Stitch

Summary: A boring evening for Carlos takes a disturbing turn when he receives a call from his best friend and finds himself racing against time to save her. C/DA.

a/n: I am literal trash for Carlos and DA fluff. Like holy shit. I'm trash. anyway, this is pretty fluffy w just a little touch of angst (that summary is a bit of an exaggeration, sorry). the kids are juniors in high school in this story. ahead: swearing, some medical stuff (references to surgery, vomit), references to drinking.

Carlos Ramon could not play the guitar.

He had salvaged the instrument from a garage sale he had perused with Dorothy Ann ("A burgeoning engineer and a musical savant?" she had deadpanned as she heaped battered paperbacks into her totebag) and claimed he would master it within the week. In spite of his dedication and admirable enthusiasm, Carlos had failed to grasp the intricacies of plucking and fingering. Musical theory had alluded him since grade school ("I'll just make my own instrument!" he had posited when DA recruited him for her concerto). The end result was several broken strings, legions of discarded picks, and a rankled younger brother who had since invested in noise-cancelling headphones.

Tonight, however, Carlos returned to the instrument with renewed gusto. He doubted he had cultivated any musical talent since setting aside the guitar, but the night was young and he was inordinately bored. His parents had gone out on a date; Mikey, prone to epileptic fits of charm, was doing the same with a girl from his computer class. Typically, Carlos would have seized this opportunity to wreak havoc with his friends (a specialty of theirs), but even they had failed him, the bastards. Well, except for Phoebe. She was attending a Humane Society fundraiser. Even Phoebe's excuses were angelic.

The rest of the gang had less virtuous engagements. Ralphie had surprised Keesha with tickets to the Bruins game ("everyone else's presents are now invalid," she had announced upon opening the little envelope, much to the partygoers' chagrin). Wanda had managed to drag both Arnold and Tim along to Providence to see a performance of Fiddler on the Roof (Tim agreed because he appreciated high art and discounted theater booze; Arnold relented because Wanda was his extraordinarily strong girlfriend). And Dorothy Ann, his go-to partner in crime, hadn't been feeling well since the evening before. She still soldiered through the school day, of course, but now she was sleeping in the house adjacent to his.

"You were my last resort," he had bemoaned when he called her up a few hours ago.

"I'm honored," was her icy reply. "Now let me sleep."

And now, Carlos was returning to his sharp-stringed mistress. He set the guitar upon his knee, scrutinizing its various pegs—tuning this monster of an instrument escaped him—and wondering if he could build a device that did the aforementioned task. "Man, I sure am in treble here," he jested. With no one there to condemn him for making such a horrendous joke, Carlos realized that the art of the pun was not intended for the lonely man. He quietly despaired, then strummed the guitar violently.

The tortured sound that escaped the poor instrument caused the Ramon's yippy Pomeranian, Joey, to caterwaul in agony. A flock of sparrows departed from a nearby powerline. Two car alarms pierced the once tranquil night.

Okay, so perhaps the guitar was not his to master.

Carlos gingerly set the cursed object aside to be sold again at a garage sale of his own ("Hate your neighbors? Then I've got something for you.") and flopped down on his unmade bed. His athletic bag was already packed for tomorrow's soccer tournament, his project for Monday's Engineering 4 presentation was complete, and his present for the Tenelli-Terese anniversary party was wrapped ("They aren't my stepparents!" he had protested when DA, Keesha, and Tim dragged him to the department store. "Ralphie and Phoebe are both our friends. That means we can't escape present duty," Keesha had said. She had a knack for explaining things. And buying crystal ware.) Now, there was nothing to do but watch Netflix and doze until Mikey came home.

He opened his laptop, queued up the latest episode of Parks and Recreation (Arnold was ardently campaigning for them to binge-watch the series; Carlos was his most recent victim), and pulled the blankets over him. Though he greatly preferred the warmth and stimulation of socializing, Carlos recognized the appeal of staying in on Friday nights. There might be something alluring about this whole sitting still business…

Within minutes, the teenager had dozed off. Car alarms serenaded his descent into slumber.

.

.

Bzzt. Bzzt.

