A/N: This is dedicated to Pearl (lydiamaartin), who I promised an Aria/Wren fic in exchange for her writing a Spencer/Noel a year ago (it's funny because I'm not even exaggerating, it was literally over one year ago). Apologies that I am only getting around to fulfilling that promise now, and hopefully you like it!
Warning: This goes against a lot of canon, mainly from Seasons 3 and 4. Please don't read through it and review just to tell me that, because I'm well aware of it and it doesn't bother me.
lights in glass jars
he said to "be cool" – but i'm already coolest
i said to "get real – don't you know who you're dealing with?"
national anthem ––lana del rey
There are several memorable things about Alison DiLaurentis, but what they recall most these days now that she's hiding further away is her obsession with immortality.
Aria claims that Alison haunts her dreams, but in truth she is a part of her subconscious to an extent to which she can't even understand. When she meets up with her in real life, mentally appalled at the people who were so easily lead into believing that Alison was no longer alive, she laughs. On paper, through time, or in her mind – Alison is as real and breathing as the game she's playing.
Alison fills Aria in on small details, not wanting her to have too many of the puzzle pieces at her disposal. Aria is too clever, she realizes early on, but if she utilizes that strength right then it will be all the more reason to have her on her side.
Ezra and Wren are beyond foolproof, Alison concludes eternities before she's had a proper conversation or make out session with either of them. They are merely pawns on her grand chessboard, but tall and handsome ones at that. Even though she wants both to herself, she instructs them to each choose one of the girls to make things simpler in the long run, because what's at stake is much bigger than her temporary lust.
When Ezra effortlessly goes for Aria, she is nearly unable to hide her surprise. She had predicted that he would go for Spencer, but she welcomes the idea of being wrong. Wren starts dating Melissa Hastings to get closer to Spencer and she applauds his subtle art of manipulation, though he had struck her as the type that would go for Hanna. For once, she is immensely proud rather than retrospective of her carefully planned decisions as they continue to be unpredictable – but there are dozens of others to be made that lie like dominoes in her path ahead, like Aria asking why she doesn't get to manipulate anyone aside from her three best friends at first. ("Relax, honey," Alison responds, adding, "I'll explain it all to you eventually," even though she has no intention to. It's not about manipulating others, it's about manipulating yourself, Alison wants to tell her, but for the sake of all sacred secrets, she keeps her mouth shut.)
Aria asks an increasing number of specific questions – it's not as though Ezra and Wren don't question her at all, but they pose no immediate threat because they never ask the right questions. Aria asks the questions that she probably deserves answers to, questions that, if answered correctly, would reveal all of Alison's plans and motives. For someone who's never needed a particular incentive to lie, the necessity to lie to survive seems to be perfectly good one.
"Why Toby and Mona?" Aria inquires at the peak of her curiosity.
Alison remains silent for a beat too long, as if the answer is obvious. "Because they hate the four of you combined much more than they hate me. None of you stood up to me, even though you could have."
"That's it, then? There's no one else?"
"Of course not," Alison responds, and then leaves without any explanation. Aria doesn't see her again in the flesh for two years, but it only takes her two weeks to figure out that she'd been the victim of simply another set of lies.
It's Ezra who gives it all away. Aria would be naive to say that she could've guessed from the start, that it was superficial items like the typewriter and excessive black jackets which made everything click, because it was more than that. There was something off about the way he looked at her, a certain suspicion that clouded her trust in him arising when she recalled that there are only two circumstances under which it would be possible for the right guy to walk into a bar at precisely the right time – either it occurs in a work of fiction, or he's a liar.
"So when'd you meet her?" she prompts on a late afternoon when she knows he's not expecting it.
"What?" he laughs a little, "Who are you talking about?"
Aria shakes her head. "You'll have to do better than that."
"I still don't know what you're talking about," he replies cautiously.
"She's pretty gorgeous, isn't she? Alison."
"Did you sleep with her?"
"Once," he blurts out when it is clear there is no alternate way out, then utterly defeated, sits down, head in his hands. "How did you know?"
"You're not good, Mr. Fitz, you're not even close to good." She shrugs, gaze still fixed on him. "I don't know what she saw in you, but you'll have to do a lot better if you want to keep up and stay in this."
"Why would you tell me?" he asks suddenly, his features shifting to match the suspicion that had been on hers only a few minutes prior, "Why tell me that you know? Why not just keep it a secret and use it to make sure I'm doing what I'm supposed to without me even realizing that you know?"
She actually smiles at this, relieved that he has the ability to think two steps forward, and smug that she will always be four steps ahead of him. "You're right, I could have kept it a secret rather than bringing it up," she nods, "But what would have been the fun in that?"
He stares back at her, momentarily afraid of what he sees. "Let's just make this work, please."
