Dena woke with a start and immediately began coughing. She tasted smoke. Her ribs hurt. Everything hurt.
"Hey there; take it easy, baby girl," she heard her father's voice. Rough hands held a glass of water to her lips and Dena drank gratefully.
She looked up through bleary, red-ringed eyes. "Daddy?" she asked in a quiet, rasping, cracked voice.
Mr. Shepherd's eyes and cheeks were wet with tears. "I'm here, baby, I'm right here," he crooned soothingly.
Dena turned her head and smiled. "Hey, Gina," she whispered as her sister came into focus.
Gina's eyes were wet. "You scared me, dummy," she said with a catch in her voice.
Dena laughed, which turned into a long wet cough. "Sorry," she finally said once the cough subsided. "Won't happen again."
"You scared all of us, baby girl," her father said hoarsely.
"Hurts," Dena mumbled. "Hurts to talk." She looked down at her body, which was covered in casts and bandages. Pain was a constant presence, but it was a dull, vague pain, and her head felt funny. Thoughts came slowly. It took her a moment of puzzling over the multiple tubes coming into her arm to figure out that she must be doped up on pretty strong painkillers.
"I'm sorry, Daddy," she said after a few minutes of silence. Her father was startled; he thought she had gone back to sleep. "I ruined my dress."
Mr. Shepherd choked back tears. "That's okay, honey," he whispered. "I'm just glad you're going to be okay."
"Okay," Dena agreed vaguely. Then all of a sudden her thoughts sharpened. "Mr. Melnik?" she asked.
Dena was happy to see her father's expression brighten with pride. "You saved him! He's alive. Pretty burned up, in bad shape, but alive. You saved his life," he repeated in wonder.
Dena smiled. Even her lips hurt.
"Hey baby girl. Sheldon has been asking about you. I know he'd love to see you. But only if you feel up to it."
Dena nodded, relief flooding her as she realized Sheldon must be okay.
"Hey, look who's awake, sleepyhead!" Sheldon rolled his wheelchair into Dena's hospital room with a push on the joystick. His broken arms and legs were in casts, his ribs taped up, but he'd insisted that he was fine to visit.
Dena's huge body lay broken and bandaged. The hospital staff had never seen anyone as big and muscular as her. It had taken four strong nurses just to move her. They had also rarely seen anyone as badly burned and still alive. She was wrapped like a mummy.
"Hey," Dena croaked. Her throat and lungs were raw.
Sheldon grinned. "You have to get better fast. Everyone wants to see you, you know. Bobbi Jo, Tanya, every reporter in the whole world, just about." His eyes twinkled with mischief. "The President."
"Haha," Dena said, thinking he was joking. Seeing Sheldon, her memories drifted back to the fire. "How many people died?" she finally rasped, her heart pounding.
"Nobody, Dena. Nobody died. You saved everyone! It's all over the news. They're calling it the Prom Night Miracle! You're a hero!" Tears sprang into Sheldon's eyes. "You're my hero, Dena. I'm so glad you're alive! I was so afraid..." he trailed off, unable to finish; he was so overwhelmed with emotion.
Dena lay quietly, stunned. After a moment she allowed herself a small, proud smile. "The courtyard... how did we get out?"
"You'll never believe it. Leon and Greg pulled us all out just before the fire trucks and ambulances arrived."
Dena laughed. "Really?"
"Yeah. You single-handedly saved like fifteen people, but they're letting their heroism go to their heads. And those kids, and Mr. Melnik... wow. What you did..." Sheldon started to choke up.
Dena looked at Sheldon seriously. "You saved us, Sheldon."
Sheldon looked down, suddenly embarrassed. "I guess," he said.
"I remember what you said to me before I passed out."
Sheldon tensed. "Yeah?"
Dena nodded. "Yeah. Sheldon," he looked up apprehensively, "I love you."
A big smile slowly spread across his face. "I love you too, Dena."
"Worst prom ever?" Dena asked, settling back. She drifted back into an exhausted sleep.
Sheldon rolled his wheelchair to the bed and watched Dena's steady, rhythmic breathing. He reached his fingers over and cradled her big, strong hand, tenderly stroking her bandages. "I don't know about that," he whispered.
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