Carlos was jolted into consciousness by the familiar brusqueness of his cell phone clanging in his ear. He quickly launched himself into an upright position and surveyed his surroundings: the bedroom was trenched in darkness and his laptop screen had dimmed with the despondency of an absent touch. Judging by the intense dryness of his mouth, he had been out for an impressive amount of time. The call was most likely from his parents, who he supposed had sought a motel for purposes he left shrouded in mystery.

He thumbed the green icon and mumbled an incoherent salutation. The hazy vestiges of sleep were blasted from his mind by a flurry of shallow respirations that culminated in a shaky bleat of "Carlos?" His heart promptly sank at the sound.

"DA? Is that you?"

"Y-Yeah, it's me." The shallow breathing persisted, causing the line to crackle with static. "I-I need you."

There was the vague desire to make a supremely unfunny joke; he suppressed the urge with a nervous swallow. "What's wrong? You sound terrible, kid."

"I thought it-it was just a bug, but I can't stop throwing up and my temperature is one-oh-three and I-I did a Rebound test, and I think it's my appendix."

Carlos wasn't quite sure what a Rebound test was or what it measured, but knowing DA and her inexhaustible arsenal of intellect, it was accurate in its application. He was, however, aware of the hazards surrounding the human appendix and the association of the inflammatory organ with his best friend was enough to launch him out of bed. "Like you think it's gonna burst? That's what they do, right? Appendixes? Boy, your body's being a real appen-dick right now."

"Don't get anxious, Carlos. You're making anxious jokes," DA said weakly. "Can you please come? Please?"

"Of course, of course. I'll be right there. Don't die on me, alright?" The well-intentioned remark sounded more like a harbinger of doom in his panicked ears and he mentally chastised himself for being so stupid.

Carlos hung up and stepped into his sneakers. As he sprinted down the staircase, he frantically assessed the situation: his best friend and next-door neighbor might die of a burst appendix. He was handling it by making horrifically macabre puns. She was performing medical examinations on herself. Their dynamic had survived the chaos.

The night was disconcertingly still, even after he banged out of his house and dashed across their lawns with uncharacteristic gaucheness. He didn't like the chilly stagnancy—the world should have been as tumultuous as he felt. Wasn't nature supposed to be inherently sympathetic? Bursting into the Freeman's residency, however, shattered that stillness and inundated his lungs with the sweet air of relief.

A sweaty, pallid Dorothy Ann Freeman was sitting in the foyer, braced against the umbrella stand and already dressed for the weather in her smart pink peacoat. The sight struck him as oddly humorous; he laughed, then assumed an ameliorative expression. "Sorry. I didn't think you'd be ready to go."

DA smiled wanly. "I just couldn't wait to go to the ER."

The mention of that dreaded location grounded the scene in the gravitas he needed to keep himself focused. "I've got my keys. What can I do for you now? Are you okay to, like, ride in the car?"

"I've got a bowl. I didn't want to puke all over your truck. But can you help me stand?"

"Yeah, yeah, of course." Carlos knelt down, situated a muscled arm beneath her back, and decided to forgo the business of serving as her crutch. He easily lifted her petite form off of the floor; she gasped and clutched the plastic mixing bowl for support as Carlos carried her bridal-style across the house's threshold.

"Carlos, I can walk."

"Stop or I'll bench-press you," he threatened with a pale semblance of his usual charisma. DA laughed wincingly, too febrile to be mortified by the close proximity or intrigued by his uncharacteristically grim disposition. She knew she was sick, probably acutely so—she had done the calculations and was aware she was nearing the proverbial Event Horizon of appendix-related ailments—but she failed to see why this would make Carlos so upset. Best friends were supposed to worry, not agonize.

Carlos opened the passenger door to his beloved second-hand truck ("it's got more personality than you!" he had shouted when DA quirked a quizzical eyebrow at the shabby vehicle parked haphazardly between their houses) and hefted her into the seat. In the process, a sheath of her blonde hair escaped her unusually sloppy ponytail; it still smelled vaguely of tropical flowers. He felt a sudden, inexplicable urge to take a fistful of her pearly tresses and bring their fragrant softness to his face.

Holy shit, he thought as he hastily slammed her door, I'm as kinky as Wanda.

He got behind the wheel, then immediately forgot how to drive a car. Much like his behemoth of a guitar, the intricacies of the practice escaped him; he dandled with the keys and glanced askance at DA. Her gawping mouth and half-lidded eyes made her look strangely torpid, but she was quick to realize that they were not in motion.

