You guys. I know I suck. I've been writing this story for FIVE YEARS. And yet somehow people are still finding it and reviewing it, and asking me to continue, even though I haven't touched it for over a year. That's really touching, so I'm going to do my best to keep writing! Thank you all for your support. This is just a short chapter to get going on. I've actually got a whole bunch written of a huge DUN DUN DUN moment, but I need some decent filler before we get there, so that's next on my to-do list!

xx

CHAPTER 41

On reflection, Aria decided not to take Lily into school the following week after all. From what Aria had read, as well as Ella's assurances, Lily seemed to be a fairly good baby, but even a fairly good baby has to be fed a number of times during the night, and changed, and soothed, and cuddled, and Aria was exhausted by the time the following Monday rolled around, and not able even to think of getting dressed and putting on makeup and taking her nine-day-old baby into a school full of loud and curious people. Even the thought of seeing Ezra, whom she hadn't seen since he and Hardy had visited the previous Wednesday, wasn't enough of a drawcard.

"I'm so tired," she said tearily to Ella, who had taken pity on her daughter after seeing her white, drawn face, and brought her breakfast in bed.

"Perfectly normal," Ella said cheerily. "It's all catching up with you now, because you're not used to it, but you'll soon get into the swing of things. You and Lily just need to get into a pattern, and you're already on your way there."

Aria looked over at her baby, who was now sleeping soundly in her basket, having kept Aria awake a good three quarters of the previous night. "It's just...so weird."

"What is?" Ella said, pushing a slice of toast towards her daughter. "Go on, eat that before it gets cold and chewy."

"I don't know how to explain it," Aria said thoughtfully, looking up at her mother with her big hazel eyes. " I knew it was going to be hard work, I knew I'd be up a gazillion times a night, and all that, but...I didn't think about how weird it is to be needed like that. She relies on me for everything. Every tiny little thing. I mean, it's not just hard work, it's her survival. And of course I knew that, but I didn't really know it until I had to do it. It like...my brain just got rewired to think differently about everything, and it's messing with my head, and what I used to know. Am I making any sense?"

"Welcome to motherhood," Ella said, her eyes slightly misty. "I'm so proud of you, Aria."

"Now there's two sentences you never thought you'd say together to your seventeen-year-old daughter," Aria said, trying to lighten the mood, not because she wasn't touched by what her mother had just said, but because she just didn't want to cry again.

Ella understood. "Not in a million years. Still, you've given me this gorgeous little granddaughter, which makes up for it a little," she teased back.

"No wonder you didn't think I should go into school this week," Aria said, leaning back on her pillows. "I had no idea that this would be so mentally exhausting as well as physically...and emotionally. Even the thought of going to the bathroom makes me want to cry."

"It'll pass," Ella replied, smiling. "By the time the new school year rolls around, Lily will be – what? Ten weeks old, and totally in the swing of things. I'm not saying you won't still have to pull some all-nighters, because you will, but it gets easier. Trust me. And I'm here to help whenever you need it. Yes, I know you said you want to do all that stuff on your own, and not burden us with it," she said quickly as Aria tried to protest, "but on nights when you have an important test or something the next day, for example, we're more than glad to help out so you can get some sleep. She is our granddaughter, after all! Now, don't get all weepy again," she admonished Aria, who was indeed about to cry. "If I can't babysit occasionally, what's the point of being a grandma? In fact, I'm going to take this little one off your hands right now, and let you get some sleep. I'll take care of her next feed. There's still some of your milk in the fridge from last night, which will do her just fine, and it means you can get a nice long sleep. Okay?"

"Mom, you're the best," Aria said, still teary, but happy. And as Ella took Lily off downstairs in her basket, Aria snuggled down into her duvet for a nap.

The summer vacation arrived, which meant that Ezra couldn't come over and see Aria and Lily nearly as often, since Byron was also on vacation, and at home most of the time. He did, however, have some summer classes, and Aria got hold of the schedule and worked out some safe times for Ezra to visit. Hanna, Emily and Spencer also turned up a lot, enjoying their roles as unofficial godmothers, and Aria practically had to tear Lily away from them when it was feeding time. As Ella had predicted, taking care of Lily became easier as time passed, and soon Aria was packing diaper bags and bundling Lily into her stroller like a pro, and taking her for walks round the park nearby. Ella tried to go with her as often as possible, concerned that she might be meeting up with Ezra, but she relaxed after a while, since Ezra's apartment was too far for Aria to walk to, and they wouldn't be able to do much more than have a short conversation in public, anyway.

Aria enjoyed those walks by herself, with just Lily for company. She never made plans to meet Ezra during them: as Ella rightly surmised, it would have been too dangerous to be seen together in public, even if he kept his distance. Instead, Aria would find a quiet spot at one of the picnic tables in the park, where she would sit and write anything and everything that came into her head. Sometimes it was letters to Lily, sometimes journal entries chronicling her feelings, and sometimes short stories (which she was supposed to be doing for her English extra credit, anyway).