"I don't remember giving you permission to decide what we are and aren't going to do."
"No one put you in charge," he points out, though he doesn't appear to believe his own words, "You don't control me."
"I'd like to think otherwise," she replies evenly, "You know why? Because this is my game. I'm the fucking queen."
Wren is much more careful in masking his identity, which is why Aria would be a fool to say that she saw through him since day one. They met eventually, though it took a considerable amount of effort and sneaking around to get each other properly alone and in one place. Like all other ties to the team, what he meant to the entire playing field she'd created was a secret for her to keep, one she hadn't discovered immediately but was casually stuck away in her pocket, folded enough so she could pull it out at any given time, straighten the edges, and use it against him. She let him see her, putting up a front of raw and brutal honesty only because she wanted to, since it would surely benefit her later on.
"Nice place," she'd told him lightly, lounging on the sofa and whipping her phone out with the expression of someone who was terribly bored, "Still can't believe you live by yourself in it, but nice place."
"It's not always lonely. Spencer was here not too long ago," he said without thinking, and opened his mouth to remedy it as if she didn't know already. Regardless of Spencer being her best friend for show, Aria would already know, because she knew everything.
"Of course she was. She spent the night, didn't she?"
"Not like that," he leaned against the wall, "She'd just had a few drinks too many and didn't want to go home in that state."
"I didn't ask you for an explanation," Aria replied, suddenly perturbed by the longing and regret clear in his voice. "Spencer tells me everything, anyway. I would've known before anyone else if something had happened between you two."
"Coffee?" Wren offered, assessing the situation and realizing he was comfortable with doing anything except sitting down next to her.
She finally looked up from her phone. "Sure. You make good coffee, don't you? Or so I've heard."
"You can tell a lot about a person from the way they take their coffee," he replied, like his many talents were nothing more than an afterthought.
She danced on the edge of appearing too concerned versus too nonchalant, leaving her spot on the sofa to prop herself up on his kitchen counter, one eyebrow raised, ready for anything. She owned the place, and he knew it. "Why do you always give up so easily?"
"I won't this time," he followed her and slid the refrigerator open to scour for some milk, "I promise."
"You don't really have a choice, Wren."
He glanced at her as he closed the fridge door, affected more than he'd admit at the way his name sounded coming from her mouth. "No pressure, but how do you take your coffee?"
She cast the jug of milk and coffee pot a disinterested gaze, annoyed by the change in topic. "Just some sugar," she informed him, and then, without hesitation, "Did you love Alison?"
"No," he said, lighting a cigarette, "Not quite."
She scoffed. "We don't have to do this, you know. You don't have to lie to me."
"I'm not lying."
"So what exactly does 'not quite' mean by your standards?"
"We slept together," he admitted, exhaling smoke, "Just once."
"Tell me something about yourself that I don't know."
She frowned, conjuring up seven good lies that she could choose from. She decided to tell the truth for once, taking something out of her bag and holding it up for him to see – a queen of hearts from a deck of cards.
They stayed like that for a while in comfortable silence, neither blinking, the sound of their quiet breathing and coffee trickling into the pot the only sign of life in the room, and all Aria could think was Fuck you, Alison. Fuck you. When she arrived home that night, she managed to stay sober and write a half decent piece of prose about boys who were the devil in disguise. Wren called her the next day from his disposable cell phone. And that is how, in spite of everything going against them, it started.
Alison comes back the way she wants to, when she wants to, just like they were all well aware she would. That doesn't make it any less shocking for Aria, who had reduced Alison to a mere figment of her imagination, someone who once existed and still does but has no part in her life anymore. One relatively normal morning she walks out onto her front porch, car keys in hand, and it all goes to hell. Wren slowly drives right down her street, and she stares as his car goes by, fades into the distance, and disappears entirely. Ezra calls her within the hour. She misses her first and second period classes.
"What's wrong, Aria?" Emily questions later at her locker, Spencer and Hanna donning quizzical looks as well, "You look pale. Are you okay?"
"Nothing's wrong," Aria says, "I'm alright. Just missed breakfast this morning, that's all."
Her friends believe her, walking away after giving their typical reassurances, and she sighs deeply. Fucking clueless bitches.
"How's Ezra doing?" is the first question that Alison has the audacity to ask Aria when she returns, red coat abandoned. She's as stunning as ever, hair perfectly curled and eyes shimmering with something no sane human has yet been able to name.
Aria smirks slightly, the dim light of the garage hiding her expression. "Just fine," she repeats, "Everything's going according to plan."
Alison visibly pauses, looking thoughtful. "Do me a favor and pay more attention to Wren, will you? He seems shady."
"Of course," Aria responds, ignoring the unwarranted doubts flashing through her mind, like lights in glass jars, a deck of cards, lies she's gotten tired of telling over black coffee and a deceitful smile that's verging on its breaking point.