"Carlos?"

"Oh, yeah. Uh…" He turned the ignition. His truck elicited a tortured squawl not unlike the pinched shriek that raccoon had emitted as it was snatched beneath the truck's wheels ("I'm sure it was nothing," he had assured his horrified passengers. Phoebe had taken one look at the mangled creature and fainted; she still wept at any reference to the late raccoon.) "I-I'm sorry, DA. I'm freaking out a little. Guess you probably wanna appen-deck me for being so—Jesus, that was bad, I'm sorry."

"Carlos, are you scared? For me?"

The boy was deeply disturbed by the incredulity of her tone. "What the hell, DA? Yeah, I'm scared! I don't like it when you're like this. When you're not you. And if you died, I mean…" The concept was too terrible to vocalize. Death couldn't penetrate their honeyed little bubble of youth.

"I'm not going to die, Carlos," she said gently, touched by his concern. The blonde placed a clammy hand over his and guided it to the steering wheel with a sort of tenderness rarely displayed by the brusque DA ("I can't practice medicine!" she had wailed while the two were reviewing college pamphlets. "I hate being touchy-feely!") "I think it's really sweet that you care so much, though. You're… I mean, you're my best friend. If something happened to you, I'd be freaked out. Remember Spring Hill?"

During the spring semester of their sophomore year, Carlos had been "steamrolled" (Ralphie's term, not hers) by a senior fullback at the Spring Hill Soccer Championship. DA, who attended each of his games in spite of her ambivalence towards the sport, had found herself rocketing out of the bleachers and rushing to the sidelines. The sight of him—motionless, most likely concussed-—on the field had plucked something deep in her chest with unprecedented viciousness. It was a sensation she knew he was experiencing and as much as she appreciated the sentiment, DA couldn't fathom anyone being frightened for her.

"Yeah, yeah… Spring Hill nearly Spring Killed me. But that was just me being steamrolled. You might—"

"Carlos." She pressed a tremulous finger to his mouth. "Leave the anxiety to me, okay? Let's go. And don't worry about me."

"No problem," he said lightly, but even as his driving faculties returned to him, Carlos found it was all he could do to not worry about the girl in the passenger seat.

.

.

The journey to the ER was surprisingly uneventful. DA had only once made use of the mixing bowl and despite the fact the two had witnessed each other engaged in such unpleasantness before ("that's the last time I let Ralphie pick a sushi place," DA had sighed as she kept Carlos hydrated and weathered his unbearable sushi-related puns), she seemed embarrassed by the noise of it. "M'sorry," were her slurred words. The moment of clarity she had experienced in the driveway had passed like a cool thunderhead, leaving the oppressive sun of her fever to ravage her.

"Hey, don't be sorry," he had said awkwardly. Carlos had wanted to hug her then in the attempt to comfort her, as they so often did when the other was distraught, but he had been driving and she had been crying just a little and any attempt at anything probably would have failed spectacularly.

It was half-past-midnight when they arrived at the Providence-Walkerville Medical Plaza, which was, frustratingly, no less crowded than it would be during waking hours. As Carlos parked near the ER entrance, he remembered that Wanda and the boys had just been in the area for their play. He wanted to call them. They wouldn't be able to do much, but to hear another human being assure him that he wasn't alone in this ordeal would be more than enough.

But he was alone and Carlos knew he had to man up ("you mean woman up, right?" Keesha's disembodied voice asserted). DA had cared for him on several occasions in spite of her occasionally alienating asperity, covering every base from homework help to shin rubs to one particular incident where she had spent three hours staunching leech wounds after he and Ralphie and Tim drunkenly fell into a lake. And now he needed to reciprocate those favors. Not out of obligation, but out of paralyzing fear for her.

After parking, he got out of the truck and opened up DA's door; the snap of icy night air shook a little coherence into her foggy world. She smiled at Carlos. "Hey 'ere, Messi."

"Hey there, kid," he said fondly.

"I…" She didn't finish her sentence: instead, she projectile-vomited onto the pavement at his feet. Because of the frequency of these ejections, she had already emptied her stomach of its contents. Most of what splashed across the asphalt was a chymified bolus of bile and the vile chalk of pills taken yesterday to quell her early symptoms. Carlos inadvertently jerked away from her, struggling with his own gorge. He suddenly remembered why he so strongly despised sushi.

