”

Gou turned to him. “I’m not, but if you’re getting sick, you should eat it. It will give your body extra strength, so you recover more quickly.”

Makoto’s heart sank as he watched the fine pink powder fall over Nagisa’s meal, and fervently hoped that he would use it all anyway. His hopes were dashed when Nagisa passed him the open container, apparently under the impression that he was not the only one in the club who didn’t find the stuff...off-putting.

“That’s okay,” Makoto said, raising his hands in front of him. “I’d rather not...”

“Makoto-senpai,” Gou said sternly, taking the container from Nagisa and shoving it under Makoto’s nose. “You’re the captain. If you miss practice because you’re sick, our team will be at a loss. Haruka-senpai might be our best swimmer and vice captain, but if he were to take over your role as captain, we wouldn’t get anything done. If you want to get better and stay healthy, you have to take extra precautions!”

Makoto bit his lip. Though Haru barely seemed to notice her complaints, only bringing another mouthful of noodles to his lips, Gou was right. The team needed its captain. Without him, things might stay in order for a day or two, but if he had to take too much time away from the club, they could lose ground, and they wouldn’t be able to match Samezuka in the relay. As much as he detested protein powder, he was more concerned with his team.

So, after a distressed sigh, he took just enough food to satisfy Gou, and sprinkled as little strawberry protein powder as he could over the top. His features twisted with distaste at each bite, trying to hold his breath so he wouldn’t have to taste the overly sweetened powder and the way it mixed with the salty and meaty flavors of the noodles and sandwiches so potently.

At one point, he breathed some of the powder, choking and coughing until it shook his frame. Haru placed a hand in the middle of his back until it died down.

“I don’t think this is the best way to go about helping Makoto-senpai feel better,” Rei said, eyes narrowed in sympathy.

Gou heaved an exaggerated sigh. “I suppose we could try something else. I brought vitamin powder, too, so—“

“No!” Makoto shrieked in mortification. The last thing he needed was to have two kinds of disgusting powder forced upon him.

“Maybe it would be better if we went home once we’re finished,” Rei said, watching Nagisa load up his plate and help himself to the abandoned chocolate protein powder again. “That way, Makoto-senpai can get some rest, and we’ll be in better shape tomorrow.”

“That’s a good idea,” Haru said, ignoring the ‘once we’re finished’ part of Rei’s statement and standing. “I’ll take Makoto home.”

“Haru,” Makoto protested. “We can’t leave right now, we’re still eating.”

Haru stared blankly at him. “You’re not. And I’m finished, so let’s go.”

Makoto opened his mouth to speak, but only managed a few stuttered noises. He wanted very much to go home, finish his homework as quickly as possible, and go to bed, but it simply wasn’t right for him to just get up and leave.

“It’s okay, Mako-chan!” Nagisa said around a mouthful of rice ball. “We’ll finish Gou-chan’s food, so you should go home and feel better!”

“We’re not holding practice anymore for the day, so you don’t have to stay,” Gou added, pouring herself a cup of barley tea.

Makoto hesitated. “If...you’re all really okay with it...”

“Of course,” Rei said, pushing his glasses up higher on his face. “We’re concerned about your health, and we’d much rather you take care of yourself than push yourself too hard and get injured.”

“Rei...” Makoto said, unsure exactly how to respond, but touched by his friends’ words.

“Come on,” Haru said, heading for the club room door, knowing Makoto would follow now that everyone had reassured him that it was okay.

Gathering their things from the club room, Makoto didn’t say anything as they left. He was exhausted, and didn’t have much energy for his usual chatter. The two walked home mostly in silence, the dusky light lengthening their shadows as they neared Makoto’s house.

Makoto felt Haru’s eyes on him for most of that time. He wanted to tell him over and over that he was still fine, but wasn’t really up for another unconvinced glare.

When they stopped at the foot of the steps that led to Haru’s house, Haru didn’t continue walking. Instead, he waited until Makoto reached his own front door, then called after him. Makoto turned, hand still on the handle.

“Take care of yourself,” Haru said severely.

Makoto, about to reiterate that he would feel better by tomorrow, thought better of it, and gave Haru a gentle smile. “I will. Thank you for worrying about me, Haru-chan.”

The nickname earned him a deep scowl anyway, but Haru seemed placated enough to drop the subject for the moment, and ascended the stairs, leaving Makoto to himself.