A/N: I've wanted to write Aria and Wesley together properly ever since Wesley appeared on the show because they kind of consumed my soul and I'm not sorry about it in the least. This pairing also won on the poll I had up on my profile for the last several months, so here you go to everyone that wanted me to write them! Hopefully I don't disappoint too much, and I'm not even going to apologize for how much Mike plays a role in this because I love him more than I could ever put into words and none of this would have worked out without him. That being said, this is dedicated with lots of love to Pearl (claraoswalds) because she's actually one of the best people I've been fortunate enough to know and be friends with, and like always, she'll completely understand what I tried to accomplish here with the Wesley/Aria/Mike dynamic.

Warnings: This fic contains a disregard for certain Season 3 canon, mentions of Aria/Ezra and Aria/Jason, references to mental illness, and incestuous implications if you read in–between the lines. Please don't say that I didn't warn you in advance.

watch me take your throne

rehearsed steps on an empty stage
that boy's got my heart in a silver cage
crave you ––flight facilities

When Aria Montgomery was seven years old, there were eight consecutive days during which she wasn't allowed to be in the same room as her little brother because he had a severe case of the flu. She cried for nine days after that and vowed to never let him fall so terribly sick again. It worked out for about ten years.

"Mike," she says nowadays, in a forced normal voice that is more of a test than anything, and it's a guaranteed failure before the plan is even formulated in her head because he knows it.

"Aria," he matches her tone, looking at her for a moment that never ends as she leans against the doorframe of his room, not quite intruding yet not quite ignoring, "I'm fine. Everything's fine."

She has her answer, but she can hardly bear to look at him any longer. She's uncomfortable with the idea that's she's not capable of taking care of him. "I know you're fine. But can we talk?"

"Not right now," he slings a backpack over his shoulder, "I'm going out."

"But –"

"There's nothing to argue about. Or to talk about, really. I'm going to meet with a couple of friends," his posture screams defensiveness, "I'm sure you're familiar with the concept?"

She stands up taller, searching his features for anything recognizable, some semblance of the boy who used to tell her everything during a time in their lives when she was the ocean and he was the shoreline – touching, always touching, sometimes too little and sometimes too much but never not at all because the waves of water would follow the sand onto the shore even if the rest of the world was set aflame.

"You need to stop with the snarky comments," she states firmly, "They're getting redundant."

"Then you need to stop treating me like I'm your own personal mental case," he interjects, "Because I'm not, okay? I'm better now. I'm absolutely, one hundred percent alright. And even if I wasn't, I could deal with it on my own. You don't have to burden yourself with looking out for me. You've got a lot of other things to stress about without adding me to the mix."

And there it is, she realizes the moment he walks out without allowing her to speak or stop him, there it is because it's precisely like her brother to talk about himself and accidentally let on that he's still solely thinking of her well–being.

She had her first kiss at the age of eleven, in sixth grade with a boy from seventh grade whose name she couldn't recall no matter what was at stake because now he's just a number on a list she sees when she stares at her reflection in mirrors. The majority of her classmates were doing it, and she wanted to balance herself to match the changing tides of their dynamics. She never glanced back.

Wesley slips into her life without permission. There's hardly any awkwardness to it, just a vague belief that he sort of always belonged there, not to play the role of her boyfriend's brother but instead to fill the hole in her heart and mind which she wasn't sure was real until he came along and made her aware of it. When he kisses her, she fakes a practiced sense of stability and shuts him out for a while, even though it's not the first time she's been kissed by another boy while in a relationship.

"I want you," he tells her simply when she allows herself to see him next, "And I'm not going to apologize for it."

She inhales. Assesses her options given the current situation. Exhales. Braces herself, and boldly responds, "You can't just say things like that," even though she's honestly feeling weak at the knees, "I love your brother, and I can't deal with this right now." Or ever, it conveniently slips her mind to add.

"Okay," he says resignedly, "Let me know when you can deal with it."

"Just give me some time."

For someone who has just gotten rejected, he seems rather positive. "I have all the time in the world. I'll wait."

It's the last thing he says to her before he leaves for the home she knows the Fitz brothers consider hell. She wants to hit him when his mother fills her in, but that type of physical contact would require him to be close by, and the biggest fact for her to deal with at the moment is that he's gone. She can tell that he took the easy way out only because she would have done the exact same.

She had her first alcoholic beverage at the age of thirteen, on the eve of her fourteenth birthday with the four girls she happened to call her friends and the pretense that she'd been intoxicated on many occasions prior. The act she was putting up was relatively fresh, experimenting with the notion that she's one of a kind – she doesn't create walls that hide her true image, she creates images that hide her true self which even she isn't sure of. Everyone buys it.

The traditional crew was present when Alison brought it up. Minus the topic of interest, of course, because that's the way Alison rolled.

"So. Is it obvious to anyone else that Little Montgomery has a crush on Emily, or is it just me?"

Years have flown by, but Aria remembers it as clearly as if it's a movie reel that circles around behind her eyes every evening before she finally falls asleep – Emily had gone to the bathroom, while Hanna and Spencer and Aria sat in Spencer's living room giving their ringleader practiced, identical blank expressions.

"Are you serious?" Hanna broke the tense silence semi–excitedly, "How do you know that, Ali?"

"Hanna –" Spencer cut in, noticing the glare Aria was sending their way, but to no avail.