"Geez, DA, give me a sign before you—DA? DA!"

The blonde's pallid visage briefly contorted into a rictus of pain, then relaxed as she plummeted into unconsciousness. DA wilted against her seatbelt; the same sheath of blonde hair he had wanted to claim as his own fluttered against her nearly grey cheek.

A rill of panic surged through him with such intensity that he nearly collapsed himself. "DA? Come on, kid, don't… don't…" Tears shrink-wrapped his eyes and his vocal cords puckered suddenly, painfully. Carlos frantically unbuckled her belt, caught her limp form in his desperate arms, and gazed down at her face. "Don't give up, DA. I'll take care of it, okay? You just relax, kid. You were always bad at relaxing."

He sprinted into the ER with strength he wasn't even aware he possessed. In the blinding fluorescence of the lobby, Carlos almost believed that all those years of training—the weight lifting, the cardio, the bleachers—had prepared him for this moment. Someone had gifted him with the ability to carry DA over this threshold and thrust her into the arms of a frightened secretary.

"She—I think her appendix burst," he managed between shuddering breaths. The secretary blinked in a disconcertingly bovine fashion. "Please get a doctor or something!"

Finally, the stupefied secretary obliged. Because of the severity of their case, DA would be seen immediately and it was only two or three minutes before she was whisked into the sick bay to be given a cursory examination.

"Typically, we take samples to check white blood cell count," a kind nurse explained to Carlos after he gave the doctor a scattered summary of the progression of DA's condition. His gaze had been rapturously fixated on his friend the entire time as a nurse and a technician cabled her arms; he quietly willed her to rise. "But because of your story and her condition, we think immediate surgery is the best option. The only problem is that we can't do that until we hear from her medical guardian. Do you have her parents' number?"

In the chaos of the night, Carlos had completely forgotten to phone the Freemans, who were presently in Plymouth for Evan's gymnastics tournament ("it's kind of a big deal," the blonde had boasted a few days ago. "Her crush on you is reaching absurd proportions," was DA's sullen, eye-rolling-trenched explanation for Evan's showiness. Carlos found it endearing; DA was not quite so amused.) He quailed momentarily at the prospect of telling Mrs. Freeman that her daughter might be dying, then realized he was wasting precious time. "Yeah, uh, one second…"

Carlos punched his Emergency Contact icon ("just in case," Mrs. Freeman had tutted, programming her info into his freshly commandeered phone. "Well, just so you know, the correct answer is always 'pull the plug!'" The joke had seemed much funnier in the Freemans' sun-drenched kitchen, a fair distance from the noxious miasma of this examination room.) and waited for the click of an accepted line. There was a reedy hiss, a scuffle, a teeth-gritting staccato of static. "Hello?"

"Mrs. Freeman? It's, uh, Carlos. Hi."

"Carlos!" Her lethargy manifested itself into vehement optimism. "Darling! What's wrong?"

"It's DA. She's sick and they're pretty sure it's her appendix. They need you to tell them it's okay to do surgery." His voice warbled briefly, on the precipice of snapping; he coughed lamely to veil it.

"Oh! Oh, Carlos…" The opposite line buzzed as she extricated herself from the cocoon of cotton sheets and whispered "wake up, Jack!" with enough ferocity to wake every guest in the hotel. "Is she alright? What have they done to her? I—JACK, MY GOD, NOT NOW—I need to see the doctor!"

Carlos handed the phone to the nurse—Mrs. Freeman's frenzied questions spouting from its tiny speakers like so many rankled wasps—who quickly overturned it to the doctor. The nurse smiled gently at him. "Once she okays the surgery, we'll get her prepped and on the table as soon as possible."

"Good. Any, uh, paperwork? You'll forgive me, I left her Bluecross info in the puke that's all over your parking lot," Carlos joked. It was glaringly halfhearted, but the nurse graced the stab at humor with an indulgent giggle.

"No paperwork for you, I'm afraid. Just her parents when they arrive. You're welcome to wait in the lobby, though. We'll keep you updated, I promise."

