A/N: And the marathon of posts continues. This story is slightly longer, has a different setup, and is a little darker than some of the other stories I've written for Jaria. It also deals with what is sensitive information for some people, so be fair warned. I did not write this story to incite a moral discussion, but, after 2.24, I remember being compelled to write this. Everything up to 2.25 is germane to this story, whereas 2.25 has no bearing upon it. With that, as always, enjoy and thanks for reading.

~Charlynn~

The Many Facets of Self
A Jason and Aria One Shot

~Self-Awareness~

Staring into her full-length mirror, Aria Montgomery tried to see what the rest of the world saw when they looked at her: sixteen and short with a dash of spunk, but the person staring back at her was anything but courageous. She was still sixteen, and she was certainly still vertically challenged, especially standing in her bare feet as she was in that moment, but gone was any of her previous fire. No, objectively speaking, Aria simply looked... empty, her face the impassive mask she wore so that no one could decipher what she was really feeling or thinking, because if her parents, her friends, and the rest of Rosewood could see what was underneath her stoic demeanor, everything would change, and Aria knew that she couldn't handle even one more disappointment or hurt.

It was amazing, though, to realize how oblivious those in her life really were, how wrapped up they were in their own problems that no one had noticed how she had changed in the last couple of months. Moving sidewise, Aria observed her profile, her dark gaze running from the knotted mess of her bedhead, down and over her rumpled summer pajamas, and then stopped at her bare toes. She didn't even paint her toenails anymore. When she had stopped doing so or, more importantly, when she had stopped even thinking about such trivial matters, she couldn't quite pinpoint, but that was just a symptom of a more pressing issue.

Ezra was gone.

He had told her that he was leaving, that there was nothing left in Rosewood for him and that he needed to go somewhere new to regroup and start fresh, but Aria had only half believed her boyfriend's... ex-boyfriend's... words; the more romantic and naïve part of her had hoped that, if she gave him a good enough reason to stay, he would. For her. So, she had slept with him – not as a means to trap Ezra but in the hopes of proving to him that he loved her too much to leave. It had been stupid to try and use her body in that way, and, half way through the act, Aria had realized that, because she had slept with Ezra for all the wrong reasons, nothing good would come of their night spent together, but it had been too late at that point, the damage had already been done, and, now, she was paying the consequences.

Tiptoeing across her bedroom, she flipped the lock on her bedroom door. Though it was safe to say that no one else in the house was up as early as she was on that first Saturday of summer vacation, the last thing she needed was for her brother to barge in asking for a ride to the park or for her mom to feel suddenly inspired and come seeking Aria's help in the kitchen, or the garden, or even in cleaning out the attic – Ella's favorite summer-time chore for some odd reason. No, for what she was about to do, she needed complete and total privacy. Stripping off her baggy t-shirt, she went back to the mirror, wearing nothing but a skimpy pair of girl boxer-shorts.

"Okay, Aria," she spoke softly to herself in an encouraging though still frank manner. "It's time to face the truth and put it out there. No more euphemisms."

But that was easier said than done.

Taking a deep breath, she met her own gaze in the mirror straight on. "I didn't spend the night with, sleep with, or make love with Ezra; I had sex. And then he left me, and, now, he won't even return my phone calls, and I'm pretty sure he either had his phone turned off or he changed his number. I have no idea where he went, no address to reach him, and no one who is sympathetic enough towards our relationship to want to help me find him."

She snorted then, rolling her eyes in what was supposed to be derision, but, in the process, her gaze got locked on an entirely different part of her body, and any scorn she might have been feeling evaporated into a bewildering mixture of fear, tenderness, resolve, and curiosity. As if moving with a mind of their own, Aria's hands lifted from her sides to cup her still flat abdomen. The last time she had spoken to Ezra, she had told him her suspicions, but now those suspicions had been confirmed, and the person she needed by her side the most either couldn't be bothered to put his own selfish desires aside to help her or had never cared about her life as he had claimed to on so many different occasions. Ezra's recent actions... or, more precisely, his lack thereof... spoke far more loudly than his words ever could.

Sighing, Aria reached for her t-shirt, once more putting it on. Even if the world couldn't see the changes within her, she could feel them. Gathering the things she would need to get ready for the day, she unlocked her door and slipped from her bedroom. Still moving as silently as she possibly could, Aria made her way into the bathroom she shared with her brother. It wasn't until she was safely ensconced behind the shower door and under the deafening spray of the water that she finally admitted the whole truth out loud... even if only to herself.

