The sun was just breaking over the trees, casting light on the dew settled on the untouched grass and the hot breath of Sora as he tossed his backpack onto the dirt. Crickets sang from the field on the other side of the track like a chorus in the quiet morning. The only other sound was the pacing back and forth on the starting line as he set up his iPod on his speaker deck. Even after having it ready to play, he left it silent and went on with stretching his legs and kicking pieces of rock into the loose gravel with his worn running shoes. From the top of the bleachers lining the track, Vanitas sat and watched, wrapped in a large black sweatshirt and ripped black jeans with a stopwatch hanging loosely in his hands. “Six o’clock,” he hummed to himself. “Right on time.”
Eventually, Sora took his place on the line, stretching his leg back and resting his palms on the cold asphalt. He lines up his front foot and took in a breath, relaxing all his muscles and steadying his heartbeat as he looked forward. There was silence, only the crickets growing more into white noise that vanished against his ears. Vanitas slowly lifted his foot from the metal bench in front of him, his finger ready on the start button. Even from this distance, he could almost hear Sora’s slow breath and see his chest moving slowly up and down in his lunge position. In a swift motion, Vanitas slammed his foot down.
Sora shot forward. Vanitas tapped the stopwatch into motion and sat back. All he could do was sit and watch as Sora ripped around the first turn, arms remaining strong and steady at his side to carry his momentum forward. His face was set and concentrated, eyebrows furrowed and cheeks puffing out as he controlled his breathing.
Vanitas laughed to himself. Never in his life had he met someone as determined as Sora to run. Even when they first met in elementary school, it seemed that all Sora knew how to do was run. Every gym class, every track and field meet, every little opportunity he could find, he was running. It was ironic, really, that they had somehow become friends even with Vanitas always remaining on the sidelines of all these events, inhaler in hand. It did, however, always make him available to hold a stopwatch, a job he would gladly take over having to run sprints or do jumping jacks. After a while, Vanitas kept the stopwatch on his person at all time and Sora had somehow learned that. He walked up to him one day in junior high, a warm smile on his face with the simple question, “Hey, can ya time me?”
Vanitas, despite his best efforts, couldn’t say no. The rest was infamous and undocumented history.
On the last lap, Vanitas sauntered down the bleachers to the edge of the track, waiting for Sora by the finish line. As he got closer, his heart started to race at how unbelievably attractive he was, even after just running a mile. His spikey brown hair was sticking to his sweaty forehead, his face was the complexion of a slightly under-ripe tomato, veins stuck out on his arms and muscles rippled along his chest (revealed since about halfway through the third lap when he tossed his shirt aside). When Vanitas came into his field of view, a tired smile lit up Sora’s face. His shoes dragged across the line and Vanitas clicked the stopper.
“Six minutes, seven seconds,” he announced, reaching for Sora’s water bottle in his bag.
“Damnit,” Sora huffed. He threw his hands behind his head, turning his back to Vanitas who swallowed hard at the sight of his bare skin covered in sweat. He shook his head, realizing he was doing it again. “Not as bad as last week, but I haven’t made any progress since the season started.”
“Better than seven fifty from the start of last season,” Vanitas shot back, but Sora still had his back turned to him. He had learned that it was better to let Sora talk himself through his motivation and plans than stick his nose into trying to make suggestions or other quips since, really, he had no credentials in these circumstances. After a few mhmm’s, yup’s, and I bet’s, Sora reached out and turned on the iPod dock, instantly spouting out the song Tubthumping by Chumbawamba. Vanitas couldn’t help but laugh as Sora started singing along and jogging sluggishly around the track in a cool down lap. Across the track, Vanitas still heard him. “I get knocked down, but I get up again, you’re never gonna keep me down!”
What a fucking dork.
As he slowed to a walk near the end of the lap, he reached out for his shirt and water bottle that Vanitas tossed to him, and they started up the stone steps to the main school building.
This was the only time Sora went slow, taking each step with as much effort and strain that it took Vanitas. Sometimes, he would start hopping up the steps out of habit, leaving Vanitas behind momentarily, but always waited. Then Sora would wait some more at the top as Vanitas caught his breath, damning his own lungs for already starting to wheeze.
“We can push this back to a little later,” Sora said, casually kicking his foot against the cement sidewalk. “I know the cold air can be tough for you sometimes.”
Vanitas just shook his head and stood up straight, taking a deep breath with a slight whistling exhale. “I’m fine, Sora. You do better in the mornings.” Sora just shrugged, and they continued on. He knew that Sora meant well, but Sora also knew that Vanitas was the most stubborn boy he’d ever known. If Vanitas could be rid of his asthma forever, but it would mean Sora ran half a second slower forever, there would be no question in the answer. And Sora knew it.
