Title: Separating the Heroes From the Boys
Rating
: PG-13
Summary: When A kidnaps Aria, it becomes a race to see who in her life loves her enough to save her life.
Characters
: Jason DiLaurentis, Aria Montgomery, Ezra Fitz, Spencer Hastings, Hanna Marin, Emily Fields, Byron Montgomery, Ella Montgomery, Detective Wilden, Ashley Marin, A (with mentions of Melissa Hastings, Peter Hastings, Mona Vandervaal, Alison DiLaurentis, Mike Montgomery, and Jackie)
Genre
: Drama, Romance, Mystery
Status
: Complete.
A/N
: I'm posting this out of order. Though this is the last one shot I've written for Jaria so far, it's the most time-sensitive given the quickly approaching Season Two finale. No spoilers were used, because I don't read spoilers, but I have read the books. Nothing was given away, though. Promise. Finally, as always, enjoy!

~Charlynn~

Separating the Heroes From the Boys
A Jason and Aria One Shot

For Jason DiLaurentis, the night started out like any other evening. He picked up some takeout, ate alone in his sparse, silent kitchen, and then immediately set to work on some remodeling project – any remodeling project, the constant activity and the sounds of drilling, sawing, and hammering his only companions. It was lonely, and sometimes he found his newfound sense of purpose slipping, but never would he have wanted something bad to happen... even if said bad event brought a little excitement to his life.

He lived in Rosewood, though, so it was only a matter of time before the bland and boring rug of his life was pulled out from underneath him.

When his phone buzzed, he almost ignored it. He really didn't have any friends, so the only people who ever texted him usually wanted something from him, particularly his family. But then he remembered Spencer. Sure, they weren't close, but she was his sister, and he had a feeling something rather huge was happening in her life. Even if she wouldn't confide in him, Jason was determined to be there for her. After all, he knew what it was like to have parents who were too busy with their own lives and too focused upon the perfect sibling to pay any attention to their other child.

He didn't rush to the phone, though, figuring, if it had been an emergency, the person would have called rather than send a text. He finished his meal, carried his plate and fork to the dishwasher, and then finally dug his phone out from under the pile of junk – mail, wallet, keys, papers from work – that he had tossed on the counter with it. The caller i.d. screen didn't read his mother's name, or that of a business associate's, or even Spencer's. Rather, it was blocked. For a brief moment, Jason allowed himself to hope that maybe it was her, but that fantasy was quickly squashed as soon as he started to read the text.

Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
If you don't do what I want by midnight,
Your Precious Aria will be dead, too.

Those bitches are getting too close, and I can't have that. If you follow my rules, I'll give you clues as to where you can eventually find YOUR pretty little liar. But first a sign of good faith on your part: I need something back, and you're going to get it for me. Someone's mommy was naughty and gave the dirty cop back one of my ill gotten gains. Re-steal that police report, or the game's over.

Oh, and Jason, you can call me A.

Well, that certainly shed some light Spencer's cagey behavior and the money she was desperate enough to approach him for.

Jason grabbed his keys on the way out of his back door, though he didn't get into his car. Instead, he slipped through his back yard and into the Hastings'. It was already a little after 7:00, meaning he had less than five hours to save Aria's life, and he had a feeling his newfound sister held the answers he would need to jump through this A person's hoops. Whether she wanted to or not, Spencer was about to tell him everything, and that went for her friends, too. Without breaking his stride, he flung open one of the French doors which led into the Hastings family room and ran into the space before Spencer could even react.

"Get Hanna and Emily here. Now."

She must have sensed his urgency, because Spencer never argued; she just reacted, doing what she was told.

? ? ?

Poised to knock on the Montgomery household's front door, Ezra Fitz was in the very last place he wanted to be, but his discomfort was less immediate than his need for answers. After receiving that strange, cryptic, downright psychotic text earlier, he had struggled with what to do. At first, he just assumed that someone was playing a very sick and twisted practical joke, but, when Aria failed to answer her cell when he called her, Ezra started to wonder if he was being set up, and the only person who would use Ezra's relationship with Aria against him was Byron Montgomery, hence his presence where he was certainly unwelcome.

Taking the plunge, he knocked swiftly, just twice. It was ridiculous to put so much thought into such a simple gesture as knocking, but Ezra was nervous enough on the inside; he certainly didn't want Byron to notice his anxiety, so he hoped by announcing his presence in such a succinct manner that he would come across as confident, and poised, and not at all freaked out by the text he had just received, and freaked was definitely how he actually felt.

When it was Byron himself who answered the door, Ezra wasn't sure to be grateful that he didn't have to explain his presence to anyone else or regretful that he had to immediately launch into his accusations against the older man, a man who, under normal circumstances, he would have liked and admired. But Aria's father spoke first, cutting him off before Ezra even had a chance to open his mouth. "You're not welcome here."

"Yes, well, I'm not thrilled to be here either, but, after that text you sent me..."

"What text," Byron demanded, interrupting him.

Ezra shook his head in disbelief. "I can't believe you're going to deny it. What, is Aria hiding around the corner and you don't want her to know the lengths her father will go to in order to keep her away from the man who loves her?"

