“Jace, it’s your brother.” My mom’s voice kick-starts my heart and I almost don’t want to hear what she’s going to say next. “He’s awake. I need to tell Em, but I had to tell you first.”

“Shit! For real?” I scramble up to my feet. “Shit, mom.”

“Yeah, he started fluttering his eyes all night, but the nurses told me that I shouldn’t get my hopes up. That sometimes this happens. But about an hour ago, he started trying to open his eyes. They rolled him off to do a CT scan and EEG, but he should be back real soon. He wasn’t fully awake or anything, and who knows what he’ll be like when he comes back.”

“What the fuck? Why didn’t you call me AN HOUR AGO?” I yell.

“Excuse me, Jace...language,” she replies sternly. “I’ve been running around signing paperwork and talking to doctors. They needed to run some tests, so none of us would have been able to see him anyway. Now you can come up here and be in the room before he gets back. I also need you to grab some clothes for him when you come.”

“MOM, A FUCKING HOUR AGO. How could you do this?” I roar.

Okay, maybe I deserved that. Put another check mark in my as**ole box, but I still feel like she should have called a century ago. I knew coming back here to sleep was a bad idea.

I hurriedly change out of my dirty clothes. Rifling through my drawers, I grab articles of clothing that resemble a t-shirt and a pair of shorts, although I don’t stop to check. Then I run out into the hallway, sprint into Jax’s room, and throw items I think he will want into a bag. Em rushes into the apartment with wide, terrified eyes, wearing the same clothes she had on yesterday. She doesn’t have to speak. We don’t need words, instead we both run.

In true Southern California fashion, we get stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic for an extra thirty minutes. I should have expected this. I don’t know why I took the freaking highway. Em clutches her seat tightly and sways impatiently back and forth, but she doesn’t say a word. She’s been weird this week, like off-her-rocker weird. She smiles way too much, and I still haven’t seen her get upset once about Jax’s situation. She just repeats the phrase, “He’ll be okay,” over and over again.

When I pull up to the hospital, thankfully there is one open parking spot in the front row. I would have probably ended up illegally parking again otherwise, because the parking garage is all the way behind the hospital. My tires squeal as I whip it in between the white lines and slam the gears into park. Em already had her door open before I was fully stopped, and I run to catch up with her on the sidewalk.

We quickly rush inside to the information desk so we can get our visitors’ badges. Sheryl, a kind, elderly lady, smiles to acknowledge us, but when she sees the looks on our faces, she quickly tosses the badges to us and we continue running. I’ll thank her later. I’d take the stairs, but it’s probably not the best idea to run up six flights when I can’t even remember the last time I ate.

Em’s twitchy finger presses the correct floor number and we wait an eternity for the elevator to crawl up to where Jaxon is. Awake, hopefully. Em stands in a locked and ridged position while I stand ready to peel the doors open, if need be. When it finally chimes to let us know we’ve reached our destination, we rush out. Passing by the vacant nurse’s station, we make our way to the correct room.

My heart is pounding erratically and I’m not sure what I’m expecting to see when I enter his room. Right as I reach the door, I halt, causing Em to slam into my backside. I turn and grab her by the shoulders and she looks up at me with confusion.

“Jace, let’s go in!” she says hurriedly.

“Hold up, let’s breathe for one second,” I reply.

Her terror is written all over her face. We were told he could have brain damage. While the scans coming back have looked good, they’ve repeatedly warned us that we wouldn’t know much until he woke up and showed us his abilities. I can tell she’s worried as much as I am about the possibilities.

“Whatever happens in there, I’m here for you and I’d do anything for you,” I tell her.

She takes a deep breath in and slowly releases it. “Thank you, Jace. I love you.”

“Love you too, munchkin,” I jest at her height. She let’s a sliver of a smile quirk up her lip and then it quickly disappears when she glances back at his door. “Okay, let’s do this.”