Vanitas glanced at him. “Your best time ever was six-oh-two,” he remembered. Sora had nearly collapsed that morning after the run and then nearly cried when he heard the time. Again! he had demanded and started running another mile. Vanitas himself nearly crumpled over when trying to get him to stop running and settled to walking the inside of the track until Sora eventually gave up. At that point, he sounded like Vanitas, struggling to breathe and coughing up enough phlegm to scare passing children.
“Sub six,” Sora repeated, sending a smile to Vanitas. “With your help, anything is possible.”
“Woow,” Vanitas scoffed, trying hard to hide the warmth crawling up his neck, “real cheesy there, Sora.”
“Shaddup,” Sora laughed, shoving him slightly. “The real training starts tomorrow. You better be ready.”
The first bell rang overhead, and Vanitas just rolled his eyes. To Sora this only meant, Yes, of course.
Vanitas could never really pinpoint the time or place in which Sora’s smile fully and completely made his lungs stop working. It seemed like it had been a pot coming to a slow boil, starting from the first day he timed Sora’s run and he didn’t treat Vanitas like a fragile piece of glass to reaching a climax on a particular winter morning when Vanitas had an asthma attack and Sora stayed with him in the nurses office through the entire school day, vehemently refusing to leave his best friend’s side and even ‘secretly’ holding his hand through his nap. Since then Vanitas noticed that the pot never stopped boiling; it was continually overflowing from a replenishing source of steaming water, and every time Sora smiled, he felt the water drops sizzle against the fire warming it underneath.
Now, it was just a matter of reminding himself that Sora was, no matter how he spun it in his twisted head, his best friend, which was something he never thought he would have. Growing up, he was always sifted into the category of ‘the weird kid’. Maybe it was his black hair, maybe it was his strangely light brown eyes that glimmered gold in direct light, maybe it was the fact that on the playground after any amount of running with other children, he would start to wheeze and cough and the other kids would run to the teacher claiming, Vanitas is possessed by a demon!
He still hated kids to this day.
Sora, bounding down the stairs carefully as they were still slick with dew, pulled Vanitas out of his thoughts. He was not dressed differently than usual, with black gym shorts, a red t-shirt under a light athletic jacket, and his atrociously torn up and worn-down running shoes that he refuses to get rid of “until my toes are sticking out.” However, his face was different; his eyebrows were furrowed together, and his hands were balled into fists and stuck in his pockets, something Vanitas only saw when Sora had a large thought on his mind.
“What’s up, buttercup?” Vanitas asked with a coy smile. Sora didn’t respond, causing Vanitas to lean forward from his spot on the ground with inquisition. Usually, his terribly lame names for Sora brought about at least a smile in return, giving Vanitas more incentive to do just that. But the silence continued to ring out. All that he heard were the crickets in the field and the buzz of storm clouds gathering overhead.
Rocks scattered into the grass as Sora began stretching and kicking his feet against the track. His eyes were still set, small blue flames lighting up behind the pieces of hair that fell over them. Vanitas sighed and leaned back against the stone, bringing out the stopwatch that hung from his neck in his sweatshirt.
As Sora took his place on the line, lining up his foot, settling his breath and pressing his fingers to the damp ground, he spoke.
“Sub six, today is the day.”
Vanitas looked up at Sora, all his muscles locked and ready to propel himself forward, then looked down at the stopwatch reading zero point zero. With a sigh, he pulled himself to his feet and walked over to the beginning of the bleachers and slammed his foot onto the first step.
Sora was off, so fast that Vanitas felt a rush of wind as he passed. He turned to watch him go, the momentum of his push-off taking him nearly all the way around the first turn. There was an itch in Vanitas’ legs suddenly, one he felt sometimes. It went from his legs to his chest, even out to his hands. It was never something he could act upon; he knew if he did everything would go wrong, but watching Sora now, it was all he wanted in the world.
Vanitas wanted to run.
He watched Sora run passed, finishing his first lap. The pound of his shoes against the asphalt echoed off of the stone steps, and Vanitas took a step towards the track. As Sora rounded around the corner and closed in on starting the third lap, he took another. Finally, as Sora began his final lap, Vanitas stepped onto the track. It felt different than the gravel; it was smooth under his feet, stretched out in front of him like a runway and he was a plane about to take flight. He took his place on the starting line, where he had seen Sora dash forward so many times before, and stood there.
Then, very uncertainty and without a loud bang! to send him off, he started running.
