❝ the trouble with love is ❞

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The trouble with love is,
It can tear you up inside.
Make your heart believe a lie;
It's stronger than your pride.
The trouble with love is,
It doesn't care how fast you fall.

"The Trouble with Love Is" -Kelly Clarkson


       "Congratulations graduates!" A chorus of excited screams filled the room.

       "Fuck yes!" The guy beside me yelled.

       I pushed my way through the crowd, looking for Kaden and Raine. I shifted onto my tiptoes, trying to see over the heads of everyone in my graduate class and their parents, and ended up crashing into a large warm body. I cried out when the person suddenly lifted me into the air and looked down to see Ashton grinning up at me.

       I laughed, putting my hands on his shoulders to stead myself. "We're free!" I exclaimed when he finally let me down.

       Instead of replying, he tilted his head down and pressed his lips to mine, causing me to swallow the rest of my sentence. Before we could get very far though, a heavy force crashed into Ashton's back, making him stumble forward and both of us nearly tumble to the ground.

       Ashton grabbed my arm just in time to save me from getting trampled on the floor by our ecstatic classmates. We both turned to see Nathan behind us, a wide smile on his face.

       "We graduated!" he yelled.

       "I know, Nate," Ashton replied dryly. "I didn't sit through a four hour ceremony for nothing."

       I elbowed him. "Be nice to your brother."

       Nate nodded. "Listen to your girlfriend."


       Ashton had finally managed to finish asking the question without getting interrupted, even though it had involved a locked door and pissed off Kaden on the other side... As well as me getting grounded for several for closing and locking the door while Ashton was over in the first place.

       Ashton pouted at me. "I should be able to tease my baby brother before we end up across the country from each other."

       "I'm older than you!" Nate exclaimed.

       Ashton shrugged.

       He was a little different too now. Happier, more easy going, though I wasn't sure if it was since he didn't have to worry about Vanessa anymore, or because he trusted me. Or both.

       Whatever it was, I liked it. I'd had enough mysteries and cryptic messages to last me a lifetime.

       I rolled my eyes. "You have all of summer for that."

       Ashton opened his mouth to reply, but then stopped after a quick glance at Nate, who had fallen silent as he stared at the floor, a thoughtful expression on his face. And from the expression on Ashton's face, I knew what he wanted to ask Nate.

       Almost as if he had sensed his brother's stare, Nate looked up. "I'm going to visit Keira," he said, answering Ashton's unspoken question.

       "Nate, it's your graduation..."

       "It would've been hers too," he argued.

       Keira wasn't dead- but she was pretty close to it. Her head had hit the witness stand hard enough to cause brain damage. Damage severe enough that they had needed to put her in a medically induced coma to keep her from dying.

       Except she hadn't woken up from it, like she should've. Now she was hooked up to a variety of machines to keep her alive. And despite all the best-in-their-field doctors the Winston’s had brought in to examine her, there had been no improvement in the past few months.

       Nate had been completely devastated the first couple of weeks, but then he had come to school one day, surprisingly optimistic that she would wake up.

       "And don't be hypocritical, Ash," Nate added. "I know you're planning to visit Skylar."

       Instantly, what was left of the light mood dried up. Skylar wasn't a completely taboo topic, but Ashton still couldn't talk about his best friend easily. "That's different," he choked out.

       "Why? Because Sky's six feet under the ground, but Keira isn't yet?" Nate demanded harshly, his eyes flashing.

       Ashton and I both gaped at him. That was the most negative thing Nate had said about Keira's recovery -or lack thereof- in months. He sighed. "I'm sorry."

       Ashton blinked, still recovering. "Nate..." he started.

       Nathan shook his head. "I don't want to fight with you today."

       Before Ashton could reply, Nate slipped through the crowd and walked away.

       I glanced back at Ashton. "You okay?"

       He nodded. "I just- It sounds awful, but I don't think she's going to wake up, and I don't want him to waste his life waiting..."

       "He's still going to Berkley, right?"

       Ashton nodded again. "To stay close to her in case something happens."

       "Berkley's a good school," I protested weakly.

       "Not compared to Harvard or Princeton."

       I sighed. No matter how many times we had this conversation, and no matter whom it was that Ashton argued with, he never changed his mind. Thankfully before it got too awkwardly silent from my inability to conjure up a response, Ashton's parents appeared.