He would have camped out in Hell if it meant being within walking distance of DA during the procedure. They had taken a BioMed class together freshman year ("According to my research, chromosomes aren't orange," she had snapped when he assembled their genetics project out of Cheetos he had frantically bought before class), which had endowed him with a basic understanding of common operations. He could visualize the video recording of it in his mind: the glint of the surgeon's scalpel, the striated cavern of the abdominal cavity, the nebulous ruby of the infected organ. It was all routine and proctored and unyielding. The odds of something going wrong were infinitesimal, inconsequential.

And yet, Carlos was convinced that Dorothy Ann's surgery would be that fatal outlier.

"Can I see her? Before I go?" he asked, painfully aware that he was imploring. The nurse grinned and gestured for him to exchange farewells with the unconscious girl. Across the room, Mrs. Freeman continued to besiege the poor doctor with queries whose origins had strayed from appendixes entirely.

Carlos approached DA and stood at her bedside. The blonde sheath had unfurled across the pillow like a slant of sunlight and now he curled his fingers around it, comforted by its presence. DA was still here: perhaps not in mind, but definitely in body. It was so rare for her to be quiet. She even sleep-talked, a fact he never abstained from sharing when their conversations dissolved into petty skirmishes. This DA, this pale, silent version, would pass away on the table. She had to. He needed the vivacious, exorbitantly stubborn, intelligent DA in his life and if that meant killing off the dizzy, distraught girl from his truck, so be it.

"Hey, DA… I know you can probably hear me. Remember that from the CPR video they made us watch? 'Unconscious victims may be aware of their surroundings'? And I said 'hey, I coma-told you that a week ago' and you kicked me really hard? You're probably rolling your eyes right now."

Carlos twisted an errant blonde whorl around his forefinger and exhaled fiercely, grounding both of them in the moment. "I, uh, I'm a little scared for you, kid. Scared for the both of us. If you were awake, you'd be fine—you'd be excited, even. Pissed that you'll miss school, of course. But I'm still scared. I mean, if I lost you… You were shocked when I said I was scared in the car. You don't think you're hot shit, kid. You should though. You're worth being scared for, DA. Because if you died, who would look up at the stars and text me just to say something like 'I can see Mars!'? Who would go to all my soccer games, and bitch and moan about the heat? Who would kick me when I made awful jokes? Well, Wanda would probably keep doing that, but… it wouldn't be the same."

His vision suddenly trebled and for the first time since his grandfather's death (DA had sat with him for hours, her presence expressing what words couldn't), he cried. It wasn't anything dramatic—weeping was always relegated to Phoebe in times of strife—just a few stray tears that he hastily swiped away with his sweatshirt sleeve. This was DA, after all, who would have softly chastised him for shedding tears over her and elevated his spirits by making a terrible pun of her own. She would be okay. She would be okay. She would be okay.

The doctor gathered his shoulder in a clinical hand that feigned compassion. "Don't worry, son," she said, returning his phone to him, "she'll be okay."

"Yeah." Carlos disentangled his fingers from her hair and smiled down at her. "I know."

.

.

The nurse had encouraged him to rest, but Carlos had never been partial to stillness. He had paced the length of the lobby for awhile and mentally drafted a product that filtered the blood of toxins in the event of eminent septic shock. Then he had called up his parents and explained the situation and endured a tearful barrage of condolences from his parents ("mi bebe y mi otra bebe," his mother had lamented. "Oh, my God," Carlos had moaned, "DA is not your baby.") They were staying at a motel and would be there within the hour; Mrs. Freeman had promised the same.

With nothing better to do and the promise of unwreaked havoc tugging alluringly at his fingers, Carlos dialed up his friends at the glorious hour of one-thirty. He called Phoebe first ("That's so awful," she sniffled, "oh, you're such a good friend to her, Carlos."), then Wanda and her theater lackeys ("My God! Even DA's own body is trying to kick her ass!" Wanda marveled enthusiastically. "Wanda!" was Arnold's horrified response. "She's got a point: we've all wanted to kick DA's ass at one time or another," Tim chimed in. "It really is the quiet ones!" Wanda exclaimed, manic.), then Ralphie and Keesha ("Poor thing…" Keesha sighed while Ralphie made inhuman noises. "Lemme get my bonnet on and we'll come down there.")

