Chapter 1

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A/N: Do you want a chapter dedicated to you?

All you have to do is "vote" for one of the covers above - the one you like best - by writing its number in the comments and you are signed up for the dedication draw, even if you didn't vote for the most popular one. I'd appreciate it if you give some feedback and tell me why you chose that cover, but you are in even if you comment with just the number. The titles are clearer on the covers themselves; they are a bit pixelated here as I had to make the pictures smaller to display them all.

Why am I doing this? Because I need help picking the cover for this story and what better way to thank you for that help than to dedicate a chapter to one of you?

*****

Val's POV

The sound of his feet on the pavement was getting louder; he was catching up to me. I switched my breathing pattern to a quicker one so that my breaths would coordinate with my footfalls when I sped up, not by much - just enough to tease him.

A smirk showed on my face when I imagined him frowning; I was sure he'd thought he stood a chance this time. Perhaps he was still under that illusion, but I was better trained and he kept making errors that set him back: he landed on his heels instead of his midfoot, he didn't keep track of his inhales and exhales and he didn't keep his eyes on the target... Which was already in sight.

My muscles strained as I went even faster already anticipating the sweet palpitations in them when the race was over and the even sweater victory. Just a few more feet and... Yes! Vallery Reed was the winner!

Not that I had any doubts I'd be.

I stopped a couple of feet after the tree that marked the finish line. Raiden almost ran into the darn thing; he was too tired to coordinate his moves. I shook my head, smiling, as he slumped on the sidewalk, one hand covering his chest, the other lying in his lap.

"That was refreshing, wasn't it, Ray-Ray?"

He didn't reply; he kept panting, his head and torso bobbing with each breath. I made a point of stretching with a satisfying sigh. I'd been right: my muscles were pulsing and I loved the sensation; it was the reward of a good run.

Not that I was going to admit that to my childhood friend. Okay, maybe I'd call him a worthy opponent out loud, but only if he felt down for losing; down-er than usual, that was.

"I don't need to call an ambulance, do I, Ray-Ray?" I sat cross-legged in front of him. Once again, gasps were his only answer and I rolled my eyes; yes, it had been quite a run, but not enough for him to be doing such an impressive imitation of an asthmatic. He must've gone out of practice in the years we'd been apart; we used to race a lot as children.

It took Mr. Ginger about five minutes to get his breathing under control. In the mean time, I'd gotten in my family's house - the same one we used to live in when I was a kid - and brought him a tall glass of water which he'd gulped down at once and, of course, more panting had ensued.

"Do you think you can stand now?" I asked and took the glass from him; Raiden nodded.

"That also means you can talk, right?" I kept questioning as I got up, patting my butt to get rid of the dirt.

"Oh, mighty winner, I humble myself before you; it will be an honor to do your chores," he recited without much enthusiasm and rose as well.

The narration had been part of the bet, reward number one for the winner. The second one was for the loser to do the victor's chores for the day and that took 'wash the dishes' off my list, putting it onto Raiden's.

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