J.R. and Hana stood on the other side of the window, silently watching the doctor check the IV while the patient slept. Hands bunched in his pockets, J.R. gazed down at the frail man trying to breathe through the oxygen mask fitted onto his face. Though minutes had passed since the doctor and his team stabilized his father from his struggle to breathe, panic still thrummed through J.R.’s veins.

His father had been against radiation therapy, not wanting to be stuck in the hospital any longer… but J.R. insisted and the doctor hesitantly allowed it, reading the desperation in a son’s voice to save his father.

Except this decision just might have made his father’s condition a lot worse. Edema in the lungs.

“Don’t worry,” Hana’s voice pervaded through his thoughts and J.R. closed his eyes, wishing it was that simple. She sighed deeply. “He’s a strong man.”

His eyes fluttered open once more, and he pinned his gaze on his father’s sleeping form. “Maybe we should’ve…”

“No,” Hana interjected softly. “Radiation is his best bet.” She shifted her attention to J.R.’s profile. “Don’t waver, Bhaiyaa… you have to be strong for him.”

I can’t. Unwittingly, a faded memory emerged from a dark deep corner in his mind.

A scared kid sat in the waiting room of the emergency center, his small heart beating fast and hard against his ribs as his father rushed after the paramedics wheeling a bleeding woman away. His eyes had lowered to the trail of blood leading down the hallway. He’d pushed off the plastic chair and followed the bloody trail. Nurses and patients bustled around him, ignoring the scrawny boy still clad in his yellow pajamas and bare feet. Air rushed through his ears as he came to the end of the hallway and slowly turned. His disheveled father was on his knees at the end of the bloody trail, body shaking as he wept bitterly. A nurse and paramedic stood at his side, helpless to comfort the desolate man. The woman they’d brought with him was nowhere to be found. Paralyzed with fear at the sight of his strong and brave father weeping, the little boy just watched with tears pooling his eyes as his ten-year-old mind realized the truth. She was gone. His mother was gone.

“Bhaiyaa,” a voice echoed in his head.

J.R. squeezed his eyes tight, the tears sliding down his cheeks.

A hand closed over his shoulder and jostled him from the memory. He blinked and looked down to the sympathetic eyes of Hana at his side.

“You okay?”

He couldn’t even nod and just stared at her.

Hana sighed and released his shoulder. “Your phone’s ringing.”

J.R. looked away and reached for his phone that was indeed vibrating against his hip. Unlatching it from his belt hook, he stared at the caller-id of the Teka house phone. Sniffing back the tears, he accepted the call and put the phone to his ear.

“Hello?” His brows furrowed slightly and he glanced once at the window where the doctor surveyed his sleeping father. “You’re back,” he drawled monotonously, unable to muster any affability in his tone. He was far too tired to perform.

Darah watched the furrow deepen on Clement’s brow and bit her bottom lip. Something was wrong, she could tell when Clement’s gaze shifted away from hers. She shuffled to stand in front of him, wanting to read every emotion as he spoke with J.R.

“Hmm,” Clement muttered in a noncommittal tone that only frustrated his only sister. “What of you?”

She leaned in, her ears perked up to hear J.R.’s low tenor.

“Hmm.” Clement stepped around her. “Do you want me to come?”

Darah hurried to stand in his path and gestured for him to take her with him.

He arched a brow and then rolled his eyes. “Darah wants to come.”

She held her breath, gaze fixed on her brother’s face.

Then Clement’s lips twitched a smile. “Yeah, she’s here.”

Her heart skipped several beats and she slowly released the breath, silently apologizing to the child for being foolish. She kept her eyes on Clement, waiting.

Then he nodded. “We’re on our way.”

Her shoulders sagged in relief only to stiffen when he lowered the phone. “What happened?”

He looked down at her with a somber expression. “This isn’t a just a visit, Darah. I need you to behave.”

“I’m not a kid, Junior.” She swallowed against the dread rising up her throat, and followed him up the stairs. “Is it his father? Did something happen?”

A door opened once they reached the top of the stairs, and Phoebe stepped out of her bedroom, eyes bleary from sleep. She eyed them with concern. “It’s past midnight… what’s going on?”