All of his friends assured him they would come to the hospital. Carlos finally pocketed his phone and found he wasn't consoled by the prospect of company: they would flock to him, the boy who had saved Dorothy Ann Freeman, and commend him for his heroism. The likelihood of this irritated him. He didn't want to be adulated for taking care of DA, not when she had done the same for him with no reward. The only compensation he desired was the sound of her voice, however brittled by anesthesia. That would be enough.

Mrs. Freeman arrived first, looking rumpled and harried. She swept him into an affectionate embrace before collecting DA's paperwork, which she did with one soothing hand clamped on his knee. Carlos never felt any urge to jerk the joint away from her: he needed the comfort as much as she needed the support. They sat in comradely silence, dually placated by the tangibility of the other.

Keesha and Ralphie were next with the Ramons on their heels. While his mother assaulted him with kisses and Mrs. Freeman with inescapable hugs, Keesha calmly listened to Carlos's recollection of the night's events. Ralphie, half-conscious, nodded periodically as if doing so verified Carlos's story. When he finished, she enveloped him, tousled his shock of dark hair, and said "you did well, Ramon" in that stoic, sturdy voice of hers. It was enough to make his throat feel cotton-lined again.

Phoebe, Wanda, Arnold, and Tim completed the reunion, their brilliance, their aliveness, illuminating the lobby. A sobbing Phoebe expressed her gratitude to Carlos for saving her best friend between frenetic breaths, turning every word into its own announcement ("Thank! You! So! Much!"). Tim escorted his hysterical girlfriend to a chair to be mollified; Wanda called Carlos a "great ol' sonavabitch" and was nearly thrown out by the scandalized night nurse.

"She's just jealous because I'm hammered," Wanda mumbled.

"Yes," Arnold said, patting her shoulder sympathetically, "that's exactly right."

Carlos remained quiet throughout the duration of the experience, speaking only to supply information about DA's condition and laughing feebly at Wanda's inebriated grandeur. He appreciated their concern and kindness, but he didn't want to be around them now, not with his mind sporadically returning to that sterile cavern where the men with knives practiced the primitive theory of hacking away a problem. It occurred to him that DA would later be pissed that no one had recorded the operation for her to study, and he smiled faintly. Just another hour or two and he would have his old DA back.

Keesha noticed his reticence and took a seat beside him. The spirited twinkle in her eyes belied the fatigue hunching her shoulders: this was the twinkle that had once coaxed a well-guarded secret out of his guilty conscience ("Alright! Fine! It was my idea to jump into the leech lake!"). "You've been quiet, Ramon. On a scale of one to ten, how tense are you about DA?"

"That's nine of your business."

She punched him in the shoulder with little regard for the emotional trauma he had been subjected to that night; he appreciated it immensely. "Be real. I know you're scared. I still remember when she called me after Spring Hill. She was terrified, Ramon, and so are you."

"I just need to see her," he said bluntly. He could afford to be blunt with Keesha, who dabbled exclusively in the art of being frank. Her fist melted into a gentle hand.

"You will, Ramon. Just you wait. She'll be back to her old self in no time and then you'll be sick of her again."

Carlos drummed his fingers across his thigh to release the nervous energy holding his voice hostage. "About that… I don't think I'll get sick of her again, Keesh."

"Mmm-hmm. Are you finally going to say you love her?" she asked with typical frankness.

"Jesus. Keesh. Give me a second to be, like, Ryan Gosling about this."

"Fine. Oh, dear, after all these years? You're finally gonna confess your undying love to Dorothy Ann Freeman, our cardigan-loving, SAT-prepping, anxiety attack-having golden girl? My stars, I'm shocked," Keesha said, clutching at imaginary pearls and fluttering her luscious lashes in mock astonishment. "Seriously, don't pussy out of this one, Ramon. She'll say the same thing, high or not. I swear. You're golden, my guy."

"Right." Carlos accepted the arm she slung around him, but seemed unconvinced. Golden or not, he would express his feelings: the experience had removed the obstruction between them as if it too were an inflamed appendix and to not make any grand confessions in its wake would be callow.

He just hoped she would be there when he told her.

.

.

"Well, she's just fine."