Alison leaned back in her armchair, calm as ever. "I thought you guys would have picked it up," she smiled as if she knew exactly when the world was going to end, "I mean, all those nights we've spent over at Aria's in the past couple of months –"

"He does not," Aria began steadily, managing to locate a small amount of courage to speak up before it was too late, "He does not like Emily."

"Who doesn't like me?" Emily asked curiously, walking back into a group that looked entirely different than when she'd left it a few minutes prior, "Were you guys talking about me?"

Spencer attempted damage control. "Of course not, Em."

Emily didn't look convinced, but she sat down without arguing anyway. Hanna had begun to whisper something in her ear but her efforts were interrupted as Aria gave her a rough nudge with her elbow. Spencer was paying careful attention to Alison, making predictions of her next move, but it was no use. Alison did what she wanted to do.

Alison gazed at Aria, pointedly ignoring Spencer and Hanna and Emily as a hunter tended to do to their distractions right before they sized up their prey. "I think you three should run and grab some ice from the freezer," she ordered levelly without looking at them, gesturing at the glasses on the coffee table, "These drinks are getting warm."

They obeyed because as per usual, there wasn't enough time to think over other choices. The three girls getting ice from the kitchen would take sixty seconds at most, but then they would go up to Spencer's room for approximately seven more sixty second intervals because that was how much time Alison expected them to give her and Aria alone. It was chilling how easily this unspoken message had been relayed.

Aria had barely flinched, watching them go with fire in her eyes. "Mike doesn't have a crush on Emily," she repeated defiantly, "I don't understand why you made this up, but for whatever cruel reason you think it's fair to ridicule him, you need to stop."

"Aria, honey, relax. I'm just trying to help."

Alison was still smiling, which set Aria's teeth on edge because it meant she had full control of the situation. "Bullshit. You're never trying to help."

"Now, let's not get too ahead of ourselves here," she shot back sweetly, regarding Aria as a doll she'd taken out of the original packaging only for the purpose of throwing it against the nearest wall, "I realize this might be a touchy subject for you considering that anyone with a functioning brain can make the connection that you're in love with your brother, which is quite strange in this day and age, but hey –"

Aria stood up, a goddess in ruins on the brink of humiliation. Suddenly there was ice where her heart should have been. "No, please, let's get ahead of ourselves. All you need to use your functioning brain for is to understand that if you get anywhere near my brother – if you say a single word to him or anything happens to hurt him after tonight, I won't care about figuring out whether it was you who was behind it or not. I'll make connections and assume that it was your doing," she took a few steps backwards, picking up her bag from the dining table, and retreated to the door while still facing Alison, "And then I'll destroy you."

Alison didn't take the threat seriously. She got the first text the next morning.

Watch me take your throne, bitch. –A

It turned out that Aria never stopped taking it seriously.

She had her first sexual experience at the age of fifteen, in Iceland at a party with unfamiliar faces and potential chess pieces, including one she recognized from fourth period Biology who began to touch her and was obviously pleased when she allowed it, letting things naturally escalate. Referring to it as a loss of virginity would be detrimental considering she gained so much from it – power, specifically, and an incredible knack for recalling not–so distant bitter memories and engaging in the necessary politics with the people involved in them to get her revenge.

On the rare circumstance that Mike's bedroom is unlocked, she barges straight in. To anyone else, he would appear to be sleeping. But she knows better.

"What are you reading?" she inquires quietly, sitting down at the edge of his bed near the spot where his feet stick out under the covers like they always have since he was nine and their parents made him sleep alone. Aria remembers how happy she was to be getting kissed for the first time, only to go home and discover that she and Mike would have separate rooms from then on. She was upset about it, but she couldn't put her finger on why.

"Flowers in the Attic," he informs her absent–mindedly, dog–earing his current page and setting the book aside.

She's partially taken aback. "Why?"

He shrugs, adjusting his pillow so he can lie down properly. "I was getting bored of the shit we have to read in English class, so I went through the list of banned books in Rosewood and this was in the top ten," he says nonchalantly, "Go figure."

"I see. That's interesting." She makes a conscious effort to hide the admiration she's feeling from her voice, since he doesn't need further encouragement to be breaking the rules. It takes greater effort to not sound anxious about the matter at hand. "But why this book? Why not any of the others on the list?"

"Because Lolita was the first book I read from it and I didn't understand any of the hype around it."

She nods like she kind of understands, and hopes that he doesn't understand just how much she does. "I'm really sorry," she says instead of simply uttering his name like a daily prayer to see if he's okay, "I'm just – sorry."

"For what?" Mike responds, puzzled by the change in topic as he sits up, tenderly resting a hand on the small of her back.

She has to force herself to meet his eyes. "For everything. For not keeping my promises. For not being around to help you or protect you like I should have. For what's happened to us, and what we've become. I'm sorry about everything I've ever done."

She manages to keep her composure until he starts crying in her arms. And then she cracks.

She had her first love –

Most days she feels unbearably old, like she's in control of the weight of the world and has massively fucked it up somehow. In a way, she thinks, she has, because when it comes down to it her world is Mike and Mike is clinically depressed and she wasn't able to stop him from getting that far because she was too preoccupied with keeping secret her societally inappropriate relationship. She's lost track of how many of those she has.

"What's wrong?" Ezra asks when he notices her scarcely enthusiastic posture on occasion, but it's pointless because he can't even imagine fathoming the issues she has, "You seem out of it lately."