The first few seconds were easy. Vanitas pushed himself forward, the stopwatch still gripped in his hand and Sora in the corner of his eye as he was about halfway around. It was when he tried taking a breath, the cold air filling into his lungs and spreading through the bronchi branches as they shrank into themselves under his chest, that it began to burn. His heart was pounding against his sternum, a familiar wheeze fell out of his mouth, and his muscles suddenly felt twenty pounds heavier against his bones. Despite suddenly feeling as though he was going to pass out, Vanitas kept running. From behind him, he heard Sora yell something.
The pounding in his ears muffled everything around him. He looked behind him, watching as Sora was now racing towards him, passing over the starting line. Vanitas clicked the stopwatch just as he felt his legs give out beneath him, and he collapsed onto the track with his arms out in front to catch his fall. His chest was on fire. And his breaths came out in wheezes and coughs, one after another, unrelenting.
Sora was quickly at his side, urging him to sit up while also asking what the hell he was doing. “Where is your inhaler?” he asked, a slight panic in his eyes. Vanitas brought his hand up to point at his backpack against the stone stairs, and Sora disappeared from his sight in a flash.
He tried catching his breath, feeling his lungs constrain in his chest enough to think that his insides might implode. In the flash that he was gone, Sora was back, holding a light gray inhaler with chipped plastic edges and light scratches. Vanitas emptied out his lungs (which wasn’t hard) and brought the cold tube up to his lips and took a deep breath.
Sora’s eyes remained on Vanitas as he held his breath and counted to ten in his head, trying to ignore Sora’s hand absentmindedly resting on Vanitas’ shoulder and leaving a spot of warmth.
One… two… three…
Sora’s chest was heaving, and Vanitas just stared at him, wishing silently that he could breathe like that.
…eight… nine… ten.
Vanitas let out his breath, still feeling a tickle in his lungs but ignoring it to look at Sora. He was focused on something completely different now; Vanitas. “Why were you running?” he asked. The warmth of his hand didn’t leave his shoulder.
Small puffs appeared in front of them as both boys tried to regulate their breathing. “I wanted to see why you liked it so much,” he stated. Sora smiled, there was a beat. “Nothing really special.”
At this, Sora laughed and shoved Vanitas, bumping the stopwatch against the ground. With another small laugh, he looked down at it. “I’m guessing you didn’t catch my time?”
“Who do you think I am?” Vanitas scoffed, “of course I got it.” Sora’s eyes lit up, quietly asking what fateful numbers had landed on the small screen. Vanitas slowly lifted it up to his face, watching him, and let out a breath. “Five fifty-nine.”
Sora blinked. “What?”
“Five fifty-nine,” he repeated, a smile breaking his face.
Another blink. Then, a huge smile. Before Vanitas could begin to think about how his face warmed up the cold morning, Sora threw his arms around him. They both tipped over onto the asphalt, a small oof pushed out of Vanitas and Sora’s giddy laugh echoed around the track. “Sub six!” Sora shouted.
“Get off me, you idiot,” Vanitas laughed, even though he wanted anything but.
Sora complied, pushing himself up on his elbows but still hovering over Vanitas. “Think I can do better than that?”
“Nah,” Vanitas smirked, “I think you’ve peaked.”
There was no warning, no swelling music that surged around them or slow press of lips together. Sora just leaned down and kissed him, causing Vanitas’ heart to pound again. To his delight, Sora didn’t break kiss right away; it was only for a few extra seconds, but Vanitas savored the small extra taste of Sora’s chapped lips.
When he felt Sora’s breath hitting his face again, Vanitas opened his eyes (when had they closed?). The tickle in his lungs started to come back at the sight of the grin that washed over Sora’s face. Vanitas tried to scowl at him. “Why’d you do that?”
Sora pushed himself onto his feet. “You wouldn’t have done it,” he stated, then chuckled at Vanitas’ lame attempted glare and held out his hand. “Plus, you’re not good at being subtle.”
Vanitas scoffed and took Sora’s hand, landing shakily on his very tired legs. He immediately stuffed his hands into his pockets. “Whatever,” he mumbled.
“Well, if I have peaked like you say,” Sora said, slowly walking back towards his stuff against the steps, “then I might as well try to make that five fifty-nine a consistent five fifty-nine.”
“It might be a one-time thing,” Vanitas called back, trying to hide a smile.
Sora just threw his backpack over his shoulder and looked back, motioning his head to the steps. “You coming?”
Vanitas fiddled with the inhaler in his pocket, pondering whether or not he should take another hit with the tickle in his lung. Instead, he started walking forward. He would run to Sora if he could, counting to ten in his head with each step.
One… two… three…