Dave was the first person to encounter John Egbert in person after his ascension. He’d seen his best friend actually flying toward him over the glowing red landscape of LOHAC (which naturally did not shake his cool in the slightest, it took far stranger things than flying windy boys to shake the unshakable cool of Dave Strider, certainly there was no gasp and his jaw did not drop open at the sight). There followed a predictably toothy grin and enthusiastic greeting from John, an awkward moment of near-hug which at the last minute became a fist-bump – and then a large swarm of imps which had apparently decided to crash the party before an overpopulation of awkward turtles made the place uninhabitable.
Welp. He’d always that expected alarmingly high levels of derp to be the most dangerous thing he’d face when he finally met Egbert in person. Apparently he was wrong.
John huffed in exasperation as he saw the imps beginning to surround them. “Geez! It’s like you can never get a spare moment with these guys around!”
Dave pulled out Caledscratch, preparing himself. “Hey, speak for yourself,” he said, deadpan as ever, moving around to stand at John’s back. “I’m the Knight of Time, dude, I’ve got all the moments. All of them.” --And found himself wondering when he’d started talking like John’s huge bitch of a troll girlfriend. Damn, it was catching. He had to stop doing that.
The other boy glanced over his shoulder and grinned at him. “Ready to make this happen?” he said.
Dave smirked, the expression so cool as to be nearly imperceptible, and stepped forward to meet the oncoming charge with his blade. John leaped into the air and then stayed there, using the wind as his weapon.
It was far from the first battle Dave had fought since the start of Sburb. And during each one he’d felt that constant nagging worry in the back of his mind – the fear of pushing himself too far which he could never, even in his routine struggles with Bro, remember being without. It didn’t help that there’d been an unspoken safety net with Bro that he didn’t have here – their battles had been relentless, no punches pulled, just not deadly. But the imps wouldn’t stop their assault if he stopped breathing. They wouldn’t help him retrieve his inhaler if he was too weak to operate his sylladex. If he failed to pace himself, if he overtaxed himself, he would die.
Of course it hadn’t happened yet, thanks in part to the way Bro had strengthened him over the years and in part to the way his power over time let him literally take a time-out when he really needed to – and even now, no one knew about it. Somehow he’d neglected to mention his shitty lungs to John, Jade, and Rose over the years of their friendship. He hadn’t felt the need to use his inhaler while Jade was watching him. And Terezi – well, Terezi didn’t exactly count. Dave wasn’t entirely sure she knew what asthma was, or cared. Which was fine, because he didn’t care what she thought of him either. Everything was fine, in fact, or as fine as you could get if you were an asthmatic time-traveler playing a psychotic video game from hell. Until now.
Of all the times his lungs had decided that they were sorry but they’d rather not let in any air today, thanks, this had to be the worst possible moment.
It didn’t bother him unduly to feel a little short of breath. That was normal, especially when he was fighting. But he couldn’t pretend he didn’t feel a surge of fear when his chest started to clench up in that horribly familiar way, like his lungs were twisting into useless little crumpled paper bags. It was almost ironic (except it wasn’t funny, wasn’t cool) that although the swarming creatures had not managed to touch him once, his own organs were about to bring him to his knees in the most ruthlessly efficient way possible.
Dave’s breathing was quick and shallow now, his rattling gasps deafening in his own ears. Sweat beaded on his forehead. He knew John could hear him now; he was well aware of the concerned glances his friend was beginning to throw his way. He wanted to shrug it off, deflect the worry with a few deadpan quips about the fact that he couldn’t breathe, wasn’t that hilarious. At this point, though, there was no way he could spare the breath to speak, not if he wanted to keep fighting. Instead he broke his cool composure with a snarl and kicked the intensity of his assault up a notch, determined to destroy them all before his lungs could screw this up permanently.
Bad idea, Strider, he thought a split second later. His breathing hitched, and the pressure on his lungs suddenly worsened. For a moment he wasn’t sure if he was going to be able take another breath at all. And then the moment passed with a painful rattling gasp, but now he was down on one knee leaning on Caledscratch, his free hand clutching hard at his chest, and John was completely still (floating in midair, Dave registered in the back of his mind). Staring at him.
“Dave! Are you okay?”
“I’m fine, Egbert!” Dave rasped out, his voice betraying a hint of anger for the first time, and forced himself back to his feet where he swayed dangerously. Warning bells were screaming in his head, some of them in Bro’s voice. It was suicide to push himself this far, and he knew that, but if he stopped fighting now then John would be on his own, forced to protect him, he’d be letting it get the best of him and he couldn’t – let – that – happen –
He took a step forward, raising Caledscratch shakily, his head already swimming from lack of oxygen. Dave coughed painfully and took another rattling breath as he moved to rush the imps one more time, and that was where his lungs finally failed him. His chest seized up again and he was pitching forward, slamming hard into the ground, his sword slipping out of his grasp and clattering down to land next to him. Suddenly, nothing mattered but trying to force the next breath into his lungs. Dave knew that the imps were lunging at him but he couldn’t reach his weapon, couldn’t even move he was so weak and oxygen-starved and every bit of strength he had left was tied up in his frantic fight for air. He had to get up now but the more he tried to breathe the less air his lungs would allow him, constricting tighter and tighter until the most he could manage were quick panicked gasps, accomplishing nothing and rattling horribly in his throat, and his heart was pounding a mile a minute from stress and exertion and useless desperate adrenaline. At least, he found himself thinking – it felt so far away, almost as if they were someone else’s thoughts – at least the imps would kill him before he suffocated so technically he was going down in battle – it was a marginally less stupid way to go –
But the imps never reached him. Instead a sudden, ferocious blast of wind whipped his hair and shirt. John must have done his windy thing, or whatever the hell he was calling it, because until that moment the air in LOHAC had never been anything but perfectly still.
