Alex gasped and hit the path on all fours, the gravel digging painfully into his palms and knees. Liquid ran down every inch of skin uncovered by clothing- mostly sweat, but he wouldn't have been surprised if there was a bit of blood in there too. His lungs burned from exhaustion. His legs refused to move. His arms quivered as he leaned forward. The smell of rain and forest matter and mud and perspiration filled his nose, blending together into an exceptionally foul odor that made him want to heave.
The sound of footsteps behind him grew louder. Alex tensed- his pursuer was catching up. He mustered up what little willpower he had to try to force his body to move, but only managed to press himself harder into the gravel, prompting a fresh wave of agony.
There was nothing he could do.
"...Alex? You okay?"
Alex suppressed a groan. "...I'm fine, coach."
There was a shuffle beside him, and the coach of the school's cross-country team squatted next to him. "You sure? If you're having a hard time, we could take you back to the bus if you want."
"Coach, I'm fine." Biting back a coughing fit, Alex put another burst of effort into his aching limbs, and this time he managed to draw himself to his feet. There was something running up his right leg that felt distinctly non-fluid, but he tried to ignore it. "I've barely managed a single lap, I can go farther."
The coach stood as well, his expression still matching what Alex was pretty sure was concern. "You don't look like it. And the way you were coughing on the bus-"
Alex glared. "Coach," he repeated. "I'm fi-" He paused, held up a hand, let loose with a few heaving coughs into the crook of his elbow, then continued. "I'm fine. Really. I'm making it look a lot worse than it actually is, trust me." Which was true, but goddamn if it wasn't a pain to deal with.
The coach's expression didn't change, but he nodded. "All right," he said. Then, after a moment, he added, "Also, there's an ant on-"
Alex's leg twinged again, and suddenly the fatigue was gone, replaced by what he assumed was a fresh burst of adrenaline. He swore and slapped where he'd felt the disturbance, then brought his hand up. Yup, definitely some kind of insect. Scowling, he wiped the bug away on his shorts.
"You got it?" the coach asked.
Alex sighed. "Yeah, I guess. Later, coach."
There was a pause, and the coach replied, "See you back at the bus, then. Make sure to take it easy, 'kay?"
"Whatever," Alex muttered, and with a grunt he started up the path again.