“We’re going down to the hospital,” Clement said and entered Eleazar’s bedroom where he’d put up his duffel bag and shoes.

The sleep left Phoebe’s eyes and she quickly turned to Darah. “Is it about J.R.’s father?”

“He won’t say but I think so.” Darah wrung her hands together.

“Oh no,” Phoebe breathed. “Maybe we should get the guys out tonight. They’ll go with you.”

“I don’t think we need the whole gang out there tonight.” Clement emerged from the room a moment later, his eyes falling on Darah. “Don’t get in the way.”

Instead of pouting, she nodded. “I won’t. Can we go now?”

Alone in the chapel, J.R. sat in silence, his listless gaze on the shadow of the cross splayed across the altar. The soft hum of the music overhead meant to calm him, to assure him of a miracle, but it only brought tears to pool in his eyes. Blinking them back, he squared his shoulders and drew in a haggard breath. Then he closed his eyes, releasing tears down his cheeks and the breath he’d held.

“Please…”

His voice was barely a whisper amid the hymnal. His eyes fluttered open, meeting the cross and the carved statue hanging on it. “Please,” he began again, voice stronger this time. “Don’t let me lose him.”

His clasped fingers tightened and he closed his eyes again. His shoulders trembled at the thought of losing the only family he had. “I know I’ve been angry at you for too long… but please, just this once.”

His pulse jumped in his throat. “Just this once…”

Another tear trailed his cheek and he sniffed another back. “Please, just… save my dad.” His body began to shake as he couldn’t hold back the tears and he bowed over his waist, his forehead dropping against the back of the pew in front of him.

He knew it wouldn’t help, the thoughts racing through his mind, but he had to say it… just in case. He lifted his head again and gazed up at the shadow. “I’ll do anything. Anything, just save him first. Please.”

The door swung open noisily and J.R. swiveled in his seat, heart in his throat as he expected a grim-faced Hana to bring him the dreaded news.

Two shadows darkened the door of the chapel. He remained seated and watched as they stepped inside and into the spotlight above the door. His heart flipped at the sight of Darah standing by a bearded man. Tears pooled in his eyes as he watched her break away from the man and hurry toward him. He could nothing as she stepped into his pew and flung her arms around his neck. He closed his eyes and lowered his head to the crook of her neck, the tears flowing free as she tightened her hold around him.

Darah felt his shoulders quake under her arms and she tightened her arms around him even more, not wanting to let go despite the fact that her heart pounded hard and fast against his… She closed her eyes and breathed him in, wishing she could take away his pain and fear.

Clement sighed heavily beside them and lowered to the pew behind them. He watched the couple with a somber expression, his brow furrowing at the sight of J.R.’s trembling shoulders. There weren’t many times he’d seen the self-composed attorney lose his cool. But this wasn’t a normal situation.

As though realizing where he was, J.R. disengaged and shifted away from Darah, only for her to grab his shoulders to keep him close. He sighed, not making a move to step away from her. Instead he shifted his attention to the bearded man and his brows lifted in silent question.

Clement nodded. “Any word yet?”

J.R. shook his head, looking past Clement’s shoulder at the closed chapel door.

Darah heaved a sigh and squeezed J.R.’s shoulder. “He’ll be fine.”

J.R. spared her a dubious glance.

“You’re in here so keep your hope alive.” She gave him a gentle smile that made him wish for another hug.

Instead, he looked back at Clement. “When did you come?”

Clement leaned back in the seat, draping one arm over the pew. “A few hours…” he paused to let out a big yawn. “…ago.”

Darah sighed. “How long has he been out for?”

J.R. noticed the warning look Clement gave his sister but ignored it. He dragged a hand over his face. “Too long.”

Clement shifted forward. “Should I meet with him?”

J.R. straightened, alarm heightening at the somberness in his friend’s tone. “I…”

“Relax, I’m just going to sit with him for a while. Let Darah take care of you.” Clement didn’t wait to hear J.R.’s protest and stood. “Behave,” he warned his sister before stepping out of the pew.