"You have a lot of nerve to come to my home, throwing accusations around, and don't even think for a single second that what you feel for my daughter is love. It's some sick obsession is what it really is!"

"Speaking of sick," Ezra segued, undeterred by the older man's insulting remarks. "To threaten to kill your own daughter in order to blackmail me into breaking the law and getting arrested..." Folding his arms across his chest, he added, "and what's up with that signature: 'Oh, and Ezra, you can call me A?" In the back of his mind, Ezra could admit that Byron looked altogether confused by the turn their conversation had taken, but his rationality was too clouded by bitterness and disgust to reconcile his realization with the current situation.

"Wait," Byron demanded, brow furrowed. "What are you talking about? I have no idea..."

"Did you say 'A'," Ella's voice joined their conversation as she cut off her husband's words.

"Yes," Ezra answered. "The entire text was beyond weird. First, it started out with a poem, then it gave me these cryptic instructions about what I needed to do in order to save Aria's life, and then finally it concluded with that line I said before: 'Oh, and Ezra, you can call me A. It was the strangest thing I've ever seen – strangest and sickest, and I want to know what the hell is going on."

"That makes two of us," Ella murmured. Then, in a louder voice, she added, "Byron, I think you better let him come in. We're going to need to see that text, and I need to make a couple of phone calls. I'm afraid this A person might be entirely serious about their threats."

With a sick feeling in his stomach, Ezra entered the Montgomery house, one question blazing its way through his mind: just what kind of mess had Aria gotten herself into?

? ? ?

"So, let me get this straight: this A person has been terrorizing, harassing, and blackmailing the four of you for months now, and you didn't once think that maybe you were in over your heads and needed some help?"

"We did tell someone, and they ended up missing," Spencer answered. "Besides, this is irrelevant right now. We need to focus on getting Aria back."

"And it isn't just the four of us, at least not anymore," Hanna added. "Mona's been getting texts, too. In fact, A first sent my police report to Mona in order to get her to confess to shoplifting. That's how my mom accidentally got her hands on it, and she was the one who gave it back to Wilden."

"Wait, who's Mona?"

"Vanderwaal," Emily supplied, looking at him like he was an idiot. "She lives just down the street from you, Jason – has for years now."

"Wait, do you mean that dorky girl who used to follow Ali around on her scooter?"

"Yeah, well, she's not so dorky anymore," Hanna fired back. "Maybe if you wouldn't have been such a stoner for all those years..."

"Again, guys, we're getting distracted," Spencer spoke up, glaring at her two friends. "I think it's a little more important that we figure out a way to get that police report than it is for us to question Jason's memory."

Undeterred, Hanna argued, "since when and in what universe would you ever trust Jason enough to help Aria, Spence? The last we knew, he was still at the top of your 'Creepy People in Rosewood' list."

His sister exchanged a sly, quick glance with him, and Jason knew it was her way of both apologizing for not defending him and for asking for his cooperation in keeping their sibling status still under-wraps. "Do we have a choice? A is going to kill Aria if Jason doesn't do what A wants of him. I don't know about the two of you but I'm not willing to risk my best friend's life because I'm uncomfortable with who A has made his or her latest puppet."

"She's right, Han," Emily said. Although Hanna didn't reply, her silence was her acquiescence.

"Okay," Jason finally spoke up again. "Tell me about this Wilden guy. I've met him because of Alison's case, but I have a feeling the three of you know him better than I do."

"He's a creep," Hanna spit out, ire flashing in her eyes.

"He's also extremely suspicious of us and ambitious," Spencer added. "He wouldn't be adverse to the idea of using an innocent in order to further his career, but I think that's actually going to work to our advantage."

"What? How," Emily demanded to know. Her arms were crossed tightly over her chest, a sure sign that she was extremely uncomfortable. The four of them were spread out around the Hastings family's center island, the lights dim in the kitchen despite the fact that Spencer's parents were out with friends and that Melissa was still in Philly.

"While Wilden might not like us, he certainly loves himself, and I'd bet my trust fund that there's no way in hell he was going to take the chance of someone stealing that police report from the station once again. I say it's at his place," Spencer announced, meeting each of their gazes directly.

"So, instead of breaking into the precinct, I have to break into a cop's home. Great."

"Look, if you're not willing to do this..."

"I never said that," Jason interrupted Emily. When she went to look away from him, he followed her skittish eyes. "I'll do whatever is necessary to save Aria, but that doesn't mean I have to like what I'm about to do."

"Well, let's go," Hanna broke into the tense moment, grabbing her bag and already heading towards the door.

"Wait, you're not going anywhere," he told her, immediately halting the blonde in her tracks. "In fact, none of you are. This A person said that I'm to do this, but he or she never said anything about the three of you helping. Now I realize that I never should have involved you at all, but I needed answers, and you were the only ones who could have given them to me, but, if you think for a single second that I'm going to allow any of you to put yourselves in danger, then you're crazy. I'll tie all three of you up first before I let you come with me."

"Jason's right," Spencer spoke up on his behalf before either Hanna or Emily could argue with him further. "If for no other reason than we don't want to make A any angrier, we need to stay here. Once Jason has something, he can call and let us know. We can look things up for him, help remotely, but we can't risk Aria's safety just to put our own minds at ease."