"Nothing," she smiles for good measure, torn apart by how easily he believes her, "It's nothing. I'm just tired." Then she casually recounts all her firsts until there's nothing left to count. She can't get much older than she already is.

Wesley stops calling her every day after a week and a half has passed since her last response to any of his texts or voicemails. He gradually resorts to calling every other day, but even that is pushing it considering she never answers his calls, so in the end it's down to one phone call per week – specifically on Wednesdays, following double block of AP English when he's expected to be listening to rants about comparative essays but instead he's reciting Atwood and Hemingway and her name without pausing or thinking about what it means for him in the long run. On the third Wednesday, she picks up, and his world shifts.

"You left," she accuses icily, not bothering to address him with a greeting or allowing him any chance to interrupt, "You didn't wait. You went to the extreme opposite end of the this is how much I care spectrum. You fucking ran away."

She's yelling but he's more than grateful just to hear her voice again. "Aria –"

"You said you would wait. I had to hear from your mother about you leaving. Do you have any idea how that felt?"

"I am waiting. I left town, but I'm still waiting for you," he pleads. There's a cracking noise from the other end of the line, like she's taken a long breath in and then transferred the phone to her other ear. At least she hasn't hung up yet.

"Do you ever feel guilty?" she pauses before going on, though the topic doesn't need much elaboration, "Do you ever feel bad about never telling Ezra what we did?"

He sighs, patience running thin. "How is this only on me? You're his girlfriend. Why didn't you tell him?"

"Wesley," she sounds defeated and simultaneously like she has all the energy in the universe to argue, "You kissed me. I don't have time for these games."

"Ezra's my brother," he replies because it sounds like the right answer and he can't deny that he made the first move, "So yes, I regret it."

"No, you don't."

"How would you know that?"

He counts six heartbeats of his own until she responds. "Because I'm better at lying than you are."

"I never – I never planned on doing something like this. I'm not out to get him, okay? I saw you and literally the first thing that crossed my mind was how I couldn't believe that a guy like Ezra could get a girl like you. It was absolutely shocking," he continues genuinely, "And I tried not to be attracted to you, Aria. I really tried. But then you cried about the Maggie situation and I thought I was being selfless by looking out for you when Ezra couldn't, but deep down I knew I wasn't. I knew I wanted you, and I think you did, too. Don't you get it? Knowing didn't change anything, and I'm sorry for that, but like I've already said, I won't apologize for wanting you. I can't apologize for it," he wishes he could reach out and touch her when another question comes to mind, "But the important thing is – why did you ask me if I regretted it if you already knew the answer?"

"I wanted to know how low you could go," she chuckles without a hint of amusement, masking the truth that she can relate to the feeling of seeing someone differently once they cry in front of you, "That's it." If they were having the conversation in person, it would be difficult not to react to his explanation – but the advantage of interacting this way is that she's practically invisible to him.

He has to fight the urge to explain himself further. He's only making a fool of himself. "Do you regret it?"

She should regret it, and yet she doesn't. It's funny because not regretting it is without a doubt the best part of the entire thing. "Yes," she laments, but they both know it's a lie, so she texts him later that night when she's cooled down considerably to get his prep school business in order and then come back if he can to help her with Ezra's baby drama. Coincidentally enough, they both know he will.

Her friends make it into more of a mess than it actually is.

"So you broke up with Ezra all of one week ago, and the other Fitz just happens to stroll back into Rosewood?" Hanna demands, arms crossed, "Do you really expect us to believe that?"

She has a point, but Aria has established an effective line between her and Wes – Wesley – that she can't put into words, but all that matters is that he hasn't dared to cross it. "It's not like that," she says firmly, mildly distracted as she gathers her books, "We're just friends."

"And you were giving me a warning for texting Shana?" Emily intervenes, going on a bit more sensitively, "I mean, now that we know that she's up to something with Jenna, it's different. But you have to admit that this Wesley situation is getting marginally out of hand."

"How is he even in town right now?" Hanna goes on in a rush, "I haven't seen him in the halls, like ever. Has he enrolled, or did he just drop out? He's the same age as us, right? Doesn't he need to graduate? Isn't that a thing that high school students do in twelfth grade if they don't fail?"

"He's not going to come to our school. He's just taking some online courses so he doesn't fall behind," Aria offers, her attempts to keep the explanations to a minimum going in vain.

"Oh my god," Hanna exclaims, "He basically dropped out of school for you! What the hell, Aria? You can't be serious right now."

Spencer rolls her eyes at Hanna's antics and comments, "We know you're perfectly capable of making your own decisions, Aria. But please don't be stupid about this. They're brothers," after which Emily reminds them all of the time Aria had apparently 'went there' for two point five seconds.

Aria slams her locker shut, opening her mouth to retort as Ezra walks right past them. His gaze lingers on her a little too long as he walks down the hall, and she feels oddly isolated, rather similarly to when them being within the confines of Rosewood High together for eight hours a day had been a burden. Now it seems unnecessarily ironic. She refuses to categorize it as painful.

The girls' eyes follow Mr. Fitz amongst the crowd until he turns a corner, Aria receiving three knowing looks when he does. She appear cool and collected, relieved when Mona is the next significant figure that passes by them on their way to class, because then they focus on what they think are more urgent matters. The top priorities are the story behind how Red Coat came to be and Alison's non–death and the question of whether the two are related events. It's what they default to discussing whenever they recall it, which Aria finds laughable because they're searching for answers in all the wrong directions.