"I had sex with Ezra, he ran away, and, now, I'm pregnant."

But, still, she didn't cry.

~Self-Assurance~

She was way late and an hour early for her appointment – a bad combination for anyone, but, for Aria, it was proving to be quite devastating upon her resolve, but that's what happened when you got up early so that you could sneak out of the house before anyone else was even awake, when you decided you were strong enough to handle anything on your own – that you didn't need your mom or your best friend there by your side to hold your hand or keep you from running away scared. Not that she was going to change her mind, for Aria knew that she had no other choice. On that one thing, she was decided; it was everything else, though, that was proving rather difficult for her to accept – being alone, having no one to confide in, and keeping secrets and telling lies once more, not only to her parents but to everyone she knew. What she wouldn't give to just spill everything, the whole sordid story, to someone – anyone, even a stranger, but that wasn't...

"Aria?"

Glancing up from her fingers which she had been mindlessly twisting and turning to the point of pain, Aria's gaze met the light, concerned eyes before her. Though she was startled to find his expression void of curiosity and judgment, for some reason she wasn't surprised to see Jason DiLaurentis standing before her. He just had a way of appearing when she least expected him but needed him the most.

He was dressed casually enough, though the folder of papers in his hands said he was there to conduct business, but, at the same time, he didn't seem in a rush to get to where he was going. It was then that Aria noticed Jason's car parked across the street, remembering the last time she had seen that car. It had been the night Jason had told her that he cared about her and kissed her, the night she had told him she unavailable in an effort to honor a relationship with a man who would eventually abandon her.

"Aria," Jason questioned again, his worried tone alerting her to the fact that, though he had been standing there for a couple of moments, she had yet to address him. "Are you alright?"

Without conscious thought, she smiled up at him, the gesture the first real sign of warmth she had felt or expressed in weeks. "Alright? No," she admitted honestly, "but I'm doing a little better now."

"Okay...?"

She laughed, standing up to dust the sidewalk dirt from her butt. Despite the fact that she was wearing ratty old jean shorts, a tank tap, flip flops, absolutely no makeup, and had her hair tossed up in a messy bun, Aria did not feel even an ounce of insecurity around Jason that morning. "Sorry," she responded, acknowledging his confusion. "That was kind of cryptic, wasn't it?"

"A little," he admitted. With a quirk of his lips, Jason then added, "but, then again, you are a girl, so..."

Aria narrowed her gaze. "I'll let that slide because I'm just so glad to have someone to talk to... even if it's only for a few minutes."

"Few minutes?"

"Your work, your papers," she nodded towards his folder. "I don't want to keep you from..."

"It'll hold," he interrupted to assure her. Narrowing his gaze, he looked at her closely, and Aria would have sworn that, in exchange for his effort, Jason was able to see past what was her genuine yet shallow sense of joy only to discover the anxiety which hid beneath it. "If you need to talk, I'll listen for as long as you want me to."

"Those are dangerous words to say to a girl who has told so many lies and who has kept so many secrets that even she doesn't know what the truth is anymore. If you're not careful, I might take you up on your offer."

Jason took several steps towards her and tossed his paperwork aside to land where she had been sitting on the sidewalk moments before. "You're not going to scare me away that easily, Aria. I've kept my distance these past few months, because I thought that's what you wanted, but my feelings haven't changed. I still care about you. A lot. And nothing you could possibly say is going to change that."

It was like he was throwing a gauntlet down, and Aria – with her past experience and recent track record of disappointment nipping at her heels – took up the challenge and ran with it. Even if the last thing she really wanted was to alienate Jason, she had come to expect that everyone would eventually let her down, especially when she was the one who messed up first. So, raising up her chin with a false sense of bravado – one that she definitely didn't feel – and meeting his intense gaze with her own unblinking stare, Aria boldly announced, "I'm here to have an abortion."

Without missing a beat, Jason replied, "where's the teacher?" When she didn't say anything, too flabbergasted by his utter lack of reaction, he pressed, "I know we already covered this, but, if you're so unavailable, then he should be here with you."

Of all the ways for Jason to respond... "He left town. We broke up... I guess."

"And does he know that you're pregnant?"

"He knows," she confirmed, neither of them willing to look away from the other yet. "At least, he knows that there was a strong possibility I was pregnant. Since I told him that, though, he hasn't returned any of my calls."