"Alright," Emily agreed, always the one to back down and think rationally before Hanna. "Then I guess the first thing we need to do is figure out where Wilden lives. Jason should leave, and we'll text him the address as soon as we have it."

"Don't bother," Hanna responded, rolling her eyes. "I already know where Wilden lives."

"You do," Spencer questioned, and he could detect a note of accusation in his sister's tone. Jason couldn't blame her.

"Uh, my mom was sleeping with the guy for weeks," Hanna replied. There was only one way to describe her tone of voice: duh. "Of course I know where he lives." Turning to face him, she explained, "do you know that big apartment complex over by the salon which offers two for one mani/pedi's on Wednesday?"

"Uh... no."

Spencer closed her eyes and mentally sought out the location from her memory. "It's on East Campus Street, over by Hollis. If I'm thinking of the right apartment complex, a bunch of college students live there."

"Anyway, Wilden's place is apartment 6F. But don't expect anything fancy, and it'll probably be a mess, too."

"Geez, Hanna, did you and your mom have sleepovers at his place or something," Spencer asked her friend sarcastically.

Without waiting for a response, Jason said, "that'll probably be a good thing for me. If he's a slob, he won't recognize the fact that someone was nosing around his stuff." He went to leave but then stopped and turned back around. "If I'm not back in an hour, Spencer, call your dad."

"Excuse me, what," she questioned in disbelief.

"I have a feeling that, if anyone can play A's game better than A, it'll be Peter Hastings."

? ? ?

Ezra's night just kept getting more surreal by the second.

First, he thought some punk kid was playing mind games with him, then he thought Byron was playing mind games with him, and now he had come to learn that someone named A had been playing mind games with Aria and her friends for months. To make matters even worse, it had been decided by everyone else – Ella and Byron, Ashley Marin, and some cop named Darren Wilden – that he should play along and meet A's demands. So, there he was – Ezra Fitz, English Professor – pretending to break into a police officer's home. While he found it suspicious that the very same police report that this A person wanted so badly was kept in someone's private residence rather than the actual precinct, nothing about the entire situation made sense: not why someone would want him to do these things for them, not why they would target Aria, and certainly not why his girlfriend would keep something so important from him for nearly a year, because, apparently, that's how long Ella believed A had been harassing Aria.

You thought you knew someone, you thought that you could trust them, and then you find out that everything you believed in was all a lie. More than that, though, he had put his career and his freedom in Aria's hands, and she hadn't even trusted him enough to tell him what was going on in her life. What if this A person – because, obviously, they weren't above using anything and everyone to get what they wanted – had exposed their relationship while he was still teaching at Rosewood? By keeping her secrets and lying to him, Aria had put him at risk. Plus, there had to be something more to the situation than what met the eye, because, if Aria and her friends were so innocent in this entire mess, then how did A get the power to control and blackmail them in the first place?

As he thought, Ezra made his way through Detective Wilden's rather embarrassingly cluttered and unkept apartment. The place wasn't very large, the main room dominated by a large entertainment center and a big, black leather couch. There were pizza boxes, beer bottles, and what he presumed to be dirty clothes strewn all over the living space, the bedroom no cleaner once Ezra made his way inside the next room. He moved straight to where the cop had said he'd be able to find the report: in his locked bedside drawer. He had the key to the drawer in his hand... only the drawer was already open, the gauges and scratches around the lock making it obvious that someone had already beaten him to the police report.

Quickly, he dialed the new number which had been programmed into his phone. After just a single ring, the person on the other line picked up. Ezra didn't even give him a chance to speak before he announced, "we have a problem."

? ? ?

The police report wasn't in his hands five minutes before Jason received another text.

Aw, look how eager you are to save your liar fair!
Leave the report in your mailbox. I'll collect my prize while you're scrambling to find yours.
Too bad it's just going to get messier from here on out, though.

Your first assignment:
Those bitches have been messing with the wrong A, and now it's time for them to pay the price. Three little liars remain unharmed. For every liar you hurt, a clue will be your reward. Better get a move on, Jason. Nothing tears a friendship apart faster than broken trust, and Emily and Hanna don't know about your connection to Spencer yet. Fix that. Tick tock; tick tock. ~ A

He drove back to Spencer's as fast as he deemed it safe to drive, making it there at just at a little after eight... following a brief stop at his mailbox as instructed. Without preamble, he strode into the Hastings' family room, shattering his newfound sister's fragile trust in him with a few select words. "Years ago, Spencer's dad had an affair with my mother. Nine months later, I was born. I'm Spencer's half brother."

Emily and Hanna gaped at him – not moving, not talking, not blinking. Unfortunately, Spencer's reaction wasn't as calm. With fury in her gaze, she advanced in his direction. Though her words were softly spoken, they were ever the more threatening and angry. "What the hell do you think your'e doing, Jason? I thought you understood that I..."

"I'm sorry, Spence," he interrupted her. "It was the next thing I had to do for A, and there wasn't time for me to pull you aside so we could argue this out."

"So, this is why the two of you are suddenly all buddy-buddy," Hanna realized, her voice laced with accusation and her eyes narrowed in suspicion.