       "Congratulations!" Mrs. Sinclair cried, throwing her arms around me. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Mr. Sinclair hand Ashton a bouquet of lilies. Mrs. Sinclair pulled away then tugged Ashton down to hug her, sobbing about how her 'little babies; were all grown up and leaving her. Ashton chuckled and rolled his eyes, but hugged her back, awkwardly patting her on the back.

       Mr. Sinclair turned to me and pulled something out of his pocket. e turned over his hand to reveal a small key. "Graduation present," he said, grinning widely. "For you and Ashton."

       I blinked.

       "It's an apartment close to Columbia's campus," Mr. Sinclair explained. "Fully furnished."

       I gasped. Then paused. "Wait, Kaden won't-"

       He shook his head. "He contributed."

       "What? How-"

       "He was very adamant about separate rooms and video cameras," Mr. Sinclair admitted, chuckling softly. "But he wants you to be happy, so he gave in."

       "Oh wow." Embarrassingly enough, I felt tears sting behind my eyes. "Thank you. So much."

       "What's going on?" Ashton asked. I glanced over to see Mrs. Sinclair had let her son go, but was still pressing a handkerchief under her eyes to dry up the tears.

       "Your parents got us an apartment," I told him.

       He glanced at his dad disbelievingly. "I don't think Kaden will let that happen."

       It was a little bit strange- Kaden and Ashton still talked pretty often even now that the case was done. I mean, yeah, Ashton came over pretty often, but they had a surprisingly amicable relationship, even with Kaden threatening to come after Ashton with a baseball bat if he quote, touched me in places he wouldn't approve of, unquote.

       "He contributed," Mr. Sinclair replied.

       Ashton gaped at him. "What the fuck did you bribe him with?"

       "Language!" Mrs. Sinclair scolded.

       "Sorry mom," he muttered.

       Mr. Sinclair simply grinned and clapped his son on the shoulder. "I have my ways. Be responsible, okay?"

       Ashton nodded, even though he still looked pretty curious. I wasn't sure if he wanted to continue asking his dad, but before he could, a group of parents called Mr. and Mrs. Sinclair over, leaving us alone again.

       "Lilies?" I asked teasingly, glancing at the bouquet in Ashton's hand.

       "They're for Skylar," he told me quietly. "I'm going to visit her after." A brief, brittle smile crossed his face. "Hypocritical, I know."

       "No, it's okay," I replied quickly. "Um. I can come with you, if you want. I haven't seen her in a while."

       Ashton was silent for such a long moment that I almost took back the offer. "Really?" he asked finally. "That'd help. It feels weird."


       "I feel like I'm used to the fact that she's gone now," he admitted. "And I feel like I shouldn't."

       I glanced up at him. "Hey, just because you've gotten used to not having someone, it doesn’t mean you've stopped missing them."

       He smiled weakly. "You sound wise."

       "I've been down this road," I replied, wrapping my arms around him. "It's not worth it."

       "Thanks, Elle," he said.

       "You're doing good," I muttered into his chest. "It'll get better."

       "Whoa kiddos, let's keep it PG," A new voice cut in. I pulled away from Ashton to see Devon and Shawn standing beside us with matching amused looks on their faces.

       Devon handed me a bouquet of roses. "Congrats, Lena."

       "You need to grow taller," Shawn remarked, ruffling my hair. "I couldn't find out until the crowd thinned."

       I glanced around and true to his word, most of the people had left the room or moved to the sides, leaving the main area around us mostly empty. Or emptier than it had been before, at least.

       "I'm pretty sure I'm done growing," I told him flatly, raising a hand to smooth my hair back down. "Where are Raine and Kaden?"

       I had remembered seeing them at the graduating ceremony, but I hadn't kept an eye on them throughout and I hadn't seen them since it ended.

       "Well, Raine's water broke, so they're at the hospital," Devon replied.

       It took a moment for what he said to sink in.

       "Raine's in labor?" I asked.

       They nodded.

       "Why didn't you tell me earlier?"

       Shawn shrugged. "We couldn't find you."

       "Kaden told us to bring you to the hospital when you finished," Devon said. "Ready to go?"

       "Wait, I..." promised I'd go visit Skylar with Ashton.

       Ashton caught on quickly. "It's okay, Elle, you go ahead."

       I bit my lip. "You sure?"

       He nodded.

       "Tell Skylar I said hi, okay?"

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