That's when she expected his pity, when she thought he'd apologize for something he had absolutely nothing to apologize for, but, instead, what Jason said next was totally and wonderfully unpredictable, and it made her laugh. "If you know where he is, I'll drive there right now, rough him up a little bit, and then drag his cowardly ass back here kicking and screaming to face the music with you." Yes, she laughed, and then she promptly burst into tears.

"Shit, Aria, I didn't want to make you even sadder." Glancing to either side of them where the sidewalk were starting to fill with other people bustling to and fro on errands, shopping excursions and just casual, Saturday morning outings, she watched through her tears as Jason seemed to debate something silently with himself. "What time's your appointment?"

Sniffling, she responded, "I have another 45 minutes or so. Why?"

"Come with me," he instructed her, already reaching for her hand, lacing their fingers together, and gently tugging her towards the street.

"But what about your folder...?"

"Right now, the last thing I care about are some pointless financial documents. Work'll wait; you, however, won't." So, she followed him across the street, allowed him to open his passenger side door for her, and then climbed into Jason's car, her brow furrowing when he started the engine and put the top up but didn't pull away from the curb. As if sensing her confusion, he explained, "I thought you could use a little privacy. Do whatever you want – cry, scream, curse, talk, or we can even sit here in silence if you want to. Or I could call someone for you," Jason offered, "your mom maybe, or Spencer. She's good in a crisis."

"So are you," Aria told him with a slight smile lifting the corners of her lips despite the fact that she was still quietly crying. Although sometimes it was still hard to believe that Jason and Spencer were half-siblings, it also oddly made sense. The newly discovered brother and sister pair had more in common than even they realized.

"I haven't always been," Jason said quietly, referring to his past.

"Yeah, well, I wasn't always a teenage cliché either. I guess you win some and you lose some," Aria quipped.

Earnestly, he turned towards her, "there is absolutely nothing stereotypical about you, Aria Montgomery."

Turning onto her side, she curled up into her seat, leaning her head sideways against her shoulder. "You might be a little biased."

"Don't care."

"Yes, well, try telling me this again when I'm not sixteen and pregnant, when I'm not still beating myself up for not protecting myself, when I'm not still hating myself for thinking that sex would solve anything."

"He didn't do anything to keep you safe either, Aria, and he was older. He should have known better. And I don't know the circumstances, but it sounds like he let you try to fix your relationship with sex despite knowing that it'd never work. That makes him just as guilty if not more so."

"You know, you don't have to always defend me." Derisively, she scoffed, "you also don't have to listen to me talk about being with another guy. Say the word and I'll..."

"You're fine, Aria," Jason stopped her, reassured her. "I'm no boyscout, and I don't expect you to be perfect either."

She nodded, turning back around in her seat, her legs still folded up beneath her. For several minutes, they sat in silence, Aria lost in thought and Jason respecting her quiet introspection. After a while, she asked him, "have you ever... you know, had a scare before?"

"No, I've been lucky. Actually," Jason chuckled mirthlessly, "the truth of the matter is that, during high school, I was always high... as you know. Getting stoned was more important to me than getting laid, and Rosewood girls... well, let's just say that they weren't impressed by my impersonation of a brooding bad boy. Then, after Ali died, I was never sure if a girl was with me because she actually liked me for who I was or if she was just attracted to the media circus and was looking for her five minutes of fame. So, compared to most guys my age, I haven't had as many opportunities to mess up... at least, not in that way."

"Yeah, it doesn't really take all that many tries." When Jason didn't respond, Aria looked over to find him watching her closely, a look close to fear on his handsome face. Blushing, she clarified, "when Ezra and I... it was my first time – my first and only time."

"You know, it's a good thing the guy left town, because, if he was still here, I'd probably put him in the hospital and myself in a jail cell."

"Get in line," she scoffed, only partially joking. "As mad as I am at myself, I'm twice as mad at Ezra – not for what happened but for not standing by me and dealing with the consequences."

"Is that why you decided on getting an abortion – because you feel like you don't have his support?" Before she could respond, Jason was quick to add, "not that I'm trying to tell you that you are or aren't making the right decision. That's none of my business. I just... I want to help... even if that only means acting like your sounding board."

"No, I get it, and you can ask me whatever you want, but the answer to your question is no. Oddly enough, Ezra has played a very small role in my decision to terminate my pregnancy. I tried to talk to him about what's happening, but he wouldn't pick up my calls, and I tried to tell him about the abortion, but I'm pretty sure he changed his phone number. Instead, I'm doing this because I'm not ready to be a mom, and I know there's adoption, but I'm not even ready to be pregnant. Plus, if my parents knew, I don't think they'd want me to give up a child, so they'd end up raising my baby, and I couldn't be that close to my son or daughter and not raise them myself, you know? Above everything else, though, I just... it's not..."

