TWENTY-THREE

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I wasn't sure how long I had been in the parking lot, barely able to keep myself up, when I was finally able to breathe again. The combination of cold air and warm tears irritated skin, probably making me look even more worn down and overwhelmed than I was. I pressed my shaking hands together in hopes of calming myself down and tried my best to pretend that Atticus wasn't there.

     But he had me beat. I was hoping he would say something first, but he could wait me out longer than I could handle. "I'm sorry," I said, keeping my eyes glued to his shoes. He had joined me close to the ground – I was fully sitting now, but he was just crouched next to me, his hands on the ground to keep him balanced.

     "You don't have to apologize," he said, finally responding. It didn't make me feel any better.

     "I don't know why that happened," I said, a white lie of sorts. I had a vague idea of why it had happened, but didn't think it would ever hit me with such ferocity.

     "Do you get panic attacks?" he asked and when I didn't respond, he elaborated. "My older brother used to get them. Or he might still get them. I don't know." He shook his head and looked away from me for a second, looking like he was ready to put his foot in his mouth. "Sorry, that's not helpful."

     I finally met his eyes, his brown eyes surprisingly warm. He looked moderately unsure, but he also looked weary in a way that told me he had experience with this. It probably wasn't what he was expecting he'd have to deal with today.

     "I've never had that before," I said, my voice low. "This has just been so much. I've fucked up, Atticus. I really, really fucked this whole thing up."

     "I seriously doubt that," he responded, his tone low and soothing. It was a voice I could easily imagine myself listening to forever if given the possibility.

     But when thinking about everything that just happened in front of him, I wasn't sure I really wanted to see him again. I looked away for a second, my face going hot at the realization of the breakdown he just witnessed.

     "I'm going to go home," I said, bringing myself to my feet.

     "Okay," he said and I opened my car door with hands that still had a quiver to them, the memory of what it felt like to not be able to breathe fully encompassing me.

     Atticus was standing too, his height feeling somewhat intimidating instead of comforting now. Not even Ronnie had seen me like that and I had put it onto someone who was, essentially, a stranger to try and comfort me. "Do you want to talk about it?"

     "No, not really," I said, keeping my voice low.

     I could feel him looking at me, but I didn't look up. "Okay. I'll talk you later."

     "Okay," I said, despite not being sure I wanted to follow through on that offer.

     My drive home was slow and deliberate, the night playing on repeat in my head. The realization that I had not only failed Violeta, but then almost pressured her into doing something she didn't want to do. I didn't figure out who Eros was because I was too distracted with my own personal vendettas, allowing him to continue with a countdown that could virtually be leading into anything.

     I didn't want to consider the possibility that the countdown was leading to me, but the possibility loomed in the back of my mind like a dark cloud. I didn't feel relevant enough to be attacked to such a degree, but then again, most – if not all – of the girls involved in Nudegate probably felt the same way.

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