Always and Near
by Alexa Snow

At first, Jazz didn't open his eyes when he woke up. It was a long, slow waking, like rising from a deep pool of clear water toward the sunlight above, and he didn't try to hurry it. There was something peaceful about it, and there were times you shouldn't rush things. He didn't want to rush.

He became aware of the physical world slowly. He ached a little bit, as if he'd been sick and in bed for days, his muscles protesting the inactivity. The mattress felt strange underneath him, and when he stretched out a hand toward the left, expecting to touch Chris, he instead touched something cold and rounded and hard; some kind of rail.

Before Jazz could make sense of that, he was asleep again.

When he woke up, someone was moving around, making soft noises, and there were more noises nearby, shoes squeaking on floors and voices talking. What the hell? Jazz ignored the part of his brain that urged him to stay asleep and forced his eyes open.

He was in a bed with a rail. A hospital bed. Next to the bed, a young woman in nurse's scrubs was writing something on a piece of paper attached to a clipboard.

Jazz cleared his throat and tried to say, "Hey," but all that came out was a strangled croak.

It had a shocking effect on the woman, though; she jerked away from the bed like he'd jabbed her with a pin, eyes wide and expression startled. "Oh!" she said. "I -- you're -- I'll be right back!" And she was off, out of the room so fast that he couldn't have said anything else even if he'd been able to.

She was back in about thirty seconds, shadowing another nurse with bright red hair who broke into a wide smile as soon as her gaze found Jazz's face. "You're awake! How are you feeling?"

"Confused," Jazz said, wincing at the sound of his own voice. There was something in his nose, some kind of tube, and it made him want to gag.

"I'm sure you are," she said. "I'm Stacey. Just bear with me for a few minutes and we'll get that taken care of, okay?" She turned to the other woman, who still looked like she'd seen a ghost. "Get a pitcher of ice water and a swab, and have Isabel call Dr. Wallis."

Jazz tried to work up some spit and swallowed painfully. "Scared her."

"You did," Stacey agreed. "But cut her some slack -- she's new."

He wanted to close his eyes again. He wanted to know where Chris and Richard were. If he was in the hospital, why weren't they there? And why was he in the hospital? He couldn't remember anything, not even how to ask the questions he needed answers to. "Tired."

"I know, but do me a favor and see if you can stay awake just a little longer." Stacey's fingers were on his wrist, taking his pulse. "Can you do that for me? Can you tell me your name?"

Even nodding slightly was a challenge. "Jazz. Stone."

Stacey's smile was bright. "Good!" She sounded like someone talking to a toddler who'd just managed to eat a Cheerio without accidentally sticking it up his nose, but Jazz still couldn't help but like her. "Oh, good, Helena, thank you." This was to the other nurse, who'd come back. "Here, can you open your mouth for me? You'll feel better when it's not so dry."

Jazz obeyed, sighing with relief as the little wet sponge moved over his tongue, but then his eyes were closing and sleep came up and took him again.

When he woke up this time, the tube in his nose was gone, thank God, and he seemed to be sitting more upright. "Mr. Stone?" It was a man's voice. A woman's, slightly familiar, murmured something. "Jazz?"

"What?" Jazz mumbled, annoyed. Being awake took too much energy. He opened his eyes, though, hoping maybe he'd see Chris or Richard, even if the man's voice wasn't either of theirs.

Nope, just a doctor. "There you are," the man said heartily. "I'm Dr. Wallis. Can you tell me your name?"

Oh, for fuck's sake. "Jazz Stone," Jazz said. "Where's Chris?"

The redhead, Stacey, was still there. "He's coming," she said. "He's on his way."

"And do you know what year it is?" Dr. Wallis asked, and Jazz resigned himself to a series of questions he'd have to have been seriously brain damaged not to know the answers to. By the time Dr. Wallis was satisfied, Jazz was exhausted.

"I'm just going to sit with you until Chris gets here," Stacey said, pulling a chair over as Dr. Wallis finished taking notes and stepped out into the hallway. "It's okay if you need to rest. It'll be a while before you get your stamina back."

She kept giving him all these really great lines, and he didn't have the energy to respond to them. "Drink?" he asked.

"Sure. Just a little, though." Stacey held a cup and straw for him as he sipped cool, metallic tasting hospital water. "You can have more later."

He was too tired for any of it to have sunk in. Motorcycle accident (which he didn't remember). Coma. "Months?" Jazz said.

Stacey nodded. "Yes, a few. I know it must be a shock, but don't worry. A little physical therapy and you'll be fine."

Sleep was pulling at him, and this time he'd been awake long enough that he was worried he might not wake up. He fought it, stubborn, and felt Stacey take his hand.

"It's okay," she said gently. "Don't worry. Everything's going to be okay."

He was out again.

Jazz felt something change; maybe it had been the door opening, or the radiator against the wall kicking on. He didn't know. Beside him, Stacey's gentle voice said, "Hey, Jazz. Someone's here to see you."

He opened his eyes. Chris was standing there, looking shaky and scared and sick, Richard behind him, pushing him forward as Stacey got up and let Chris sink into her chair. Tears streaked their way down Chris' cheeks, and Jazz managed to say, "Hi, baby," even though his voice cracked.

Chris picked up Jazz's hand, kissed his knuckles and then his palm. "Jazz." Behind him, Richard was crying, too, without a sound.

"Someone better give me a hug," Jazz said, trying to sound grumpy to hide the twist of guilt he felt for having put them through this. "Or I'll think you didn't miss me."

Leaning down, Richard did hug him. It was an awkward hug and Jazz couldn't cling to Richard the way he wanted to, so he just closed his eyes and inhaled Richard's scent, reassuring and reminding him of home.


Had he fallen asleep again? "Mm?"

Richard's large, warm hand was touching his face. "Open your eyes for me. Come on."

"M'tired," Jazz said, but he opened his eyes, blinking a few times before smiling at Richard, who was somehow on the other side of the bed now. "Hi." God, it was so good to see him.

"Hi," Richard said. "It's okay -- you can rest. I just wanted to make sure you knew I was here."

"I know." It was so hard, though, to keep his eyes open. They wanted to close so badly. "Stay, okay?" He didn't want to wake up without them there.

Richard nodded. "I will."

With effort, Jazz turned his head to look at Chris, who was still holding his hand. He tried to squeeze Chris' hand in return, but his fingers didn't do more than twitch. "Don't go."

"I won't," Chris said. His face was wet with tears, and he looked up at Richard for a second or two. "We won't. We'll be right here."

This time, when sleep tugged Jazz under, he didn't fight it. Deep down, he knew he would wake up again. He could dimly feel Chris stroking his hair, and he knew they were both there, waiting. That was the biggest relief of all.

Many thanks to Jane Davitt for the help and encouragement, as always.
Chris, Jazz and Richard make their first appearance in Alexa Snow's Sleeping Stone.
Click here to order Sleeping Stone from Torquere Press.