Her words faded away. She was hoping that Jason either wouldn't notice that she had been about to say something else and then stopped herself or that he would just respect her desire not to tell him anymore, but that wasn't the case. Instead, he pressed her, "it's not what?"

And then, without allowing herself time to second guess her instincts, Aria truly confided in Jason. Twisting in her seat, she met his interested gaze. "Safe. It's not safe for me to be pregnant, to have a child."

"Are you sick? Is there something wrong with you or the baby?"

"No, it's nothing like that," she replied. The truth of the matter was that, if anyone had a right to know about A, it was Jason. A knew things about his dead sister's murder, A was terrorizing Spencer – his recently discovered half-sister, and it was only a matter of time before A pulled Jason into his or her sick web of blackmail and terror. What was more, if Aria had learned anything from her pregnancy, it was the fact that she couldn't protect anyone... not even herself. Even with the best of intentions motivating her silence, the people she loved were still being hurt by her absolute refusal to confide in them, and, selfishly, she wanted there to be just one person in her life that she could be completely open and honest with. While she could tell Spencer, Hanna, and Emily so many things, for some reason it had been impossible for her to confess the secret of her pregnancy to her best friends, whereas it had been nearly instinctual for her to talk to Jason. She had feared her friends' disappointment, their disgust, and the awkwardness that would no doubt creep into their interactions, but, with Jason, Aria had just known that he would listen to her without judgment.

"There's someone who's after me... and Spencer, Hanna, and Emily, too. They call themselves A, and we have no idea who they are or how to possibly stop them. Every time we think we know anything, A pulls the rug out from underneath us. Or runs us over with his or her car. Or poisons our medical cream so that we test positive for steroids. Or sets us up to make it look like we killed Alison. They know... everything about our lives, and they're willing to use anyone in our lives to hurt us. Innocent people are just puppets to A, and a baby would be the most innocent of all... that is if it would even survive my pregnancy. It'd be pretty hard to fight off a psycho stalker nine months pregnant. So, do I like my decision to have an abortion? No, I do not. In an ideal world, I'd be able to keep my baby, but I'm realistic enough to know that having this child would be even more selfish than not having it."

"I'd help you, you know – as much as I could, and I'd do whatever I possibly could to keep you – all of you, including your baby – safe, too."

Impulsively, Aria reached across the seat divider and linked her left hand with Jason's right. "I think I did know that without you even having to tell me, and thank you – so much, but it wouldn't be enough. At this point, I don't even know if it's possible to stop A. Even if we learn who A is, there's nothing we can do. All we have for proof are the anonymous text messages and notes A has sent us, and the cops already think we're the trouble makers. It'd be our word against A's, and I'm not liking those odds... even if we would survive turning A into the police. So, I know it's asking a lot, Jason, but you can't tell anyone about this, and I'm sorry for pulling you into this mess, but because it has to do with Ali and Spencer, you were already involved really... just unaware that you were... which I'm starting to think was probably more dangerous for you than what knowing everything will prove to be."

"So, you know what this means, don't you? Now that you told me all of this, you have no excuse not to spend your summer hanging out with me."

With wide, disbelieving eyes, Aria gaped at him. "That'swhat you're taking away from my long, complicated, and sordid confession? Really?"

"Yeah. Didn't you know that I was a glass half-full kind of guy, Montgomery?" Before she could respond, he shut the engine off and got out of the car, quickly loping around the front in order to open her door for her. "You know, like... someone set my house on fire, but it gave me an opportunity to sit by and have a conversation with you in the hospital."

"You're deranged, do you know that?"

Jason laughed, but it was a gesture more out of relief than it was out of mirth, and Aria had a feeling that it was more important for him to distract her from her problems... even if only for a few moments... than it was for Jason to worry about his own issues, of which she had just added to considerably. Not for the first time, it made her envy her best friend, though, unlike Spencer, Aria certainly did not look at Jason like an older brother.

Like before, he laced their fingers together as they walked across the street, though, instead of leading her, they moved side by side, traffic stopping to allow them to pass. It was then that Aria realized that anyone who saw them together would automatically assume that they were a couple... which is how it should have been. The father of her child should have been accompanying her to her appointment, only, instead, it was the man she had turned down and then later practically ignored who was standing beside her, supporting her.