"And you got the $2,000 from Jason," Emily also had her own epiphany. "Why didn't you tell us, Spencer?"

"More importantly," Hanna challenged before Spencer had a chance to reply to the first question. "What else are you keeping from us? Do you know more about what Melissa had to do with Ali's death than you've let on?"

The three girls started to fight then – Spencer defensive, and Hanna and Emily accusatory. If A had wanted the friends at odds with each other, then he or she had known the perfect way to drive a wedge into the group. And, despite Jason's concern for Aria, part of him couldn't help but wonder about Hanna's last question. Melissa was involved in Alison's murder? At first glance, the idea seemed ludicrous, but something had been going on between Ian and Ali that summer, and he knew as well as anyone that you did not want to push a Hastings into a corner. They'd fight harder and dirtier than anyone else.

Jason was just about to voice his own inquiries towards what Spencer knew concerning her... their... sister when his phone buzzed, instantly silencing them all.

"Read it out loud," Spencer demanded of him, a request Jason was willing to oblige considering that fact that he was likely going to need their help in interpreting this A person's clues.

Considering the lengths you were willing to go to in order to win my trust, I'm going to return the favor and assume you spilled the beans about daddy dearest and your darling sister, meaning you have earned for your first clue:

Knowledge is power, and I know everything... like, for example, how Emily blackmailed the Vice Principal into letting her back on the swim team.

Come clean on her behalf, Jason, or you'll never know where your Aria Adored is being kept bound and gagged. ~ A

"Oh my god," Emily gasped, her knees giving out on her so that she collapsed upon the couch. "I can't believe this is happening. I never should have allowed Mona to talk me into... what we did – hacking into Tamborelli's computer..."

Hanna moved to comfort her, but Spencer stood at attention, almost like a soldier – cold, detached, waiting for orders. "What do we do now?"

"I'm going to do what A wants," Jason answered. "I'm going to go to the president of the school board's house right now and tell her what happened. In the meantime, the three of you need to work together and come up with a list of all the places A might have been referencing in that clue. I'd limit the list to places that are within a half an hour drive of Rosewood but include everything you can think of – public schools, private schools, colleges, libraries, book stores."

A curt nod from his sister was the only indication Jason received that she agreed with his instructions. As he backed out of the door, once more leaving to do A's bidding, he found himself apologizing again. Despite the secrets she had been apparently keep from him as well, Jason just couldn't forget the image of Spencer's face when she looked at him after he had broken her trust. Even if everything they were doing that night worked out and they got Aria back safe and sound, he wasn't sure if he'd be able to repair the damage his fledgling relationship with his sibling had been inflicted with at A's behest, and Jason knew that the hurt in Spencer's eyes would haunt him for some time to come. "I'm so sorry," he whispered. And then he was gone.

? ? ?

It had been decided that, after his failed attempt to steal the police report, he'd head back to the Montgomery's and wait for the next communication from A. When he had gotten there, though, the entire house was in an uproar. Detective Wilden and Mrs. Marin were arguing about his incompetencies as a cop, and Ella and Byron were fighting over whose fault it was that Aria was in trouble. In fact, everyone was so worked up that they didn't even notice his arrival, so he slinked in as quietly as possible, finding a nice corner to hide in until it was his turn to be yelled at... which he had no doubt would eventually arrive. When his phone beeped several minutes later, it was amazing how quickly the room became still, all four sets of eyes immediately ricocheting in his direction as they waited for him to read the incoming text out loud. Not wanting to incur anyone's wrath, Ezra did just that, clearing his throat nervously before beginning.

Poor, pathetic Ezra, how does it feel to know that you failed the girl you claim to love so much that you'd risk not only your own freedom but her relationship with her family, too? It's a good thing there's someone else who apparently loves her the way you can't. They're already two steps ahead of you. How will you ever catch up, especially if I decide you're just not worth the trouble and cut you out of the race to save SINderella? ~ A

"What? That's it? That's all this A person has to say," Ashley Marin demanded impatiently.

"Frankly, I'm more interested in who this other person is," Byron remarked. "If they're doing so well, I say we dump Fitz and hitch our cart to the other horse in the race. If they'll give my daughter a better chance of survival..."

"Mike," Ella interjected, instantly moving towards the stairs and running up them as fast as she could, apparently concerned that her younger child was searching for his older sister.

"Let's think about this rationally, please," Wilden beseeched them. "Who has Aria dated in the past? Does she have any ex-boyfriends who might still be carrying a torch for her?"

"No," Byron answered quickly. "I mean, there's Holden, but I've recently found out that the two of them were only pretending to date so that she could sneak off and meet up with him." A nod in Ezra's direction emphasized the dismissive reference.

The four adults remaining in the room were silent for several moments before Mrs. Marin exclaimed, "Hanna! Why didn't we think of this before. It has to be Hanna and the other girls who are out searching for Aria. It's the only thing that makes sense, and the four of them have been in this together from the beginning."

"Well, then, where's Hanna right now," Wilden asked.

"She's at Spencer's... or, at least, that's where she told me she was going." Before the last words were even out of her mouth, Ashley was already grabbing her things and running for the door, yelling over her shoulder, "I'll let you know what I find out."

The slamming of the door announced her departure and ushered Ella back down into the room. "Where'd Ashley just go?"

