thirty-five

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"Hey, Dina."

She glanced up, her wide brown eyes searching for the intruder before landing on Nicholas's tall frame. Slowly, her lips curled into a bright smile, blinding him with its radiance, its purity, its beauty. The sudden drumming against his ears vibrated throughout his body, nerves bundling together, tongue twisted, and eyes purely focused on the perfect girl before him.

What is wrong with me?

"Hey!" she grinned. "Sorry for ignoring you a bit. I was searching for the next two books after Stalking Jack the Ripper. I have to know the details of Thomas and Audrey's relationship. I'm going insane over it."

Nicholas pulled a chair out next her. "Are you seriously that obsessed?" he asked with a knowing smile. "Just google it on a fandom page."

"Nemo," gasped Dina, jaw dropping. "How dare you utter such forbidden words?"

Nicholas shrugged. "We might as well use our resources. Besides, you don't even have time to read. Finals are in two weeks."

"So what?"

"You should be studying."

"Studying is for scrubs," she scoffed, holding her book closer to her chest. "My books are my oxygen. Don't tell me otherwise."

"Says the girl who freaked out the second she got below a ninety percent," he muttered under his breath.

"Nemo! That was our secret!" exclaimed Dina, cheeks flushing a light red as she scanned the room for any witnesses.

Nicholas couldn't help but chuckle, feeling it rumble within his chest. The past few days had brightened his mood, clearing the dark skies, removing the heavy weights on his shoulders, and introducing Nicholas to a world that had been veiled to him. The Younes twins, Elijah, and Dina had all managed to pull Nicholas away from societal pressures.

Their constant reminders of hope was the flame he needed to move one, the leg that he needed to stand, and the freedom that he needed to succeed. However, Mother's Day was right around the corner, his anxiety running laps around him as he remembered his own mother, his own father, his family.

The smile had fallen, replaced with the empty cavity of numbness.

"Hey," started Dina softly, noticing the mood shift, "is everything all right?"

The word 'yes' tasted bitter on his tongue, a lie he had been telling for years, but around Dina only the truth surfaced, only the sweet taste of release from his torturous chains surfaced. Nicholas needed her comfort during a time where most spent their days rejoicing in their parent's endearment.

"I needed your advice."

She nodded, encouraging him to go on. Her beloved book sat on the library desk untouched, idly sitting while her unwavering attention focused on Nicholas. As he stared deep into her dark brown orbs, a familiar circle of warmth stared back at him, urging him to confess his deepest secrets to the girl that he wished to spend the rest of his life with.

Desperation clawed at his jaws, tensing them. "I... it's just..." he trailed off, not knowing where to start.

"Nemo," she whispered, expression softening upon hearing his stumbled heap of words, "you can tell me anything. You know that, right?"

I can do this.

I have to do this.

I need to do this.

Taking a deep breath, Nicholas began to confer the secret he held for ages, a harsh reality that he kept hidden from the public eyes, a whip that he burned in the back of his mind. With a faltering voice, Nicholas recalled the holidays and the dread pooling in his stomach like a flood ready to wash him away.

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