One afternoon, when Lily was about five weeks old, Aria had plans to meet Spencer and the others at Rear Window. She hadn't been there in a while; not since before Lily was born, in fact, and she was getting tired of always seeing her friends at one of their houses. She took Lily with her, and Ella let her go on condition that she text her a photo from the coffeeshop to prove that she really was there. Aria rolled her eyes and agreed; Ella's demands weren't too unreasonable, on the whole, and the sooner she realised that she could trust Aria again, the better it would be. And since she really was going to be at Rear Window with her friends, with no ulterior motives, it was a perfect opportunity to add another trustworthy check to her mother's mental list.

Aria entered the coffee shop and looked round for her friends, who were already seated on the sofas in the corner, which they always tried to get. She made her way over to them, carefully pushing Lily's stroller past chairs and other obstacles, like people's bags and jackets. And she was suddenly very conscious of what seemed like every person in the room staring at her. Usually she didn't mind being looked it – after all, she didn't exactly dress to blend in, and guys always looked at her appreciatively, anyway. But this time the looks weren't appreciative, or admiring. They were judgmental, and disapproving. She'd seen it before, of course, when she was pregnant. But now it seemed much worse, because these people weren't only judging her, but Lily as well. Her five-week-old daughter was being judged for basically existing. Aria looked back defiantly as everyone's eyes flickered from her, to the stroller, and back again, and walked as quickly as she could over to her friends, hearing a few whispered comments behind her back, but none she could actually make out.

"Are you okay?" Emily asked, as Aria reached them, and sank into the comfy chair they'd left for her.

"Yeah – it's crap, but there's nothing I can do about it," Aria sighed.

"Do you want me to go and kick them in their stupid faces?" Hanna demanded. "Because I will."

Aria chuckled. "Yeah, every person in the room, I don't think so! You can hold Lily instead, if you want?"

"Of course I want! Come to Auntie Hanna, you tiny perfect angel," Hanna cooed, as Aria lifted the baby out of her pram and handed her carefully to Hanna. Lily smiled up happily.

"You just love coming to Auntie Hanna for cuddles, don't you?" Hanna asked in her babytalk voice. "It's just the best, isn't it? It's the best!"

"Calm down, Auntie Hanna, you know she smiles at everyone," Spencer said, rolling her eyes. "She just loves people, that's all."

"Spoilsport," Hanna retorted, lazily.

"Aria, what do you want to drink? I'll go order for you," Emily said, changing the subject.

"Oh, thanks – just a green tea, please, Em," Aria replied.

"I don't know how you're coping without coffee," Spencer remarked.

"Huh. It's been so long that I don't even remember what coffee tastes like," Aria replied. "I gave it up as soon as I found out I was pregnant, so it's basically forever. I feel like I've lived a whole other life since then."

"Well, you kind of have, if you think about it," Hanna said. "You've become a mother. That changes you. Everything before that has to seem kind of...I don't know – surreal? Right?"

"I hadn't thought about it, but yeah. That's exactly right," Aria said, surprised, and even Spencer looked impressed.

"Yeah, that's right! I can be deep, and stuff," Hanna grinned.

Emily came back with Aria's green tea, which she took and sipped gratefully.

"So how's it going with your Mom, and the whole you-know-who situation?" Spencer asked, curiously. Aria pulled a face.

"I guess it could be worse. She's still letting him come over to see us, and she's mostly kind of...friendly-ish? With the emphasis on the 'ish'," Aria added. "It still feels awkward as hell, but it's better than it was to start with. Which reminds me, I'm supposed to take a photo of us to prove that I actually was here, and not off hooking up with...you-know-who."

"Should we just start calling him Voldemort?" Spencer suggested flippantly, and Aria stuck out her tongue at her friend, before pulling out her phone.

"Time for a 'my mom doesn't trust me' selfie!" she said brightly. "Let me sit between you and Hanna, Em. Spence, you squeeze in at the side."

Everyone grinned cheesily up at the phone, before Emily interrupted. "Let me hold it, Aria. Your arms are way too short to get us all in."

"Yeah, yeah, I'm tiny, I know," Aria grumbled. "Lily's probably going to be taller than me by the time she's five."

"Nah, probably only six or seven," Hanna grinned.

"Ssh, Hanna, and smile," Emily instructed. She pressed the camera button and got the picture, and Aria took the phone back and immediately texted it to her Mom.

"What did you say to her?" Hanna asked, curiously.

"Nothing. Everything that came into my head was too snarky, so I just sent the picture by itself," Aria replied, shrugging. Her phone buzzed – she kept it on vibrate only, nowadays, so that the sounds wouldn't disturb Lily. Glancing at it, she added, "My Mom says hi, and she likes the photo."