"Well, this is my stop," Aria announced when they came to where she had been sitting nearly an hour before when Jason had found her. Letting go of his hand, she reached down and picked up his folder of papers which was miraculously still exactly where he had left them. "I do believe these are yours," she said, handing him the financial records, though Jason bewildered her when he simply took the proffered papers and then proceeded to throw them into the nearest trash can. "What are you doing?"

"I canceled my meeting."

Suspiciously, she argued, "I never saw you text or call anyone."

"That's because I didn't text or call anyone. I think simply not showing up was sufficient in canceling."

"Jason!"

With a playful grin on his full lips, he tossed back, "Aria," in a similar tone to the one she had used to chastise him... even going so far as to drastically raise the pitch of his voice in his attempt to mock her. Frustrated, she shoved his shoulder, barely managing to make him sway even slightly. Sobering, Jason said, "The people I was meeting, they'll reschedule, and, even if they wouldn't, if you think for even one second that I'm allowing you to go to your appointment alone, then you're crazier than you are hard on yourself. I'll understand if you don't want me to go in with you for the procedure, but I can at least wait for you and drive you home when you're done... or not. We could hang out, too... if you're up for some company or if you want to avoid seeing your family for a few more hours."

"That'd be nice. And thanks, Jason... for everything."

~Self-Consciousness~

She hadn't broken a mirror that morning, no ladder had been in sight for her to walk under, and her path had not been crossed by a black cat, yet, as Aria ambled down the halls of Rosewood High School on her first day of senior year, she couldn't help but feel like, at any second, the other shoe was about to drop. Something just seemed... off, and it was making her paranoid. Three months had passed since she had her abortion, and things had been relatively quiet on the A front... at least concerning that particular secret, but Aria just knew that her luck was about to run out.

"... into the city this weekend, maybe catch one last game before the weather turns. What do you think?" When she didn't respond, she sensed Jason stop beside her. "Aria?" Turning around, she had to walk back several steps so that they were standing directly in front of one another and capable of having a semi-private conversation once again. "Hey, is everything...?"

Before he could finish his sentence, she leaned in and whispered, "does anything feel... I don't know, weird maybe?... to you? I swear, it's like I have a bullseye painted in the middle of my back, and everyone's eyes are focusing on it."

He shrugged. "I don't know, but then again I'm used to people staring at me. It's been a year since they found Alison's body, but you know as well as anyone that nothing's returned to normal yet. It's when people don't stare that I start to feel strange."

"Yeah, I'm sure it's nothing. You're probably right." Returning to his side once more, they continued to make their way down the hall to where Aria's locker was. There, Jason would stand and talk with her until the first bell rang, only leaving to go to his office when she had to go to class. He was continuing to serve as a counselor for the school that year, and Aria was so relieved that there'd be another friendly face on campus. It was one thing to have her friends, but Jason's presence always seemed to both calm and excite her at the same time, an admittedly odd combination of reactions but nonetheless pleasant ones anyway. "So, what were you saying before while I was zoning?"

He smiled, showing her that her lack of attention towards him earlier had done no harm, no foul. "I was running the idea of buying tickets to another Phillies' game by you. What do you say, Montgomery? You, me, and all you can eat hotdogs this..."

This time, she was so focused on listening to Jason that she missed the fact that her friends were apparently having a little pow-wow in front of her locker... only they weren't talking to one another but shooting glares of various levels of perturbation in the direction of the school's general, milling-about population. Plus, Emily looked worried, Hanna looked like she was ready to enslave the entire freshman class into doing her bidding, and Spencer's irritation was nearly palpable, her jaw clenched and fingers shaking she was so angry. Even Caleb had been roped into the fray and was standing awkwardly in the rear of the group, his entire body leaning against and covering her locker.

"Guys, what's going on?"

"Trust me," Spencer told her, "you don't want to know."

"And it's the first day of class, so you really don't need to use your locker. Just... go to class early," Emily added. "We'll take care of everything here. Hanna's already yelled at half the entire student body."

"Yeah, Aria," Hanna concurred. "We totally have this covered."

And that ominous feeling from just a few minutes before returned with a vengeance. "What covered?"

While her three friends looked at each other, it was Caleb who spoke up. "Some idiot wrote a message on your locker with red paint. The janitor's getting some turpentine to remove it as we speak."

Without even thinking about her actions, Aria reached for Jason's hand and laced their fingers together, and he returned the gesture by giving her digits a light, encouraging squeeze. "What does the message...?"