"She went off to see if the other girls are at Spencer's like they said they would be. If they are, then we'll know it's not them out searching for Aria," Byron told his wife.

"And if they're not there?"

"Then I'll call in a trace on their phones, try to track down their location using GPS," Wilden responded. When Ella went to say something else, he stopped her, "and, before you ask, I already tried to do the same thing with Aria's phone. The trace didn't pick anything up, so chances are it was smashed."

With that, the four of them fell silent – Wilden moving to stand by a front window, constantly peering around the curtains; Byron and Ella sat down on the couch together, their earlier argument forgotten as they held hands in an attempt to give each other some much needed strength; and Ezra just kept to the shadows, wanting desperately to be anywhere but inside of the Montgomery house. While he wanted nothing bad to happen to Aria, he also knew that he wasn't cut out for the world his relationship with her had suddenly thrust him into. He hoped that she would be returned to her family safely, but when she came back – if she came back, she wouldn't be coming back to him and their relationship.

Five minutes, ten minutes, fifteen minutes passed by, but, still, there was no sign of Ashley and no further word from A. Wanting to escape everything that was happening, Ezra pushed off from the corner of the wall he had been leaning into, moving towards the center of the room. "So, uh, look: I really don't think I'm doing anyone, especially Aria, any good by staying here. This A person obviously has decided not to... I don't know, use me... in this game of their's any longer, so maybe I should just leave."

"You're not going anywhere," Wilden told him.

And, before he could slink back into his hiding spot, Byron snapped at him, "it would have been nice for you to realize that you had no business being around my daughter months ago. You said you wanted to be with her. Well, now's your chance to prove it."

"Yes, well, there were a few things about Aria that I didn't know about her until this evening."

Byron stood up, obviously spoiling for a confrontation, but, before he could cross the room, the front door opened without warning, and Mrs. Marin stormed in. "They're there – all three of them. Studying," she added with a snort. "I had to scramble to come up with a reason to explain why I was checking up on my daughter, because I sure as hell don't want Hanna, Emily and Spencer to be involved in this if they don't have to be, and I know those girls. If they even suspected that Aria was in trouble, there'd be no preventing them from ending up eyebrow deep in this mess."

"So, what do we do now," Ella wanted to know. She turned towards the police detective. "What's our next step?"

Before he could respond, Ezra's phone indicated that he had another text. Without discussion, he just read the message out loud.

This was supposed to be between you, me, and Aria, Professor, but, since you've decided to make this into a party, then I think it's only fair that your guests of honor participate, too.

Tell Hanna's whore of a mommy either she and that bad piggy of an ex-boytoy of hers come clean about their affair to his boss, or you're out of the race.

Tell Aria's parents that they're going to have to choose between their kids: either they ship Mike away to bootcamp and give you another chance to play, or they don't and, well, let's just say that the game will be over you, Mr. Fitz.

As for you, Ezra, since you couldn't meet my previous expectations, the price has gotten steeper. Resign from your job at Hollis, or I'll have you and your ex-girlfriend, Jackie, fired tomorrow morning.

The five of you have one hour to make your decisions and to show me that you're wiling to play by my rules. I'll be watching. ~ A

When he finished reading, he was greeted by stunned, horrified silence. Ezra had to admit that he understood exactly what everyone else was feeling. For the first time that evening, the five of them were on a level playing field; they now all had something to lose... well, besides Aria.

? ? ?

As soon as he opened the door, Jason demanded to know, "what the hell was your mother doing here, Hanna?"

The three girls were busy at work, gathered around the kitchen island as they compiled their list of possible places from A's first clue – Emily was writing as fast she she could, while Hanna called out names from the phonebook and Spencer did the same from her laptop. Underneath their productivity, though, there was an edge of anxiety, of desperation – more so than just the strain of worry that was placed upon all of them. Jason realized that the three girls were rushing to complete their task, probably because Mrs. Marin had been there even longer than he had been waiting for her to leave.

Without looking up from her notebook, Emily answered him, "we're not sure. At first, she seemed suspicious – like she expected not to find us here, but then she was practically tripping over herself to explain why she was checking up on us. Spencer thinks she was acting guilty, like she was hiding something, and Hanna said that the whole even reeked of Wilden. Literally. She claimed she could smell his cologne on her mom, which... when you add everything together means that she must be sleeping with him again."

"Em," Hanna objected, raising her voice, but Emily just shrugged her shoulders, and there was nothing the blonde could say in her mother's defense.

Like usual, it was Spencer who got them back on track. "How'd it go?"

Before he could respond, though, his phone beeped. "Hold that thought," Jason told her as he brought the cell out of his pocket. Like before, he read the message out loud, hoping to save them time. It had taken longer to complete his second task than he would have liked, the president of the school board asking question after question that he just didn't have the answers to, and it was already pushing 9:00. The last thing they needed was to further delay the search.

Well played, Mr. DiLaurentis, throwing Mona under the bus to help save Emily. Not that I think the bitch deserved your pity, but pinning the entire blackmail scheme on Mona was rather impressive. If I didn't hate you, your liar of a sister, her friends, and your beloved Aria so much, I would even go so far as to say that you and I, we're not so different.