She invites Wesley over for a take–out lunch at her place when it's too stormy out to think of doing anything else. Surprisingly his mother hasn't put boundaries on the inheritance he was to receive upon turning eighteen, so he's used some of that to buy an tiny studio apartment for himself near town. Aria's excuse to have him over is that no one should have to spend such a gloomy Saturday alone.

Naturally, she lets Mike in on her plans because leaving him to figure out her mysteries on his own with no adequate clues is getting old. She wants to show him what kind of guy Wesley is rather than tell him. We're just friends, she repeats endlessly both verbally to others and nonverbally to herself, Just friends.

"Please be nice," she reminds Mike with her best puppy dog eyes, and as if on cue, Wesley walks in without knocking through the unlocked front door like she'd told him to.

"Do you not think this might be awkward," her brother replies bluntly, "Considering I punched his brother in the face around this time last year?"

He's brought this up before, but Aria wants to strangle him regardless. "Mike –" she begins in a warning manner, though she's interrupted by Wesley, charming as ever with his hood pulled up to avoid the rain outside.

"No, it's okay," he jokes, taking a seat across from them when he follows their voices into the den, "I can totally relate to the feeling of wanting to punch the guy."

For the first time in weeks and weeks on end of tension, Aria allows herself to laugh although she really shouldn't, and seeing her laugh makes Wesley smile and Mike realize that she's not going to reprimand them for picking on her ex–boyfriend, so the two boys launch into a full–scale conversation about why they haven't taken a particular liking to Ezra Fitz as if they've been best friends for ages. Their mindsets are different but their motives are the same, she thinks, and she senses what it means to be young and free – like nothing bad will ever happen to the three of them, so she prays for the feeling to persist. It's a futile request of gods she's quite sure don't exist, but it's a request all the same. She's never really asked for this much at once.

Most things about the afternoon go just as planned, the major exception being when Aria smears chocolate frosting all over Mike's shirt and Wesley helps him retaliate by throwing flour into her hair. Her goal of breaking the ice between the two of them went better than she'd anticipated, regardless of how quickly the the thought of properly baking a cake for dessert was forgotten. They make popcorn and watch The Dark Knight trilogy from start to finish instead, Wesley's shoulder brushing against Aria's throughout the entire thing as Mike pretends not to notice in that classic little brother way.

There's a storm coming, Mr. Wayne, Selina says as the day stretches into night and thunder crashes ominously outside the windows. It's like their lives have synced into a movie which might have a semi–optimistic ending. And it's kind of perfect.

Wesley makes a habit of taking her out and suggesting they do suspiciously couple–like things, such as going to dinner or to the movies. They're non–couple things, she emphasizes in her mind, because they're clearly not a couple. She classifies them as borderline friend things, as in things that friends can do without crossing limits. Sharing a pizza is completely platonic. So is going through her stash of alcohol so they can drink together in her room when no one else is home. Being close enough to kiss him if she wanted to isn't, and she hates it.

She also hates how simply she's picked up on his little quirks in the past several weeks, some of which include him tapping his knee impatiently and talking less than usual when something's on his mind.

"Whatever it is you need to say, go ahead," she waits until they've both had one glass of whiskey each, "You've been acting weird all day."

"It's nothing," he breaks out a classic I'm telling the truth but not really grin. She knows better than most how to pick one of those out from a real one.

"You're doing that lying thing again. Not cool. Especially when you know I'll notice."

He hesitates momentarily. "Your brother had the talk with me yesterday."

"The talk?" she echoes dubiously.

Wesley makes a nervous clicking sound from the back of his throat. "He thinks we have a thing."

They've been spending more time with each other, and this of course made Aria subconsciously paranoid of what people would think despite her best instincts that she was handling it fine. She didn't realize she'd have to worry about Mike butting in, but on second thought, it should've occurred to her far earlier. "Oh," is all she says, the reality of him sitting on her bed and looking so expectantly at her becoming all the more apparent.

"So, do we?"

"No," she stresses the syllable to its full extent, "But what did you tell him?"

"I told him that I wasn't sure," he says deliberately, "Which is true."

Aria is conflicted between consolation and annoyance. She goes with annoyance, because what's coming next is predictable.

"Do you have feelings for me?"

"I don't," she leans over to grab the bottle of whiskey from her bedside table, taking a straight drink instead of pouring herself a diluted one, "I can't, and more importantly, I don't."

He snatches the bottle from her hand once she's taken a swig, seemingly unperturbed by her confession. "Yes, you do." He takes a drink. Winces. Smiles. In that order. She reminds herself that she shouldn't be paying such careful attention.

"How would you know that?"

"Because I'm better at detecting the truth than you are."

She wonders if this would be the justifiable moment to close the distance between them and kiss him. She wonders if there is any justifiable moment for this kind of thing. "Well," she decides to say rather than acting on impulses, logic escaping her, "How intuitive of you."

"Yeah," he nods anti–climatically, "I guess."

She's glad the moment of What If I Crossed The Friends Line has passed because Mike walks in without knocking. "Hey, I just got home. Are you busy, because I – oh. Okay." His gaze lingers on the bottle in Wesley's hands. Aria wants to disappear.

"Uhm –" she says at time Wesley answers for her.

"She's not busy, actually. D'you want to join us?"

Mike looks tense. "No, I've got stuff to do – homework and everything," he manages, clearing his throat as he traces his steps backwards and shoots the other boy a pointed look, "Carry on."