The assembly of weary parents and equally weary teenagers erupted into ecstatic plaudits and cheers; the Ramons kissed ardently. Touched by their enthusiasm, the surgeon too gave a little hurrah of his own. "Yes, yes, she's perfectly fine. She's resting now, but if a parent would like to see her, we have a few things to discuss."

"Of course, of course! Oh…" Mrs. Freeman, a woman of high repute and a bruising manner, kissed the surgeon's freshly scrubbed hand. "Thank you for saving my daughter."

"It's, uh, it's no problem." He was visibly colored behind his sanitary mask.

"Oh, good, good. Carlos! My darling, come with me. The man of the hour deserves to see his girl," she added, tipping a wink at the Ramons.

"Go! Tell us how she is!" Phoebe insisted after peeling herself away from Carlos. Upon hearing the news, she had pulled him into a crushing embrace; Ralphie, now marginally awake and afraid of seeing his stepsister cry again, did the same, albeit without planting a sloppy kiss on the boy's cheek.

He didn't need to be asked again. Carlos followed Mrs. Freeman to the bank of elevators, dizzied by the absence of the burden on his chest. Dorothy Ann was okay. They had snipped out that little red leech and vacuumed its poison out of her body and sewed her back together with the same silver needles his mother used to darn his athletic socks. She had been disassembled and reassembled: sick DA was gone, discarded on a metal tray for later disposal.

"I'm so sorry you had to go through that," Mrs. Freeman said on the elevator. She was fidgeting anxiously with her cotton skirt, as if DA was going to condemn her for her wrinkled attire. "Even imaging what kind of state she was in… it-it's too much to think about. And you… you're her best friend, Carlos. I wish I could say I would've been more frightened by what I saw, but I know that you love her just as much as I do. I can't even think about what you went through, Carlos. You're a very strong young man. Strong and brave and very smart. It's no wonder DA loves you so much."

"You didn't say funny," he joshed. Carlos didn't want to delve into the fear factor again, especially not with the mother of the girl whose death he had presaged. Then he blinked. "Wait, did you say 'love'?"

"Oh, yes. DA's always been so invested in her studies and extracurriculars… she's blessed to have such good friends, but I'm afraid she doesn't seem too interested in boys. Which is a pity, you know, she's a pretty girl. But she's always been interested in you, Carlos. Very interested. I'm relatively sure she loves you, darling." The elevator pinged and the doors opened with a jarring whoosh of air. "But, these are just my very biased observations, dear. Who knows what goes on in that girl's head?"

.

.

Mrs. Freeman and the arrived surgeon went into the room first: Carlos insisted on it. She deserved to see her daughter first and have her multitude of questions answered ("How should we take care of the stitches? What can she eat? My God, will she ever wear a bikini again?"). Besides, he needed a moment to compose himself after receiving such earth-shattering news and did so by banging his head lightly against the wall to ward off sleep.

DA loved him. Or, at the very least, was interested in him. He was having extraordinary difficulty picturing a world in which Dorothy Ann expressed intrigue in anything other than schoolwork, biotechnology, and Duke University (and the occasional cardigan, brownie, and science-fiction film, but these were "indulgences" and had to be referred to as such). She had even turned down Tim last year! Tim! Carlos wouldn't have turned down Tim! It was common knowledge that DA wasn't romantically aligned and would most likely stay that way until she graduated cumma sum laude.

"I think I'm having a heart attack," he murmured. The sentence had begun as a pun, but he had lost track of his mental tablet halfway through and what resulted was the worst string of words to utter in a hospital.

Heart attack. It was the best description for this sensation. Sudden and dizzying and life-altering. Okay, perhaps not life-altering, but definitely life-shifting, and he was definitely eager to discover if DA was willing to continue rearranging his life.

Mrs. Freeman opened the door to her daughter's room and peered into the corridor. In spite of the salty tracks striping her cheeks, she was nearly incandescent with relief: she could have lit the entire floor. "Carlos! Are you ready to see her?"

He blinked again. The world seemed shimmery and new. "Yeah. I'm ready."

The room was dim, syrupy, almost sepia. A flowered curtain obscured the area's unoccupied half; its pattern seemed uncomfortably cheerful, as if it were the décor for some twisted celebration. Dorothy Ann was plugged into a litany of machines whose purposes Carlos knew, but could not remember in the febrile haze of the moment. She—her whole, uninterrupted self—surfaced above a sea of equally floral sheets, shrouded in a mist of painkillers.