"She knows." Aria is stoic, betraying no emotion as she adds to the chorus of a song that never seems to end: She's gone. She's back. She knows.
"Miss Montgomery," Wren greets, facade never falling short even as he gently guides her towards a supply closet and closes the door behind them, "Good afternoon to you, too."
"I shouldn't have shown up here at the hospital, I know, I'm just making it worse, but I had to tell you in–person. I had to see you."
"As long as no one saw you come in and find me, it's okay."
"It's too late for that. Don't you understand? It doesn't matter if anyone saw me, because it's over," she says frantically, "She knows."
"How do you know she knows?" he asks, attempting to remain calm.
"I just do. It's Alison, for god's sake. She mentioned you, and I'm not supposed to know about you. I wasn't supposed to know about Ezra, either, but she knows that I do, so now she's started thinking, and it doesn't take her long to figure things out once she starts thinking about them. Believe me, I know her better than she thinks anyone does."
Wren puts a hand on his forehead. "But what if –"
"Don't you dare."
"Jesus, Aria, this is Alison we're talking about. If you want to pretend like there's no 'what if' involved, then by all means, go ahead. But you out of all people know that you're not going to be able to survive with that mindset."
She mutters something profane under her breath, gesturing for him to go on nonetheless.
"The thing is, you know her better than she thinks anyone does – unless that's exactly what she wants you to think."
"Dammit," Aria exclaims, "That bitch. She's playing all of us. She's going to ask you about Spencer and Hanna, about why it didn't work out with either of them. It's inevitable."
"Take a deep breath," he advises, "It'll be fine. It is fine. This is still under our control."
"You're not as good at the false hope thing as you believe you are," she tells him, a hint of teasing making its way into her tone, "And I thought doctors needed to have that sort of thing down perfectly."
"You'd be surprised," he shoots back, pulling her closer by the arm, "But I'm absolutely serious. Don't get nervous about this. It's not a good look on you."
She scrunches up her nose, leaning in to kiss his neck. "If there was anything you wanted to tell me, you would tell me, right? It's all or nothing, Wren. There's no room for games anymore."
"That doesn't need to be said," he replies, fingers playing with the hair that touches her shoulders, "You'd be the first person I'd tell."
"Good," she says before he meets her lips eagerly, and she still manages to count every ringtone and vibration alert from the multiple cell phones she owns stashed away in her bag. On average there tend to be at least three missed calls or texts from Ezra for every hour she spends with Wren. It bothers her about as much as when she is with her best friends and the four of them are discussing newfound insight regarding Mona and Alison's death, the look on Spencer's face when Hanna says Wren told me and all Aria can do is share a sideways blank look with Emily about it: The Non–Wren Club in all its glory.
"What about Ezra?" Wren asks when he breaks away, hands on her waist as he watches her carefully.
"No worries there. He doesn't have a clue about you."
"Hello," Aria shouts into Ezra's apartment, which looks empty upon first glance, but she knows better. She flops onto his bed, the correct phone for the occasion stashed into her skirt pocket as she gazes up at the ceiling like all the answers she needs are there. It takes her half a minute to realize that they are not, and she is staring at nothing more than the bleak remains of chipped beige paint.
"Hey," Ezra appears from the bathroom, his disheveled hair indicating he recently awoke from a nap, "I texted you earlier. Where were you?"
"Oh, you did?" she feigns seventy–five percent innocence and twenty–five percent irritation at her service provider and mobile device as she pulls it out and sits up. iMessage: Ezra Fitz (6). "Yeah, you did. Sorry, it must have been on silent."
"It's alright," he says, acting like he's foolish to have asked in the first place, "I just didn't know where you were."
There it is again, this time phrased as a statement instead of a question. Aria has to put considerable effort into not rolling her eyes. "Well, school, for one. Then I gave Mike a ride home and met the girls for coffee."
"I find that hard to believe."
"It doesn't matter what you believe."
"You know why not," she says coolly, "Because nothing matters now that Alison's back. Because this is falling apart in every way possible, and you've known that for a while, because it's your fault."
He opens his mouth to retort, then closes it promptly. She purposely starts to text other people back in his line of vision, marking her territory until he leaves, slamming the door shut so she is utterly alone.
Alison calls her top choice players in, demanding a meeting with each of them regardless of the potential risks of being caught. It isn't until Aria walks in to the DiLaurentis basement, a typical five minutes late, that she discovers that firstly, the basement has much better lighting than the garage, and secondly, that this doesn't resemble a one–on–one personal meeting at all.
"Come sit with us," Alison drawls, not even reprimanding Aria for her tardiness, because the initial look on her face is enough to make up for that.