They wait for the door to creak closed. Aria lets out a breath she hadn't known she was holding. Wesley takes another drink.

"I'm so done with you," she says lightly, snatching the bottle from his grasp and setting it down out of his reach, "So incredibly done."

"Did I do something wrong?" he throws his hands up confusedly, "You don't usually have a problem with him hanging out with us. I thought we were all friends here."

There's that word again – the friends word. She pulls an appalled face, thoroughly disappointed with him for reasons she can't explain. "Right. How could I forget?"

"You haven't forgotten, that's the thing. You don't let yourself forget even for a millisecond. It's sort of impressive," he goes on in an entertained manner, "That you still can't look at me as anything other than your boyfriend's brother whereas I stopped looking at you as my brother's girlfriend in the span of days."

"Ex–boyfriend," she points out solemnly, head in her hands and knees drawn to her chest as she ignores his strange non–friends proclamation, "It's fucked up."

"Isn't everything?"

"Don't get philosophical on me."

"I'm not."

She clutches the pillow in her lap closer. "There's a lot of things that you don't know about me. That no one knows about me."

"Is that supposed to scare me off?" he inquires teasingly.

"A little." She laughs, but it doesn't reach her eyes.

"Like are they things worse than being in a relationship with a guy who was once and is now again your English teacher? Because as far as things go, I'd rank that high on the pretty bad end of the scale." Her face is all he needs to see to comprehend that he might have gone the wrong way in terms of joking.

"Yeah, even worse than that. Improbable, right? But true. I can't believe I just told the truth," she adds airily, "I want to tell the truth for a change."

He remains quiet, hearing fourteen ticks from the clock on the opposite wall until she goes on to fill the silence.

"My brother is the most important person in the world to me."

"I know."

"I wish you could say the same thing."

"Not everyone has the same family situation, Aria." He doesn't sound irritated, just exhausted.

"But still."

"But still what?"

"I want you and Ezra to be on good terms." The scary part about this is that she's only partially being selfish – there's a part of her that wants them to be fine so she can be fine, but then there's another part of her that wants them to be fine just because. She's not used to wanting things to happen for other people's benefits.

"If I try – to apologize, or fix things with him, you know – will it make you happy? Tell me what would make you happy, and I'll do it."

"In a very twisted way, yes, it would make me happy. It would make me happy because I miss him. It shows, doesn't it? I don't know what else to say."

He doesn't press the matter any more. "Aria, I know you miss him and I know you still love him. I won't pretend like it's not real, because that wouldn't be fair to you. But I think – I think you're being too hard on yourself. I can't tell you to stop loving him, because I've tried to stop myself from falling in love with you a million times over and it hasn't been the least bit effective," his voice falters, but he continues on, "I'm not asking you to love me, I'm asking you to stop fighting what's right in front of you. Not for my sake. For yours. Give yourself a chance. You don't deserve to be heartbroken for the rest of your life. And I know I sound like a supremely shitty person saying all this now that you know how I really feel and I know that you feel something for me, like I'm as self–centered as can be, and you have every right to not believe me. But if there's something you're afraid to do or afraid to say because it'll hurt Ezra, then that's one thing because it's obvious how much you care about him. But if there's something you're afraid to do or afraid to say because it'll hurt you and it has to do with me somehow, then tell me. Because I've seen the way you're struggling and pretending not to, and if it makes your life easier, I'll leave."

"Wes," she says softly.

"Yeah?" He was expecting shouting or denial or a mixture of both.

"What kind of person admits that they're in love with you and that they're apparently self–centered and then offers to leave you if it'll make your life easier in almost the same breath?"

There's something in her eyes that he still can't process. "A stupid person?" he tests the waters, "Or me. Likely just me."

She's unable to keep the growing smile off her face to replace her initial astonishment. "I hope you recognize that this doesn't change anything. I'm still done with you."

"How come?"

"You said it yourself. Because you're stupid." And then she kisses him, slowly, taking it all in. She kisses him because she can, because she's allowed to without feeling guilty, because it's not cheating or a ploy in some bigger power game she's playing.

It feels like the first time she's ever done something real.

Mike does two unexpected things the next day – the first being that he ignores Aria for an extended amount of time rather than intentionally seeking her out to have the talk with her that she knows is coming sooner or later. The second is that when he finally acknowledges her presence, he brings up someone he shouldn't.

"I saw Ezra the other day. On the street," he tacks on as an after–thought, as if it holds relevance.

She has no idea what to do with this information, having envisioned something more along the lines of concern about Wesley and alcohol and closed doors. "That's... nice."

"Do you love him?"

"Who?" she counters, trying to be casual, but the word has thousands of implications already drawn on it. She shouldn't have to double check to begin with.

"Exactly," he replies knowingly, "My point exactly."

She shakes her head. "What I meant was that Ezra –"

"I know what you meant, Aria. I know you better than you think you know yourself." He halts for a while to evaluate her silence, and she's partially grateful that he takes so long to get to the real point of the matter. It gives her more time to delude herself into believing her brother hasn't read her like an open book since the minute he was born. "I want you to be happy. You're hurting yourself by not admitting that you –"

"That I what?"

"That you've moved on. There's nothing wrong with saying it."

She remembers boldly telling him back in the day how it's worth fighting for when you love someone. Now she's not so confident, because falling apart seems worlds easier than falling towards.