It was DA, though. She was here.

"Go ahead, darling. We're going to step out and talk for a minute," Mrs. Freeman said encouragingly. She beckoned for the surgeon to follow her into the hallway and once the door clicked shut behind them, Carlos was prepared to speak.

DA, however, beat him to it. "You… came."

He laughed and wove his fingers into her sunburst of blonde hair, which had been uncapped after the operation and now threatened to obscure the entire pillow. "Yeah, I came. I've actually been here the whole time, believe it or not."

This baffled a sedated DA; she blinked her spring blue eyes up at him. "Even the bad parts?"

"Even those."

She smiled unexpectedly and lifted her untapped hand to his own; the two extremities clumsily skated across the pillow's surface before successfully intertwining. "I was okay. You said I'd be okay and I was. Thank you."

"Of course," Carlos said. The close proximity was icing his palm with an unpleasant sheen of sweat, but DA was far too doped up to realize. "DA, uh, there's something I want to tell you."

"Yes?"

"I really, really care about you, DA. Like a lot. And, uh, I'm interested in you. A lot, too. In fact, I'm pretty sure I love you." Unable to end on such a vulnerable note, Carlos snatched a latex glove from the box at her bedside and brandished it grandiosely. "I glove you, Dorothy Ann."

DA giggled at the pun (although she would doubtlessly reprimand him later for ruining the moment), pausing only when the labor of laughing began to saw painfully at her stitched side. She quieted and clutched his hand with such ferocity that it seemed she would drift away if not grounded by his grasp. "I glove you too, Carlos. I have for awhile, but… I dunno. I'm weird about that stuff. I thought you'd laugh at me if I told you."

"No one's laughing now," he assured her. He did, however, find her dreamy, scattered speech and starry-eyed gaze amusing; his mouth twitched ominously. "But, hey, I'm weird about stuff. I couldn't tell you either. I mean, you turned down Tim. Tim!"

She was briefly confounded by the name, as if she had forgotten other people existed beyond the parameters of her tiny room, but had become slightly quicker on the uptake and soon elicited a sigh of resignation. "Tim's really nice and a really good friend, but I didn't want to date him. I guess I was holding out for you."

"Well, here I am."

"Yes," DA said softly and the tenderness of the moment rattled him. Here she was, the girl he had clandestinely coveted since first seeing her emerge from her family's van eleven years ago, all beribboned and book-laden. They had been friends for years, but now they were transcending friendship, transcending the restrictions that existed between two isolated entities and achieving a heightened level of togetherness. Little would change between them: they would still argue, laugh, rejoice. She would attend all of his soccer games and he would visit her at the community college lab and they would still play video games in Arnold's basement without a modicum of mercy for the other's ego. But now he had no qualms about holding her hand and connecting to her in a way that would have seemed awkward and troubled when they were friends. Here she was, open and soft and alive.

Carlos abruptly stooped down and kissed her forehead. It was loving, unobtrusive: the perfect means of communicating his feelings without rawing her already sensitive mouth. Her livid eyelids fluttered as if she were Sleeping Beauty and this was the gesture that had shaken her from a dreamless fugue.

"Carlos…" She was smiling again. "Thank you."

"What can I say, DA? You're worth it. Now, did you happen-dix to know that your mother thinks I'm great? Because she thinks I'm great. I'd say she thinks I'm pretty appen-delicious."

"Anxious jokes," DA muttered, shaking her head mournfully. "Someone put me back under, please."

He kissed her forehead again, intoxicated by her bakery-warm skin and the vestigial shimmer of her shampoo. The others would come to see her eventually. They would fuss over her and praise them for finally declaring their feelings for one another; there would be an inevitable festivity in the Perlstein basement once DA was fit for alcohol consumption and violent video games. He would go home with his parents, dodge Mikey's questions, soap away the subterranean moss of the hospital, and gaze out at the Freemans' balcony in anticipation. All of these things were inexorable, the preordained sequence of events to follow in the wake of such an emergency. But right now, exhausted and grungy and slightly delirious, all he wanted was to hold onto Dorothy Ann a little longer and remember her presence.

That would be enough.