"Hey, DiLaurentis!"

She and Jason both turned around, Aria immediately dreading the obnoxious voice from behind her and Jason tensing in recognition as well. When Noel Kahn just stood there smugly, refusing to say whatever it was that was on his mind until someone directly responded to him, Aria sighed and asked, "what do you want?"

"I wasn't talking to you, Juno."

Some other water-polo clone spoke up. "Moron, Juno put her baby up for adoption; Montgomery killed hers."

Gasping, Aria rocked back on her heels, only to have Jason immediately step in front of her as well – as if he could shield her physically from the emotional wounds her classmates were no doubt going to inflict. "How do you want to play this," he asked over his shoulder, but, before she could respond, Noel was already running his mouth again.

"I don't know why you're still defending her, DiLaurentis. That cherry's been popped. Someone got to her first. Give up and move on. There are other, less test-driven models all throughout this school."

From where she was standing behind him, Aria could feel Jason's muscles twitching from the strain of holding himself back, but she shouldn't have been worried about Jason reacting to the taunts. Rather, it was Hanna she should have been concerned about. Her blonde friend was easily fired up, especially when protecting someone she loved, and Hanna had just been itching to lay into Noel Kahn ever since he had hooked up with Jenna the winter before. She shrugged off Caleb's calming hand upon her shoulder, shoved her way in front of Jason, and she hit Noel Kahn directly where it would hurt him the most: his ego. "And you know all about test driving don't you, Noel? You can go from zero to sixty in seconds flat, but, for some reason, you can never follow through and actually complete the transaction. You stall out before you even get all those newer models up the hill.

"Hanna, really, it's fine," she tried to distract her friend.

But Hanna wouldn't be deterred. "No, it's so not fine! This idiot can't be allowed to go around insulting you, and he certainly can't falsely accuse you of having an abortion." Once more addressing Noel, Hanna warned, "if I find out you were the one who spray painted 'Baby Killer' on her locker, so help me I'll..."

"Aria!" Her mother's voice silenced both a ranting Hanna and all the other gossiping chatter going on in the hallway. "In my classroom. Now." Just as she went to obey, taking several steps forward as her friends shied away from a furious Mrs. Montgomery, Ella yelled once again, "and bring your partners in crime with you. Spencer, Emily, Hanna, and Jason all complied, but, still, Aria's mother wasn't content. "You, too, Caleb." As the sixth member of their group joined them, Ella gave one last order. "And the rest of you go to class, or I'll start handing out detentions."

A mass exodus ensued, the hallway quickly emptying, but still Aria lingered outside of her mother's classroom, needing to see the words painted on her locker for herself. Just as described, the letters were big, bright red, and damning. Even if the janitor managed to remove all physical traces of them, they'd still be there, forever taunting and reminding her. Though she still felt like she had made the right decision, that didn't mean that she didn't have regrets, though they tended to focus more on the actions which had led to her unplanned and unwanted pregnancy than the actual abortion itself.

"Shut the door, Aria," her mother commanded; she immediately obeyed. "Someone better start explaining to me what the hell is going on around here. And I don't want more of your lies either. All of you have been lying about something for months now, and I'm sick and tired of it."

"Mom, let everyone else go to class. They have nothing to do with this."

"It didn't look like that five minutes ago."

She tried once more to reason with her mother. "Really, mom, they're just as in the dark about all of this as you are."

Ignoring her, Ella demanded to know, "were you pregnant?"

Unwilling to lie to her mother's face, for it was one thing to keep something from her but an entirely differently story to purposely delude her, and their relationship had suffered enough already, Aria squared her shoulders, took a deep breath, and then answered simply and honestly, "yes."

Pandemonium erupted. Spencer, Hanna, and Emily instantly ganged up on her, asking their own questions out of the hurt they felt for being excluded from such a monumental event in her life; her mother shakily fell into her desk chair; and Caleb – poor Caleb who definitely didn't deserve to be witness to the latest debacle in her life – surreptitiously made his way closer and closer to the closed doorway. Only Jason remained unfazed, moving to stand by her side and, once more, engulfing one of her hands within one of his own. It was Ella's painfully murmured "when" that silenced Aria's friends.

"I found out in the spring."

"And the abortion?"

Before she could respond, Emily spoke up in her defense, her blind loyalty not yet allowing her to face the truth that everyone else in the room had already accepted. "Mrs. Montgomery, Aria would never..." Turning in Aria's direction, she asked, "you lost the baby, right? You had a miscarriage?"