"Don't worry about it, Mike," she says with a tone of finality, "I'll do what's best for me."

The only reason he believes her without further question is because history shows she always follows through on that.

Aria is smart enough to not react to news she already knows about until she gets the official go ahead that everyone knows about it, which begins when Spencer unwinds. It's worse than when she found out about Toby being on the –A team, giving some insight into just how much Spencer cared about her brother. She briefly wonders what would happen if someone did to Mike what she did to Jason, but she shakes the thought far away as soon as it came. There was a time when someone tried and she dealt with it. She can deal with anyone to keep her own brother safe. Apparently Spencer couldn't.

Wesley gives her a few minutes of solitude before asking what's off with her mood other than the typical Sunday blues. She's been absent nearly all day, and he can't accurately place what's wrong.

"Jason's dead," she says in a blank tone that suggests she expects him to know who Jason was.

He's momentarily stunned, getting more information than he was bargaining for on the first try. "Sorry – Jason? I've never heard that name from you."

She chokes back a laugh or something worse. "He was a guy I knew who helped by brother get out of a lot of shit."

"Alright," he says cautiously, distinguishing that there's more to it than that alone, "I can see why you and Mike would be upset about this, then. It's okay. It's okay to be upset."

"You don't need to tell me that."

"For some reason I think I do," he replies, placing a hand on the skin between her shoulder blades.

"Well, you're wrong," she responds calmly, edging away from his comforting touch, "Because I know it's okay to be upset, but I'm not upset."

He looks at her for a long time, not entirely buying it and knowing that she knows he doesn't entirely buy it. "How's Mike taking it?" he asks instead, largening the distance between them on the sofa they're sitting on because she's all but declared that she requires a little space.

"He doesn't know," she pauses, "I tried to tell him this morning. I couldn't do it. I want to tell him, but I can't bring myself to, and I have to do it eventually because I don't want him finding out from somewhere else. We –" Wesley has spent enough time with her to recognize that 'we' refers to her and the girls, "– found out late last night, so it's a wonder he hasn't already heard about it. Small town and everything, so news like this spreads like wildfire. That's the way our world works."

"You should tell him," he suggests, "I understand where you're coming from with not being able to do it, but for the reasons you said yourself, you have to tell him soon. If he and Jason were close, he needs to hear it from you."

"Okay," she says, building her resolve, "Okay. You're right. I mean, I was right, but I kept second guessing it. Thanks for backing me up."

"That's what I'm here for," he smiles but she can see in the corners of his mouth how sad it is. It hurts more than it should. Wesley didn't even know Jason, and he's wistful on her behalf for him. She doesn't know what she did to deserve him.

"Oh, and Aria?" he calls out right when she gets up to leave, "I'm here for you, always. If you change your mind and aren't feeling okay, or if Mike doesn't take it well and you need to talk, I'm just a phone call away."

She nods in acknowledgement, glad to make it out of his temporary apartment before the tears that have been threatening to spill out for hours finally do so, because his last words are likely ones that Jason would have said, too, if she had given him a chance.

She throws her phone in the garbage bin the morning of Jason's funeral during a period of uncontrollable frustration. Mike catches her doing it – one second it was a mobile device in her hands, and the next it was nothing but a piece of plastic in the trash.

"What was that supposed to mean?" he leans against the kitchen counter, watching her whirl around in shock.

"Jesus, you scared me!" she brushes imaginary dirt off the front of her black skirt out of nervousness, "What is what supposed to mean?"

"You got rid of your phone," he says simply, "You just willingly got rid of your phone, which I find hard to digest because normally you can't go a minute without that thing."

Aria doesn't miss the way his eyes fall onto her formal dress as he speaks. She'd picked up the nerve to tell him about Jason the night she'd promised Wesley she would, but she conveniently didn't inform him of the funeral date. DiLaurentis funerals have the potential to get messy. She doesn't want him exposed to that. "Yeah, I did," she shrugs, feigning nonchalance, "I was getting tired of it. Might get a new one."

He looks skeptical. "Okay," he drags out the word, "But why are you wearing that dress? It's 8:00 AM on Saturday morning."

"I could ask you why you're even awake at 8:00 AM on Saturday morning."

"Because I heard you getting up to go to the bathroom. It was unusually early for you to be taking a shower."

She doesn't have much of a counter argument left. "Yeah, you caught me. I'm going somewhere."

"Where?" he raises an eyebrow. It's been almost a week since she told him about Jason and watched the way he fell apart about it. He genuinely has no idea what's going on presently, but she can't keep lying to him forever.

"To Jason's funeral. It's today."

"Oh," he says, the reality dawning on him, "I'm coming with you, then."



"I don't think that's such a good idea."

"Why not?" he retorts stubbornly, "I knew Jason a hell of a lot better than you and your friends did. They're invited, aren't they? You're all invited, but you're saying that I can't come. You're saying that I don't deserve to come."

"Hold on, I never said that. I never said that you don't deserve to come. Don't put words in my mouth." She nearly forgets that she can't go on and tell the truth, can't selfishly reply with No, I knew him a lot better than you can imagine because that would give a lot away. She's let go of her guilt slightly in the past six days, and she's not about to let her acceptance of the entire thing go to waste. It's over. She broke Jason's heart, and now Jason's dead. That's all there is to it. "I just don't think it'd be a good environment for you to –"

"I'm coming." He ignores every one of her protests as he bounds up the stairs and returns wearing regular school clothes.