At least, you better hope we're not, because that's the only way you'll be able to pull this night off and save Aria's life.

Since Spencer, Hanna, and Emily are helping you, the next clue's for them: your fellow liar is tucked away not-so-safe somewhere where we've already tangled together in the past.

As for you, Jason, only one pretty little liar remains: Hanna. After tonight, I'll have taken away everyone's significant other but Hanna's, so let's make it four for four, shall we? Car thieves in Allentown called. They want their computer man back. Set this in motion or else. Oh, and Jason? Don't even think about giving Caleb a head's up about what's going down. If I even see him approach a 'Leaving Rosewood' sign, Aria won't make it until midnight.

P.S. She's been told, if her prince charming loves her, he'll rescue her in time. You wouldn't want to disappoint her now, would you?

~ Queen A

"No, no, no, absolutely not," Hanna yelled, folding her arms over her chest in a stubborn manner while backing away from from them.

"We don't have a choice, Han," Spencer argued.

"Shut up, Spencer," the fiery blonde shot back. "After all the crap you've pulled recently, you don't get a say in this!"

"But, if Jason doesn't do this, Hanna," Emily added her opinion, "then Aria's going to die. I get it," she continued, standing up and moving towards her friend. "You don't want anything bad to happen to Caleb. Well, neither do we, but one battle at a time. We give up Caleb temporarily, we get Aria back, and then we all work together to figure out a way to save Caleb next. You know that we have to do this."

"I know," a crying Hanna relented, raising a shaking hand up to dash her tears away. "I just... I don't know how much more I can take of this. A's taken so much from us. I can't even remember what it's like to wake up happy in the morning or to go to bed at night not scared that, if I do one thing wrong, my entire life and everyone who matters to me will be taken away."

Quietly, Jason spoke up, "the four of you aren't alone in this anymore. I know I'm not your favorite person, Hanna, but I'm involved now, and I'm not going anywhere. Right now, maybe A's using me to do his or her dirty work, but, in the long run – after we get Aria back, A's going to realize that they made a big mistake, because I'm not going to stop until this psychopath is taken care of." Looking each teenage girl in the eyes, he added, "one way or another." Nobody in the room misunderstood exactly what he was saying. If they couldn't stop A legally, then he'd take matters into his own hands.

After a moment, Jason asked, "does the last clue mean anything to you guys?"

"Uh, yeah," Spencer answered. "I think we've been wasting our time compiling this list, because the only two places that still apply are Hollis and the high school. If we split up, if you go and follow A's last command just in case, Hanna and Emily can head over to Hollis, and I'll check out the school. Maybe we can..."

"Whoa, stop right there," he told his sister, shaking his head to emphasize his words. "The three of you are going nowhere. I think it's admirable how much you love your friend, but I can't let you put yourselves in danger. I'll just end up worried about all of you rather than one of you, and I'll make a mistake. Stay here, stay together, and stay safe. If you want to help me, if you want to help Aria, that's what you can do. She wouldn't want you guys putting yourselves in jeopardy to save her, especially not when we've already come this far. I know I've made a lot of mistakes in the past, and I wasn't able to save Alison... not that I knew anything was going to happen to her, but I promise the three of you here and now that I will get Aria out of this safe and alive. I just need you to trust me." First, he met Emily's gaze, then Hanna's, and, finally, he locked his eyes on his sister's face. "Can you do that?"

"I think I started to trust you when you became the only person willing to tell me the truth," Spencer whispered.

That was all Jason needed to hear. Slipping out the door once more, his parting words to the three frightened girls was to, "lock the door," even if he wasn't sure that a lock could keep A out.

? ? ?

"Anything yet," Byron asked desperately from where he sat on the stairs.

If a single night could emotionally and mentally destroy a man, Ezra was watching it happen. He barely recognized Aria's father. Ella had left over half an hour ago to take Mike to the airport. Because they didn't want their son to worry about his sister, the parents had elected not to tell him that their sudden decision to ship him off to military school was due to blackmail rather than their disinterest in parenting him anymore. In doing so, they had destroyed any connection they had with Mike, doing what would perhaps be irreparable damage to their family.

Up until that point, Ezra had been completed focused upon what A's blackmail was doing to him – his life, his career, his relationship with Aria, but, for the first time, he truly was starting to grasp just what exactly his presence in the Montgomery's life had done. Suddenly, Ezra just didn't understand why he had fought so hard and for so long to be with Aria. Yes, he cared about her – maybe he was even in love with her, but their relationship had brought nothing but grief to their lives and those around them, and, in the long run, he had realized once it was already too late that, when it came to things that really mattered, he and Aria were strangers.

Because of their relationship, he was now unemployed, Mike was being shipped to military school, and a police officer was, at that very moment, in the process of turning in his badge. Only Ashley and Byron remained with him, sitting vigil as they lost more and more hope with every second that went by without another text from A. It was pushing 11:00, and they still had yet to be rewarded with a single clue as to Aria's whereabouts.

"I'm going to lose my daughter, my little girl," Byron announced all of a sudden, not doing a damn thing to disguise his emotions. He was outwardly crying, and, with his very public display of tenderness towards Aria, the last of Ezra's resentment towards the other man vanished.

