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oxygen (and the lack of it)

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“You know, Doc, if you keep coughin’ like that, I’m gonna end up smotherin’ you with a pillow while you’re sleepin’.”

“You’ll have to find yourself a pillow first,” Holliday replies, grinning in the darkness. He wipes the back of his hand against his bloodied lips, grateful for the fact that the only light available right now is from the embers of their low-burning fire a few yards away. “And since last I checked, Wyatt, you don’t seem t’have a pillow hidden away in your bedroll,” he pauses, coughing twice before he swallows down a mouthful of spit. “I think I may yet last the evening.”

“I might just resort to using a sock to stuff your mouth with instead, then.”

Despite Wyatt’s amused tone, there is a hint of concern in his voice as well. Holliday is doing his best to ignore it -- and ignore the knowledge of his own that if he keeps coughing, the other man will eventually indeed get out of bed and come to check on him -- and calm his angry lungs.

“Never took you for the type t’enjoy such...indiscretions,” Holliday mumbles, using the smirk on his features to hide the fact that his throat is burning with each intake of breath. “If I’d known such a thing, I might have taken to you sooner, my friend.”

Wyatt laughs outright, then rolls onto his side. In the dull glow from the dying flames, he can see Holliday’s slender form stretched out beneath his coat; the layer of heavy wool softens the sharp angles that Wyatt knows his friend’s body is made up of. “It’s not like you’re in the position t’do anything about it,” he says.

“Maybe not tonight...”

“More like ‘maybe not this week--”

“You’d be surprised,” Holliday grumbles. “At just what I can I can find the energy for if I’m properly enthused.”

“Is that so.”


Wyatt shakes his head and moves to lie back down, but pauses when he hears Holliday pull in a sharp intake of breath -- usually a precursor to another coughing spell -- waiting for the rattle of his friend’s protesting lungs.

(He doesn’t have to wait long.)

Holliday rolls onto his side with the start of the spasms, gagging on the iron at the back of his throat as he tries to clear his mouth of the taste of blood and bile. Spots dance against the back of his eyelids; he’s vaguely aware of the fact that Wyatt has moved off of his own bedroll and come to kneel beside him. It seems like there is never enough oxygen in the air when these things happen -- everything is dust and blood and sickness, a rushing hum in his ears as his heart races out of control -- and this time is no exception. If he’d have been standing he’d have fallen; as it is, he slumps into the ground and sags against the rough canvas beneath him.

(Wyatt has his hands wrapped around Doc’s shoulders, using his strength to keep his face out of the tarp just enough so Doc can breathe without choking on his own mess.)

“Easy, easy, easy.”

“M’tryin’,” Holliday wheezes. “S’not like...enjoy...difficult.”

“I know.”

Wyatt shifts his hands to cradle him against his chest; Holliday snorts in protest but has nowhere near enough strength to actually do anything about it, and it’s not like there is actually anything he could do to convince Wyatt to leave him to die here in the dust and be left for the buzzards.

(Plus, they’re still trying to get to Clanton and Ringo, the goddamn sons of bitches.)

They sit there in silence for awhile longer before finally, mercifully -- if Holliday was a praying sort of man he’d be thanking the heavens above for the respite from the pain and suffering -- the spell subsides.

Wyatt reaches for his canteen without moving from his current position, and it’s not like he could move if he tried -- Holliday is sprawled facedown, ribcage draped across Wyatt’s knees. There’s a bit of water left.


“Can’t find anythin’ better than creek runoff for a dyin’ man?”

“You’re not dyin’, Doc.” Wyatt hands over the canteen. “And you’re not drinkin’ anything stronger until you get a bit of water in your system.”

“Which one of us is the doctor here, ‘gain?”

“You’re a dentist, Holliday.”

Holliday downs several swallows of the water and then wipes his mouth with his sleeve, exhaling a sigh of relief as the liquid washes the taste of iron off his tongue.


“Much.” Holliday nods, weakly. “And much appreciated.”

Wyatt smiles, though the gesture is lost to the darkness. “Not a problem.”

(It never is.)

It takes a moment before Holliday is able to sit upright -- with plenty of help from Wyatt in that regard -- and he braces his hands against the dirt, sand and grit digging into his palms. He’s momentarily dizzy, but it passes.

“Stars are awful nice tonight.”

(They always are.)

“You tryin’ to be romantic on me now, Wyatt?”

“Never have to try, you know that.”

“Did I?”


“I wasn’t aware,” Holliday smirks, then cringes a bit as a wave of soreness ripples across his ribcage. Everything always hurts these days and he’s tired of it -- some days he even wishes that Wyatt would just leave him and head for the hills, but those conversations just lead to Wyatt yelling and then the following afternoon’s ride through the scrub spent in silence. On those days, he misses the way Wyatt will insist on telling jokes that he can’t remember telling before.

(He’s usually told them at least half a dozen times, but Doc doesn’t bother reminding Wyatt of that fact -- he loves hearing the other man talk too much to every suggest he shut his mouth.)

“You think you can lie down again without havin’ another spell?” Wyatt shifts slightly on the ground, trying to get comfortable in the position which he’s sitting.

“I can give it an attempt.”

“All right.”

They do, and for a moment it seems as if it might work out -- until Holliday pulls in another gasping breath. This time, however, Wyatt stretches out on his back, and pulls his friend over close. “Here,” he says. “Lie against me and keep your head it, it’ll help.”

Gratefully, but without saying another word, Holliday settles into a position with his head resting against Wyatt’s ribcage. When a few minutes pass without another coughing fit occurring, he sighs.



(He’s already half-asleep, exhausted from the exertion. Doc knows Wyatt won’t complain about the way he wheezes, either, and for that he’s also silently grateful.)


Wyatt listens to the sound of his friend’s halting, tired breaths until he’s certain the man is asleep; before he joins him in slumber, he lightly runs his fingertips through Holliday’s thinning hair, allowing his hand to come to rest near the man’s neck as he closes his eyes.

(They’ll be heading for Colorado as soon as this week is out, and Wyatt hopes the altitude will help Doc’s lungs. There has to be something that will help; he’ll keep searching on this vendetta ride until they find it.)