Aria stands still, fists clenched at her sides, unsure of how to proceed. Ezra and Wren sit across from each other at a wooden table, taking a break from staring at the other with contempt to glance over at the new arrival. They don't have the patience to look at Alison, because that would require them to have to think about precisely what they've gotten themselves into.
Aria sits down, finally. Only sixty seconds have passed, but it feels like a lifetime of missed chances and regrets.
"You're probably wondering why I've called you here today," Alison addresses them as a group, consciously ignoring the fact that no one is paying attention to her in the least, "But I think you're all smart enough to figure it out on your own. Otherwise you wouldn't be here, and I wouldn't be talking to you."
Ezra meets Aria's eyes and coughs. Aria fidgets in her chair, eyes flicking up to observe the girl sitting across from her, and then to Wren, whose lips are set in a thin line.
"What's going to happen is something that should have happened a while ago, but didn't," Alison goes on, "I'm going to let you guys talk. If there's anything you want to say, this is the time and place."
Three pairs of eyes quickly move in different directions: one is trained on the table, and two are set on a girl.
Alison smiles, relishing the uncomfortable silence.
"Why him?" Ezra breaks the quiet, taking an uncharacteristic leap of courage as he speaks to no one in particular.
Aria glares at Alison, who is still smiling. Why are you doing this? is on the tip of Aria's tongue, and Alison has a reply already formed on her lips: This is what you get for lying to me and thinking you could get away with it. Neither of them give in. It is Wren who speaks up.
"You didn't know," Wren sounds almost amused, "You didn't even know I had anything to do with this until I walked in a few minutes ago, and you never would have guessed." He looks to Aria for validation, but she doesn't give any indication of agreement.
Ezra clears his throat, focusing on solving the mystery altogether. Really, Aria? Why him? he doesn't say, because his bravery is running out. He's put it together, but he could never say it out loud.
"Aria?" Alison asks expectantly, "You want to add anything?"
"Nope," Aria says. Her mouth tastes metallic.
"Are you sure?"
"Ezra?" Alison shifts her body towards him, a small movement that only Aria catches, as Wren is too busy staring at Aria. Look at me, he nearly says, but is interrupted just as he is about to.
"This is madness, Alison," Ezra responds, "Why are we here? What do you want us to say? We're all in the loop now. We know what you're doing, trying to pit us against each other – but it's not going to work." The lie is so blatant that Aria finds herself closing her eyes for a split second, losing all hope.
"I think we're done here," Wren adds, avoiding Alison's piercing gaze, "There's nothing to talk about."
"Nothing? There must be something."
"Fuck off, Alison," Aria interjects before Wren has time to respond. It sounds entirely normal, her voice level and calculated like it is when she says Good morning, Spencer or Wow, I have a lot of homework tonight. Nothing out of the ordinary about it, except how Alison tenses up, losing her usual suave manner.
"What did you just say to me?"
"I said fuck off."
"Aria, don't –" Wren begins, and she cuts him off.
"You think you're the smartest person in the room, don't you?" Aria continues, choking back a bitter laugh, "You think you can just ruin our lives if you feel like it one day? You probably spent a lot of time thinking that this was the way, that the best way to destroy me was through Ezra and Wren. Because I was always a liability, wasn't I? Well fuck that, and fuck you. I'm done with this."
"You've got a lot of nerve, Aria," Alison replies firmly, "But you're forgetting that you don't call the shots here."
"Neither do you."
"You don't know how wrong you are about that."
"Prove it," Aria says, knowing it's a suicide mission before the words are spoken.
Alison barely hesitates. "Do you or do you not love Wren?"
No one breathes.
Aria counts to ten before voicing her opinion. "I don't have to answer that."
"Yes, you do. Ezra must be interested to know, too. You can say no to me, but will you honestly say no to him?"
"I don't care about either of you."
"But you care about Wren?"
She counts to three this time instead. "No, I don't."
"What do you mean?" Wren jumps in, stiffening in his seat.
Aria looks at him for what might as well be the first and last time. "I don't love you."
"That's a lie, Aria," he says, forgetting that their lives are on the line, forgetting that there are two other people watching them – one the poster child for being unsurprised, the other looking terrifically accomplished.
"Isn't everything?" she counters, getting up and walking around the table to stand ominously behind Ezra, placing a tentative hand on his shoulder. "Everything's a lie, Wren, and you're a fool. None of this was ever about love."
Wren's breath catches in his throat, Alison leans forward in her chair with anticipation, and Ezra crosses his arms like he knows what's coming. Aria pulls out a deck of cards from her hoodie pocket, placing it face–down on Ezra's spot at the table. Before she turns away, she flips the first card in the pile for all to see, laying down the king of hearts.
A/N: I'd really appreciate reviews, but if you like this enough to favorite it, please don't favorite without reviewing!