I step inside first and I’m quickly relieved to see the only pair of eyes that match mine staring up at me. I let out a deep sigh of relief at seeing him awake and propped up, which is much different from the prone position I’ve seen him in for the past nine days.

“You look like hell,” his raspy voice scratches out at me.

“Don’t talk, Jaxon. You need to let your throat heal,” Mom cautions, smiling brightly. I charge toward him and roughly wrap him up in a hug. My arms squeeze him tight while he pats my back lazily.

“Don’t ever do that again,” I whisper, while trying not to get choked up.

“I’ll do my best,” he chuckles.

If there is any way to describe his voice, I would call it ‘expired.’ I can tell he hasn’t used it in so long that it almost sounds painful for him to get the words out of his throat. When I pull back, I see that he’s trying to look over my shoulder. I turn and see Em’s small frame standing stock-still in the doorway. Her wide, frightened eyes are taking him in, almost as if she doesn’t believe he’s really conscious.

Jaxon stares at her adoringly for a long time, and then he finally opens his arms and whispers, “Beautiful.” She lunges, the tears already pouring down her face before she can reach his bedside. See, that’s a normal reaction. Not this weird smiley-robot thing she’s had going on. Although I can tell Jaxon is extremely weak, he manages to scoop her up into the bed with him and nuzzles into her neck.

“Thank you so much. Thank you so so much, beautiful,” he murmurs to her, over and over. I turn to give mom a confused look and she shrugs her shoulders, equally perplexed. After a few minutes more of Em’s sobbing, she finally composes herself enough to speak.

“Why are you thanking me?” she asks, while wiping her face.

“For always talking to me. For reading to me. For telling me so many times I lost count that you loved me and you would be here when I woke up.” There’s a collective gasp in the room as we all stare at him, shocked by his words.

“For the most part, I could hear all of you. I was just at the end of a very long tunnel, but you stayed close. I just couldn’t get my eyelids to lift. It felt like I had weights sitting on my face. I tried for hours to get them open and they would for little spurts here and there, but y’all would be asleep or gone and I couldn’t get my mouth to work past that damn tube down my throat.”

“For days, I tried to will my hand to squeeze yours. It wouldn’t listen. I think I managed it once, but no one noticed.” He takes a deep breath after his little speech and his eyelids begin to droop in exhaustion. “It was so f**king terrifying, but you kept me sane, Emerson. I knew as long as I had you talking to me, I’d be okay.”

His dialogue is muddled and he takes a great deal of pauses, but we understand every word he utters. Even this short amount of conversing seems to be taking a toll on him already. He lays his head back against the pillow, but doesn’t remove his eyes from his girlfriend. She runs her fingers through his hair slowly, and once again they disappear into their own little world. She whispers soft words into his ear, and as long as he’s awake, I can stare at their mushy adoration all day.

Dr. Graham strolls into the room and smiles widely at Jax. He shakes hands with all of us and says, “It’s nice to meet you with your eyes open, Mr. Riley.” Jax gives a lazy smirk and attempts to talk, but his body seems to be slowing back down so he closes his mouth. Dr. Graham nods his head and says, “It’s hard at first. I’m about to look over all of your scans, but I’m sure I’ll be pleased with how everything is looking.”

Mom clears her throat and asks, “How long do you think he’ll be here?”

“He’s still got a ways to go. He’s lost some muscle mass this past week and a half, so he’ll absolutely need rehabilitation. We’ll keep you up in this wing for a couple more days, just to make sure there is continual progress and no relapses.”

“A week and a half?” Jax whispers roughly. Em stares into his eyes and nods her head. “I’m so sorry, babe,” he apologizes.

“You’ve actually improved quicker than usual, so I feel good about your recovery.” The doctor walks over to check his vitals, while trying not to disturb Em’s intense grip on him.

Jaxon’s eyes continue to droop and then they begin fluttering closed. My mom leans closer to him and I quickly walk to his side.

