Chapter Twenty-Three

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Trace only fell asleep for a few minutes against my chest, but he murmured as he was waking up, inhaling deeply before opening his eyes. Recognition filtered into his expression and he blushed.

"I fell asleep," he said softly enough that the breaths ghosted across my jaw. He leaned away, wiping at his mouth. "Fuck, did I drool? That is seriously not attractive."

I laughed, feeling terribly smitten. "No, you looked cute."

Trace's voice was playful, "Am I cute enough to be kissed in public?"

I looked around the area of the park we were in. It was mostly quiet, with a few families and couples populating the surrounding benches. A cyclist went down the pathway, and some guys were throwing a red frisbee back and forth. The reason I didn't like PDA was because of the attention it could attract. But, everyone seemed lost in their own world.

I cupped the back of Trace's head and pulled his mouth towards mine in a lengthy kiss. I took the time to get my fill of a taste that could only ever be Trace. He drew imaginary patterns up and down my chest before slowly breaking away from me. Even when the kiss was over I continued running my fingers through his dark, silky hair.

I sighed, speaking softly, "I'm not looking forward to going back at all. It scares me." It was nice to just be here with Trace, under the shade, and to be close to someone who cared about me and was kind to me. I lowered my hand from his hair and drew my fingers against the wooden ridges of the bench.

"Has it been worse than you've said?" He said tentatively. Trace's hand found mine on the bench, and he placed his palm on top before interlacing our fingers. I squeezed back, running the pad of my thumb over the back of his hand.

"Yeah, I just—this weekend has been really nice." Tears pricked my eyes. It was such a relief not to be stressed about things. "I like spending time with you, Trace."

Trace moved closer to give me a hug. "You can come back to Toronto with me. I would never think of you as a quitter. You've already proven that you can do this thing."

I squirmed, not liking what he was saying, and Trace gave me some space. Suddenly, we weren't sitting so close anymore and it was like our little bubble had popped.

I clenched my jaw. "I'm not going to leave early, Trace." Not after staying for as long as I had.

He held up his hands defensively. "Okay, it was just a suggestion."

I looked out into a grassy area, watching the red frisbee fly and float through the air. "There are so many things I haven't done in my life that I wanted to...because of how I am. I can't keep running away anymore." My fingers felt like they were buzzing and I started to take longer breaths. I felt like I was in a state where a few reminders would keep my anxiety under control. Breathe, and you'll be okay, I reminded myself.

"Prioritizing your mental health isn't running away," Trace said tightly.

I shook my head. "I know what I'm doing is unhealthy but I just have to do it anyways." People without anxiety or panic disorders wouldn't understand. My mental health was and always had been fucked. There was no path I could take in life that intersected with normalcy and "prioritizing" my mental health. It was either push past and trigger my stressors, or live off in my own bubble, alone, but maddeningly lonely.

Trace frowned and narrowed his eyes, opening his mouth briefly before closing it. He sighed. "I like you, Darius. A lot. So, it's hard to watch you suffer."

I could see his viewpoint but I wasn't going to change my mind. "It's just another week after this. Then, I'll come back to Toronto and things will be fine."

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