"Hey, you can't think that way," Ashley moved to sit beside Byron. She, in a friendly, comforting gesture, put her arm around his shoulder. "We've done everything we could. And don't forget that there's someone else out there looking for her, someone who, apparently, is much better at playing games than a bunch of old throwbacks like us." When her turn at humor did nothing to produce even a smile from the father of two, Mrs. Marin sobered. "We'll get her back, Byron; you'llget her back."

As soon as the last word left her mouth, Ezra's phone buzzed. As he fumbled to open the text, his fingers limp and rubbery from the constant tension of the night, he could feel their eyes burning through him. Finally, when he managed to gain control of his digits, Ezra rushed to read the note out loud.

What do you get when you bring two professors and a teacher, one cop, and one bank manager together to save just one insignificant, little liar?

The answer: a very productive night for yours truly.

The five of you together managed to destroy what would have taken me weeks to corrupt, so thank you.

As for your reward, while I'm not going to give you a clue as to where you can find Aria, I will tell you that her other prince was far more charming than you were, Mr. Fitz. So, maybe you won't be able to save the damn-sell in distress, Ezra, but rest assured that Jason will take good care of her. In fact, he's probably saving her life as you read this...

I'd tell the five you of... or is it just three now... where to find them, but I think Jason deserves to have his moment. And, besides, after tonight, I have no doubt that the lovebirds Ezra and Aria will be calling it quits, and what's a girl... or guy... to do without someone to hold over one of her favorite little bitches? Ezra's out; Jason's in. And, unlike you, Professor, he belongs. In fact, he was even around all those years ago when this all began, so the game has now come full circle, my friends.

Thanks for playing, and enjoy your consolation prizes: everyone gets to remain alive. For now.

Until next time, dearies... ~ A

"See, I told you," Ashley was quick to reassure and hug Byron. "She's going to be okay."

As the older man returned the friendly gesture, he said, "but Jason... DiLaurentis? And Aria? Really?" As if again remembering that Ezra was even in the room, Byron turned his piercing gaze once more upon him. "Why are you so quiet? Shouldn't you be... I don't know, jealous? And why don't you seem at all surprised by this?"

"Because... I'm not."

"Explain now," Byron ordered him as he stood up and moved in Ezra's direction. "Hours ago when we were trying to figure out who else in Aria's life might be out there looking for her, you said nothing, but, now, when it's revealed that Jason DiLaurentis apparently has feelings for my daughter, you act as if you knew about this the entire time."

"That's because I did." Before Aria's father could yell at him again, he rushed to add, "I had just forgotten about their kiss. It happened months ago, and so much has happened since then. Plus, I didn't realize that his feelings were anything more than mere attraction. After Aria told me about their kiss, she never mentioned him again."

"Girls never do," Ashley replied knowingly. "We're not stupid. We only tell our boyfriends about other guys when we want to make them jealous. Otherwise, trust me, it's much safer for us to keep our lips sealed and our secrets buried."

"Apparently," he scoffed.

"Well, I think you can leave now," Byron told him, already holding the door open. "After all, you no longer serve a purpose here. And if I ever see you near my daughter again..."

The threat went unfinished. "I think we at least need to resolve things between us," Ezra argued.

"Oh, I think things resolved themselves when you, the coward that you are, wanted to leave long before we even knew if Aria would survive the night."

Ducking his head in submission, Ezra observed and acknowledged the other man's words by simply remaining silent and doing as he said. He left. And, first thing the next morning, Ezra Fitz was getting as far away from Rosewood as he possibly could.

? ? ?

After sitting in the silence, in the dark, and by herself for what Aria knew to be hours, her mind had long since started to wander into strange territory. It didn't help matters that her body was sore from being tied up for so long, her arms wrenched tightly behind her back while her legs were bent backwards so that her wrists and ankles met only to be tied together. Add to that the fact that she was really scared, and Aria was actually proud of the fact that she had managed to stay in control of her emotions for as long as she had. It's not like crying or becoming hysterical would have done her any good, though, for she was gagged as well, only miniscule, weak sounds escaping her mouth when she attempted to call for help.

She was starting to lose hope, though. It had been too long. A – because her kidnapper really couldn't be anything else – had told her that, if she was to live, then the only person who could save her was someone who loved her enough to hurt and destroy others in order to find her in time. And, like the twisted psycho A was, that deadline was midnight... like she was trapped in her own warped version of a fairytale.

That would have been fitting, though... considering her location. After initially being brought to where she was being held, Aria had been too panicked to use her only remaining sense – that of smell – to determine her whereabouts, but, after a few minutes of crying and then nearly choking on her own sobs, she had wrestled back control over her body, stilling her heartbeat and quieting her mind so that she could just... be. What she found was that, wherever she was, it smelled like books – old, dry, musty books – and a lot of them, too... which was ironic, because books were the ultimate symbol of freedom, and, on that particular night, Aria was anything but free.

