Reach. Grab. Pull. Reach. Grab. Pull. Fear and pain were a muted backdrop. Dena's world was fanatically focused on the only thing that mattered: the climb. She forgot why she was climbing. All she knew was she had to go higher.
Hell blazed around her. The side of the building grew hot. Windows exploded in showers of glass and geysers of flame.
Dena climbed with only her arms; her shattered hips and numb legs were useless dead weight. She hauled her nearly three hundred pound bulk up over and over again. When she couldn't reach the next handhold she recklessly hurled herself through the air with a quick burst of pull-up power, grabbed for a handhold, and kept going. Her muscles burned. Her lungs boiled. Red seeped into the corners of her vision. She was a creature of pure muscle and adrenaline. Only the climb mattered.
She climbed three floors, hand over hand, her arms shaking and burning; she was barely conscious by the time she dragged herself through the window into the room with Mr. Melnik. He had put the mattress up against the broken doorway, but smoke curled around the edges and filled the ceiling. Mr. Melnik lay on the floor breathing through his wet shirt fragment. He was alive, but unconscious.
Dena crawled over to the fat teacher and stripped off his belt. She awkwardly wriggled her limp lower body around and maneuvered him so that his chubby arms reached over her shoulders and around her neck. Then she tied his wrists together with the belt. The belt had to be tight for this to work. He stirred, moaned, and passed out again.
His dead weight dragged her, slowed her down, threatened to overwhelm her, but Dena crawled to the window with grim determination as the mattress burst into flames behind her. She stopped to cough out a lungful of smoke, then pulled them up with her big biceps knotted and hard as steel, burning with exhaustion as she dragged them both over the window frame.
Sheldon helped evacuate students, teachers, and hotel guests as quickly as he could, coordinating with Connor, who was the nearest jock in charge. He ran back into the hotel with DeShawn and guided a couple of coughing students out of the smoke.
Leon and Greg came out, both reeking of marijuana. They looked at Sheldon with slightly less hostility than usual. Greg even mumbled, "Thanks," as they stumbled to clear air and safety.
Sheldon was starting to worry about Dena. He hadn't seen her since the ballroom balcony. She was the strongest, most level-headed, calmly competent person he knew, so he was confident she could take care of herself, but it worried him that she had disappeared and he hadn't seen her leading anyone outside.
Two young kids raced through an archway on one side of the hotel yelling for attention.
"Hey, it's okay kids, you're safe now. What's the matter?" Sheldon asked, leaning down to soothe them and guide them to safety.
"A giant lady saved us, but then she got hurt. I think she needs help!" the little girl said.
Sheldon went cold. Dena! he thought immediately. He made sure the kids were safe with DeShawn, then he dashed over to the archway the kids came from and ran through.
Leon and Greg watched him run off.
Just as he entered the smoke-filled courtyard, a wide set of double doors burst open in a billowing fireball of burning smoke that hurled Sheldon to the ground. Eyes and lungs stinging, flesh burning, he picked himself up and limped into the small courtyard. "Dena!" he cried between fits of coughing.
"Sheldon," he heard a faint, rasping voice call from above. He looked up to see Dena clinging to a handhold in the middle of Dante's own inferno. Mr. Melnik the math teacher was unconscious and slung on her back like a trussed pig. Her dress was torn to shreds. Her skin was red and starting to bubble. She was coughing terribly, shaking with pain and exhaustion, and her fingers were slipping. Blood poured from her hip and her legs dangled uselessly.
"Oh my god!" Sheldon dashed over as fast as he could. Heat pushed him back but he gritted his teeth and ignored the primal screams of self-preservation from his oldest, most animal instincts. "Jump!" he yelled as he ran. "I'll break your fall!"
Sheldon was now directly below Dena and staring up at her. "Land on me! I'll break your fall!"
"Are you sure?"
Sheldon looked at Dena and Mr. Melnik dangling above him and gulped in fear. This was going to hurt. "I'm sure!" he shouted, feeling anything but. "Jump!"
Dena hesitated, and then the decision was made for her. For the first time in her life, Dena's strength failed her. She lost her grip on the rapidly overheating building and plummeted.
Sheldon braced himself as six hundred pounds crashed down on him.
"Dena," Sheldon whispered hoarsely, drifting back to consciousness. "You're not invincible after all."
"Looks like it," she whispered, forcing the words out through broken ribs and burning lungs. "Sorry, Sheldon. I'm only human."
Sheldon coughed and laughed and winced in pain. "I had my doubts," he said. "I'm sorry. I wish you were invincible."
"Me... too..." she was fading.
"Dena. Dena!" Sheldon croaked insistently.
"Yes," she whispered in a rapidly fading voice.
"I think you may have broken my bones," he rasped through his damaged chest.
"I'm sorry, which ones?"
"All of them."
Dena laughed and coughed up ash and blood. "You're a funny boy, Sheldon. Funny... funny... funny..."
"Stay with me Dena!" Sheldon said fiercely. "I love you. I love you! You have to live, dammit! I love you!"
"I love you, too, Sheldon. My hero," she whispered. "You're the bravest man... I ever... met... love... love... you."
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