Em sits up ramrod straight and clutches at his shoulders. “No, no, no. You just woke up, please don’t leave me again. Please!” she yells and pleads. A wave of pain crosses Jaxon’s face, and I can tell he’s trying his hardest to keep his eyes open. A battle he seems to be losing.

Dr. Graham gently pats her hand and in a soothing voice, he states, “It’s okay. It’s okay. Emerging from a comatose state is a slow process. He’ll only be awake for a few hours at a time, if that, at first. This is sleeping, not unconsciousness.”

Mom sits back in her chair and lets out a relieved sigh. My body deflates as the stress slowly dissipates. I sink to my knees on the cold, hard tile and lay my forehead on the edge of his bed. Em continues to watch his every inhale and exhale. I can tell she’s still hoping he’ll wake up and talk to us some more, as am I. It’s a tease to have him up and then shortly after I’m staring at the back of his eyelids again. Dr. Graham finishes up his exam and tells us he will come back as soon as he has looked over Jaxon’s scans.

Two intolerably long hours have gone by when Quinn and Cole burst through the door. I notice how let down they are when they see that Jaxon is still asleep. Quinn’s eyes well up with tears and Cole pulls her into his chest.

“Quinny, he’s awake. The doctor says he’s just sleeping now,” Em utters softly, while rubbing Jaxon’s chest.

I stand up and point to my chair so Quinn can have it. She quickly claims it, pulls her knees up to her chest, and lays her head down. “Thank you,” she says.

“He seemed normal. His voice is shot to shit, but it just seemed like he was waking up after a long nap. It was so weird. Definitely not what I was expecting,” I reply.

“He heard everything,” Em whispers, without taking her eyes off Jax.

Quinn lets out a deep yawn and asks, “What do you mean he heard everything?”

“Well, turns out Em wasn’t crazy after all. He thanked her for always talking and reading to him,” I explain.

Mom reaches out and rubs Em’s back and smiles. “She pulled him through. He worked hard to wake up because of her,” she says, and Em casually shrugs her shoulders. The room quiets down and another yawn rips through Quinn, which causes a tidal wave effect of yawns around the room.

“Shit, babe, stop,” Cole says through a yawn. “There is no way you can possibly be tired! You slept almost fourteen hours last night, and that was after you had a three-hour nap yesterday afternoon.”

Quinn hugs her legs tighter and softly says, “I guess all this stress just wears me out.”

“Well, he’s awake now, so maybe you will be too,” he grumbles.

“More than you buddy,” he stabs back.

“I had a dream you and Audrey were together,” Jaxon’s raspy voice interrupts.

We all freeze and immediately turn toward him. There is a round of ‘Jaxon’s’ called out and everyone seems to move closer to his bed all at once.

Cole is the first to speak. “How are you feeling, man? Shit, I missed you.”

“Um, I’m not sure,” he croaks. “What day is it?”

“How did this happen?” he gestures at himself.

“You don’t remember me telling you earlier?” Mom questions. When Jaxon shakes his head, she explains that he was hurt during practice.

“Well, at least it was practice and not a live game. I don’t want to wind up on the highlight reel like superstar over here did last year.” He tries to laugh while pointing at Cole.

Last year, Cole got the wind knocked out of him in one of the first games of the season. It freaked us all out to see him lying motionless on the ground but we can laugh about it now, and often do every time they replay the hit on ESPN.

“So my dream...you and Audrey. It was pretty cool,” Jax says, looking directly at me.

“Nah, he f**ked that one up,” Cole’s annoying voice states.

“It’s real? I knew it! I totally knew you had a thing for her,” Jax says with a smile.

“You would be okay with it?” I ask, shocked. “What about that promise we made to never date the other’s girls? Past or present.”

“That shit goes away when you’ve met ‘the one.’ I have Em now. I could really care less about my ex-girlfriends. But that doesn’t mean I’d ever want anything to happen to Audrey, she’s been through enough. Why? What did you do?”