Even if her rescuer did manage to get to her in time... and, really, Aria didn't have much faith that Ezra would be able to go toe to toe with A and win, and there was no one else who fit A's 'prince charming' persona, she still wouldn't be free. Oh, she'd survive the night, live to face another day of endless A harassment and torture. And that wasn't even the worst part; the worst part was knowing that, by just breathing, she put everybody she loved at risk, yet there was nothing she could do to keep them safe except keep fighting A one worthless, useless clue at a time. That was her true prison – not the ropes, blindfold, tape, and gag which kept her subdued but the constant threat of A looming over her...

She felt someone touch her then. It was a soft caress, a gentle one, but Aria still struggled... well, she struggled as much as she possibly could which wasn't much. She just didn't know if the touch came from friend or foe, and she wasn't about to take any chances. Soon, though, the blindfold was removed from her eyes and what she saw, who she saw was perhaps more shocking than anything else that had happened that evening.

Jason DiLaurentis.

Not Ezra. Not her parents. Not her brother. Not her friends. But a man who had been brave enough to tell her how he felt for her only to be practically dismissed.

He worked quickly – first cutting off the ropes which bound her limbs together, and then he, as carefully as he possibly could so as to not hurt her, removed her gag and the duct tape which kept it in place. Even with his soft touch, it still stung like hell. But the tears which gathered in Aria's eyes were from anything but pain. Instead, they sprang from gratitude, relief, and happiness; surprise, joy, and even love. She had no idea what hoops A had made Jason jump through that evening, but Aria had no doubt that he had a paid a price for them.

When she went to thank him, though – not that words could ever express just how grateful she was, he held up a single digit to his lips, indicating that he needed her to be quiet. Aria readily consented to his request and was surprised when, without further delay, Jason scooped her up in his arms and quickly made his way out of the school... which had been where she had been kept, apparently. He didn't take her immediately to his car, though. Instead, it seemed like, as soon as they made it to the curb, Jason's legs just gave out on him, and he folded until the point where he was sitting on the edge of the sidewalk, Aria clutched desperately in his arms and sitting on his lap. He then astonished her further by dropping his head into the crook between her shoulder and neck, pulled her tightly against him, and cried.

Aria wanted to hug him in return, she wanted to offer him some comfort and reassurance just as his mere presence alone were offering her, but her arms were still numb from the ropes, the occasional painful burst of sensation tingling for a few seconds and then burning out. So, all she could do was allow him to hold her as closely as he wanted, something she was more than happy to do for him, for the both of them.

Finally, after several minutes, she felt Jason's head stir against her neck, his nose rubbing against her skin. "Are you alright," he whispered, and she could hear the desperate need for assurance in his voice.

"Yeah," her response came out hoarse but still strong in its conviction. "I'm okay." After a beat, she asked, "are you?"

Jason lifted his head then, meeting her gaze without blinking. "I am now."

Aria swallowed the sudden lump that had formed in her throat. No one had ever looked at her that way before, with so much intensity and passion. Frankly, she didn't know how to process such... devotion, though she was fully capable of appreciating it. A warm thrill started glowing low in her belly only to expand outward, quickly encompassing her entire form.

Before she could respond, though, Jason stood back up, walking them both towards his haphazardly parked car, Aria still in his arms. "Sorry about before, about startling you, but we didn't bring the police into this, so I didn't want the security guard to know that either of us were here."

"We," she questioned, already feeling her long held at bay emotions rising to the surface and sniffling in a vain attempt to push them away.

"Spencer, Hanna, Emily, and I," Jason answered as he somehow balanced her in one arm and opened his passenger side door with the other. As Aria started to really cry, he gently placed her inside of the car, buckled her in, and then rounded the vehicle to get in himself. It wasn't until Jason had started the engine that he asked her, "so, where do you want me to take you? I know that you probably want to go straight home, but I also know that the girls aren't going to be able to sleep tonight until they see for themselves that you're alive and in one piece."

"Actually, home is the last place I want to go," Aria confessed. "Spencer's is fine, just... you'll stay, won't you," she requested timidly.

Jason smiled then, and, if it wasn't so melodramatic, she would have claimed that, at the sight, her heart skipped a beat. "Just try to keep me away. I'm not letting you out of my sight for days, maybe not even ever, Montgomery."

"Well, that's going to make a few things rather awkward." She couldn't believe that it was only five minutes after she had been rescued from a psychotic stalker, perhaps even murderer, and she was already flirting with Jason.

"Really, because I was thinking just how fun the next few years are going to be."

Without waiting for her to respond, Jason cranked up the heat – the top was already up on his convertible, and they pulled away. Moments later, Aria didn't know whether he made the first move or if she did, but she soon found her left hand tightly entwined with Jason's right, their fingers laced together perfectly. Like that, he drove and she road in silence... that was, until they pulled onto Spencer's road and noticed the swarm of cars lining the cul-de-sac.

"I thought you said it was just you, Spencer, Hanna, and Emily who knew about tonight?"

"That's what I thought, but, apparently, I was wrong."

Her mom and dad were there, Mrs. Marin, Hanna's mom was there, even Detective Wilden was there, and their expressions ranged from absolute relief, to sympathy, to perturbation, respectively. "We can't turn around and just drive away, can we?"

"They've already seen us," Jason responded, squeezing her hand. "My car can go fast but not that fast."

"Some other time then," she whispered, shocking him.

For now, though, it was time to face the music, and, like always, A was the twisted, demented DJ.