Darah gripped J.R.’s shoulder to keep him seated. When he twisted to look at her with questions in his eyes, she squeezed his shoulder and gave him a slight smile. “Stay for a while. Please.”

He swallowed a sigh and the nerves that Clement’s words invoked before settling back in the pew. Darah released his shoulder and moved her hand to clasp his, entwining their fingers together. She could feel his gaze on hers and sighed. “Stop looking at me like that.”

His fingers remained lax in hers but that didn’t stop her from tightening her hold.

Her gaze focused on the shadow of the cross. “Why did you come here?”

J.R.’s eyes lowered to their joined hands, to the chipped polish on her tiny nails. He sighed and curled his fingers around the back of her hand. Then he turned to face the cross. “I don’t know.”

“Of course you know,” she insisted gently. “You could’ve gone outside to the garden like last time. Or sat in the toilet stall.”

“What do you want to say?”

“Let me talk.”

“I am.”

Darah sighed gently, her thumb caressing his. “You haven’t given up.”

He remained silent, holding his breath at her words.

“You haven’t given up on your dad. Even with the death sentence his doctors gave him, you have the hope to believe he can live.”

J.R. closed his eyes. How he wanted to believe her words so badly when in truth, he was trembling from the inside out of living alone.

“You’re not alone, J.R.”

His eyes snapped open and for a moment, J.R. believed he’d spoke those words aloud. His heart thumped hard and fast against his throat.

Darah leaned forward, resting her elbow on his knee. Her face barely inches from his, her eyes met his. “You’re not alone, J.R. We’re not giving up on him either.”

He released the breath he didn’t know he’d been holding, only to catch it again when her eyes twinkled with what he believed were tears. Paralyzed in awe, he gazed down at this impish girl who captured his heart ten years ago.

With her free hand, she lifted it to his face and cupped his cheek. “You’re not alone, J.R.”

Every time she said those words, it was like a brand on his heart; claiming him as hers. Then her lips twitched in that shy smile of hers, her thick lashes drooping in a curtain over her eyes.

“Why?” he croaked out.

Her lashes fluttered, revealing those brilliant eyes that shimmered with tears. For him. “Hmm?”

“Why…?”

He didn’t make sense, but it didn’t matter since she seemed to know what he was asking. Darah’s thumb caressed his cheek, rousing his pulse. “Because, Raju-Joel Obed,” her lashes lowered just once before lifting again, imprisoning him with her gaze. “I love y—”

J.R. didn’t need to hear the rest of it—the words were clear in her voice. He dipped his head and pressed his mouth against hers. The touch of her lips quickened his pulse, but not as it did when the hand she’d cupped his cheek now slid around his neck and clung to him. He too slid his free hand around her waist and pulled her close, clinging to her as though she was his anchor.

A moment too soon, the door swung open noisily and the two broke apart, believing it was Clement catching them in the act.

“Bhaiyaa! He’s awake! Come!” Hana called from the chapel entrance before hurrying back out, the doors swinging back in place.

For a moment, the two sat there in stunned silence—swept away by their unexpected kiss. They stared at each other as if seeing themselves for the first time. Then J.R. broke eye contact and stood.

Darah lowered her gaze and started to shift away from him when he grabbed her arm and tugged her to her feet. She gasped when he wrapped his arms around her, burying his face in the crook of her neck. She bit her bottom lip to keep from letting out a giggle, ticklish at the heat of his breath against her skin.

Then he released her, and took her breath away twice—the sounding kiss he placed on her mouth before gifting her with the most brilliant smile she’d seen in a long time.

“Thank you.” He then looked over her head at the cross, his smile beaming and blinding her at the same time. “Thank you…”

Her heart skipped a beat when his eyes swung back to hers and she held her breath, anticipating another kiss—wanting another. Instead, he released her waist and grabbed her hand. “Come.”

Stunned, Darah nodded mutely and let him lead her out of the chapel to meet his father but not without a glance behind her at the shadowed cross. “Thank you,” she mouthed, releasing a smile of her own.

<<Chapter 18 || Chapter 20>>

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