“Dave!” he heard John shout, his voice cracking with anxiety. Dave was beyond caring, beyond any thought that wasn’t oh shit oh shit I’m really dying I’m going to die. His hands clenched weakly at the ground as he gasped desperately, shuddering in pain. This was bad, worse by far than any attack he’d endured before, and he couldn’t even move let alone reach his sylladex and open it and retrieve his inhaler in time.
Where’s Bro? Something was wrong, Bro was always there when Dave had an attack, but he wasn’t here now and Dave was dying and the panic intensified as he realized he was going to suffocate and no one could help him. Bro! Where are you!
Help… Dave’s lips moved weakly, but no sound came out.
At one point, not too long ago, John had felt nothing but excitement to finally meet his best bro Dave in person. Now, though, he felt nothing but a flood of terror. He dropped to the ground again after the windy thing had either wiped out or scared off the remaining imps and ran to his friend’s side. Suddenly nothing made sense. One moment they were doing great, fighting back-to-back like a couple of really cool dudes, and the next moment Dave was on the ground, unable to move and fighting to breathe.
Dave’s sunglasses had fallen off when he collapsed and somehow he now looked horribly vulnerable without them. John met his eyes almost completely by accident as he crouched over him. The strange vivid red of his irises nearly didn’t register, but the intensity of the expression he saw there nearly paralyzed him for an instant. Dave was scared. No, he was freaking terrified.
“It’s okay, dude, you’re gonna be fine,” John said, trying to keep his voice from shaking, and trying to hide the inexplicable guilt that had begun churning in his stomach at the sight of Dave’s helplessness. It felt invasive, a violation, to see him like this. He didn’t bother wondering why Dave had never told him that he had asthma. Of course he hadn’t told him. Frantically he tried to open up Dave’s sylladex to get his inhaler out – Dave had said nothing about an inhaler but John was pretty sure from watching movies that all asthmatic people had them and that using it would instantly fix this and everything would be okay – but he wasn’t used to trying to get into someone else’s sylladex and then there was Dave’s stupid fetch modus to deal with, with the stupid numbers and the stupid system and his own stupid shaking, useless hands and he could hear Dave wheezing the entire time, his breaths getting shallower and shallower and making high, helpless little squeaks that made John’s scalp prickle with fear—
Without really thinking about it, John abandoned his futile attempts at entering the sylladex and pressed both hands down on Dave’s shaking chest, eyes wide with fear and desperation. “C’mon, man, breathe! You are Dave Strider and you are not going down like this, damn it!” He had to be able to do something. The breeze picked up around him, as if responding to his emotions, but he paid no attention – he didn’t need the dumb windy thing right now, he needed Dave to take a breath – and then without really thinking about it he pressed down on Dave’s chest with both hands, except he didn’t really know how to give people CPR and then he realized that would probably only compress his lungs even more and John noticed with horror that Dave’s lips were going blue – John pulled back again, helpless, and saw that Dave had stopped breathing entirely, his terrified eyes searching John’s face as his entire body trembled in the useless effort to make his lungs expand – instinctively John brought his hands down again, hard, almost screaming, “Breathe!” as if that was going to make an ounce of difference—
And he felt Dave’s chest rise, almost imperceptibly, under his hands.
John’s fingers tensed, digging into Dave’s shirt. Dave looked up at him, silently mouthing words – “do that again.”
The Heir of Breath willed, forcing wind down through his fingertips, into Dave’s lungs, forcing them to expand, to allow air to enter again. Dave gasped and choked, twitching as he tried with everything left in him to breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, rhythmically in time with John’s wind-wreathed pushes.
He had no idea how long he kept that up, but after a while he started to realize that Dave was breathing again without his help and so he backed away, cautiously, ready to jump back in and force air into Dave again if his friend’s breathing should slow again. It didn’t, though. The Knight of Time was still short of breath and gasping, and he was shaking hard, but normal color was beginning to return to his face at last and John was too grateful for words.
Dave made a movement as if to sit up, but then coughed again and seemed to think better of it. He lay perfectly still with his eyes closed, trying to steady his breathing. For a long moment John didn’t say a word.
Then: “Dave, are you—”
“Shut up, Egbert.” Any venom in his voice was completely negated by the way his voice shook , and it took a second glance for John to see the thin wet streaks of tears on Dave’s face.
After another long hesitation, John reached out, picked up Dave’s sunglasses, and put them back on his friend’s face. Dave’s head turned toward him slightly, a faint smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. He raised one arm, wiped his tears on his sleeve and then left it there, covering his face. He was still trembling even now, but his breathing, while not completely normal yet, was getting more stable by the second. John found that tension he didn’t even know he had was slowly seeping out of his shoulders and back.
Finally Dave decided he was ready to try and sit up again, though he would have fallen back down had John not extended a hand to pull him up. Through an admirable display of teamwork Dave was able to stand up, and both of them pretended that he wasn’t shaking and didn’t have to lean on John in order to remain upright. That wasn’t important at all.
Dave’s faint smile, nearly a smirk, was a little more noticeable now. When Dave glanced over at his friend, John was almost certain he was about to crack some ironic Dave-ish joke about his own near-death experience, and then John would laugh and they’d act as if they hadn’t both just been totally scared shitless. But he was wrong.
“John,” Dave said, quiet and oddly halting. “Thanks.”