She gestures lamely in his general direction. "You're planning on going to a funeral dressed like that?"

"I don't have a tux or anything. And anyway, it shouldn't really matter. It's a funeral. Who's going to be looking at what other people are wearing?"

"Everyone," she says icily, but the bitterness isn't directed towards her brother and his naive nature. "That's Rosewood for you," she adds, crossing her arms and realizing that he's not going to back down, "Why the black hoodie?"

He glances down like he doesn't even know what he's wearing. "You mean this? There's no significance. I put on the first thing I saw in my closet. It's the one you got me for Christmas last year, isn't it?"

"I think so," she responds uncertainly, though there's no doubt that he's right and she just wants to pretend she doesn't know every single detail surrounding that piece of clothing, "Are you sure you'll be okay?"

"It's my own choice that I'm going, Aria. I'll be fine."

When they reach the church, they catch sight of Wesley at the service standing alone by the front door. Aria had texted him to say she'd be alright, that he didn't need to waste his time and come, but of course he went against it upon sensing she was lying. The irony that Ezra showed up at Alison's funeral what seems like lifetimes ago is not wasted on her.

She sits in–between Mike and Wesley, with Hanna and Emily behind her and Spencer in the front row. She's got plenty of personal space but it's still too tight, like the church is empty but there's no room to breathe. All she can recall is Jason's vulnerability when he kissed her and was rejected, how Mike was a total wreck when she told him Jason's body was found, and how Wesley has dropped his entire life – his city, his school, his friends – just to be with her.

She shuts out everything and thinks about Spencer's grief more openly, about how much she loved her brother and fought for him on each turn their lives came to. She thinks about how selflessly Jason saved Emily's life although he didn't owe her anything. She thinks about what a tragedy it is that Hanna never got to know Jason at all. Once the ceremonies are over, she's the first person to rush out the door. Neither Mike nor Wesley immediately move, allowing her time to get some air on her own.

She sits down on a park bench, similar to the one she'd joined Jason on when Ian's funeral was taking place. She convinces herself that it can't possibly be the exact same one, because that would be too much. A certain number of minutes later – she feels helpless without her phone and yet better off without it for a while – Mike takes a seat next to her.

He shoves his hands into the pockets of his hoodie. "Are you okay?"

"Coming here was my own choice, Mike. I'm fine," she mocks sharply.

He waits, not looking at her but knowing she's soon got an apologetic expression directed at him.

"I'm sorry."

"It's alright," he says, turning to her, "I know why you were worried about me. You thought I would lose it or something. But I'm fine. If anything, I'm worried about you."

"You don't have to worry about me."

"For some reason I think I do."

She attempts not to notice that those were Wesley's exact words to her a few days prior, but it's too late. The coincidence is imprinted in her brain. "Seriously, you don't have to. It was just getting hot in there. I'm okay. Everything's okay." She throws him a reassuring smile.

They lapse into silence. She wants to ask him where Wesley is, but her vocal cords aren't cooperating.

"Is this what life is all about?" Mike speaks up, taking her by surprise, "Watching other people die? Have we been searching for the wrong meaning this entire time?"

"No," she replies instantly, though she hesitates to consider how to explain herself, "It's about what you choose to do in–between watching other people die and dying yourself. I think that's what living is. Getting back up again."

He abruptly moves to give her a hug, not caring about the awkwardness of it caused by them sitting side by side. "I love you."

"I love you, too." More than I could ever love anyone else, she contemplates but doesn't say. There's a lot of things she's come across lately that she can't say to him.

They spot Wesley walking towards the park from across the street, and Mike touches her arm gently. "I'll see you at home."

"I won't be late," she tells him, watching him go as Wesley sits down next to her. She glances in the other direction, seeing Hanna and Emily appear from out of the church. Aria can safely predict that Spencer is still inside. The three are probably wondering where she's run off to. If she had her phone, she would text them to let them know she'd see them later on – but a part of her doesn't want to be in contact with anyone right now.

She stands up without a word. Wesley doesn't say anything either, following her as she walks a small distance away.

"I'm not going to ask if you're okay," he addresses her finally, catching up and walking along at the same pace as her, "Because I'm sure Mike has taken care of that and you'll get tired of the repetition in questions. But I do hope you're okay, and that you'll talk to me about anything you need to get off your chest."

"I do, actually," she remarks, not knowing she was going to answer in the affirmative until the words were out of her mouth, "There's something I need to talk to you about because it's been bothering me for the past week."

"Please go right ahead. I'm here to listen to you. I already feel like I've done too much talking."

She stops, standing under a tree. "When I told you about Jason, I didn't really give you all the details I could have on who he was. I didn't think I had to, but I care about you, and it's weird giving you some half–story because it's way more than what I initially said and you have the right to know that."

He stands beside her, trying not to shout out loud at the casual admittance that she cares about him. They've made out several times since the first time when they were tipsy, but since then there hasn't been even a slight discussion of feelings. "I figured," he says knowingly.