"Yeah, she likes the fact that you're not off screwing Ez – Voldemort," Hanna chuckled.

"Oh, god, now look what you've done, Spencer!" Aria grumbled. "For the love of god, please don't start calling him that!"

"Well, as far as your parents are concerned, he IS pure evil," Spencer smirked. "Well, your mom, anyway. He'll only be pure evil to your Dad when he finds out."

"Which is never," Aria said, warningly. "Or at least not until I graduate. And maybe not even then."

"Aria, I think he's going to notice when you move in with...HIM," Hanna pointed out. "If, you know, you do."

"We ARE," Aria said firmly. "But my Dad doesn't need to know the full story all at once, you know. I could just start dating Ez – you know who – after he leaves Rosewood, and he could be this great guy who takes me on even though I have an illegitimate child, and loves her as though she were his very own," she ended dramatically.

"And then six years down the line, you could be all, "Hey Dad, remember when I was sixteen and I slept with my English teacher? Oh, did I forget to tell you about that? Well, surprise!"

"Shut UP, Hanna," Aria said. "There's no point in us saying you-know-who all the time if you're going to say stuff like THAT out loud."

"Sorry! But it's okay; people have stopped staring, and I didn't say it that loud, anyway," Hanna replied.

"Stopped staring? I might go and get myself another tea, then," Aria said. "And maybe a brownie. You guys want anything?"

"I could do with a brownie," Emily said.

"And another decaf for me," Spencer added. "Han?"

"Nothing for me, thanks. Do you need any help with that?"

"Nah, I'll be fine. You guys stay here and ogle my baby; I know you want to," Aria grinned, and made her way over to the counter.

There were two people waiting to be served, and as Aria waited her turn, two girls came up next to her.

"Hey. Is that your baby?" one of them asked, gesturing over to where Lily was being bounced on Emily's lap, chuckling away happily.

"Yep," Aria said briefly, deciding not to be all, "what's it to you, bitch?" and cause a scene, much as she wanted to.

"Ha! Pay up, Linzie," the girl said triumphantly, holding out her palm to her friend.

"Crap. I thought for sure she was your baby sister, or that you were just babysitting or something," Linzie said glumly, pulling out a twenty dollar bill and handing it to her friend.

"Excuse me? Did you just bet twenty bucks on whether I had a baby or not?" Aria asked, incredulously.

"Yeah, so?" the first girl replied. "I mean, come on, you've got to have people asking you all the time. How old ARE you, anyway? Like fifteen?"

"Wow. You really are a piece of work," Aria replied, genuinely flabbergasted. "How is it any of your business?"

The girl shrugged. "Hey, if you're going to screw around and have a baby so young, you've got to expect people to be curious."

"Yeah, well they can be curious on their own time. And keep their judgmental bitchiness to themselves, cos I don't have time for that," Aria retorted, the anger rising inside her – and the tears, too. Fortunately Hanna arrived at that point, having seen what was going on.

"These skanks bothering you?" she asked, standing protectively in front of Aria, her arms crossed in front of her defiantly. The first girl stared back at her for a moment, until Linzie tugged on her sleeve. "Come on, Kelly. Let's go. We've got class soon."

"Yeah? Maybe you'll learn to get some class of your own, then!" Hanna said loudly as the two turned away, and Aria spluttered appreciatively.

"That was kind of genius, Han," she said. "Thanks for coming to my rescue."

"Hey, that's what I'm here for," Hanna grinned. "Just call me bouncer Hanna. What did that bitch SAY, anyway?"

"Ugh, just judgy stuff about me having a baby," Aria replied. "I don't want to talk about it. Let's just go sit down."

"But you didn't order yet. Don't worry; you go sit down and hold your baby, and tell her she's the luckiest girl in the world to have you as a mom. I'll get the drinks and brownies. Oh my god, are you crying?"

"Only because you're such a great friend," Aria replied tearfully. "And I'm hormonal, I'm allowed."

"Dude, Lily's nearly six weeks old. Hasn't that hormonal excuse played out yet?" Hanna teased.

"Shut up. You have a baby and then we'll talk," Aria retorted, walking away.

"I'll talk to Caleb and see what he thinks!" Hanna called out after her.

Aria chuckled as she sat down.

"Everything okay?" Spencer asked.

"Yeah. Hey, can I hold Lily for a second? I just feel like... I need to."

"Sure," said Emily, who had been cuddling her, and passed her over carefully. Aria sat Lily up on her lap and looked at her.

"Auntie Hanna says to tell you you're the luckiest girl in the world," Aria said seriously, and Lily stared back, for all the world as though she were listening carefully. "But I'll tell you a secret, baby girl. I'm the lucky one. I get to be your mother, and I promise you I'm never going to let anybody make me ashamed of that, okay?"

Lily gurgled and clutched a fistful of Aria's hair. Aria smiled. "Deal," she said.