forty-nine

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As Nicholas, Haroon, and Humaid sat under the shade of a willow, a gentle breeze blew through the curtains of nature. Books sprawled across them on a checkered blanket, a wooden pedestal holding the holy book in its grasps, the sides decorated with carvings of ancient mosques and wonders.

The Younes twins decided to offer their expertise in religious studies, trying their best every week to teach Nicholas the basics of Islamic etiquette.

He smiled once today's lesson was done. "No wonder Muslims are so polite," commented Nicholas, leaning back against the trunk of the tree. "They have so many mannerisms in their daily lives."

Humaid chuckled. "Well, obviously. Every religion teaches kindness. Some people just don't care enough to look into it."

"Which is precisely why we are shaping you into a great Muslim!" exclaimed Haroon with a twinkle in his light brown eyes.

A depressing thought crossed Nicholas, an image of his parents entering through the forbidden gates of security and justice, etching their crimes against his skull like a piece of art. They had infiltrated his thoughts once again, and they had tormented him without their voices. The trauma was enough for a lifetime, the time at a cold mental hospital was enough for his youth to be tainted.

The Younes twins exchanged glances with one another.

"You alright, Nick?" asked Humaid, sitting up. "We're here to talk."

"It's... nothing."

They weren't convinced.

Haroon's next words were soft, gentle as the winds that wrapped around them. It was like Allah pushed the three closer together, like Allah decreed their friendship to sustain Nicholas in his darkest hours. Allah was watching, and Allah had planned.

"Nick," started Haroon with a small smile, one that matched his sister's. "You don't have to be afraid anymore. We may not be related by blood, but in Islam, we're brothers. What's troubling you?"

Hesitant at first, but Nicholas slowly found himself opening up. "My parents hate me more than ever," he admitted. "It hurts to know that they don't love me like they should. One of the two most influential people in the business and entertainment industry, and I'm hated by both. Becoming a Muslim is the best decision I ever made, but I can't help but want my parents to be proud of me, to love me, to treat me like their son."

Humaid's eyes softened. "It's natural for you to feel that way."

"Is it though?" he questioned. "I did everything I could, yet I'm still useless to them. Why do I even keep trying?"

A brief silence ensued, neither of the twins knew how to respond to the pure, agonizing words that passed through Nicholas's dried lips, his blue eyes as cold as the snow from winter chills. Nicholas may have been snarky and rude, but the man had too many wounds and not enough stitches for his heart.

A dry laugh escaped Nicholas. "I guess you guys don't have the answer to everything," he said, averting his gaze. "I'm sorry for bringing you down with me."

"You're right," whispered Haroon. "We don't have the answer to everything."

"But Allah does," continued Humaid, causing Nicholas to glance at him. In those dark eyes, he saw honesty lacing around his next words like the string that pulled their friendship. "Allah loves you, Nick."

He scrunched his brows. "How do I know?" he asked.

Again, the twins exchanged subtle glances with one another, smiling widely as if they found a key to the puzzle of Nicholas Muller.

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