"My friend who died – disappeared, whatever –" she doesn't care that no one is supposed to become aware that Alison truly is alive, "– he was her brother. And when I was with Ezra, during the time when Mike was a bit out of control for a lot of reasons, Jason really helped him. Like I said, he got him out of a lot of trouble even though he didn't have to, and he told me he cared about me, too, which was sort of unexpected, but not really, because I definitely should have expected it." She's rambling, occasionally looking to Wesley for any comment, but he signals that he wants her to go on, so she does. "There were a lot of opportunities for me to let him down easier, to not lead him on, but I didn't, and there's not many excuses I can give for that. I just stopped answering his calls and texts and pretended like he didn't exist or matter to me in the least, even when he did. And that's probably bad enough, but there's more. It's terrible because I didn't feel remotely guilty about it until I found out he was dead. See, I've been trying so hard to let it go, but then I started thinking, you know? About so many things. About you. About you and me, if there is a you and me. I'm scared, because I like you, I really do, but that's not what I'm scared of. I'm scared that this same chain of events might happen to you. I'm scared that one day I'll think about you a little too much and something won't be right with me and I'll leave you standing in the dust, helpless because you love me and I know you love me and I'll take advantage of that. I'll let you go and force you to deal with it because that's all that I'm good at – tearing people apart."

"Aria," he chimes in, "Please stop. I know everything's been intense recently because Jason died – and I'm glad you told me what he really meant to you – but it's not your fault. None of it is your fault. I mean, yes, we can play the blame game on repeat and claim that he would've been better off if you hadn't treated him the way you did, but no one can go back and change the past. You're not responsible for what took place later in his life once you left it, especially not for his death. You can't hold all that inside and always carry the burden of it with you. It'll be difficult, but you have to let it go at some point down the road. Do you even know how many nights I lay awake thinking I shouldn't have kissed you the night you offered your house for me to stay the night?" he adds truthfully, "I regretted it so much because of how it impacted you and how you had to keep it a secret from my brother, but at the same time, I couldn't bring myself to regret it fully. It's selfish, and I guess the point I'm trying to make is that we're all selfish sometimes. It's human nature that you can't escape. And then I left town because I thought that would make things easier for you and Ezra, and that was a mistake too because I didn't consider there was a chance you didn't want me to leave. So that was a mistake, and we're all made of mistakes. Built of them, full to bursting with them, like every action is a mistake waiting to happen. But regretting the past won't do anything for the present or the future because you can't change what's already taken place, and you certainly can't let it control you. What a fucking cliché, I know, but these are the times when all the stupidly inspirational quotes we've read on calendars and greetings cards make the most sense. Am I helping, or am I just a talking disaster?"

She laughs a little, and it's genuine, but the type of laugh that comes when she's on the verge of hysterically crying. He can tell, too, and she's not embarrassed by it. She's lied to Mike all day but hasn't told Wesley a single lie yet. She feels naked in the shadow of all her truths. "If that was an example of a talking disaster," she says, choking back the lump forming in her throat, "Then I don't know what a talking success would sound like."

"Can I ask you something?" he begins carefully, "About Jason?"


"Did you love him?"


"Do you still love my brother?"

"Yes," she replies smoothly, as she's fought the urge to cry, "I don't think I can make it go away. At least not anytime soon."

"I thought as much."

"Yeah." She shuffles her feet, battling with emotions but glad to have let them out nonetheless. She briefly wonders if this is what Ezra would have said if she'd told this all to him, and if this is exactly what Spencer is doing with Toby to diminish her grief.

"I don't want you to think I have a problem with that," he continues, "We've talked about it before, and I want to reiterate that I don't expect you to magically change your feelings for him. It's just - where do we stand now?"

She stares ahead at nothing, cars whizzing by to unknown destinations with people in them, so many people with so many stories that she doesn't and will never know. If she was to compare them to books, there are a few she's encountered that have really mattered to her, making a lifelong impression, several that she's read and liked but can't put on the same level as her favorites, and a lot that she's turned her nose up at the cover and not read at all, which went against the golden rule of books and people – don't judge a book by its cover.

Wesley Fitzgerald, strangely, fits under all three categories, which makes her want to scream because it shouldn't be possible, but it is. He's as possible as ever, standing next to her and breathing and supporting her simply be being there and awaiting a response, living recklessly because one day he's going to die but one day before that she might get exhausted of his pages and close the book and permanently place it on a shelf far from her reach. She might do that, but it's not a concrete might, so he's sprinting after the chance that he could have, the chance she's hinted at so many times in the past but been too afraid to completely give, and now after countless weeks of being blind she's finally put her ego inside and opened the cover of possibilities, begun to read his book like they've never met before. It's a new experience of her fingers on paper and her eyes scanning the words and seeing him, truly, instead of just what she wanted to see in him, which was a boy who was in love with the idea of her instead of in love with her. He's stopped running because he knows she's encountered the truth. She suddenly feels like they've hardly ever touched.

"Where and how we're standing right now," she admits, taking in stride the questioning look she's met with. "Together," she clarifies quietly, eyes on the ground as she can feel his on her, "I don't know why or when or what happened, but this is what I want to happen after today. You and me. Just trying. Just holding on. It's all I want. You asked me once what would make me happy, and my answer then had to do with Ezra. Well, I do love him, and I'm not sure when I'll stop loving him or if I even can stop, but even so, that wasn't the real answer. This is my answer."

"We don't have to uncover any of the why's or when's or what's. Sometimes they're not more important than what's right in front of you. Because some things just are." He takes her hand, and she lets him. Their fingers intertwine as she meets his gaze, and at eighteen she is holding hands with a boy for the first time.

A/N: If you've read this far, thank you, and I'd sincerely appreciate reviews letting me know what you thought! If you liked this enough to favorite it, I'm begging you to please not do so without reviewing.