She blinked away her tears, the idea of disappointing Emily hurting far more than anything else had so far that day. "I had the abortion on the first Saturday of summer break."

"What about Mr. Fitz – Ezra," her mom asked – mouth pursed, eyes unblinking, fists clenched on top of her desk. "What was his role in all of this?"

"Well, besides knocking me up, not much actually."

"Aria," Ella snapped, losing her patience.

Swallowing roughly, she blinked away a few tears and proceeded to explain, "we didn't... you know... until the night before he left town. By the time I confirmed that I was pregnant, he was no longer returning my phone calls."

"So, he doesn't know that you terminated the pregnancy," her mother questioned.

Speaking for the first time, Jason barked, "he doesn't deserve to know what Aria decided to do about her baby."

"Oh my god," Spencer remarked, sounding both shocked and as though the pieces were finally fitting together for her. "You've known about this the whole time. That's why she..." Realizing what she was about to say, Spencer clamped her mouth shut.

"That's why she – that's why she what," Ella queried, latching onto Spencer's unfinished thought.

But Spencer was a Hastings through and through and far too quick to get trapped by Aria's mother. "That's why she never confided in us – because, all this time, she's had Jason. And that's why she wasn't nearly as upset about Ezra as she otherwise should have been."

"Yes, well, this certainly explains some of your behavior from last spring," Ella said, "though it doesn't excuse you trying to blackmail your father and I."

Interrupting the tense moment, Hanna giggled. Everyone turned to stare at her, and Spencer chastised her by saying her name and pinching her bare arm. "Hanna!"

"What, I'm sorry," the blonde apologized, though she kept laughing. "It's just... my best friend's life is like a MTV reality show. No, actually," she corrected herself, "it's better, because those girls never get knocked up by their English teachers."

"Okay, that's it, everybody out," Ella ordered.

Before her friends could comply, though, Aria argued, "no, they should stay, because I'm sure they have the same questions you do, mom, and they deserve some answers as well."

"You're damn right we do," Spencer mumbled under her breath. However, it was loud enough and clear enough so that everyone could easily hear her.

"Alright, I guess, though we will be discussing this at home and at greater length with your father, but, for now, I just have one last question: why? Why did you have an abortion, and why didn't you feel like you could come to me, come to any of us?"

"I didn't tell anyone, because it was no one's decision but mine to make – my body, my baby, and how could I be a mother to someone when I couldn't even take care of myself? I was sixteen and pregnant, and I put myself in that situation because I was careless, and irresponsible, and naïve." Unmindful of her actions, Aria used her free hand – the one not held by Jason – to cover her abdomen where, a few short months before, her child had briefly been growing. "I made the mistake; I was the one who messed up, and no child should have to pay the consequences for its parents. And, before you ask," she continued without giving anyone a chance to talk, "adoption wasn't an option for me either. Maybe I wasn't ready to be a mother, but I also wasn't ready to watch someone else, especially you mom, be a mother to my child. I'm sorry for hurting you, I'm sorry for keeping this from you, and I'm sorry if you disagree with my decisions, but what I'm not sorry for is having the abortion."

"I can understand all of that, Aria, but what I can't understand is why Jason could know but we couldn't," Emily said, the hurt evident in her voice.

"Emily, I found out by accident," Jason answered for himself. "I was in the right place, at the right time, and ran into Aria while she was waiting for her appointment."

"And it just sort of... came out," Aria finished, explaining what had happened that day to her friends and mother. "I knew that Jason wouldn't judge me, and I knew that he'd keep my secret if I asked him to. I haven't regretted telling him for even a single second."

From his perch by the door, Caleb startled everyone – because they had all forgotten that he was even still there – by asking, "so, does that mean that the two of you are together now or something?"

"No, we're just..."

"... taking things slowly," Aria cut Jason off, surprising no one more with her answer than the man she had interrupted. But he didn't contradict her either. Instead, he squeezed their still linked together hands and bit his bottom lip to suppress a smile which would have told the world that he had not been expecting her response.

As if by some silent command, everyone started to gather themselves together to leave. Caleb and Hanna were the first to disappear, then Emily went off to class, and then, finally, Spencer left as well, leaving only Jason, Aria, and Aria's still shellshocked mom in the otherwise empty classroom. Finally, just when Aria was about to suggest that she and Jason should just go as well, Ella spoke up. "Well, I guess this means that you should come to dinner tonight, Jason. Apparently, you need to be involved in our family discussion as well."

"Mom..."

"Aria...," her mother returned, mimicking her warning tone. "If the two of you are dating, then we're going to have to set some ground rules, and we're certainly not going to repeat the same mistakes we made last time, so your father and I are going to be involved more in your life and, now, that includes Jason. So, as I said, he should come to dinner tonight."

"I'll be there," Jason told her. "What time?"

"Six-thirty," Ella answered. "And now I think Aria needs to go to class, and I'm sure you have things to do as well, Jason."

The two of them fled the room before Aria's mother could change her mind.

~Self-Forgiveness~

They were lying together on Jason's couch, Jason reclined on his back, his neck and shoulders resting against the sofa's arm, while Aria was sprawled out across his chest on her stomach, both of them engrossed in their separate books... or at least that's how it would have looked to the outside observer – not that anyone would be foolish enough to be lurking outside the house on a day like the one they were experiencing. It seemed to be snowing from every single direction... including up from the ground, and the windchill made the temperature fall well below zero. Usually, Aria hated such winter weather, but being cocooned in Jason's arms in front of a roaring fireplace made the storm a welcome occurrence. In fact, she was hoping that it snowed enough to strand her at her boyfriend's house for the entire weekend.

And that's exactly what Jason was: her boyfriend. They had so effortlessly started their relationship that day in her mother's classroom, and, now five months later, they were still together. That – their longevity – didn't surprise Aria; what did, though, was just how deluded she had been in her relationship with Ezra. To think that she had sacrificed so much to be with Ezra when their connection had been anything but healthy nor an equal partnership. What they had shared had been anything but love, and that's why she had not been ready to be intimate with him, and it had taken being with Jason – being with someone who trusted her, respected her, and was open and honest with her voluntarily – for Aria to realize what being in love with someone actually felt like.

Tossing her book aside carelessly – not even taking the time to mark the page, because, really, she had no idea what was going on in the story anyway, Aria, without ceremony or warning, announced, "I went to the doctor's last month."

"What? Why? And why are you just telling me this now? Is something wrong?"

She rolled her eyes at Jason's predictably ridiculous level of protectiveness, taking his book and tossing it aside as well. "Nothing's wrong." Coquettishly, she added, "sometimes a girl just needs to have a check-up."

"A check-up?"

"Yep."

"Aria, you're going to need to give me a little bit more than that, especially since, a month later, you found it relevant to tell me about this so-called check-up."

"Well, you see," she replied, drawing out her words and attempting – miserably – to look appear innocent. "It wasn't really the check-up that mattered so much as what the doctor prescribed to me."

"So, then, you are sick," he obtusely concluded. Really, his typical male cluelessness was so adorable sometimes.

"Nope." Climbing off of her boyfriend, Aria stood up and held her hand out for Jason to join her. He did so, and then she turned around and started walking them towards his foyer... which just so happened to be where the stairs could be found, the stairs that would take them upstairs to Jason's bedroom. "I had the doctor put me on the pill." He stopped so suddenly that she nearly stumbled. Turning around, Aria observed the man she was in love with. "What?"

"Are you sure? I mean, I hope you didn't do this me. Of course, I want to be with you in that way, but I'm more than happy with our relationship, Aria. I hope I haven't made you feel pressured or..."

"You didn't," she was quick to assure him and end his rambling stream of quickly spoken words. "No, this is just something that I needed to do for me, and, in turn, it's good for us."

She went to tug him once more towards the stairs, but he held his ground. "Wait," he asked of her. "I just have one more question: why now?"

Wanting Jason to sense her sincerity, Aria didn't reply immediately. Instead, she thought carefully about her answer before responding. "Being with you has made me realize that I was never in love with Ezra. I was infatuated with him, I was in love with the idea of being in love, and I desperately wanted someone to be in love with me, but our relationship was unhealthy and dysfunctional at best. But, at the same time, though, I didn't know any better, because he was my first real boyfriend. Ezra should have known better, and maybe he did; maybe that's actually why he left or why he never returned my calls, I don't know. My point, however, is that, after I realized all this, I could no longer stay mad at myself, and, when I forgave myself, I realized that I was ready to fall in love for real this time – with you. And, now, I'm ready to make love to you as well."

Jason's response was to grin widely, pick her up, and sling her over his shoulder as he ran up the stairs. Before Aria knew what was happening, she was laying underneath him on his bed, and Jason was watching her face closely, his eyes unblinking in their intensity and determination. "I love you, too."